Monday, December 21, 2009

The Christmas Cocktail Party

When Will and I moved to NY two years ago, we were thrilled with our luck at scoring a place with a large living room (though a tiny kitchen, but what can you do). How perfect, we thought, for parties, we'll be able to fit all of our friends in here! The master procrastinators that we are however, we never really got around to it. Despite my affection for feeding people and Will's skill with a cocktail shaker, we never quite got around to having a satisfying fĂȘte.We were busy, we thought. It's hard to get people to come out this far into Queens. Once planning the wedding took over my life, planning another party was the farthest thing from my mind. That is, until the wedding was over. Christmas was practically on top of us and I was married and ready to host my very first grown up cocktail party. Before I could change my mind I reached in my drawer and pulled out a set of party invites I had bought on sale at Target years ago, for the party I had been ready to have any minute. Will and I filled them out, addressed them, and plunked them in the mail before anyone could try to pull us into other plans for that evening. Fully committed, the party was on.

Will was in charge of figuring out how much alcohol we would need and purchasing it. My job was the menu. I decided I would need a selection of savory appetizers, but it being Christmas, a few sweets as well. Since I was one person working in an minuscule kitchen, I would need dishes that could be spaced out in their cooking, also a plus for my sanity. Cookies could be baked days ahead of time, and since I had gone through all the trouble of buying cookie cutters last year, a basic ginger cookie would work. I had a recipe for stuffed mushrooms that had killed at Christmas dinner last year (I mean that in a good way. No one actually died. And if they did, it would have been from deliciousness) so I decided to bring it back as my holiday "signature dish." Every girl should have one of those. It was a bonus that it could be prepared the night before and then baked just before the guests arrived. I had found the mushroom recipe on Epicurious, and noticed that they were part of a menu called "Make Ahead Dinner Party." Perfect. Perusing this list I also scored a recipe for 3 Cheese Fondue. A few years ago I had a contact at a vintage shop keeping an eye out for me for a 1970's fondue pot. When one became available she wrapped it and left it for me to pick up at the store, but the heating stand piece had broken and it wasn't realized until after it was in my possession. She refunded me for the purchase, but allowed me to keep the pot and picks. Since I hadn't had a party, however, I had never busted these out. Now I had the perfect excuse for a little retro snacking. It would be like Back to the Future, but instead of a DeLorean, there would be gooey cheese. (Note to Self: Write that screenplay)

Other unused cookware that inspired my menu planning were the two brand new springform pans given to me by Clare and Lucy respectively for the wedding. A cheesecake just seemed necessary and, it being Christmas, a peppermint one seemed most appropriate. Realizing I now had three dishes packed with cream cheese (I purchased and used 3 pounds), it seemed I need a more healthy dish. I briefly considered a bruschetta, but the typical fresh tomato and basil just seemed too summery for my purposes. I had a recipe for a baked tomato dish with allspice, cloves, and thyme--the perfect warm and wintry vegetarian dish that could be spread on baguette and devoured. Finally, I wanted something a bit fancy. I had been thinking about making Bacon Wrapped Scallops, and was even more encouraged on that dish as pre-wrapped ones went on sale that week. Normally I am against prepared foods, as it's cheaper just to do it myself, but the sale made it within reach and I was self catering a party with six dishes, I could use the help. Take out of package and throw under the broiler seemed like a good option. Of course I can't make anything simple, so I needed to do something unexpected with the dish. That's how I ended up with a Port Wine Reduction, and played with the first recipe I've ever done where one of the directions was "light on fire."The night approached, we shopped, I spent two days cooking, we cleaned the apartment top to bottom.... and a blizzard hit New York. Snow swirled past our window and we worried, but needlessly. Our friends are brave New Yorkers--people without cars who travel underground on subways and own a variety of boots and scarves. They would not be deterred when food and cocktails were involved! Our numbers might have suffered slightly, but the truly hardy prevailed.

We learned several things from this party. First, a dinner party might be good at 7, but no one is going to show up for a cocktail party that early. Oops. A few things need to be re-warmed, and the cheesecake re-chilled. I had planned to put the food out in batches, so that as one dish ran low I could replenish with hot food, instead of putting it all out at once and watching my precious scallops get cold and slimy. We learned that we need to purchase an ice bucket soon, as running back and forth to the kitchen is just damn inefficient. I learned not to try to pop ice out of a tray when your martini is sitting precariously on the edge of the counter, or it ends in an embarrassing crash. And I learned what awesome friends I have, as immediately Sean was in the room with a dust pan. Throwing your first cocktail party is infinitely easier when many of your friends have worked in food service. As I whisked fondue Sean cut bread and Matt and Brian ran food out. Will apparently got help as well, as someone appeared to request the half and half. Apparently a White Russian had been ordered.

I carefully considered what recipe to present you with this week, as offering up the complete menu just seemed a bit overwhelming. The cookies, which were very popular, are nothing you haven't seen in a ginger cookie before, nothing you couldn't get elsewhere. The fondue, which was completely devoured, and extremely easy to make and forgiving to multiple reheatings, will have to wait for a future blog. I am starting to look into the future at a possible fondue party. Stay tuned. In the end, I think those mushrooms are what you should really know about. The ability to make them ahead of time was divine, and since all I had to do that day was pop them in the oven for ten minutes I could put them out in batches, making them hot and melty upon serving. I had way more filling then mushrooms, but with the snow coming I thought 45 of them would be enough. When they disappeared I fell back on plan B, heating the leftover filling and serving it in a bowl with pita chips. It was plenty popular this way as well, so it's flexibility makes it a perfect party dish. If you really don't like mushrooms you don't even have to make them, just make the filling, but I think the mushrooms were classy looking and definitely added something to the dish. This also breaks one of my other rules of cooking: I usually won't go anywhere near a frozen vegetable. I think the freshness is compromised at the expense of taste, and there are all kinds of environmental issues about how much more carbon is used to get frozen vegetables to a store versus fresh. In this dish, however, there are so many flavors at work that the fact that the spinach isn't a dominant one isn't a problem. And again, with a six dish catering job ahead of me, my food morals became a bit flexible. I'll plant a tree or something...Maybe an douglas fir.
Roasted Mushrooms with Feta, Spinach, and Bacon
Adapted from Bon Appetit

8 ounces bacon slices
1 cup chopped onion
1 10-ounce package chopped frozen spinach, thawed, squeezed dry
4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled (about 3/4 cup)
4 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
2 3/4 pounds button mushrooms (about 48; each about 1 1/2 inches in diameter), stemmed

Preheat oven to 375°F. Cook bacon in heavy large skillet until crisp, about 8 minutes. Transfer bacon to paper towels to drain. Coarsely crumble bacon. Discard all but 1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons bacon fat (adding olive oil if necessary to equal that amount).
Heat 2 teaspoons reserved bacon fat in heavy medium skillet over medium heat. Add chopped onion and sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. Transfer to medium bowl and cool; mix in bacon, spinach, feta, and cream cheese. Season filling to taste with salt and pepper.

Line 2 large rimmed baking sheets with foil. Toss mushrooms and reserved 1/4 cup bacon fat in large bowl to coat. Sprinkle mushrooms with salt and pepper. Place mushrooms, rounded side down, in single layer on prepared baking sheets. Bake mushrooms until centers fill with liquid, about 25 minutes. Turn mushrooms over. Bake mushrooms until brown and liquid evaporates, about 20 minutes longer. Turn mushrooms over again. Spoon 1 heaping teaspoon filling into each mushroom cavity. (Filled mushrooms can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.
Preheat oven to 375°F. Bake mushrooms until heated through, about 10 minutes. Transfer mushrooms to platter and serve warm.
One more benefit of this recipe. As I said, I made most of it the night before, after which I jaunted off to my friend Becky's party, and enjoyed wine and her fiance's Rum and Cokes. And by that I mean rum, the passing thought of coke and then more rum. The day of my party, therefore, I woke up feeling a bit less then perfect. I was sad, until I remembered that leftover bacon in my fridge. A fried egg, some toast, and some grated cheese later, I had a lovely Bacon Egg and Cheese, otherwise known as the Hangover Killer. This provided me with the carbs, fats and essential greases to tackle the long road ahead.


ga said...

I love catering cocktail parties or hosting one in my own home. please stop by and look at my Garden Vegetable Terrine recipe. My most requested recipe from parties and I blooged it for Xmas.

Portia Formento said...

i loved this post - your parties sound like fun! and congrats on your wedding :)

it's funny you turned your leftovers into a hanging-killing bacon-egg-and-cheese - my poll of the week this week is about just that!

thanks for sharing!

~Little Scarlet,

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