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Cocktails, Canapes, Crushing It

Mon, 11/20/2023 - 12:10

The holidays are coming, the holidays are coming!

You may be giving parties and attending parties, you may be celebrating Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Christmas, or a combination of these. Do you love entertaining or dread it? If you dread it, don’t do it. Like horses, guests can feel your fear. But if you’d like to try, or are just looking for some fresh and easy entertaining ideas, I’m here to help.

First of all, the most agreeable way to entertain is to just have a cocktail party with hors d’oeuvres. This way, friends and family can come and go as they please, and they can keep a safe distance from others if they are concerned about Covid. No worries about being in close quarters seated at a dinner table for hours.

The beauty of a cocktail party is you can make all of the foods ahead of time, set up the bar in advance, and then — one hopes — just enjoy your company. Budget-wise, you can splurge on caviar and shrimp and Champagne or keep it economical with cheeses and crackers, dips and crudités, and a simple bar setup.

I used to give one big party a year and I made all of the food myself for up to 60 people in a galley-size kitchen. If I can do that, you can do this.

Maybe you’d like to make a signature cocktail, punch, or holiday-theme beverage like eggnog. I tend to avoid these at other people’s parties because I don’t know how much booze is in them, as opposed to a glass of wine or a beer. If you do make a punch or whatever, keep it low alcohol. For your teetotaling guests, have a creative mocktail, such as a ginger-lime-mint mixture to which they can add club soda.

For the porch-crusher I used to give, I would make deviled shrimp, roquefort gougères, many dips, smoked-salmon rillettes, marinated olives with fennel, citrus rind, and garlic, “billionaire’s bacon” with brown sugar and spices, and artichoke spread. The gougères, from the “Silver Palate” cookbook (find the recipe online), were the only offering that had to be served hot, which gave me a chance to circulate among the guests. I would supplement these homemade goodies with bowls of cashews and peanuts, Snyder’s honey mustard pretzel bits, and a platter of Tyson’s chicken wings. No shame in that: It’s a party! I learned from my mother to always group foods together that belong together, such as my easy goat cheese with chopped garlic and thyme, which must always be served with Carr’s Wheatmeal crackers that offer a sweet contrast to the pungent garlic. And always have bowls of nuts on the bar for people to nibble while they wait for a drink.

There will always be some guests who just want to keep hanging out with you long after the wingding is done, so it’s a good idea to have ready a hearty soup or chili with cornbread, or a honey-baked ham or turkey to make sliders.

It’s perfectly okay to serve store-bought canapes, such as spanakopita (spinach feta triangles), pigs in a blanket, or whatevs, but please don’t just put out a tub of Sabra hummus. That’s just sad. Make Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa recipe for hummus, instead; it is searchable online, couldn’t be easier, and it has the perfect balance of lemon, tahini, and garlic.

It’s fun to tailor your cocktail-party spread to the occasion. For a Hanukkah party, make some mini latkes, potato, sweet potato, or zucchini. I like to make the zucchini latkes to serve with some full-fat Greek yogurt for dipping or dabbing. A smoked salmon or trout dip is delicious and easy to make, as are harissa deviled eggs. All of these can be made well before your celebration. For Kwanzaa — which is not a religious holiday, but more of a cultural one, created in 1966 by the chairman of Black studies at California State University — any foods of the geography of the African diaspora can be served (like jerk chicken or accra fritters from the Caribbean), along with African-American traditional favorites such as gumbo, macaroni and cheese, and sweet-potato cookies.

A Christmas holiday cocktail party can feature anything red and green-colored. For a splurge, serve little slices of beef tenderloin on crostini with a dollop of red-horseradish sauce, broiled oysters, a baked Brie, deviled eggs, stuffed endive with herbed goat cheese, and a variety of sugar cookies.

Here are some easy entertaining ideas to get you started in planning your holiday cocktail party. And if you only celebrate “Festivus for the Rest of Us,” all you have to do is erect an aluminum pole, serve small cups of spaghetti or mini-meatloaf sandwiches, and finish with some Ben and Jerry’s “Festivus: A Flavor for the Rest of Us” ice cream, which is cinnamon with gingersnap chunks and a ginger caramel swirl.


Deviled Ham Tea Sandwiches

     I know many people think of tea sandwiches as a pinkies-up, summer tea party foodstuff, but I have started making them all the time because they are unexpected, kinda fancy, economical, and can be made well in advance. Here is a recipe adapted from a New York Times food column. It makes enough for a squajillion sandwiches. . . .

1 lb. ham (get real baked ham from Red Horse Market)

1⁄4 cup chopped onion

1⁄2 cup Dijon mustard

4 Tbsp. mayonnaise

1 Tbsp. horseradish

1⁄4 tsp. cayenne pepper

2 loaves Pepperidge Farm Very Thin bread, white or whole wheat

     Grind everything together in a food processor until almost smooth. Lay pairs of bread slices out on your counter. Spread deviled ham on alternating slices of bread. Top each hammed slice with a bare slice. Stack into neat piles, four sandwiches per pile, wrap tightly in plastic wrap, and chill. When ready to serve, slice crusts off each stack of sandwiches, then slice into halves, rectangles, triangles, whatever you wish. Place on platter and cover with plastic until serving to keep them moist.

Marinated Olives With Citrus and Fennel

     Here is another easy do-ahead recipe.  This one is from an old Washington Post food column. Makes two cups.

1⁄2 lb. each kalamata olives and green olives of your choice, drained

2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1 orange, peeled with citrus zester, save the juice

1 lemon, peeled with citrus zester, save the juice

2 Tbsp. fennel seeds

     Place olives in a bowl or jar with garlic, orange and lemon peels, and fennel seeds, and squeeze the orange and lemon juice over all. Toss well and add a bit of olive oil. Cover and refrigerate, shaking the jar occasionally. These will be best after a day or two, and will last a few weeks.


Cold Deviled Shrimp

     I got the next recipe from my mother-in-law, Nancy. It is as good as deviled shrimp get. Again, a recipe that can be made a day or two in advance.

2 lbs. medium shrimp cooked for 3 minutes in salted water and cooled

1 lemon

1 red onion

1⁄2 cup black olives

1⁄2 cup diced sweet red pepper

1⁄2 cup lemon juice

1⁄4 cup canola oil

1 Tbsp. wine vinegar

1 clove garlic, minced

1 bay leaf, broken up

1 Tbsp. dry mustard

1⁄4 tsp. cayenne pepper

1 tsp. salt

     Combine everything and refrigerate. Give them a stir every now and then before serving.


Mrs. Threadgill’s Cheese Wafers

     This last recipe I got from a neighbor in Texas. Cheese straws are a big thing down South, and these are a clever riff on cheese straws. You can freeze them or keep them in an airtight container for a few weeks. It’s important to actually grate the cheddar cheese, rather than using the stuff pre-grated from a bag. Makes a few dozen, depending on size of cracker.

1 stick butter, room temperature

1 cup grated, sharp cheddar cheese

1 cup flour

1 cup Rice Krispies

1⁄2 tsp. salt

1⁄4 tsp. cayenne pepper

     Preheat oven to 375. Place all ingredients in a bowl and mush together with your hands until the dough comes together. Form dough into small balls, a little smaller than a golf ball. Place a few inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. Flatten with a fork in a crosshatch pattern, as you do with peanut-butter cookies. Bake approximately 15 to 20 minutes, until golden brown. I like them a bit darker and crunchier. Cool and place in an airtight container.


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