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Hosting the crowd, big and small


A really strange thing happens this time of year. People who

usually entertain by taking friends out to restaurants are suddenly

hosting holiday parties at home.


Living rooms seem to be the venue of choice for gathering friends,

co-workers, neighbors and family to celebrate the season. It’s also

the best place for people to mingle in a relaxed atmosphere and make

new friends.


Even though Christmas is less than a week away, it’s not too late

to assemble a guest list and make some phone calls. You may discover

people’s calendars are not as crowded as you think.

A number of years ago, I made the last-minute decision to host an

open house on New Year’s Day. Guests were thrilled to be invited

because most of them had spent the night before at home, avoiding New

Year’s Eve madness.

This is actually one of the easiest ways to entertain. People


arrive at different times, so you don’t have to worry about having

specific kinds of food available in any particular order. Set up a

self-serve bar and put out a good selection of food that can be

enjoyed at room temperature, and you’re set.

Another option for an impromptu gathering is to host a celebration

potluck style, or “collaborative entertaining.” Forget the image of

the basement church supper or sidewalk block party. With careful

planning and a little creativity, you can pull off a holiday gala


that won’t soon be forgotten.

As host, you make the guest list and decide whether it’s going to

be strictly party food or a full meal. Your job is to set up and

decorate the buffet table and provide all dinnerware, glassware,

serving utensils, chafing dishes and hot plates, drinks and plenty of

ice. Depending on how many people you invite and how much you like to

cook, you can also prepare a few of your favorite party dishes.

Create a basic menu -- for a full meal, you’ll want no more than

three or four kinds appetizers, main dishes and desserts. The menu

should include types of dishes, not specific recipes.

For example, you can include vegetables and dip, a cheese platter,

individual hors d’oeuvres, a pate or spread with bread rounds -- and

leave the details to the person bringing the dish. While hosts of

small gatherings may supply the entree items and have guests bring

appetizers and desserts, everyone can receive an assignment if you’re

inviting a crowd.

If your potluck party includes entree dishes, limit the menu to

casserole-type dishes that can be easily eaten and served. Jambalaya,

paella, vegetarian chili, curry with rice, enchiladas, quiches and

lasagna (or strata) are good choices (not necessarily together). Be

sure there’s enough variety, and include something meatless. And

don’t forget a large salad.

Desserts are easy this time of year because so many people like to

bake holiday goodies. If not, local bakeries are filled with sweet

treats. Be sure to include some kind of fruit as well.

To avoid the church supper syndrome, your feast shouldn’t look and

taste like one.

Serve enough variety to keep everyone happy, but resist the

temptation to stray from your menu -- don’t fill the buffet table

with 10 different kinds of dishes. It’s much better to have three

people bring their own version of an assigned dish than three

completely different dishes.

Your guests don’t have to be great cooks to participate. Main

courses can be take-out from local restaurants, and great appetizers

are available at up-scale groceries. Ask your guests to bring

purchased items in their own bowls and platters, or have a supply

ready in your kitchen. Foil trays from the supermarket are really


As a rule, each person will consume six to eight pieces of

appetizer food, one portion of dessert and the main course. If it’s

something you slice into pieces, make each piece about a half

portion, as most people will sample a few different things. It’s

better to have too much than end up with hungry guests.

Of course, you can simplify everything with a more limited menu.

My sister went to a potluck wedding brunch where each guest was

assigned one of three kinds of quiche (shrimp, ham or vegetable) or

one kind of salad (fruit or green). The hosts provided drinks, breads

and desserts. This concept can certainly work at holiday time, as


Avoid kitchen traffic jams by having each guest bring chilled

dishes right from the refrigerator and hot dishes in insulated

containers. Even the largest kitchen can’t accommodate dozens of

persons cramming things into the freezer or waiting in line for the

oven at the last minute. However you celebrate the season, have a

very happy holiday!

Note: there are many excellent books available for entertaining

tips. I own “Secrets from a Caterer’s Kitchen” by Nicole Aloni and

refer to it often.

* LILLIAN REITER is a Laguna Beach resident. A self-described

“shameless foodie,” she is currently co-authoring a cookbook. She can

be reached at or P.O. Box 248, Laguna Beach,

CA 92652, or via fax at 494-8979.