Last Minute Holiday Entertaining

Last Minute Holiday Entertaining

Am I the only one who has just realized that Hanukkah starts next week and there are only seven days until Christmas?  How can this be when I feel like I've barely finished washing the dishes from Thanksgiving!

In case the days are flying by as fast for you as they are for me, here are a few last minute suggestions for holiday meals and entertaining.  I've put these ideas together with both time and cost in mind, as well as the practical limitations of entertaining in a small city apartment.  Also take a look at suggestions we made last year which include links to other holiday recipes.

Cocktails and Hors d'Oeuvres

If you want to invite friends and family for a holiday gathering but have neither the time nor budget to host a dinner, instead consider a cocktail party.  This kind of gathering can be festive, fun, easy for the host or hostess, plus it lets your guests be able to move on to another event afterwards (you know how New Yorkers love to double-book!). 

You can put a cocktail party together on short notice, make the food in advance (most of it can be bought, not cooked), and set up a simple bar that with a simple selection of spirits, wine, and non-alcoholic drinks.  But being the holidays, I suggest you include something special and bubbly to drink.  Prosecco, the Italian sparkling wine, is a great choice because it's relatively inexpensive (many good ones are less than $15/bottle) and you can mix it with a colorful addition like pomegranate juice or a fruit liqueur like Crème de Cassis

For the food be sure to include something that is light; this could be as simple as a pretty dish of grape tomatoes.  Avoid things that are messy because folks may be eating while standing up.  Pre-serve the food in single-bite portions as much as possible (this avoids the need for lots of plates and flatware; it also helps prevent accidents and spills).  Have a few things that are really simple, like a big bowl of pistachio nuts or popcorn, and one or two things that are special and cooked, like our recipe for bacon-wrapped cheese stuffed dates.

If you want to serve a dip, we have a new recipe for Smoked Bluefish Pate.  It's made by combining  a piece of smoked bluefish, cream cheese, and a little lemon juice, horseradish and tiny capers together in the food processor.  Serve it with slices of English cucumber or pieces of toasted bread.  You can usually find smoked bluefish at The Lobster Place, Zabar's, and Barney Greengrass but if none is available, substitute the easier-to-find smoked trout. 

This isn't the year for Champagne and caviar, but if you want the fun of caviar without the price, consider salmon caviar.  It costs about $ 11.00 for a 4 oz. jar at Citarella but also can be found at other fishmongers and specialty stores.  The pale orange eggs are salty and when served on a small square of toasted good bread, it's a perfect partner to a glass of wine or a cocktail.  With all the great breads we can buy in New York, making your own isn't  usually worth the effort.  But if you can spare the time, want the fragrance of home-baked bread, and like the idea of making two wonderful loaves for about $2.50 worth of ingredients, we've added a very easy recipe that produces a flavor and crumb that makes perfect toast.  Serve it as croutons for the salmon caviar, or the Smoked Bluefish Pate.

Holiday Brunch

Christmas breakfast is a tradition in some families, no doubt the result of needing to have a meal when children are still circling the tree for an overlooked wrapped gift.  But even with no circling children or a Christmas tree, for that matter, a holiday brunch is an easy way to entertain.  With everyone always pressed for time, lingering at the table when it's still daylight is a holiday luxury.

Many of us don't have waffle irons or the patience to make individual omelets-to-order, so instead I make a simple brunch menu that almost everyone loves and can be partially made in advance:

Serve everything on big platters so folks can help themselves and offer mugs of steaming coffee and wine glasses filled with orange juice or a Mimosa made with half Champagne or Prosecco and half orange juice.

The Big Holiday Meal

If you want to make a big meal for Hanukkah or Christmas, remember that the planning, shopping and cooking is very similar to what we do for any other big holiday, most recently Thanksgiving. 

To keep the stress to a minimum, do a plan in advance, avoid the grocery stores the day before the holiday, and have a menu that lets you do some cooking the day before so that you're not a complete wreck by when it's time to eat -- this is your holiday, too.  And keep in mind that if you're going to plan a meal around a turkey, brisket, crown roast of pork or a fresh ham, place your order now (yes, today would be good) so you can be sure you'll get what you want when you head to the stores early next week.

Finally, we've put together some tips for making Hanukkah latkes, including our recipe. 

Still need ideas?  Every one of the food magazines and their websites -- Food & Wine, Gourmet, Martha Stewart Living, Fine Cooking, and Cook's Illustrated -- have lots of menus and recipes that can inspire ways to experiment and maybe find a new holiday favorite.  My final advice is to make your holiday cooking complex enough to give you pleasure in the making and the eating, but simple enough to do the same.

It's been a heck of a year.  As the holidays crash down upon us and 2008 careens to a finish, it's my goal to take a place at my table with friends and family nearby, to turn off the news, and take comfort in the joy of the season.

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