Menus & Entertaining

Prep for your dinner party in under an hour

By: Randy Taylor

Author: Canadian Living

Menus & Entertaining

Prep for your dinner party in under an hour

By: Randy Taylor

Company is coming for a dinner party, and you have less than an hour to prepare. This is a dilemma most of us face on a regular basis, and leaves you with two options -- three, if you give up and order pizza. One is to panic and spend the first 45 minutes stressing over not having enough time. The second is to systematically plan out a menu that will not only impress your guests but also allow for plenty of time to be prepared and relaxed when they arrive.

Creating a meal plan
The first step to preparing a delicious and easy menu is to take a short amount of time to get organized and write down the meal plan. Having a written plan will reduce much of the stress. When you're pressed for time, determining the preparation and cooking time for each item in your menu is crucial. There is no sense planning a menu selection that is not realistic given your time shortage. Leave those three-hour recipes for future parties.

Preparing the menu
The main idea behind menu preparation and planning is to work backward from the end. By knowing what time you are serving, minus the cooking and preparation time, the feasibility of each recipe and the ease in which it can be prepared will be apparent.

Once you have decided upon the different elements -- meat or meat substitutes, vegetables, starches, soup, salad and appetizer -- you will then be in a position to decide how to prioritize your preparation. Again, when working backward from the end, priority should be given to the items where the combination of the preparation time and the cooking time is the greatest.

And remember: cooking time does not require your time, but preparation does. Make sure when your list is complete that you have enough time to prepare everything (chop, peel, season, etc.).

The second motto to live by is "fresh is best." While it's tempting to rush to the store and fill your cart with ready-prepared entrées and side dishes, taking that bit of extra time to prepare your meal from as many fresh sources as possible will pay big dividends.

Take shortcuts
Another key element to working under a tight schedule is to take shortcuts. I have been affectionately coined the "shortcut chef" at home because I try to do things as easily as possible; for example, purchasing prechopped garlic or buying ready-made sauces. Let's face it. We all lead busy lives, rush to and from work, and run our kids around for after-school activities. The little extra help we can get here and there is always welcome.

Page 1 of 2 -- Find speedy tips on how prepare appetizers, salads and main courses for your dinner party on page 2

Cooking time is obviously a major consideration for your meat selection. Keep in mind that individual servings will cook much faster than whole roasts, chickens or the like. Also, buying boneless will cut down on cooking time. With less than one hour, cooking your meats or meat substitutes will be limited to broiling, frying or mixing them into a stir-fry. Fish and seafood generally require the least amount of time.

Fresh steamed vegetables of a variety of colours are always a winner. A medley of steamed broccoli, cauliflower, red peppers and carrots will complement any meal.

Whether you choose rice, potatoes or yams as a side dish, steaming is definitely the way to go. If you don't have one already, an inexpensive electric household steamer is every cook's best friend.

Adding an extra salad course is a great way to boost the score of your meal with company. Purchasing ready-made salads and adding your own touches such as grated cheese, diced apple, pear, walnuts or pine nuts will make a big impression.

Bread or rolls
Take the couple of extra minutes necessary and pop your bread or rolls into the oven to warm them. An extra touch can be added by lightly brushing them with butter and sprinkling them with garlic and onion powder.

Take a shortcut and add your own twist. Gourmet prepared soups are available at most food markets. By adding one or two of your own ingredients, such as fresh mushrooms or onions, you will deliver the flavour and keep your guests guessing.

Again, with last-minute appetizers, fresh is best, especially in light of the amount of preparation time you have. What always works is to prepare a platter of fresh cut vegetables, fruits, cheeses, dips, olives, pickles, crackers and chips. Arranged on a large platter and mixed with a couple of trays of sushi rolls, this will be a welcome any guest can enjoy.

The final step is flavour. So often the difference between a mediocre meal and one that creates water-cooler talk the next morning is flavour. The truth is that flavour comes more from your courage with spices than prowess at a cutting board. Don't be afraid to put in double what you normally do.

To acquaint yourself, first take a few minutes either with a cookbook or online to find out which seasonings go best with which dishes. Finally, with starches, vegetables and meats, a generous sprinkle of salt and a teaspoon or two of butter will go a long way toward adding that palate-pleasing extra kick. Bon appetit. Oh, and one last thing. Enjoy yourself. Cooking should be great fun!

Page 2 of 3 -- Find a menu-planning guide to help you plan your dinner party on page 3

A sample menu-planning guide that will keep you organized and efficient can look like this:

Dinner is being served at _______ pm

CoursePreparation timeCooking timeBegin cookingTotal timeOrder
Meat or protein     
(Potatoes, rice, beans)

Page 3 of 3

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Menus & Entertaining

Prep for your dinner party in under an hour