I enjoy having people over for dinner, but the thought of Thanksgiving entertaining in the wake of a hurricane, a nor’easter and a week of no school, starts my heart racing and my palms sweating.
No worries! I’ve enlisted Sheila McCaffery, the “Entertaining Addict,” to share her forty years of entertaining and cooking wisdom with all of us. A former 27-year resident of Greenwich, Sheila has been featured on AOL and in Bon Appetit and Greenwich Magazines. She recently spoke at the Darien Community Association and now she shares her passion for food with us.
What are your tips to alleviate ‘entertaining anxiety’? Organize, make lists, and plan ahead. Pick a time when you can sit down with a cup of tea or a glass of wine and think about your dinner party. Have a notepad and pen handy and start imagining what kind of dinner party you would like to have. Then research it and chart out a plan.
A theme helps you get organized and becomes your personal “style board” for planning and producing a successful experience. From the invitation to the menu, from the table setting to the décor, a theme is almost like a special assistant who makes your lists and focuses your decisions, so you can enjoy your party and your guests—which is really the point!
For big or small parties, I always follow the same checklist: the theme, the date, the menu, the guests, the tableware, the candles, the decorations and seating arrangements for each room. I sketch it all out and make annotations like a storyboard or a script for a commercial. My experience as a creative director in the advertising business, where I had to organize photo shoots and manage the disparate elements of an ad campaign, has helped me to see the entire picture.
Always try to set the table the day before…that gives you a chance to live with it, add to it, or see what you've forgotten. And best of all, it's out of the way. With regards to the meal, I like to chop and prep the food for each recipe I’ll be preparing the day before (if possible). Then I place each set of recipe ingredients on its own cookie sheet and store it in the refrigerator until I need it.
In the wake of destruction caused by Sandy and the nor’easter, what are your best ideas for a simple, yet elegant Thanksgiving menu? I’m a traditionalist and I like to make turkey, however, “simple” is probably not getting up at 5 a.m. to baste the turkey every 20 minutes! So plan on a buffet and step away from the Turkey for a moment.
One idea for Thanksgiving Dinner is: baked lobster pie, buttermilk cornbread, twice-baked potatoes with cheddar cheese and bacon, green beans and brown butter. For dessert, apple brown betty, hard sauce and ice Cream.
Another idea is: roasted cornish hens on a bed of caramelized chestnuts and baby onions (cipollini), or fruit-stuffed cornish hens with cranberry compote, roasted brussel sprouts with white balsamic vinegar, garlicky green beans with pine nuts, roasted sweet potato wedges and chocolate pecan pie with whipped cream for dessert.
Simple idea for a centerpiece? Place a runner down the center of the table, either alone or on top of a tablecloth. Burlap is very harvest-y. Buy it at your local nursery or Home Depot, cut it to drape over the whole table or to use as a runner. Sprinkle mini pumpkins or squash, lady apples and pears down the center of the table. Add candlesticks or votives. Candle colors can be either orange, rust, cranberry white or cream. Branches with berries or leaves, found outside, can be interspersed with the fruit and squash.
Have you ever had something go wrong while entertaining? When I cooked lobster for the first time, I boiled already-cooked lobsters for one hour. When we cracked open the claws, there was no lobster meat—it had cooked away! We laughed, made pasta and drank a lot of wine.
Another time, one hour before the guests were to arrive, the power went out and I hadn't finished cooking. I panicked and almost cancelled the dinner, except the phones were out and I couldn't call anyone. So, the guests arrived and I finished cooking the dinner in the fireplace, with the room lit by candlelight. It was a memorable evening, made even more so because it was so much more fun.
What do you usually have guests bring and what do you make yourself? When guests ask what they can bring, the answer is usually thank you, but nothing. I really do like to cook and entertain. Occasionally someone will bring dessert. I like to make everything, from hors d'oeuvres to dessert.
Any suggestions for quick meals for unexpected guests? I whip up pasta and salad, or a risotto and salad. I always have pasta and a variety of ingredients in the pantry to make either one. A charcuterie platter is also easy to put together at the last minute.
How did you develop your passion for food and entertaining? I love to entertain. I love every detail about giving a dinner party. I wasn't born with the entertaining gene, but it became my passion.
My introduction to the world of food was not at my grandmother's side or my mother’s side. The interest in food came from my taste buds. I wanted to learn how to cook the foods I experienced in many fantastic restaurants like Lutece, The Four Seasons, San Marino, Romeo Salta, Nanni's, etc. It was like traveling, except you stayed at home and invited friends over to share in your acquired passion. All they had to do was bring an appetite and a love of food and wine.
It helped that my husband was a wine connoisseur. That left me more time to concentrate on the food.
I decided that entertaining was going to be a big part of my life and I relished the memories, so I started to keep journals. These journals became more elaborate over time. I draw the table, the flowers, and the serving pieces that I used. I list the guests who were invited, and write down the menu and recipes. I started my journals in 1970, the year I was married, and have been adding to them ever since.
Click on the links below to view some of Sheila’s favorite recipes.
Sheila McCaffery is currently working on her entertaining book, and will soon have her entertaining planning templates and consulting services available through her website, www.entertainingaddict.blogspot.com. To contact Sheila, email her at Sheila@thecreativefarmllc, or visit her website.
Editor's note: This blog post is featured on the "Thanksgiving in Darien" topics page, where you can find Darien Patch's articles, announcements and blog posts on Thanksgiving—including recipes.