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Plan a stress-free party menu with these ideas

Did you know champagne pairs fabulously with pizza? The trick is to find ways to spend more time with your guests than in the kitchen

Surprise your guests with an unexpected high/low pairing that’s incredibly easy.(Photo: The Ujulala, Pixabay)
Surprise your guests with an unexpected high/low pairing that’s incredibly easy.(Photo: The Ujulala, Pixabay)

After close to two years of social distancing and scaled-down holidays, many of us are planning grand reunions with family and friends this holiday season.  The prospect of hosting a holiday feast or a party can be a bit daunting, especially after so much time off. We spoke to entertainment and party experts to find the tips and tricks that will help you host with ease.

The main takeaway? The distancing has helped us all realize that it’s the time together and the way you make people feel that matters most, not the hours you spent standing over a hot kitchen stove. Rebecca Gardner, event designer and founder of the e-commerce site Houses & Parties, has spent a lifetime planning and hosting fabulous parties. “Here's my secret: You don't have to make it to make it happen. Outsource! Order! Delegate! If you love to cook, cook two things that bring you joy. Buy the rest,” she says. “There are so many excellent local restaurants that would appreciate your business. Between Pepperidge Farm and Sister Schubert, no one needs to make dinner rolls. Use the extra time to wear a face mask and have a big glass of wine. Give thanks quietly, before the joyful chaos of the season.”

So abandon your delusions of grandeur and visions of a spread worthy of Downton Abbey, and actually have some fun this holiday season. Here are some tips.

Pare Down Your Bar

You don’t need to have a full bar to keep people happy. 'When entertaining for the holidays, guests tend to get overwhelmed if there are too many beverage options to choose from,” says Quentin Vauléon, sommelier at Frevo in New York and winner of the Best Young Sommelier in France in 2017. “With wine, the goal is to find no more than two wines that will be able to complement the food without confusing the guest.” Buy a few bottles of Champagne or sparkling wine and a crowd-pleasing red wine like Pinot Noir, and you’ll be set for the evening.  “A bottle of sparkling wine and a bottle of light- to medium-bodied red wine are the perfect match,” he says. “Is there a better way to start a Holiday dinner than Champagne?” He recommends a Blanc de Blancs, Extra-Brut, or Brut Nature, which are lovely pairings with food and have a freshness to them. For red, pick a Pinot Noir with a little age “from Burgundy or Oregon, or you can create the surprise by picking one from Central Otago in New Zealand or Patagonia in Argentina.” 

If you’re worried about spills, or you know you have a white-loving crowd, add a non-oaky wine such as Sancerre, Chablis, or Albariño. 

Also read | A wine list for vegans

If you want to offer spirits, put together a bar with the ingredients for a few classic cocktails, like a Negroni (Campari, sweet vermouth, gin, and an orange twist) or an Old-Fashioned (sugar cubes, Angostura bitters, rye or bourbon, and an orange twist).  Craft an Expert Playlist (or Steal One From Your Favorite DJ)

Music truly does set the mood. Instead of playing a tired playlist of holiday classics or Top 40 hits, create a curated playlist for your guests. Mei Kwok, a DJ and fixture of the New York and Los Angeles social scenes, recommends starting with Spotify. Create a playlist with a few of your gang’s favorite songs, and the algorithm will suggest songs that complement them. Kwok likes to mix different genres and thinks throwback songs are the best way to spice up a party. She says you can never go wrong with Michael Jackson’s Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough or Whitney Houston belting out Higher Love over Kygo’s dance beats. Many DJs, including Kwok, have posted playlists on Spotify, so you can spin their tunes at home. 

Stay Out of the Kitchen

Keep it easy. Seriously. No one has fun when the host is preoccupied and frantically finishing dishes on the stovetop. It’s natural to want to make big events and reunions feel more special by creating over-the-top menus, but people will remember how you made them feel, not how fabulous—or terrible—your rendition of Gordon Ramsay’s Beef Wellington was. You can go one of three ways: Cook easy dishes in the oven or serve food that can be eaten at room temperature, order from your favorite restaurant, or create a high-low evening your guests will never forget. 

If you prefer a classic holiday feast with all the trimmings, focus on dishes that can be made ahead of time or be cooked without constant supervision. Elegant roasts and sheet-pan side dishes are your friends. You can also invite each of your guests to bring a side dish around a theme, such as classic holiday dishes or southern comfort, which means you are responsible only for cooking the main dish. This will get everyone involved and take the pressure off you. 

Restaurants truly perfected their takeout game during the pandemic, and ordering a holiday meal is a great way to support small, local businesses. Many places create custom holiday menus, including Alinea in Chicago and Delicious Hospitality Group, which is behind New York hotspots Charlie Bird and Pasquale Jones. Everything is already cooked, so you just have to reheat the dishes or dress a salad. Goldbelly can ship veritable holiday feasts anywhere in the U.S., too. 

You could instead surprise your guests with an unexpected high/low pairing that’s incredibly easy. Champagne and caviar go perfectly together, a delightful treat. Start your night with an elegant caviar bar featuring several different types of caviar and roe. Entertaining extraordinaire Liz Curtis keeps her caviar bar simple and fun by serving caviar with créme fraîche flavored with a little Meyer lemon, and plain Pop chips. Then switch things up completely by having a pizza party. Your guests will never forget the night, and pizza pairs fabulously with Champagne and sparkling wine, so you won’t need to have a full bar. 

“My definition of effortless entertaining is anything that allows you to spend more time with your guests and less time planning or in the kitchen,” says Curtis. “It means knowing your strengths, and playing up those and leaving the rest for the experts.” 

And what if you have no strengths when it comes to entertaining? We think you should hire a great caterer and call it a day. 

Also read | Dips, curries, kebabs: the many ways to use yogurt

(The story has been lightly edited for style)

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