Store-bought presents aren't Lorin Seidman's thing. In fact, she's stopped buying holiday gifts altogether. Instead, she gives a party, inviting loved ones to her Boston apartment to celebrate the season. Here, among glowing candles and festive decor, guests mingle over her delicious hors d'oeuvres, minidishes of vegan cassoulet, and beautiful trays full of olives, crudités, and fresh, home-baked breads.
"Making food for my friends during the holidays is the best way I know to show my gratitude for all that they do for me the rest of the year," says Seidman, who is a public-relations executive and PranaVayu yogi. "The memories that can be created by sharing food and enjoying conversation are so special. Time spent together means a lot more than any gift I could buy."
And therein lies the joy of year-end parties: time devoted to family and friends, and a sweet opportunity to express your love for them. Surely, it's time consuming to entertain, especially when you cook from scratch. But if you consider the time you spend throwing a party to be a gift to yourself as well as your loved ones, the whole event—from prep through cleanup—can be truly joyful. And the friends and family members you invite will be touched by the spirit of giving that made it all happen.
When a crowd is coming, hors d'oeuvres are the ideal food. You can often prepare them partially or even completely in advance, and if you make finger foods, cleanup is a snap. "Your guests will be in motion—mingling, standing, walking, and drinking," says Frank McClelland, a chef in Boston who brings tricks of the trade from his restaurant, L'Espalier, to entertain his family at home. "If something can be eaten in one bite, there's no fuss and no mess."
So when it comes to party planning, think of a variety of bite-size items that can be artfully laid out along a kitchen table covered with beautiful fabric and shimmering candles. Leave most of the food and drinks on this surface, but place a few dishes of olives, nuts, and crystallized ginger on side tables around the room to avoid any crowding or waiting in line to eat. And putting some hors d'oeuvres in other locations—such as on a coffee table or a mantle—ensures a natural flow or movement of minglers at a party. A creamy dip with crudités adds color to any spread and can be piled next to toasted breads topped with homemade pesto or hummus. While this is not a sit-down dinner, you may want to serve the staples of a light meal: fresh vegetables, soup, a hunger-satisfying protein like tempeh, and something hearty—such as Japanese eggplant stuffed with a simple ratatouille of tomatoes, garlic, zucchini, onion, bell pepper, and basil. If you're inviting 25 or more people, consider passing around several small trays of something decadent like stuffed mushrooms.
If your party is held during dinnertime, plan on about four to five hors d'oeuvres per person per hour. That amount should ensure that guests don't feel as if they're scraping up the last crumbs from the platter, while preventing you from ending up with heaps of perfectly good food that goes untouched.
In planning the menu, choose some items that can be prepared in advance. For example, make a simple batch of egg rolls filled with mushrooms, carrots, and tofu a week or more before your party. After you've cooked the rolls, quickly transfer them to a cookie sheet, making sure that there's a little space between them. Carefully place the cookie sheet in the freezer and set the temperature lower than usual for an hour. Once the rolls are completely frozen, store them in a sealed container to go back into the freezer (raise the temperature to normal at this point) until you're ready to reheat them when company arrives. Flash freezing will preserve the flavor and texture of food and save you valuable prep time. Crudités, or cut-up raw vegetables, can be prepared two days ahead and refrigerated, stored in containers filled with water to maintain the veggies'crunch and color.
You might surprise your guests with cups filled with a dreamy, creamy soup made of puréed white beans or red peppers, which can be made up to a week beforehand. If you serve it in small cups or even shot glasses, no spoons are necessary. But do place a tray nearby for empty glasses.
Winter brings a host of tasty root vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, which can be made into "fries" by baking and then sprinkling them with cayenne, or serving them with a curry dipping sauce. Tiny new potatoes can be boiled, halved, and topped with chutney. Or try stuffing peppers or mushrooms with a savory almond filling.
A simple and elegant hors d'oeuvre is made from warm bread topped with a savory spread, a sweet vegetable or fruit, and garnish. Toast pumpernickel bread, cut it into individual servings, and add a bit of spreadable soy cheese, a roasted fig, and a sprinkle of minced rosemary. For crostini or other bread-based hors d'oeuvres, slice and toast bread in the morning. An hour or so before the party, spread on olive tapenade or baba ghanoush and top with a sliver of bell pepper or a ribbon of carrot (made with a peeler).
The best beverages to serve with flavorful party foods are refreshing and palate cleansing—and hey, you're celebrating! How about something with bubbles? Effervescence goes well with rich foods, leaving taste buds primed to experience each bite of food as intensely as the first.
Try sparkling water with a dash of cranberry juice and a twist of lime, or the Apple Pilar, a nonalcoholic cocktail served at Jardiniere in San Francisco: Combine 3/4 cup organic apple juice with the juice from half a lemon. Add 10 or so large mint leaves, stir, then mix in 1/4 cup ginger ale. Garnish with a sprig of mint.
Guests of Honor
While planning is key to pulling off such an event, there's something to be said for connecting with your heart. To infuse your cooking with love and ensure that prep time is as much fun as the party, crank up some holiday tunes that make you feel joyful or sing along to a kirtan (chanting) CD. You can chop to the rhythm of your favorite mantra or make an offering before you begin cooking, asking for all who partake of the food to be blessed. And do invite a friend to help. She'll feel honored that you asked, and together you can fill the food with your positive energy.
After all, this is your party too: It's your time to celebrate with people closest to you. Make every moment of it—before, during, and after—a memorable gift to yourself as well as your loved ones.