The Holiday Entertaining Survival Guide
It was December 2006, I was in France, it was grey, I was miserable.
That summer I had the greedy notion of thinking I could manage both a job and my college work load, and it was all going smoothly until I realised that there would be no time off for the holidays. This would be my first Christmas alone and it didn’t actually seem too dismal at first.
One morning I braved the harsh winds intensified through funnel streets, walked the frosted border of the Seine, head down and collar up, to reach my workplace as quickly as possible. Something felt different; the bells on the butcher’s door were stilled, the colourful arrays of table cloths had not been brought out, the smells of roasted chickens and mulled spiced wines were absent, and the hum of buzzing conversations were muted. My first thought migrated to an opening scene of one of Romero’s movies, my second to the realisation that this was so much worst: It was Christmas day.
On my way home that night, I went to the only open supermarket I could find, bought some poppy seed baguette, a flank steak and a big deliciously expensive bottle of margaux. The grocer asked me what my plans were for the evening and I told him ‘a night at home’ was all; the look that ensued made me feel so alien that I started feeling sorry for myself. He sighed, said that it was unfortunate, gave me a free massive piece of foie gras for my woes and sent me off to my demise. That’s when it started; there are times the universe just seems to spite us. I turned on the radio and terrible pop star renditions of Christmas songs seemed to be on loop; I drank; I switched on the television and every channel had some kind of heart warming program on; a swig; I went on the internet and Google had that annoying Santa hat on the second ‘O’; guzzle, guzzle. There was no absconding the long arm of despondency. I sat there, bottle in hand, steak going cold, watching Wallstreet; it was one of the loneliest days of my life. All of a sudden, the doorbell rang and I knew for certain it was the ghost of Christmas past coming to teach me a life earned lesson. I opened the door and there stood three friends huddled together with plastic bags clinking a way, giving away their contents. They too were home alone and decided it would be best to share in our misery. There we were, two Arabs, a Cambodian and a Filipino, we drank wine, feasted on our free foie gras with caramelized onions and it ended up not being so bad. That night I vowed to never be alone and to always make plans for this day.
There comes a time in your life when you will be faced with the exigent challenge of hosting a Christmas dinner, and you know we like our rules and guidelines, so here’s what you need to know:
Step 1: Acceptance
Come to terms with it; this is a big undertaking. Now breathe. No one is expecting you to be Martha Stewart here, so organise everything on paper to help you see clearer.
Write down the number of guest you will be inviting, when you will need to send out invitations, any particular allergies, your shopping list, your menu, the dish and glass ware you will be needing, the theme, your decoration list, set a budget, collate all the food or drink recipes you will be using, make a schedule to be followed, and most importantly, be truthful to yourself; if you’re not the best cook, it’s not something you can change, so be smart in your choices.
Once everything is black and white and that you realise that it’s all just logistics, you’re one step ahead of everyone else.
Step 2: The Food - Make sure the food and recipes you have chosen can be made and shopped for in advance; keep in mind the timing of its reheating as well. You do not want to be running around trying to cook off things while the event is in full swing.
- Your menu has to make sense, if you want to have a Moroccan theme, stick with it, do not stray by adding some last minute Mexican touches.
- It’s crucial to have a variety of choices, since you never know your guest’s preferences. This is the festive season, so there is no reason you shouldn’t splurge on a wide array of food. These elements are must haves: vegetables, grains, breads, condiments, starches, seafood, salads, meats and white meats.
- The most efficient techniques to use are fresh salads, stir fried vegetables, starches with sauces and herbs, and slow roasted meats.
- For your canapés and pica pica, go simple. Don’t torture yourself with miniature anything. Buy a spread of ingredients and let people decide what they want.
- For your dessert, again, save yourself the trouble and make it interactive. Why not have a whole table covered with different types of ice creams and frozen yogurt with a selection of toppings.
Good menu planning, doesn’t necessarily take flare or imagination, just practicality and taste. Think of the tastiest dishes that are so simple that they will keep you talking to your friends rather than sweating it out in the kitchen. These are examples of dishes that need a little chop, some sear, a bit of time in the oven and just a dash of care.
The Foolproof Menu
Pica Pica Table: Get a good variety of dried and smoked meats: Jamon Serrano, Iberrico, bill tongue, smoked turkey breast, Salami, French Saucisson. Cheese: Fresh Mozarella Buffala, Camembert, Pecorino, Smoked Gouda. Vegetables: Carrot Stick, Celery Sticks, Arugula Salad, Baby Spinach, Sundried Tomatoes, Black and Green Olives. Fruit: Dried Figs, Grapes. Dips: Artichoke Dips, Tzatzkiki, Hummus. Vinaigrette: French, Balsamic Olive Oil. Nuts: Brazil Nuts, Almonds and Cashew, toasted and salted. Breads: Baguette, Whole grain and pain de campagne.
Appetizer: If you’ve done the above correctly, you’ve got their jaws aching for more. So no need for appetizers, skip straight to the interesting stuff.
Main Dishes: Think Big plates that can be set out in front of your guest, making their mouths water and forget all their manners. Roast Prime Ribs of Beef, Roast Thyme Chickens and/or Anyman Brown Butter Sole fish.
Side Dishes: Truffled Mash Potatoes, Bucatini with Bacon and Tomato Jam, Ratatouille and Creamed Spinach.
Dessert Bar: Buy some good quality (sugar free if possible) ice cream in different flavours: frozen yogurt, vanilla bean, coffee, pistachio and chocolate. Lay the tubs out in a cooler or simply take them out last minute of the freezer and set them next to an array of toppings: dulce de leche, chocolate chip cookies, chopped carrot cake, apple compote, milk chocolate bars, roasted peanuts, nutella sauce, rainbow sprinkles, and/or fruits.
Step 3: The Drinks
I’m pretty sure that you haven’t thought about what drinks you are going to be serving? Sure, quality food can always be catered and arranged, but unless you are ready to dish out for a knowledgeable bartender (which is hard to find), you are probably going to resort to buying a bottle of everything, with a variety of juices and fizzy drinks, leave them open on a soon to be stained table cloth with a rapidly growing puddle of melted ice. Unless you know how to flawlessly throw together staple cocktails, you’ll be just missing the mark of a perfect evening. Why not be that guy with the perfectly fitted navy blue power suit, crisp white linen shirt, discussing world reports while vigorously concocting cocktails, just for this one night?
We can’t all memorize Gary Regan’s The Joy of Mixology, but you can prepare crowd pleasing drinks that pair perfectly with your food and mood. With these liquid happiness recipes, people will be toasting your name at the end of the night; they might even forget what they are supposed to be celebrating.
For An Intimate Gathering: Glőgg (Toby Maloney)
A European favourite, served hot (if you are in an air-conditioned environment) or cold.
Ingredients for 12 servings
2 bottles Cabernet wine
1 lb. white sugar
1 orange peel
3 cinnamon sticks
10 cardamom seeds
5 oz. Rebel Yell bourbon
3 oz. Sailor Jerry rum
3 oz. Gilka Kummel
8 oz. almonds
8 oz. Raisins
1. Combine all ingredients except the bourbon, rum, and Gilka Kummel in a large stainless steel pot. Cover, and simmer on low heat for 15 minutes, then remove from the heat.
2. Stir in the bourbon, rum, and Gilka Kummel.
3. Add bitters to taste.
4. Strain the liquid into a punchbowl.
5. Garnish each drink with three almonds and raisins, if desired
Click More, for more drinks, to learn how to set up your place and learn how to make giveaways or homemade treats for christmas presents.
For The Extended Family: The Rum Punch (David Wondrich)
Strong enough to ease any looming tensions, and tasty enough to satisfy all palates.
Ingredients for 10 servings
2 cups strong black tea (hot)
1⁄2 cup demerara sugar
1⁄2 cup fresh lime juice
2 cups aged rum (rhum vieux)
1. Fill a medium freezerproof bowl with water; freeze.
2. Mix hot tea and sugar, stirring until sugar is dissolved; refrigerate to let cool. Once the tea mixture is cool, add lime juice and rum. Stir well; refrigerate until ready to use.
3. About 30 minutes before serving, loosen ice from bowl and transfer to a punch bowl. Pour punch over ice and top with a generous grating of nutmeg.
For a Horde of Friends: The Pisco Sour (Gary Regan)
A light tart cocktail that is guaranteed to lubricate conversations.
Ingredients for 1 Drink
2 oz Pisco brandy
1 oz fresh lemon juice
½ oz simple syrup
1 Raw egg white, from a small egg
Angostura bitters, as an aromatic garnish
1. Shake and strain into a chilled champagne flute.
2. Dash some bitters on top.
We love our cocktails, but i remain a purist when it comes to food accompaniments. Once everyone’s buzzed and seems to finally be best friends with each other, bring out these bottles and set them on a side table and in ice buckets and watch your guests eyes widen in amazement at your flawless transitions.
Chateau Bonnet Reserve 2006
Hailing from Bordeaux, this Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon mix deep red, with woody red berries aroma, is full, dense and has a fruity finish. An overall well balanced wine perfect for anything on slapped on a grill. Think Marion Cotillard.
La Segretta Bianco 2009, Planeta
A feisty little white wine, made from five different varieties, and balanced with crisp citrus, mineral characters and clean white supple fruit aromas, this vintage is a perfect companion with (olive oil based) or without food. Think Gwen Stefani.
Rioja Reserva 2005/2006 Marqués de la Concordia
A smooth operator from the Rioja region made of Tempranillo and Grenache grapes, you’d think it would be powerful and dry, but it is surprisingly medium bodied, generous in fruit and rich enough to bathe in. Best for anything cooked in one pot for a long period of time. Think Paz Vega.
For the non converts always have a backup plan. Any self respecting man should have a couple of good bottles of whisky, gin, bitters and vodka with some standard mixers in his bar
Step 4: The Place
Work in zones. If you are the only one preparing all the food, place the starters on one table, have everyone gather there for the aperitif. Put the main dishes on the dining table, have the dessert spread next to the couches and have a bar for your drinks. Divide crockery as required. Clean as you go.
- Prepare a diner/party playlist on your MP3 player that lasts at least 5 hours.
- Your lighting has to be subdued, so your place looks attractive. Candles are great to make gatherings intimate. Just buy a whole lot of different candles and place them randomly around the house.
- I know you don’t like to decorate, so KISS. If you have a wood table, keep it bare, mix match your crockery, serve your water or sodas in old vintage carafes and bottles, make sure all the food is served on big white serving plates (you don’t want to crowd the aesthetic), buy some plants and deep coloured flowers (burgundy, plum…) to place in vases. You can place miniature Christmas statues and figurines around the house, just in the spirit of things.
Step 5: The Extra Mile
Finally, invite the right people and know if they have any allergies. When they arrive make sure to introduce everyone to each other and be around. It’s your house; you don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen all night.
- If the night was successful, people will want to stay, so make sure you have an exit strategy.
- A perfect way to make people leave is to prepare party favours or gifts. Bring them out about 15 mins before you want your guest to depart and they will surely get the point. Another sure way is to suggest a night cap outside.
Put aside that stale fruit cake and electrify with these DIY epicerie worthy gifts.
Butter Caramel Candy with Bacon Salt
Christmas is an old timeless celebration so instead of offering modernity, bring out the kid in everybody with these throw back sweets.
Ingredients for 100 + pieces
• 1 3/4 cup white sugar
• 3/4 cup heavy cream
• 1 can evaporated milk
• 2 Tbsp. butter
• 3/4 cup light corn syrup
• 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
• 1/2 Tbsp. Fleur de sel
• Bacon strips
1. Make sure to use a proper well calibrated candy thermometer (not touching the bottom of the pan). Bring evaporated milk, sugar and heavy cream to a boil on medium heat in a heavy duty sauce pan, large enough so that the liquid won’t boil over. Once at a boil quickly add the corn syrup until the temperature is 230°C.
2. Thermometer still plunged, add butter and vanilla and mix lightly to incorporate and until the mix reaches 240°C. Quickly remove from heat, add salt, and pour into a lightly oiled 9″ x 13″ baking dish, lined with aluminium paper.
3. In an air-conditioned room, let cool about 2hours.
4. Fry your bacon strips until well crispy, pat dry and crumble chop up as thinly as possible.
5. Invert onto a cutting board covered with waxed paper, peel off aluminium foil and cut into thumb size pieces with a sharp, oiled and heated chef knife. Wrap the individual candies in wax paper with a little sprinkle of your bacon salt.
Packaging: Since this is an old school candy, stuff them in old school kid lunch boxes or varied tin cans that will give it a vintage look. Remember to put a card insisting these are homemade and need to be eaten right away.
Milk Jam – The bastard cousin of Dulce de Leche
A house hold favourite great on pancakes, sundaes, buttered toast and just about anything/anybody else.
Ingredients for around 3 jam pots.
• 2 litres of whole milk
• 500g sugar
• 1 teaspoon of fleur de sel
• 2 vanilla pods
• A capper of aged rum
1. Sterilize your Jam Jars by placing them open in a big pan covered with boiling water for 15 mins.
2. Put milk, sugar and salt in a pot big enough to make sure no spillage will take place (the volume of this liquid will forth and expand). Scrape vanilla pods and add the whole thing to the pot.
3. Stir the mixture until it comes to a boil progressively on medium heat.
4. Bring the mix down to a simmer, by lowering the heat and cook uncovered for at least 3 hours. If it’s too hot your mix will boil over, so if you are not sure, lower it even more, until you’re sure it will just gently cook.
5. Keep checking the mixture, it’ll be ready once it resembles and feels like a thicker caramel sauce.
6. Once achieved, add a bouchon of rum and gently mix in over the heat for 2 minutes.
7. Discard the vanilla pods and whisk until unctuous. Place in still hot jars and seal. Place the whole closed jar in the boiling water again for 5 mins. Let cool completely and place in the fridge.
Packaging: Jam Jars have enough character already; add a manly bow, a carton tag and a wooden spoon and you’ve got a complete package.
Now that you’re how is empty and your kitchen looks like a frat house on the 4th of July, pat yourself on the back, go meet up with your friends for that night cap and leave your keys with a hired hand for the night who you’ve employed to take care of the cleaning.
Do not accept to throw the New Year’s party too.