Sunday, December 09, 2007

Making Cocktail Parties Sparkle -- Easily!

Ahh, with this recent round of snow and rain, there's been no place better to be than inside my own kitchen. Today, I finished pates (with pistachio nuts), two batches of cornbread (to use up the rest of the buttermilk), and chocolate truffles. Right now, there's a split pea soup bubbling away on the stove with onion, carrot, lamb bacon, and a big chunk of Parmesan rind. In the meantime, as we're all making the rounds of cocktail parties (and hosting a few of our own) here are a few tips to make you look like star host or hostess.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night: Make a signature cocktail. We stopped into to a fun downtown cocktail party the other night and the host was making his traditional Dark and Stormies with spiced rum, ginger beer, and lime. Another hostess I know always serves her signature champagne punch. (And I still remember the parties with a host who mixed up his annual Harvey Wallbangers in champange buckets.) Pick one cocktail to make the specialty of the evening. It makes bartending easier and can match your theme.

Eat Your Vegetables: Best cocktail party treat of this week? Crunchy fresh celery and carrots. Trying to avoid the holiday party food overload, I've pleasantly enjoyed lots of veggies at cocktails this year. And for hosts, they make an easy platter, colorful and inexpensive. One tip: go ahead and buy your own veggies and prepare them yourself. You can vary the assortment and it looks much better than the pre cut plastic tray from the grocery store. Veggie prep doesn't take that long and can be done a day ahead if you store them in plastic bags. If you must cheat, replate on a nice platter and put the store-bought dip in a bowl.

Adjust Your Mix: Make sure you have a nice assortment of holiday treats -- salty and sweet. And with sweet, go small. Tiny bite sized cookies, candies, and cakes take a little bit more time to prepare but give your guests more chance to sample without the sugar shock. Don't forget to think creatively. Instead of the same old cheese plate, try fondue or a variety of cheese balls. Instead of the same salami platter, try something unique and delicious from a local market.

There's No Shame in Paper: I say this as a hostess with more than 60 cocktail plates and 100 linen cocktails napkins taking up space in cabinets, if you're having a crowd, go with paper. The days of the cheap, one-color, flimsy paper plate are over and at any good party store, you can find tons of designs, sizes, and themes. It makes for easy cleanup and doesn't have to look tacky. One note: Don't skimp on cheap plastic silverware. Spring for the good stuff.

Wine Glasses in Bulk: While I may give hosts or hostesses a pass on paper plates or even small cocktail glasses, wine and champagne glasses are another matter! There's no excuse not to hand your guests a real glass. (Even expensive wine tastes bad in a plastic cup.) Basic wine glasses or flutes can be easily found at restaurant supply houses and even home stores like Linens and Things. (Linens and Things has boxes of 12 wine glasses or flutes for $9.99.) Even if you have two parties a year, real glasses will upgrade your party from cheap-and-easy to smart and sharp. And at less than a dollar each, the few that are inevitably broken aren't a loss. (I have sixty of both wine glasses and champagne flutes and they come out of storage more often than I ever thought they would.) Don't want to invest in your own inventory? You can rent glasses from party supply stores.

Underbuy Food/Overbuy Drink: Whether it's bottled water, extra Diet Cokes for the non-drinkers, beer, or wine, running out of a drinkables is never a desired option. Running out of food, however, is. At the end of the day, you want drink left over, and to come out about even on the cheeseballs.

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