How hard can it be?!

Written by contributing writer Jacqueline Twa

I love to entertain and have enjoyed playing hostess ever since I was a child.

My Mom entertained often and always loved having a house full of people. Being the only girl in the family, I was enlisted at an early age to help. I didn’t mind, because like my Mom I loved having friends and family nearby, eating and drinking and sharing in our lives.

If 15 people walked through the door unexpectedly, my mother would have no problem throwing together a last minute meal that left everyone satisfied. She was a genius at pulling things together with no prior notice.

I helped raise three wonderful sons, and despite the fact that they are now grown with families of their own, I still find myself instinctively feeding them whenever they are around. During their teen years they always had two or three friends in tow, and like my own mother would do, I would always whip up something for them to eat.

I think it’s fair to say I don’t get fazed easily. I have experienced firsthand the awe-inspiring event that is teenage boys eating (I used to say that our boys had worn off their taste buds with pure friction judging by the amount of chow they could put down their gullets!)

Anyway, I digress.

I like to think that when friends drop over for an unexpected visit – a common occurrence around our house – I am always able to offer them a glass of wine and pull together a bite or two of something to feed the conversation.

I used to entertain quite a lot.  It was something that always felt right and easy for me. I love to cook and hate to figure out a ride home, so the natural solution always seemed to be to have people over to our place. Long, cozy dinner parties with friends lasting late into the night. Candles, good food, laughter and too much wine before sending everyone home at the end of the night.

Personally, I thought I made it look easy. I leaned on my tried and true dishes and could always seem to get it together in the end. I also happen to have a wonderful spouse who acts as my personal sous chef and co-conspirator in entertaining. I know I am the envy of my friends in this regard. He helps me in so many ways and is naturally a great host, filling glasses and gaps in the conversation – he does it all!

Plus he’s pretty easy on the eyes.

I must say however, that in the last few years it has become increasingly tricky and difficult to throw a dinner party. People have mysteriously just stopped eating most things. Gone are the days of just throwing some steaks on the grill or making a big bowl of pasta.

Now whenever I invite people to dinner, I usually receive an acceptance back accompanied by a list of the food items people can’t eat. The most common food avoidances are dairy (guilty as charged!) and gluten. Sometimes it’s both! However, I’ve entertained people with a wide variety of allergies including but not limited to nuts, tomatoes and garlic.

Then there are the celiacs and people who don’t eat red meat.

And let’s not forget the vegetarians! I have always had friends who are vegetarians, but now you have to remember the type of vegetarianism they prescribe to. There are so many different categories of vegetarians out there today – pure vegans, lacto vegetarians who will eat cheese, milk and some ice creams but not eggs, there are ovo lacto vegetarians who eat eggs and cheese, and then there are the fish eating vegetarians now referred to as a pescatarians!

Can you believe there is such a thing as pseudo vegetarianism? Flexitarians!

There is always someone in the crowd that’s on a fad diet: “I’m on Atkins”, the “I’m only eating grapefruit and popcorn this week”, and of course there are the point counters – “can you tell me how many points will be in the entrée?”

I have had friends request that everything served should be grown and processed within a 50-mile radius. Seriously? Are you really not going to eat the pasta sauce because it was made with canned tomatoes from Italy?!

And let’s not forget the folks who refuse to eat anything white (?!) and of course the meat-a-tarians (I have a brother that does not eat vegetables).

The thing is I happen to have food issues of my own. Obviously I want to be respectful of everyone’s choices, but damn! All of these differing dietary requirements make entertaining challenging in a way my mother never had to deal with in her day.

Dinner parties have become an exercise in imagination and frustration. Just when you’ve figured out what you are going to make another food no-no comes along. In fact, during a recent dinner party the only thing I could figure out to serve for dessert that took into consideration all of our friends’ dietary restrictions were Rice Crispy Squares!

So I have found that keeping things simple, using fresh local ingredients and classic preparations is the way to go when entertaining. Living on the west coast I am fortunate to have access to a plethora of fresh fish and locally grown produce. Big green salads, simple vinaigrettes, decadent desserts, and politically correct entrées that meet everyone’s dining criteria and voilà – dinner party success!

When it comes to feeding our beloved vegetarians, I actually turn to one of my favourite types of cuisine; Indian. You can make a wonderful gluten-free, vegan, non-dairy chickpea dish called channa masala. My whole family loves this dish, and if done right it can feel downright gourmet.

Click here for my version of channa masala