Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Oh, Those Unexpected Guests!

With the holidays imminent, we all look to touch base and reconnect with old friends. Those couple of weeks of Christmas and New Year's bring a lot of drop-ins; 'tis the season in which the open house policy thrives. People make the rounds as they hop from home to home to pass along holiday wishes and spend a couple of hours catching up. If you're already cooking up scrumptious feasts for the actual holidays themselves, you don't need to add more cooking for these impromptu visits, on top of last minute gift shopping and wrapping. Take it easy and enjoy your company. Putting out some delectable delights does not necessarily require any slaving in the kitchen at all and can be very elegant nonetheless. Yes, I love to cook. It is my passion and I think nothing of spending hours in the kitchen creating a meal to top all others. However, I want to take part in the holiday festivities too. I want to have fun with my guests and enjoy their company, good conversation and a few laughs. You can as well, very easily, and it will require only minutes in the kitchen. All you need to know is the location of your nearest gourmet market, and where you last stashed those three or four serving bowls.

Decide ahead of time on a location to sit around and make that the designated "holiday visiting" spot. For us it's usually the living room where the decorated Christmas tree instantly provides festive lighting. I'll put some holiday tunes in the CD player, and I will have already worked out the lighting and music for a happy holiday ambiance. The food finds its way to the coffee table with the same ease. Depending on the time of day and number of people, I either put out four hors d'oeuvres and a fun mixed drink or a bottle of wine; or something just baked in the oven and freshly brewed coffee.

Try to have variety with the hors d'oeuvres, you don't want to be repetitive and give your guests a choice of a dip and, well, a dip. For minimal cooking, you could make one dip and serve with chips which will complement the dip, such as pita chips with a roasted eggplant dip, or tortilla chips with a homemade black bean dip or guacamole. One of my personal favorites is a baked crab and cheese dip, served with gourmet crackers. I do recommend making your own dip from scratch, however. Most store-bought dips are loaded with salt and taste artificial. Homemade dips are so easy to make, especially with the helping hand of a food processor, and they can be made ahead of time. Now that the dip is out of the way, we move on to the second and simpler hors d'oeuvre. For no cooking but merely minutes of preparation, try wrapping either fresh halved figs or honeydew melon balls with prosciutto and arranging the bundles on a lettuce lined plate. A cheese hors d'oeuvre would be a fine third addition, and the preparation becomes yet even simpler. Pick up a block of imported pecorino Romano or Parmesan reggiano. Take a very sharp knife and thinly slice the block. These cheeses tend to be dry and hard, so they will slice into perfect chip-sized shards, and with their salty and nutty flavors, no seasoning is needed. Place the shards into a nice little serving bowl, done! Now for one more item on the coffee table palette. How about something that requires no cooking at all? To complete this picture, pick up a pint of nuts such as pistachios or cashews, or a pint of good olives from the olive bar. These just get dumped right into another little serving bowl and voila, move over 30-minute meals, we now have 30-second munchies! Some other no-cook options to stock up on to keep on hand for those really last-minute unannounced visitors can include a bag of gourmet potato chips, Cheese Sticks (made by John WM Macy), gourmet crackers, nuts and olives. If you want to create a hot hors d'oeuvre, keep some frozen puff pastry on hand. With a quick trip through the express lane, you can pick up two or three ingredients to stuff into the puff pastry for baking, such as ham and gruyere or ham and blue cheese. Another quick hors d'oeuvre is shrimp cocktail, there are plenty of recipes for basic cocktail sauce and shrimp boils or roasts very quickly. Whatever you choose, balance out the menu: something hot, something cold, something with cheese, something with fruit or vegetable, and be sure to include a couple of things that require no cooking time at all. The above-mentioned ideas will be an elegant presentation, your guests will feel satisfied and indulged, and you will still have energy after they depart to hang more ornaments, engage in a gift-wrapping marathon, spy on your spouse's gift-wrapping marathon, or chase the scavenging dog or cat away from the remnants of those appetizers. If just one friend pops in earlier in the day, that can get even easier: put out some of those holiday cookies you baked, set up a coffee bar and you're all set.

When it comes to the drinks, keep them simple also. Simply uncorking a bottle of wine is perfectly acceptable. If you want something a little more festive to toast friendships and holidays by, champagne is also a fine choice. Champagne pairs well with anything you nibble. If you have discovered your inner chemist however and want to show off your mixology skills, I strongly recommend choosing one mixed drink combination and stick to it, making a large batch for everyone; or you'll be chained to the bar all afternoon while your guests are having fun without you. Some of my favorites for the holidays are sparkling martinis made with vodka, white cranberry juice and champagne; and cranberry blinis are also nice as they provide a lovely ruby red holiday hue. I always say that if only high school chemistry involved mixing substances that we would actually utilize in life, like vodkas and rums and liquours, I think we all would have aced the course hands down!

I hope that these ideas have lightened the frantic, overwhelmed cloud that can sometimes shroud our mental state when news of unexpected guests drops by. We are all busy throughout the year these days, even more so now with our holiday preparations. It's important to also make time for friends and family whom we don't see as often as we like. With a cozy location to sit around and share in celebratory exchanges, a little festive decor or lighting, some music softly emanating in the background and these oh-so-easy tasty tidbits, entertaining guests can be enjoyable. So have fun, eat, drink and be merry without the stress.

To all of my readers - raise those glasses, please - I bid you and your families a very merry and enjoyable Christmas and a happy and safe New Year!

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