EASY ITALIAN NIGHT DINNER PARTY PLAN PLUS MY GO TO VINAIGRETTE RECIPE

YES. YOU CAN HAVE PEOPLE OVER FOR DINNER.

(And it will  be fast, easy & delicious!)

These days, we tend to meet up with friends at a favorite restaurant rather than go to the trouble of having them over. Most of us just don’t have the energy to do all of the running around and planning we think it takes to have people over, especially during the holidays when we are already sooooo busy. The reality is you don’t have to spend days in the kitchen preparing for a dinner party. Of course, you CAN go to a lot of trouble  if that makes you happy. But you absolutely do not have to. Trust me. Most people love having other people cook for them. Here's what I often do for an impromptu party to save time, save money, and so I can spend more time with my guests.

Don’t hesitate to make this into a party with an agenda. It is perfect for a school or fund-raising committee meeting, office team planning session, new hire welcome, small group or church group meeting, or a wonderful 'welcome to the neighborhood party' for new neighbors. It’s so easy you can even execute this party on a Friday night after working all day.

STEP BY STEP

  1. Set the date. Call, email, text, or send out a casual invitation or personal note to invite your guests.
  2. If you’re not inviting the children, be sure and mention that you are sending your own brood to your sister’s house for the evening.
  3. Clean the house the day before so all you have to do is a quick sweep before guests arrive. If you are decorating, go ahead and place candles, vases, etc. the day before, too.
  4. Make sure you have plenty of paper goods: toilet paper, paper towels, tissue, etc.
  5. Shop the day before so party day is easy.
  6. Make a playlist of old school favs: Sinatra, Dean Martin, and other Italian crooners.
  7. Make dessert ahead of time, too, so you just have to scoop or plate it.
  8. Chill any white wine you are serving two hours before guests arrive.
  9. Greet guests with a glass of something sparkling and small bite: crostini, a cheese board, olives, or breadsticks are all simple and delicious.

MENU: Make it easy on yourself. Skip a few steps by incorporating frozen lasagna. I'm a big fan of Stouffer's and they've recently launched their Kitchen Cupboard Commitment which means the ingredients you'll find in Stouffer's are like the ones you'd find in your own kitchen! I like that.

Add a quick salad with a fast homemade dressing  and you’ll pull this dinner party together in record time. When you grate a good quality (meaning real) Parmesan cheese over the top of your frozen lasagna and sprinkle it with fresh herbs at the end,  nobody will ever know (or care) that you didn’t make it from scratch. Add a loaf of warm garlic bread and a few bottles of wine and you've got an Italian night dinner that anyone will love. 

MAKE IT SPECIAL: If I am serving family style, I might remove the frozen lasagna from its pan and place it into one of my baking dishes so it looks nice on the table. Simply sit the frozen lasagna pan in an inch or so of hot water and it will come lose from the container. Lightly brush your oven proof dish with olive oil and place the frozen lasagna in it. After about 30 minutes of baking, I remove it from the oven and cut slits into the top of the lasagna. Pour a cup or so of red wine over the top. At the end of baking, I finish with some grated Parmesan cheese and fresh herbs, if I have them. Can you believe the photo below is frozen lasagna? I took that photo with my iPhone.

While buying a salad in a bag is fast, I rarely use them. It is just as easy to grab several kinds of lettuce along with a few other seasonal items, chop them with a large knife and toss into a large bowl. Make up your salad dressing and dress the salad just before serving.

Here's a quick vinaigrette recipe you will love. It will become your new 'go-to' dressing. Watch me make it LIVE during a recent Facebook LIVE stream I did with Stouffer's where we talked about entertaining tips and the Stouffer's brand history. Since 1024, they have believed (Like I do) that the meals you love most are made with love from quality ingredients and a great tasting meal can make any place feel like home. You know- those memories just take you back!

EASY VINAIGRETTE DRESSING

When making a homemade dressing, always use a 3-1 ratio of oil to acid. Yield: Makes 1 cup

 INGREDIENTS

1 small shallot, minced and rinsed

1/2 teaspoon lemon juice

1/4 cup white wine vinegar (Or Champagne vinegar or Sherry Vinegar)

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley and chives, minced

3/4 cup extra virgin Olive oil 

DIRECTIONS:

Mince the shallot. Rinse under cool water to remove the strong smell. Add to bowl. Add the lemon juice and vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Add the herbs and whisk together. Stream in the EVOO, whisking constantly to emulsify and combine. Check seasoning. Add a bit more salt, if desired.

Will keep in the fridge for 2 weeks.

Note: If you find yourself without a whisk, you may simply shake this dressing up in a Mason jar with a lid.

DESSERT can be as easy as vanilla gelato with Frangelico or chilled Limoncello poured over the top. I love to crumble Amaretti cookies over the top or add a piece of biscotti. My Lemon Ricotta Pound Cake is another easy option you can make ahead. If you make the crostini recipe,  you'll have enough homemade ricotta for this recipe, too.

OTHER RECIPES: CHARRED TOMATO CROSITNI and LEMON RICOTTA POUND CAKE

GREET your  guests with a glass of something. That can be as easy as glass of white wine or Prosecco (Italian sparkling wine) or an Aperol and Soda cocktail finished with a squeeze of an orange and garnished with an orange wheel. Set out a few small plates with olives, nuts, or cherries. Or make crostini, bruschetta, or a store-bought antipasti assortment.

PARTY TIP:  Enlist help of your early arriving guests to help you make the dressing, set the table, or finish the salad. They'll love pitching in to help rather than feel as if they've arrived too early and are in the way.

DECORATING: Don’t bother with decorating if you don't have a lot of time- just light some candles. If you do have time, get an assortment of small herbs associated with Italian cooking like rosemary, oregano, or basil. If they are live, wrap the container with burlap and tie with a small ribbon. If they are cut, put them in small Mason jars with a bit of water and line them up down the center of the table. You can find fresh herbs- both live and cut- at most grocery stores these days so you won't need an extra trip to the florist.

You're all set for Italian night-- just modify this plan to fit your next gathering. You'll spend more time making memories and a lot less time worrying about the details! xox


HERE'S THE DISCLAIMER:  I wrote this party plan in 2009 and have used it or have suggested it many times since then. I even told Food Network magazine this was one of my favorite easy party plans in a 2012 interview. In other words, this has been a go-to for me for many years. This past summer, I was invited to Solon, Ohio to visit the Stouffer's facility for the relaunch of Stouffer's lasagna. It is Mrs. Stouffer's original recipe: all natural, made from scratch; even the pasta and the tomato sauce are made from scratch. Since that visit, I've joined with Stouffer's to help them bring you easy recipes and fun ideas for get-togethers at home. I wanted to disclose that they pay me but even if they did not, I'd still recommend Stouffer's lasagna. I've been a fan for more than 30 years. For more info on Stouffer's products, visit Stouffers.com

INSPIRED BY WIMBLEDON: A SUMMER LAWN PARTY WITH STRAWBERRIES AND CREAM, PIMM'S CUPS COCKTAILS

All of the Wimbledon buzz has inspired me to plan a Lawn Party.... British style! If you can't make it to center court like my buddy Ricky Cooper did (thanks for the photo) or share the Royal box seats with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge... well, you can plan a quick and easy Wimbledon-inspired lawn party in your own backyard!

Some of the traditions of Wimbledon have been in place for 100+ years! Wimbledon is played on grass, so even if you don't have access to a tennis court, if you have a patch of grass, you can host this great summer get-together complete with badminton, croquet, lawn darts, or simply make up your own lawn games. If your town has a public tennis court, reserve it and invite your girlfriends for an evening of tennis, Pimm's Cups and fun.

THE INVITATION

Since a strict all-white dress code is in place for players at Wimbledon, it's always fun to stick to an all-white theme for the party. Ask guests to wear white attire and mention that lawn games will be involved so the ladies don't turn up in high heels. I like to start the party late in the afternoon or early evening, after the temperatures have dropped. A 6pm start time will give you several hours of daylight for games during the summer. White linen paper or card stock is just right for your party invite. A casual, handwritten note (very old school) is perfectly acceptable for this casual gathering.

THE MENU

Afternoon Tea, probably the most quintessential English tradition, is said to have been introduced to England by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford in 1840. Tea typically consists of tea along with scones, buns, pastries, cakes, and accompaniments of butter and jam.

There are a couple of traditions at Wimbledon that are a must for your party menu. One is Strawberries and Cream. Featuring fresh English strawberries from Kent served with Double Cream. It isn't always easy to find English cream in the USA. You can substitute by using a good quality vanilla ice cream, let it melt in the refrigerator until it is pourable but of course, keep it chilled. Pour some of the melted ice cream in the bottom of each dish and fill the bowl with sweetened strawberries and pour a bit more cream over the top. Another option is to whip up some fresh cream and add some orange flavor to it. This is simple and delicious- the perfect compliment to the berries. Another alternative is a flavored whipped cream. I love this orange-strawberry combination.

FRESH STRAWBERRIES WITH ORANGE WHIPPED CREAM

2 pounds of fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 pint heavy whipping cream

1/2 cup Confectioners sugar

1/4 cup Grand Marnier (or orange flavored liqueur)

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 cup orange juice

1/2 teaspoon finely grated orange zest

For the strawberries: Wash and pat dry. Remove the stems. Slice. Add the sugar and combine gently then sit aside. Do this 1 hour before serving or the berries will break down.

For the cream: Add the whipping cream to a large bowl and whip with electric mixer for a moment at high speed. Turn it off and add the sugar. Whip on  low to incorporate the sugar. (otherwise it will dust you with white powder) Once you have it incorporated, add the other ingredients and whip on high just until stiff peaks form. Do not overbeat. Chill until serving time. To serve: layer the berries, juice, and cream in a chilled serving dish or pretty glass. Garnish with mint or fresh basil leaves.

Another staple at Wimbledon or at any other British event is a Pimm's Cup. Pimm's is to Wimbledon what the Mint Julep is to the Kentucky Derby. Pimm's is a gin based liquor and it's so refreshing on a summer day. 

PIMM'S CUP COCKTAIL

1 ½ ounces Pimm's #1

4 ounces lemon-lime soda (7-Up or Sprite)

1 ounce club soda

Wedge of lemon

Cucumber spears

Optional: shot of premium vodka and fresh mint leaves

I like to mix these in a pitcher and serve over ice in a tall glass. They're unique to Americans and so refreshing but watch out! They go down easy and will sneak up on you.

BRITISH SHANDY

Another traditional British beverage is the Shandy. A Shandy is half lager and half lemon-lime soda. I was a skeptic when my friend Nick made me my first Shandy almost 20 years ago but they've become my summer staple. Many of craft beer companies have their own versions of the shandy bottled and on store shelves.

One pint cold lager beer

One can chilled lemon-lime soda

Chilled tall glasses

Slowly pour half of the beer into the chilled glasses. Top with soda. Serve.

THE ENTERTAINMENT

This party starts with the lawn games so if you don't have access to a tennis court, set up a badminton net instead. Since croquet is also played at Wimbledon, you can also set up a croquet course in the backyard or at the park. Other fun lawn games include horseshoes, bocce ball. or lawn bowling. The game I came to know in Chicago as "baggo" or cornhole is also fun for a lawn party. I always find lots of lawn games at Target during the summer. Set up your game course in whatever green space you have.

This is a great summer evening party theme... try it for a rehearsal dinner or engagement party, a girls night out or guys night out party, a neighborhood party, family get-together, or anyone's birthday party. You can make it kid friendly or invite the adults only, but no matter who attends, my Summer Lawn Party is perfect for any occasion. Just make sure I'm on the guest list... xox

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MENU, BIG HATS, AND FASHION INSPIRATION FOR KENTUCKY DERBY DAY!

It might be the most exciting two minutes in sports but the Derby is also one of the best parties you'll ever attend. (I should know) Going to the Derby is something every horse lover or fashion lover should do at least once because it is at the Derby where the two worlds collide and there's just as much excitement around the hats as the horses. (If we are being totally honest, it is really just another excuse invented by Southerners to drink bourbon in the middle of the day without people thinking you're a big lush.)

 The Kentucky Derby is said to be the greatest two minutes in sports. To me, there is nothing more noble or more beautiful than a horse. Photo: Churchill Downs photo courtesy of Kentucky Tourism

The Kentucky Derby is said to be the greatest two minutes in sports. To me, there is nothing more noble or more beautiful than a horse. Photo: Churchill Downs photo courtesy of Kentucky Tourism

THE FASHION: Whether you are wearing a giant, custom creation costing a month's salary or sporting a fashionable fascinator that you made yourself, (you know, that little "sprig" of a headpiece made popular by the Duchess of Cambridge) the hats are always part of the fun at Kentucky Derby parties. The more outrageous and over the top the hat is, the better. I've seen hats with all sorts of crazy embellishments and some so tall, I don't know how the person walked around. See more fashion tips and crazy hats on KentuckyDerby.com

Find these great hats pictures above and many more at Del Mar Hat Company, KentuckyDerby.com, Berkeley Hat Company, and Dees Crafts.

Having been in the fashion/wedding industry for most of my life and a horse lover to boot, people always ask for my help with getting their Derby day look together, whether they are partying at home or lucky enough to be at Churchill Downs.

If you are going to the actual Derby, here are a few fashion tips:

1. Don't wear spiked heels. You will sink into the grass or stumble on the pebbles. Select a thicker heel, a platform, or a wedge instead. This is especially important if you're in the infield where it is all grass. Be sure to ask your host exactly where you'll be sitting... just in case you aren't.

2. Bring a purse with essentials: a small umbrella, wipes, sunscreen, those little toothpaste loaded brushes, a band-aid or two, and of course, your normal essentials like lipstick and powder to freshen up. I also keep a large zip-top bag in my purse in case it rains or gets incredibly humid. My Hermes scarves are my prized possessions so I zip them up if one rain drop hits my head.

3. Bring a scarf or a wrap in case the sun shifts. It can get chilly in the later part of the day.

4. Have a designated meeting point and time in case you get separated from your peeps. The phones don't always work well at Churchill Downs. Stuff a battery charger in your bag so you don't run out of battery after all the selfies and Instagram posts.

So... below are some of the looks I pulled together for friends this year...  I do have the designer names if you want them. Take a look through them and see if you can guess which one is mine! Post your favorites in the comments and I'll know what to wear on Saturday!  Hope you have a happy Derby Day!

DETAILS: The Kentucky Derby is run in Louisville, Kentucky at Churchill Downs. You can find start times, contenders, wagering, and everything else you need to know from the Kentucky Derby website. Go there...

DECOR: So simple. Red roses and pretty silver containers and trays.

MENU: According to my good friend, fellow foodie, Louisville resident, and Derby girl Traci Badenhausen, here's the perfect Kentucky Derby menu...

The perfect Derby menu? Benedictine is a MUST (original recipe follows from Jennie Benedict, the caterer who made if famous years ago), Country Ham, Asparagus, Beef Tenderloin (or pork tenderloin, if you’re on a strict budget) with Henry Bain Sauce on beaten biscuits or butter buns, Cheese Straws, Pickled Shrimp, Hot Brown Casserole....and Mint Juleps, of course!
How to make the perfect mint julep

Here are links to some of my favorite party recipes to make hosting your own Derby Day party so easy and a link to Jennie Benedict's Benedictine Spread!

MARTIE'S MINT JULEPS

SWEET TEA WITH MINT

DEVILED EGGS

MOM'S CHEESE STRAWS

HAM DELIGHTS

LAYERED STRAWBERRY AND SPINACH SALAD WITH POPPYSEED DRESSING

PICKLED CITRUS SHRIMP

CHOCOLATE BOURBON PECAN PIE

AUTHENTIC KENTUCKY DERBY MERCHANDISE: If you order now, you might still get your licensed Kentucky Derby merchandise like caps and silver mint julep cups before post time. Here's the link to all things Kentucky Derby.