Now more than ever, people are discovering the benefits of dining in. In fact, it’s not just limited to taking advantage of summer patios or nestling with friends near the fire on a fall evening; it’s becoming a year-round trend. Embracing this idea and sharing your home with friends, neighbors or family will always be a welcome change to what we have become accustomed to thinking of as the easier option of “let’s go out to dinner.” Don’t worry: in keeping with my “casual luxury” approach, I’m not going to tell you to stage a lavish dinner party that will exhaust both you and your budget.
Truth be told, it’s only when you extend your home and share your private space, can you truly appreciate the thoughtfulness and the kindness that goes into preparing for the experience. Your home, no matter how small or large, can provide the perfect backdrop for a refreshing home dining experience. Food, because it is so closely tied to human existence, is part of the art of living. But it is more than a simple necessity – eating well is also a great pleasure that should be savored and enjoyed.
No matter how many people you can accommodate, I always prefer smaller groups rather than large ones. If you’ve read my other articles you know I occasionally do have big groups, and I love doing it, but nothing beats a few good friends and the time for conversation that this intimacy brings. Two is perfect, and four is just right.
Today it is not so uncommon to hear more and more about staying home and entertaining, but if we are to embrace this new fad we should be prepared with some helpful tips to make the overall planning and execution of dining in better than a last-minute meal from the pantry.
A word about why I don’t think you have to break the bank to entertain people well. When I was just starting out in the business world, prior to moving to my current home, I was living in a small one-room cottage in the heart of downtown Westport. I was younger, and so was Corky. I refer to this space today as the “love shack”. It was only 500 square feet but I loved it. It had a large and wonderful yard for Corky to play in and explore. There was even a park nearby where she could run free.
This cottage offered wonderful outdoor amenities but lacked indoor living space. Therefore, dining al fresco was a common theme; luckily the yard offered many opportunities to entertain, but also to play in the dirt and discover my passion for gardening and home décor. After I realized how much I loved to entertain, I realized I needed to find ways to maximize my living space so I could entertain throughout the year! I decided to make every corner both decorative and functional.
One example was using my bed as additional seating for guests to sit and dine; what college-grad (or New Yorker!) hasn’t tried that! When the number of guests meant a meal was not possible, I served cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, or simply hosted movie nights with friends. A great deal of my inspiration was the space challenge; everything I did to that cottage needed to have a double, or triple, purpose. Those days were simple times for me, but also meaningful, as the need to be creative about entertaining and living really formed my love of “casual luxury”: where less can be more, and more is not always necessary. Today this concept is even more important as we focus on saving money without sacrificing style, taste or luxury.
Today, part of what I learned is how to add a few investment pieces to my kitchen arsenal, things that can add flair and polish to almost any meal. Here are my Top 6 recommendations to make your “dining in” experience a fabulous and memorable one. But beware! You may find yourself never wanting to go out again:
Begin and end any dining ritual with a linen napkin. It’s just my rule and can make a simple hamburger a wow experience. Saves paper, too. And although they cost a little more than cotton napkins, they will last for years and years. Don’t have any yet? Start with neutral, solid colors and avoid white (shows wear fastest) or patterns (may not match many table-scapes you dream up). Wash weekly in cold water, lay them flat to dry, then iron with starch. You can do this — in our busy world pause for a moment to take this simple task on. The results: a crisp, clean, fresh stack of napkins ready for the next gathering. This will always make it worth the time and effort. Just do it!
My grandmother taught me to always have fresh bread; in fact, adding fresh bread to prepared food automatically makes the table more special. When the bread was no longer fresh my grandmother would make breadcrumbs and store them for a delicious recipe to follow. Today with so many choices of bread, it’s easy to discover a variety that can be frozen and stored rather than wasted. There is even bread that stays frozen until you pop it in the oven to bake fresh at home. My neighbor Barbara took this idea and expanded it to include unopened loaves of sliced bread. Both are great ideas – then you can offer toast-on-demand for a last-minute brunch or morning coffee gathering. A French baguette is my weakness as I can always create a meal around it. Nothing is better than breaking bread with a fabulous baguette. Add olive oil and garlic and it’s an appetizer!
Perfectly pre-cooked bacon – Hormel Black Label fully cooked bacon is ready to eat and takes all the mess out of preparing it – allows you to quickly pull a brunch-type meal together with minimal fuss. An ideal addition for breakfast protein, sandwiches, burgers, salads and appetizers, need I say more? Keep frozen and always have on hand for that BLT I’ll ask you for when I drop in.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil is like fine wine. Each variety of olive is unique, and therefore olive oil made from different varieties of olives can taste, smell and look different. While in Sienna, Italy, I got my truest appreciation for the varieties, but also for the big difference a truly fine olive oil can make. I recommend you find one that you like — one that’s a good investment, from a true delicatessen or specialty store — and keep a supply on hand for entertaining. I still use my regular olive oil on a daily basis, but when I want to really treat myself and guests I have “the good stuff” on hand. Perfect for salads, dipping, and pasta. Never ever, run-out. A drizzle or two of fine olive oil can elevate even a frozen or take-out pasta dish in unbelievable ways.
Sea Salt is a must have. I love Fleur de Sel, but there are many good brands available. Serve with olive oil and a sliced toasted baguette and you have a fabulous, yum-yum starter. Serve with some international cheeses and it’s a party! Fleur de Sel is an all-natural sea salt from Guerande in Brittany France. Unprocessed, unrefined, unadulterated. This salt is unlike any you’ve ever tasted, more like a condiment than a spice; it highlights food flavors and is never, ever too salty. Love salt, or love someone who loves salt? Add something new to your home kitchen that will step-up any meal.
A good after dinner drink can give even an average meal a memorable close. I like Camus Cognac or Grand Marnier. Did you know Grand Marnier is an orange flavored liquor made from three different kinds of Cognac. Most people don’t know that it is a member of the triple sec family and can be substituted for triple sec in any drink recipe. Both will always take a simple meal to a new level. What a wonderful way to add to an evening. A bit of a bite of the budget, but so worth the overall experience as it will last for years. Discover the endless choices you have to consider and keep one on hand for that “how about an after dinner drink” offering. Classic and always in style, just make sure you serve it in a snifter glass which is commonly referred to as a Brandy glass.
Other great choices always to have on hand? Whole wheat pasta, rice pilaf, and fresh herbs and vegetables. I’ll give you extra credit if you have the later of the two in the garden.
Lastly, I leave you with a new “Mar” tradition that I recently began this summer with my dear friend Mary. It’s still dining in, but with a twist. Mondays are now referred to as “leftover deal-a-meal night”. Each week we forage in our refrigerators while on the phone and combine the results to come up with a simple dinner menu — voila! “Leftover deal-a-meal night” was created. It’s a perfect and wonderful way to use those leftovers that otherwise might be tossed in the trash. It’s also a great way to use small portions as a starter or part of a tasting buffet. Try it! Just have fun and give good food a fun new time and place.
And there you have it.