One of the redeeming graces of the weather getting colder is entertaining moves inside where it’s warm! Whether you’re gearing up for a round of dinner and cocktail parties, hosting a girl’s night in or an Iron Bowl extravaganza, it never hurts to plan ahead to ensure things run smoothly. With that in mind, I caught up with Charla Draper, whose blog Chow Chow & Soul (CC&S) is “culinary dish for those who relish food, recipes, entertaining and more.” Ms. Draper has a wealth of experience: her first job was working in the Kraft Kitchens, and she also worked as food editor at Ebony and Southern Living (which brought her to Alabama!). Having grown up on Ebony’s Date with a Dish feature, I was really excited to speak with her.
The inspiration for CC&S: “I enjoy cooking and sharing food information. There are so many things people enjoy eating or remember eating as they grew up. If people don’t continue to cook those things, they’ll be lost recipes. It’s great to eat out, but it’s always good to know how to make something yourself.”
Her specialty: “I really have always enjoyed baking. My mother is a great pie baker; I’m trying to fine-tune my pie baking skills. One of the things I always do for my family is make the yeast rolls. It’s kind of therapeutic to knead that dough. When I first started, my grandmother was the yeast roll baker, and I was able to make them with her maybe twice.”
Draper had her grandmother’s recipe but it was missing a key element her grandmother hadn’t written down. Once while she was baking them, her uncle came by and just happened to say that Draper’s grandmother would “score the dough across the top and then fold it in half” which helped the final product turn out successfully.
Draper uses tested recipes that she’s developed herself or that come from reliable sources. She advises cooks to use a timeline when preparing meals (you can find a great one on her blog by clicking HERE).
Here’s how you can successfully execute your next event.
“Try to select things that you’re familiar with,” Draper says. “If you see a new recipe you’d like to try when you’re going to entertain, make sure you have enough time to run through it. Don’t do it the first time when your guests are coming.”
Draper recommends going about your preparations in an organized manner. Read your recipes completely, make your grocery list and when you get home from shopping, get all your ingredients out and measured at the same time. Then you can begin preparing your dishes.
When it comes to serving your meal, surely your guests won’t be served directly out of pots or aluminum pans, so consider the presentation. Invest in some nicer serving dishes, which can be found at your local Target or Wal-Mart, or even stores like TJ Maxx. Draper recommends picturing how you’d like your appetizers and the entrée and side dishes to look on the plate, and even labels her serving pieces with Post-it notes beforehand as reminders.
“Will you have food out when people arrive, or will it need to be put out after your guests come? Think through it,” Draper says. “I try to set up the table 24-48 hours before company arrives. For sit-down dinners, you can set the table and pick up a plastic drop cloth and just cover the table, so all you have to do is take the drop cloth off before your event.”
She recommends being ready for your guests 30-45 minutes before they are due to arrive. She says one of the best investments she’s ever made has been to hire help for her parties.
“It could be a formal service that supports restaurants and caterers, or simply reach out to a culinary school to see if they might have students available to execute while you’re entertaining,” Draper says.
“Sometimes these services will do everything for you. Don’t be afraid to reach out to see if you can get some help in terms of serving and opening the door so you have a chance to interact with your guests,” she advises.
If you’ve given yourself plenty of time to prepare your meal, you should also have plenty of time to set the mood. Create a welcoming atmosphere in your home by lighting candles, using floral arrangements and playing well-chosen music. Prepare and chill your beverages – have one yourself, you deserve it! – and give yourself time to relax and dress before your guests arrive. But what if they ring the doorbell early?
“It can be a challenge when people arrive too early,” Draper says. “If they arrive before things are out, get them involved. Ask them if they can put this or that on the table. You might not have them involved in the cooking. But always be a gracious host.”
You can read and view more of Charla’s excellent tips via Chow Chow & Soul. She is also a Butterball Turkey Talk-Line® spokesperson, sharing her expertise along with other culinary professionals at 1-800-BUTTERBALL. The line is open all day, every day this week through 3:00 p.m. December 25.