A number of readers have asked me for advice on how to host a Shabbat dinner and not become upset, lose one’s metaphorical spoons, or have a fairly unpleasant time. Hosting a Shabbat dinner is a great mitzvah, a lot of fun, and a nice way to combine Jewish food, ritual, friends, and a good time. It also does not have to be upsetting to host. I am no domestic goddess, but I do have some sage advice that I think can serve us all. Here are thirteen basic guidelines to follow when hosting a Shabbat dinner – or any dinner party or event that you cater yourself, really.
- Do: plan ahead. You should know, before you begin to cook:
- what you are cooking,
- what your ingredients are,
- how many people are eating,
- how much time you need, and
- what equipment you have in your kitchen.
From there, you can adequately prepare for your meal. When you buy ingredients, you know what to buy. You know roughly how much time to set aside to cook, and you have an idea of how much to cook. I generally have an idea of who is coming for a Shabbat dinner and what I am cooking by Tuesday. If you are less experienced, you will need more time.
- Do: know your limits. You should know how long it takes you to cook and to prep for cooking – from chopping an onion to making a full meal. Know how much time you have, and how much energy you have, and how much you can afford to spend on ingredients. Plan from there. It’s hard to do an elaborate meal you do not have the energy to make, or the time, or the money. There are plenty of affordable and time-efficient dishes to make, and if you can do more money-wise or time-wise, feel free to go ahead. This also requires you to know how experienced you are in the kitchen. If you do not have a lot of experience, you may want to make simpler things, because your limits are not as wide as, say, someone who’s cooked for fifteen years.
- Do: know how to troubleshoot. Things go wrong in the kitchen – dishes boil over, an ingredient is not very fresh, you drop an egg. You should know what might go wrong with your dishes, and at the very least how to do without an ingredient or to make something up on the fly. Some of this is from experience, but you can also get an idea by reading various cooking books. If you are not sure what could go wrong with a dish, make it for yourself or your family first before you try it on guests.
- Do: cook with your guests in mind. Cook things based on what your guests can eat. This means that you should take into account dietary restrictions, allergies, and aversions whenever possible before planning what you will cook. I will nowadays shoot a Facebook message to my invitees asking this question before I even plan a single dish. For friends who I have cooked for before, I also take into account their allergies, practices, and aversions – for example, one friend has an aversion to raw fruit, and another has an allergy to certain types of chili. Then, once you have this information, plan your menu. This makes preparing the meal far less stressful – you will not end up cooking things that only you can eat.
- Do: cook things you would make normally. This sounds counter-intuitive: don’t you want to make guests something special? But other than one “ta-da!” dish, it is actually fine to have things that you are used to making. Not only does it let your labor shine, but “normal” food can be good food too! Besides, it is far easier to make.
- Do: have only one or two labor-intensive dishes. A labor-intensive dish might be good, but it definitely takes a lot of time and energy to prepare! And so it is best to only have one dish that requires heavy preparation time – be it in mincing many ingredients, a complicated assembly, or a long cooking process. Keep the other dishes fairly simple. This means that your efforts will be appreciated and you can have the focus you need to make the dish.
- Do: allow your guests to contribute. There is nothing wrong with asking for a bit of help – and it is okay to ask your guests to bring some smaller things! (In fact, this is the custom in many Jewish communities.) I routinely ask my guests to bring some challah, a bottle of wine, or lemonade. If a guest offers to bring something, do not automatically say no! That said, be sure to offer things when you go over to others’ houses too.
- Do: balance out the dishes. Generally speaking, try not to have everything be the same flavor or the same type of dish. So, for example, don’t have three carbohydrates and a green salad, or have everything taste like maple syrup. Even a taste-themed meal should have variety so the guests are not bored, overwhelmed, or do not eat enough. I usually aim for one protein, one carbohydrate, and two vegetables.
- Don’t: be afraid of simple dishes. Simple food is often good food. So though we rightly celebrate complex dishes, do not be afraid of the simple things! Potatoes, simple vegetables, and bread still have their places in great meals. In addition, allowing the flavor of something to be alone or almost unadorned is a hallmark of many great cuisines, from China to France to Mexico. Simple foods also go well with complex dishes. Besides, they are much easier to make.
- Don’t: be afraid of canned ingredients. Soaking beans for 24 hours sucks. Mincing tomatoes is a task that is easily forgotten. Canned corn lasts longer and keeps more nutrients than fresh corn. There is no shame in using a canned ingredient or a few. I use canned beans and canned corn all the time.
- Don’t: make it too complicated. This is the death of so many good parties. If you make your dinner too complicated, there are many more places where things can go wrong: a sauce burns; an allergy appears; the cat eats a key ingredient. (Yes, the last one happened.) Besides, a complicated dinner is really exhausting to put on. Best to only have one complicated thing at most, and keep the other things pretty simple. It makes for a better dinner and a better time.
- Don’t: make too many new recipes or use too many new ingredients. One thing about cooking with ingredients is knowing how they behave: how they cook, how long they cook for, what they do to your food, and what can go wrong. It is great to try new things: a different vegetable or fish, a new spice, or a new starchy food. But in order to learn how this item cooks, and to feel less overwhelmed, stick to only that new item, or maybe two new items. Otherwise, cook with ingredients you are familiar with. It is much easier to lay out a meal if you know what you are cooking, and you feel comfortable cooking it. As for new recipes, even if they are with ingredients you are familiar with, you may want to only stick to one or two totally new recipes at a time for a meal. Otherwise, cook things that you have cooked before to reduce the stress. For example, for a recent Shabbat dinner, I made an Iranian herb omelet called kuku sabzi – which was delicious! Though with familiar ingredients, I had never made it before – and the preparation method is somewhere between an omelet and a frittata, but far more reliant on fresh herbs. I also made the Eggplant with Lentils and Pomegranates. For everything else, I used recipes that I was not only familiar with, but I had made many times before. I was barely stressed, and the dinner was a success.
- Don’t: be scared of mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes in the kitchen, even when cooking for guests. Don’t feel embarrassed: it is part of the learning process. Merely make a note of where you went wrong, and try again next time! Even the most experienced cooks mess up from time to time – I myself messed up while trying to thicken a soup the other day. After all, our sages said it best: “no one is perfect but G-d.”
Thank you to Alex Cooke and Jeremy Swack for talking through points in this piece with me.