Tableside would be nicer.

Photographer: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Friday Food Post: How to Torch Your Guests

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
Read More.
a | A

Don't you just love those wide-open kitchens where you can cook while chatting with your guests? It removes a lot of the stress of a dinner party; instead of greeting your guests and then rushing back to the kitchen while your spouse sits them down with a drink, everyone can be relaxed and chatting while they wait for the main event. If dinner's 10 minutes late, who cares? Just pour a little more wine and keep chatting.

Unfortunately, some of us live in charming old houses with cramped kitchens with no room to stash a few friends. There is a solution to this problem, however: With a few gadgets, none of them expensive, you can bring the cooking out to the table. Prep your ingredients ahead of time, and when your guests arrive, proceed to the table in a leisurely fashion, and catch up while you cook.

This used to be a staple of mid-century restaurants, but this kind of tableside prep has fallen out of style. Fortunately, however declasse, many of these old favorites are still delicious, and worthy guest fare. Most of them require only a hot plate or an electric skillet, both of which can be picked up at a yard sale for under $10. And since many of them get set on fire before you eat, you'll also enjoy some serious oohs and ahs. Note: Do not use a nonstick pan for this, as I'm unsure of what this will do to the nonstick coating. And, of course, always have a fire extinguisher handy.

The secret to cooking tableside is to set up your appliances ahead of time and have your ingredients prepped on a tray. Then, when the time comes, you can just carry in your tray and start cooking.

  1. Saganaki: This is a Greek cheese called kasseri, which you saute and then set on fire, preferably while shouting "Opa!" (If you don't live near a Greek store or a fancy cheese distributor, you can actually order it from Amazon.) Set up your hot plate and frying pan ahead of time, and then when your guests sit down, you dredge it, fry it, flame it, and then serve with pita and olives.
  2. Caesar salad: It used to be very common to prepare this tableside, and some restaurants still do, because it's a nice, dramatic presentation. I'm not going to belabor this, because you know what Caesar salad is like. But preparing it at the table means that you can have it absolutely fresh without disappearing into the kitchen.
  3. Shabu-shabu: This Japanese dish is thin-sliced raw meat and vegetables, which are cooked by each diner at the table in boiling broth. Like fondue, it's a fun, social activity that brings your guests into the cooking process.
  4. Make your own grilled cheese: This is one of those Sunday-type dinners -- something cozy you do with close friends while wearing your oldest jeans. You can do it in an electric skillet, but it's faster and a little neater using an electric grill press like a George Foreman or a Cuisinart Griddler. Set out some nice cheese, a variety of breads and fillings -- pesto, ham, bacon, slices of tomato, olive tapenade. Have soft butter for those who want it on the outside of the sandwich. Serve with a simple side salad and some raw vegetables so that you can fool yourself into thinking you're not being too unhealthy.
  5. Macaroni-and-cheese waffles: There is no excuse for this, except that it is delicious and really fun. Make a jellyroll pan or two of mac and cheese, but don't bake it -- instead, refrigerate or freeze it. When your guests arrive, turn on the wafflemaker and wallow in unhealthy decadence. If you want to be really fancy, provide some of the fillings above for people to spread between sheets of mac and cheese before waffling.
  6. Steak Diane: Women of my mother's generation will groan; apparently, bad versions of this, laden with ingredients like dried onion soup mix, were de rigueur for dinners with young suburban sophisticates circa 1960. But properly prepared, steak Diane is delicious, impressive and fairly quick.
  7. Fondue: There was a time when no wedding was complete without the gift of a fondue pot. I'm sort of sad those times are gone. There are actually two kinds of fondue: cheese fondue, into which you dip vegetables and bread, or oil fondue, which is sort of like deep-frying chunks of meat at the table. Both are delicious, and neither actually requires a fondue pot -- a hot plate or an electric skillet on low will keep your cheese molten just as well. Most recipes call for making your fondue on the stove and then transferring it to a fondue pot, but if you use a regular pan and a hotplate, you can do it all tableside.
  8. Bananas Foster: Want to serve a hot, delicious dessert without running back and forth to the kitchen? Bananas Foster is a great candidate. It's simple, its fanciest ingredient is cheap brandy, and it makes a show when you set it on fire. Most recipes call for banana liqueur, which I hate, loathe, abominate and despise, so I leave it out, and have never gotten anything but raves. Serve the caramelized bananas over ice cream, or crepes you've made ahead  -- or, even better, both. 
  9. Cherries jubilee: Much like bananas Foster, but a little more involved. You can make the sauce most of the way ahead, then heat and flame at the table. Traditionally served on ice cream, but also good on crepes, pound cake or cheesecake.
  10. Crepes Suzette: Make the crepes ahead of time, or buy frozen ones, then make your flaming sauce tableside.

Obviously, this is just a partial list; anything that can be relatively quickly cooked in one pan is a candidate for tableside preparation. So why not get out of the kitchen and hang out with your guests?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net