Mother may have told you never to put rocks on the dinner table, but to achieve this stunning look, you’ll have to throw away old rules and gather up stones and other outdoor treasures. The idea here is nature, and lots of it.
The secret is seeing these pieces with the eye of a discerning party planner and experimenting to find a look that works. This beautiful centerpiece starts with some simple logs and branches (you may need to look no further than your fireplace). The colors of the season are nestled between them for a surprising yet striking showstopper that uses natural elements in an unexpected way, says Carolyn Dempsey of Port Chester-based Carolyn Dempsey Design. Surround it with an assortment of candles (the glow flatters everyone) and scatter some river rocks for additional texture. Leftover pieces can accessorize the drinks station, mantel, and hors d’oeuvres table.
While this centerpiece has a decidedly fall feel, flowers, colors, and special touches can be tweaked for each season.
For Indian summer and fall gatherings, use terracotta roses, black dahlias, orange asclepias, deep purple Dutch hydrangea, and gold hypernicum berries. For even more drama, go for Dutch green hydrangea, green Fuji mums, black calla lilies, black dahlias, cappuccino leaves, Grand Prix roses, green cymbidium orchids, and green hanging amaranthus.
Carolyn Dempsey’s Tip: “Keep fall centerpieces inviting by adding interesting shapes and textures, such as grapevine balls, curly willow vines, and river stones to create pathways like those you’d see in nature.”
A blanket of snow is nature’s own modern décor, so take advantage of it with winter whites and sparkles. For cold-weather centerpieces, seek out plum anemones, blue hydrangea, chocolate cosmos, fiddleheads, tweedia, plum mini calla lilies, and blue delphinium. You can also embrace a classic theme with white amaryllis, deep green Dutch hydrangea, dusty Miller, white hydrangea, green cymbidium orchids, and snowberries.
Carolyn Dempsey’s Tip: “Add the sparkle of silver elements in votives or glass mercury orbs or try beaded garlands.”
Spring is all about bursts of color, so go juicy with lemon-yellow roses, lime-green hydrangea, orange double peony tulips, and green vibernum. For something softer, try cream lisianthus, white double peony tulips, coral peonies, lavender lilac, and yellow daffodils.
Carolyn Dempsey’s Tip: “Use fresh cut flowers for spring such as tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, lavender, ivy, or scented geranium for scent and variegated color, and surround it all with tufts of wheat grass to give it a fun texture.”
Summer provides a great opportunity to experiment; don’t be afraid to go bold. For modern tastes, use red zinnias, cherry love roses, red dianthus, white cymbidium orchids, white hydrangea, and Eskimo roses. If sophistication is your cup of tea, flower your party with white hydrangea, white cymbidium orchids, Eskimo roses, sunflowers, canary yellow roses, yellow zinnias, and yellow or white gerbera daisies with black centers.
Carolyn Dempsey’s Tip: “Add slender glass cylinder hurricanes or vases filled with shells. Or colored sea glass and water, topped with floating candles.”
Get your Greens
Who would have thought orders to eat your veggies would one day benefit your inner party planner? Use those hours of playing with the greens on your plate as inspiration: unexpected touches of fruits and vegetables can add a delicious touch to dinner-table décor. Fresh artichoke, kale, asparagus, and cabbage are great for the colder months; orange and lemon slices and grapes make for an interesting alternative to flowers when the temperature lures you outside.
Many assume that unopened buds are best, but according to entertaining expert Carolyn Dempsey, it all depends on your schedule.
You don’t necessarily need the freshest flowers one day before the big event, Dempsey says; choose closed buds and they’re going to be very tight when guests arrive. As long as the petals have a sturdy feeling—not wrinkly and soft— go for the opened blossoms. If you’ll be awaiting your affair for several days, buy young and give your blossoms time to spread their petals. The more color that’s out there at show time, the better.
Do it on a Dime
This table, photographed at the Wainwright House in Rye, uses long birch branches, waterfalls of flowers, and dinnerware rented from Classic Party Rental in New York City.
To create this look without breaking the bank, pull on the old hiking boots, grab the dog, and search out your own bounty from Mother Nature’s wardrobe. Firewood offers the ultimate rustic look, river gravel and moss can be found anywhere (under your car, perhaps?), and discount candles and dinnerware are available at most home-décor stores.
Carolyn Dempsey’s Tip: “Keep logs from rolling onto your appetizer by tying them together with zip ties.” (Yes, the kind that keep your plastic storage bags sealed.) The logs help to camouflage a few water-filled window boxes placed underneath to keep flowers bound together and well-quenched.
Spread the Word
While Evites may be the popular (and no-effort) choice, nothing beats the allure of a paper invitation—especially something as adorable as the autumn offers from Luscious Verde Cards selected for this party.
“The invitations create the mood and start your guests thinking about the special occasion and what it will be like,” says Darci DeMatteo of Say Cheese and Thank You in Irvington, who recommends two to three weeks’ notice for small at-home affairs.
Do it on a Dime
Arts-and-crafts stores are a party host’s heaven when it comes to special touches. For a fall dinner invite, DeMatteo suggests placing an ecru invitation on a leaf doily or pumpkin paper, topping it with a grosgrain ribbon bow. In the winter, snowflake paper can be topped with a red velvet ribbon; shells and tropical drink umbrellas can be incorporated in the summer. The golden rule in party planning is to step outside of the box. Says DeMatteo: “Use your imagination!”
Give guests a hint as to what’s for dinner with tabletop menus printed on theme-fitting paper. For this party, menus coordinate with autumn-appropriate invitations from Luscious Verde Cards. The quantity is up to the host: it’s fine to do one menu per guest or one per table. If your table is long or you’re having more than eight guests, you may want to print extras to whet everyone’s appetite (and lessen the risk of wine spills due to reaching).
Interested in shaking up the mix? Consider your guest list and make sure friends know where you’d like them to sit with placecards that coordinate with the invitations and menus.
Whether it’s a caramel apple wrapped in cellophane, cookies tucked into a satin bag, or a candle swathed with a rattan ribbon, a parting gift helps guests take home the festive feeling. Adorn each with a message-bearing tag that coordinates with the invites, menu, and placecards so each piece looks like it fits the same puzzle.
Raising The Bar
Looking for a way to personalize your party? Try a signature cocktail. For fall, Gary Stone recommends something new and refreshing—a ginger and pear martini, made with three-to-one-to-one parts of vodka, Williams pear liqueur, and ginger syrup (with a teaspoon of lemon juice and cranberries for garnish). Twist this into a warm roasted pear-and-orange sangria (or rum-spiced cider, a perennial favorite) in winter or a passion-fruit mojito or watermelon margarita during the warmer months.
Stocking the bar can be nearly as nerve-racking (and time-consuming) as creating a five-course meal. Chances are you’ll be so worried about buying too little that you’ll have enough left over for the next Fourth of July.
According to Gary Stone of Corner Stone Caterers in Rye, a full bar consists of scotch, gin, rum, bourbon, dry vermouth, two varieties of vodka (one high quality for sipping on the rocks and a less pricey label for mixing), white and red wines, and light and regular beer. If you feel your guests might want a cordial after dessert, have a good bottle of port on hand. Want to score extra points? Ask around to find out if your guests have a standard drink or prefer a specific wine or beer.
Having a big party in a small house? Remove excess furniture and add extra cocktail tables to create a more flowing and festive environment. Swap rectangular or square tables for round ones, which take up less room. And designate a place for coats and purses, so they don’t waste space in the public areas.
If at all possible, do the cooking in advance to keep the kitchen clear (it’s where everyone likes to gather anyway). This also lets you use kitchen countertops as a drink or appetizer station.
iPods have made music selection simpler than Gary Stone’s recipe for Brie and Apple Crepes, but take the time to make a few playlists to match your party’s aura and guest list.
For some happening sounds, call up artists such as Muse (“Starlight”), Johnathan Rice (“So Sweet”), Rock Kills Kid (“Hideaway”), Pete Yorn (“Murray”), and The Redwalls (“Hangman”).
If you just want to chill, try Brendan Benson (“Cold Hands Warm Heart”), The Fray (“All at Once”), Fiona Apple (“O’Sailor”), and Carbon Leaf (“Changeless).
Throw on some of today’s R & B tunes and back away from the speakers for the rest of the night. Alicia Keys (“As I Am”), Jamie Cullum (“Twentysomething”), and Norah Jones (“Come Away With Me”) are all great places to turn.
And if your friends live by the classics, summon the tunes of bands such as The Rolling Stones (“Gimme Shelter”), The Eagles (“Hotel California”), Peter Gabriel (“Sledgehammer”), U2 (“I Will Follow”), and The Police (“So Lonely”).
Prosciutto-Wrapped Grilled Pineapple
Brie and Apple Crepe With Field Greens
Braised Beef Short Ribs
40 short ribs
½ cup canola oil
2 Tbsp. garlic
1 cup tomato paste
3 cups red wine (preferably a
full-bodied wine such as Shiraz
2 Tbsp. mustard
1 cup ketchup
¼ cup vinegar
¼ cup chipotle
¼ cup molasses
3 bottles Guinness beer
1 cup water
Sear ribs and remove from pan. Add oil, lightly brown onions, and add garlic; cook for one minute. Add tomato paste. Stir with wooden spoon (browning is good as it will add to richness of sauce).
Add red wine and cook for about 4 minutes. Simmer with remaining ingredients for 5 minutes. Combine sauce with ribs; cover with tin foil and bake one hour at 350 degrees.
For richer, thicker sauce, remove ribs and reduce until desired consistency is reached.
Maple-Glazed Butternut Squash and Sweet Potatoes
(Makes 5 pounds)
3 ½ pounds sweet potatoes, diced
3 ½ pounds butternut squash, diced
½ lb. clarified butter
1 cup maple syrup
Salt and pepper
Heat butter and add diced sweet potatoes and butternut squash.
Simmer on low heat, stirring occasionally. Once nearly cooked through, add maple syrup and cook until caramelized.
40 slices white bread
EVENT ENVIRONMENTS & FLORAL DESIGN:
CATERING: Gary Stone
INVITATIONS & STATIONERY: Darci DeMatteo
Photography by Dawn Smith & Jeff Shaffer
at the Wainwright House in Rye