Friday December 14, 2012

There is something irresistible about holiday parties. To my mind, this defies all logic, because as hard as we try to keep our schedules managed, this season continues to be some of the most hectic time of the year. So why add yet another thing to our agenda, either as hosts or as guests? Filling up all of our available time will only make the season slip by faster, won't it?

Or will it? Isn't part of the joy of this time of year getting together with family and friends? And what's better (and sometimes even a very efficient) way to do that than to throw or attend a holiday bash? Admittedly, my husband and I have done the ‘attending' rather than ‘throwing' in recent years, leaving the hosting to others. We would just pop in with a tasty snack to contribute to the hors d'oeuvres table or slip a bottle of wine for under the tree. It just seemed to fit better into our schedules - let's face it, it seemed like hassle during a time when we were already feeling overwhelmed. But this year, I somehow got it into my head that we were done being the visitors, it was time to dust off the dishes, make the glassware gleam and throw ourselves a party!

It was very hard to commit. Jon and I had targeted the date about a month in advance. We spoke vaguely of this party, even downgrading it to a ‘get-together' so as not to let it seem too scary. We mentioned it to close friends if it came up in conversation, but an actual invitation? That would mean we were committed

As the date got closer, I realized that I had very clear ideas of how I wanted this party to be. I had found two recipes that I wanted to try. I had developed a guest list and had even made a mental catalog of serving dishes, some of them favorites that hadn't seen the light of day in far too long. It became apparent that we had better make our move and actually invite people, or we would be the only guests.

So, slightly less than 36 hours before party time, we sent out a couple messages asking people to stop by. Fortunately, we have many friends who also operate spontaneously and we were pleased to see that several of them thought they could make it. I pulled out the recipes, made a comprehensive grocery list and took stock of the pantry while my husband headed out to Windham Wines. Lucky for us, my mom decided that the gift of house-cleaning was a good one for us this year, so we didn't have to worry about the state of the bathroom or the depth of the dust - a luxury previously unknown!

One somewhat intense, but invigorating early afternoon of preparation later, and we were welcoming the first of our guests. In some ways we couldn't quite believe it was true - we had managed to pull this party out of a hat, gave folks a pathetically small window of time to respond and here we were, all relaxing and having fun! Friends arrived with cookies and gingerbread, smoked salmon and deviled eggs, new ornaments for the tree and lots of kids for playing. After having to repeatedly corral the dog, one friend took pity on him and brought him to her house to play with her dogs, returning a while later with her husband, certainly a trade for the better.

The menu that I had come up with worked very well. A late afternoon ‘nosh' party, most everything was able to be prepped ahead, which was key in keeping our stress-levels low. Cider, egg nog, a couple bottles of wine, some seasonal beer and sparkling lemonade graced the bar (ok, kitchen counter). A cheese and cracker plate, a festive green bowl of clementines, chips, slasa and 12-year-old Marielle's guacamole were the easy-to-assemble elements of the table. The only ‘cooking' that we did was the cheese tart that 7-year-old Margot made and some delicious braised meatballs. These two rounded out the menu nicely and I highly recommend them, especially as they can both be made assembled ahead of time. They can also be brought to a party as a contribution, as they travel well, although it might be nice to bring the tart assembled and check with your host/hostess about baking it there, as it really is best warm. Cheese Tart from ‘Kitchen Playdates' by Lauren Bank Deen

I sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed according to package directions (I use Pepperidge Farm)

1 cup ricotta cheese

One-half cup grated aged provolone cheese (or substitute parmesan)

One-half cup crumbled feta

1 egg

Salt and pepper to taste

Chopped fresh rosemary (you can also use fresh thyme or oregano)

On a lightly floured surface, roll pastry into a rectangle about 11x13 inches. Transfer to a rimmed sheet pan and prick all over with a fork to avoid bubbling up (trust me, this is important!). Mix cheese, egg and salt and pepper. Spread over pastry, leaving a half-inch border. Brush edges with a little water and fold over the sides of dough to create a rim. At this point, you can refrigerate the tart until you are ready to bake it, for up to 8 hours. Bake tart in a preheated, 400 degree oven for 25-30 minutes (it may require a bit more time if it has been refrigerated) or until the cheese is golden and bubbling and the crust is dark brown on the bottom. Let tart rest for a minute, then cut into squares (kitchen scissors worked really well for this), scatter with fresh herbs and serve.

Braised Tuscan Meatballs adapted from Chris Alberti, Peasant Restaurant, via ‘edible Green Mountains'

2 cups fresh breadcrumbs (I pulsed mine in the food processor)

One and one-half pounds ground beef, 80-90% lean

One-half pound ground turkey

One-half pound ground pork

2 cups grated Romano cheese

1 cup finely chopped flat-leafed parsley

4 cloves garlic, minced

Salt and pepper to taste

3 eggs, beaten

Olive oil for cooking

1 large onion, sliced

4-5 springs fresh rosemary

Half-bottle of Pinot Grigio or chicken stock, for braising

Moisten breadcrumbs with one-half cup water. Combine meats in a large bowl and combine gently with hands. Add breadcrumbs, cheese, parsley, garlic, salt and pepper and eggs to meat and combine, trying not to compact too much. Form meatballs about 1" in diameter and refrigerate at least one hour. When ready to cook, heat one-quarter cup olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and brown meatballs in batches, taking care not to crowd too many in the pan at once and adding more oil as necessary. Once all meatballs are cooked, drain all but 2 tablespoons of oil from the pan and add the onions and rosemary, cooking while stirring often, until onions are quite soft and starting to brown. Add wine and scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Once wine has started to reduce, add meatballs back to pan and continue to cook over medium heat until meatballs are cooked through and liquid is reduced by about half.

We were very pleased with our successful gathering. It did require a smidge of planning and a bit of work, but it was well worth it to have so many friends in our home, meeting and greeting one another and sharing good food and conversation. Kids played happily and we all felt that holiday cheer we spend so much time looking for. Next year, I would like to think that we won't wait so long before committing and making the date official. But, even if it comes together at the last minute again, we'll know that we can, without feeling too overwhelmed, make hosting a party a joyous piece of our holiday season scheduling puzzle.

Julie Potter is a wife, mother of two, avid gardener and passionate cook who believes good food doesn't have to be complicated. Share your thoughts with her at j2m2glen@comcast.net.