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FUN & FINESSE HOW TO GIVE A STRESS-FREE HOLIDAY PARTY.

Byline: Natalie Haughton Food Editor

With a little coaching and advice from experts, entertaining your friends at a holiday cocktail party this year doesn't have to be an overwhelming experience.

``Cocktail parties are less intimidating and stressful than dinner parties and really an ideal way to entertain, particularly during the holidays,'' says Lauren Purcell, who along with her sister, Anne Purcell Grissinger, recommends inviting no more than 25 to 30 guests (if you're doing it yourself). ``Throwing a cocktail party for 50 is unrealistic unless you take a week off from your job,'' chimes in Anne. The pair are authors of ``Cocktail Parties, Straight Up! Easy Hors d'Oeuvres, Delicious Drinks and Inspired Ideas for Entertaining With Style'' (Wiley; $16.95).

Get organized, decide on the style of the cocktail party (casual, informal, elegant) and then make choices designed to suit your schedule, budget and ambition, notes Diane Phillips, whose ``Perfect Party Food, All the Recipes and Tips You'll Ever Need for Stress-Free Entertaining'' (Harvard Common Press; $24.95) includes nearly 500 do-ahead recipes from appetizers to desserts.

The three essential cocktail party elements are food, drinks and guests, point out Lauren and Anne - and they encourage hosts to get a handle on each.

For David Lawrence - a Santa Clarita-based personal chef, caterer and cooking-school instructor - the keys to a good party include serving a variety of different small bites, keeping people moving, lots of soft lighting, a mix of appropriate music (but not overkill) and plenty of ice.

``Get a drink into the guest's hand within the first few minutes of arriving at the party,'' he advises.

Always set up the bar and buffet on opposite sides of the room to avoid congestion and keep people circulating. ``If you have room, set up a couple of different bar stations.''

A cocktail party menu should have five food items, one or two signature cocktails, two other kinds of liquor (referred to as the two-bottle bar rule) plus wine, beer, nonalcoholic drinks and water to streamline bar-tending duties, continues Lauren.

Make a couple of themed drinks in large batches, serve in pitchers and let guests be their own bartenders, suggests Lawrence, who usually opts for including martinis, which are all the rage.

``We usually start our parties at 7 p.m., and they last four hours,'' notes Anne, so it's necessary to provide enough food and drink for grazers who stop by, as well as those who stay, making the party food dinner.

``Give guests clues in your invitations about the type of food you'll be serving and the length of the party,'' adds Lawrence.

To create the ideal party menu, adhere to the sisters' Rule of Five formula. ``You need only five different delicious hors d'oeuvres, total - no matter what the size of the party.'' One should be heavy (like Chicken Satay With Peanut Sauce, Pork Tenderloin Sandwiches Two Ways and Baby Lamb Chops With Rosemary Mustard Cream), another heavy or medium, one medium (like Baked Zucchini Squares, Crostini With Tapenade, Sweet Potato Spread), one light (such as Crudites With Indian Curry Dip, Savory Cheese Puffs) and one a bowl food item like Greek olives or macadamia nuts.

If you expect more people, simply make larger quantities of the five choices (you can mix and match the recipes in the book). ``Making more of one thing is a lot easier than making a lot of extra (different) hors d'oeuvres,'' says Anne.

Figure on four to six pieces of each type (and a bowl food for every seven or eight guests) or 1/4 cup dip and plenty of bread, crackers, etc. per guest.

``Make sure you design and serve finger foods that don't require utensils, so guests can easily manage while holding a drink,'' advises the self-taught Lawrence, whose 140-recipe cookbook, ``Boy Eats World! Eclectic and Easy Recipes Inspired by Home and Afar,'' is slated for release by Lake Isle Press next spring.

``Keep the hors d'oeuvres easy, fast and fresh, doing as much in advance as possible, even if some items require last-minute assembly,'' he recommends.

``We freeze with abandon,'' says Lauren, noting that the 60 recipes in the book have a make-ahead factor, are very forgiving and designed for real cooks.

While a cocktail party buffet is most easily executed, feel free to pass a few hors d'oeuvres, if desired, offering an opportunity to greet guests and swirl through the party.

The Purcell sisters started giving cocktail parties together when they moved to New York 12 years ago, and their book was an outgrowth of a lack of down-to-earth information on the topic. The ``road-tested'' volume focuses on 12 hip, fun and doable parties with names like Any Excuse to Celebrate!, Cartoons and Cocktails, A Make-Your-Own Martini Party and Open-Mike Night - each with a noncorny Conversation Kick-Starter, a suggestion to get guests to meet and mingle. You'll also find tips like glassware shortage solutions, smart ways to chill champagne and the 6:30 friend (a designated person who arrives half an hour prior to the start of the party to help) included.

``Our goal is to teach people to give parties that will not stress them out,'' says Lauren.

Natalie Haughton, (818) 713-3692

natalie.haughton(at)dailynews.com

LAYERED GOAT CHEESE TORTA

1 head garlic

Olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, room temperature

8 ounces goat cheese, at room temperature

1/2 cup sun-dried tomato pesto

1/3 cup basil pesto

Slice top off head of garlic and drizzle with olive oil; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Wrap in foil and roast in a preheated 400-degree oven about 1 hour, until garlic is soft.

Meanwhile, in bowl of a free-standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream together cheeses. Divide mixture evenly among 3 small bowls. Add sun-dried tomato pesto to one bowl and mix well. Add basil pesto to second bowl, mixing well. Squeeze roasted garlic cloves into third bowl. Season all 3 mixtures with salt and pepper, to taste.

Line a 3-cup ramekin with dampened cheesecloth, draping excess over rim. Spoon sun-dried tomato pesto mixture into bottom of mold and smooth with a rubber spatula. Top with roasted garlic mixture, and finish with basil pesto mixture, spreading evenly. Fold excess cheesecloth over top. Refrigerate at least 1 hour or longer.

To serve, unfold cheesecloth, invert ramekin onto platter, remove and peel away cheesecloth. Serve with crackers or Melba toast. Makes 3 cups.

From David Lawrence.

HERB-MARINATED SHRIMP

2 cups fresh herbs, such as basil, parsley, thyme, oregano, etc.

4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

2 pounds uncooked medium to large shrimp with tails left on

Combine chopped herbs, garlic and olive oil in a medium bowl or gallon-size Ziplock bag. Season with salt and pepper and add shrimp. Marinate in refrigerator 45 to 60 minutes.

Remove shrimp from marinade and shake off excess oil. Spread shrimp out on a baking sheet. Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven 7 to 8 minutes, depending on size of shrimp, just until they curl and turn an opaque pink color. Serve immediately or at room temperature or chill and serve cold. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

From David Lawrence.

HAM AND FONTINA MINI FRITTATAS

1/4 pound smoked deli ham, finely chopped

1/4 cup finely grated Fontina cheese

3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

8 large eggs

2 tablespoons heavy whipping cream

Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

Spray muffin pans lightly with nonstick vegetable oil spray. In a small bowl, lightly toss together ham, cheese and chives. Fill each muffin cup with ham and cheese mixture, dividing evenly.

In a 4-cup glass measuring cup, whisk together eggs and cream and season with salt and pepper. Pour some of egg mixture into each cup until just even with rim. Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven about 10 to 12 minutes, until frittatas are set. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 24.

From David Lawrence.

PISTACHIO-PARMESAN TRUFFLES

2 cups coarsely grated Parmesan cheese

1 cup part-skim ricotta cheese

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 cup finely chopped unsalted pistachio nuts

In a medium bowl, combine Parmesan and ricotta and season with salt and pepper. Mix well. Using a level teaspoon, measure out and roll cheese mixture into balls. Roll in pistachio nuts and refrigerate until ready to serve. Makes 24 balls.

From David Lawrence.

BEER MARGARITAS

2 (12-ounce) bottles cold Mexican beer (Corona Extra OR Light)

1/2 cup tequila

1/2 of a 12-ounce can frozen limeade concentrate

Lime wedges

Kosher salt, to rim glasses

In a large pitcher, combine beer, tequila and limeade concentrate. Stir to combine. Rub a lime wedge along rim of each of 4 glasses and dip in salt. Serve immediately over ice and garnish with a lime wedge. Makes 4 servings.

From David Lawrence.

ARTICHOKE AND GREEN OLIVE DIP

2 (14.5-ounce) cans whole artichoke hearts

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 cup finely chopped pitted green olives

Pepper

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley

Drain artichoke hearts and rinse in cool water. Pat dry with paper towels and place in a food processor with olive oil, lemon juice and garlic. Puree until smooth, 2 to 3 minutes.

Transfer puree to a bowl and stir in green olives. Add pepper to taste (dip should already be pretty salty from green olives). Chill at least 2 hours. Before serving, stir in parsley.

Serve with crackers, breadsticks, corn chips, toasted pita triangles or endive leaves. Makes about 3 cups dip.

NOTE: Dip can be made up to 2 days ahead and kept covered and refrigerated.

From ``Cocktail Parties, Straight Up!'' by Lauren Purcell and Anne Purcell Grissinger.

MINI CHEESEBURGERS

BUNS:

2 (11-ounce) packages refrigerated crusty French bread dough (Pillsbury)

1 large egg yolk plus 1 tablespoon water, lightly beaten, for egg wash

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

BURGERS:

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil, for pan searing

2 large egg yolks, lightly beaten

2 tablespoons steak sauce

1 1/2 tablespoons Montreal Steak Seasoning (McCormick brand)

1 1/2 pounds ground beef sirloin

6 slices sharp Cheddar cheese, cut into 4 equal squares

Special Sauce

4 small plum tomatoes, thinly sliced

Green leaf lettuce, torn to fit burgers

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. For Buns, cut each package of bread dough into 12 equal pieces and roll each piece into a ball about the size of a golf ball. The elasticity of the dough makes it a bit of a struggle to keep it round. Place dough rounds on prepared pan and brush with egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake in center of a preheated 350-degree oven 22 to 24 minutes, until golden brown. Remove to a rack and cool completely.

For Burgers, heat olive oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Whisk together egg yolks, steak sauce and seasoningin a medium bowl and add ground sirloin. Gently combine with your fingertips, being careful not to overwork meat. Using about 2 tablespoons meat mixture for each, carefully roll into meatballs and press between your palms to flatten into a small patty. Pan sear in hot oil until cooked through to desired doneness, about 3 minutes on each side. Place a piece of cheese on each patty and tent loosely with a piece of foil to melt cheese.

To assemble burgers, cut each bun in half crosswise and place a teaspoon-size dollop of Special Sauce on bottom of each. Top with a hamburger patty, tomato slice, a piece of lettuce and bun top. Skewer each mini cheeseburger with a ruffled toothpick to hold together. Serve immediately. Makes 24 mini burgers.

SPECIAL SAUCE: Combine 1/4 cup mayonnaise, 1/4 cup ketchup and kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste.

From David Lawrence.

SAVORY CHEESE PUFFS

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter

1/2 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon white pepper

1/2 cup all-purpose flour, sifted

1/8 teaspoon baking powder

2 eggs

1/2 cup grated Gruyere cheese

Coarse salt

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Combine butter, milk, salt and white pepper in a saucepan over medium heat. When mixture begins to boil, remove from heat and add flour and baking powder. Stir with a wooden spoon until mixture pulls away from sides of pan and forms a ball (this happens almost immediately). Beat in eggs, one at a time, making sure each egg is fully incorporated. Stir in cheese.

Drop mixture in rounded teaspoons about 1 inch apart on baking sheet. Sprinkle each with coarse salt. Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven until golden brown and puffed, 15 to 20 minutes. Serve warm. Makes about 32 puffs.

NOTE: The uncooked individual puffs can be made 2 to 3 weeks ahead. Freeze them on a baking sheet until hard, then transfer to a freezer bag or container. To serve, remove from freezer, transfer directly to a parchment paper-lined baking sheet without thawing and bake at 400 degrees until golden brown and puffed, 20 to 25 minutes.

From ``Cocktail Parties, Straight Up!'' by Lauren Purcell and Anne Purcell Grissinger.

Cocktail party tips

Party on this holiday season with success with these hints from the experts.

--Devise a cocktail party game plan and decide on the number of guests (25 to 30 is recommended if you're doing it yourself), style or theme and recipes you want to serve. Select finger foods for cocktail parties so utensils are not necessary. Otherwise, guests won't be able to manage drinks and food.

--Rely on accessible, approachable recipes that allow for advance preparation and are easy on the hostess.

--Present hors d'oeuvres buffet style so guests can serve themselves and mingle. For best flow, make sure the bar is not adjacent to the buffet.

--Stick to your plan so you don't lose focus.

--Relax and have fun. Try to be a guest at your own party. If you can't make all the food without stressing out, purchase some of the appetizers ready-made from the market, deli, Trader Joe's or Costco, then plate and garnish it yourself.

--Make lists of items needed - including foods, garnishes, beverages, ice, decorations, candles, etc. Also list and set out serving dishes you'll need a few days prior to the party.

--Plan and prepare as much in advance as possible. If you can't manage hot hors d'oeuvres, plan a cold buffet - and don't apologize.

--Keep centerpieces and table decorations simple. Select a color scheme. Gold and green, silver and red, silver and blue or whatever else strikes your fancy. For the holidays, use wreaths, colored pedestal bowls filled with assorted colored ornaments, hurricane candles, unscented votive candles and table runners to match the color decor of the party. Good sources are Target, Cost Plus World Market, Pier 1 Imports, etc. If you like, pick up some holiday plants, flowers or floral arrangements to decorate tables around the house (good sources are Trader Joe's, Costco and supermarkets).

--If you plan to use disposable plates, select heavy-duty plastic ones, either clear or colored, available at party shops. Also put out plenty of napkins. Have a few heavy-duty plastic utensils handy, just in case.

--Plan to serve martinis and other drinks in glasses, not plastic ware. Rent glassware, if necessary.

--Be sure to have plenty of ice on hand.

--Replenish platters as needed and clear away trash continually as necessary. For ease, you might place an attractive, clean trash receptacle nearby in the kitchen, so if guests wander in, they can dispose of dirty plastic plates.

- N.H.

CAPTION(S):

6 photos, box

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) LET'S party

Hors d'oeuvres star at holiday gatherings

(2 -- color) no caption (table with hors d'oeuvres)

Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer

(3 -- color) Santa Clarita resident David Lawrence advises serving guests a variety of finger foods that don't require utensils.

(4 -- color) Herb-Marinated Shrimp

(5 -- color) Pistachio-Parmesan Truffles

(6 -- color) Layered Goat Cheese Torta

Box:

Cocktail party tips (see text)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Recipe
Date:Nov 29, 2005
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