Q: I work for a small law firm (10 people), and I have offered to host our staff Christmas party at my apartment to save a little money this year. I have a month to prepare, two days off before the event, and a lot to accomplish in that time.
The gang will roll up to my door around 5pm, and for about an hour and a half to two hours I have to provide entertainment, a gift exchange, a Christmas craft (Martha's baby jar snow globes!), and whatever else I come up with — and then dinner around 7.
I like a challenge in the kitchen, so I want to really make a nice extravagant meal, with appetizers, a soup, the whole nine yards.
I have one pescatarian in the bunch, but I've only cooked fish once or twice, so would rather do more vegetables or maybe shellfish. I wanted to do a nice fillet roast for the meat eaters, but not sure what else to do.
The biggest issue is that I want to be able to do a lot of the prep work beforehand, since I will have to be entertaining for two hours before the food is served, and can only really run in and out of the kitchen to check in on things. I made a big dinner this past weekend, and by the time everyone was seated and eating, everything was getting cold already! Something I do not want to happen for my office!
I would really appreciate some tips on putting together the meal — fancy, challenging — but I can make ahead, and have hot food on the table even though the food is ready two hours prior!
Thank you so much!
Sent by Kory
Editor: Kory, wow! That is quite a tall order! Our first suggestion (really, the holy all-encompassing rule of dinner parties like these) is do NOT get too ambitious. You can make a fancy, special meal that people thoroughly enjoy while still sticking to recipes you know well.
My own personal suggestion, for something like this.
• An appetizer of runny cheese, crackers, and jam or fruit to start while you're doing the craft. Perhaps dab the crackers with jam and cheese so people have easy one-bite appetizers easily to hand. You could also do spiced nuts. All easily done ahead of time.
• If you want to get extra-fancy, try an amuse-bouche. I made this one entirely the day before.
• Start with a salad, like this Orange, Olive, and Fennel Salad. Plate up before your guests arrive and have already out on the table, along with some fresh (storebought!) bread and good butter. Thus your entire first course is done before anyone even gets there.
• For the main meal, what about a polenta bar? You could keep the polenta warm in the crock-pot, and offer a selection of meat and non-meat toppings — even roasted spiced shrimp. This is hearty and comforting, but still rather fancy, for many people! Any ragu (or short ribs, perhaps) can be made ahead of time and reheated in a slow oven that day.
• Close with a cake you've made ahead of time, like this Orange Olive Oil Cake. You could also serve small scoops of really excellent chocolate or lemon ice cream.
Finish with coffee and digestivi in small cordial glasses. (That final shot of something warming and delicious is a really stylish and civilized way to end a meal.)
OK, readers your turn! What advice and recipe suggestions would you offer to Kory?
Related: Outdoor Dining: A Pink and Yellow Birthday Party
(Image: Faith Durand)