First impressions should never be underestimated. They can kick off a party to a terrific start, often with little extra effort for the host. A burst of music, a pint-sized greeter to take your coat, an offered tray of martinis as you walk in the door. Small gestures, but they can make guests feel instantly welcome and at home.
So, for a holiday open house, what could be better than handing each guest a hot mug of soup?
They may not be knocking snow off their boots from the trek from Grandma’s house (unless Grandma has retired to a condo in Mammoth), but it does get cold out there in miles of winter traffic -- especially for anyone dodging sudden December rainstorms and armies of shoppers.
It could be a chestnut soup -- there’s something about chestnuts that immediately signals the holidays. A pumpkin bisque could be lovely too, or a warm and spicy apple puree or a hot vichyssoise.
If it’s the right soup, it will be satisfying without being too heavy, staving off those initial, panicked lunges at the buffet table.
Soup is also surprisingly simple to serve at an open house, though it should be one you can drink easily from a cup or mug. Purees or cream soups work best, as they’re comforting and easy to sip without a spoon. An aromatic or seasonal soup that complements the dishes you’ve set out on the buffet works best.
But it shouldn’t be so rich or thick that’s it’s too filling. And definitely avoid the temptation of hitting your guests with an incendiary bowl of Texas chili that will kill their palate, their breath or your carpet. Nor do you want to impress them with a pot of your best bouillabaisse with shellfish they’ll have to dismantle. You want your guests to be at ease, not furtively hiding New Zealand green-lipped mussel shells under the Christmas tree.
You also want something that’s easy to present as guests arrive. These soups require no last-minute preparation or worry -- just ladle them out and add a dollop of flavored cream as you would to a cup of hot cocoa. You can make them hours or even a day or two ahead.
Then when it’s time, simply reheat -- maybe in that lovely copper pot or red Le Creuset you never use because it looks too pretty -- and keep it over a very low flame, stirring occasionally.
A terrific pumpkin soup is an easy operation, especially if you use canned puree instead of roasting fresh pumpkins. Just saute vegetables in butter, add some maple syrup and spices, chicken stock and the pumpkin; then puree in batches in a blender or food processor -- or use an immersion blender. Whip up some cream and add fresh thyme or sage to swirl in for presentation. Then refrigerate everything until open house time.
And then there are chestnuts, in season now; you can find them in farmers markets, as well as at Whole Foods and Vons. Select fresh nuts, preferably firm and dark, which are easier to peel. (Trader Joe’s sells them frozen in their shells; Whole Foods has them roasted and peeled, whole, in jars. Avoid those canned in water.)
And yes, peeling chestnuts is often on the list -- along with eating fruitcake -- of Least Favorite Holiday Activities, but it’s actually easier than you think.
Score the flat side of each chestnut (this is time consuming, but very important). Then spread them on a baking sheet and roast for 10 minutes in a 500-degree oven. Remove the chestnuts from the oven and cover with a towel that’s been soaked in ice water and wrung out. Let them stand for 10 minutes: This allows the nuts to steam and makes peeling considerably easier.
Peel the chestnuts, then slice and add them to your blender with the rest of the ingredients.
This, of course, assumes that you have any nuts left at this point. Fresh out of the oven, peeled and sprinkled with a little fleur de sel, they are pretty tasty, particularly if you’ve been getting subliminal messages from Bing Crosby crooning in the background. Maybe double the chestnuts in the recipe, just in case.