It’s the most wonderful time of the year… right? Holiday cheer is (hopefully) infectious, and a merry time with your nearest and dearest is an idyllic way to celebrate 2012. But if the near and dear are gathering in your home, and you’re stuck with whipping-up a holiday feast for the entire family—it’s good-bye mistletoe, and hello Xanax. Fear not: There’s no reason to drown yourself in liquid cheer and gravy—hosting a stress-free holiday is doable. These tips, from Hudson Valley’s expert partiers, spill the secrets to make planning (and hosting!) stress free. Now, put down the bottle.
Laura Pensiero, owner of Gigi Trattoria in Rhinebeck, suggests that in order to keep the stress low, start thinking about menu ideas as soon as possible. Once you have a general menu in mind, you can figure out what can be done in advance and create a shopping list. “Lists are important—they keep you sane, on target and directed when you hit the market,” she says. Chris Crocco, proprietor of Brasserie 292 in Poughkeepsie, says, “It’s all about the ‘Meez.’” Mise en place—everything in its place—is the only way to successfully serve 50 guests. “In my opinion, simple is always better—keep your menu offerings simple and of high quality. Your guests will appreciate the attention to detail,” Crocoo says. Mary Anne and Richard Erickson, co-owners and executive chefs of Blue Mountain Bistro-to-Go, stress the importance of the length of the party. Mary Anne says that if you’re throwing a holiday cocktail party, it’s important to choose the time carefully, and make sure the guests are clearly aware that you’re not serving dinner. People coming from work are hungry, so you’ll need to have a nice spread of appetizers. They suggest at least six different appetizers for your guests—some stationary and some passed—for a good cocktail mix. She always suggests using foods that are in season, and adds, “No one wants to eat asparagus in December.”
Pensiero’s best word of advice is to keep it simple and do as much as possible in advance. “For a crowd, I like only the main dish to be actually ‘cooking’ when entertaining—all else is reheated or divine at room temperature.” she says. As a registered dietitian, Pensiero understands that holiday eating can be both flavorful and healthful. She recommends using a lot of tasty seasonal, local vegetable side dishes and portion control. And yes, it’s okay to ask someone to bring a dish. Erickson has seen an upswing in pot luck parties lately, and found that it’s fun to ask each guest to bring their holiday favorite. She says, “This way, everyone gets to participate and feel like they’re a part of things—it also lightens the load for the host.”
Dessert bars are a fantastic (and trendy) way to make a big impact for a large group. The designated and well-designed area is the perfect place to display (aka: show off) your laborious efforts in the kitchen. Simply set up a designated dessert table, and carefully display your sweets in groups. Think theme, such as favorite fall treats for Thanksgiving and wintery sweets for the holiday, with varying sizes and quantities. Peppermint and chocolate pops, doughnuts, and cupcakes make a really standout presentation.
Don’t Forget the Drink
The holidays and boozing go hand-in-hand. Paul Maloney, owner of artisanal cocktail haven Stockade Tavern in Kingston, recommends a holiday punch for a larger crowd. “Before cocktails, Americans were serving punch, so it’s a traditional drink for the holiday,” he says. The Boston Rum Punch is light in alcohol, flavorful, and allows you to mingle while your guest serve themselves. He says, “It’s important to have small glasses and make sure you actually run out of the punch—otherwise, your guests won’t switch to another booze.” The natural booze progression would be to wine, which makes for an easy drink to serve with dinner. Crocco says that not all quality wines carry heavy price tags, and he likes to follow certain importers or distributors. “Thanks to Google, you can easily look up ‘great wine importers and distributors to follow’ and get a list of quality offerings,” he says. “The easiest way is to find a local shop that likes to talk to their customers about wines and spirits, and to guide them in the right direction.” And at the end of the night, Maloney recommends to serve a small, stirred spirit—this can be batched and ready to serve (in a lovely pitcher) at the end of the evening. The preferred end-of-the-evening cocktail for his clients is a Palmetto (an aged-rum version of the Manhattan), or a Boulevardier (a bourbon Negroni). He mentions that renting glassware is often the easiest option for a large group.
Now, Be Merry
Sure, the booze will make you merry, but there’s nothing like décor and music to get you in the spirit. Maloney advises extra candles and flowers for a simple and meaningful décor, and says that just because it’s the holidays, it’s not necessary to be completely traditional. “We’ve thrown a Valentine’s Day party with a gothic theme and love old-fashioned things like early jazz for the holiday.” And the music? Crocco recommends a gentle mix of the Ramones and the Smiths, while Erickson loves Pandora for creating the perfect holiday party playlist.