Erin Gleeson is fanciful yet downright realistic when it comes to hosting a dinner or cocktail party for friends. For instance, Valentine’s Day: If you’re inviting friends over for eats and drinks, keep it basic, she says. This lovey-dovey holiday is on a Tuesday, after all. You’ll probably be rushing home from work that day and off to work the next morning.

“For weeknight dinners, don’t feel like you have to make everything from scratch; get prepared or catered foods from somewhere like Whole Foods — roasted vegetables, a salad, grains — and then make one thing, and have that be special,” says Gleeson, a food photographer, New York Times-best-selling cookbook author, and a home-cook who loves to entertain with her husband.

“Maybe just a cocktail party is easier,” Gleeson says. “Have finger foods, and people can come for an hour and go.” Gleeson is sensitive to the practical needs we all have as guests and as hosts, especially in the middle of a workweek.

Published last September, The Forest Feast Gatherings is Gleeson’s third cookbook. It’s an entertaining-focused book with menus for different occasions, accented by quick decorating ideas for flower arrangements, signage, and table settings.

But first, the food.

There are so many appetizing ruby-hued foods, it would be a shame to avoid the color just because it’s a Valentine’s Day cliché. If you’re doing a dinner, you could buy a Trader Joe’s blended soup in a box, like tomato or butternut squash, “and make it special with toppings like Greek yogurt and red pepper, or popcorn on top of the soup is kinda fun. Or scallions if you want some green,” Gleeson says. “Have all those toppings made ahead, the day before, and put into little bowls.” A reddish main course could be spaghetti squash you bake the day before, with store-bought marinara sauce on top and meatballs or vegetarian meatballs.

Another appetizer? “I’m a big fan of hummus deviled eggs with halved cherry tomatoes on top,” she says.

A full Valentine’s Day Party dinner menu  (on a weeknight) menu could look like this, using recipes from her latest book:

  • Cocktail: Rosé spritzer, page 152
  • Appetizer: Block of cheese and some fruit, page 207
  • Side Dish: Kale salad with pomegranate seeds, page 138
  • Entrée: (Make-ahead) lasagna, page 142
  • Dessert: Strawberry balsamic sundaes, page 34.

For a cocktail party, she suggests:

Finger Foods:

  • Radish butter crostini, page 26
  • Apple and cheddar with honey and pepper, page 47
  • Hummus tomato deviled eggs, page 72
  • Strawberry kebabs, page 75
  • Endive bar, page 156

Cocktails:

  • Pomegranate punch, page 135
  • Rosé spritzer, page 152

Desserts:

  • Strawberry balsamic sundaes, page 34
  • Spicy chocolate almonds, page 162

No plan to buy the book? No worries. You can still glean some cooking and entertaining tips from Gleeson.

The No. 1 rule: “I always have music, candles, and a bottle of wine on the table and I try to those have those set out before guests arrive — even before I blow-dry my hair,” Gleeson says.

For music, she streams from Amazon Prime, choosing something mid-tempo with no lyrics, such as flamenco guitar or old jazz. She always creates a signature cocktail, and it could be as simple as Prosecco with pomegranate seeds for a pop of magenta, or a mimosa using blood-oranges. Always also have wine, beer, and something nonalcoholic on hand, such as seltzer or juice.

The Forest Feast

For décor, start with a centerpiece on the the dining table using a platter filled with citrus dotted with flowers and a couple short candles. On a buffet table, try citrus sliced with a centimeter sliced off, open side up. Pierce the cut stems of red or pink carnations into the wet flesh of the fruit. You might want to slice a sliver off the bottom too so it doesn’t wobble or roll. Carnations aren’t the prettiest flowers, but they’ll last for hours outside of water. You can string garland over the bar area, just three or four feet, using pastry twine. Thread cranberries and short-stemmed flowers with a needle.

The Forest Feast

Also on the buffet or hors d’oeuvres table: Use a few stacks of cookbooks on the table to give dishes different heights. “Something to give your table some dimensions; it makes the whole table look not so flat, and it elevates some special dishes,” Gleeson says.

You can make clementines into display pieces for place cards or buffet signs. Fold over a notecard, write on one side, tape it onto a short kebab stick and push it into the clementine or inverted lemon, lime, or orange half.

Try these three recipes, which Gleeson let us borrow from her new book:

Crispy Kale with Paprika + Truffle Salt

Chowhound

This is a great side dish for entertaining because it doesn’t contain a lot of ingredients and it isn’t complicated, yet it will still stun with the crispy, slightly charred texture and flavors of bitter green, smoky paprika, and umami truffle. You can add some heat to it too, if you want, with cayenne or dried red pepper flakes. Get the recipe.

Polenta Pizzas

Chowhound

You don’t have to do everything from scratch, Gleeson says, and here’s an example. Buy those pre-made polenta tubes and a jar of marinated, dried red peppers. It’s OK. Combined with walnuts and caramelized red onions, these appetizers (or main dish) will be so delicious, no one will know or care. Get the recipe.

Blistered Shishitos

Chowhound

Sometimes you don’t want to do a lot to a food besides toss on a little pepper to draw out the inherent flavor. Shishitos are one of those times. It’s a great nibble when you have a gathering with tapas or finger food. Get the recipe.

— Head photo: The Forest Feast.

Amy Sowder is the assistant editor at Chowhound in New York City. She loves cheesy things, especially toasties and puns. She's trying to like mushrooms. Her running habit is the excuse for her gelato passion. Or is it the other way around? Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and her blog, What Do I Eat Now. Learn more at AmySowder.com.
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