New Year's Eve in the '90s: Keep it simple

COME ONE, COME ALL

December 27, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

One of the best New Year's Eve parties I ever went to was proposed, planned and put into action in the course of five or six hours. It was spontaneous and fun, and absolutely no trouble. I know: It was at my house.

It happened some years ago, when a group of night-working colleagues eating dinner together discovered we were all without party plans for the evening. Everyone brought something, either something they had at home or could pick up at the 24-hour grocery. I raced home, threw all the clutter in a closet, turned on the Christmas lights and lighted every candle I could find. A grand time was had by all.

In fact, few of us these days have time to plan and prepare an elaborate feast, but that shouldn't mean the death of entertaining.

"I think people are entertaining today, but more casually," says Deborah Durham, a home economist and consumer expert from California. "Holidays, especially, are times when people entertain they get designated to have the family over, or they just want to have a party."

There's no need to pull out the silver and iron the damask; Ms. Durham has plenty of tips for decorating the house and feeding the guests that have beautiful results but are inexpensive and fun to do.

As for the food, keep it simple, Ms. Durham says, with finger foods and dips: "People shouldn't have to juggle a plate, a glass and a napkin."

Baltimore caterer Nona Nielsen-Parker says, "I think the best thing would be to limit yourself to three or four things. You don't have to take on the world." She suggests making larger quantities of Christmas food and freezing it for New Year's; or serving something you can make ahead and freeze. Or serving (( something guests can help assemble -- "nachos are fun and easy."

And, she says, "with a few days' notice you can do potluck. You need to assign everybody something to bring, so you don't end up with five pasta salads."

If your time is tight, Ms. Durham suggests making one or two dishes -- a dip and dessert, for instance -- and buying other things ready-made. You can serve store-bought dips as is, or dress them up with garnishes or a dusting of cayenne or black pepper. "Take advantage of take-out foods," Ms. Durham suggests, and serve Thai or Chinese specialties. Grocery stores, gourmet shops and delis can also come to the rescue of a time-harried host or hostess.

She also suggests making decorations out of things you may find around you: Pine cones, some sprayed with gold paint, when combined with a few red and gold Christmas balls in a

pretty basket or bowl make a festive centerpiece. A beautiful sheet makes a great tablecloth; gather up bunches of fabric at table corners and tie them with coordinating ribbon for a swag effect, she suggests. Set plants in terra cotta pots on tables or group them in corners.

Lighting is important. Ms. Durham suggests turning down the lights in the house, or replacing them with candles in simple holders or with votive candles. Tree branches and twigs sprayed gold and entwined with tiny white lights could be a "chandelier" or a centerpiece. And ordinary tin cans, pierced around the sides and top with an old-fashioned triangular bottle opener or a sharp nail, sprayed with gold or soft silver paint and fitted with a candle, make luminarias for walkways and steps.

Ms. Nielsen-Parker noted that Christmas lighting is always on sale right after the holiday, so it would be a good time to stock up on extra lights and use them around the house -- to outline doorways, for instance, or drape on mantels or tall pieces of furniture.

Also, "streamers and noisemakers are fun, and they're very inexpensive," Ms. Nielsen-Parker says.

Don't forget music, Ms. Durham says. It's especially important -- when the first guests arrive and things are still quiet. She suggests planning music ahead so you can find all the tapes or records or CDs you want to play, or having someone make you a tape of a variety of music. (A perfect job for the teen-ager of the house, if you don't mind a little Ice T or Motley Crue among the selections.)

Beverages can be simple as well, Ms. Durham says. "Punch is so much more economical than champagne or spirits or wine." It can be made in alcoholic or non-alcoholic versions -- or one of each. Punch is easier on the party-givers as well: "People can help themselves." If you don't have a punch bowl, rent or borrow one, or use a new goldfish bowl from the pet store. "It's much cheaper than a regular glass serving bowl," she says.

Above all, don't worry if Robin Leach wouldn't be caught dead inside your door. "People hate to entertain because they are so concerned that it be perfect," Ms. Durham says. "But once the doorbell rings, you just have to let it go, the dusting or whatever. Turn the lights down low and no one will notice."

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