It was hard to believe that in just four hours, Julie Greenfield would be serving six dinner guests a meal fit for Julia Childs.
It was 3 p.m. and Greenfield had just finished straining six crates of fresh raspberries--not once but three times--for her souffle's sauce. In the process, bright red puree had speckled the floor, the counters and the cook.
Greenfield looked around and assessed the rest of the damage in her compact kitchen: a total of nine bowls and pans stacked willy-nilly in her sink, plus the food processor, strainers and mixing spoons. And that fallout was only from the souffle.
"Oh, it all comes together in the end," the Irvine attorney said calmly. "You can't be compulsive about neatness if you like to cook gourmet dishes."
Taking time to prepare a gourmet meal is just one of the ways local hosts and hostesses make their dinner parties a success. And Greenfield is one of many who would rather play host to a small, intimate gathering than a big party.
The five-course meal for which she was preparing her raspberry souffle began with Bruschetta as an appetizer, followed by angel-hair pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, prosciutto and porcini mushrooms, then pear and sauternes soup, le canard a la creme de cassis with wild rice and, finally, a choice of two desserts, Amaretto-Irish cream cheesecake or the raspberry souffle.
Chaotic though it may be in the preparation stage, such complex fare does require organization. Greenfield prepared as much as possible in advance--the chilled pear soup, the cheesecake, the pasta sauce. "I do a lot of the cooking on Friday night, then I get up early Saturday morning," she said.
Such involved dinners have become commonplace for her; cooking is Greenfield's favorite hobby. She devotes at least one Saturday night a month to rustling up some fancy vittles for a select group of friends.
Sure, her avocation can run up a big grocery bill, admitted Greenfield, who is single. She said she spends about $200 on such dinners. "I simply figure it into my budget. I love doing it; I love feeding people--I guess it's the Jewish mother in me."
Arriving at the right mix of guests is important, she said. "I very infrequently have personality clashes, but it's definitely something you have to think about."
Intimate dinner parties inspire the best conversation, she added. "We discuss politics, current events, our lives in general. Everyone always has a good time."
And Greenfield always does all the work.
"I don't want my guests to help me clean up; I feel very strongly about that," she said. "When they come to my house, I want them to relax, and when I go to their house, I want to relax."
However, she does not stay up all night scrubbing pans. "After my guests leave, I put the leftovers in the refrigerator, stick some dishes in the sink to soak and go to bed. Then, after spending all of Saturday cooking, I spend all of Sunday cleaning. Am I nuts, or what?"
Robert E. Harris, an insurance broker in Laguna Beach, shares Greenfield's preference for intimate parties. "Dinner parties give you and your guests such a feeling of camaraderie and togetherness," he said.
"We can comfortably seat a maximum of 10 people at our table, without everybody's elbow in somebody else's soup," he said. "So I usually keep it down to that number.
"Otherwise, I have to serve buffet-style. And I don't like buffets, with people sitting around the living room trying to balance plates on their laps."
Nor does Harris relish darting around at a huge dinner party, carrying a plate of food in one hand and a drink in the other.
"My wife and I go to a lot of parties where there's a cast of thousands," he said. "They're nice, in that you get to see a lot of friends and make new acquaintances. But you don't talk much to any one person. I'd rather sit around the dining room table with a few close friends."
When his four children were growing up, Harris discovered that he enjoyed the kitchen more than did his wife, Cheri. "We have the perfect marriage--she doesn't like to cook and I love to cook; I don't like to wash dishes and she does," he said, adding, "I always cooked for my children the way I cook for my guests."
Lucky children, because here's how he cooks for his guests: "I get elaborate, with eight-course continental dinners and good wine. I like cooking at the table--flambe dishes and pressed duck."
Such exhibition cooking gives little leeway for advance work. "Most of what we get out of the way before our guests arrive involves chopping vegetables," said Cheri Harris. "We even cook the vegetables at the last minute, because we like them very crisp."
But watching her husband in action is half the fun, she added. "The pressed duck takes an hour, and it in itself is entertainment," she said. "The guests don't mind our last-minute flurry of commotion, because they're so appreciative of the result."