Holiday entertaining

One of the things that can make this time of year special is spending time with family and friends.  Unfortunately, many people are afraid to have company and as a result, they postpone inviting people indefinitely.  Make a holiday resolution to host one gathering.  It could be having your 4 nearest neighbors over for a glass of wine and some nibbles, having a few friends back for cookies after an evening church service or hosting a small cocktail party.  If you aren’t used to having company, start small, invite 4 – 6 people over.  Once you are comfortable with that, move up to 10.  Pull out your pretty things, the platter you got as a wedding present that you never use, your grandmother’s silver chafing dish, the holiday glasses that are still in the box, you get the idea.

Make a list of everything you want to serve a few days ahead of time.  If you want a special item (sliced roast beef, Smithfield ham for biscuits, sushi grade fish, etc.), call your local grocer and pre-order.  (You don’t want to assume that something will be available and then find out at the last minute that you can’t get it.)  Go through all of your recipes twice – once to make a list of ingredients for shopping and a second time to make yourself a work plan.  (If I’m hosting a larger gathering, I’ll make a plan of things to do each day leading up to the party – for example, Thursday – bake Parmesan crackers, Friday – toast nuts, make salmon spread, Saturday – grocery store, crab dip, cheese puffs, etc.  You also use the work plan to determine when you need to shop for each ingredient – you’ll probably need more than one trip to the store.)  Get out the serving plates and arrange them.  Make notes and place a piece of paper on each plate with what you will have on it.  The key to making entertaining look easy is having everything done ahead of time.

Buy some beer and wine if you want to keep things simple.  We always put out a bar with gin, vodka, scotch, rum, bourbon and a full set of mixers.  We don’t offer specialty drinks like Cosmpolitans, appletinis or margaritas.  If you are having more than 30 people with a full bar, you may find it helpful to hire a bartender.  Ask a neighbor’s kid who has graduated from college or ask at your neighborhood liquor store or restaurant to see if they can recommend someone.

If the idea of cooking for a group intimidates you, buy everything.  There are so many great prepared items available at grocery and specialty stores, you can entertain without turning on the stove (although some items do require heating!)  🙂  Or buy most of the things and make one thing.  Or if you are like me, go hog wild and make lots of stuff.  The one thing I feel is very important is that people get enough to eat.  Years ago, my husband and I went to a very fancy party.  The home was beautifully decorated and a catering firm had been retained to provide the food.  The food was beautiful – little tiny leaves of endive with delicate nibbles of something in them, etc.  We were stalking the catering help desperately trying to get something to eat.  When we left the party we were so hungry we went to a neighborhood restaurant for dinner.  At the restaurant we saw many other people who had come from the same party.  On the way home I said to my husband “I never want people to leave our house feeling like they have to go out to dinner.”  It is also a very bad idea to serve  people drinks and not give them food to go with it.

I posted holiday cookie ideas last weekend so if the dessert option appeals to you, consider selecting one or more items from that list.  If you want to go for savory options here are some ideas – I’ve noted the ones that are a little more complicated.


These are things that you can pass or put out on a plate.  Pick one of the cheesy options and buy pate or some nuts or olives.   Perfect low stress pairing along with a glass of wine for a casual cocktail invitation or while trimming the tree.

Cheese Puffs

My mom always made these for parties.  They keep well in a tin and only need to be popped into your toaster oven for a few minutes for serving – they are best served hot.  This recipe can easily be multiplied.

  • 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
  • 4 TB softened butter
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 1/4 tsp celery salt

Combine cheese and butter in a mixer.  Add flour and celery salt and mix thoroughly.  Roll into balls about 1 inch in diameter and place on a lightly greased cookie sheet.  You can use the tines of a fork to flatten slightly and make a waffle pattern on each puff.  Dust with paprika and chill for several hours.  Bake at 450 for 8 minutes.  Store in tins until ready to reheat and serve.

Rosemary walnuts

Most people love nuts and there are lots of recipes for herbed and spiced nuts.  This is one of my favorites.

  • 5 TB unsalted butter
  • 4 tsp dried rosemary
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 4 cups walnuts

Melt butter with rosemary, salt and cayenne.  Toss with walnuts.  Bake on a cookie sheet at 350 for 10 minutes.

Parmesan crackers
I’ve gotten hooked on these crackers.  Keep in mind that these are more like a savory cookie and should be enjoyed as is.  Don’t put them next to a dip – it’s a waste of an exceptional cracker.  Use the store bought crackers with dips.
  • 1 1/4 cups freshly grated cheese (I used half Parmesan and half Romano)
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp pepper
  • 1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 TB fresh rosemary, chopped
  • 1 stick butter at room temperature
  • 1 cup flour

Preheat oven to 350.  Combine cheese with salt and pepper and rosemary in a mixer.  Add butter and beat to combine.  Add flour in 3 batches combining until mixture holds together.  Roll into balls (about 1 TB in size) and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment.  Flatten slightly.  Bake about 14 – 16 minutes until edges are browned.  Remove from oven and let cool.

Cardamom cheese straws
These are a little more involved.  If they scare you, go back to top and make the cheese puffs.
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 3/4 tsp cardamom
  • large pinch salt
  • 1/3 stick butter, diced
  • 1 cup sharp cheddar cheese grated
  • 1 TB plus 1 tsp milk
  • 1 egg
Pulse flour, cardamom and salt together in a food processor.  Add butter and pulse until mixture is in small balls.  Add cheese and 1/ tsp of milk and pulse until dough starts to form.  Remove from processor and knead until smooth.  Form into a rectangle, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.
Remove from refrigerator and on a work surface sprinkled with flour roll into a rectangle – about 10 x 8 inches.  Cut into 1/4 inch wide straws.  Place on baking sheets covered with parchment paper.
Combine egg and milk and whisk.  Brush straws with mixture and bake in a 350 degree oven for 14 minutes, switching sheets halfway through.  Remove from oven and cool.
Most people really love seafood and it is always a hit at parties.  If you want to expand to a few more people choose one or two of the savory nibbles above, and add one (or more) of the selections below and you are up to a cocktail party.  I usually order roast beef and serve it alongside the seafood with rolls, mayo and horseradish.
Crab Dip
This recipe came from my mother-in-law and everyone loves it.  It is quick and easy to fix and is easily doubled or tripled for larger crowds.
  • 1 lb crab meat
  • 2 packages cream cheese softened (we usually use low fat)
  • 1 pint sour cream
  • 2 heaping TB mayonnaise
  • 1/2 tsp dry mustard
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp Old Bay seasoning
  • 1/2 cup sharp cheddar cheese
Combine cream cheese, sour cream, mayonnaise, seasonings and half of the cheese.  Fold in crab meat and top with remaining cheese.  Bake at 350 for 30 minutes and serve hot with crackers.
NOTE: Since it is going in a dip anyway, you don’t need jumbo lump crab for this recipe – lump is fine.  I do insist on Maryland crab meat though.  The crabmeat from Venezuela is much cheaper but it does not have the same flavor and to me it has a sort of blueish appearance that I don’t fine appealing.  (But everybody knows I’m fussy when it comes to food.)

Salmon Spread

My mother-in-law got this recipe in Alaska.  It’s a great way to serve smoked salmon to a group and can be made a few days ahead and stored in the refrigerator.

  • 1 8 oz package cream cheese, softened
  • 8 oz smoked salmon
  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 tsp dill
  • 1/4 tsp tabasco
  • 1/4 cup chopped black olives

Mix all ingredients.  Press in a mound or a bowl for shape and chill.  Serve with crackers.

Shrimp dip
This recipe came from my mother and it is delicious.  I am generally suspicious of recipes made with canned soup but this is very good and always popular.
  • 1 can cream of shrimp soup
  • 8 oz package cream cheese
  • 1 minced garlic clove
  • 4 oz canned ripe black olives, chopped
  • 2 TB lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp curry powder
  • dash Worcestershire
  • 1/2 cup cooked shrimp, chopped

Melt soup and cream cheese in top half of a double boiler until completely melted and combined.  Add remaining ingredients.  Serve hot (in a chafing dish) with crackers and raw veggies.

Seared tuna with wasabi sauce
I almost always have this for parties because it is one of my favorite things.  I special order sushi grade tuna from my grocery store and it makes the difference.  This is a little more effort but it is so worth it.
  • 1 1/2 lbs of sushi grade tuna
  • 1 TB black sesame seeds
  • 1 TB sesame seeds
  • 1 TB poppy seeds
  • 1 TB canola oil
  • 1/4 cup sour cream
  • 2 TB wasabi paste (can be made by combining equal parts of wasabi powder and water)
  • flat bread crackers
Cut tuna into long blocks.  Season with salt and pepper.  Combine sesame seeds and poppy seeds in a shallow pan and dip tuna blocks in seeds, coating each side.  Using a non-stick pan over medium high heat, heat canola oil and sear tuna blocks about 2 minutes a side.  (You want tuna to be rare).  Remove from heat and chill in refrigerator.  Combine sour cream and wasabi paste.  When ready to serve, slice tuna and put on flat bread crackers – top with a small amount of sauce.
Other options
Other things that I have made for parties which can be found on blog include:
  • asparagus with proscuitto or asparagus with wasabi mayonnaise
  • mushroom and fontina pizzas
  • bruschetta
  • mushroom and shrimp tartlets
  • shrimp seviche
  • garlic mushrooms
  • crabbies
  • tuna tartar

You can always buy:

  • steamed shrimp
  • Smithfield ham to put on biscuits
  • olives, tapenade, etc from an olive bar
  • pate
  • nuts
  • specialty cheeses
  • smoked salmon