How to Host a Killer Cocktail Party: PART 2 – Party Food Made Easy
Party guests usually congregate around snack bars, buffets, cake tables just as they would gather around the kitchen or the grill when visiting friends for dinner. No ifs, ands or buts about it: Food brings people together. (Perhaps even more than the cocktail bar discussed in Part I ). While a shared food experience is always special, people really love party food. Maybe because it’s often fancier, or miniature—or both! Or because platters of sugary sweets and salty snacks can tempt even the healthiest of eaters.
No matter the occasion or time of day, whether the bar is flowing or not, partygoers will feel more comfortable and be more likely to enjoy themselves when they are noshing. But if the thought of crudités, canapés, petit fours and hors d’oeuvres just gives you a headache, don’t worry: It doesn’t have to be difficult. Really. The trick is to plan ahead, and don’t try to do it all yourself.
PLANNING THE MENU
Depending on the size, time, and budget of the party, you may or may not want to serve a full meal. Although, if people are drinking, it is a good idea to keep at least a few small dishes of nuts, candy, fruit or other bar snacks around to soak up some booze and keep people mingling. Usually, small appetizers and something sweet will appease any crowd.
First, decide on a basic menu and scope: Will you be serving small bites, an appetizer buffet or a 3-course meal? Is there a theme for the party? Write down all of your menu ideas, and then mark out the things that sound overly complicated, or like they don’t fit with the theme. No matter how good something looks in a magazine or on Pinterest, if you look at it on paper and think “This recipe looks like a pain in the ass” or “My friends are going to think this is weird,” it will be, and they will. Trust me, your party will be better without it, whatever it is.
For instance, at my annual holiday cocktail party last year I asked a good friend to help asseble smoked salmon toasts with pears and capers from a recipe I found online. In the end, no one ate them because they didn’t taste very good, and my helpful friend smelled like fish and capers all night. Major fail. (Sorry, Bessa!) Her deliciously simple deviled eggs, however, were the first thing to go from the hors d’oeuvres table, along with the super easy candied bacon I whipped up hours before the party started.
Lesson learned: The menu doesn’t have to be complicated. Just choose a few, easy dishes you know will be delicious. If your friends always rave about your artichoke dip or carrot cake, it’s okay to make that every time. It never fails to give people what they want, even if it’s just chocolate chip cookies or bacon candy. The bottom line is simply to serve food that tastes good. That, and don’t forget dessert: Serve something sweet, and people will almost always forget the rest.
USE YOUR VILLAGE
No matter what you plan on serving, don’t feel like you have to do it all yourself. As the saying goes, “It takes a village.” Don’t be afraid to use your village. I cannot emphasize this enough: Use your village. Your friends are likely relieved that someone else is hosting, and are usually happy to bring something or help out if you just ask. As a rule of thumb, assign one “helper” for every 10 guests, and ask your designated helpers to come an hour early to help set up. Just don’t ask them to assemble your most difficult (and smelliest) hors d’oeuvre.
You can also make things easier on yourself (and your village) by choosing one or more dishes to purchase from a local restaurant, farmers market or bakery. For a fun fiesta, try purchasing tamales from a local cook, or order chicken wings for a sports viewing party if you can afford it. A small cake from your local bakery will also serve as decoration for your dessert table.
Another way to “use your village” is to make the party food into a contest; my annual Pumpkin Carving Party has become a chili cook-off that everyone looks forward to, especially the guests who feel like their chili recipe is the best! Let party guests cast votes for the best chili, and consider making a small prize or badge for the winner. People love a competition, and the same guests continue to bring their prized dish every year.
PREPARE FOOD IN ADVANCE
If you want to try your hand at something new, take the time to read a few recipes online. (Food & Wine Magazine and the Food Network websites are always a good bet.) Try to select recipes using things you already have in your kitchen, not ingredients you’ve never heard of.
If there are components that can be made ahead and refrigerated or frozen, schedule time in the days leading up to your party to do that. You can even have a few friends over to help with the prep the week before (if you ply them with wine, of course). The importance of this part of the planning cannot be overstated: Make as much food in advance as you possibly can. The rest, you should delegate.
Here’s the trick to assigning people what to bring: Delegate considerately. I usually ask couples to bring food and assign singles the ice and beverages. Don’t ask the pregnant girl to bring alcohol or the grad student to cook. If you know someone has a “signature dish,” they will be flattered that you asked them to bring it. Do enough in advance and delegate appropriately, and you may even have your hair and makeup done before the party starts (I consider this a preeminent sign of success).
Your next shindig is sure to be a hit with your guests (and a breeze for you, the host) if you follow just a few easy rules: Plan ahead, delegate, and make as much food as possible before the day of the party. Voilá! No-stress success.
Have a great cocktail party idea, or a story of a party gone wrong? Feel free to share!