Top Chef Kelsey Clark's best entertaining tips: Relax and make this casserole
Kelsey Barnard Clark has a refreshingly relaxed approach to entertaining, particularly for a past winner of Bravo's Top Chef. She once dumped snack food in pretty bowls for a Halloween party and declared it good to go. It was a hit.
"All anyone ever talks about is that kids' snack food station, and I'd had a baby two weeks before Halloween and didn't have it in me to care," she said. "Everyone was like, 'This is so great! It's so nostalgic!'"
Clark laughs about that now, but it proves one of her central tenets of entertaining: Most people don't show up at a private home expecting chef-level meals. They just want to see you.
Still, they're probably hungry, which is why it's a good idea to feed guests within the first hour. It's especially important when kids and their notoriously short attention spans are involved.
"It doesn't matter what you have — just have something," Clark said.
Bowls of nuts and popcorn work perfectly in a pinch. Clark's personal favorite is pimento cheese, which she sets out with crackers when guests come by. Above all, keep it simple. Clark, who owns a catering company and has worked in the field since she was 15, said the No. 1 rule for entertaining is to take the time to be a good host, which means not stressing out in the kitchen the whole time.
"This is not the time you want to wrap individual things with prosciutto," she said.
That also goes for the main course if you're serving dinner. To stay calm, cool and collected, only cook what you know, the chef advised.
"Don't cook things you've never cooked before when you're entertaining," she said. "I would never go on Top Chef and cook something I'd never cooked before."
Make-ahead meals are particularly low-stress. Enter that staple of Southern gatherings: the casserole. Clark's Southern squash casserole (recipe below) can be made ahead and reheated for dinner. It's also endlessly adaptable and can be made with a variety of vegetables including green beans.
Though they're often the butt of jokes, casseroles are excellent for entertaining since they get better the longer they sit. They also take pressure off the host and put your attention where it belongs: on friends and family.
Big batch breakfast:Anne Byrn’s Make-Ahead Breakfast Strata
"You don't want to be sitting there going through a mental checklist while your guests are trying to talk to you," Clark said.
The same thing goes for the beverage service. Unless you've hired a bartender, your holiday party is not the time to make martinis or any other drink that can't be made in batches.
"That's why I love sparkling wine," she said.
Champagne feels festive during holidays. If you want to get fancy, a French 75, which is just gin, lemon juice, simple syrup and a champagne float, is something guests can put together themselves when provided with the components.
"You can leave cards out with the recipe for people to do it themselves," Clark said. "It doesn't feel like you're bossing them around. It feels like a gift. It's all playing a game when it comes to entertaining."
Find similar tips and more than 100 sharable recipes in Clark's latest book, "Southern Grit: 100+ Down-Home Recipes for the Modern Cook."
More make ahead meals:Big, make-ahead soups, casseroles and stews to deliver to friends stuck at home
Kelsey Barnard Clark’s Grandmother’s Squash Casserole Recipe
As with many other Southern cooks, mayonnaise makes an appearance in quite a few of Clark's recipes, including in this rich, make-ahead casserole. Though substitutions are always allowed, Clark prefers Hellmann's for its rich texture and subtle flavor. She comes by that preference honestly.
"In the process of writing my cookbook, I was digging through my grandmother's meticulously written recipes," she said. "And it wouldn't say 'one cup mayo;' it would say 'one cup Hellmann's,' which was very on-brand for my grandmother — 'We're not having a conversation. This is what you do.'"
- 4 cups onion, sliced thin
- 6 medium yellow squash, sliced into ½ inch half-moons (equal to roughly 12 cups)
- 3 teaspoon salt
- 1 stick butter, plus more for buttering dish
- 2 large eggs, beaten
- 1 cup sour cream
- ½ plus ¼ cup Hellmann’s Real Mayonnaise
- 1 cup extra sharp cheddar, grated fresh
- ½ cup gruyere, grated fresh
- ½ cup parmesan, grated fresh
- 5-8 turns fresh ground black pepper
- ¼ cup cornmeal
- 1 cup panko breadcrumbs
- Salt to taste
Preheat oven to convection at 400 degrees. Melt half stick of butter in a large skillet or dutch oven over medium-high heat and add onions, squash and 1 teaspoon of salt. Let cook down over medium heat for about 10 minutes. The squash will release its liquid and the mix will shrink to almost half its size. Lower the heat and cook 30 minutes, stirring frequently and scraping the bottom often. You’ll know it’s done when it’s golden in color.
In a medium-large mixing bowl, mix together eggs, sour cream, mayonnaise, pepper, cheddar and 1½ teaspoon salt. Gently fold in squash mix, being careful not to completely mash the squash. Taste the mix and add more salt if needed.
Butter an 11x7 inch (2 quart) casserole dish and sprinkle the inside with the cornmeal. Pour in squash mix. In a medium mixing bowl toss together panko, parmesan, gruyere and mayo, stirring together until it makes a crumble. Top casserole with panko mix. Bake in preheated oven for 15 minutes or until golden brown on top, then reduce to 350 for the remaining 15 minutes or until bubbling and golden on the edges.