Prep Your Kitchen for Stress-Free Parties

You’ll be so organized you can’t stand yourself after following these tips for restoring order to the heart of your home.

Merrily Jackson. Photo by Corie English

Has anyone seen the paddle attachment to my stand mixer? Because I can’t find it. 

Its absence was first noted one Saturday evening last summer, as I was leaving for a dinner party to which I was bringing a peach-raspberry crisp. (Ina Garten’s recipe, slightly tweaked by me. Email me and I’ll send it to you.) I had given myself about 90 seconds to make the topping. I’m glad no one witnessed me thundering around the kitchen, desperately pawing through my drawers and cabinets, swearing like a fishwife. I finally abandoned the search and used the whisk attachment instead. I was late for the dinner and the dessert . . . well, it wasn’t quite right.   

I know the paddle tool is somewhere in the house. The problem is I had never assigned a specific home for it. The larger problem is I am not a naturally orderly person; all my drawers and cabinets attest to that. It’s said that a girl organizes her kitchen the way her mother did, and in my case it’s true. Let’s just say that my mom, in her many decades of party-giving, could never have gotten away with glass-fronted kitchen cabinets. But that never stopped her from having people over and it hasn’t stopped me. I just wish I could find things more easily, and that I could actually be proud, yes proud, to have a dinner guest open my utensil drawer.

The lost paddle tool and similar incidents have spurred me to seek advice from my friend Janet Denyer, the most organized person I know—advice I am sharing with you in the hopes it will help you, too. Here are some tips for getting organized to offer hospitality in your home.

Liberate Yourself From Your Junk Drawer
Janet used to be a professional residential organizer, but she’s now an L.A.-based artist and a heretical thinker about matters involving kitchen order. For example, she believes we should all get rid of our junk drawers. When she posited this to me, I was flabbergasted. 

“All you really use from your junk drawer are pens, scissors, and tape,” she said. I pictured the dumpster fire that is my junk drawer.

“You’re right,” I said.

“So, get a small storage box for ‘art supplies’ and keep it in an office, mud room, or closet,” she said. “Use the new drawer for coasters, tea towels, or napkins.”

Isn’t that civilized?

No Matter Where I Serve My Guests
At a party, everyone always winds up in the kitchen, Janet points out, so you really want it to be organized. “I had clients who would tell me a simple request from a guest—like where’s the plastic wrap—could strike panic in their hearts. It’s more fun to entertain when you’re not hiding Pandora’s box of hidden disasters.”

The first step to getting organized, says Janet, is pulling all the food out of your drawers and cabinets, and tossing everything old or stale. “There is a ton of hidden space in there,” she says, adding that unopened, unexpired items you know you won’t use will be deeply appreciated if you donate them to a food bank. Give the space a scrubbing, then restock, placing like things together. Put all the canned goods in the same area, with labels facing forward, then keep them that way “without getting obsessive about it, like the guy in Sleeping with the Enemy,” she says.

Group together things like rice and noodles, or packets of sauce mixes, cocoa, and hot cereal, then put them into clear, airtight plastic containers to avoid them being scattered all over the cabinet. Use clear plastic shoeboxes to store food that is in tiny boxes, such as gelatin or pudding mix. “Target, The Container Store, and Bed, Bath and Beyond have great containers,” Janet says. 

The Tupperware Thingies
Next, tackle the cabinet or drawer where you keep food storage containers, a shambles in many kitchens. Ruthlessly discard containers that have lost their lids or are damaged. Stack all plasticware bottoms together, then gather all the lids in a separate container, so you can find them without pulling everything out. If you save yogurt containers or (ew!) margarine tubs, toss them out. You look like a hoarder. 

That unruly utensil drawer is next. Clear out the tools and gadgets you haven’t used in six months, especially those that perform only one function. If you can’t bear to part with them, put them in temporary storage. When you realize you haven’t missed them, give them away or throw them out and, if you’re a Marie Kondo fan, thank them for their service.

Janet highly recommends a wall-mounted magnetic knife strip to keep often-used cooking knives close at hand.

Declutter Counter Tops
In between parties, my countertops become a collection point for random items. It can get pretty cluttery, what with several small appliances adding their own special tone to the joint. But before a party, I try to clear my countertops off almost completely. No one wants to look at my big fat Cuisinart. Even the coffeemaker gets whisked to the basement since I seldom serve coffee (buzzkill!) at a dinner party. I love how much better my kitchen looks with all the clutter gone. Why can’t I keep it that way always?

Under the Janet Plan, yes, I can, because now that I have created some storage space in my cabinets and drawers, the countertops can remain clean.

And Finally, the Fridge
Your last step: take on the fridge. Remove all the food, and perform a freshness audit, throwing away anything sketchy. Check labels for expiration dates, especially on infrequently used condiments that may have spoiled (or you can get your Aunt Bonnie to do it, like in that Progressive Insurance commercial). Give the fridge a thorough wipe down using a clean cloth, hot water, and dish soap, working from top to bottom. Put ketchups, barbecue sauces and the like in one door shelf, and garnishes like pickles, olives, or martini onions in another. 

Last but not least, empty the freezer and throw out everything old, freezer-burned, or mysterious-looking. Chuck out old ice cubes and make new—after a couple of weeks sitting in the freezer, ice tastes funky in drinks. 

With all that extra real estate in your fridge and freezer, you’ll have room for more of life’s little necessities, like cold Champagne and chilled martini glasses.

Because April is Cabbage Weather 

This recipe, adapted from Molly Wizenberg’s brilliant cookbook A Homemade Life, is one of the best vegetable recipes I’ve ever had.  

Cream-braised Cabbage 4-6 servings

This recipe calls for a fairly small cabbage. If, however, you can only find a larger cabbage, you can certainly use it. Just be sure to only use as many wedges as fit into a single layer in the pan and take care that each wedge is no thicker than two inches at its outer wedge. Otherwise, the cabbage won’t cook properly.

  • 1 small green cabbage (about 1½ pounds)
  • 3 tablespoons (1½ ounces) unsalted butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
  • 2/3 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Pull away any bruised cabbage leaves and trim its root end to remove any dirt. Cut the cabbage into quarters, and then cut each quarter in half lengthwise, taking care to keep a little bit of the core in each wedge. (The core will help to hold the wedge intact, so that it doesn’t fall apart in the pan.) You should wind up with 8 wedges of equal size.

In a 12-inch skillet, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the cabbage wedges, arranging them in a single crowded layer with one of the cut sides down. Allow them to cook, undisturbed, until the downward-facing side is nicely browned, 5 to 8 minutes. Then, using tongs, gently turn the wedges onto their other cut side. When the second side has browned, sprinkle salt over the wedges and add the cream. Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid and reduce the heat so that the liquid stays at a slow, gentle simmer. Cook for 20 minutes, then remove the lid and gently, using tongs, flip the wedges. Cook another 20 minutes, or until the cabbage is very tender and yields easily when pierced with a thin, sharp knife. Add the lemon juice and shake the pan to distribute it evenly.

Simmer, uncovered, for a few more minutes more to thicken the cream to a glaze that loosely coats the cabbage. Serve immediately.

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