A Real Entertaining cocktail party

By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 14, 2010; 4:53 PM

Throwing a cocktail party is like speed dating; you spend a little bit of time with a lot of people, make vague promises to get together in the future and then send everyone on their way while the night is still young.

This time of year, particularly on New Year's Eve, it's an appealing way to entertain, because it leaves the host time to do something else afterward. For me, that's when I get to sit down, have a drink and tell myself how good I am at throwing parties.

After all, as the host, you are giving the party, not attending it. That means the enjoyment you derive during the event comes from seeing that your guests are happy. Otherwise, you should be working.

Washington caterer Susan Gage puts it this way: If the host is having a ball, he or she probably doesn't have an eye on the party. "You really have to focus to make sure that everything's happening and everyone's having fun."

The first thing you must decide is your goal for the evening. Do you want people to stop by for a quick drink and a bite, or are you looking for a party that lingers long into the night?

The former event is what Occasions Caterers' co-founder Eric Michael calls a true cocktail party: It takes place from, say, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. and sends the clear message that the food, often only passed, bite-size hors d'oeuvres, will not be ample enough to replace dinner. The latter occurs between, say, 7 and 9 p.m. and features a buffet with more substantial fare served on small plates and eaten with forks.

I prefer the later gathering. And let's face it: 7 to 9 means 8 to 10 for just about all of us, except for those annoying people who insist on showing up right on time, usually when you're stepping out of the shower.

So there had better be plenty of food.

That's no problem for me. In fact, flouting the accepted norm among professional caterers (six to eight items, six pieces per person per hour), I tend to go with at least 15 items.

Admittedly, I go a little overboard for cocktail parties, subscribing to the more-is-more school when my menu should be edited. So I have leftovers, which is why I wind up making big pots of soup and a couple of casseroles the day after a party.

As I recently set out to plan a winter cocktail party for 25, I started with a template: Serve hot and cold dishes, to include vegetarian items and things made with poultry, fish or seafood, red meat and cheese. Anchor items that take up substantial real estate on the table but don't require a lot of replenishing, such as a colorful fruit and cheese assortment, an array of crudites with dip and a side of poached salmon or a roast turkey or ham with appropriate condiments.

Next, I filled in the blanks. Initially, I had planned to make retro food inspired by the television series "Mad Men." In the cocktail party chapter of one of my mother's old cookbooks, I found suggestions for stuffing brandy-soaked dates with peanut butter and horseradish, for mixing two cans of tuna fish with one small can of lima beans in tomato sauce and for rolling pimento-stuffed olives in braunschweiger and parsley.

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