CARA SCHNEIDER has a fear of main dishes. She's also intimidated by sit-down dinner parties and slightly phobic about roasting meat. And don't even get her started on the stress of getting everything on the table at the same time.
But armed with Steve Poses' new cookbook, "At Home: A Caterer's Guide to Cooking & Entertaining" (www.athomebysteveposes.com), she recently conquered her fears and threw a relaxed dinner party for six at her home in Fairmount. Schneider, a public relations professional with the Greater Philadelphia Tourism & Marketing Corporation, invited old pals from her school days in Cheltenham to sit around her table. The evening was a smashing success.
"I entertain infrequently, mostly because of time," said Schneider. "It comes in bunches with me. But usually I do lots of cheeses and appetizers, an open flow thing for seating. I dance around an actual dinner party."
Schneider is the ideal candidate to benefit from Poses' practical, no-nonsense approach to entertaining, captured in his self-published cookbook and accompanying "At Home" Web site. Poses, a native of Yonkers, N.Y., has been a seminal figure on the Philly restaurant scene since opening Frog Restaurant on Spruce Street in 1973. The Commissary restaurant followed a few years later, as did the "The Frog Commissary Cookbook," a hometown favorite that has sold more than 150,000 copies since it came out in 1985. Poses has catered more than 15,000 events and served more than 15 million guests in the course of his 30-plus years in the business.
But while Poses can throw a swank affair for 100 people without missing a beat, that's not why he wrote his new book. His mission, about which he's passionate, is to increase home entertaining by 10 percent. When it comes to entertaining at home, he's here to tell you that you're already good enough.
"Home entertaining is about creating a sense of welcome, warmth and hospitality for your guests," said the chef. "It's not about how good the food is or how beautifully the table is set. It's about human connection and good conversation."
Entertaining at home is also easier on the budget than dining out, said Poses. Before the optional addition of some pricey cheeses from DiBruno's that she just couldn't resist (plus $35), and buying extra meat to ensure there would be leftovers (an additional $15), Schneider was on track for her $50 food budget for a dinner party for six. "We could have done if for as little as $10 a person - with my add-ons, it was more like $16 - still a lot cheaper than a restaurant tab for six," said Schneider.
"At Home," is stuffed with planning tips, menu ideas and worksheets to keep track of shopping needs and task timelines. The book's price ($29.95 soft cover, $39.95 hard cover) includes access to the accompanying password-protected Web site and all the planning sheets, tips and lists. Add in more than 500 recipes - all with a make-ahead component - and Poses' mantra to have "more parties, better, easier" seems downright doable.
Poses agreed to coach Schneider through the steps leading up to her dinner party for six. "I wanted to show the benefits of planning ahead, and come up with a realistic plan that would work within the parameters of her busy life," said Poses. Armed with "At Home," the pair put their heads together.
Up first - decide on invitees and overall food profiles of the group. Are they adventurous, meat-and-potatoes types, allergy prone? Out of the six, one person needed a gluten-free menu. No problem. And Schneider herself would like to skip the mushrooms. Check.
Covered in the beginning section of the book under Consultation, this first step includes nailing down a date, deciding on a budget and mapping out the timing for shopping, prep and cooking.
Asked what terms she'd like to describe her party, Schneider said comfortable, tasty, festive, good conversation and relaxed. Perfect. Guests would arrive at 6:30 p.m. and most likely be gone by 10.
Next up, figuring out the actual menu. Schneider wanted to highlight local and seasonal ingredients. And she was up for tackling her fear of roasting. A cheese lover, she wanted cheese to be part of the appetizer course. In addition, a roasted bean and fennel dip was decided upon, along with a butternut squash soup, to be served in small cups during the cocktail hour.
For the main event, brined and roasted pork loin with sides of Brussels sprouts and a quinoa salad for a healthy, gluten-free note. Asked about dessert, Schneider had another case of the jitters.
"That's where I get nervous. Store-bought brownies and ice cream are typically what I'd serve at a party." Instead, after thumbing through some recipes, she agreed to a simple fruit-and-cheese preparation that seemed fancy yet was easy to make in advance.
"I've always thought you had to do everything the day of your party, so it would be fresh," said Schneider. Not so, says Poses. "That's what's liberating about this planning process," said Poses. "There's nothing 'wrong' about doing things a week in advance. The ultimate goal is to not work too hard, and have an hour of downtime before your guests arrive."
While there were still a few things she'd have to buy at the last minute, like bread, Schneider was able to get the shopping done at Reading Terminal on the Saturday of the weekend before the party. Then on Sunday, she cooked and prepared two-thirds of her menu items, from putting the dip together to prepping all the vegetables for the quinoa salad and soup. "I felt really good about what I got done in advance," she said.
The main tasks left for the day of the party included roasting the vegetables and brined meat and assembling the dessert. (The roast was placed in the brine the day before the party.) The table was set and wine chilled, with everything ready to go into the oven by 4 p.m.
Then a glitch. The pork recipe called for roasting a 4-pound pork loin at 18 minutes per pound, to a temperature of 140 degrees (Schneider invested in a meat thermometer for the occasion.)
"The drama was that we planned cooking time for one four-pound piece of meat; not two two-pound pieces. The timing was different." Her roast was done much sooner than she expected. A slightly frantic phone delivered Poses' advice to trust the thermometer and pull the meat from the oven. "Think of that thermometer as X-ray vision - it doesn't lie," said the coach.
"I realized using one is not cheating, it's being prepared," said Schneider. "Seriously, with meat thermometer in hand, I'd take on cooking a turkey."
The few things she'd change - the crostini could have been more toasted, the first few slices of meat were carved too thick - did nothing to detract from the overall success of the party. "Everybody ate everything on their plates, and more," she said. "I made six recipes from the book and because of the planning, things never got out of control. It didn't feel like a dash for the finish line, but an easy coast."
Would she do it again?