Saturday, June 11, 2011

How to Host the Perfect Cocktail Party

My trick? A properly stocked pantry, of course!

When it comes to entertaining, sometimes less is more. Yes, we all love to set a fancy table every once in a while, with name cards, favors, fun activities, and more (oh, and festive cocktails and amazing food.... But you knew that). But as many a savvy host and hostess know, some of the best parties might be impromptu ones – at least, certainly simple. That’s why I always have a couple of party staples on hand so I’m party ready: Crackers, cheese, salted roasted nuts, chocolates, truffle honey, and lots of bubbly.

I leaned on my party pantry this past weekend when I had some friends over for cocktails and had little time (and energy) to cook. True, I've learned over the years that it's not the food or drink that makes the party, it's the company. But being a trained chef, the food matters for me, too! So I picked up some yummy small bites (menu below), fresh peonies, and put on my iPod – all in my newly cleaned apartment – and voila! I’m all ready for a night of girl talk and laughter.

Have a hankering to host a gathering of your own? You don't need to spend all day slaving in the kitchen if you know a couple key things.

It’s okay to cheat when planning the menu. I'm a huge fan of cheese and crackers, dressed up with some jam, honey, or fruit. Membrillo and manchego is a favorite, as is pepper jelly and cream cheese on Triscuits or corncakes. Goat cheese and truffle honey on Effie's Oatcakes will surely convert you – but a smear or Brie and fig jam on wheatmeal crackers ain’t bad either. You can even spread this on slices of french bread and sprinkle with Parmigiano and broil – instant crostini!

Don't like cheese? Appetizers like spanakopita and risotto balls found in the freezer section of your market work, too.

Love chips and salsa? Go for it! But never, ever let the containers see the light of day. Pack the chips in a napkin-lined basket, and place the salsa in a pretty, shallow bowl. Serving carrots and hummus? Same thing. Place the veggies and hummus in separate bowls for a chic look. And if you add a drizzle of olive oil and paprika to your hummus, no one will ever know you cheated.

Don't over estimate the power of a couple of bowls of treats stashed around the room. A bowl of peanut M&Ms here, the salted mixed nuts from Whole Foods there (omg amazing), maybe even a bowl of Lindor Truffles by the door (addictive).

And if you DO want to work in the kitchen, I'll share some favorites with you. This goat cheese tart is light yet satisfying (and the green chard adds a virtuous element). Craving something sweet? I'm still dreaming of this onion tart. And if margaritas are on the menu, this is one of my go-to faves to serve all summer long.

Even if you’re serving cocktails, don’t forget something sweet! My go-to? Sweetened ricotta and these super-fudgy brownies made with coconut oil (as mentioned in the NYTimes!).

Cream cheese and Hot Pepper Jelly on Effie’s Corncakes
Humboldt Fog and Truffle Honey on Effie’s Oatcakes
Castelvetrano olives
Bing cherries
Prosciutto di Parma
Bubbly and Cabernet

Don't overlook bubbly when making festive drinks! I love serving it plain, with a couple of berries, or a spritz of Aperol, St-Germain, even juice. My favorite to date? This ingenious concoction of sorbet and Prosecco. Amazing.

Candles do wonders and truly help set the scene. Not sure what it is, but I love walking into a space with a lightly floral-scented candle burning – especially in winter. This time of year? Throw open the windows or doors and let the intoxicating smell of peonies or honeysuckle (ok, or fresh cut grass) do the work for you.

Don't forget music! The playlist doesn't matter, as long as it’s appropriate for the setting (heavy metal for a girls night? Not so much) and is set to a volume level that allows conversations to flow freely. I'm a huge fan of Norah Jones, Jack Johnson, and She and Him.

Most important of all is conversation. With smart planning, you can make the party memorable by simply being there as hostess /host and actively engaged in the evening. Isn’t that why we entertain?

Are you Party Ready? Kelly Ripa and Electrolux want to know! You too can share your go-to easy entertaining tips or examples of how you handle stressful situations when entertaining here at the Are You Party Ready site – plus, you'll be entered to win a French-door-style fridge. How stylish and cool is that?!

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