Holiday Party Food

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By Emily Paster

For the last of my Twelve Parties for 2012 — okay so it ended up only being nine parties, but who's counting? — we threw a holiday cocktail party for a small group of friends and neighbors. Instead of holding the party on Saturday night, which always feels like too much pressure to me, we opted to hold it on a Sunday night when there is less going on and it's easier for folks to get a babysitter. Because it was Sunday though, we kept it early: the party was called from 5-7 pm.

For an evening cocktail party, my feeling is that the right kind of food is heavy hors d'oeuvres. And I think that it's easiest to focus on finger foods. It's just too hard to eat something that requires a fork and knife while standing up and holding a drink. Yes, there were plenty of places to sit down at my party, but no one ever actually does sit down at these things, do they? (As a side note, everyone also crowds into the kitchen. One of the reasons I threw this party was to show off my newly furnished and painted living room and hardly anyone even went in there.) I set up the food buffet style on my dining room table and we put the drinks in the kitchen — maybe that's why everyone stayed in the kitchen?

For drinks, we offered beer and wine: red, white and sparkling. I put out a few spirits and mixers, but almost no one partook. It was Sunday night after all. The men mostly drank beer and the women mostly drank wine. I used a galvanized silver tub which we filled with ice to keep the beer and white wine cold. I also made non-alcoholic mulled cider with mulling spices that I scored at the Chicago Food Swap. The cider made the house smell fragrant and several guests told me how much they enjoyed it. Another fun thing we did is put out flavored syrups that guests could add to their sparkling wine. That is a nice way to make your party seem special without having to mix up cocktails. I put out Sorrel Syrup, a traditional Jamaican Christmas drink made from spices and dried tropical flowers — another Chicago Food Swap find — and one of my guests brought two Quince and Apple cocktail syrups: rhubarb hops and tart cherry grenadine. All were very popular.

When planning a cocktail party menu, you want to make sure you have not only a good mix of different kinds of food — meat and veggies, savory and sweet, light and heavy — but also a mix of things that can be prepared ahead of time and things that need to be assembled at the last minute. You definitely don't want to plan a menu of all hot items. Have a maximum of two items that are to be kept hot. Here was my menu, which I think struck a good balance:

Holiday Party Menu:

  • Beef tenderloin on baguette slices with horseradish cream and pickled red onions
  • Smoked salmon on buttered pumpernickel with dill mustard sauce
  • Roasted baby potatoes with aioli
  • Cheddar and fruit puff pastry pinwheels
  • Marinated grape tomatoes with mozzarella
  • Haricots verts with curry yogurt dip
  • Cheese plate with fruit and spiced nuts
  • Cookie tower with meringues, chocolate crinkles and caramels
  • Strawberries with Key lime curd

It's possible that the menu sounds like an insane amount of work, but I was able to make many of the items in advance and others required very little work. Roast baby potatoes with aioli? All that requires is buying teeny tiny potatoes, tossing them with olive oil and salt and roasting them in the oven at 350 until tender. Ain't no thing. (Yes, I made the aioli, but that you can do in advance and with a food processor, it's not even hard.) For the marinated grape tomatoes with mozzarella, I bought those small balls of mozzarella in oil and just tossed them with the tomatoes. (One note: this was the least successful of my dishes because the tomatoes were tricky to skewer with the cute bamboo skewers I had bought. In hindsight, I might have put the mozzarella and tomatoes on the skewers myself.) For the smoked salmon too, I bought everything — the salmon, the cocktail pumpernickel loaves and the dill mustard — and it was just a matter of assembling the hors d'oeuvre. You don't even have to be a cook to make those.

In the week leading up to the party, I was able to prepare many of the menu items, including all of the desserts. Meringues keep for ages without going stale, which make them a great choice for entertaining, plus they look elegant. I also made the chocolate crinkles in advance using this recipe from my friend Amy. A slice of apple in the cookie tin keeps the cookies soft until you are ready to serve them. I had made the lime curd several weeks ago and processed it for shelf-stability but if you are not into canning, you can easily buy lemon curd. Local favorite Rare Bird Preserves makes an excellent version. The puff pastry pinwheels, which were made with sharp cheddar cheese and filled with either cranberry relish or peach-fig jam, I made in advance and froze until the day of the party. That recipe will appear in my monthly column for Families in the Loop.

Beef tenderloin is obviously an expensive thing to serve at your party, but it goes a long way and it certainly is elegant and substantial. I bought a 3 lb. tenderloin to serve thirty people. To cook it, which I did the day before the party, I just rubbed the tenderloin with olive oil and seasoned it with salt and pepper. I roasted it in a 425 degree oven for approximately 30 minutes. It came out perfectly pink. I refrigerated the whole tenderloin and then sliced it before the party. I placed thin slices on top of slices of baguette and offered a horseradish cream sauce — made with grated horseradish, Dijon mustard and sour cream — and pickled red onion on the side so guests could create their own little bites. Needless to say, it was a big hit. Zuzu was so anxious to get some tenderloin for herself that she offered to get dressed up and take the guests' coats.

Vegetables with dip is a typical party dish and can be a nice, refreshing addition to your menu. I think that selecting one vegetable, as opposed to an assortment, can make for a more elegant presentation. I chose haricots verts, the longer, thinner version of green beans, because they have a nice texture and you can find good ones at this time of year. To serve, simply trim the ends and blanch them by cooking them in boiling water for 2-3 minutes and then immediately plunging the beans into ice water to stop the cooking. This ensures that your beans stay crisp and bright green. I served them with a cool curry yogurt dip that was tasty yet low-calorie. This dip benefits from being prepared a day or several hours in advance so that the flavors can develop fully. Any leftover dip that you may have makes an excellent marinade for chicken!

Curry Yogurt Dip:

2 cups Greek yogurt (use 2% rather than nonfat)
Juice of half a lemon
2 tsp. curry powder
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. coriander
2 TB chopped fresh cilantro
Salt and pepper

Place yogurt in a large bowl. Whisk in lemon juice. Add spices and chopped cilantro. Season with salt and pepper. Refrigerate. Before serving, taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Serve with raw or blanched vegetables.

I hope that these tips and recipes give you some ideas for your holiday entertaining!


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