Relax, Company's Coming!: 150 Recipes for Stress-Free Entertaining


If you are intimidated by the thought of entertaining, help has arrived. Kathy Gunst's Relax, Company's Coming! shows you how to enjoy your guests, with easy-to-follow recipes and a new, stress-free definition of what it means to entertain.

With family and friends on the go, everyday shared meals may be a thing of the past, but in an attempt to make up for lost time, today's get-togethers often become an exercise in trying to achieve perfection. While other books have fed this ...

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If you are intimidated by the thought of entertaining, help has arrived. Kathy Gunst's Relax, Company's Coming! shows you how to enjoy your guests, with easy-to-follow recipes and a new, stress-free definition of what it means to entertain.

With family and friends on the go, everyday shared meals may be a thing of the past, but in an attempt to make up for lost time, today's get-togethers often become an exercise in trying to achieve perfection. While other books have fed this frenzy with entertaining advice from millionaires, movie stars, and fashion designers, Relax, Company's Coming! gets back to the basics, whether you're planning an elegant dinner party or inviting neighbors for an impromptu brunch. Beginning with an entertaining primer, Gunst shows you how a well-stocked pantry can make planning and cooking for guests easier. There are 150 delicious dishes to treat your guests, from nibbles like Orange-Marinated Olives and Red Caviar Dip, a selection of easy-to-prepare recipes for casual entertaining like Rigatoni in Creamy Walnut-Pea Sauce and Grilled Flank Steak with Fresh Corn-Tomato-Basil Sauté, more elaborate foods for celebration dining, like Prosciutto-Wrapped Asparagus Bundles with Garlic Butter and Roast Swordfish with Horseradish-Thyme Sauce, and of course, a selection of desserts from fruity (Honeyed Bananas) to deeply chocolatey (Three-Layer Mint Brownies). You'll also find delicious pantry meals, recipes for one-pan dinners, ways to enhance your menu with store-bought treats, ideas for transforming leftovers into meals, recipes for instant desserts, and suggestions for creative table settings using household items you already have on hand. There are menus for special gatherings, including cocktail parties, a birthday bash, vegetarian meals, and a dessert buffet. There's even a section on potluck parties, with tips to make your own event go smoothly, as well as suggestions for dishes that travel well.

Relax, Company's Coming! is your passport to successful, stress-free entertaining.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
How often does the word guest provoke an anxiety attack? Whether it's a casual last-minute "drop by" dinner or a well-planned brunch for 12, most of us -- after the invitations have been extended -- have cringed at our own naive eagerness. Kathy Gunst claims that need not be in Relax, Company’s Coming. Along with a great selection of recipes that require minimal time and effort as well as those that are more elaborate in preparation, this book serves the role of the soothing friend who regularly reminds you that your guests are there to see you and, more important, that guests will stress out when they see the host(s) freak. So if the chicken is too dry, simply pass the ketchup or, better yet, pass around the take-out menu. Relax, Company’s Coming has a terrific section on how to stock the pantry for great meal possibilities.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641588440
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/16/2001
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 7.84 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.11 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Pineapple Upside-Down Cake

An old classic with a few new twists, this cake is flavored with ginger and toasted pecans and poured on top of pineapple slices that have been drenched in caramelized brown sugar and butter. This moist cake is best served warm, straight from the oven. However, it can be successfully made a day ahead of time; cover and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature at least two hours before serving.

1 fresh ripe pineapple, or one 20-ounce can unsweetened pineapple in unsweetened pineapple juice
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup light brown sugar

1/2 cup pecan halves
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup light brown sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon gingerroot, very finely chopped, or 1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 cup unsweetened pineapple juice
1 1/4 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

If using a fresh pineapple, peel and core the pineapple. Cut about 10 slices of pineapple, each about 1/2 inch thick. Save any remaining pineapple for a garnish or other use.

In a 9-inch cake pan, melt the 4 tablespoons butter over low heat. Add the brown sugar and mix, stirring; let cook about 4 minutes until caramelized. Remove from the heat and add the 10 pineapple slices directly on top of the butter/sugar mixture, overlapping the slices slightly.

Place the pecans on a baking sheet or another cake pan and toast about 10 minutes, or until they begin to turn a golden brown and the room is filled with a nutty scent. Shake the pan once or twice to make sure the nuts aren't burning and that they are browning evenly. Chop the pecans. You can toast the nuts 48 hours ahead of time; cover until ready to use.

To make the cake batter Beat the butter in a mixer until soft. Add the brown sugar and beat until creamy. Add the eggs, one at a time, and then vanilla. Add the ginger and pineapple juice and beat until smooth. (Don't be concerned if the batter seems to separate at this stage.) Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt into the butter mixture and beat gently until incorporated, and smooth. Gently fold in the chopped nuts and pour the batter into the cake pan, smoothing it evenly over the pineapple slices.

Bake on the middle shelf for about 45 minutes, or until the cake springs back when pushed with your fingers in the center. Let cool about 10 minutes. Using a kitchen knife, loosen the cake around the edges. Place a large plate over the cake pan and invert in, tapping lightly on the bottom of the cake pan. Release the cake and serve warm or cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Makes 6 to 8 servings

You Can Also Add...

  • Whipped cream flavored with a tablespoon or two of pineapple juice.
  • Nutmeg, cardamom, or allspice instead of the ginger.

Copyright © 2001 by Kathy Gunst

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Table of Contents

  1. Zen and the Art of the Party
  2. Getting Organized: An Entertaining Primer
  3. The Party Pantry: A Guide to Stocking Your Pantry, Refrigerator, and Freezer
  4. Appetizers
  5. Casual Parties
  6. Celebrations!
  7. Desserts
  8. Menus
  9. Potluck Parties
  • New Year's Day Bash:
    A Tale of a Very Last Minute Celebration
  • Leftovers!
    Your Key to Creating Great Impromptu Meals
  • Setting the Table: Tips for Using Ordinary Household Items to Make Extraordinary-Looking Tables
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First Chapter

Chapter 2: Getting Organized: An Entertaining Primer

During the year and a half I spent writing this book, friends and acquaintances would constantly ask, "What are you working on these days?" When I told them I was developing a new cookbook called Relax, Company's Coming, many people just laughed. Relax, Company's Coming? Oh, you mean you're going to publish a list of the best caterers in the country?" asked one friend. "Isn't that title a bit of an oxymoron?" said another. My oldest daughter said, "Why don't you just call it Get a Grip on Yourself and Order a Pizza?" After the laughter died down and I had a chance to explain my ideas, many people followed with, "Yes! I get it. But tell me, how do you do it?"

The truth is there are choices you can make that will allow you to feel more in control when you give a party: choosing recipes that match your level of skill in the kitchen, simplifying the way you clean your house and set your table, shopping strategically, and taking stock of your strengths and weaknesses as a host and playing to your strengths. Let this book be your guide.

To get to know yourself and your habits better you need to pinpoint exactly what makes you most nervous about entertaining. I have talked with dozens of people about this subject. Listed below is a compilation of the most common responses I received, followed by some very specific suggestions that may put some, or perhaps all, of your fears to rest.

I'm going to get in over my head and nothing will come out right.

  • Choose a menu and recipes that you are comfortable with. There is no shame in this — a well-made, simple meal served by a relaxed host is far preferable to an elaborate meal served by a stressed-out host. Most people are grateful to simply be invited to your home for a meal.
  • Pick recipes by the level of preparation they require. As you look through the recipes in this book you'll see an icon listed after each. The icons let you know how easy or complex the dish is.
  • Plan your preparation time realistically. As you read through the book, you'll notice that every recipe tells you how much of the dish can be made ahead of time. If you are the type of host that gets really anxious, you'll want to choose recipes that can be done completely ahead of time. You'll want to either avoid dishes that require preparation at the last minute, or leave only one dish that requires last-minute preparation.

    If you're comfortable with finishing the cooking when guests are already there, you should take a look at recipes that can be done partially ahead of time and those that need to be put together at the last minute.

No matter how thoroughly I follow a recipe, something always seems to go wrong. The food is overcooked and tasteless, or there is some other sort of culinary disaster.

  • Try out the recipe ahead of time. Make the recipe for yourself or your family and see if it works. Make sure you're comfortable with it. Did you have trouble? Did it take too much time? Was it too salty or spicy? Adjust the recipe to your liking and then, when you serve it to your guests, you'll feel comfortable with it, like an old friend.

I'm scared people will judge me, and the food won't be good. My sister is an amazing cook. My mother fed eight people every night and made it look so easy. I can't stop wishing I were Martha Stewart.

  • Don't try to be someone you're not: Be glad that your sister is a great cook and that your mother can cook for a crowd. If that's not what you're good at, don't fake it. Choose a menu that feels doable and reflects what you're good at. Don't overshoot for the sake of trying to impress someone.
  • Make food you love, and everyone will love what you make. If you want the meal to feel like something really special without spending all day cooking, choose one or two simple dishes and make them with real loving care. When I'm having someone to dinner on a weeknight and don't want to make a big deal of it, I'll simply cook a regular family meal and add an extra side dish, a special salad, or dessert. Don't think you always have to go out of your way to create an elaborate meal. And don't be too proud to ask a friend to bring a dessert, soup, or bread to help complete the meal and make the event more relaxed for you.

    I had an experience that illustrates this point well. Eight people were coming to dinner. I didn't know any of them well, but I really wanted to wow them. I was in a foul mood as I prepared a rather elaborate four-course meal that I thought would impress a king. The guests arrived on time and we had drinks and a few appetizers. They seemed far more interested in drinking than in eating the homemade chicken liver pâté I had painstakingly prepared. We sat down and I served the soup. They drank the wine and stirred their soup. The chicken stuffed with wild rice and hazelnuts, baked stuffed tomatoes, and garlic bread were met with equal indifference. At one point during the meal, I pulled my husband into the kitchen and, with a look of desperation on my face, whined, "They hate it. They hate me. Why did I bother cooking all day?" He shrugged and said, "I think they like to drink. They have no appreciation of this good food. Forget it. I love it." Conversation was strained, I was a miserable wreck, and half the dinner sat untouched in the kitchen. When I brought out a chocolate soufflé (at this point I felt like telling them I hadn't made dessert and that it was time for them to leave) they all perked up considerably. "Ooh, chocolate," one woman cooed. "I just love chocolate. Is there any more wine?" They ate every last bite of the soufflé, polished off all the wine, and eventually left. "Cook to please yourself," some wise soul told me years later. I try to recall that advice every time I feel compelled to try to impress someone at my table. It's usually the simplest, home-cooked meals that are remembered, and appreciated the most.

I never feel organized. So many of the foods I enjoy have to be made at the last minute. What can I do ahead of time that will make the party easier for me, and help me not to panic when the doorbell rings?

  • Proper preparation is key. No matter what type of recipes you choose you can make things easier by having all your ingredients ready ahead of time: Select the correct pans and skillets you'll need for cooking, preheat the oven, prechop your ingredients (anything with milk, cream, butter, cheese, or any raw meat obviously needs to be covered and refrigerated until you're ready to cook).
  • Before you begin to cook, read each recipe thoroughly. you don't want any surprises when you're halfway through a recipe and up to your elbows in flour. Review all the steps that can, and can't, be done ahead of time and plan accordingly.
  • Set the table. The morning of, or the evening before, your event, choose plates, silverware, platters, serving spoons and forks, carving knives, glasses, candles, and flowers. There's nothing worse than frantically looking for a spoon or knife when the food is ready and getting cold.

I never seem to find the right ingredients. The food in my supermarket looks awful and doesn't provide much inspiration.

  • Shopping is key! Being a good shopper can make the difference between a good meal and a great meal. Always read through recipes thoroughly and make a complete shopping list. However, don't be a slave to your list. If you plan to make an eggplant gratin, and you get to the store only to find that the eggplants are soft with large brown spots all over them, forget it. Look at the zucchini. They look fabulous. Why not make a zucchini gratin instead? Many recipes offer suggestions for ingredient substitutions. Look at the end of the recipe under the heading "You Can Also Add..."
  • There's plenty to be said for the picky shopper. Be persistent about finding the freshest, best-looking ingredients. The truth is that beautiful food inspires us to cook. Old, sad-looking food makes us feel like a failure before we even start.
  • New foods can provide new inspiration. Each time you shop pick up a new item for your pantry. Read through "The Party Pantry" to get some ideas for new ingredients to keep around that will help you create quick hors d'oeuvres, sauces, salad dressings, or desserts. One new ingredient (like lemongrass, coconut milk, or olive tapenade) can give your everyday cooking a whole new twist.

    I don't live in an urban area, so I have to drive a minimum of fifteen to twenty minutes to buy food. However, I manage to find fresh-baked baguettes, beautiful fruit and vegetables year-round, Asian ingredients, and much more. My freezer and pantry are stocked with foods that I've bought on trips even further away. I also try to find ingredients on the Internet through the dozens of new companies that have sprouted up in the last few years offering mail-order foods from all over the world.

    When I shop in my local area I try to branch out. Instead of constantly doing my shopping in one store, buying the same ingredients week after week, I try to visit different shops. It takes more time, but varying my shopping patterns keeps me so much more interested in cooking and entertaining. When you have some extra time, try visiting a new food shop that you don't usually go to. Why not finally check out that Asian vegetable market, the health food store, or that little bakery or cheese shop in the next town or neighborhood?

There won't be enough food!

  • Buy in quantity. Deciding how much to buy can be tricky. Read the recipe thoroughly and figure out how many people you'll be serving, then shop accordingly. My philosophy is that it's always better to have more than less. Some would disagree (talk to my husband). But I am a big fan of leftovers and, as far as I'm concerned, running out of food during a dinner party is not fun, and certainly not the way to stay relaxed.

    One winter we were having a big party and I thought, OK, I'll let my husband do the shopping. I told him how many people were coming and what we needed, pumping up the figures ever so slightly so that there would be enough. He came home with much less than I would have and said, with complete conviction, "There will be enough food. Just relax!" The party was going well and everyone wanted seconds. We dished out the food, leaving behind empty serving plates and dishes, a sight I have dreaded for years. I looked at my husband and held up an empty platter as if to say, "Last time I let you go shopping." He smiled a grin of deep satisfaction. After everyone had gone home, he looked at me and said, "I know that was hard for you, but an empty dish is the sign of a successful party. It means everyone loved everything and that's why there's nothing left. No one went home hungry." I was too mad to answer. But somewhere in the deep recesses of my overbuying brain, I knew he was right. But did that change my buying or cooking habits? Not a bit.

I don't know a thing about wine. I'm scared I'll serve the wrong kind and be embarrassed.

  • Find a reputable wine shop. It may not be as easy as it sounds, but it is the best thing you can do. It's not always the shop with the largest selection that has the best advice. If you have more than one shop in your neighborhood, go in, look around, and talk to the salespeople. Ask questions. Talk about your menu and get advice on what wines will complement the food you're serving. You don't need to splurge to discover a really good wine. Do you want to serve white and red wine and let your guests choose? Do you want a different wine for each course? Talk to someone you trust or go online and find a reputable wine site like or for ordering, or for detailed tasting reviews. Also provide beverage alternatives. You could serve beer, sparkling cider or water, or your own favorite beverage. Think about whether or not you want to offer liquor and stock up accordingly.

People will think I'm cheating if I don't cook the whole meal, but I don't really have time to make a complete meal from scratch.

  • Takeout is your friend. It's Thursday night and an old friend is in town. Rather then meet in some bar or mediocre restaurant, you'd like to invite her to dinner at your house. However, you have to work late or there's a meeting at your daughter's school. There's hardly any food in the refrigerator, you haven't planned a thing, and, quite frankly, it's been a tough week. Despite these obstacles, eating at home can be the most relaxing solution. The trick is not to feel that you have to cook a full dinner.

    All around the country, from rural country stores to the most sophisticated urban gourmet food shops, excellent take-out food is available. Why not pick up a deli roasted chicken and simply bake some potatoes, sauté a green vegetable, buy premixed, prewashed salad greens, and make a simple dessert. Or you may want to make a simple main course such as Salmon Cakes or Rigatoni in Creamy Walnut-Pea Sauce, and supplement the meal with store-bought bread, deli salads, sorbet, and cookies from the bakery. You can put on sweatpants and have a really relaxed time talking with your friend at home. Throughout this book you'll find recipes for evenings exactly like this.

I work long days and I don't have time to put together a weekday dinner party, and I'm too exhausted at the end of the week to think about entertaining.

  • Weekend preparation is your answer. Think about spending a Saturday or Sunday afternoon cooking a few dishes that can be served later in the week or frozen for a later date. Soups, stews, casseroles, stocks, pies, piecrust, pesto, and sauces are all ideal make-ahead (or cook-to-freeze) foods. Check each recipe to see if it can be frozen or made in advance.

People will judge my house. Some of my friends have really great apartments and houses.

  • This is where you live. Good food and fun times don't come from grand houses. They come from friends who are relaxed and happy to see you. They come from friends who have had a good time cooking. Some of the best meals I've ever enjoyed were served at a cramped table in a dark studio apartment. Work with what you have!

I don't want to spend hours cleaning my house just so some friends can come over and eat dinner.

  • You don't need to clean your entire house in order to serve dinner to your friends. Clean up your kitchen and whatever room you will be eating and sitting in. Straighten up the bathroom, but don't go nuts. A friend of mine does what she calls "diverting cleanup." She places a table runner on the island in her kitchen and puts flowers out where the food will be served. She shoves dirty laundry into closets and forces her guests' eyes to go to the food table and not to the pile of kids' toys lying on the floor in the next room.
  • Start clean: Don't start your evening with a sink full of dirty dishes. Leave time to clean up before the party begins. Always clean the dishes you've used to cook with, and put them away. You'll feel so much more organized if your sink and dishwasher are empty when you begin the party! And it will make cleanup after the event so much easier.
  • Set the mood. What else can you do ahead of time to feel better about your environment and help create a relaxed mood? Do you want music? Candlelight? Do you want to eat in the kitchen, or do you have a dining room/living room where the mood might be more relaxed? You can set the mood by thinking about these kinds of details ahead of time.

I won't have fun at my own party. I get so worried about everything being right and everyone else having a good time that I generally feel miserable at my own events.

  • Imagine the worst thing that can possibly happen. Go ahead and visualize the most disastrous party. Sometimes imagining the worst helps put things in perspective. This is about sharing, not perfection. Entertaining is about laughing and telling stories and getting to know people on a new level. If something goes wrong the best thing you can do is laugh and enjoy yourself anyhow.

    I once spent an entire day cooking a soup — chopping vegetables, making a homemade broth, and adjusting the spices. I baked bread and made a pie while the soup simmered. I was really looking forward to seeing some old friends. At the last minute I decided the soup wasn't flavorful enough and I added a dash of hot pepper sauce. Somehow the little white plastic thing that controls the amount of sauce that comes out fell off and, within a split second, about half a cup of hot pepper sauce ended up in my soup — along with the little piece of plastic. Disaster! The soup was inedible — a pot of fire that would hurt the most macho eater. Everyone was due to arrive in ten minutes. I felt like crying. Not only did I not have dinner to serve, but I had wasted an entire day making a soup that was inedible. When the first guest arrived, I told her what had happened and she started to laugh. Then I started laughing uncontrollably, with tears pouring down my face. She helped me dump the soup and we boiled water for pasta (that wonderful old standby). We had a great time that night and the pasta was delicious. No one missed the ruined soup.

Copyright © 2001 by Kathy Gunst

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