Thursday, August 20, 2009

7 Steps for Party Prep Plans to a successful night at the Grill

This one will be easy...
  1. Plan Ahead
  2. Plan Ahead
  3. Plan Ahead
  4. Plan Ahead
  5. Plan Ahead
  6. Plan Ahead
  7. Enjoy the fruits of your efforts
OK, seriously, almost by definition, backyard entertainment is meant to be laid back, casual and has the illusion of being just tossed together. If you are just having burgers and dogs and grilled corn on the cob, it can easily be just tossed together. Having everyone watch and interact while you cook Burgers, dogs and corn on the cob lends itself to being casual and laid back evening.

But tonight, I am hosting a more formal dinner party. Nothing about tonight will be casual, laid back and certainly NOT tossed together. Today is my good friend and neighbor, Herme's birthday. Everyone deserves something special on their special day. But also, Herme's husband was just laid off. Tough times for a lot of people, and I know speaking as a male, it does eat a little bit at your soul when you have to cut back and can't treat your wife to something special on her day. I am pleased to host her party.

So, step 1 - Plan the type of party, I started planning this event last week. First of all, I had hoped to make a rack of lamb for her, but I checked with her, and she does not prefer lamb. So, I dodged that bullet, always try your best to serve what people like. Herme prefers a steak, and I am very excited to be serving medallions of beef (a fancy name for little fillet Mignon). Now, let me get on my soapbox for a second...

I have a problem with picky eaters. I certainly do not want to offend guests, nor do I want them holding their nose and chocking something down. But, a dinner party is not a short order grill. I will have 6 people at the event, and what i plan is what I am going to serve. I try to have options, meat prepared a couple different ways, vegetarian choices, several courses, lots of drink. If there is one item you do not care for, be polite, say nothing, try a small portion, but rave about what you do like. Even if it is just commenting that that guy with the grill can certainly keep a beer cold. Find something to enjoy, and do not dwell on what you don't. Let me give you an example. I hosted an event with some of my wife's co-workers. It was a pleasant night, Ribs (two types of rub, one very spicy, and one with a sweet cheery flavor), Grilled Beans, Potato Salad, grilled lettuce... general smoking event. 8 people, but one socially inept person commented throughout the night how much she did not like the extra spices I put in my beans. I have already blogged my recipe for Beans, and you can check it out HERE. I was not offended that she did not care for my beans, but I had 5 different choices for food, well labeled for heat, yet she could not let go of the one item she did not care for. Listen to that voice in your head that sounds like your mother... Be polite, eat some of everything, and find something nice to say about the event. Make someone feel good.

I have an obligation as a host to try my best to come up with a menu that people will like. But guests have an obligation to be an asset to the evening. Don't be a downer.

OK, off my soap box, and back to planning the type of evening. I wanted something appropriate for a mature person's birthday. These are friends that are experiencing a temporary tough time. I wanted the night to be special. So, I wanted an upscale evening.

So, step 2 - Set and control the mood, Tonight, I wanted to be more upscale. Generally, we do eat on real plates (run the dishwasher, and stop using paper plates if you go to effort to prepare something nice). Generally, we all bring our own beer to an event. Just became habit, and saves money for the hosts. But tonight, I want to set the tone as people arrive. Sure we will be outside, but the table will be preset with table cloth, the better china, and the good crystal. Wine will be served paired with the courses, but will be at the table in advance. I am planning for an upscale evening, and the tone will be set early that this is not a burger, dog and cob evening. When people arrive, they will know how to be appropriate for this evening.

So, step 3 - Menu and drink selection, Rule of thumb is to have 1/2 bottle of wine per guest. so, 6 people, 3 bottles of wine. It complicates slightly that I will be serving in courses, but I have several bottles stashed ready to come out if needed. Also, I know that one of my guests is a moderate wine drinker, but prefers beer. I will have a frosted beer glass for him so that he can enjoy the wine toasts and pairings, as well as enjoy his beer in the upscale tone I am trying to set for the night.

OK, I knew I was making steak, so I started to think about the evening in order to set the tone. I wanted upscale. When I have dined out, what said steak and upscale... Medallions of beef is always laid out with fancy presentation. A medallion of beef is simply cut from the same cut of beef that the fillet is. The entire cut is cooked, and then cut into pieces, as opposed to being cut first and then cooked. You lose that crusty seared outer coating, but you gain a much more tender piece of meat where the meat taste really shines.

Now, what goes good with medallions of beef??? Well, I wanted to cook everything on the grill, so garlic mashed potatoes were out. I wanted something a little fancier than grilled potato slices or the Dan Quayle Potatoe Medley I blogged about a few days ago. I wanted a starch, but potatoes on the grill were not what I had in mind. Again, what says upscale... I have been toying with an idea for grilled polenta. It is always a risk to try something new for a party, but I decided to give it a go.

For a vegetable, the Asparagus I blogged about earlier this month would have been ideal. But I made that for the same group of people last time we ate. I am not a one trick pony, so I worked on something new. Something very easy is a vegetable medley of snap peas, tiny whole onions and carrots cooked on a grill. You will need a special pan with holes in it, but they are very tasty.

Finally, I wanted an appetizer that can be done in advance, served while I ready the plates for the main course for serving. I have always been a fan of Bruschetta. Kind of a poor man's pizza, served open face, toasted slices of Italian bread, with tomatoes and onions. I like a little goat cheese added, and something very simple becomes an upscale treat.

BTW, this dinner party will give me a weeks worth of blog material, all these dishes will be blogged about in the very near future.

So, step 4 - Shop at least a day ahead of time, Several reasons for this, but mostly it gives you one less thing to worry about. For example, last night I made up my ingredient list. I went through each recipe, wrote down ALL the ingredients needed, and checked my pantry. Nothing worse than thinking you have mustard seeds, without remembering you used them up last time you cooked. You have a choice of ignoring that ingredient, altering the recipe or slogging to the store when you have better things to do. Plan ahead, double check that you have what you need, and then shop accordingly. I also discovered that a whole tenderloin was a little harder to find than I thought. My usual terrific underpriced grocery store does not stock this, so i had to go to a different location. Oddly enough, SAM'S CLUB wholesale store has a great meat selection. They had what I needed.

And here she is... nearly 7 pounds of steak, the most expensive single food item I have ever bought...Hope I know what I am doing!

Back to planning... Lay out everything you need before you start cooking. This keeps you from slamming drawers and getting frustrated. I try to lay out what I have stocked in my pantry while I double check my ingredient list. Then when i return from shopping, I transfer the dry goods right to the counter, never hitting the pantry, and put mu refrigerated goods all on one shelf so I know where they are.

Step 5 - Write Cheat Notes... Again, do this in advance so that everything is fresh in your head. I am not talking about copying the recipe. Just have a different note card for each course. For example, to assemble the bruschetta, no need to write "grill the bread"... That, by definition, is the item. It would be like cook the meat. But I do assemble in the following order, bread, goat cheese, smoked paprika, grilled onions, tomatoes. That is what I write on the card. I will have three sauces cooking, meat foiled and ready to cut, vegetables grilling and the polenta grilling...All while I am assembling the Bruschetta. It is very easy to miss a step (the paprika). Do it right and double check the notes.

Step 6 - Ask for help if you need it... the lovely and talented MRS. My Year on the Grill took a cake decorating class this summer. She volunteered to make the cake, and I grudgingly agreed. This will be the most complicated meal I have ever attempted, getting everything hot at the same time will take planning. Not having to worry about the dessert is fine by me (although I have a thought about a grilled apple pie that I am dieing to try). But I do have limitations. And look at this beautiful cake she whipped up last night...

And don't you love the owl shaped ice bucket... But I digress.

Additionally, I know that Jim, Herme's husband is fascinated by cooking. he does not cook, and Herme is always best at making reservations instead of entrees. But he always is good for stirring pots while I do the assembling. I have everything timed, except the grilled vegetables. Those are easy, just shake the pan every once in awhile. Jim is the guy for that, and one less thing for me to worry about.

Step 7 - Enjoy the night... This is the hardest thing for me to do. Plan ahead, envision the flow and how it all will come together. But once it starts, be flexible, agreeable and work with what happens as it happens. Cooks and party hosts can learn a lot from Alcoholics Anonymous...

The Serenity Prayer
Path God grant me
the serenity
to accept the things
I cannot change;
courage to change
the things I can;
and wisdom to
know the difference.

Living one day
at a time;
Enjoying one moment
at a time;
Accepting hardships
as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did,
this sinful world
as it is, not as I
would have it;
Trusting that He will
make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably
happy in this life
and supremely happy
with Him
Forever in the next.

--Reinhold Niebuhr
What happens happens, accept what happens, control what you can, but enjoy the entire experience!

I hope every one has a wonderful day... I get to spend my day cooking and my night with friends...

May you all be favored with the future of your choice,
May you live to see a thousand reasons to rejoice!


  1. #7 is my most difficult to master as well. I tend to let the stress of wanting perfection to wear on me.

    I catered four 50 person events in the past year and those were draining. I thought doing smaller gatherings would seem less stressful after that, but it's really not.

    I could learn alot from you in this aspect.

  2. The cake looks really nice and your menu sounds wonderful. I want to come to dinner at your place! Looking forward to reading how it all went down! Good luck!

  3. I am printing out this post and placing it on my fridge. What a fantastic post and advice! Merci beaucoup! And your cake looks divine!
    Thanks for visiting! I will do a post on New Orleans, when I get back from vacation. Meanwhile, go on to read all about the big BBQ festival they're having this weekend.

  4. Yeah, when it comes to hosting a party, planning ahead will make sure you get to actually ENJOY the party. The cake looks awesome.

  5. YOU, my friends are incredibly organized (or it's a grand illusion)!! Holy do you post daily!? I can't believe I'm so far is always gettin' in my way :S