Entertaining with ease during holidays

To avoid party panic, keep easy-to-heat foods on hand and make a list for guidance

November 29, 2006|By Robin Mather Jenkins | Robin Mather Jenkins,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Andy Williams was just plain wrong.

For the party-panicky, the holidays are definitely not "the most wonderful time of the year." It may not be the going-out part that bothers the festivity-phobic. It's the terrifying idea that people might just stop by.

And they're going to expect you to feed them.

Sometimes your own family does it to you.

"I had a lady call me to say that her husband was bringing home 10 people that night," said Heather Joye Bender of LifesCelebrations Inc. in Skokie, Ill. Bender has been a party planner for about six years.

"For some reason, she couldn't get out of the house that day, I couldn't get to her and she was just frantic."

Bender's solution? "We went over the contents of her freezer and her fridge over the phone," she said. "And she put out all this stuff that we figured out. That's why I always tell everybody to have pita bread and hummus in the freezer."

Ah, the freezer! Within its friendly confines can repose the solution to your holiday horrors. Or, if you're a party pro, the freezer can free you to invite anyone over, 24/7.

If you take a few minutes now to lay in some easy-to-heat frozen fancy finger foods, the doorbell no longer will sound like a death knell. We've also come up with ideas on how to stock your emergency party bar and how to calculate how many "bites" you can figure each person will eat.

Meanwhile, Bender had some other suggestions.

"Be calm. Make a list. Then follow your list," she said. "Think small bites and think unusual. Sauteed ravioli could be a great idea. Keep some blintzes in the freezer; they last for quite a while and they're so fast and easy."

Let someone else do some of the work. "All the stores have already cut-up fruit and veggie trays," she said. "I've done that myself dozens of times.

"Whole Foods has a great line of prepared foods, but all the stores have them now: grilled vegetables, even things like little lamb chops. And remember things that make things look fresher. Fresh herbs, a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, even paprika - those things make dishes look more jazzed up."

So use your frozen goodies, but augment them with some "dippy things" and fresh vegetables, chips, nuts, olives or other nibbles, Bender said.

The idea of "freshening" something prepared by someone else can apply to drinks, too, Bender said. "Garnish iced tea with fresh fruit, even if it's iced tea from a jar. I've seen that and it looks really nice."

Other pantry staples to freshen already prepared foods include lemons, capers and jarred caviar, she said. "Capers really dress things up, and everyone thinks caviar is fancy."

Bender also suggested keeping "an extra tablecloth hidden away. It's only for times like this. That way, you know it's always clean."

Robin Mather Jenkins writes for the Chicago Tribune.

How much food is enough?

Because most of us don't cook for big families anymore, knowing how much food to put out doesn't come naturally. We found some helpful guidelines in Cooking for Crowds for Dummies, by Dawn and Curt Simmons.

Appetizers without dinner

Plan 12 to 15 pieces per person for each three hours that the party lasts. Set out at least six items, some of which can be "bulk-type" things like dips or spreads. Assume that one ounce of dip or spread equals one piece.

Nuts, olives and little nibbles can add variety. The more variety you have, the less you need to make of each item.

Drinks

Figure one to two 8-ounce servings of soft drinks or iced tea per person per hour. For punch or coffee, it's one to two 4-ounce servings.

For wine, figure five glasses to a 750-milliliter bottle, and that each guest will drink two glasses the first hour, then one glass an hour after that. Offer a red and a white - or just sparkling wine - and always offer water.

Fruit nectars blended with still or sparkling water make a refreshing alternative to alcoholic drinks.

[ Robin Mather Jenkins]

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