YOU Magazine - December 2011 - Holiday PartiesThrowing One May Be Easier Than You ThinkBy Kirk Leins
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Holiday Parties
Throwing One May Be Easier Than You Think
By Kirk Leins

Holiday PartiesThrowing One May Be Easier Than You ThinkBy Kirk Leins

There's no doubt that you've attended plenty of holiday parties in your life, but have you ever thought about hosting one? If so, then you're in luck! This month's issue of 360 Degrees features tips, recipes, and my philosophy for throwing a perfect holiday soiree.

Holiday Parties 101
Once you decide to host a holiday party, the first step is to get the word out via invite, or Evite®, as soon as possible. Remember that a good mix of people is one of the most important components to a great party.

The good news is that once your guest list is somewhat firm, the rest is easy–or at least it can be. I realize that there are folks who throw some big time holiday parties, and spend quite a bit of time planning and preparing for them. My point is that it's possible to throw a really great party with much less effort.

Start with the décor and ambiance. We're talking about the holidays, so the good news is that most of us will have our home already decorated. Aside from lighting a fire in the fireplace and making sure there is ample seating, there's really no need to go beyond traditional holiday décor in order to get your home in proper shape for a holiday bash.

At this point it comes down to the food and drink. For most people, this is the area where they end up spending the majority of their energy and money. You can do the same, and I would never discourage you from doing so, but if you're looking for a way to control your efforts, much will depend on the time your party begins.

If your party starts between the hours of 6:00 and 8:00 pm, people will expect to be fed, and fed WELL. You can't blame them. These are the hours when most of us eat dinner. However, starting your party either earlier or later will allow you to get away with serving much less food.

A party that starts in the late afternoon will allow people to show up on time, hang out for a few hours, and then head out to dinner, or even another party. Starting your party after 8:00 pm allows people to eat dinner before they come and then stay for as long as they wish. A later start is also a good choice if you're looking to throw an "adults only" party. Whatever the case may be, your invitation should be very clear as to what your guests can expect in terms of the food.

If you decide to take the simpler route by throwing a party that does not involve dinner, there are three key points you should focus on.

1. Institute the notion of self-service
Obviously, you cannot throw a party without serving some type of food and beverage. What is important to realize, however, is that you don't have to do all of the serving yourself. Doing so makes things unbelievably hectic and ultimately can result in you not having a very good time. As the host, your time can be much better spent getting your guests to mingle.

Just prior to your guests arriving, I suggest setting up a table where the majority of the food items can live for the entire evening. This way your guests have access to food from the second they show up. You should start by strategically placing a table of decent size where the majority of people will congregate.

Cover the table with a tablecloth that coordinates with the colors of the holiday you are celebrating and find an appropriate centerpiece. After that, the only other items appearing on this table should be food items. Decorations such as candles may look nice, but can spell disaster. If you use them, be sure to place them somewhere that is safe. The same goes for beverages. All drinks should be served from an area that is separate from the food display. I'll talk more about the subject of beverages in a bit.

The question now becomes, what food items are you going to put on the table? What's nice is that the options here are nearly endless, and run the gamut in terms of tastes. Hot dishes are great for obvious reasons, but they do require a method for keeping the food warm.

Instead, you may want to opt for items such as a cheese and fruit plate, an antipasto tray, a deli tray along with great bread and rolls, any salads, assorted olives, mixed nuts, and chips and dips. These dishes can be either prepped well in advance of the party, or purchased already made. Whatever the case, you can lay them out and then, for the most part, forget about them.

Whatever you choose to serve, there is one item that absolutely needs to appear on your table–crudite.

If you're unfamiliar with the word, crudite is nothing more than a French term for raw, sliced vegetables. From vegans to carnivores, everybody enjoys raws veggies with a good dip. But, instead of opening a jar of Ranch dressing to serve alongside, I suggest my easy recipe for Humous (Hummus), a delicious Mediterranean dip made from garbanzo beans.

HUMOUS (makes approximately 4 cups)

  • 2 14-oz cans garbanzo beans, drained but reserving the liquid
  • The juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 to 2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 1/3 C Tahini (sesame seed paste that is sold in jars at stores such as Whole Foods, Trader Joes, health food stores, and middle eastern delis)
  • 1/3 C extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

In the work bowl of a food processor, place garbanzo beans, lemon juice, garlic, tahini, olive oil, and cumin and season with salt and pepper. Begin processing the mixture, slowly adding the reserved liquid from the garbanzo beans until a smooth creamy texture is achieved. Give it a taste and re-season with salt, pepper and cumin if necessary. Serve in a bowl alongside the crudite and drizzle the top with a touch more olive oil.

Before we move on, I wanted to mention that your self-service table is also a great place to put out any holiday cookies or confections that are brought to the party by your guests. Rest assured that this will happen, so go easy when it comes to buying sweets for your soiree.

2. Serve hors d'oeuvres
Now that you have your food table ready to go, it's time to consider serving hors d'oeuvres. That's right. I'm talking about you as the host working the room with serving tray in hand. I know this sounds like a lot of work but remember, it's more important to offer one or two really great hors d'oeuvres than it is to offer a larger variety of mediocre ones.

The other thing that is accomplished by serving hors d'oeuvres is it allows you the opportunity to interact with ALL of your guests. Remember, a plate of food in your hand provides the perfect excuse to move around the room.

When deciding on which hors d'oeuvre(s) to serve, I suggest picking something that would be served either warm or hot. Remember, the majority of items on your self-service table are being served at room temperature. The key is to choose hors d'oeuvres that can be prepped ahead of time and then heated in the oven right before they are served.

One of my favorite warm hors d'oeuvres, and something I find to always be a hit, is stuffed mushrooms. Here's a super easy recipe for stuffed mushrooms that also happens to be super good.

STUFFED MUSHROOMS (makes 20 – 24 hors d'oeuvres)

  • 20-24 fresh mushrooms, stems removed and reserved for another use
  • 1 8-oz. package of cream cheese, softened
  • 3-4 strips of bacon, fried crisp and crumbled
  • 1 green onion, sliced thin
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed or minced very fine

Preheat broiler to low.

In a bowl, combine cream cheese, bacon, green onion and garlic and mix well. Spoon equal portions of the mixture into mushroom caps and set on an un-greased cookie sheet.
Broil the mushrooms for 4 to 6 minutes, or until the mushrooms are cooked through and the cream cheese is brown and bubbly.

A quick hint…for a vegetarian version of this dish, simply leave out the bacon.

3. Serve an "adult beverage" appropriate for the holidays
Many people break the bank with the beverages they serve at their parties. What usually happens is that in an attempt to please everyone, a host purchases every type of alcohol and mixer known to man, along with a wide array of non-alcoholic drinks. The result is that they end up with a surplus of unused beverages. The good news is that this stuff can be saved. The bad news, however, is that it's money you could have used otherwise. Follow these rules, and you won't go wrong.

A. When offering non-alcoholic beverages, stick to bottled water, one type of soda, and one type of diet soda.
Remember, this is a party, not a desert island. There's no reason that a guest cannot make a choice from this list. The only other beverage you may want to consider serving is freshly brewed coffee.

B. In terms of alcohol, start by offering one type of beer, one type of moderately priced red wine, and one type of moderately priced white wine.
The reasoning here is the same as rule A.

C. Feature one "adult beverage” that's appropriate for the holidays.
This can be anything from a cocktail to champagne to egg nog, just as long as it suits the holiday you are celebrating.

When it comes to holiday-themed adult beverages, one of my favorites is something known as Wassail (pronounced either WAH-sul or wah-SAIL). Its history is both Anglo-Saxon and Germanic. It can best be described as a spiced, alcoholic punch that is served warm and is associated with the Christmas holiday. Here's a simple recipe for a delicious Wassail.

WASSAIL (serves 25 to 30)

  • 6 C dry red wine
  • 1 C dry sherry
  • 1/2 C freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 C orange juice (preferably freshly squeezed)
  • 2 C pineapple juice
  • 1/2 C water
  • 1 C sugar
  • 2 cinnamon sticks

In a small pot, bring water to a boil. Add sugar and cinnamon sticks and allow to simmer for five minutes, or until the sugar has dissolved.

In a larger pot combine wine, sherry, lemon juice, orange juice and pineapple juice. Heat over a medium flame until the mixture is hot but not boiling. Remove the cinnamon sticks from the sugar syrup and add the syrup to the wine mixture. Stir to incorporate.

Keep warm over a low flame and serve in small cups.

Your lesson on throwing an easy holiday party is now complete. All that's left to do is execute, but trust me when I say it's no big deal. What is a big deal is that you use these holidays to connect with family and reach out to friends you haven't seen for a while. And don't forget to be good to yourself. It's been a long year and you deserve it.

Have a happy and safe holiday season!

Kirk Leins has been cooking his entire life. No stranger to professional kitchens, he currently devotes most of his time to cooking instruction, food writing, and producing television. Kirk also provides his services as a personal chef in and around the Los Angeles area. He has made several TV appearances on both the national and local level, and is the Executive Chef for YOU Magazine. Sign up for Kirk's free newsletter and cooking blog at

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