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Deck your halls

Plan, plan, plan.

It’s what makes entertaining at home a success, according to a local chef and a longtime etiquette expert.

Planning makes the difference between being able to mingle with your guests and running around trying to find enough forks.

Leila O’Connell, a chef at Blue Plate Special, coordinates and teaches cooking classes at the Albuquerque catering company.

O’Connell says she entertains for her friends a couple of times a month.

“I love to cook and have my friends over,” she says.

She starts it all by making a list of “who haven’t I seen for a while.”

Sometimes it’s family, friends or business associates.

“You have to divide by groups so people are comfortable,” she recommends.

Will it be an older friend or loud teenagers? She likes to round out the company of the evening so that everyone has someone to talk to.

Happy memories

Thelma Domenici, who writes the Ask Thelma column for the Albuquerque Journal and is an executive coach who consults on etiquette for corporate businesses and children, says she often hosts gatherings at her home.

This time of year is generally the busy time, when she tries to see her loved ones around Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“It’s a special time because it’s an opportunity to entertain in a formal way and informal way,” she says. “… It’s a time when people get together.”

Domenici says the goal of entertaining — whether it’s a big group or a small one — is to make sure guests leave with a happy memory.

Before sending out invitations, whether it’s by email or snail-mail, make sure the information is clear, Domenici says. Explain the occasion — whether it’s casual, formal, cocktail or dinner. Date, time, place and RSVP should be included, as well.

Planning the food

When creating a menu, plan on cooking something you’re good at, O’Connell recommends. That means, don’t experiment with Julia Child’s recipe for roast duck with orange sauce.

“Don’t do something difficult,” she says.

Instead, O’Connell recommends, “Do your specialty. Your friends will love it.”

One of O’Connell’s specialties is grilling meats and veggies such as zucchini, mushrooms and green chile.

“I like any fresh cut of meat,” O’Connell says. “I like healthy, like a beef filet or chicken breast.”

For big groups of kids, cheeseburgers seem to be a crowd-pleaser, she says.

“Everyone loves my guacamole,” O’Connell says. “Friends always ask, ‘Where is the guacamole?'”

Chips, salsa and dips seem to satisfy guests before the meal is served. In cooler months, a hot spinach dip works well. And, kids always love seasonal fruit to snack on when they arrive.

For friends with special diets, such as vegetarians, O’Connell finds what’s in season in her garden and sets it to the grill.

For those who don’t want to fuss with cooking, O’Connell says Blue Plate Special works parties with a live station, which means a chef prepares a portion of the meal while the party-goers watch a chef at work.

“Guests like to see how the chef finishes the food,” she says. “It’s more like a presentation … and that’s quite entertaining.”

Now, decorate

Don’t forget the décor.

It’s something Domenici gets to work on by late September on a “beautiful fall motif,” she says.

“A beautiful table can impact the entire atmosphere of a celebration because I think people feel honored when you’ve made an extra effort to do something special,” she says. “I think even children notice.”

For example, during a family gathering Domenici hosted, even the children — some as young as 5 years old — dined on china.

The holidays are a “wonderfully special time to include kids,” Domenici says.

Kam Langdon, who owns The Flower Shop at Nob Hill with her husband, John, says using fall colors in arrangements will brighten up a table.

You can make a lovely centerpiece by using a small, square vase in glass or terra cotta for a combination of hydrangeas, chile peppers, mum, red rovers, sunflowers, fall leaves, millet and wheat.

And the weekend after Thanksgiving, Domenici gets busy with Christmas décor.

Langdon recommends pine cones, snowberries, red roses, orchids and amaryllis and “lots of gold and silver accents.”

When you’re a guest

Guests are always asking what they can bring for the celebration, and dessert is something most guests enjoy bringing, Domenici and O’Connell say.

“People love to bring dessert,” O’Connell says.

Eye-catching desserts can also make ideal table centerpieces, O’Connell says.

One idea that’s delicious and appealing is a chocolate cake with ganache.

“It makes people happy when they come in,” she says.

Or, grilling pineapple or plums and serving with rum sauce and ice cream is a treat.

As for beverages, O’Connell says she has a selection of beer and wine for the adults, and invites them to bring something else if they’d rather. She also keeps lots of bottled water, and a variety of sodas.

If you’re not sure what your friends like to drink, ask them, O’Connell says.

In addition, it’s fun to have a game such as ping pong or foosball for the kids (and adults) to play.

If, as a guest, you’re not bringing the dessert, a small gift such as a decoration or ornament are welcome substitutions for a bottle of wine or flowers, Domenici says.

“I think it’s nice to take something. Flowers and wine are two of the most popular,” she says.

Getting ready

How etiquette expert Thelma Domenici prepares for an evening of entertaining:
  • Step 1: Decide when.
  • Step 2: Determine your guest list.
  • Step 3: Plan the menu.
  • Step 4: Make sure you have a complete shopping list.
  • Step 5: Organize your home, set the table, prepare the food.
  • The final touch: “Be ready to welcome your guests. Organize things so you can participate in your own event.”
Here are tips from Leila O’Connell, who says, “Entertaining is truly planning and doing all the prep ahead of time.”
  • Check your list for drinks and side dishes such as salad.
  • For bigger groups of people, use disposable plates, utensils and cups. For a smaller group, set the table with your nice china.
  • For an outdoor gathering, plastic — cups, especially — works nicely.