WASHINGTON — Amy Brandwein is no novice when it comes to hosting.
She spends nearly every day rolling out fresh pasta, plating up grilled fish and serving Italian-inspired antipasti platters to a dining room full of guests at her CityCenter restaurant Centrolina. And when the holidays roll around, she goes home and does it all again — cooking for her family and friends.
Over the years, Brandwein has learned a few tips and tricks when it comes to entertaining. Here’s her best advice for pulling off an enjoyable holiday gathering.
Once you have an idea of how many people are coming over, you can start thinking about a menu. Brandwein’s personal favorite is a more traditional spread: turkey, mashed potatoes, honey-baked ham and lots of desserts.
Then, once you’ve established what you want to eat, think realistically about how much of that food you can make yourself.
“I think the best thing to do is not to try to take on too much,” Brandwein said. “[Before the holidays], you’re spending four days going to the store, getting ingredients, cooking it up. You’ve got to clean the house, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got the wine, you’ve got to do everything. By the time the actual day comes, people are exhausted.”
When guests ask, “What can I bring?” don’t respond with “nothing.” It’s perfectly acceptable to divvy up the dinner responsibilities or get a little help from a local store or restaurant.
If you want the smell of a turkey roasting in the oven wafting through your house all day — “which I completely understand,” Brandwein said — assign a few sides to others. Don’t have time to run to the wine shop? Have each guest bring a bottle to share.
Instead of messing up the kitchen and fussing over a flourless cake, leave dessert to the experts. Picking up a fresh pie or box of pastries from a local bake shop is an easy way to save your time and your sanity.
“You think you might miss making all the stuff, but the fact that you’re sitting down, enjoying your friends and your family’s company and you’re having a glass of wine and your clean-up is basically nothing, it’s worth thinking about,” Brandwein said.
Keep it simple
Don’t bother with recipes that call for a long list of ingredients — many of which will likely never make it out of your cabinet again. Instead, stick to seasonal foods and simple dishes, such as platters of roasted vegetables and braised meats.
“You don’t have to pretend that you’re Martha Stewart,” Brandwein said. “I believe that the best thing to do is to try to keep it simple, because you want it simple and tasty.”
For hors d’oeuvres, set out a few cheeses, some charcuterie and some crudités — and that’s it.
“You need to pick out a few high-quality things, put them out with beautiful wine … and then, be relaxed because people want the company more than they are looking for you to wow them on the holidays,” Brandwein said.
Fresh spins on traditional foods
One way to wow your guests is to put a new spin on a classic dish. This year at Brandwein’s house, that dish is sweet potatoes. Up until last year, she despised the seasonal starch, “because people tend to put syrup on them or marshmallows or something like that,” she said.
But her savory take on the sweet potato results in a light and herbaceous antipasti option.
“I serve [the roasted sweet potato discs] with Greek yogurt to cut through some of that sweetness and grilled onions that have been marinated in some balsamic vinegar and white wine vinegar and olive oil,” Brandwein said. “It kind of gives it that sweet and sour element.”
You can find the recipe for Brandwein’s roasted sweet potatoes and herbed yogurt — along with recipes from some of D.C.’s other favorite chefs — in the gallery at the top of the story.
If you’re hosting but don’t plan on cooking, Centrolina is taking orders for its Christmas and Hanukkah catering menus. Antipasto platters, side dishes and desserts are also available for those who need a little extra help with their holiday spreads. The deadline for ordering is Dec. 21.