When you talk to a professional party planner about the latest in holiday entertaining, you often get what sounds like a mixed message. Luxury ingredients are definitely in, but people also are asking for homey foods for their parties. Guests are more interested in food and cooking than ever, yet the menu shouldn't be the only focus of the party.
"The pendulum is kind of right in the middle between the '80s excess and when it went back to real homey comfort food," says Michael Jennings of Small Potatoes Catering in San Francisco.
It may sound contradictory, but it is possible to throw holiday parties that are both glamorous and welcoming, with delicious foods that don't require spending all your time in the kitchen, say several caterers.
The trick is to combine lavish and homespun, homemade and store-bought, and to have lots of fun doing it.
To help with your party planning, we've gathered advice from caterers and recipes that can be made partly or entirely in advance.
We've paired them with ideas for quality purchased foods or easy side dishes to round out the menu. Pick one or two recipes, do as much ahead as you can, then fill out the buffet table with charcuterie, farmstead cheeses, and local nuts, dates and olives from your local deli, cheese store or farmers' market.
"People fret about having enough variety," says Berkeley, Calif., caterer Hugh Groman. "If you choose things from the heart that are really quality, you'll be fine - one special cocktail, just a few different dishes."
Although these recipes may be more time-consuming on the front end, caterers say that mini-servings are the way to go.
"The days of the big shrimp bowls and dipping into the same cocktail sauce and slicing into the same big cake - those parties were beautiful, but that's a trend that's gone," says Steve Denison, president of McCall Catering in San Francisco. Instead, he says, "Everything should be in individual pieces. One, two, two-and-a-half bites. Intense flavors, fresh and authentic."
To accompany today's hors d'oeuvres recipes, Napa Valley caterer Elaine Bell suggests making a big batch of up-market macaroni and cheese, scooping it into ramekins, and microwaving right before serving in the individual cups.
"People still really like things that are creative and put a new twist on things from their past," Bell says. Guests also respond well to the miniature aspect, such as serving soup or risotto in hollowed-out miniature white pumpkins.
Another trend that caterers have noticed is a general fascination with ingredients and how food is prepared.
"People are really interested in cooking and what's local. People who didn't use to cook do now," says Jennifer Spiegel of Fork & Spoon Productions in San Francisco.
When entertaining at home, Bell often invites guests who like to cook to come early, have a glass of wine, and help with last-minute preparation and plating. After all, the host has already done the hard part - the planning, shopping and prepping.
"People really like to feel like they have some connection to the kitchen, even though they may not have a lot of time to do that at home," Bell says. "If they're put in an environment where they can get involved, it's really fun."
Although caterers say they are getting lots of client requests for luxury ingredients such as caviar, they would actually rather serve homey food at their own parties, such as meat loaf, roast pork loin, soups and one-pot dishes.
"We cook relatively simple food at home," Spiegel says. "It's about the people and the conversation and the great wine." Part of the reason for that is to keep the focus of the event on friends and family.
"People want to come to your house to see you. If you're running around to get the party going and doing the food, people feel awkward," Denison says.
To prevent that, be organized, so there's enough time to put on the finishing touches before most of the guests arrive. Shop in advance, cook ahead, and clean as you go. And don't worry too much about decorating.
"People ask me about how to decorate their home," Denison says. "I say, 'With a welcoming smile at the front door.' You can never have enough candles. Turn off the overhead lights. Don't put an ending time on the invitation. Make people feel welcome."
Filet Mignon with Horseradish Cream on Rosemary Biscuits
Makes 24 small sandwiches
For the Horseradish Cream:
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons peeled, finely grated horseradish root (1/2 ounce, or prepared)
Salt and pepper to taste
For the Rosemary Biscuits:
1/4 pound (2 sticks) cold butter, plus 4 tablespoons melted butter to finish
4 cups, plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons baking powder 2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
11/3 cups whole milk
For the sandwiches:
11/2 pounds filet mignon, or 2 steaks, 2 inches thick
2 ounces baby arugula, sliced fine
1. For Horseradish Cream:
In a small bowl, up to 1 week ahead, mix ingredients, cover and chill until ready to use.
2. For the Rosemary Biscuits:
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Dice the cold butter, spread on a plate and chill in the freezer for 15 minutes. In a food processor, pulsing lightly, mix the flour, salt, baking powder, sugar and rosemary until well blended. Add cold butter; pulse until butter is the size of small peas. Pulse in milk until a dough forms.
Put dough on a lightly floured surface, divide into 4 equal pieces and gently pat each into a disc 1/2-inch thick. Cut each circle into 6 wedges. Place on a baking sheet and bake until just done and barely golden, 10 to 12 minutes. Brush wedges generously with melted butter and let cool.
4. To assemble the sandwiches:
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Season the meat with salt and pepper to taste. Heat a heavy-bottomed medium skillet on medium-high heat. When very hot, add enough vegetable oil to coat the bottom.
When the oil is hot, add the meat, sear 3 to 4 minutes on one side. Flip the meat, place in the oven and roast until the meat reaches 128 degrees in the thickest part, 5 to 8 minutes. Remove from the oven, tent with foil and rest at least 10 minutes, then slice thinly.
6. To assemble:
Up to 3 hours ahead, split biscuits, spread cut tops with Horseradish Cream, put filet and baby arugula on the bottom half and close to form sandwiches.
Per sandwich: 230 calories, 9 grams protein, 19 grams carbohydrate, 13 grams fat), 47 milligrams cholesterol, 189 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.