As another holiday season is rolling swiftly to its close, it dawned on me that there was a wide gulf in the variety of foods served at each of the parties to which I went. This year, during the past month or so, I’ve been averaging about one social gathering a week of different shapes and sizes. Many of these were catered affairs, again by firms large and small, with only one being a restaurant-type gathering, cobbled together with a few drinks nights in between.
I’ve worked on many kinds of events and receptions in my professional life and have hosted quite a few dinner parties in my personal one. The basic rule of thumb is always the same: Have plenty of drinks and make sure you have some great nibbles for everyone. Beyond that, it doesn’t seem as though coming up with the catering menu could be all that difficult, right? Well, I had some very good and clever tidbits this year and also encountered one party that might deserve to put into culinary rehab for next year (a shared opinion, by the way).
Here’s my tastebud’s list of top 5 edibles I sampled during this year’s holiday party season:
1. Mini lobster rolls on brioche buns – What can I say? Lobster salad, not too mayonnaisey with a hint of tarragon (it might have been in the mayo). A mini-bite of sweet seafood loveliness. We’d had this appetizer the previous year at the same party, but it had had a little crunch of bacon added which pushed it over that amazing taste edge. I did miss the bacon this year but maybe I can lobby for its comeback before next one.
2. Tiny tacos filled with pico de gallo and topped with an ancho mayonnaise – These little treats were a perfect kick to go with Drink Favorite #2. All I have to say is that this caterer is brilliant. Two canapés were served on trays with mini shots of a matching alcoholic beverage – genius! I hope that I might have a chance to hire her at some point for something I’m hosting.
3. Potato crackers with bits of lobster and caviar – I’m not sure how much more there is to say about this. I love lobster and caviar (I’m guessing it was domestic.) dressed with a little sour cream and garnished with fennel frond.
4. Tuna tartare on fried wonton cracker – Delicately smoky tuna with that fried, Chinese-style-noodle crisp to follow. This was a great little nosh and the perfect size for a standing-room-only party where I was trying to network and eat at the same time. It also was the right portion so that I didn’t have to try to catch food in my hand while holding a drink.
5. Fried pumpkin-sage stuffing balls with cranberry jam – Sounds weird, but the fried, earthy, doughy treats, dipped into the jam for a hint of sweet, were warm, a bit luscious and wonderful. Sort of like a savory donut hole, kind of.
And what would any party be without libations? They don’t have to be alcoholic, but as I do drink, mine were. Here were my top 3 cocktails that helped me make it through the party season:
1. Pomegranate Martini – My first introduction to these was at that Thanksgiving do to which I was invited by a friend. It was love at first site. Then, this drink also appeared at one of my office parties which was a great treat. I’m trying to convince myself that all the anti-oxidants in the juice counteract anything else I’ve eaten and drunk on that particular day. Yeah, no one else seemed to buy it, either.
2. Mini Margaritas – This is a trend that should take hold for cocktail season. I loved this pairing idea with Edible #2. The catering tray itself had a placeholder for the shot of margarita and it was the perfect amount of liquid with which to wash down the spicy little taco. The tequila and sweetness of the drink and the kick of the ancho mayo were a perfect marriage for my tastebuds. They keep begging me to have it again.
3. Vodka Tonic – Although this might sound boring, a good VT, like a nice glass of champagne, is the little black dress of libations in my humble opinion. It’s easy to throw back or to nurse and tends to go with almost any food that is available at just about every party to which I’ve ever been. It also tends to be the drink most likely to be on hand at any bar, even the very small one that was at one of the best parties I went to all season. A little twist of lime, and you are ready to go back onto the dance floor, which is exactly what I did do that night – several times.
Along with all the great things I ate and drank during these past view weeks, there were some less thrilling items as well. Mac and Cheese is not a cocktail nibble, not even if you put it into a phyllo cup. (This turned up at two parties – please stop it now!) Mini hamburgers (sliders) are dull and better eaten during a night out with friends at a bar. (It was also at multiple events – again, can we please bury this? ) Ditto with fries served in any form at these gatherings.
The main thing I gleaned from all of this, is that the recipe for a more enjoyable gathering is bigger than just the specific food served at each of them, much as that does set the tone. Many and varied passed appetizers and fewer hot items served in chafing dishes make a better party – and make people happier because then they can move around to schmooze with everyone while getting to nibble at the same time, especially important for work-related parties. We are way behind the days of cheese cubes on a toothpick so heavy hors d’oeuvres can make the meal and can also be very interesting and creative without being cumbersome.
Oh, and if you have a specialty drink at the beginning of the evening, like a pre-mixed Bellini, please, please make sure that you have enough of it on hand to serve throughout the entire event. It is really annoying to attendees to find their cocktail du soir only to find out later after going back for a refill that it is no longer available. It also kind of puts a damper on the festivities and violates a cardinal entertaining rule of having enough food and drink on hand to make it a party.
Buon Appetito e Buona Festa Tutti!