I'm hardly the first person to repeatedly proclaim that Ina Garten is a queen, an idol, an icon for both her undeniable talent in the kitchen and approachable yet aspirational take towards entertaining. Growing up, my mom and I devoured episodes of Barefoot Contessa before her literature-themed dinner parties (she's an Ina in her own right). While I'm no Ina (yet) and my fiancé, Rob, thankfully has more of a culinary clue than her husband Jeffrey, I wanted to share the key Ina takeaways that I use at every party, including one I threw this past weekend:
If you've ever watched her show, or flipped through her cookbook Make It Ahead, you already know that Ina spends a lot of time preparing each menu. There is nothing worse than hosting a party and not being present for it. To start, create your menu days in advance—you definitely don't want to go grocery shopping the day of your party. Next, identify areas of your menu that you can save time on. Personally, I always incorporate a few appetizers that don't require a stove and can be served directly from the refrigerator. Whether it's my crab and corn dip (this is a neighbor's recipe, similar here) or radish baguettes, the time saved from having a few "whipped up" appetizers leaves room to focus on the dinner.
Ina also always serves her cocktails pitcher style, and it's not for her inability to bartend. A prepared pitcher is a great way to start off your party, as a distraction and a talking point for guests while you're finishing things up in the kitchen. Finally, a make-ahead dessert, like Blackberry Icebox Cake or Chocolate Banana Cream Pie, is a fool-proof way to save time the day-of.
My mom is Italian, which has instilled in me the idea that if you're having five guests over, you should cook for twelve. While this is comforting when I'm home (and results in leftovers for days), it's incredibly overwhelming when it's only Rob and myself cooking in our small apartment. Ina always says that once you put together a menu, erase one item—you simply don't need it. When we aim to please, we often overcompensate. Save yourself the exhaustion and keep it simple.
Putting a menu together also takes connecting the dots. You want even the most casual dinner party to blend seamlessly from course to course. Ina always creates her menus around one memorable flavor, whether it's a salty chocolate in the dessert or a rich cheese in an appetizer. For my recent dinner party, I created dishes that complemented a rich bean cassoulet (see my menu below!). Figuring out how to find complementing flavors is confusing at first, but the key is to focus on the basic elements of the dish. The beans and meats in the cassoulet are both rich and soft. Adding some bitter herbs helped balance the decadence of the dish, while the crisp, crunchy bread broke up the softness. The other aspects of my meal also complemented such a hearty main dish. The berry charlotte dessert was a far better option than anything with chocolate, and the mix of vegetables and cheeses at the start avoided spices that could distract from the main. I've learned a lot about flavor pairing from this article, but trial and error is the best way to figure out how to balance a meal-just be sure to do it before the dinner party!
If you've ever watched an episode of The Barefoot Contessa, Ina consistently recommends items such as the good vanilla or good Marcona almonds, exclusively bought from the speciality shops of the Hamptons. Although her expression "store bought is fine" has become somewhat of a joke, and a mockery of your non-Ina lifestyle, I do actually think a "memorable flavor" can be found in any aisle of Trader Joe's. Going above and beyond for your guests definitely pays off, but I recommend getting the best ingredients that work for your lifestyle. I'm not quite ready to make my own bread crumbs or completely swear off pre-grated cheese, but I am willing to pick up fresh baguettes from a local bakery, and, for now, that's perfectly enough!
I get it: Dinner parties are exhausting. But once the meal is cooked, you want to create an inviting space for your guests so that when they come over, they'll want to stay. Unfortunately, I do not have a personal team of florists, candle makers, or table decorators like Ina, but I do have vases, vintage napkins/tablecloths, and antique crystal to set the mood. Because I'm in my twenties, most of the parties I attend are a hodgepodge of chips and salsa, served in bag. When I throw a party, I truly try to step out of my comfort zone and create an experience. Between my make-your-own cocktails bar cart (in addition to a pre-batched pitcher) or record player with Francoise Hardy on repeat, the spirit of Ina is always at my party. Pro tip: Go to flea markets for amazing china, gorgeous tablecloths, and even a bar cart. These items are not only affordable, but they can put a party over the edge.
This key Ina lesson is one I've also learned first-hand from my mother. It's a party, and you're supposed to enjoy it! Never make anything too challenging or something you've never made, and try to avoid cooking during the party. Pulling something out of the oven is fine, but cooking during a party defeats the purpose of being together, since it often means you aren't able to give your guests your full attention. Save the dishes until your guests leave, laugh off the inevitable errors, and bask in the greatness of an Ina Garten-esque dinner party.
As someone who actively refers to her year studying abroad in Paris (yes, I'm that person) and recently returned, I couldn't not make my menu (mostly) French. I invited eight friends over this past Friday and got to work creating my menu:
With the entire menu centered around the rich, memorable flavors of my cassoulet, I built out staple recipes that I knew I could master. With two no-stove appetizers and a dessert I made late Thursday night, I didn't feel rushed to get everything done after work on Friday. By the time my guests arrived, all I needed to do was pour drinks and eventually pull the cassoulet out of the oven!
I'm not a culinary genius like Ina, nor am I graced by her budget, but by following her go-to tips, I have learned my perfect dinner party routine. What are your best dinner party tips? Let me know in the comments!