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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," recalled Heather Joye Bender of LifesCelebrations Inc. in Skokie. 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.
By taking a few minutes now--before the season begins--to lay in some easy-to-heat frozen fancy finger foods, the doorbell will no longer sound like a death knell.
The Good Eating staff stocked up on a selection of ready-made appetizers. You'll find the summary of our favorites inside. 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."
Try to balance sweet and savory offerings, she said, "but the sweet can be Sara Lee poundcake. Drip a little chocolate sauce over it, add a little whipped cream. Or use strawberry sauce or caramel sauce." The impromptu party also is a great time to use some of the specialty condiments and foods you might have picked up in the fancy-foods aisle, she said.
Bender also suggested keeping "an extra tablecloth hidden away. It's only for times like this. That way, you know it's always clean."
But her best suggestion? "Remember that your guests are coming by for special times with you. Although having the right things out makes you feel good, that's not what they're going to remember."
What they're going to remember is how happy they felt in your company.
And you're going to remember how easy it was to make them feel that way.
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Our favorite mail-order little bites
Six Good Eating staff members tasted nearly a dozen mail-order frozen appetizers. Each was reheated according to directions. Here are the staff's favorites; prices do not include shipping.
Duck foie gras with truffles in mini vol-au-vents: These thimble-sized tidbits of puff pastry filled with truffled foie gras mousse offer "rich taste and good crunch," said one taster who "would definitely serve these." Said another, "These look really cool, Provencal elegant." $130.50 for 60 pieces. D'Artagnan, Newark, N.J. To order, 800-327-8246 or dartagnan.com.
Mini Natchitoches crawfish and meat pies: These one-bite versions of the Louisiana classic garnered mixed reviews. Some tasters thought they looked a little humble for a party and might be too spicy; others thought "the crawfish pies were good and spicy, with nice lard crusts" and said they were "cute." $7.15 for 16 1-ounce crawfish pies; $6.05 for 16 1-ounce meat pies. Cajun Grocer, Lafayette, La. To order, 888-272-9347 or cajungrocer.com.
Spinach pesto flatbread with goat cheese: "Two neat bites and they don't crumble when you first bite in, a big plus," said one taster of these pretty little rounds. "Festive! Love the spinach and cheese," said another. $65 for 20 pieces. Elegant Appetizers, Phoenix. To order, 866-998-8856 or appetizerstore.com.
Pear-Roquefort stars and raspberry-brie stars: "Sweet and yummy," said one taster. "I like both, but the pear-Gorgonzola is best," said another. $13.79 for 12 pieces. Artiko, New Rochelle, N.Y. To order, 888-278-4657 or artikochef.com.
Chili-lime salmon satay: "Looks like candied salmon; good texture and flavor that is surprisingly nuanced. Doesn't suffer from freezing. Nice looking, too," said one taster. "I taste paprika," said another. "Decent flavor." $73 for 25 pieces. Elegant Appetizers, Phoenix. To order, 866-998-8856 or appetizerstore.com.
Be a bookworm--host a party
A few new books can help with the planning and recipes:
"Bite Size: Elegant Recipes for Entertaining"
By Francois Payard with Anne E. McBride and Craig Freeman
(William Morrow, $19.95)
The food focus at cocktail parties should always be on bite-size morsels easy to pick up and eat. New York-based chef Francois Payard offers a roster of appetizers and finger foods aimed at home cooks. The book begins with such basic how-tos as peeling tomatoes, clarifying butter, toasting nuts and shucking oysters. Then Payard is off, providing recipes for such dishes as pork burgers with pickled red onions; tomato, eggplant and goat cheese tarts and even a foie gras terrine cooked in the microwave.
"Real Simple Celebrations: Easy Entertaining for Every Occasion"
(Time Inc. Home Entertainment/Real Simple Books, $27.95)
The fourth title in Real Simple magazine's book series, this book strives to teach readers to "plan without actually knowing you're doing it," to quote the magazine's managing editor, Kristin van Ogrtrop. The book, written by Valerie Rains, covers holidays like Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve, hits life's milestones like birthdays and showers, and offers "anytime celebrations" ranging from a dinner party to a celebration of cheese. There are recipes, of course, and advice on invitations, decorations, dressing the table, etiquette, music to play and party activities.
"The Big Book of Appetizers"
By Meredith Deeds and Carla Snyder
(Chronicle Books, $19.95)
"More than 250 recipes for any occasion" is the subtitle for this sensible can-do paperback. Party basics kicks off the chapters, followed by a listing of recipes in categories such as "sit down," "good and good for you" and "quick and simple." The authors suggest menus for a variety of party situations, from a Cinco de Mayo fiesta to a Super Bowl party to an ethnic "Thai One On" dinner.
"Williams-Sonoma Cocktail Parties"
By Georgeanne Brennan
(Free Press, $24.95)
This latest book in the retailer's Entertaining series focuses on all sorts of cocktail parties. The six parties presented in the photo-crammed book are generic enough to fit nearly every lifestyle and budget. All are simple but sophisticated and easy to pull off. Hosting tips, party do-ahead timetables and recipes for dishes and drinks are included.
"Three Guys from Miami Celebrate Cuban: 100 Great Recipes for Cuban Entertaining"
By Glenn Lindgren, Raul Musibay and Jorge Castillo
(Gibbs Smith, $29.95)
Any cookbook that begins with desserts then moves on to cocktails will cheer any veteran partygoer. Twenty years' worth of Miami parties are distilled into this book, or so the book jacket reads. Although unusual in that desserts come first, the book is otherwise traditionally structured with appetizers, soups, main dishes, outdoor grilling and side dishes getting their due.
-- Bill Daley
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How much for how many?
Since 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.
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