Lessons From a Party

Learning never stops–it’s one of the few constants in life. I find that whether it’s something as simple as a new flavor combination or a more efficient way to complete a task, the kitchen offers plenty of opportunities the learn something new. Even if it’s what NOT to do!

Last weekend I hosted a small Wedding Shower. Here’s what I learned:

“Just Enough” Can Still Look Abundant

How sad is it to walk into a party and see a few small amounts of snacks laid out on large plates on a large table? That sort of thing makes me hesitant to take anything, not wanting to make the spread even more meagre for folks coming behind me. Guests who see an abundance of food and drink, though, will freely help themselves.

Of course, we’ve talked about figuring out how much food to prepare and, in the case of small parties, the choice seems to be between making just enough and making enough to fill out your serving pieces. I was facing this particular dilemma since the Shower had a limited guest list (and an even more limited response!).

  1. Instead of bringing out the larger folding table I usually use for parties, the small kitchen table was just large enough to hold the various serving dishes I’d purchased to go with the theme. If the gathering is very small, tray tables arranged around the party room, the tops of low bookcases (or even cleared shelves of tall ones) or a card table may make the most of a smaller spread.
  2. Keep the serving pieces smaller and pile the food upon them. Rather than spreading out the food, pile it up and on! The smaller the item, the smaller the plate. There’s a fine line between abundance and overwhelming, so just make sure guests can easily serve themselves from the bowl or plate without knocking anything off or spilling.
  3. Create varying heights on your table. Whether you have multi-level stands available (stacked cake pedestals make a nice display) or place boxes or crates under the plates and bowls, adding height takes up some of the extra space on a table. If your risers are pretty (glass blocks from the hardware store, for example) leave them in plain sight but it’s easy enough to camouflage cardboard boxes or other items by adding an extra tablecloth or tea towel to the arrangement.

I was able to make only what was needed for the party without letting the table seem bare at all! It’s the first time, ever, that I’ve not over-prepared by fridge-filling proportions!

The Cupcake Conundrum

Who doesn’t love cupcakes? They make great buffet items: self contained, easy to serve and just enough for a bite in miniature. The only problem is that iced cupcakes cannot be stacked and therefore can take up ridiculous acreage on the party table or require frequent replenishing, taking up the hostesses time.

My solution? Take out the icing issue! Instead of icing several dozen Red Velvet mini-cupcakes, I left them plain, piled them in the two lower bowls of a 3-bowl stand (height!) and filled the top bowl with the cream cheese icing and a decorative spreader. Guests loved adding as much icing as they wanted and I was free to enjoy the party without having to constantly police the refreshment table.

I may serve all my cupcakes with do-it-yourself icing from here on out, it worked so well. If the spreader idea doesn’t sound like enough fun, what about filling several disposable piping bags with various flavors of icing and setting out an array of toppings (sprinkles, candies, and berries)? I bet most guests would love the opportunity to play decorator!

All in all the party was a wonderful success: the two sides of the family got to mingle a bit before the wedding (it was a couple’s shower), everyone enjoyed the games and I was left with a happy heart and tired feet–the mark a truly good party in my opinion!

Wrath of Con 09-Part 1

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Okay, I should probably say (public service-like) that’s is generally not the best idea to accept a drink from a stranger, especially if they won’t tell you what’s in it. However, we’re talking one of those huge, field-capacity sports drink containers that everyone, including the offerer, was drinking from so I felt fairly safe from a Jim Jones wanna-be.

And it wasn’t Otter Pops. Which, for those who don’t know, were (are?) a brand of freezer pops that had cute otters with descriptive names printed on the plastic tubes. Originally I was going to have to go to a Dragon*Con party to meet the 2-party minimum to find out the secret ingredient but I can be pretty persistent (and he might have gotten drunk) and I got the real answer. But I’m not telling. Just that Jolly Ranchers were the closest guess I made.

The Naughty & Nice Party

Also known as a Heaven & Hell or Angel & Devil Party, this style of Valentine’s Party is a good way to bring both couples and singles together in a fun, low-pressure environment and have a little fun.

Invitations will ask the guests to come as either angels or devils. Now, depending on your friends this could mean anything from a halo or a pair of horns to fabulous costumes or even just wearing white and pink versus black and red. As long as they get into the spirit, it can be fun. Having some spare halos and horns (both very easy to construct if the party store isn’t helpful) is a good idea, though, for those who “forget” to embrace the theme.

Party rooms are to be divided in half–one side for Heaven, one side Hell, the former decorated in pastels and white and the latter decorated in bold shades of red and black. Colorful masking or painters tape is good for creating the dividing lines to keep it simple or you can go all out with spliced tablecloths, rug covers and sofa throws. Don’t restrict the decorations to the living room, either, feel free to divide any room your guests might wander into.

Potential foods for the angelic side of the table would be anything white, fluffy or sweet. Angel food cake, marshmallows, finger sandwiches, hummus & pita chips would all work well along with steamed dumplings, beggar’s purses and chicken salad puffs; all served on doilies or course. For the other side of the table, everything dark and spicy and decadent should be piled high on industrial looking serving-ware. Dark chocolates, devil’s food and red velvet cupcakes, deviled eggs (consider adding some onion skins to the boiling water and cracking the shells around before draining them to get a wicked-looking marbled effect), spicy shrimp on sugar cane skewers, meatballs in chili sauce… you get the picture.

One other idea, and I’ll leave the rest to your imagination: the party I attended of this sort had 2 colors of plastic cups and the instructions were given that single folks were to use the blue cups and those in a relationship or otherwise unavailable to use the red ones. What a great idea for eliminating the guessing in such a charged situation! Granted, if you didn’t want to use plastic cups at your party, wine glass charms in 2 distinct designs would work just as well.

This sort of shindig doesn’t have to be limited to Valentine’s Day, but it is as good an excuse as any!

A Superbowl Party for the Non-Fans

It’s no secret that I like to plan parties. (Sometimes the planning is even more fun than the execution, but only rarely.) Unfortunately, my imagination and notebooks sometimes contain more ideas than I can always accommodate on the calendar. Such is the case with this most recent party idea. Rather than hoard the idea for a year, I’ve decided to share it and hope that if someone uses this idea, they let me know how it goes!

The Commercial Bowl

Not everyone is a football fan but it seems a shame to waste a perfectly good opportunity to party. In order to make the most of the day, why not concentrate on the other fun to be had: the incredible (and sometimes deplorable) commercials that run in multi-million dollar spots throughout the show.

For this to work best, you obviously need a way to view the broadcast plus a DVR to watch and record live television simultaneously. Start the party an hour or so into the game, giving ample time for commercials to accumulate before you begin viewing them. It’s also not a bad idea to track down previous year’s commercials (some commercial collections are available on DVD or you can watch the cable networks for the best- and worst-of shows that air leading up to the big day) for some additional viewing.

Decorate the party room(s) with all sorts of branded items. Raid the party store for party supplies with major labels on them. This is also an excellent opportunity to put those empty boxes leftover from Christmas to work, with their logos readily apparent. Or you could take a page from an old Sabrina, The Teenage Witch episode and make up your own parodies of brand named items to emblazon the walls (I recall Popsi and Butterthumb with particular amusement). Think maximum product placement and then ratchet it up another notch or two.

Serve a variety of finger foods, just like any other Superbowl gathering. Chicken wings, sub sandwiches, chips and dip, etc. Feel free to spruce up each item, depending on your guest list, with your own twists on old favorites or make it easy on yourself and pick up deli platters with absolutely zero guilt.

Because watching commercials isn’t the most exciting thing in the world, make a game out of it by having guests vote on who they think will have the most ostentatious offering before-hand and then take votes on the winner after. Give guests personal whiteboards (purchased or easily created with special paint) and dry-erase markers to be the judges of each commercial. Add in some other games, like the Adverteasing Board Game to round out the fun. With the right group of people this party will be a lot of fun!

Get It Together 11

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2006 began with the 2nd worst hangover of my LIFE–not the most auspicious start. I attended the same party New Year’s Eve 2006 but I was getting over a case of bronchitis so I only stayed a little while and certainly didn’t drink. 2007 started much better, even if I was sick.

2008 began, for me, on the phone with Todd–after toasting with Jen & Michelle, I called him in the next time zone to wish him Happy New Year from the future.

Get It Together 10

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Other memorable NYE celebrations include a pajama party in the late 90s and the very swanky Champagne dinner to usher in the year 2000. The man I was with and many other things from that night have changed, but I still have the shoes I wore!

* * *

We tend to do holidays rather low-key in our family. That New Year’s we watched movies, had a very late supper and then watched the ball drop before going back to watching (I believe) Liar, Liar.

* * *

I don’t remember New Year’s Eve 2002. At all. I went to the doctor the morning of December 31st trying to tell them the bronchitis had come back (again) but since my cough was not “productive”, they couldn’t do anything about it. When I left work that day I went straight to bed. If I remember correctly, the New Year’s Eve was a Thursday, meaning that it was a full 3 days before I could get BACK to my doctor and tell them a very croupy told-you-so, at which time they prescribed me a 3rd, stronger, round of antibiotics which did, eventually, work. It sorta set the tone for 2003.

Menu Planning

Since we talked quantity last week, let’s talk quality now!

Here are some qualities of a properly planned menu:

1) It complements the theme of the party or event.
2) The food is prepared and served properly.
3) There’s plenty of it.
4) There’s enough variety that no one feels like they should have eaten before they came or pick up something on the way home.

To achieve a good variety on your buffet, you should evaluate each item you plan to include as to where they fall on the following list:

Flavor: Salty vs Sweet
Texture: Crunchy vs Chewy/Soft
Temperature: Hot vs Cold
Composition: Meat vs Vegetable

Most items will fall in more than one category, the important thing is that there is a balance between each. Shooting for at least 2 items that fall under each (whose other categories are different from one another) is a good target. For instance, at the last event I made both bacon-wrapped artichoke hearts and chicken salad puffs. Now, both of these are meats and both of these are soft but one is hot and the other is cold plus they featured different proteins so they balanced. If I’d have served ham salad puffs instead of the chicken, we would have had our single point of difference but we also would have had two very similar protein sources, so you also have to consider what is going INTO each item and look for variety there.

Of course, there are exceptions to almost every rule. At last month’s Pumpkin Brunch I joked that I should have called it the Pork & Pumpkin Brunch as there was ham, bacon and 2 types of sausage (links and bulk) spread throughout the various dishes. But, then, I knew my guests well and–as many said–they weren’t complaining! (There were several non-pork items as well: pumpkin pancakes, an omelet station and veggie quiches.)

Sure, sometimes in an effort to ensure a good mix of options there ends up being more food than was really needed for the number of guests. In my mind, though, it’s worth it to make sure no one feels left out, especially those with dietary restrictions or just a pickier palate.

How Much Food?

I’m helping a friend coordinate the food for an upcoming Open House and it brought to mind a common question when planning food for a party: how much to make or buy? I often say that a [Southern, especially] hostess’ worst nightmare is to run out of food. Food is synonymous with hospitality and just like the welcoming spirit we offer our guests, we want our tables to be just as bountiful. At the same time, we don’t want to go so far overboard that food goes to waste.

As much as I love not having to cook for the week after a good party [planned overs are a great thing!], there is such a thing as too much.  So here’s a few guidelines for figuring how much food you’ll need at your next party.

First: How many people are coming and how long does the party last? The first bit is obvious: the number of people is directly proportionate to how much food you need to feed them. Party length, on the other hand, can slide the portion scale up or down. Longer parties will need more food since people will have had time to digest and want a little something more as the party progresses, even if it’s a sit-down dinner it’s a good idea to have some nibbles (sweet or savory or both) out if the party will be lasting several hours past supper).

Second: What type of party is it? Plated dinners are the simplest to factor–3-5 oz of meat per person, 6-8 oz of side dishes, and 4-8 oz of wine (erring on the side of refills) or 8-10 oz of punch or tea. Easy. Buffet? Consider doubling it unless you have waitstaff to serve the guests. Now, if you have an entree choice or numerous sides, divide the total food needed in each category by the number of options within and add a bit–say 10%–for margin of error. That done, you should be good.

Cocktail parties require a little extra math in that you need to multiply the number of guests by the length of the party in hours  and then by the number of bites or servings per hour appropriate. A general rule of thumb would be 5 pieces per person per hour (5ph) but even this is subject to some adjustments.

1) What time is the party? A cocktail party held at an off hour (mid-afternoon, instance) can stick with the 5ph idea but one served at a normal meal time (noon, 6 pm or later) should increase the servings per person to accommodate the guests’ usual appetites.

2) Who’s coming? You wouldn’t serve finger sandwiches and petit fours to a Superbowl gang, would you? No, you’d serve heartier items. It’s the same with quantity. The heartier the expected appetites, the more items allowed per person.

3) Will a meal be served after or not? This can get tricky, but going back to the time of the party–if you’re serving cocktails and hors d’oeuvres before a dinner, stick to 5ph. But if you’re not serving a meal or it’s at such a time as your guests may substitute your party offerings for an actual dinner elsewhere, go up to 10ph.

4) Will there be alcohol served? If so, add a few more bites per person to try to offset the impairment alcohol can bring to the table. Cocktails on a full stomach are a lot less damaging than those on an empty one [though hosts should be careful to watch their guests' consumption and call a cab when necessary].

Finally, adjust your numbers for the just-in-case factor. For smaller parties, add 25% to your expected number of items or servings to allow for an unexpected guest or two or some really hungry folks. A little extra never hurts. The larger the party, the smaller the bump-up needs to be to grant a similar allowance, never adding less than 10%, though. Once you have your total number of pieces, it’s a simple matter of dividing that by the number of different items you plan to offer to find out how many of each you’ll want to serve. Of course, the smaller the guest list, the fewer options otherwise these formulas might give you ridiculously small numbers per option that will look just pitiful on a buffet!

Happy holiday party planning!

Get It Together 5

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I love that left panel, really, way too much, probably. I do need to work on drawing Molly better, though.

The Omelet Station

This weekend was my not-exactly-annual BYOP (bring your own pumpkin) Party and it was a little different than the other’s I’ve hosted in the past. For one thing, it was ON Halloween instead of the weekend before (the reason being that carved pumpkins don’t last that long down here in Florida’s humidity) and it was held in the morning to allow guests plenty of time for other gatherings that evening or trick-or-treating.

Which meant, of course, that the meal changed from dinner to brunch–something I’ve not served to a group in quite some time.

While contemplating how to serve egg (buffet eggs can become rubbery or unpleasant as they sit plus the fact that eggs + aluminum (as in the disposable steam trays) = green eggs and, while I enjoy Dr Seuss, I tend not to disguise my food on most occasions. Enter the grill.

Grilled eggs? Not exactly. At our housewarming party this June we’d been gifted a lovely gas grill that came with a side burner. Do you see where this is going? We used the grill to hold various add-ins (diced bell peppers, mushrooms, bacon, salsa, green onions, ham and cheese) and created a satellite omelet station as part of the buffet. Allowing 2 eggs per person (plenty for an 8″ pan) plus a little milk (water can result in fluffier eggs but they can also end up watery and tasteless–I prefer to use fat free milk which adds a little more flavor), I cracked and beat enough eggs for the party and then placed them into an easy-pour 2 qt container which was kept in a cooler of ice below the burner.

Our Omelet Station Set-Up

Our Omelet Station Set-Up

Some other tips if you’d like to replicate this for your own party:

1) Remove the knobs from the main grill to prevent any accidental flare-ups.
2) Place a baking sheet on the grill to hold your mix-ins and cover it with a tea towel or large napkins–even the cleanest grill still looks like a grill: dress it up a bit.
3) Make sure there’s a spoon or tongs for each ingredient option as well as a spatula.
4) Non-stick pans are great, but a little cooking spray (kept on the opposite side from the open flame) never hurts.
5) Have 2 pans available in case there’s an accident with one and it needs cleaning, the spare keeps the line moving.

As I was beating those eggs before the party I wondered would anyone really want to make their own breakfast? Granted, I had both quiche (broccoli-Swiss) and hash brown casserole (with 2 types of sausage, eggs and cheddar cheese) on the main buffet, so it’s not like they had to, but I was surprised how many people did partake of the do-it-yourself egg station. Definitely something I’ll keep in mind.

It also occurs to me that it would make an excellent pasta station with the same setup. Have a large bowl of pasta pre-cooked and oiled at the ready (bowtie, penne or rotini–something easily scooped up) with a variety of mix-ins (blanched veggies and pre-cooked meats, all cut to a uniform size) and a trio of sauce variations (garlic-butter, marinara and Alfredo?). Guests could then make their own selections, give them a quick toss in the frying pan to heat up and have just the supper they want.

No such gas grill? Check out the camping section of your local sporting goods or discount store for a camp stove and can of fuel. Same results without the grill-sized footprint.