Danville Express

Living - December 28, 2007

Epicure: Throw an impromptu holiday party

by Jacqui Love Marshall

'Tis the season to be jolly. In the midst of the holidays, when we are full of good cheer, the holiday spirit takes hold and we ponder: "Wouldn't it be nice to have a few friends over to celebrate?" Yet most of us manage to talk ourselves out of the idea almost as quickly as we have it. We think: too much work, too much stress, too late to plan something that will turn out well. So we leave the thought in a corner with the torn wrapping paper and leftover ribbon. I say: Have a party anyway!

The secret to hosting an impromptu party: Keep it simple. When we think too hard or put forth too much effort, we get stressed out and discourage ourselves from ever hosting again. A party doesn't have to earn a photo spread in Diablo Magazine to be considered great; it only has to satisfy your social desires, get executed with minimal stress, and create an evening of fun. In reality, some of the best parties are those conceived on the spur of the moment, with only a few party-ready people and the simplest of ingredients.

So, if you get a sudden urge to host an impromptu event this season, here are a few suggestions to aid and abet your holiday frivolity. Let's start with a few important rules:


1. Provide the basics: A little food, something to drink and a few good people are ALL you need; anything more complex will require exponential work on both ends. Limit your menu to one hearty dish or several small plates. Don't offer an open bar: Select one alcoholic and one non-alcoholic drink, plus water and coffee for the designated drivers.

2. Simple is as simple does: Limiting your guests to a dozen or fewer will not only keep work and costs down but you'll actually get to talk to everyone before the evening is over. Focus on a specific group - neighbors, parents you car-pool with, co-workers - and keep it cozy. Call everyone personally and tell them to come with a mindset for casual fun, not high-brow; then maintain that party spirit throughout the event.

3. Use what you have: This is not the time to impress - the focus is on an easy-to-execute plan and down-to-earth camaraderie. If you can quickly generate a party theme using what you already have on hand, great! If not, then select a simple theme based on menu (e.g., sushi, Mexican), a color (e.g., red or white) or your specialty dish (gumbo, chili). The theme will help you focus and make decisions spontaneously. For example, use scented candles or votives in your theme color to create a calm ambiance; play spirited music to create a lively ambiance.

4. Minimize the work: Don't even think about using your best china. Use holiday paper plates and napkins. And plan a menu that won't require any utensils. (Hint: The new Draeger's Blackhawk store has a wide selection of holiday paper goods.) Buy a stack of plastic glasses that can double for wine or water. Place several trash receptacles around, using large trash bags over empty cardboard boxes so you can throw the receptacles away with the party debris.

5. Create some fun: Provide a way for your guests to meet one another and get engaged. Pull out your old Scrabble set, a large jigsaw puzzle or an unfinished Sudoku book. Set it out in a common area, so your guests have easy access. Invite people to contribute a Scrabble word for the season, place a puzzle piece or two, or see if a veteran Sudoku player will show others how to play. Or, ask everyone to bring a bottle of wine, cover the labels and see if people can guess what they're drinking. No winners or losers, no prizes, just fun. Want to do something even livelier? Play your favorite Christmas CDs and ask people to generate a spontaneous choir for some indoor caroling. Have a couple of disposable cameras on hand to capture the merriment.


* Beverage options:

- Serve one party cocktail for the evening, e.g., cosmos, martinis. If you can make it in large batches, all the better, so no one gets stuck playing bartender. Or, set out all the ingredients and a simple recipe and let people tend bar for themselves.

- Buy bottles and cans of novelty drinks - spiked lemonade, energy beverages, pre-mixed drinks, hard-to-find soft drinks, "gourmet" waters - and put them on ice in a large tub. Your guests will enjoy imbibing something new and different. - Buy a case of Martinelli's Raspberry/Apple Sparking Juice and serve "unleaded" (plain) or "leaded" (with liquor added).

- Orange juice and champagne ... mimosas, anyone???

* Low-cook ideas:

- Make a batch of cheese fondue and serve with fresh vegetables and torn bread pieces. Or create a chocolate fondue and serve with fruit and shortbread cookies.

- Create a large platter of nachos with tortilla chips, cheese, peppers, black beans, canned tomatoes and olives, salsa.

- Pop one of those packaged tri-tips from Costco into the oven (1 hour cook time). And, while you're there, pick up one or two of their $5 roasted chickens. Serve both meats with rolls and condiments. Let your guests make their own sandwiches.

* No-cook options:

- Serve the simplest of appetizers right out of the grocery bag: Defrost a large bag of shrimp and serve with cocktail sauce; top a block of cream cheese with salsa, chutney or pepper jelly with a tasty spread of crackers; create a cheese/cracker platter.

- Order a batch of miscellaneous appetizers from your favorite Chinese restaurant. Ask them to provide extra fortune cookies and chopsticks.

- Call your local Safeway or Whole Foods and order a platter of crudities and chicken wings. They may even deliver!

Remember: Life is short but memories are long. Don't fret the party planning and don't regret bringing the people you appreciate together to enjoy each other's company. Invite your next door neighbors (who've never been inside your home), ask the ladies in your yoga class to stop by, or call up a handful of friends you haven't seen in months of Sundays. You'll be glad you did. And just think: You have 365 days next year to host a few more as the spirit moves you!

Jacqui lives in Danville with her pug, Nina Simone, and volumes of cookbooks and recipes. Her column runs every other week. E-mail her at jlovemarshall@yahoo.com.


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