There are few things more gratifying than watching friends' reactions as they bite into burrata crostini. Their eyes close as they take that first bite and savor the decadent flavors and textural contrasts, the crunch of the warm, crusty bread topped with peppery sauteed leeks, the bright pop of fresh basil and that cool pillow of creamy cheese. And when they wash it down with a sip of crisp white wine, infused with perfectly ripe peaches and plums, they sigh.
"Oh, my goodness, I haven't been taken care of like this in forever," they say. And I let out a happy sigh of my own. Then -- and only then -- I can relax at my own party.
You can hang lanterns in trees and dress a beautiful table, but when it comes to the food, throwing a party can be a fraught affair. These days, everyone seems to have a different dietary quirk or health requirement. There are vegetarians and vegans but also the gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free -- and then there are the old-fashioned hummus-averse carnivores. And most of them characterize themselves as knowledgeable foodies, which only adds to the stress of a well-meaning host.
To feed friends really well and include all of them in the food experience is enough to make anyone a little meshuga.
Fortunately, if what you're serving emphasizes flavorful, colorful, fresh, unprocessed, real food and a produce-happy menu, you can accommodate everyone. Every guest may not be able to eat everything, but they will always find something to enjoy.
A good guideline is to serve at least two proteins, one vegetarian and one carnivore-friendly. I make sure to include something gluten-free, something dairy-free and something completely plant-based.
My vegan and dairy-free guests may not sink their teeth into the juicy sweetness of a fig topped with soft tangy Gorgonzola, fresh mint and a syrupy balsamic reduction, but everyone else -- including the vegetarians and gluten-intolerant -- will be exuberant. My gluten-free friends will head for the smoked salmon tartare, served on crisply cool cucumber rounds, while the vegans -- and everyone else -- head for the heirloom tomato salad, for example, or the gazpacho shooters with grapefruit and basil.
Let geography inspire you. When you plan a menu around Mediterranean, Asian or Latin American flavors, the dishes have a natural coherence. It makes it even easier to end up with a well-paired, seamless menu -- one that consciously honors your guests, their dining choices and the fresh, wonderful flavors of the season. I call it conscious entertaining for the 21st century.
Serving sensually delicious, healthy food is not only classy, it's an act of love.
Food blogger Elana Horwich runs Los Angeles' Meal and a Spiel private cooking school. Read her blog and find more recipes at mealandaspiel.com.