washingtonpost.com
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.

I gave up on that theme.

Instead, I decorated pear slices with Roquefort spread; speared Peppadew peppers with aged provolone and soppressata; skewered prosciutto, grapes and Gorgonzola; made BLTs with Belgian endive, sun-dried tomato, bacon lardons, herbed mayonnaise and arugula; topped chilled mussels on the half-shell with a red curry creme fraiche.

For more-than-one-bite hors d'oeuvres, I assembled miniature steak 'n' cheeses (provolone bechamel sauce, caramelized onions, shaved tenderloin on mini-pita rounds), gougere puffs made with truffle butter and truffled cheese, and baked spinach balls with pecorino and Parmesan cheese.

I derived the last recipe from something a friend had prepared for a party this past summer. I always make an effort to jot down good ideas from restaurants or other people's parties and then reproduce them at my own affairs. (Giving credit where due, of course.)

Steve Dunn, owner of Well Dunn Catering, wisely advises hosts to include locally produced goods. "They become a point of conversation, like the gouda cheese made by nuns at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Crozet, Virginia, near Charlottesville. I don't even think they have a phone," he chuckles. "I think you have to send them a note if you want the cheese."

I'm all for supporting local purveyors, especially home-grown cooks trying to get a business off the ground. Last month, our housekeeper brought curry puffs for us to try. They were delicate savory pastries filled with curried potatoes, peas and ground chicken. An out-of-work restaurant cook and friend was selling them for a dollar apiece to make some extra money. I filed to memory that they would be perfect for a cocktail party.

For sweets, I knew to call on Mary Lee Monfort, a home-baker-turned-entrepreneur in Vienna. (For a Chef on Call story I wrote a couple of years ago, she showed a Girl Scout troop how to jazz up its bake sale.)

Even though cocktail parties emphasize savory foods, it's always smart to have some bite-size sweets on hand. Mary Lee's amaretto cheesecake brownie bites, butter twists, Greek wedding cookies and tartlets in pecan and lemon filled that bill perfectly.

They also follow one of my entertaining credos: Fill in with good food from good sources. They can be pricey (see related "Resources"), so choose high-impact, flavorful items and display them prominently. Chef Scott Drewno at the Source downtown is only too happy to prepare a kit of his sesame-and-miso cones stuffed with tuna tartare ($5 each; minimum order of 25). Chef Kaz Okochi will whip up maki from Kaz Sushi Bistro ($5 to $5.50 each).

Table set, food prepped, bar set up, bathrooms stocked, coat storage secured, lights dimmed, music softly playing, dishwasher and garbage can empty: It's time for everyone to party.

Except, of course, for you.

Recipes

Cheesy Spinach Balls

Chilled Mussels With Red Curry Creme Fraiche

Mini Steak 'n' Cheeses

No-Peanut Brittle

Tomato Cheddar Soup Shooters

Truffle Puffs

Truffled Popcorn

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company