Open Season

For those hunting for an easy way to host a holiday party, an open house is a great option

December 01, 2007|By Donna Beth Joy Shapiro | Donna Beth Joy Shapiro,Special to the Sun

It's no surprise that fear of entertaining ranks right up there with fear of public speaking, job interviews and first dates. A 2002 study by a British psychology professor found that 12 percent of those brave enough to invite guests into their home go on to suffer rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, headaches, nausea and "mental distraction."

Trying to measure up to what's shown on TV and in glossy books freezes many would-be hosts into inertia, but remember that those perfect images have been fussed over by chefs, photographers and stylists -- and may be even digitally enhanced. The picture is often fantasy. It's not realistic, and any experienced host will tell you that rule No. 1 in planning a party is to be realistic.

Throwing a seated dinner for friends, family, neighbors and colleagues may not be realistic for reasons including time, space, budget and, for some, stress. An easier solution is holding an open house.

"In spite of the stress I get from entertaining, giving an open house really lets friends and family know I care," says Rebecca Jessop, a busy new mom and marketing specialist for the Mayor's Office of Cable and Communications. "Plus, it gives me a deadline to clean the house."

Make a plan

Open house is a general term applied to any sort of gathering other than a seated meal. An open house can be held any time of day or evening and can take many forms -- breakfast, brunch, lunch, afternoon tea, cocktails, dinner or dessert. If you don't have a particular time of day in mind, focus on your favorite meal, cuisine or theme.

Also, assess your setting. If seating will be limited, steer away from an event requiring lots of dishes and utensils. A standing-room-only afternoon tea will not work.

If you do not have enough dishes, utensils, glassware, chairs, etc., almost anything can be rented.

Keep it simple

The most impressive spreads feature a few dishes done well. "I particularly look forward to an occasion when I know the meal is planned around the signature item of the party-giver," says Michael Molla, vice president for operations at Maryland Institute College of Art.

Aim for as many dishes as can be prepared ahead, and determine how much refrigerator space you will need to store them. If necessary, supplement storage space with ice chests. Consider serving catered or prepared food if the quality and cost rivals homemade or if time is short. Try to limit last-minute tasks to slicing bread, garnishing platters, filling ice buckets and lighting candles.

Be beverage-smart

Think about where you will set up the beverages and what you will serve. Try to locate drinks in a corner of the room or at least in a place with sufficient wiggle room to facilitate traffic flow and avoid collisions and spills. If serving coffee or hot water from a large plug-in urn, strive to set the urn up immediately adjacent to an outlet to avoid the use of an extension cord.

Choosing a few signature beverages can save money when buying by the case, and having just a few choices limits the types of glassware needed. Champagne or sparkling wine complements almost everything. Consider making either go further by using it in a punch.

Real eggnog, made with raw eggs, carries the risk of salmonella poisoning. A nice alternative is prepared eggnog gussied up with spirits and garnish, served in a glass punchbowl.

Always have a selection of nonalcoholic beverages, including diet varieties. If you'll be providing a full bar or will constantly be making or refilling eggnog or punch, consider hiring a bartender. The going rate is $20 per hour, with a four-hour minimum, according to Sandy Dodson of the Maryland Bartending Academy, which can recommend bartenders for parties.

Party personality

Even the most simple of open-house menus can be memorable and genuinely reflect the personality of the host. Brad Wees- ner, a frequent host and Frederick interior designer who formerly worked in the hospitality industry, says the happiest hosts stay true to their style and comfort level.

"If you love a casual lifestyle and have created a home featuring cozy, chippy furnishings, giving a black-tie cocktail party will not ring true." Truth be told, most guests probably welcome the opportunity to leave the fancy dress at home.

Consider the soup-and-bread party, perfect from afternoon into evening. Soup always tastes better the day after it was made, and artisanal breads are readily available or easily made if you have a bread machine.

Invite guests to serve themselves from four different pots of soups (including at least one vegetarian selection) simmering on your stove. On the counter, have platters of interesting crackers and tantalizing breads and rolls. Cookies and pies are perfect desserts for this casual meal, and guests, often flummoxed by what to bring the host, may enjoy contributing to a dessert buffet.

Antipasto, anyone?

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