Take the sting out of hosting a party

No need to be busy as a bee when entertaining during the holidays. Follow these tips for carefree parties.

With only 10 days until Christmas, everyone seems to be buzzing around madly. There are gifts to buy, cards to send, and trees to trim. There's no time to throw a holiday party.

Or is there?

Parties have become more casual in recent years,even during this season, when oysters and caviar seem almost commonplace. So you needn't knock yourself out. Host an open house with mulled cider, a few appetizers, and homemade cookies, and your guests will be tickled to get a break from the mall. They'll also be touched that you took the time to nurture them.

Take it from Michael Chiarello, a cookbook author and host of two Food Network series, "Easy Entertaining" and "Casual Cooking," who estimates he has hosted about 20,000 parties in his lifetime.

Granted, many of those parties were held at his former Napa Valley restaurant, Tra Vigne, with help from a staff of 30, but in recent years, he has downscaled his entertaining style out of necessity and desire.

"People, myself included, no longer want to spend three days cooking a six-course meal," says Mr. Chiarello. Ever since 9/11/2001, he adds, Americans have become more home-centered - at first they hid, then they nested, and now they're "hiving," meaning they are "buzzing around their homes with friends and family."

All of this buzzing is being done more for the sake of celebrating friendship and community than to show off or to pay anyone back.

"We have taken the ego out of it," Chiarello explains. "People are entertaining more for the joy of it than the obligation."

Joy? Perhaps that's a novel concept for many harried hosts, says cooking teacher Carol Dearth, but it is possible to enjoy your own party. Ms. Dearth was trained in classical French cuisine at the Cordon Bleu school in London and earned her stars as a Navy wife who regularly threw cocktail parties for 100 guests and once for 225.

Now she takes her business, Rain City Cooking School, far from her home outside Seattle to help other hosts overcome their jitters about entertaining. "In my many years of teaching cooking around the globe," she says, "I have been repeatedly surprised at how often people are insecure when entertaining guests."

To remedy this, Dearth suggests making one item the star of the party and keeping everything else simple. For example, when cooking a family-style meal, one might serve a delicious seafood chowder along with a crusty French baguette and a light salad of mesclun greens drizzled with vinaigrette.

Dearth also teaches her students that a party is more about organization than technique. Even the most informal fete - a buffet, family-style dinner, or appetizer party, for example - should be well organized. Only then, she says, will the host be able to relax and mingle without nervously dashing to and from the kitchen all night.

Dearth is keen on making lists. She trains her students to always create a worksheet that includes the guest and RSVP list; chosen recipes (never ones that you haven't made before), where they can be found, and how far ahead they can be made; serving ideas, equipment, and tools; and finally, ideas for garnishing and presentation.

On a separate piece of paper, she suggests jotting down two shopping lists, one for make-ahead foods and one for day-of-the-party items such as ice and fresh flowers. Most often forgotten is music, which she says is "a big part of any party," items such as toilet paper for the powder room, and the host or hostess's own outfit. "You can't answer the door in bluejeans!" she says.

Of course, the easiest way to entertain (albeit also the most expensive) is to hire a caterer. Indeed, nervous hosts keep caterers in business. But even after plunking down the cash for a catered party, hosts need to help shape the event, says Holly Safford, president of the Catered Affair in Hingham, Mass.

"When you know what you'd like, and you find a caterer who understands and supports your need to express your own taste and style, then you have a winning combination," says Ms. Safford.

She knows firsthand about the current "hiving" trend. "We are wildly busy, producing five to six events a day now," she says. "Home style has taken a huge leap forward in the past few years. People have put a lot of money into making their homes special, and they want to share the beauty and comfort of that environment with people they care about."

Sometimes Safford wishes people would space out their holiday parties a bit, but so far, she sees no signs of that trend catching on.

"We'd sure like to promote entertaining after the holidays," she says breathlessly, "but when the decorations come down and the gifts are all unwrapped, people just want to decompress."

MULLED CIDER

1 quart fresh apple cider
1 large cinnamon stick
Zest (peel) of 1 lemon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan. Bring to simmer. Strain and serve. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

CROSTINI

1 loaf crusty bread, cut into 1/2-inch slices
Extra-virgin olive oil
5 garlic cloves, sliced in half
Salt and black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Place the bread in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Drizzle with olive oil, rub with garlic, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake until bread is golden brown and crisp, about 8 to 9 minutes. Serve with Roasted Red Peppers (see next recipe). Serves 8 to 10.

ROASTED RED PEPPERS

4 red bell peppers
Extra-virgin olive oil

Using tongs, hold peppers directly over the burner of a gas stove, or lay them on a hot grill. Cook, turning often, until the skin is blackened and charred. Remove from the heat and place peppers in a brown paper bag. Allow peppers to cool. Once cool, peel, stem and seed peppers. Do not rinse them off, as you will wash away the flavor. Small bits of charred skin are OK. Drizzle with olive oil and serve.

- Recipes from Michael Chiarello

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