Anne-Elena Buckner describes herself as a fearless entertainer. She invites about twenty-five guests to five parties a year and hosts more than 100 at a special annual bash in November. The secret to her success: Champagne.
“I don’t drink anything else, so I build most of my entertaining around good bottles of Champagne,” Anne-Elena, a French expatriate, says. “We start with Champagne with the appetizers, and go with Champagne all the way through to dessert. People become quite social after a few glasses.”
The mild effects of alcohol can certainly contribute to a conversational buzz, while eliminating the inhibitions of friends as diverse as hedge fund managers and palm readers. “They’ll be walking around the house with a glass of Champagne, finding commonalities,” Anne-Elena, a Norwalk resident, observes, “so people who have something to talk about end up sitting together.”
Ms. Buckner is the consummate hostess, refilling glasses as she circulates among her friends, and bringing together guests who share common interests. A great cook and an experienced party-thrower, she possesses a necessary trait to make every event a memorable one: a willingness to call in the professionals to do the things she can’t.
“I don’t have the training to make a dessert that is up to my standards, that’s why I need Isabelle et Vincent,” Anne-Elena says with a laugh, referring to the bakery-patisserie that opened in Fairfield this past May. From half a dozen types of moist, crusty baguettes to bite-sized pralines to almost every imaginable form of pastry, all the items on sale within the beautiful bakery are made by co-owner Vincent Koenig. Of the shop’s delicious all-butter petits fours, Vincent’s wife suggests four per guest should be sufficient, or half that number of mini macaroons, which are somewhat richer and come in six flavors.
For Peter Kend, a New Canaan investor, the key to throwing parties lies in the old Boy Scout motto, Be prepared. “If you want to spend time with your guests, you really have to be well prepared and organized,” he notes. As one who enjoys relaxing over the stove, Peter believes that great cooking depends upon great prep work. “When things turn out perfectly, it’s probably because they’ve been well taken care of beforehand,” he says.
Most aspects of a party can be arranged ahead of time, including the creation of any number of dishes. “When I’m cooking a dinner for ten to twelve people, I’ll have done a lot of work before anyone walks into the house,” Peter says. “And then it’s really just a matter of bringing certain components together and finishing things. So that if I get caught in a conversation or have to run downstairs to get some wine, I’m not going to destroy dinner.”
Yet no amount of preparation can save a meal that’s been made from mediocre raw materials. “I’ve learned to get the absolutely finest ingredients I can lay my hands on,” Peter comments. He drives to Greenwich to shop for fish, buys his cheeses at Darien Cheese & Fine Foods and purchases produce at area farmers’ markets. And though he is a classically trained French chef, Peter is a devotee of keeping things simple. “Just get the great product and let it stand on its own,” he says. “When things are at their absolute peak, you really don’t have to do a lot of backflips and get crazy with them.” Dishes that are overly complicated, he adds, are full of pitfalls: “If one component of it starts to go awry, that takes your focus off something else that needs to be done, and all of a sudden it turns into a disaster.”
This is especially true when preparing fish, which typically has a slimmer margin for error than most meats. “The beauty of seafood is it’s very quick to cook,” says Peter M. Vorvis, president of New Wave Seafood in Stamford. “And the most common mistake people make is overcooking it.” New Wave carries more than a dozen types of fish, stocked fresh daily, as well as scallops from George’s Bank, off Massachusetts, and lobsters, clams and oysters from local waters. It also sells a wide array of seafood salads and offers a “clambake-to-go.”
Like Peter Kend, New Canaan resident Sally Manesis tries to get most of the prep work done before her guests arrive. She starts by drawing up a menu, which helps both in formulating a shopping list and in identifying which courses can be made the day — or morning — prior to the party. “I get as much done as possible so that I can actually enjoy the dinner myself,” she says.
Such planning helps, but no less important is the need to remain flexible, to be willing to improvise. Such skills are useful should something unexpected occur, like the oven breaking down, the stove failing, or the power going out. “Rather than becoming stressed out and not enjoying your party, get creative with what you have on hand and figure out another way to get it done,” Sally advises.
Perhaps the greatest inhibitor to hosting a party is the stress associated with entertaining. “A lot of people are uncomfortable with that because they think they have to be perfect,” Anne-Elena Buckner believes. “But you don’t have to be perfect, and there’s nothing to it once you take away that idea.”
Jill Pengue, of Westport, agrees. “There are always excuses why not to do it, like, ‘it would be better to wait until we’ve refinished the kitchen.’ But the linen doesn’t have to be ironed and starched and the house doesn’t have to be 100 percent perfect — just go for it,” she says. The tendency is to worry too much about what others may think, and whether they’ll be judgmental about how you live. “Once you have people over and they’re all mingling around, they don’t even see what you see,” Jill laughs.
Jill and her husband, Mike, have friends over so often their kids expect every weekend to feature a party. The Pengues’ usual approach is to keep things casual, offering small-plate appetizers, grilled kebabs or kielbasa, and occasionally make-it-yourself pizzas. “The flour goes all over and it gets a little messy, but that’s part of the fun,” Jill says.
There may be no better beverage to serve at an informal gathering, like a pizza party, than beer. And brewery-fresh products are available at either of our local breweries. The half-gallon growlers sold by both Stamford’s SBC Downtown and Southport Brewing, in Southport, are poured straight from the tap and sealed off with CO2, according to SBC’s co-owner Bill DaSilva. “If you keep them sealed, they’ll last at least two weeks,” he adds. DaSilva suggests serving his beer no colder than 40 degrees, the better to savor the taste, and trying to pair your heartiest foods with his richer, more full-bodied offerings.
Fresh beer or not, casual get-togethers are often less about the food and drink, and more about the company. Randy Pate, a mason contractor in Wilton, has from twelve to sixteen friends to dinner every month or so. “It started out as a bridge club, but it got to the point where we were having so much fun with the people that the game became secondary,” he says.
Some hosts make the mistake of trying to whip up dishes they’ve never tried in an attempt to wow their guests. Not Randy. He and his wife, Barbara, are models of routine, serving lobster and clams at most of their events. “I happen to have a skill at making perfect lobster, it comes out really well every time I do it,” he reports. And his parties are not about the food, anyway. “We’re into the people and their opinions and discussions, rather than how was the first course or the second.”
One of the least formal ways to get friends together is to move the gathering outside. While pool parties are a staple of summer, autumn and winter provide opportunities to tailgate. The Manesis family likes to do these following their kids’ lacrosse games, arranging well in advance what foods other parents will bring. “You have to organize this so that you don’t end up with five different chili dishes,” Sally says. “The boys will only eat so much chili.”
The Pengues enjoy tailgating so much, they don’t even bother to wait for any particular sport or game. “If we’re out in a field somewhere throwing around the football, we’ll set up a table and put down a tablecloth,” Jill notes. Last December, when the family went to a Christmas tree farm to select their tree, they made a festive party out of the excursion by bringing along a cauldron of butternut squash soup, several baguettes and some cheese.
Laying out a buffet table, whether outside or in, also helps to eliminate any concerns about how you will bring food to your guests. With 100 partyers passing over the Buckner threshold during their annual November Beaujolais Nouveau celebration, Anne-Elena simplifies matters by providing a large array of cheeses and grapes, and miscellaneous charcuterie. “It’s a very big spread, but we keep it casual, for people to relax before the onslaught of the holidays,” she says. Sally Manesis pairs a buffet table of cheeses, fruit and various finger foods with husband Andy’s signature entrée, lamb roasted on a spit. “From the time they come to the time they go, I leave the cheeses and things out on that big island, and they continue to eat,” she observes.
And because sight appeal helps stimulate appetite, it’s a good idea to spend some time decorating the buffet, much as you might a formal dinner table, creating attractive floral and food arrangements. Cecilia Lihv, general manager of Scandia Food & Gifts, in Norwalk, notes that though Scandinavian cuisine is based on fairly straightforward ingredients, a little effort can transform them into a work of art. “We tend to build elaborate displays,” she says. “With the gravlox, for instance, we form the pieces into roses, fill those flowers with sauce, and then decorate them with fresh dill.” The result is so stunning that guests will be eating the salmon with their eyes from across the room.
Casual or formal, large party or small, whether served as an hors d’oeuvre or dessert, a common denominator of most gatherings is the presence of cheese. With the cooler temperatures and heavier fare that comes with fall, the cheeses you select should also be more robust. At this time of year, Ken Skovron, co-owner of Darien Cheese, recommends English farmhouse cheeses, double Gloucester, a red Leicester, and almost anything made from raw milk. “With some age on them, those cheeses translate into some really tasty things,” he says. And if your dinner features fish, start off with goat, sheep and similarly light- palated cheeses, saving the more robust items, like Stilton, aged Gouda and pungent washed-rind products, for later.
A comparable amount of thought should be devoted to the remainder of the meal. When Michelle Rae, a social worker with an office in downtown Fairfield, entertains, she tailors the meal to what her friends enjoy eating. “You know what they like from going out to dinner with them, and from dining in their homes,” she says. If you intend to use a caterer, plan to sample the sundry offerings a few weeks before the party to ascertain which items will be best for your group. “I’ll call and ask them to make some things, just so we can taste them,” Michelle relates.
One important consideration is whether any of your friends have food allergies or other dietary concerns. “You have to be aware of their needs,” says Anne-Elena Buckner, “especially if it’s a sit-down dinner.” Her solution is to offer at least two entrées. “And I’m very clear that if they don’t like it, there’s no reason for them to eat it,” she adds. “That removes the stress for them, and removes it for me.” Alternatively, try presenting a fair smattering of small-plate side dishes. “That way, you can entertain twenty people who like different things and satisfy them all,” says Sally Manesis.
Parties at the Manesis house typically involve five desserts, including separate platters of cheeses and Godiva chocolates. Randy Pate, on the other hand, favors handmade treats from Michele’s Pies in Norwalk. He’ll give them his personal touch by integrating cognac into the tops of custard pies, and adding a dollop of cream-based hard sauce to those with a crust. “The hard sauce gives it an amazing transformation of taste,” he notes, “adding another level of depth.”
Michele Albano, the baker-owner of Michele’s Pies, uses all-fresh ingredients in the creation of her pies, streusels and other delicacies. That means puréeing more than three pallets of pumpkins in the fall, when she concocts such treats as pumpkin chiffon pie and maple pumpkin pie. Of the more than twenty pies in the display case at any given time, Michele’s chocolate bourbon pecan remains a perennial favorite. But for a special indulgence, consider selecting a number of her smaller, five-inch pies, which can be cut into quarters, allowing your guests to enjoy a range of tastes.
By putting a special effort into dessert, you can conclude your dinner with flourish. Which is not to suggest stranding yourself in the kitchen, coddling a crème brulée into that perfect state of firmness. “Having a fabulous dessert that you can bring in and be proud of,” Anne-Elena says, “not just the look, but then it’s a triple chocolate mousse, my God, then you have a truly wonderful experience.” Michelle Rae, who like Anne-Elena also patronizes Isabelle et Vincent, raves about their Napoleons and strawberry cake. She likes to set out a potpourri of sweets on a dessert buffet, which is also decorated with fresh fruit.
The end of the meal does not necessarily mean your job of entertaining is over. There’s also the coffee to consider. “There’s nothing worse when you’re done eating than a weak or unflavorful cup of coffee,” Sally Manesis believes. She buys her beans at Zumbach’s Gourmet Coffee, in New Canaan, which carries more than forty types, depending on the season, and roasts them all in-house. Sally prefers the rich Sumatra variety, which goes well, she finds, with cheesecake and other hearty desserts. Doug Zumbach, the roast master–owner of his namesake business, agrees with that approach. “The sweeter the dessert, the more you need a bold coffee,” he says, “like a French roast with hot apple pie, or Kenyan dark with pumpkin pie.” The lighter Guatemalan antigua, he notes, is especially suited to cheeses and fruits.
If the idea of entertaining still seems daunting, don’t be afraid to delegate. Most couples that throw parties on a regular basis divide the labor, with one spouse preparing the food, say, and the other serving it. And when friends ask, ‘What can I do?’ don’t be afraid to ask for help. “I might have them bring an appetizer or put them to work chopping things,” Jill Pengue says. Sally Manesis has a different approach. “When friends volunteer,” she says, “I tell them, ‘what you can do is help me clean up afterward.’”