|© 2013 Chris Terrell|
Last night was my second annual holiday party. I guess I’m now fully committed to this being an annual event, or at least I hope so. The first one was a bit rough, but better than some other inaugural voyages—Titanic anyone?
Last year around September/October, I decided to host a Christmas party for the first time. I had always wanted to have a holiday party and, overcoming years of inertia, I took the plunge and sent out invitations. Once you’ve done that you cannot turn back! Then it hit me. Oh my God!, I’ve never done this before by myself! (Not sure that the Super Bowl party in law school counts.) And like any self-respecting type A person, I put together a to-do list. This involved a daily checklist of things to do; items to buy; things to order; food to make. The last one was particularly taxing. I wanted to cook nearly everything myself. This required that I start cooking four days before the party, not to mention all the cleaning and polishing of wine glasses and the cleaning of my loft apartment the day of the party. Needless to say, I was exhausted by the time the party started. Hell, I was slipping on my loafers and throwing back the last of my whisky when the doorbell rang with the first guest!
But of course, the party was great; my guests had a wonderful time and so did I....until the next day. In addition to the obligatory hangover, all that hard work had worn me down to the point that I came down with mono. Yes, the “kissing disease.” But it wasn’t because anything that happened that night. Hell, I was too busy refilling wine glasses! And let me tell you, getting mono in high school is bad enough, but as a middle-aged single guy…well, let’s not go there!
For my own physical and mental health, I was determined that this year would be different. Yes, the meticulous checklist was dusted off, and yes, there was plenty to do. This year, however, I decided to play it smart, or at least a little less dumb. First, I ordered wine glasses from a local rental company. Why in the hell should I wash and polish wine glasses on a work night? Second, instead of roasting a pork loin, along with the homemade rub and barbecue sauce, I ordered a HoneyBaked® ham. (I did make some special mustards to go with it.) Third, I hired a cleaning service to clean my loft the day before the party. Fourth, and here’s the real genius move: I took the day off from work before the party.
With all this free time, I went the extra mile and did a little more decorating and made another dish that I didn’t make last year. But more importantly, I was not as tired (sans mono helped), so as to focus more on my guests. Some old favorites from last year were back, like caramelized bacon and parmesan crisps (more on that later). After doing this for two years in a row, I’ve learned a few things. While I'm no expert, here are the Insouciant Chef’s ten rules for hosting a great holiday party:
1. Put your guest list together early and send out the invites just after Thanksgiving. The party circuit gets crowded real fast.
2. Plan your menu carefully. If you like to cook, then come up with some items that are tasty and easy to eat (i.e., with one hand); are easy to make; and can be made a few days in advance.
3. Play music. Nothing is better than a party with music. And nothing is better during the holidays than holiday music. Make sure the playlist alternates between slow/laid back and upbeat.
4. De-clutter. Get the unread magazines and knickknacks out of the way. Throw away the old pizza boxes and take the recycling out!
5. Clean, especially the bathroom. As for the bathroom, put out some nice guest towels, but have some of those disposal paper towels handy, for a couple of reasons. One, you really don’t want people using the nice guest towels. Two, there are plenty of folks who know they really shouldn’t use the guest towels, and so will walk out of the bathroom with wet hands and then have to shake someone’s hand. Awkward! Also, if you keep a scale in the bathroom, put it away. Nothing reminds someone about how much they are eating during the holidays than a scale.
6. Flowers. OK, I’m probably going to lose my man card on this one, but you really need to have flowers when you have a party, especially fragrant ones like paper whites or lillies. Put some in the bathroom. (It’s more gracious than placing a big can of Glade on the toilet tank cover.)
7. Don’t forget about your guests. Greet them at the door; welcome them and thank them for coming; take their coat; offer them a drink. And if something didn’t turn out the way you liked it, take a page from Julia Child and don’t apologize. And no matter how small your place is, always walk your guest to the door and thank them again for coming and wish them a safe trip home and a happy holiday.
8. No matter how tired you may be, let people stay as late as they wish. People really know when to leave anyway. Besides, some of the best conversations I’ve had with guests are when there only about three of us left; the wine is in fifth gear; and the clock is getting a bit late in the day.
9. Don’t let your guests clean. This can be a tough one, because there is always that one guest who, believe it or not, likes to clean and genuinely wants to be helpful. The best advice I’ve ever heard is to tell this person something like:“I appreciate that you want to help, but I’ve not seen you in ages, and I’d rather spend the time talking with you. I can clean some other time.”
10. Have fun. This should be obvious, but hosting a party is stressful. It requires a lot of planning and hard work. And if you are like me, you want everything to be perfect. (To me the most stressful part is the first few minutes after “go time.” The party is suppose to start at 6:30pm and at 6:31pm there are no guests, and you are convinced no one is coming!) This goes back to Julia Child’s advice about not apologizing. Your guests are happy to go to a party for several hours without kids; without work; without anything but good cheer, food, and drink. Isn’t that what the holidays are all about?
OK, what about the recipes I mentioned earlier? I did promise you recipes. Well, here are the two things that I’ve made for the 1st and the 2nd Annual Holiday Party that have been a hit, Ina Garten’s caramelized bacon and parmesan crisps.
Caramelized Bacon (Barefoot Contessa Foolproof)
Makes about 15-20 hors d’oeuvres
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup pecans
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1/2 pound thick cut bacon
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In food processor, combine sugar, nuts, salt, pepper and cayenne until finely ground. Add maple syrup and pulse until moistened.
Ina suggests using a wire baking rack on top of a sheet pan lined with foil, but I used a slotted broiler pan lined with foil with good results. Whatever you use, be sure the fat has a place to drip to prevent sogginess. Cut bacon in half and spread evenly with sugar mixture. Bake 25 to 30 minutes and let cool to room temperature before serving.
Parmesan Crisps (Barefoot Contessa Foolproof)
Makes 15 Crisps
1 (4 oz.) piece of Parmesan Reggiano cheese (without the rind)
1 Tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves
1/2 kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 sheet pans with parchment paper.
Grate the parmesan cheese, using the large grating side of a box grater, as a you might use to grate carrots. Combine the Parmesan, flour, thyme, salt, pepper in a bowl and mix well.
With a measuring spoon, spoon level tablespoons of the mixture onto the prepared sheet pans, spreading each round into a 3-inch disk. Toss the mixture each time and scoop from the bottom of the bowl to be sure you get some flour in each spoonful. Bake in the middle of the oven for 8 to 10 minutes, until golden brown.
Cool on the pans for 5 minutes, loosen with a metal spatula, then cool completely on a baking rack. Serve at room temperature.