Sometimes the best-laid plans are last-minute plans. Before all the comings and goings of this holiday week are done, extend one last invitation to friends and family.
An impromptu gathering at your home is by definition informal, and relieves you of the obligation to have every detail covered. With even a semi-stocked larder, you can invite folks on New Year's Eve to join you for brunch on New Year's Day.
The loose time frame of an open-house invitation lets people drop in, or settle in. Spanning either lunch or dinner, the food to offer will shift accordingly. A buffet enables flexibility over any time frame and allows guests to spread out around a table, or on the couch by the fireplace.
I like to think about menu-planning in this general way: It's winter, so serve something warm and spiced; it's a buffet, so think platters, big bowls, and casseroles. Opt for dishes that are sturdy and reheat well. Last-minute means using ingredients or prepared foods you have on hand, or can pick up easily.
A pot of soup, a basket of crackers or bread, a hunk of cheese, a bowl of clementines, and a plate of cookies would more than satisfy. Hot mulled cider on the stove, a dozen orders of dumplings delivered from the local Chinese restaurant, and a few cold beers would, too.
For a larger group coming around for brunch, add a big winter fruit salad, a jar of granola, a bowl of thickened yogurt, an egg dish, smoked meat or fish, coffee cake or muffins.
For a crowd arriving later in the day, add a big green salad, roasted vegetables, and a warm entree.
Starchy vegetable casseroles are flavorful and filling and fit the bill for satisfying appetites at any time of day. Try a cheesy, savory bread pudding called strata full of mixed mushrooms or spinach or topped with glazed apples, either of which is great with soup or salad or cut small as finger food.
Lasagne or baked ziti is always welcome on a buffet, as is a simple potato frittata. Frittatas are skillet-baked, open-faced omelettes with vegetables and often some cheese. A Persian cousin to the Italian frittata is kuku, which is as fun to say as it is to eat. Kuku is packed with more herbs, spices, and vegetables than a frittata, but the basic preparation is similar. These well-seasoned baked egg dishes are meant for a crowd. Served in wedges they hold up nicely, and are as good at room temperature as they are just out of the oven.
Quick breads and muffins can be premeasured and made ready the night before for all but last-minute baking. A quick stir of wet ingredients into dry takes less time than preheating the oven, and you get the smell of fresh-baked goodies filling the house. Scone batter can be completed ahead, hand-formed or cut into shapes, and frozen unbaked overnight (or longer). These scones will bake beautifully from the freezer, sending out the same olfactory welcome. Guests will be just as happy with bakery bread, even if it's warmed from your stash in the freezer.
Keep a variety of crackers and an assortment of aged and fresh cheeses on hand, and extra guests won't leave hungry. The hard cheeses will last for weeks if not needed, and leftovers can be turned into grilled cheese or cheese fondue next week. Nuts, olives, and jarred pickled vegetables such as Peppadew peppers or dilly beans also extend your menu direct from the pantry if the guest list expands.
Depending on your set- up, you can include a drink station alongside the food or in a separate area. "Day-after" parties call for copious quantities of caffeine, so have coffeepots and carafes at the ready. A pitcher of great Bloody Marys with the vodka bottle alongside may be the right gesture, or a large ice-filled bowl with bottles of sparkling water and soft drinks and beer might be more your style. Either way, have glasses, cups, garnishes, sugar, and creamers easy to find, refill often, and offer a place to recycle bottles and cans.
If soup or hot cider is staying warm on the stove, place mugs or hot cups and spoons on the counter nearby.
Use place-card holders or blank index cards folded in half to write the names and ingredients of each dish on the buffet. This lets you describe the offerings to each guest, even when you are in conversation in another room, when they are serving themselves. It is especially helpful to label interesting cheeses, things with nuts, and any dishes that might seem unfamiliar.
I set up my buffets with plates at the start, platters and bowls of food next, and the flatware and napkins bundled neatly at the end. When space permits, group sauces and condiments next to the dishes they accompany - or put condiments all together in a separate station.
Give desserts their own spot - either at one end with small plates, or on a separate table or sideboard. A quick fruit crumble can be assembled from frozen berries and a simple oat topping. A tin of cookies and candies tucked next to a carafe of coffee makes even this simple offering stand out.
After this season of excess, whatever you have to offer will be icing on the cake.
Best Ever Bloody Mary
Winter fruit salad of apples, oranges, pears, persimmons
Saffron-Tinted Cauliflower Potato Soup
Oven-Braised Leeks With Lemon-Beet Vinaigrette
Mixed Mushroom & Cheddar Cheese Strata
Thin-sliced smoked duck breast with grainy mustard
Herring in wine sauce with crackers
Crusty bread & Cranberry-Crumb Muffins
Fresh goat cheese and thick yogurt
Assorted biscotti, holiday cookies, spiced nuts, candiesEndText
Makes 8-10 servings
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, peeled, chopped fine
2 cloves garlic, peeled, minced
2 cups thinly sliced mixed mushrooms such as oyster, shiitake, portobello, white
7 to 8 cups cubed French or Italian bread (one large baguette)
2 cups grated cheddar cheese
2 cups milk
1 cup heavy cream
Few grates of fresh nutmeg
2 teaspoons fresh thyme or cilantro, chopped
1 to 2 teaspoons salt (to taste)
1 to 2 teaspoons fresh pepper
1 teaspoon paprika or 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 cup fresh grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (optional)
1. Heat the oil, add the onion, and cook for 4 to 5 minutes over medium heat, stirring often, until translucent and starting to brown. Add the garlic and cook 1 to 2 minutes more. Add the mushrooms, season with salt, and cook until mushrooms have exuded their juices and browned.
2. Butter well a large casserole or gratin dish (3 to 4 quart). Fill the bottom of the dish with ½ of the bread cubes. Spoon one half of the mushroom-onion mixture on top of the bread and sprinkle with 1 cup of the grated cheddar. Add the remaining bread, layer with the remaining mushrooms and the remaining cheese.
3. Beat the eggs, milk, cream, nutmeg, herb of choice, salt, and peppers together until combined. Pour this custard evenly over all the layers in the baking dish. Cover and let sit overnight (at least 4 hours).
4. At least an hour before serving, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Sprinkle the Parmesan cheese (if using) on top of the bread mixture and bake in a hot oven for 45 to 50 minutes until golden brown and cooked through. Let sit for 5 to 10 minutes before slicing or scooping from the serving dish.
Accompany with a green salad, Braised Leeks, or sliced fruit.
Per serving: 332 calories, 11 grams saturated fat, 218 milligrams cholesterol, 12.5 grams carbohydrates, 18 grams protein, 661 milligrams sodium, trace fiber.
Makes 4-6 drinks
1 quart of your favorite tomato juice or tomato-based mixed vegetable juice
1 shot (1 large tablespoon) horseradish
1 shot (1 large tablespoon) Worcestershire sauce
1 shot (1 tablespoon) Tabasco sauce
1 teaspoon celery salt
Juice of two limes
6 pepperoncini peppers
6 green olives stuffed with garlic (or just pitted)
Six lime slices
6 stalks celery, washed
1. In a pitcher, mix the tomato or mixed vegetable juice with the horseradish, Tabasco, and Worcestershire sauces, celery salt, and lime juice.
2. Use a toothpick to connect one pepper with one olive and one slice of lime.
3. Serve over ice (add one shot of vodka, if desired) with garnish of pepperoncini pepper, olive, and lime slice, and a celery stalk stuck into the glass.
Per serving: 41 calories, trace fat, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 8.8 grams carbohydrates, 1.5 grams protein, 538 milligrams sodium, 1.2 grams fiber, 6.8 grams sugar.
Makes 6-8 servings
1 small beet, scrubbed
6 large leeks
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
Salt and pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
Juice of one lemon
Zest of 1/2 lemon
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wrap the beet in a piece of foil and place in the oven, directly on a rack. Roast for 20-30 minutes until soft. Remove from oven and let cool.
2. Trim the leeks of the dark green leaves and roots. Split each leek lengthwise and rinse to remove exterior dirt and sand from the leaves. Soak and agitate the leeks in a large bowl of tepid water allowing any remaining sand that was lurking between the leaves to settle to the bottom of the bowl. Remove the leeks from the water and drain in a colander. Return to a fresh bowl of water for a second or third rinse if needed.
3. Pour one tablespoon of the oil in the bottom of an oven proof dish large enough to hold the leeks in one layer. Lay the leeks cut side up, sprinkle with fresh thyme, a bit of salt and fresh pepper, and drizzle with two tablespoons of olive oil. Place in the oven lightly covered with foil for 20-30 minutes depending on the thickness of the leeks until they are softened and lightly browned on the edges. Remove from oven and turn the leeks cut side down. The underside should be golden brown and this browned part should now be facing up.
4. In a small, nonreactive bowl add the olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice and zest, season with salt and pepper, and mix to combine. Remove the beet from the foil and use a paring knife to peel away the skin. This should remove very easily. Cut the beet into thin slices, cut the slices into strips and the strips into small cubes. Mix these cubes with the vinaigrette and let sit until ready to serve. Adjust seasoning as needed. Make a line of beet vinaigrette along the center of the leeks before serving. These leeks can be served warm or at room temperature.
Per serving: 152 calories, 12.5 grams total fat, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 10.9 grams carbohydrates, 1.2 grams protein, 23 milligrams sodium, trace fiber
Makes 6 large or 12 small muffins
3 cups unbleached white flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup milk
1 3/4 cups coarsely chopped cranberries
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter 6 large (33/4 inches) or 12 small (23/4 inches) muffin tins. In a large bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar on medium speed until well mixed, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time and beat until incorporated. Add the vanilla; mix until well combined. Reduce speed to low; add the flour mixture alternating with the milk, beating just till the flour is mixed in. With the mixer on its lowest setting, add the cranberries and let the mixer run till they are just combined into the batter. Do not overmix.
3. Divide batter between the muffin tins; sprinkle generously with streusel topping. Bake until light golden, about 40 minutes for large muffins, about 25 minutes for small muffins. Cool in pan 15 minutes. Remove from pan; transfer to wire rack, and let cool completely.
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup pecan pieces (optional)
Place ingredients in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a blade attachment. Pulse several times until combined. Alternatively, mix ingredients together in a small bowl with a fork.