Even if Martha Stewart wanted to bust your dinner party this weekend, she couldn't. So relax. Let perfection go.
At any time of year, whether entertaining a large crowd or a small circle of friends, remember this: Keep things simple. It's about the food, yes, but it's a lot more about the fellowship.
That's never more true than on one warm spring night in the Lowcountry. For the 13th straight year, Dining With Friends will bring hundreds of people together Saturday evening to share food and drink for a cause, Lowcountry AIDS Services. The event raises money through parties where the host or hosts provide dinner and guests make a donation in turn. Parties range from intimate affairs to block parties, black-tie to barbecue.
Individual parties merge in a thousands-strong finale at the Maritime Center on the waterfront to indulge in decadent desserts and sip on champagne.
"The symbolism is remarkable," says Myrna Caldwell of Trumbo Street in downtown Charleston, who has given a party with her husband, Toney, and neighbors Ed and Kate Barnett every year since 1999. "It meets a real need for me to entertain and feed my friends and go on to feed friends whose names I do not know."
The Caldwells decided to host their own Dining With Friends party after going to one in Summerville. "When we learned a little more about Lowcountry AIDS Services, we realized it served a lot of people in the three counties," says Toney Caldwell, who is board chairman of Lowcountry AIDS this year. As finance director of Michael Chevrolet in Summerville, he also was impressed by the way the nonprofit does business. For example, the charity spends a high percentage of funds on clients versus overhead, he says.
The Caldwells' support has grown into a big party with up to 30-40 guests that spills out into the street. They are not shy about having a good time, or collecting money, either. One year, a census-taker showed up at the door during the party. They invited him to join in, and he did -- but not before going home to get his checkbook.
Across town, Preston and Kathy Church will be doing the same thing on a smaller scale. They are hosting a sit-down dinner at their James Island home and plan to invite six to eight people. Preston, associate professor of medicine in the infectious disease division at the Medical University of South Carolina, looks forward to the blend of camaraderie and cooking. He's the chef, while Kathy, a business consultant, likes to do the "fun stuff," like mixing eclectic tableware from places the couple have lived.
They also like the opportunity to mix people from different walks of life. The guest list, he says, will include people "who are not necessarily involved with the HIV community or Lowcountry AIDS, but certainly bright and active people in the community. ... We think about mixing and matching, some common threads and some uncommon threads."
The Trumbo Street party also will be a diverse group. Myrna Caldwell, assistant principal of the School of the Arts in North Charleston, says guests will include work colleagues, friends, family and neighbors. The key to making the party work is being very informal, she says, and focusing on the fun and fellowship.
"You receive so much in the way of coming together to support people in the community that need it, and doing it in the home," she says.
TIPS FOR SUCCESS
As experienced hosts and hostesses, the Caldwells and the Churches stress simplicity when having people over for dinner -- be it Dining With Friends or any other occasion.
For the sit-down affair, the Churches start with figuring out how many people they want to invite. "Pretty much what the table can hold," says Kathy. "We like to do what we can manage," Preston says.
Once they've decided who to invite, they ask guests if they have any food restrictions or preferences. "That may impact the entire menu or that I have an alternative for somebody," Preston says.
But pre-planning the menu is minimal. Preston prefers to go shopping the day of the party.
This time of year he'll hit the farmers market looking for spring vegetables. Fish or shellfish is a likely choice, depending on what is freshest. "Showcasing seafood is a good bet because of the coastal area," he says. "I usually have some ideas on what I'm looking for, but that may change on that day ... to make seafood and fresh vegetables work, you have to be spontaneous." And, he says, "unless there is a hailstorm, I'll probably cook on the grill."
He loves shrimp and scallops on skewers but also favors grilled vegetables, such as local purple asparagus he gets at the farmers market. He lightly coats the asparagus with sesame oil before putting it over the fire. Or, he may take fresh corn, cut it off the cob and saute the kernels with butter, salt and pepper, adding chopped fresh basil at the end.
Whatever he chooses, he tries not to make it too complicated. Appetizers could be a bowl of garlic hummus, fresh carrots and pieces of pita bread, or just a couple of interesting, good quality cheeses. "The problem with elaborate is you don't spend any time socializing."
"He's really a phenomenal cook," Kathy says of her husband. "I think he started cooking because he was a poor medical student. He was a great cook because he had no money. It was a necessity."
Preston honed his skills as the couple lived on the West Coast (Seattle), East Coast (Washington, D.C.), the South (Atlanta, at Emory University) and three years in Japan, where he and Kathy took a cooking class.
"I love good food," Preston says. "I love when I sit down and look at the plate and say, 'This is going to be awesome.' When you're entertaining guests, the whole thing is enjoyable."
Block parties have been more the style of the Caldwells and their co-hosts, the Barnetts, since both moved to Trumbo Street about 1990. They recommend setting a theme for a large party.
"The theme gives you permission to be less formal," Myrna says.
For example, "Sam's Receipts" was the theme for their first Dining With Friends party. It was a takeoff on the "Charleston Receipts" cookbook. Everything served came from Sam's Club, and they printed a menu that looked a little like the cookbook's cover.
For two years, the theme was an Italian sidewalk cafe. They served pasta, bagged salad and wine and hired a group of students from the School of the Arts to play violin music. They've done the Hard-Times Cafe, modeled after a restaurant in Alexandria, Va., and served chili. Last year, the theme was Margaritaville, with flip-flops in the centerpiece, those famous frozen concoctions to drink, and coconut and lime shrimp ("Available in the frozen food section," Myrna points out.)
Whatever the theme, it must be working. The Caldwell-Barnett party is among the top 10 fund-raising parties. "A playful theme makes the food more fun," Myrna says.
For large occasions, she recommends food that is easy to prepare, easy to serve, easy to eat and well-prepared. They have no qualms about using quality frozen-food entrees.
"Not that I would ever say that Costco lasagna is as good as Myrna's," Toney says, "but it's tasty."
This year's menu comes from the St. Michael's Episcopal Church cookbook, "Faithfully Yours." The main course will be a Thai Shrimp With Sesame Noodles, a dish that's already gone over well at a smaller neighborhood gathering.
"I'd love to have sake, but I have yet to figure out how to serve it to a large crowd," Myrna says. "I haven't given up the sake, though."
Thai Shrimp and Sesame Noodles
1 pound raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 (8-ounce) bottle light Italian salad dressing (see cook's note), divided
2 tablespoons chunky peanut butter
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 (8-ounce) package pasta of choice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 medium carrot, grated
1 cup chopped green onion
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Cook's note: Paul Newman's Light Italian Dressing is recommended.
Combine shrimp and 1/3 cup salad dressing in a medium bowl. Cover and refrigerate 1 hour.
In a small bowl, whisk together peanut butter, soy sauce, honey, ginger, pepper flakes and remainder of salad dressing. Prepare pasta according to package directions; drain.
In a 4-quart saucepan, heat olive and sesame oils until hot. Add carrot and cook 1 minute. Add shrimp and green onion and cook 3 minutes or until shrimp are pink. In a large bowl, toss pasta with peanut butter mixture, shrimp mixture and chopped parsley. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Although Preston likes to cook on the fly, he tends to work in advance on his desserts. Here is one of his favorites:
Raspberry Sour Cream Tart
8 whole graham crackers, coarsely broken
1/4 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
For filling and topping:
6 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 (1/2 pint) baskets raspberries
1/4 cup seedless raspberry jam
For crust: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grind crackers and sugar in processor until coarse crumbs form. Add butter and process until crumbs are evenly moistened. Press crumb mixture firmly onto bottom and up sides of 9-inch-diameter tart pan with removable bottom. Bake until crust is firm to touch, about 8 minutes. Cool crust on rack.
For filling and topping: Using electric mixer, beat cream cheese and sugar in medium bowl until smooth. Beat in sour cream, lemon juice and vanilla. Spread filling in cooled crust. Chill until firm, at least 4 hours. (Can be made 1 day in ahead. Cover; keep chilled.)
Arrange berries over filling. Whisk jam in small bowl to loose consistency. Drizzle over berries. Serve immediately or chill up to 3 hours. Makes 8 servings.
-- Adapted from Bon Appetit magazine, July 2001.
NEVER TOO LATE
The 2005 Dining With Friends fund-raiser takes places Saturday, but it's not too late to get on board or make a donation.
For more information about hosting a party or Lowcountry AIDS Services, call 747-2273 or visit www.aids-services.com.
This year's Dessert and Champagne Finale for hosts and their guests will be at 9 p.m. at the Charleston Maritime Center. Desserts are donated by area chefs and Johnson and Wales University.
Teresa Taylor is the food editor. Contact her at 937-4886 or firstname.lastname@example.org.