On entertaining (dinner guests and more!)
As I've told you before, last month we moved into a new apartment, with one bedroom and a very generous open living room. We got all new furniture, including a huge bed and a very comfortable three person couch (red!), bookcase, desks, table (I will make a post about our apartment and share pictures when it's finished!). We even got new silverware! I was thrilled. Before this, we lived for 6 months in his small bachelor apartment, where we mostly had his stuff (which means stuff he got from his mom when he moved on his own). And so, we started anew. It's such a wonderful feeling. How many times in this life do you get the chance to start everything anew, with a new person, new city, new apartment, and everything in it? Most importantly, seeing and experiencing life in a way you never have before?
The one downside to all that (and working freelance from home) is that I haven't really managed to make any friends yet. I didn't even meet anybody except Nico's family. People do tend to keep to themselves here in Finland, and I find that often the bigger a city is, and the more people it has living in it, the more lonely and alienating it can feel.
That's why I was SO thrilled when my boyfriend told me that his friend from the North was coming to visit with his girlfriend for a few days, right after we would move to the new apartment.
One thing you need to know about me is, even though I'm introverted, I love to have people over for dinner parties or even sleeping over a few nights. It's probably part of my upbringing in Transylvania. Maramures, the region I'm from, is not only known for beautiful landscapes and traditions, but also for people there being extremely welcoming and attentive hosts. When anyone comes over, even if unannounced, they will always be served with a lot of good stuff, whether they want to or not!
My mother has always thrown the best dinner parties. I've always admired her diverse, beautiful (and plenty!) appetizers, her hearty main courses and homemade desserts. (even when I was a kid, she would throw me the best birthday parties). She is always so involved and attentive with her guests, and they always stay over until very late. Of course, she has a more traditional approach to cooking and entertaining, but she has always been my main inspiration.
I will share a few tips about entertaining guests and show you how our friends' trip to Helsinki has been. You don't have to spend a fortune or stress yourself out, but do make sure your guests are taken care of. Empathy is a big thing here, just think of it like this: how would you like to feel when you are a guest at someone's place? Keeping things simple is always best.
Let's start with basics, appetizers. Now, what I've always thought of as a good idea is, whether it's dinner party guests or people arriving to visit, have some cold (or hot, depending on season) drinks and light appetizers (such as finger food) ready when they arrive. So you can fill their glass and, if they're hungry, they don't have to wait for hours for dinner while you frantically walk all over the kitchen. You should always make sure to greet them with a warm welcome and a sincere smile, shake their hand or give them a hug. The appetizers should be casually placed on a coffee table or something similar, and ask them right away what they would like to drink. One thing I always insist on is at all times, make sure your guests have a drink in their hand. The rest can wait. Also, it might be nice for them to hear some (quiet) pleasant, non-distracting music in the background. You can find tons of nice playlists on Spotify or even youtube, but I use this playlist for brunches and entertaining during the day, as it has a very nice, light vibe (indie, surf pop, bossa nova, chillout), and this playlist for entertaining dinner guests or general evening mood (jazz). Another idea for background music would be this Swedish radio station called Vinyl FM that plays 80s hits non stop (quite the crowd pleaser). Besides, it's always fun to try to guess what the commercials are saying, haha.
Here are some appetizer ideas to please plenty:
Here is a picture of what I served my guests when they arrived (it was quite early in the day, so I served coffee - always have cream, milk, white sugar and brown sugar - preferably cubed - ready for your guests, if possible, as everyone drinks their coffee differently. Also, it would be nice to have an alternate choice for people who don't drink coffee, like some homemade ice tea or lemonade):
- mini sandwiches with butter, good quality sliced light ham, cheese slice. I made some without cheese because someone didn't like cheese at all - it's always a good idea to ask people about their dietary preferences before they come over. You can make some vegetarian ones with some butter, cheese and thinly sliced cucumber. Buy sliced bread, spread the butter and fillings, put the top slice over, cut the crusts off and slice it into four squares or a few triangles (slice diagonally). Another tip would be to cut different kind of sandwiches in a different shape, so people know which is which.
- mini baguette sandwiches with cream cheese. Buy a fresh baguette bread, slice it into bite-size pieces, spread the cream cheese on top.
-I topped all the mini sandwiches with half a cherry tomato/pepper-stuffed olive on top, with a toothpick all the way through for easy grabbing and eating.
- fresh croissants made with butter (bought of course)
- fresh raspberries
- chocolate chip banana cookies that I baked the night before
- homemade ice tea
Other appetizer ideas you can try:
- smoked salmon and cream cheese or butter on baguette slices, it's delicious and looks so elegant (if budget isn't an issue) (TIP: if you're squeamish about serving raw-ish fish, but still want to have salmon - spread some butter on a plate, place the salmon strips on it, top them with tomato and lemon slices, then place the plate in the microwave for a few minutes - at least 5)
- pigs in a blanket, served with ketchup and mustard (if it's a very casual affair - perfect for game nights)
- peanut butter and jelly mini sandwiches
- focaccia slices
- bruschetta with classic fresh baguette bread slices with olive oil, topped with chopped tomatoes and basil or oregano and salt (you can replace the olive oil by spreading cream cheese or butter on the bread)
- hummus or yogurt dip with sliced veggies, and pita bread
- slices of a quiche (quiche lorraine used to be my signature dinner party dish for years, everyone adored it - I will share my tried-and-true recipe in a future post)
Generally, mini sandwiches with different fillings (cut differently too) is a safe bet. Just make sure everything is bite-sized. You don't want something dangling off the corner of your mouth! Have napkins and mini-plates nearby.
I will soon make a post all about appetizers, so stay tuned!
As the night goes on, if you can afford it, it would be a good idea to bring out a cheese plate. Buy a few different types of cheeses (in small portions), cheese crackers, white grapes and a couple of types of wine. We also served some lingonberry jam (Nordic traditions!). Here you can find a very nice guide from Cup of Jo on creating the perfect cheese plate, if you're interested. A picture of our very modest and casual cheese plate (toothpicks on the left):
Next, let's talk about what to serve as a main meal for your dinner party. I find that you can't ever go wrong with roasting a chicken (if you do it properly and don't have vegetarian guests, that is). Chicken is homey, inexpensive, very simple to cook, you can prep it ahead of time and your guests will be smelling the wonderful scent from the kitchen chicken and building up an appetite. Here's one roasted chicken I made:
It might not be the best-looking picture, because I had stuffed the chicken cavity with too many lemons, onions and carrots and didn't tie the legs together since I couldn't find kitchen string anywhere. However, it was so delicious and delicate, it had that melting-in-your-mouth quality. And the scent of the veggies it roasted with was amazingly impregnated inside the meat, which was very tender and not at all dry. I will share my roast recipe, together with my family's beloved garlic tomato sauce in a future post.
Now let's talk about how to serve the chicken. I carved it into parts - legs, thighs, breasts and wings (kitchen scissors are a big help here, but you can do it with a good knife, too - just make sure you carve under the breast meat as close to the bone as you can), then served them on a pretty platter on which I had simply arranged some lettuce leaves. That way, everyone gets their favorite chicken part and it saves you from carving in front of guests, revealing the carcass and asking everyone which part they want. I served it simply with some well-seasoned roasted potatoes that cooked together with the meat and warm bread (that your guests can use as a scarpetta with the delicious sauce :) ). However, a simple fresh salad goes really well with the chicken. And if your guests are fussy, you can never go wrong with some french fries! I don't have any pictures of the final plating because it disappeared from the table very fast, haha.
Some more dinner party main course ideas:
- stir-fry wok with noodles
Pasta and lasagna are great because they are warm, homey, hearty meals, while still highly adaptable. You can make it vegetarian, or choose a white pasta sauce for people who don't like tomatoes. Stir-fry is a great choice because it can also be made vegetarian and you have a huge wok pan filled with hot food in no time. Try this tried-and-true classic pasta with tomato sauce recipe (it has bacon!).
I will post recipes for all these!
Another simple and casual main course idea is serving a homemade pizza. I will make an individual post about it, however, I'd like to mention that pizza is something everyone loves and it's highly adaptable based on people's diets, so they can choose their own toppings. Also, making the dough by hand requires very little effort, it can be made ahead of time, if you make it yourself it will have that lovely homey feel to it, and most of the time it will be better than any pizza you could get from the city. Here's the very simple pepperoni pizza I make:
After dinner, let's talk a bit about dessert. If you served a very consistent meal, I'd say you should serve a simple, refreshing dessert, like ice cream. We served a few scoops of our favorite Italian pistachio ice cream.
Generally at dinner parties, while cakes can be great and wonderful, I like the idea of serving my guests individual desserts. It makes them feel more special, you don't have to slice anything or wash the dishes from the main course (if you only have a few plates like we do). I love serving them in little ramekins. I usually make some chocolate mousse or white chocolate and orange crème brulée, as both are desserts you can make well-ahead of time (and you can give the guests a spectacular finish at the table by blow-torching the sugar on top of the crème brulée), however, I did not have my ramekins and blowtorch shipped from back home yet, together with a bunch of my kitchenware (I miss my madeleine baking tray! I NEED it haha) - that's what it means moving in the middle of winter with only a couple of bags.
Anyway, as we are finishing up the dinner party, in case of overnight guests, let's talk about the morning after and brunch!
Again, I kept it simple, but made sure my guests were well-fed, since we were looking at an entire day of walking around the city and exploring the islands around Helsinki.
For brunch, I served:
- bacon omelet with grated mozzarella cheese on top, and halved cherry tomatoes (I made a bigger one for 4 people instead of individual ones)
- chocolate chip waffles with cinnamon whipped cream and banana slices
- apple juice
- toast (that I had to patiently toast myself individually in a pan, since we don't have a toaster - fun!)
- cream cheese
- apple juice
Here are some more brunch/breakfast ideas:
- omelets are very adaptable as well, so you can easily make them just with some butter and chives on top, or with mushrooms for vegetarians.
- alternatively, you can make poached eggs and serve them as eggs benedict, or simple sunny-side up eggs will do the trick. Eggs are a very, very versatile ingredient!
- a big pan of shakshuka
- this delicious caramel croissant pudding
- toast, butter and jam (or honey) are universal breakfast lovelies, especially if you don't feel like making pancakes or waffles
- if you're feeling fancy, (and you had a lot to drink the night before) go ahead and serve some mimosas in champagne glasses! Fill half of the glass with dry sparkling wine (you can use Cava or Prosecco instead of champagne) and top it off with some orange juice. You can also mix it beforehand and serve in chilled glasses. (stir, don't shake unless you want a little champagne explosion in your kitchen in the morning! happened to me! (I was young! :) )
- you can set a fantastically-looking table by making a brunch spread and not spend too much. Buy some fresh croissants and a bread like baguette or ciabatta (it's so lovely when it's still warm) or bagels, some prosciutto or some other Italian cold cuts, shave some parmesan slices with your vegetable peeler, and arrange some of them nicely on a wooden cutting board (a bread basket would be a nice touch, if you have it), add a little bowl of pitted green olives, some fresh veggies like tomatoes and bell peppers, and another little bowl with a handful of whatever fresh fruit you find in season, like raspberries or strawberries in the summer, and don't forget some butter, jam and honey!
- pancakes, as you like them (I like them with blueberries and chocolate chips)
- Spanish potato tortilla (eggs and potatoes, what's not to like?) - recipe coming soon
- muffins, as you like them
- make some smoothies, and choose your favorite combinations, like kiwi, orange and banana or carrot and apple
- french toast or pain perdu topped with fresh fruit
- if you want something light & healthy, serve some (peeled) soft-boiled eggs on a plate with feta cheese, sliced tomatoes and bell peppers, some light ham, thinly sliced, toasted wholegrain bread with a bit of butter, and a cup of tea (mint tea is awesome)
In the end, it's up to you what you choose to serve, but for me, brunch is a special treat, and you should treat yourself on the occasion.
Some parting words of advice (common sense, of course, but I thought I'd mention a few):
- having a vase with a fresh flower bouquet in the main area of the house really brightens up the place; if it's not really in your budget, one single flower will do, or pick some wildflowers if you can!
- your guests should always have fresh bed linens that smell like delicious fabric softener, even if they are sleeping on an air mattress. You wouldn't want to go to someone's house and sleep in their unwashed bed sheets, would you?
- same goes for towels, have a face towel and a body towel for each one of your guests, and think of investing in a few towels that are just for guests, so they are always fairly new
- change the hand towel from the bathroom every day, in case of longer guest visits
- some areas of your house will understandably get messy while your guests are there (like the kitchen), and nobody will notice if your windows aren't totally clean, there's no reason to stress about it, they understand. However, your bathroom should always be clean!
- keep the dinner conversation light and pleasant and don't go into nasty, controversial subjects. There's nothing like getting in a heated argument with your friends over politics to ruin the mood for the night! Remember, you're all there to have a good time together.
- I've mentioned this above, but do make sure your guests' glasses are always full
- find a fun activity for all of you to do if you don't feel like talking all night or it's a new friendship and you don't know them well enough yet, for example we played some Monopoly (world of warcraft version... yep, we're nerds). Some other fun ideas would be playing charades, card games, and classics like cards for humanity
- use the prettiest platters you have for appetizers
- ask your guests if they have a special diet or they really dislike something beforehand (you wouldn't want to serve a cheesy mushroom tart and then find out you have a guests who hates cheese and another who can't stand mushrooms!)
- don't stress out, nobody will have fun if the host is frantically running around and not enjoying anything. Remember, keep it sweet and light!
- make what you will serve, as much as you can, ahead of the time
- don't forget about the music in the background
- choose some nice, soft lighting like floor lamps and tall candles
Our guests had a great time and it didn't require that much effort. On the last day of their visit, we went to see Suomenlinna, the island with the UNESCO fortress near Helsinki. We took a ferry boat and then walked around on the island, it was magical. I will write more about this in a future post, but here's a little preview:
Thank you for reading! I hope it was useful to you. What are your entertaining tips or secrets? I'd love to hear your opinions!