My parents, I remember, painfully undertook the ritual once a year. Edibles were sparse (my mother is a gardener by nature, not a cook), but drinks, under my father's direction, were generous. After a while the noise level would rise agreeably so the gathering could be voted a success.
Thank goodness entertaining today is less formal, with invitations on the phone. This is emphatically the moment to do your own thing, not emulate a catering service.
Cocktails at home should be homey, the food based on local, seasonal ingredients. The drinks should be your favorite wines, perhaps a fruit punch, or a choice of hard liquor.
My recipe for a checkerboard of smoked salmon and caviar, for instance, invites the personal touch of substituting fish from a local smokehouse instead of salmon (here in Washington, smoked scallops are particularly good. On the West Coast the range of domestic caviar available asks for a checkerboard of pure caviar -- and how I envy that!)
Equally the ham and smoked turkey combination calls for the best local home cured ham, matched with whatever poultry your market will yield -- smoked duck breast, Cornish hen, or plain fresh turkey, preferably cooked at home.
Fish and meat should be matched by vegetables but I have to confess liking crudite's only with a really lively dip. Red hot chili mayonnaise is certainly that, though its heat, and garlic level, can be adjusted to your taste. The goat cheese dip is more soothing, backed by input of whatever nuts grow near you -- hazelnuts, almonds, pecans, pistachios or walnuts.
As for goat cheese, this is the ideal recipe for the soft fresh goat cheese made so enterprisingly in more and more parts of the country. Otherwise look for imported goat cheese (it will need more cream to soften it) or, in a pinch, use regular cream cheese of cow's milk.
Some kind of cheese pastry is irresistible with drinks. This simple dough is made in the food processor and rolled into amusing palm leaf and cartwheel shapes, fine for baking well in advance. To round out the selection, you may wish to add crackers and sesame bread sticks, particularly for the crudite' dips. Timetable
For this menu the cook can spread preparation over a week, or do all the work on the day of the party. In either case, final preparations can be completed two hours before guests arrive.
Up to 1 week ahead: Make cheese palm leaves and anchovy cartwheels and store in airtight container.
Up to 1 day ahead: Make goat cheese dip and refrigerate.
Up to 12 hours ahead: Make chili mayonnaise, cover tightly and refrigerate. Chill white wines, juices and sodas. Prepare room and set tables.
Up to 6 hours ahead: Make salmon and caviar checkerboard, cover and refrigerate. Make ham and turkey checkerboard, cover and refrigerate.
Up to 2 hours ahead: Prepare crudite's, arrange on trays with dip and keep covered in cool place. Arrange cheese pastries on platters for serving. SMOKED SALMON AND CAVIAR CHECKERBOARD (Makes 64 canape's)
The darker the caviar, the more spectacular the board. If substitutions are made, remember the greater the contrast in color and texture, the more visually pleasing the board.
8 slices whole wheat bread
3 tablespoons butter, softened
Black pepper and cayenne pepper to taste
1/2 pound thinly sliced smoked salmon
8 slices white bread
4 to 5 tablespoons mayonnaise
4-ounce jar caviar
Bunch of parsley for garnish
Spread whole wheat bread with butter. Sprinkle with black pepper and a very little cayenne. Lay slices of salmon on top. Trim crusts and cut each square in four.
Spread white bread with mayonnaise. Spread caviar on top. (Mayonnaise helps caviar cling to bread.) Trim crusts and cut each square in four.
Arrange salmon and caviar squares alternately in a checkerboard pattern on a large platter or tray. Surround edge with sprigs of parsley. Checkerboard can be prepared up to 6 hours ahead. Cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate. HAM AND TURKEY CHECKERBOARD (Makes 64 canape's)
Be sure to get a large loaf of rye or pumpernickel so slices are the same size as whole wheat bread.
3 tablespoons butter, softened
2 to 3 teaspoons dijon mustard
8 slices whole wheat bread
8 thin slices cooked ham
3 ounces cream cheese
3 to 5 tablespoons whipping cream
10 to 12 gherkin pickles
Salt and pepper to taste
8 slices pumpernickel or rye bread
1/2 pound smoked or fresh cooked turkey, sliced
Bunch parsley for garnish
Cream butter with mustard. Spread butter on whole wheat bread. Set ham slices on top, trim crusts and cut each square in four.
Soften cream cheese and beat in enough cream to make a soft paste. Cut 32 slices from gherkin pickles, finely chop rest and beat into cream cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste. Spread cheese on pumpernickel or rye bread. Set sliced turkey on top, trim crusts and cut each square in four. Top with a slice of pickle.
Arrange ham and turkey squares alternately in a checkerboard pattern on a large platter or tray. Surround edge with sprigs of parsley. Checkerboard can be prepared up to 6 hours ahead. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. BASKET OF CRUDITES (25 servings)
Choose at least half a dozen of the following vegetables, more if you like.
2 pounds baby carrots, peeled, or large carrots cut in sticks
1 large cauliflower, cut into flowerets
2 pounds broccoli, cut into flowerets
1 pound zucchini, washed and cut in sticks
1 pound snow peas, washed and ends trimmed
1 head celery, washed and cut in sticks, or 2 pounds celery root
2 pounds jicama root
Bowls of dip for serving (below)
Prepare all vegetables: for celery root and jicama root, peel them, cut in sticks and at once immerse in water with juice of a lemon to prevent discoloration. All vegetables can be kept, wrapped with wet paper towels, in refrigerator up to 24 hours.
Not more than 2 hours before serving: line 2 large round trays or flat baskets with white or colored napkins. Drain vegetables and arrange in piles on trays, leaving a space in center for bowl of dip. Cover trays with damp cloth and keep in a cool place, or refrigerate.
Just before serving, add bowl of dip. RED HOT CHILI MAYONNAISE (Makes 2 cups)
Make this mild, hot or volcanic, according to your taste; a fresh 1-ounce chili gives medium flavor.
1 to 2 dried or fresh red chili peppers
4 to 6 cloves garlic, peeled
3 egg yolks
Salt to taste
2 cups olive oil
Red hot pepper sauce (optional)
Soak dried chili peppers in cold water 20 minutes or until soft enough to remove seeds. If using fresh chilies, touch only with a cloth or use rubber gloves, as they burn the skin. For both dried and fresh peppers, discard stems, cores and seeds and chop coarsely.
In a food processor or blender work chilies with garlic, egg yolks and a little salt until very smooth, about 1 minute. Work in oil, drop by drop, so mixture thickens and becomes creamy. Note: if oil is added too quickly, it will separate.
Season dip to taste with salt, adding red hot pepper sauce for more heat if you like. Dip can be made up to 12 hours ahead and kept, tightly covered, in refrigerator.
Just before serving, transfer dip to bowl. GOAT CHEESE AND HAZELNUT DIP (Makes 2 cups)
If using walnuts or pecans in this recipe, they should simply be chopped without toasting; almonds should be blanched and toasted, and pistachios blanched.
1 cup shelled hazelnuts
3/4 pound fresh goat cheese
8 to 10 tablespoons whipping cream
1 tablespoon brandy
1 shallot or scallion, chopped
Salt and black pepper to taste
Toast hazelnuts in a 350-degree oven until brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Note: they burn easily. If nuts were not already peeled, rub off brown skin with a rough cloth. Chop nuts coarsely. Leave quite large pieces to add texture to dip.
Crumble goat cheese and beat in enough cream so mixture falls easily from spoon. This can be done in a food processor, electric mixer or by hand. Stir in brandy, shallot or scallion, chopped nuts, and salt and pepper to taste. Note: mixture should be quite peppery. Dip can be prepared up to 1 day ahead and refrigerated or frozen. CHEESE PASTRY DOUGH
The drier the cheese, the easier this dough is to work.
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup finely grated aged cheddar cheese
1 cup shortening
5 to 6 tablespoons water
Sift flour with salt into a bowl and stir in cheese. Add shortening and cut with a pastry cutter or 2 knives into small pieces. Stir in enough water to make a stiff dough and knead very lightly just until dough forms a ball. Alternatively, make dough in a food processor. Wrap and chill at least 1 hour.
Dough can be made up to 24 hours ahead and refrigerated or frozen. CHEESE LEAVES (Makes about 80 leaves)
A savory version of the famous sugar palm leaf pastries.
Cheese pastry dough (above)
1 cup (or 3 1/2 ounces) finely grated aged cheddar cheese
Sprinkle work surface with flour. Roll out dough to a 20-by-12-inch rectangle and sprinkle with cheese. Trim edges and cut dough into two 10-by-12-inch rectangles. Fold one long edge over to other edge. Press folded dough lightly with rolling pin to seal. Repeat with remaining dough. Chill 15 minutes or until firm. Grease 2 baking sheets.
With a sharp knife, cut dough into 1/4-inch slices and set on prepared baking sheets, leaving space for spreading. Chill 15 minutes or until very firm.
Bake leaves in a 425-degree oven until undersides begin to brown, 6 to 8 minutes. Turn them and bake until golden on other side, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool. Leaves can be stored in an airtight container up to 1 week, or frozen. ANCHOVY CARTWHEELS (Makes about 40 cartwheels)
Canned tomato paste can be used instead of the anchovies.
2 2-ounce cans anchovies in oil
1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter, softened
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
Cheese pastry dough (above)
Pure'e anchovies with butter in a blender or food processor and beat in pepper.
On a floured board, roll out dough to an 18-inch square. Spread dough with anchovy butter and trim edges. Roll dough to a cylinder. Chill 15 minutes or until very firm. Grease 2 baking sheets.
With a sharp knife, cut dough into 3/8-inch slices. Set on prepared baking sheets, leaving room for expansion. Chill 15 minutes or until very firm.
Bake cartwheels in a 425-degree oven until undersides begin to brown, 6 to 8 minutes. Turn and bake until other sides are golden, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool. Cartwheels can be stored in an airtight container up to 1 week, or frozen.