Monday, December 7, 2009

Hosting Friends (and getting them to visit)

One of the challenges of country living is getting old friends who live in more urban areas to visit. City dwellers are convinced that they are more accessible than you are, and they're right. I am in New York City much more frequently than my City friends are upstate. I take trips into the city for a variety of different reasons, and will frequently make a point of seeing a friend or two on that trip. However - hosting is something I love doing, and it's something I learned to do well from my mother, who is a very talented and innovative hostess.

My approach to getting friends to visit is to turn it into a vacation. I live in a beautiful, and fairly accessible part of upstate new york, which makes my house (and therefore me) a perfect weekend getaway. No one wants to commit to visiting a friend they may have not spent a straight 24 hours with if they're wondering if you'll have enough to talk about to fill the time. This is stressful even with the best of friends, and for those of us who don't have children to distract us, 24 hours of non-stop interacting can be difficult. So I always suggest a few key things to do when I suggest a friend comes to visit.

Winter is perfect for a short and beautiful winter hike (most people never get to see a waterfall completely frozen still, but with the water still loudly flowing through the center of the the great column of ice that is Kaaterskill Falls in January. Just 30 minutes away, this is a perfect hike. Ice skating, cross-country skiing (on the landlord's property), winter farmers' markets, and walking around town are all wonderful things to do with visiting friends. If you have the space, it's also great to have two or three friends over, so there's some variety.

Make it low-stress. Nobody likes a stressed-out hostess. Plan in advanced. Go shopping two days ahead of time, because you'll probably forget something and have to go back the day before as well. If you've forgotten something and you discover it missing day-of, don't stress and make an acceptable substitution. If you don't have lemons, use apple cider vinegar or concentrated sumac juice (press the red point sumac out into water, leave everything in the water, and boil it down until it's good and strong). A good hostess learns how to stay calm and creative when there's no way she's going back to the store. Even if there is only one can of tomatoes left and you're making tomato soup for 10. You would stay calm, pour yourself a cup of tea, and think. Then you'd cut up the bread you were going to use for French grilled cheeses (croque monsieurs), leave it out to go stale overnight (because soup you always make soup a day in advance to let the taste ripen, and because it's easier that way). You would add some beans for thickness and extra vinegar for taste and make an Italian bread soup instead - which can stand alone as a dinner soup. Then, for a side, you'd make cheese crisps out of the cheese you had bought for the croque monsieurs. See? No stress. Just some time with your favorite cookbooks (the original Joy of Cooking, Moosewood, one of Brother Victor's Monastic, seasonal cookbooks are great cookbooks that are easy to be inventive with and don't involve complicated ingredients lists), and a break to think with a warm cup of tea. Always take a break if you're about to panic. even 2 minutes clears your mind enough to actually think clearly, and it will save you time in the end. Consider showering at the moment of stress instead of just before guests come. You're going to shower at some point anyway, why not do it now?

Now that we have no-stress down - plan a dinner meal that will double for lunch. You don't want to be cooking all day when friends are over, unless that's the vacation plan. If you make burritos for dinner, the leftovers will make a wonderful taco salad (just make a dressing, or get out a different can of home-made salsa and have some lettuce on hand to complement this easy self-assembled meal), or, for a more wintery example, Chili at night will make great cheese-and-chili subs for a packed lunch (pack chili separately and assemble when you're ready to eat). Same goes for pasta and meatballs and meatball subs. If you cook well, no one minds eating the same food twice in different combinations - just be creative and don't stress yourself out.

Only make dessert once, but make enough that you'll have leftovers on hand, and have some chocolate or dried fruit. Always keep snacks out and accessible (jam and crackers are easy) and tea on the stove. Leftover dessert is everyone's favorite snack.

let your friends help with dishes. They'll feel better about themselves if they help, and you'll be more likely to avoid stress.

...See? Easy! Now go and invite your friends over. There's no reason for them to stay at home when winter is so beautiful in the country!

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