LONG OUT OF FASHION, the cocktail party is making a comeback as a simple, time-limited, cost controlled way to meet holiday entertaining obligations. But today's version is a far cry from the canapes-and-booze bashes of the past.
People a certain age probably have fuzzy memories of "real" cocktail parties. Invited to "come by" for drinks and nibbles, they knew they would be treated to flowing hard liquor and boring tidbits of this and that. They didn't expect much beyond the opportunity to chat with friends, and they planned to go out to dinner afterward.
Today people expect more of cocktail party fare than just hors d'oeuvres, for they don't want to eat dinner later. And the drink of choice is more likely to be white wine or mineral water than scotch or a highball. It involves more food than it used to, but still less than a dinner party or buffet. These days it can even be desserts only, served with champagne and dessert wines.
Despite increased expectations, the cocktail party is still as easy-party option. Relying on experience or cookbooks for inspiration, you can cook all the food yourself if you have the know-how, equipment and necessary serving pieces.
Alternately, look to the delicacies of gourmet markets. They are a wonderful source of ready-to-eat refreshments that might include smoked meats and fish, sausages, caviar, cheese, olives, nuts, crackers, chips and dips. Or rely on a caterer to make you a quest at your own party.
DOING YOUR OWN COOKING
How much food to serve? Susan Wyler, former food editor of Food and Wine magazine and author of "Cooking For A Crowd" (Harmony Books, 1988), offers a rule of thumb. For the first 15 people, she suggests, "begin with a least five items. ... Add another item for every five more guest up to 32; then add another dish for every eight guests."
And think finger foods: It's no fun juggling plates, forks, knives and glasses at a stand-up meal. Vary flavors, textures, shapes and colors to balance salty with sweet, spicy with mild, crunchy with smooth, dark with light. And if you have no help, pass up the hot appetizers for dishes that can be cooked and plated ahead.
Here are some easy and inviting party ideas:
Pates and Mousses: Begin with a ground meat, liver, seafood, smoked fish or vegetable base, add herbs and seasonings, pack the mixture into a tureen, then bake and turn it out onto a decorative platter. Garnish with cornichons, pickled onions, capers, olives, jalapeno peppers or other condiments.
An Ethnic Food Fest: Serve Chinese dumplings, Indonesian rijsttafel, Italian antipasto, Spanish Tapas, French crudites, Middle Eastern mezze, Russian zakuska or Swedish smorgasbord.
Super Supper Soups: Set the table with mugs or coffee cups and center the party around steaming tureens of hearty soups. Black bean, potato-leek, pumpkin, split pea with sausage and oyster stew are especially pleasing in fall and winter. Pass bruschetta, garlic bread, biscuits or brioche.
Salad Days: Put out plates of composed salad made up of interesting lettuces such as frise, baby bibb or red oak leaf all dressed up with goat cheese for tang, radicchio for a flash of red, edible flower petals for color and honey-fried walnuts for crunch.
Old-fashioned molded salads made of potato, rice, grains or cranberry-wine gelatin are easy do-ahead dishes.
Stuffed vegetables are attractive and satisfying. Try avocados filled with shrimp, tomatoes brimming with eggplant caviar, mushrooms packed with wild rice, tiny potatoes spiked with salmon roe and maple-glazed acorn squash crammed with nuts and fruit.
Have your guests use lettuce or endive leaves to scoop up red, yellow and green roasted peppers sprinkled with finely chopped garlic and glistening with olive oil.
Cheese and Fruit: Offer a fine selection of handmade cheeses and exotic fruits. For fun, include a round of brie stuffed with dried fruits and pumpkin seeds or slivered almonds, served with slices of French bread.
The Great Roast: Serve platters of home-baked meats such as standing rib roast, herbed pork loin, minted leg of lamb, veal shoulder, glazed ham, baby chickens or whole turkey or turkey breast set on top of nutty grains such a bulgar, kasha or couscous.
Just Desserts: Incarnate temptation in the form of a dessert buffet. Include seasonal loaf cakes, yeast cakes, pies, pastries and sweetmeats you bake yourself or seek out the best bakeries in town. At Thanksgiving include cranberry-topped baked apples and pears poached in red wine, and at Christmas cookies, fruitcake and plum pudding. And don't forget fresh fruit for the calorie counters.
Not for Kids Only: Set up an ice cream bar with adult toppings such as crystallized ginger, preserved kumquats, brandied fruits, liqueurs and unsweetened whipped cream.
WORKING WITH A CATERER