It's-Not-Dinner Holiday Entertaining
Holiday entertaining is such a romantic notion. Not romantic as in moonlight and roses, but instead to think that many of us might actually have the time, space, budget, or patience to be our own version of Colin Cowie. He's the charming mega-party planner who is responsible for such major events as Oprah's daytime TV farewell party. His extravaganzas are elegant, dressed with amazing fresh flower arrangements and color coordinated ornaments and china patterns, lit by candlelight, with a curated soundtrack, and catered with treats like gravlax and aquavit with plates and glasses that match.
I was thinking about this the other day when I opened a magazine and saw Mr. Cowie, looking dashing and completely relaxed, offering advice to the rest of us who face entertaining with neither dash nor calm. Much of his advice was very reassuring and macro -- "Light the candles, put on music, and make your guests feel welcome." If only it were that easy.
For those of us who live in apartments or small houses, holiday entertaining can be daunting. First there's space: Where is everyone going to sit? Then logistics: I only have six wine glasses. Or, my budget is already stressed with gifts and holiday tips. And who has time to grocery shop and cook with all the other obligatory holiday events like office and kids' parties? Next, December is always a deadline-filled month. Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year -- each has its own expectations and deliverables. Plus there are the other things of life -- school holidays, end-of-year work deliverables, or maybe taxes to pay. So trying to be a host or hostess in the coming 31 days can be an idea that's a non-starter.
But holiday entertaining can in fact be easier and less costly (in time and money) than you may think, especially if you avoid doing sit-down dinner parties. So if you want to be spontaneous, or to invite more people than you may have chairs, or if it's time to return some invitations you accepted during the year, consider a casual not-dinner party.
I don't mean one with passed canapés and a bartender shaking martinis (although there's nothing wrong with that), but instead a gathering where you offer food with drinks and not a full meal. It could be simply having friends over for a glass of wine and a few nibbles before heading out to a restaurant. Or spiced hot cider and a cheese board late on Sunday afternoon to decorate a Christmas tree. Or an invitation to come over after work on a Friday, to mark the end of the week and the start of a busy holiday season weekend. It can be comfortably casual but still generous, delicious, and fun. And you won't have to cook dinner.
Tips For Not-Dinner Parties
- Even though it's not dinner, still send invitations (email is perfect) and insist on RSVPs. You'll need to know who is coming if for no other reason than to have enough food and drink.
- How you serve food and drinks will depend upon your wish for formality, space and seating options, how many people, and what you plan to serve. Minus having someone on hand to pass trays of food, a buffet is usually best. You can put everything in one location -- the kitchen is fine if you have room -- and let guests help themselves. If you have the space, use two serving locations because folks tend to hover and crowd wherever the food is.
- Think about plates, flatware and serving pieces at the same time you plan a menu. The idea of having little cups of a drinkable soup is an appealing one, but you'll need at least as many little cups or glasses as guests. Plus you'll need a tray to put them when full, and another place for empties. Likewise if you want to serve squares of frittata or a cheese board: do you have enough forks, little plates, and cheese knives? So serve food that won't create a logistical or equipment challenge.
- That said, try to avoid using disposable plastic plates and glasses. It's not very eco-friendly and it's a waste of money. Better to invest in a dozen inexpensive juice glasses and use them for wine and cocktails than another package of those quick-to-crack plastic ones. Or borrow glasses from a friend.
- Foods eaten in one bite are good choices. It saves on needing plates, although napkins are essential, plus you won't need as many serving tools.
- Remember that most of us usually prefer big flavored and simple to fancy. So have fun by serving local beers and charcuterie, or Campari and soda and an Italian antipasto platter, or cider and donuts.
- Presentation matters. Even if you're serving lemonade and cookies or pretzels and beer, use an interesting tray, add flowers and a bowl of shiny ornaments, use your favorite dishes and glassware, light candles (but not scented ones), or have your kids make decorations. The point is to add playful and pretty details that make the gathering special and festive.
- Play music but not all tra-la-la and deck the halls. During the holidays some Christmas music is fun, but mix it up to include other favorites.
- If your guests drink alcohol, you can set up a bar and let them serve themselves, putting ice in a pretty bowl if you haven't an ice bucket. Or offer just wine or a chilled sparkling Prosecco. Or a seasonal cocktail that you can give your own name, like a Christmas martini made with red pomagranite juice. And remember to also have soda, sparkling water or juice on hand.
Easy, Quick and Store Bought
Here are some ideas for foods to serve when entertaining without a meal. Many of these you can buy on sale and keep on hand for last minute invitations.
- Mixed Nuts
- Brined and oil-cured olives. Add flavor by adding a tiny drizzle of fresh olive oil and a peel each of lemon and orange rind, and a sprig of rosemary and warming gently in the microwave.
- Potato Chips. Everyone loves them.
- Crackers with cream cheese and hot pepper jelly.
- A cheese board with grapes, walnuts and figs. You can make the selection thematic, e.g., all American cheese, or choose a mix of sheep, cow and goats' milk cheeses.
- Cooked shrimps with dip. If pressed for time, most seafood stores sell shrimps already cleaned and cooked for a slightly higher price. And you can make your own cocktail sauce by mixing equal parts catsup and chili sauce, adding a forkful of horseradish and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
- Buy whole wheat pita bread and cut them into wedges and toast to use with dips.
- Cornichons. These little pickles have big personality and are a perfect match to a slice of store bought paté.
- Vegetable or salmon paté for non-meat eaters.
- Dry salami, cut into 1/4-inch slices.
- Salsa with tortilla chips. It might seem too familiar but who doesn't love it?
- Endive leaves with a dab of Boursin or herbed goat cheese.
- Vegetable sushi with soy sauce in which you've mixed a dab of wasabi.
- White pizza cut into two-bite pieces. If you live in New York, Sullivan Street Bakery makes a spectacular potato and rosemary pizza that can be reheated.
- Big bowl of red and green M&Ms.
- Brownies cut into bite-sized squares.
These take a little assembly or making but are easy and quick.
- Popcorn seasoned with olive oil and herbs or a mix of sea salt and ground cumin.
- Dried apricots topped with a dab of softened goat cheese. This combines the apricot's sweet chew with the soft, tangy goat cheese.
- Crispy chickpeas. An inexpensive and healthy snack. See our recipe.
- Prosciutto wrapped around a fig. This is best with fresh figs but it also works with dried ones. Another sweet and savory combintion.
- Tapenades. See our recipes.
- Bruschettas. Thin slices of baguette topped with green olive tapenade mixed with softened goat cheese; or fine dice of peeled and seeded tomatoes mixed with a little olive oil, chives and a pinch of salt; or a spoonful of artichoke dip and put under the broiler.
- Crudités with herb dip.
If you have more time to do some last minute cooking, these are popular hors d'oeuvres to serve with simply a drink or in advance of a complete dinner.
- Baked Artichoke Dip. A favorite and easy dip to make from the pantry. Serve with bagel chips or toasted pita triangles. See our recipes for a version that uses light mayonnaise and low fat sour cream without giving up flavor.
- Gougeres. These tasty little cheese puffs are almost irresistible but they need to be served right after baking. We've added a link below to a recipe by Ina Garten, from her Barefoot In Paris cookbook. Gougeres are made with a pate a choix dough, the same dough that makes light and airy cream puffs and èclairs, only these are savory from the addition of grated cheese. If you've never made pate a choix before, try this simple recipe and you'll learn how it gets its unique light texture from being cooked twice -- first on top of the stove and then baked in the oven.
- Julia Reed's Hot Cheese Olives. This is one of my favorite hors d'oeuvres and I've never had guests not ask for more. A cheese short dough is wrapped around a pitted olive and baked until the dough is crisp and tender and the olive inside is hot and juicy. Brilliant. The recipe is by journalist Julia Reed and it appeared in The Essential New York Times Cookbook, published last year. See our link to the recipe.
- Stuffed Dates Wrapped With Bacon -- This warm hors d'oeuvre is a favorite for how it combines sweet with salty and smoky. Stuff pitted dates with a shard of Parmesan or a piece of salty blue cheese, wrap it with half a slice of bacon, using a toothpick (soaked first in water for about 10 minutes so that it won't burn) to hold it in place, and bake in a 450° F oven for 10 to 12 minutes, turning once halfway, until the bacon is cooked. Serve while still warm.
- Do you love to bake? Make your own savory biscotti, cheese wafers, flat breads, crackers, or mini empanadas stuffed with chicken or vegetables.
- Hummus. Another favorite dip made with chickpeas and tahini. Serve it with raw vegetables or bagel chips. See our recipe.
- Baked ham on mini-biscuits with coarse mustard. Buy a small baked ham and heat it through with a glaze, cut into thin slices and serve with a stack of small baking powder biscuits and a jar of grainy mustard and let people make their own little sandwiches.
- Pancetta-Wrapped Scallions. Best when right out of the oven, these are easy to eat with your fingers. The scallions get sweet when cooked and the bacon adds smoky flavor. See our recipe.
- Christmas Cookies. Bake your own favorites if you have time or buy at a bakery. If your party includes children, have them decorate their own.
Above all, however and whenever you entertain, preserve some of your time, energy and good will so you can have a good time at your own party. Hang a piece of mistletoe, sprinkle nutmeg on the eggnog, and celebrate the best meanings of this holiday season.