An Easily Elegant Cocktail Party

By Kathy Patrick

 

T

he holiday season portends festive gatherings with friends, family, colleagues, and clients. It’s party time! While most of us look forward to attending these cheery events, not all of us enjoy hosting them. Squeezing in a holiday party at your home or office while managing end-of-year commitments can seem daunting but, paraphrasing Paul Prudhomme, you really don’t need a silver fork, or a fancy set up, to have a great soiree. Make ahead foods, some pre-party set-up, and a relaxed attitude go a long way toward making your gathering the hit of the season.

Parties at this time of year are plentiful, so consider having your get-together on a weekday evening or Sunday so as not to compete with other gatherings. Some tricks for pulling off a weeknight party include:

  • Making food ahead of time.
  • Setting out and labeling serving pieces and the utensils for each before the party.
  • Arranging the food serving table and beverage bar ahead of time (complete with flowers, candles, linens, napkins, and silverware for guests).
  • Putting some foods in their serving pieces, covered, in the fridge.

When planning the menu, the simpler it is the more chance you’ll enjoy your party and your guests. Folks come to mingle, laugh, and to see you, so make your menu easy. Stick to straightforward beverages. For a special drink that can’t be made ahead in quantity, print the recipe and put it in a small frame on the beverage table for a DIY quaff. Be sure to offer water; a glass pitcher with water, cranberries, and a mint or basil sprig is pretty.

Choose food that can be made ahead (even frozen), and will hold at room temperature without bending food safety rules. That means limiting ingredients that can spoil at room temperature, like mayonnaise. Avoid items that need to be baked or broiled and served hot; they heat your kitchen up and tether you to the oven.

Most of us have our favorite holiday recipes, so include some of those on your menu, just don’t make yourself crazy with a huge selection of dishes. Stick to a few things and be ready to refill as needed. Fewer dishes make shopping and cooking way less stressful, your party budget more economical, and help you be more in the holiday spirit. Here are a few ideas for fun, make-ahead dishes that are easy to prepare and are real crowd pleasers, with or without your silver forks!

Radish and Butter (or Feta) Toasts

Serves 8

An amazingly delicious, pretty dish. Using butter is the classic French appetizer or lunch recipe, but if you prefer cheese use a good goat Feta in place of the butter. The night before the party, slice the radishes and store in water in a covered container in the refrigerator, then toast the bread. Wash and prep the watercress or arugula the day before and store in paper towels and a plastic bag. Assemble an hour before the party.

1 bunch watercress, thick stems discarded, substitute arugula if desired

Salt and freshly ground pepper (pink salt is a nice touch)

8 – ½ in. thick slices of crusty, rustic bread

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

8-10 radishes, thinly sliced

4 Tbsp. softened butter or 6 ounces feta cheese (preferably goat), crumbled

  1. Heat a cast-iron grill pan.
  2. Brush the bread with ¼ cup of the olive oil and grill over high heat, turning once, until toasted.
  3. Top the toasts with the butter or feta, radishes, and watercress or arugula.
  4. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt an

COCKTAILS

The Sun Never Sets

Makes 1 serving

A great combination of tart, sweet, and refreshing flavors.

 

3-oz. fresh pink grapefruit juice

1½-oz. London dry gin

¼-oz. St-Germaine, elderflower liqueur

India Pale Ale, for serving

Grapefruit twist, for serving

  1. Combine grapefruit juice, gin, and liqueur in a cocktail shaker.
  2. Fill shaker with ice and shake until outside of shaker is frosty, about 30 seconds.
  3. Strain into a rocks glass filled with ice and top off with ale.
  4. Garnish with grapefruit twist.

“Raspbeery” Sparkler

Makes 1 serving

Lambic is like a fruity sparkling wine in taste. Paired with raspberry liqueur and a mint sprig it’s a cocktail that even non-beer drinkers will enjoy!

 

1-oz. crème de cassis

Raspberry lambic beer, such as Lindemans Framboise

Mint sprig, for serving

Add crème de cassis to a pint glass filled with ice. Top off with beer. Garnish with mint.

Slow-Cooker “Spike-able” Mulled Cider

Serves 16

Buy fresh apple cider or unfiltered apple juice for the best flavor. Do not buy clear apple juice.

 

1-gallon fresh apple cider or unfiltered apple juice

1 medium orange

1 (1 ½-in.) piece fresh ginger, peeled

5 (3-in.) cinnamon sticks

1 Tbsp. whole cloves

5-star anise pods

 

Optional:

1 ½ cups bourbon, brandy, or dark rum

Orange slices, for serving

 

  1. Pour the cider or juice into a 5-qt. or larger slow cooker set on low.
  2. Cut the orange into ¼-in. rounds. Cut the ginger into ¼-in. slices. Add both to the slow cooker.
  3. Add the cinnamon sticks to the slow cooker. Put cloves and star anise in a tea ball or place in a double layer of cheesecloth (or use a coffee filter), gather it up into a sachet, and tie closed with kitchen twine. Add the package of cloves and star anise to the slow cooker.
  4. Cover the slow cooker and cook until the flavors meld, about four hours.
  5. Remove the cinnamon sticks, cloves, and star anise. If making a spiked version, add the bourbon, brandy, or rum and stir to combine. Let sit for ten minutes for the flavors to combine. Keep warm and serve in mugs garnished with orange slices.

Note:  You may serve the alcohol on the side for guests to add themselves, usually ¾-oz. alcohol per 8-oz. of cider.

“You Don’t Need a Silver Fork to Eat Good Food” — Paul Prudhomme

Pesto and Sundried Tomato Cheese Spread

Serves 12

This is a beautiful and tasty treat that comes together quickly and may be made the day before.

 

4-oz. goat cheese

8-oz. cream cheese

6-oz. basil pesto, homemade or store-bought

6-oz. sun-dried tomato spread, or sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained

  1. Mix cream cheese and goat cheese together. Use a small bowl or two mini loaf pans as a mold for the cheese spread. Line the mold with plastic wrap.
  2. Layer the ingredients beginning with the cheese. The cheese layers should be about ½ -in. thick and the pesto and sun-dried tomato layers thick enough to fully cover the cheese. Then a layer of basil pesto, a second layer of cheese, a layer of sun-dried tomato spread, and a final layer of cheese.
  3. Wrap mold in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1-2 hours or overnight.
  4. When ready to serve unwrap the mold and turn it upside down on the plate upon which it will be served. Pull down on the plastic wrap lining the mold to help pull the cheese free of the mold.
  5. Using a butter knife or spatula scrape the sides and top of the cheese spread to clean off any excess oil or pesto.
  6. Serve with crackers, bread, toast, pita chips, and/or celery and carrots.

Maple Bacon Popcorn

Serves 4

My grandmother always popped popcorn in bacon grease; adding the bacon and maple syrup sure is an enhancement to her recipe. This may be made the night before a party and stored in an airtight container. You may microwave the opened container for 15-20 seconds at 80% power to serve, if desired.

 

6 strips uncooked bacon, cut into ½ -in. pieces

½ cup popcorn kernels

¼ cup canola oil or grapeseed oil (or other high flashpoint oil)

3 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted

1 tsp. maple syrup

Kosher or sea salt, to taste

Fresh cracked black pepper, to taste

 

  1. Heat a large pot over medium heat and then add the bacon pieces. Cook until crisp, about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the bacon from the pot, and let drain on paper towels. Make sure to keep the rendered bacon fat in the pot.
  2. Return the pot with the bacon fat to the stove over medium heat. Add the popcorn kernels and shake the pot to gently toss the kernels until they are all coated. Cover with a splatter screen or a lid that is slightly ajar to allow the steam to escape.
  3. Cook until the popcorn popping frequency slows to several seconds between pops. Remove from heat, allow a minute or two for any final pops, and then pour into a large bowl.
  4. In a small saucepan combine the butter and maple syrup. Melt the butter over medium heat stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and stir in the cooked bacon pieces. Drizzle over the popcorn and season with salt and pepper, tossing to combine.
  5. Serve in a large bowl with a ladle, or place in small plastic beverage cups for individual portions.

Bourbon Balls

Makes 48 balls

Bourbon Balls function as the ultimate easy, make-ahead dessert and are sort of an edible digestif. 

 

2 cups crushed vanilla wafers, about 8-oz.

1 cup finely chopped, toasted pecans

8-oz. chopped, bittersweet chocolate, such as Nashville-made Olive & Sinclair 67% cacao chocolate

½ cup heavy cream

¼ cup light corn syrup

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

⅓ cup bourbon

Optional coatings:

Finely ground vanilla wafers

Finely chopped pecans or other nuts

Dusting of cocoa powder, cinnamon sugar, or confectioner’s sugar

  1. Combine the crushed wafers and pecans in a large bowl. Place the chopped chocolate in a separate bowl.
  2. In a small saucepan, combine the cream, corn syrup, and cinnamon over medium heat. Bring to just a boil, stirring constantly. Immediately pour the mixture over the chopped chocolate and whisk to blend in the cream as the chocolate melts. Let cool for 1 to 2 minutes, then whisk in the bourbon.
  3. Pour the chocolate mixture over the crumb-nut mixture and stir well to combine. Place in the refrigerator to chill for 30 minutes.
  4. Form the mixture into balls with a small melon baller (about 2 tsp.), roll in coatings if desired, and arrange on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Store in an airtight container in a cool place for up to one week.

Pigs in Evening Wraps

Makes 36 pieces

This dressed up version of Pigs in Blankets are upscale, but just as beloved as the original version. They may be made the day before, stored in the muffin tins (covered) in the refrigerator. An hour before the party put into a 300° oven for 15 minutes to crisp.

 

7-oz. all-butter puff pastry, thawed, cut into four 5-in. squares

1 large egg yolk mixed with 1 Tbsp. of water

4 Andouille sausages, 3-oz. each

¼ cup Major Grey’s Chutney

2 Tbsp. whole-grain mustard

  1. Preheat the oven to 375° and position a rack in the center.
  2. Arrange the puff pastry squares on a work surface and brush the top edges with the egg wash.
  3. Place the sausages on the bottom edges and roll up the pastry, pressing the edges to seal.
  4. Freeze the logs for 10 minutes, or until firm.
  5. Cut the logs into ½ -in. slices and place them cut side up in 3 mini muffin pans.
  6. Bake for 25 minutes, until golden and sizzling. Turn out onto a paper towel-lined rack to cool.

Kathy Patrick owns Meals on Heels, a personal chef service. Kathy makes entertaining in your home fun, easy and delicious! Enjoy hosting dinner parties, holiday occasions, and other special events with Kathy’s expertise. Kathy is happily married to party Cipollini. She enjoys herb gardening and exercising. Reach her at greatfood@mealsonheelsga.com.

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