When she’s a guest at someone else’s home, says Nivia Pina, co-owner and event planner for Merengue restaurant, if the host disappears into the kitchen for the night “it drives me crazy. If you invite me to your house and you have no time to talk to me, what am I doing here?” Pina’s advice for anyone throwing a party: “Don’t complicate yourself.” Merengue, a Dominican restaurant in Roxbury that Pina owns with her husband, Hector, has a catering arm, which she runs. So she knows a lot about parties. If you are cooking by yourself, the first step is to make a plan, she says. Parties that run smoothly are thrown by hosts who are realistic about their budget and time. We asked her and several other caterers for their strategies for hosting a great event at home.
1. SERVE ONE IMPRESSIVE DISH
Putting effort into one standout menu item makes your party memorable and pleases your guests — and it’s manageable for the host. The staff of Season to Taste Catering, based in Cambridge, sets out an heirloom tomato bar, the juicy orbs on cutting boards, identified by tags, with bread, mozzarella, olive oil, and smoked sea salt. The company’s owner and chef, Robert Harris, suggests a corn-on-the-cob bar with several bowls of flavored butters: one with caramel and sea salt, another garlicky and full of fresh herbs, a third with charred jalapenos or sriracha hot sauce. Add a paintbrush to each bowl, and guests can slather their cobs.
Pan-seared tuna on sesame wontons is one of the go-to party foods for Jodi Auerbach of Arlington’s Something Savory Catering and Events. “It’s green, pink, black, white, colorful, delicious,” she says.
Halve won ton squares into triangles. Brush on olive oil and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and black and white sesame seeds. Bake at 350 degrees for 5 minutes. Sear tuna, then slice it thinly. Place a piece of tuna on each triangle. Top with a dollop of wasabi-lemon mayonnaise and chopped scallion.
Instead of regular shrimp cocktail, Mark Haley of Above and Beyond Catering in the South End grills shrimp and serves the smoky crustaceans with two sauces, one a classic tomato-based cocktail sauce, the other made with tomatillos.
2. KEEP THE REST OF THE MENU SIMPLE
Now that you’ve wowed your guests, the remainder of your food can emphasize ease. Harris of Season to Taste recommends visiting a farmers’ market and buying the freshest food you see, then doing very little to it. “In the summertime, let the ingredients shine through,” he says. “The higher the quality of the ingredients, the lower the level of technique [you need].” Cindy Mamane of Deju Blu Catering in Framingham suggests keeping your pantry and freezer well stocked — with items like canned tomatoes and beans, chutneys, olives, teriyaki sauce, frozen pot stickers, and frozen flatbread or nan — so you need to do minimal shopping for a party. For example, buy a couple of cheeses (her favorite is blue-veined cambozola, which is “fantastic,” she says) and arrange them with bowls of chutney or fruit preserves from your pantry, bread or nan from your freezer, and herbs from your garden.
While the menu should be simple, it should offer something for guests with many eating styles. “Fish, meat, and vegetarian. That’s who you have to cover,” says Haley of Above and Beyond. One option for a meat-free appetizer is a savory relish made with roasted eggplant, golden raisins, pine nuts, and roasted peppers, served atop crostini with goat cheese. Satisfy the meat eaters with a chafing dish of mini meatballs offered with bamboo cocktail sticks.
Serve food buffet-style at room temperature, Haley adds. “Do all the prep ahead of time, have everything organized. At the bar, have everything in a bin with ice, trash right beside it, so you’re not running back and forth.”
3. MAKE IT PRETTY
Mamane of Deju Blu says it’s easy to make your buffet table look like a caterer’s. You just need different levels. Get a box the size of your platter, she explains, and wrap a festive cloth over it, tucking it under to hide the box. Set the platter of food on top and place a basket of bread behind it. Saucy or drippy accompaniments go in front of the box.
A FINE FINISHING TOUCH
Start with a stack of cocktail napkins a couple of inches thick, says Cindy Mamane of Framingham’s Deju Blu Catering. Make a fist and press your knuckles into the center of the napkins. Spin your fist to the right about 10 to 15 times to fan them.
4. ROLL WITH THE MISTAKES
If you want to be a good host, says Season to Taste’s Harris, “make it about your guests. It’s not about you.” Every event has a moment that’s not quite right. “If something goes wrong,” advises the caterer, “keep smiling.” The butterflied leg of lamb comes off the grill, you thought it was ready, guests are waiting, and the meat is raw. “Keep calm, carry on,” he says. “Pour more drinks, put it back on the grill, relax.” In New England, Harris adds, “the weather can get you. It’s a variable you have to wonder and worry about. Last year, we had a hurricane. You always need a Plan B.”