Even if you can't whip up four-star hors d'oeuvres or set a sensational table, you can still throw a great holiday party. Here's how to bluff your way through. And don't worry ... We'll Never Tell

Focus On Entertaining

November 14, 1999|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,Sun Staff

When it comes to holiday entertaining, there are two types of people: the ones who make scrumptious dinners from scratch and serve them on impeccably set tables in clean houses -- and the rest of us.

We are the fakers. We buy gourmet take-out and arrange it on our own china. We put candy in a bowl and call it a centerpiece. We are overwhelmed, underskilled, sometimes just plain clueless.

But we still like a good time. And we wouldn't mind throwing a party to celebrate Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas or New Year's without falling to pieces.

What we need are shortcuts. So we asked party pros for their best tips and tricks on how to bluff your way through holiday entertaining.

A full guest is a happy guest

The cheater's first step to feeding the guests: Ply them with drinks and snacks.

"Keep the bar stocked and cold beer in the fridge and don't forget the wine," advises Julie Salter, a producer with P.W. Feats, an event marketing and design management firm in Baltimore. "You'll make a lot of people happy."

For hors d'oeuvres, "Just give them something," stresses Lisa Honick, chef at Gourmet Again in Pikesville. Toasted or spiced nuts, cheese and olives are festive and easy. Even easier: Put a couple of minced garlic cloves in a small bowl, pour in some good-quality olive oil, and have your guests tear off chunks of bread and dip away.

Your guests will be so happy they won't even notice you've slipped out to the nearest gourmet take-out counter to pick up dinner.

Don't even think about feeling guilty.

"Today so many things are pre-cooked and pre-made and pre-laid out for you on little platters, you can really go into a grocery store and get everything for everyone," Salter says.

Most grocery stores sell rotisserie chicken, some sell sushi. Many will even arrange their prepared foods on your own platters.

At Gourmet Again, popular choices for the holidays include potato latkes with homemade apple sauce, grilled turkey breast and mini chocolate chip cookies. At Eddie's of Roland Park, it's beef tenderloin with horseradish sauce, duck breast and Israeli couscous with winter squash. During December, Graul's, which has stores in Ruxton, Hereford, Timonium and Annapolis, sells a lot of crab and artichoke dip, portobello mushroom quesadillas with fresh salsa and crab balls.

Upon returning home to feed your guests -- who, by the way, have run out of bread and are dipping frozen french fries in olive oil -- be prepared to reply when they compliment your cooking. Or rather, your smart shopping for gourmet-to-go food.

"It's a compliment when people pass off our food as their own," says Jo Alexander, spokeswoman for Eddie's of Roland Park. "Their secret is safe with us."

And if your guests ask for actual recipes, it's not necessary to confess, says etiquette expert Peggy Post.

"It's really up to you," says Post, the author of "Emily Post's Entertaining" (HarperCollins, 232 pages, $20). "You certainly don't have to lie. Smile and say, 'Thank you. I'm glad you like it.' You don't have to elaborate any more if you don't want to."

Keep the decorations simple

Eleven months out of the year, it's fine, acceptable even, to live in a house with no decorations on the front door or over the fireplace, where the only decorating theme is "dusty clutter."

Then December arrives and you're expected to turn your messy abode into a pristine holiday wonderland filled with gingerbread houses, twinkling lights and fanciful displays. Yikes.

Just like the food, you can fake it.

First, the cleaning. Or rather, the not cleaning. "A house doesn't require major cleaning every time you invite people over," says Salter. "There are a lot of things you can get away with."

Only straighten the rooms guests will see and close the doors to other, messier rooms. Move furniture over Kool-Aid carpet stains, toss pillows over Oreo cookie smudges on the couch, do a quick swipe at the bathrooms guests will be using.

Fresh flowers on the table cover a tablecloth that's not as new as you'd like. Tossing a roll of cookie dough in the oven fills the house with that sweet smell of baking.

Most important, after your guests arrive, stop cleaning, says Post.

"If your house isn't clean, don't worry about it," she says. It bothers the host and hostess much more than it bothers the guest. In fact it makes guests uncomfortable to watch their hosts scurrying around trying to pick things up."

Now the decorations.

Greens cut from your yard can be used in displays all over the house. Spray them with Wiltpruf -- available at garden centers for about $5 -- and they'll last all season long.

A bowl of Granny Smith apples in a silver bowl can be a simple, elegant centerpiece. Or, make a slit in a shiny red apple or pear and use it as a place-card holder.

Instead of putting candles in candleholders, fill buckets or bowls with sand and shove in lots of tall taper candles. "You can light up a whole fireplace that way," says Leslie Haskins, owner of the eclectic Hampden housewares store, In Watermelon Sugar.

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