Holiday Entertaining Shortcuts
Yes. It’s that time of year again when holiday entertaining takes center stage. For some, this can be a stressful time. For others who use proper planning and a little imagination, it can be both a creatively satisfying and fun time to spend with family and friends.
As my British friend Natasha Kavanagh puts it, “It’s all about mastering the 80/20 rule in entertaining. During a delicious Chinese dumpling lunch she had brought in for us last week, in lieu of going out to a restaurant, she explained what she meant. “I prefer to spend 80 percent of my time with my guests enjoying their company. That leaves me 20% for cooking, serving and clean up.”
To avoid being in the 20/80 imbalance, here are a few tips I learned over the years plus some easy and sure-to-please suggestions from friends who entertain frequently with ease and panache. By the way, these tips can be used year-round, not just when holiday entertaining ramps up.
Natasha is unabashed about admitting not liking to cook. “Frankly, I’d rather spend my time at tango lessons than be tethered to my stove. Ordering in with some forethought of my guests is my secret weapon for entertaining.” While some of us—including myself—love to create in the kitchen, I can accept that cooking is not everyone’s passion.
To illustrate her point, Natasha recently hosted a dinner party at her boyfriend’s swank upper Westside apartment. Her guest-of-honor was Sir Mark Elde from England who was in town to conduct the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “Samson and Delila.” She thoughtfully planned an American-themed meal she knew Sir Mark would never experience at home: a dinner from Harlem’s Dinosaur BBQ! Natasha ordered a selection of specialty dishes including a whole BBQ chicken, pulled pork, and baby-back ribs. To that, she supplemented with a corn dish made with fire roasted corn from Trader Joe cooked with homegrown cherry tomatoes and basil. She also prepared roasted butternut squash decorated with dried cranberries. For dessert, Natasha served Key Lime Pie (a seasonally available item, also from Trader Joe, which she hordes in her freezer for important gatherings) along with an enormous bowl of fresh raspberries. All of this was dramatically presented on colorful, hand-painted serving dishes from an American ceramic artist. Not only did the dinner look inviting and taste delicious, but it was relatively simple for Natasha to pull off.
Being a New York, ordering in is second nature to most of us thanks to our robust selection of ethnic restaurants who offer take-out service. Ordering in Chinese is my fall back for spur-of-the-moment guests. To make it more fun and interactive, I often engage the guests in the selection process.
Pot Luck Meals
Why not share the cooking with friends by asking them to bring a dish to your dinner party? Normally, whoever hosts the affair provides the main course and beverages. Getting others to prepare the appetizers, first course and dessert makes entertaining a snap. I’ve found that when guests only need to focus on preparing one thing, it usually ends up being extra delicious. My husband and I participate in a bi-monthly “friends and family” dinner where we rotate hosting among three couples. We’ve enjoyed some of our best at-home meals ever at these cozy and casual collaborative gatherings. Part of our success is that we share with each other in advance what we are bringing to make sure the flavors and textures are complementary. The other part is that all six of us are foodies.
Food magazines, traditional and on-line, often feature easy-to-make meals at this time of year—the antidote to a complicated session in the kitchen. One dish, one pot, or one pan meals, these dishes appeal to our craving for simple, comfort foods. Stews, soups, casseroles, the selection is endless. Katie Workman has some delicious ideas which she recently posted on her popular, award-winning blog, TheMom 100. Have a look at some of her enticingly simple, one dish recipes: https://bit.ly/2C0Ow9R.
Another tip. Don’t forget about the classic, night-before-Christmas baked egg and bread casserole, Strata. Recipes for this iconic dish allows home cooks to personalize the dish by adding their choice of interesting ingredients: vegetables, cheeses, herbs and traditional breakfasts meats or even ethnic diced pepperoni or chorizo sausage! So instead of spending time in the kitchen when the kids are opening presents, just take the Strata—prepared the night before—out of the frig and pop it into the oven. Set your timer for 45 to 50 minutes, grab your cup of coffee—or mimosa—and relax. Stratas make a tasty dinner dish as well.
Double up the recipe
When you’re cooking, why not double your recipe? It takes the same amount of time, just twice the ingredients. At holiday time, whenever I prepare cookie and pastry doughs, savory biscuits, stews, soups or even crab cakes, I double up. When an unexpected guest appears on your doorstep, you always have something delicious to pull from the freezer to make the occasion feel festive.
The other day, I made two meat loaves from my mother’s recipe card box. The reserve came in handy when I was putting together a goodie bag for a friend who had just had an accident and couldn’t cook for a while. What could be more nurturing than Helen’s meat loaf which is featured in this week’s “dessert section” where all the other TarteTatinTales recipes live.
Make your freezer your sous-chef
So, if you’re following my “double-up” tip, where do you put the extra quantity of food you’ve prepared? Where else but in your freezer. Be sure to plan ahead though. Early November try to empty out your freezer to make room for the extra food you’ll need for entertaining between Thanksgiving and the New Year. An essential item to always keep on hand is a healthy supply of home-made broths for adding depth of flavor to your soups and stews. Keep leftover wine in ice cube trays for adding a flavorful lift to your sauces and other dishes. Make flavored butter by adding fresh herbs to sweet butter and rolling it into logs to “fancy up” even the simplest of meals such as a T-bone steak, a baked potato or a loaf of French bread. Consider your freezer as part of your culinary palate from which to create quick, easy and tasty dishes.
We’ve all heard about the popular holiday time American cookies swap or exchange. But, why not extend it to a soup instead? My friend Kathy Kennerly recently told me about this concept which I found intriguing. Invite a small group of friends—four to six works well—and ask them to make one of their favorite soups. Have the soups packaged in one-quart plastic containers. Make sure each container is labeled with the name of the soup, the date it was prepared and the name of the person who made it. Each guest will take home a selection of different homemade soups. Ask your friends to provide their recipes so that you can share electronically with others after the swap.
Large Batch of cocktails
When I asked some of my fellow knitters at String what their holiday entertaining shortcuts tips were, the sophisticated and sassy Arleen pipped up immediately. She’s a serious party-giver and even bakes desserts for her son’s Tribeca restaurant. Her suggestion was for the host to create a signature cocktail and then to make it in large batches. Instead of the labor-intensive and costly process of whipping up a personalizing drink for each guest, roll up your sleeves and design your own pre-dinner cocktail. Test out your recipe in advance and tweak any apparent issues with ingredients and/or proportions. Then, make your cocktail in a large batch to pour from a pitcher or serve from a punch bowl.
Most cocktails incorporate these components in varying amounts: Simple syrup, lemon or lime juice, fresh herbs or fruit, one or two alcoholic beverages, ice cubes, then finally, something to cut down the alcohol content a bit, either soda water, sparkling wine or Champagne. Let your imagination go wild and surprise your guests with your one-of-a-kind invention. Make up a fun name to add talk value and provide the recipe for any guest who asks for it. Or, keep it a family secret. Either way, serve your creation in a martini glass which makes everything appear sexier and more sophisticated. Who knows. You could be a mixologist in the making.
One of the easiest components, and most often overlooked, is music. Create a playlist which reflects the theme and/or feel of your dinner party. Look to Pandora, i-Tunes or Spotify to create just the right atmosphere. This may be the time to bring in a tech-savvy young friend or member of the family to take on the responsibility of “curating” the right mood. But, be sure to give the directive to make it lively!
Clean-up and service
Holiday time is for having fun. No time to be a martyr. If you really want to enjoy your own party and not fret about the details, don’t be afraid to hire a professional waiter to help serve and clean up. Most metropolitan areas have models or actors who are delighted to lend a hand at a minimal cost. Arleen swears by Model Bartenders, a service here in New York: http://www.modelbartenders.com/
If you don’t want to spend the extra money, then be creative. Put your guests to work. Several years ago, I organized a dinner party and asked each guest, upon their arrival, to pull out a piece of paper from a large bowl. Everyone was given a dinner assignment. I divided the tasks into fun activities such as playing sommelier, making the salad (all the pre-measured ingredients were provided!), platting the food, serving the various courses, decorating the dessert plates, and naturally, clean-up. An extra glass of Champagne was offered to those guests who pulled this late-night duty! Everyone enjoyed contributing to the evening’s success. Even those guests who had to load the dish washer and take out the garbage didn’t seem to mind as they performed their task holding their flute of bubbly high in the air.
If any of you have short cut tips for holiday entertaining, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment on the TarteTatinTales blog.