By Bonnie Fishman
Is it really true? Are we actually able to host friends and family in our homes again? Yes, it is! Let’s pull out all the stops and make delicious meals and glorious tables to gather around. Many of you have taken up cooking during the pandemic and others of you have honed your culinary skills. Now is the time to put them on display. I’m not just talking about the food preparation end of it. I’m referring to tablescapes. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a tablescape is
“the arrangement of items on a table that produces an attractive and decorative effect, often with matching plates, bowls, etc. and items such as napkins, flowers, and candles.”
Let’s face facts: No, we are not Martha Stewart, nor will we ever be. Her company has access to everything. We work with what we have on hand.
What do you think of first–the menu or the table? I personally do the menu first, especially if it’s a particular theme meal or occasion that dictates what the table will look like. For example, my husband, Bob, turned 75 in January, right in the middle of the pandemic. Of course, I wanted to have a large gathering of friends and family, but obviously that wasn’t possible. I wanted it to be special, so I flew in live lobsters from Maine for our Fishman Family Compound of five. (One poor guy didn’t make it through the journey. He was at the bottom of the pack and got squashed.) I made side dishes to go with the lobsters, but the real fun was creating a festive table.
I chose a New England theme, for Bob's lobster dinner, starting with a blue gingham cloth. The napkins were flour sack dish towels, with ball jars for glassware, galvanized chargers (large underplates under each setting), napkin rings, and lobster buckets. The candles resembled navy piers and the orange lobster bibs pulled the colors together with the flowers and ribbon trim.
When building a tablescape, I typically begin with the tablecloth. It is the base upon which you build the rest of your scape: the dishes, flatware, napkins, centerpieces, and so on I have a zillion cloths. My sisters and I are “cloth-oholics”. We collect them from everywhere we travel. One time, on our way to Romania (really, Romania?) through London, we had a half a day and took the Tube to Harrods just to eyeball their table linen and dish collections. Another time, we were on Corfu, Greece and went into a linen shop the size of a postage stamp. We had the shopkeeper grabbing cloths and napkins from the ceiling and the walls, as we rummaged through the piles on the tables. It was a good day for her. I even collect vintage cloths from antique stores and flea markets. Many of these tablecloths are small. No worries--put a full solid cloth on your table first and use the smaller one as a topper. It really gives your table a lift without much effort.
Not many of us have several sets of dishes to pick from when trying to coordinate a theme tablescape. Do the best you can to jazz up the look with props you find around your house. Exam your baskets, ceramics, containers, and decorative tchotchkes to incorporate into your centerpiece. Why confine your freshly cut flowers to a vase? Grab an antique pitcher or mason jar. Another technique to create a more interesting look is to have elevations in the center of the table. Prop up candles or small vases on risers. To make sure the sight line from one guest to another isn’t blocked, don’t build it too high.
My sister Nancy is a master at do-it-yourself table settings. Her technique is really driven by using lovely dishes, chargers, table linens and flowers. Over the years, she has quite the collection and pulls out all the stops when someone asks, “Will you host?” Her fingers itch to set the table.
My favorite theme dinner was a Moroccan evening, serving feta cheese drizzled with honey and pistachios, homemade flatbread, chicken pastilla, and Moroccan lamb stew. This was a really fun tablescape, because I have the perfect old pine octagonal coffee table for eight people to sit on cushions on the floor. For the centerpiece, I scoured my house. I began with a solid deep orange tablecloth. In my closet, I found a batik scarf from the ‘70s as a topper. Then I set a brass plate filled with brass candlesticks and mini brass teapots. Lucky me, my husband Bob is a gourd artist and had made a beautifully painted, beaded gourd that fit my theme and color scheme. Add lit candles, and voilà!
Moroccan Lamb Stew with Couscous
Yield: 6-8 servings
Recipe note: If you are unable to find lamb stew, by all means substitute beef. I have even used boneless skinless chicken thighs cut into 1” pieces. The chicken stew would need only 45-60 minutes to cook.
vegetable oil for sautéing
3 lb. lamb stew meat, from the shoulder or leg
4 carrots, peeled, cut into 1” pieces
2 lg. onions, chopped fine
1/2 c. water
1 15 oz. can chickpeas with liquid
1 c. dark raisins
3/4 c. whole almonds
3 Tbs. honey
1 Tbs. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. saffron threads
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
1-2 tsp. cornstarch, dissolved with 2 tsp. water
1/4 c. fresh chopped parsley
Method #1: (This is the easier method, but the depth of flavor and color are not as rich):
In a large mixing bowl, combine all the stew ingredients. Put in a covered clay casserole, tagine or Romertopf. Bake in a preheated 400° oven for 1 1/2-2 hours, until the lamb is tender.
Drain off the liquid into a small saucepan. Bring to a boil. Whisk in the dissolved cornstarch. Cook until thickened. Stir sauce back into the stew along with the parsley. Adjust the seasoning. Serve over couscous.
Method #2: (Worth the extra steps!)
In a large Dutch oven, heat a couple of tablespoons of oil over moderately high heat. Add 1 pound of meat. Sear the meat on all sides. Remove to a bowl. Continue with remaining meat, adding more oil as needed.
Turn heat down to medium. Add the carrots and onions to the pan. Continue to sauté until browned, about 10 minutes. Pour on the water and scrape up the brown bits from the bottom. Return meat and vegetables to pan. Add remaining list of ingredients through the cayenne pepper. Mix well. Cover and bake in a preheated 400° oven for 1 1/2-2 hours, until the meat is tender. OR you can continue to cook this on the stove top, covered, over low heat with a very gentle boil. Stir occasionally.
Return pan to stovetop if it was in the oven. Bring to a boil. Dissolve the cornstarch in the water. Stir in. Boil until slightly thickened. Adjust the seasoning. Blend in the parsley. Serve over couscous.
2 c. water
1/2 tsp. salt
1 c. couscous
1 oz. olive oil
Bring the water and salt to a boil in a saucepan. Stir in the couscous. Cover; allow to stand for 15 minutes. Stir in the oil. Fluff with a fork.
Bonnie Fishman attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London. Later, she owned and operated Bonnie’s Patisserie in Southfield, Mich. and Bonnie’s Kitchen and Catering in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She has taught cooking for over 35 years and created hundreds of recipes. She is now living in Northern California.