Here is the fourth in the series of Holiday entertaining season tips from A Thyme to Cook Founder and President, Linda Sample…
In the previous post, I mentioned how the time frame of your party dictates the appropriate kinds of foods. Make sure to balance some stationary items, (requiring a cocktail napkin ONLY) as well as some hot hors d’oeuvres. By balance, I mean combining different colors, textures, temperature, and a representation of meat, poultry, veggie, fish/seafood, and cheese. You will also want to think seasonal and utilize what ingredients are currently at their peak for both flavor and quality. This is why ATTC does not routinely give lists of suggested hors d’oeuvres items, as people tend to choose what they like – only to realize that what was chosen, was all some variation of cheese!
It is nice to offer some take-away sweets as guests leave, too – depending on the length of the party, you may or may not need to provide coffee. If you do, you need to provide it for ½ the guests, as not everyone will trade their wine glass for the a coffee mug.
HEAVY HORS D’OEUVRES
This type of evening is longer time spent at your home than a cocktail party and implies a bit heavier food that must be both easy to eat while standing up and will also satisfy guests. You can have lots of fun here BUT you need to remember that “forkable” means small pieces/bites that do NOT require a knife or a seat at a table. You can offer a few stationary nibbles and then provide something that you KNOW is a tried and true recipe, one that you feel comfortable serving, AND that can be done in advance and reheated. This is crucial – what is the point of having a gathering if you never get out of the kitchen to enjoy your guests? A forkable protein, salad and great bread is all you need.
Offering a fabulous hearty salad, is easy to eat, especially chopped can become more filling with added texture such as; nuts, a savory granola, toasted seeds, some interesting cheese, and/or different dried fruits (everyone does dried cranberries) such as apricots, cherries, figs, or even roasted grapes. Offer a variety of breads composed of different textures, like; hearty rye, focaccia, flatbreads, unusual crackers, biscuits, or corn breads. Throw in in some flavored butter for an interesting treat. The key here is a forkable ‘entrée’ that is simple, pleasing to most palates (without being so unusual that it is intimidating!) and non-anxiety producing for you to execute.
A carved beef tenderloin IS, and is always a hit; when combined with tiny rolls (for making finger sandwiches) and a simple horseradish creme. It is classic, ageless and never seems to disappoint. Make sure you keep it easy to eat in small pieces – chicken breasts are NOT forkable! Cioppino (one of my favorite dishes full of mussels, clams, shrimp, fish, fennel and tomatoes and red wine) is a double NOT forkable, as it is tough to eat shellfish from the shell while standing, and carries great stain-potential. ALWAYS KEEP “WINE-AWAY” on hand!!!
Hearty stews and soups (with or without an accompanying carb such as rice, couscous, polenta, or a mash) work wonderfully. Some ideas are: moroccan lamb tagine with couscous, a great lasagna, a flavorful soup, such as ribollita (a Tuscan soup made with pancetta, beans, leftover bread and cabbage) or a rich 5-bean soup; or a beef bourguignon. Also, think about the vessel you will use to serve this. A separate bowl / dish for salad always helps diffuse some of the ‘crowding’ of guests going after the soup first. Find a big, rimmed bowl (similar to a dog-dish) that is deep – not a plate – for the stew. Small bowls are tough to handle while wandering, so find something with a rim that can be held more easily. Do NOT get caught up in feeling that you must serve something outrageous and special for the holidays. With all the insanity of the holiday season, your guests will appreciate something warm and comfortable more than you know!
A SEATED DINNER
Be realistic and do not set yourself up for stress or difficulty in execution. Plan only for as many guests as you have chairs at your dining room table. Again, I prefer simplicity – think of something that can be done ahead and reheated – an osso buco topped with a refreshing gremolata is my personal go-to dish, as it improves over time, is easy and a bit different.
All things braised are fabulous and usually require fewer steps to execute. A classic dinner of roast beef or leg of lamb requires careful temperature monitoring and also the addition of several sides that can contribute to a lot more dishes (keep your dish cleaning in mind!), especially if you choose to serve “family style” (having guests help themselves from platters of food brought to the table).
If you choose to go that route, remember to consider how much space you have on your table, the number of serving platters/utensils necessary, and make sure to prepare a larger quantity of food as you can’t predict how much your guests will eat! If it is not family style, think carefully before composing your menu, as you need to consider efficiency and minimize the number of steps involved in plating and serving, not to mention the ability to keep food hot.
After a served meal, I like to promote movement, so I always suggest guests getting up for dessert. Move to a different room, and offer a selection of bite-size sweets, as opposed to serving a dessert that requires a plate and fork – it rejuvenates energy and conversation and gets the blood flowing!
It is easy to get caught up in holiday media (TV, Movies, Magazines and the uber-addictive Pinterest), which often presents unrealistic edible creations that are often professional photo-shoots that bear no semblance of something that can be readily replicated. So, as I close this week’s suggestions, I urge you to relax and not set yourself up for an evening of craziness. The holidays are all about people coming together – celebrating a communal spirit of warmth, sharing, love and giving back.