Dream Parties

The party season is fast approaching. Don’t let new ideas wane. We asked a local event planner and caterer to design a fantasy bash to spark your imagination.

Here are the rules: There are no rules.
Here is the budget: The sky is the limit.
Here is your invitation: You are the guest of honor.

Invitation Ideas: The invitation is ornate, not over-the-top, not too busy. The font is pretty and legible. Parties celebrate life, and a well-chosen font shows your party is fun — to celebrate life. Several websites — www.invitationland.com, www.americangreetings.com, or www.makeyourowninvitations.com — give hands-on invitation application to the most novice graphic designers. Or, ask professionals at Nussmeier Engraving (933 Main St.) or PenPals Stationery Shoppe (5040 Bellemeade Ave.).

Party Prep: For this party, Nancy Bennett, event planner and owner of Limelight Events, let the invitation inspire the party’s decorations. “The basics are flowers and food,” Bennett says. “Everything else is just window dressing.” It’s one reason why people sometimes find party hosting so intimidating. Dress it up if you like, Bennett says, or keep it simple, but however you do it, “I don’t know too many people who would be critical.”

Decorating Do’s: Elements incorporated into this party: bold crush romance satin tablecloth, white linen napkins, Two’s Company flower vases with one cherry brandy rose at each place setting, silver corsage pins with green feather ranunculus (lacy leaf flowers) for each guest, Chinese bouquet green Herend dishes, European crystal water goblets, Baccarat crystal wine glasses, silverware, engraved silver bread plates, gold Chiavari chairs, and gold charger plates. Table favors, Bennett says, such as the green blown glass wine bottle stoppers make it a party.

Flower Power: “I have clients who love carnations,” Bennett says, “and I have clients who wouldn’t pay their bill if I put a carnation in a bouquet.” Her point: No flower is a universal crowd pleaser, so pick floral arrangements you like. Your friends have similar interests, and they’ll probably like them, too.[pagebreak]

Floral Cheat Sheet: Are your vases filled with the time-tested roses or fail-proof daylilies? Good choices. Here are more options: cherry brandy roses, purple-throated white mini calla lilies, pink ranunculus, green feather ranunculus, coral wax flower, antique green hydrangeas, variegated pittosporum, and matsumoto asters.

Main Event: Because this is meat and potato country, we love steak, says Ronnie Lee, an independent caterer with nearly four decades of experience, which means we’ve tried plenty of wonderful beef tenderloin — and plenty of bad beef tenderloin. Keys to perfecting the dish, says Lee: Serve it medium rare with a nice sauce. (For this party, Lee used a reduced merlot sauce.) Also, go heavy on the garlic. “Beef and garlic are a good complement for one another,” Lee says. “When you cook, you have to over-season. Just a little garlic burns off.” But the breath? “If everyone has it,” Lee says, “no one notices.”

Great food ignites conversation: The creamy cheese grits, served as a side, are the best reason to start talking. Here, “people think of (grits) as the breakfast they get on the way to Florida at a little cheap restaurant,” says Lee. “Those are just one form of grits.” Grits are versatile, but if you’ve never made the popular Southern dish, begin with “your favorite cheese,” says Lee. “The trick is to cook them in milk and beat them in a mixer while adding cheeses. It makes (grits) smoother and takes some of the grit away from them.” Just follow the recipe we’ve posted online.

Expert Advice:
If hosting a party and someone compliments a dish, don’t keep the recipe a secret. “My theory is to share,” Lee says, “because for every recipe you give out, you get five back.”[pagebreak]

My Showstopper Bash: Donna Logan

Our “Shaken Not Stirred” party probably is our most talked about. The invitations were a takeoff of a James Bond poster with my husband, Mark, in a tuxedo shooting a Glock pistol through the legs of a woman holding a crossbow. (Everyone thought they were my legs — if only.)

When people arrived, they passed through a “security checkpoint” manned by two “Soviet Army soldiers.” Most guests made it past easily, but a few were detained and had their entries delayed. (The soldiers must not have liked their looks.) Upon entering, guests were served drinks by staff dressed in army fatigues complete with ammunition belts. In the middle of the main room, the former owner of Kanpai rolled sushi behind a sushi bar that came out of the restaurant. As people exited from the main room toward the back patio and yard, a young, stout man dressed as the villain Oddjob opened and closed the door.

In the back yard, we had a tent with a seating lounge, a bar on the back patio, and another bar and a DJ by the fountain. The main attraction in the back was a young model lying on her stomach, wearing a gold bikini, gold wig, and all-over gold body paint like the girl from Goldfinger. She lay so still that people thought she was a mannequin, and the partygoers gave her a standing ovation when she arose for her first break after an hour and a half.

Late in the night, we had three ninjas infiltrate the party and wreak a little havoc. They actually scared one guest so badly that we had to curtail the ninjas’ activities early.

— Donna Logan is an Evansville resident.[pagebreak]

My Showstopper Bash: Sherry Wright

My husband, Kirk, and I love to bring people together — around the table, usually. Our most memorable event is our annual New Year’s Eve formal dinner party. We seat about 36 people for a multi-course meal — friends and family. Everyone is welcome to bring their children: The adults all dress up in their finest, and the kids go upstairs for their own party.

We have a 55-foot marble hallway that leads to our dining room, so we use the dining room table plus five or six more. Last year was a “musical chairs” dinner party — when guests came in, they got a passport for the tables and moved with their partner to a new table every course. The main course was prime rib au jus, sea scallops glazed with honey and white wine, garlic creamed potatoes, and crab-stuffed portabella mushrooms.

We choose a different wine for each course, and we uncork our new batch of limoncello (a lemon liqueur). In the late summer or early fall, I peel 100 lemons to start the making of limoncello, and every year I make a new label for the bottles. Everyone at the party takes home a bottle and tries a new vintage that night.

After dinner, everyone spends the night. Our home used to be the Oliver House Bed and Breakfast, so it has lots of bedrooms and private baths. In the morning, we all cook breakfast together, then sit around until afternoon and share our New Year’s resolutions. Although we would have loved to continue the operation as a bed and breakfast, we still make the house come alive with friends and family — we just give it away for free.

— Sherry Wright lives in Downtown Evansville.[pagebreak]

My Showstopper Bash: Greg Gibson

Themed dinner parties are our idea of the ultimate way to celebrate. Nibby Priest and I agree that one of our best dinner parties was given for our friends Adell and Jerry Martin of Henderson, Ky. The Martins purchased the dinner for six at an auction fundraiser in April 2009. The dinner, originally marketed as a “Sunset and Fireworks Dinner Party,” was planned for July 4 but took place on May 22, 2009, due to scheduling differences.

The Martins invited two couples to join them at 330 N. Water St. in Henderson. After pre-dinner libations and hors d’oeuvres in the parlor, we moved upstairs for appetizers prior to dinner being served. Next came a salad of mixed greens tossed with roasted pecans, blue cheese, and blueberries with balsamic vinaigrette. Dinner included filet mignon served with firecracker shrimp, twice-baked herb-infused potatoes, and roasted root vegetables in a balsamic drizzle. Dessert was bananas foster served over homemade vanilla bean ice cream. Our friends left with gifts of white and dark chocolate hand-dipped strawberries.

The most beautiful part of this dinner party was the opportunity to serve two of the most gracious people on this earth who are always serving others. It was an honor to serve them and their friends, and that’s what makes great memories: being with those you love most.

— Greg Gibson of Henderson, Ky., is a producer, design consultant, and advocate for children.[pagebreak]

Familiar Standouts
Three foods to make guests feel comfortable yet daring

In meat and potatoes land, home-style cooking rules, admits Chef Doug Rennie. The longtime Evansville caterer also owns Just Rennie’s, a Downtown eatery known for light gourmet meals. The menu is traditional, but that doesn’t mean boring. Rennie’s focus is wholesome foods with culinary twists. We asked what three dishes fit in — and stand out — at a party.

Pecan encrusted pork tenderloin with sesame aioli (mayo with garlic, ginger, and soy sauce)
Why It Fits In: Following the heated presidential primary election that gave  Indiana national attention in 2008, a food writer with New York’s Village Voice wondered what dish Indiana is known for. Her discovery: pork tenderloin.
Why It Stands Out: The place to find sesame aioli is a sushi restaurant, and the pork tenderloin finds depth with this Asian import.  

Asparagus crepes with black forest ham, herb cream cheese, and asparagus tips, wrapped in a homemade crepe
Why It Fits In: Asparagus glommed with hollandaise sauce belongs on the kitchen table.
Why It Stands Out: Wrapped in a homemade crepe, this asparagus dish provokes an inspired brunch menu.

Coconut shrimp with pineapple and cucumber relish
Why It Fits In: So popular is the shrimp cocktail, astronauts rave about it on space stations.
Why It Stands Out:  The shrimp is a familiar standby packed with protein, but this dish is sans cocktail sauce. The added coconut makes it a little salty, a little sweet, and completely satisfying.

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