Holiday parties are always fun - especially when you're not doing the entertaining.
Wait a minute, say the experts. It's time for attitude adjustment.
"What some people forget is that entertaining is a gift," says Suzanne Williamson, co-author with Linda Smith of "Entertaining for Dummies" (IDG Books, $19.99). "All the expectations scare people. Holidays are so overwrought. There are all these 'shoulds.' "
Whether trimming the tree or ringing in the New Year, entertaining is about spreading goodwill; a time to reconnect with family and friends.
The idea of entertaining just to impress went out decades ago. "It's so fake," says Williamson.
"You give people your time, energy, and attention. You spend time with the people you love - and in a sense, you're also giving yourself a gift," says Ms. Williamson.
While the casual trend has been simmering for a while, it's really roiling now, Williamson says. Formal entertaining still has its place, but the definition of what's acceptable has lightened up. Years ago, Emily Post may have gasped at the idea of asking people to bring a dessert to a party if it wasn't potluck. No more. Even guests are more apt to ask "What can I bring?" rather than "Can I bring anything?"
"Amen," says Linda West Eckhardt, who wrote "Entertaining 101" (Doubleday, $37.95) with her daughter Katherine West DeFoyd. They suggest a cooperative Christmas where each guest contributes a dish to the buffet table. "One of the things we see is a movement back to tradition," says Ms. Eckhardt. "In the go-go '80s, people ate out all the time and ran up their Visa bills; now they're discovering that home entertaining is a grand gesture."
But the gravitation back to tradition is tempered by the realities faced by two-income families. "We have this tension between our wish to preserve tradition and the pressures of modern-day life," Eckhardt observes. "We all work too hard ... yet we still value family holidays and gathering around the table."
The upshot is that people are more sensitive to "workload" as it applies to the home front, and that translates into the "anything goes" approach to entertaining. If you use every day ware instead of your finest Limoges, who's going to tsk-tsk? You can rely on your supermarket's prepared-food section to take care of your whole spread, Eckhardt says. The holidays are hectic enough, "and you want to give your guests an island of peace."
Williamson may be stating the obvious when she says during entertaining, that "you don't have to do everything." But hosts can't hear that enough, she insists. "Delegate! People like to help in the kitchen."
Master of entertaining Malcolm Hillier also cautions about overdoing things in his new book, "Entertaining" (DK Publishing, $29.95): "Never take on too much; it is vital that you are relaxed and at ease while you cook and entertain. Your guests will sense if you are not."
According to Williamson, there are two keys to success:
* A good guest list. Take a new approach, she suggests. Ask yourself: "With whom do I want to spend time? Don't worry about inviting office colleagues or people you feel the need to pay back. It's also nice to span generations and invite a single person or someone who doesn't have family nearby, she adds.
* Atmosphere. Of course festive decorations, interesting food, and music set the scene. But so do you. Get your front-door greeting down: "I'm so glad you're here."
Along the way, if you find yourself obsessing over the centerpiece step back. Ask, "What's going to make me happy and my guests happy?" says Williamson. "If you're excited, your excitement will spill over."
Tips from the Pros:
* Start way in advance. Organization is 80 percent of good entertaining. Prepare as much as you can ahead of time. Keep it simple. Know your limitations.
* Hone your expectations, then try to visualize the gathering. Take mental notes: Often you get great ideas from other people's parties.
* Invitations by phone are fine, but written ones are nicer and can be as casual as a hand-penned "c'mon over" on an index card. (Include a theme, dress code, and even food assignment, if you wish.) Computer-generated invitations can be easier. If you go the more-formal route, think about enclosing a menu - or some confetti if it's New Year's Eve.
* Don't be afraid to break rules. Tradition is nice, but often new twists make the event special.
* Strike the "bores" off your guest list. Mix up the seating chart.
* Delegate. Remember that many people like to participate and help - with chores, errands, food preparation, and cleanup - rather than watching you slave.
* A pretty table doesn't have to be overdone. Enticing food speaks for itself. (But keep scented candles away from food.)
Beef Tenderloin with Peppercorn and Mustard Seed Crust
The sight of a whole beef tenderloin on a bed of rosemary studded with cold pickled beets will say "Merry Christmas" before your guests even take the first bite. Buy the beef from the best butcher you know. Nothing could be easier to prepare, and, done right, it has a buttery soft interior with a crisp, pungent crust. All you need is a meat thermometer, a roasting pan with low sides, and a rack. Serve it with a jot of Cranberry Horseradish Sauce (below). There'll be plenty for sandwiches the next day.
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon white peppercorns
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
2 teaspoons course salt
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 (4- to 6-pound) whole beef tenderloin
6 to 8 sprigs of fresh rosemary, for garnish
1 (16-ounce) jar cold pickled beets, for garnish
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. and spray both the rack and the shallow roasting pan with cooking oil. Place the roast straight from the refrigerator, fat side up, on the rack. Do not add water or cover the pan.
Combine the peppercorns, coriander seeds, and mustard seeds in a Ziploc bag. Close the bag and crush the seeds with a rolling pin or mallet. Add the salt and stir to combine. Rub the outside of the meat with Dijon mustard, then press the spice mixture into the surface. Transfer to the rack and roast until done to your taste.
Don't overcook the roast! Because the meat temperature will rise 5 to 10 degrees after it's removed from the oven, remove it when the thermometer reads about 130 degrees for medium-rare, 140 degrees for medium, 150 degrees for well-done.
Roast about 40 to 50 minutes to achieve 130 degrees for medium-rare; about 50 to 60 minutes, to rise to 140 degrees for medium; or up to 70 minutes, or rise to 160 degrees for well-done. Stick a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the meat to test it. Transfer the tenderloin to a warm platter, garnish with rosemary sprigs and beets, cover with foil, and set it aside for 10 to 15 minutes before carving so the juices will settle and the meat will firm up for easy slicing.
May be made a day in advance, covered, and refrigerated until serving time.
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons prepared white horseradish (or to taste)
1/2 cup dried cranberries
Stir the sauce ingredients together, place in a bowl, cover, and refrigerate.
- From 'Entertaining 101," by Linda West Eckhardt and Katherine West DeFoyd (Doubleday, $27.50)