Grabbing the Gusto

Deirdre Reid – Freelance Writer & Home Cook

A small kitchen (or home) shouldn’t hold you back from your dreams of hosting a Christmas or holiday feast. Good friends and family don’t mind being cozy. And you’d be amazed at what you can do in a small kitchen.

When I lived in an apartment with a small galley kitchen in Arlington VA, I used to invite 12-14 people over every year for my annual Christmas party. I made a few appetizers, a few entrees and some sides, plus dessert. And my eggnog and Irish coffees. Once you get used to cooking in a small kitchen, you can make it work.

Sure you can ask guests to bring a dish, but if you’re like me, you enjoy hosting and cooking for everyone. I rather they bring wine!

But if you’re not used to cooking up a dinner party in a small kitchen, here are some things you need to consider.

Small Space Gusto: Hosting a Holiday Dinner from a Small Kitchen | Grabbing the Gusto

Small Space Gusto: Hosting a Holiday Dinner from a Small Kitchen | Grabbing the Gusto

Where will you store all the perishable ingredients (and beverages) you will need? Where will you refrigerate halfway-made or completed dishes?

Clean out the refrigerator. I hate wasting food but you must be merciless in making space for the bags of groceries you will be bringing home. Make meals out of whatever’s in there or order take-out — you won’t have time to cook for yourself anyways. Don’t buy anything new unless it’s for the party.

Even door space is valuable. If you have an inch left of any condiment, toss it. If you have things in the frig like whole-wheat flour, ground flax or other items that can stand to be at room temp for a few days, take them out and store them elsewhere. Make room. Lots of it.

I had rack of shelves out on my balcony in Arlington that I used as my extra refrigerator when it was cold enough. Outdoor space is handy but beware squirrels and other animals. I once lost a buche de noel because a squirrel chewed through the box and started nibbling on it. I wished on him a true death by chocolate. Use containers and bowls with lids.

Other refrigeration options: a big cooler or bathtub filled with ice.

How will you serve dinner? Everything or some things set out buffet style on a table? Or in the kitchen? Or will everyone sit down at a table?

Do you have enough chairs or places for guests to sit while they eat?

I always buy dining tables with leaves just for this reason. A table for four can turn into a table for eight or more. Set up small (bridge) tables or TV tray tables if you don’t have enough room at one table. Borrow tables and chairs, or buy them on sale and keep them in storage, if that’s an option.

Small Space Gusto: Hosting a Holiday Dinner from a Small Kitchen | Grabbing the Gusto

Small Space Gusto: Hosting a Holiday Dinner from a Small Kitchen | Grabbing the Gusto

Do you have enough plates, utensils, and glassware of all types (beer, wine, cocktails, champagne, etc.) for everyone? Don’t plan on washing plates and utensils in between courses. Make sure you have enough.

Are you going to use real or plastic/paper plates, utensils and glassware?

If you choose to use the good stuff, what will you do with dirty dishes and glassware? They will pile up and you won’t have time to clean them. If you don’t have a dishwasher, you need a plan because your kitchen will get trashed quickly.

Do you have any space in your house or apartment where you can store dirty dishes or other items (like dessert, glassware) out of sight? In Arlington I had an old dishwasher that didn’t work but it functioned as a holding place.  Here are some other options:

  • Clean out the stuff under the sink and store it somewhere else for now. Get a large Rubbermaid type bus pan (plastic basin) and put dirty dishes in there if necessary.
  • Put them in the oven once you’re done using it. Make sure it’s not still warm or the food will bake on your dishes.
  • Stuff them in the bathtub with the shower curtain drawn.
  • Use the top of a dryer or washing machine, or put a board across both and make yourself a counter.
  • Clean out a closet.
  • Store things in your bedroom (studio residents can’t hide things in their bedroom) as long as guests won’t be going in there to drop their coats and bags.

If you take the paper and plastic route, buy something sturdy like Chinet plates and use heavy (strong) plastic utensils and paper napkins.

Is your trashcan large enough for anticipated trash? You won’t have time to take out the trash. You can ask someone else to take it out or you can store sealed trash bags in your secret place (see bullets above).

Do you have enough serving dishes, serving utensils and trivets?

If you’re putting everything out for people to serve themselves, do a dry run with all your serving dishes, utensils and trivets to make sure you really have room for everything. Besides a place for each dish, you’ll need a place for plates, utensils, napkins, condiments, bread, butter, salt and pepper, and so on. Once you have found a place for everything, put a post-it note on the table for each item. Trust me, this will help immensely especially if people are helping you get everything out. If you can’t leave post-its there, draw a map.

Small Space Gusto: Hosting a Holiday Dinner from a Small Kitchen | Grabbing the Gusto

Small Space Gusto: Hosting a Holiday Dinner from a Small Kitchen | Grabbing the Gusto

When planning your menu, go for dishes that can be made ahead of time. It’s your party and you don’t want to miss it by spending time in the kitchen. A frenzied 30 minutes getting everything to the table is acceptable, but any more than that and your guests will start missing you. We can’t have that!

When I say “made ahead of time,” I don’t just mean earlier that day. I mean in the days leading up to the party.

Aim for a mix of dishes so you’re not trying to juggle things in and out of the oven, and on and off the stove:

  • Dishes that can be reheated in the oven — make sure you don’t need the oven for something else.
  • Dishes that can be nuked, assuming you have a microwave.
  • Dishes that can be served at room temp.
  • Dishes that can be served cold.
  • Dishes that you can reheat in a slow cooker. I have two slow cookers of different sizes for this reason. They are a god-send for parties. Borrow one or two if you don’t have any. They conserve space and keep things warm.

Make sure you have stove top and oven room for anything you’re making. Don’t end up needing to roast something at 450 at the same time you need to bake something at 350.

Make a list of all the ingredients, tools, and serving dishes/utensils you’ll need, then make your shopping and borrowing lists. Do you have enough toilet paper, paper towels, foil and plastic wrap? How about rug cleaner spray for that glass of wine you’ll tip over later in the evening?

Break down each recipe into prep steps. How many of those can you knock out in the days leading up to the party? For example, if four of your recipes require garlic, peel and chop what you need. Do the same with other ingredients. Toast nuts, prep veggies, juice and zest fruit, and fill and label ziploc bags of dry and wet ingredients. When game day arrives, you’ll feel like a TV chef with all your mise en place done.

By the way, when are you going to clean your house/apartment?

Make a timeline. Figure out how long everything will take to prep and cook. Start prepping the weekend before if you have room in the freezer for dishes that freeze well. Make something each night as you get closer to the big date. The night before is a heavy cooking night, as is the morning of the party. But try to set aside the two hours before the party to take care of unexpected details, do some last minute tidying up and relax before everyone arrives. If you aim for two hours, maybe you’ll get 20 minutes.

You will need time to shower because you’re covered in flour, sweat and olive oil, and time to eat something (lay a base!) because all of a sudden you realize you haven’t really eaten anything all day. And you’ll need time for one of my favorite things to do before everyone arrives: go outside, get some fresh air, then, when you step out of the elevator onto your floor or into the back door into your house, notice the amazingly tantalizing aromas of your food. Oh, yeah, that’s from my kitchen.

Pour a glass of champagne, or your favorite beverage of the moment, and toast yourself. You done good. Even if dishes don’t turn out like you planned, it doesn’t matter. Channel Julia. Your guests aren’t in your home for the food. They’re in your home to be with you and the others around your table.

There’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of serving a fabulous meal from a small kitchen. Don’t worry, try not to stress too much and go for it! And if you need any advice or long-distance support, please let me know.

(Creative Commons licensed photos by Philip Brewer, Christian Newton and Vox Efx)

One thought on “Small Space Gusto – Holiday Dinner Parties: 12.15.14

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