Monday, December 17, 2012

surviving the party-party

Not too long ago I was longing for a party-party -- a gathering more party than dinner party, where people outnumber chairs. And last weekend, I got my wish. Friends filed into our apartment after work, bearing wine and cheese and potted plants and suddenly the house was full. Mabel had so many laps to choose from, she didn't know what to do with herself.

Cooking for a real party-party can be a tricky thing. My friend Casey, who is cooking for freaking 75 people(!!) this New Year's Eve, told me that she prepares a variety of food in shifts because people come and go throughout the night. Instead of making a Costco-sized vat of onion dip, she makes largeish portions of several different recipes and serves everything in stages. Cold appetizers might come first, followed by some hot mains, and then maybe some desserts. What you eat depends on when you arrive. If I was invited, I would arrive before dawn so I wouldn't miss anything.

Unlike Casey, I only hosted 10 people, so I didn't need to plan with military precision. But I did a few things that you might find helpful the next time you find yourself with a crowd to feed.

Make a menu and write it down

I've never, ever done this outside of my Post-It note habit, but it was so helpful to write down a formal menu and tack it on the fridge. I was making so many dishes that I needed a reminder of what they all were -- I must have referred to it 10 times the day of the party. And if you make the menu legible, you can leave it on the fridge to let everyone know what they're eating.
Make one (one!) big-batch cocktail
You know me, I have a really hard time reining in a menu. And that includes drinks. But this time, I kept things simple and made one big pitcher of Moscow Mules and left it at that. Everyone brought wine and beer and we had way, way more than enough to drink. And people also were able to help themselves throughout the night. I almost had an aneurysm trying to do the complicated mathematics involved in converting a single-serving drink recipe into a 12-serving drink recipe, but if I can do it, so can you. I just drew little diagrams and worried about my brain function.
Use paper plates and napkins
This is probably a no-brainer but save yourself the dirty work and use disposable plates. I am a cloth napkin lover, but in this case, it wasn't practical. I made one exception with real glassware, but there are many cute disposable cups out there now. Bonus points if they are recyclable.

Dips are your friend
Make-ahead appetizers like dips are perfect for gatherings like this because they actually taste better if they sit in your fridge for a few days. And you can make a variety to suit all of the inevitable dietary restrictions -- a healthy dip, a vegetarian dip, a not-vegetarian dip.
Bar snacks are classy
There's a candied almond recipe I recently discovered and love, so I made a big batch (the rest I'll save for Christmas presents) and put them out in little bowls, one next to the cocktail-making area. Did people eat these nuts? Not really. But they looked so pretty there nestled in some greenery next to the cocktails.

Cheese plate
My friends were kind enough to bring the makings of a gorgeous cheese plate that everyone attacked. Whether you make one yourself, or have others provide the cheese, you can't go wrong with a cheese board. In my experience, it's the first thing people gravitate toward.
Scale down your menu
Once again, I sucked at this. We had so much leftover food, it felt wasteful. I don't have any good advice to avoid this problem, but it made me think about why I consistently make too much food. Am I worried that we'll run out and people will go hungry? Whenever I see a plate picked clean, it makes me happy, so if all the plates were picked clean, wouldn't that make me really, really happy? If there wasn't quite enough food, would people still go home happy? Probably. And that might be better than throwing food (and money) away at the end of the night. Maybe.

Don't wait to clean up
After everyone leaves, especially if it's very late, it's tempting to turn your back on the detritus of a party and just roll into bed. But then you wake up the next morning and realize that your house is in much worse shape than it looked in the candlelight and wine-haze of the night before. It's always better to rally and clean up before you go to bed. Whether or not you wake up with a hangover, you won't have anything left to do other than assemble a breakfast of leftover cheese, stale bread and whatever else is still hanging around from the night before. You'll look at those clean dishes and think about the great party you pulled off, not the work that's left to do.

Holiday Party-Party 2012
Moscow Mules
Candied almonds
Cheese plate
Prosciutto-wrapped pears with honey and thyme + blue cheese-honey-thyme-topped pears
Caramelized onion dip + potato chips + crudite
Spinach and white bean dip
Bacon-wrapped dates
Hot artichoke dip 
Goat cheese stuffed mushrooms with breadcrumbs

Dill cream cheese + smoked salmon on cucumber rounds
Chocolate truffles + caramels (from Whole Foods)


Casey@Good. Food. Stories. said...

Well, you ARE invited to the New Year's bash if you want to make the trek to Boston! The offer is always on the table... and the first dishes will hit the buffet around 3pm.

I second the recommendation to clean up that night and not wait until the next day. Even if you don't want to clean umpteen wineglasses, just put a little water in each so you can swish them clean in the morning.

Laura said...

I can't wait to try the candied almonds! And I wish I lived closer so I could attend a Lisa-thrown soiree.
My dinner party idols, my parents, do have one rule about clean up that I follow: Wine glasses are cleaned the day after. Everything else though, just get it done!

Alison said...

I love your tips. Good call on posting the menu. I usually have mine scribbled on lined paper...not nearly as pretty.

Lisa said...

Casey: I plan on drinking champagne with a dog on my lap, but your menu is tempting...good tip on the wine glasses.

Laura: I wish I could cook for you! :( Interesting what you said about the wine glasses. Maybe you should try Casey's tip?

Alison: Thanks so much! Usually I am not that legible either...


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