11 September 2009

the first party in the new place

This weekend we are throwing our very first cocktail party in the new place. Originally, it was intended to be a Labor Day weekend party, but so many of our friends were going to be out of town that we decided to push it back a week. That meant that it would coincide with my birthday, which is lovely and all, but I’m not a big birthday celebrator. Oh well. Sometimes you just gotta take one for the team.

In planning the party, there was a lot to think about… Do we serve just a few drinks, or do a full bar? What foods should we serve, and how will we display them? Do we want people to congregate in the living/dining area, or encourage more flow throughout the apartment and onto the back patio? And (embarrassingly) do we ask people to take their shoes off?

Though I do love me some Martha Stewart (my new favorite show is “Whatever, Martha,” because it lets me watch Martha’s shows while getting to feel cynical and ironic about it), I think I’m more of an Ina Garten-style hostess than an aspiring Martha. Ina’s belief: it’s okay if not everything is homemade, and if everything looks really casual. Really, things don’t have to be perfect. Right on. The Martha-style everything-needs-to-be-just-so approach is 1.) too time-consuming, and 2.) a little intimidating to guests. Guests should be comfortable, right? They shouldn’t feel like they can’t have us over because their hosting won’t be up to the same level.

(Aside: We love having friends over for dinner, and we love trying out some of our fancier dishes when people drop by. But I learned something really important from a dinner we served a few months ago. We had a couple over who are not super close friends, but whom we really enjoy talking to. We decided to serve lamb chops and risotto in a Madeira reduction, which is our total standby meal. It sounds fancy even though it’s fairly simple to make, it makes guests feel special, and we’ve made it enough times to have the technique and timing down. Plus, it lets us serve a Rhone wine or something more interesting than a typical California cab. As a starter, I also made a new recipe for chilled English peas and buttermilk soup, which was really tasty (and not at all difficult). Everything went well culinarily (a rare feat), but then our guests said a few times how gourmet the food was, and in their thank you email a few days later wrote, “We’ll have to put on our culinary A-game to have you two over.” So, the lesson I took from this was three-fold: 1.) we should wait until we know folks better and have hosted them a few times to make the things that seem fancier, 2.) we should always be mindful that a guest could feel insecure about their own cooking or hosting if we serve something extravagant, which is not the effect we want, and 3.) if the result is that the friends don’t invite us over for fear of not living up to a high standard we’ve set, then we’ve failed on many levels. Bottom line: better to make everyone feel comfortable, rather than trying to impress. Lesson learned.)

So going by the Ina approach, we decided to make a few simple appetizer-style dishes and buy a few more. Our rule: everything should be edible in one bite, and not require a plate or any utensils. This way people can nibble politely, or can take a plate if they wish. But they won’t ever be embarrassed trying to eat an awkward dish while having a conversation with someone they are just meeting (a situation I have found myself in far too many times, because I think only about what looks tasty when I take food at parties, rather than what will be easy to eat). We also have some vegetarians and gluten-free eaters to accommodate, so wanted to make minimal use of meat and starch. Luckily, no vegans! (As a former vegan myself, I know what a pain I was to party hosts!)

Here’s what we decided to serve:

  • Proscuitto-wrapped figs (green or black, whichever look freshest on the party day)
  • Mini-caprese skewers (roasted cherry tomato and mini fresh mozzarella with basil on a toothpick)
  • A few types of crostini (goat cheese, blue cheese, roasted pepper… exact flavors TBD)
  • Guacamole in Tostitos “scoops” (technically vegan)
  • Roasted shrimp cocktail (tails peeled, so no need to deal with the extra shell)
  • Pepperidge Farms assorted cookies (purchased)
  • Fresh fruit cut into bit-size pieces
  • Thin Italian breadsticks and olive tapenade (purchased)
  • Marcona almonds (purchased)

Things we discussed but nixed: hummus and pita (too messy, and people don’t want something garlicky at a party), cheese plate (requires utensils, and can be messy to eat if the cheese is good), olives (what do you do with the pit?), and mini flatbreads (would require turning on the oven, which will make the kitchen too warm during the party).

As for drinks, we have a fairly well-stocked bar already, so decided to have a few mixers (tonic, ginger ale, vermouth, Coke, grapefruit, cranberry and orange juice) available, but focus on one signature cocktail in addition to serving beer and one or two well-chosen wines. For the signature cocktail, the only decision was which variation to make on the St. Germain cocktail (my current alcoholic obsession). We decided on the simplest: St. Germain, Prosecco or other dry sparkling wine and club soda. Really easy to mix (which means less time away from the party), and delicious. I think we will have many St. Germain converts by the end of the party. But if folks want to make a more traditional cocktail, we can accommodate that, and we’ll have a cocktail recipe book out for folks to find inspiration. I have no idea if this is a good idea, but I assume we’ll find out if this approach is worth repeating. I think it could be fun to flip through a book at a party and make something crazy. Or that might be a case of too many choices being a bad things. We’ll see!

On the other questions, we’ll just play it by ear. If people move toward the back patio, great. If they stay in the living room (or congregate in the kitchen, which always happens even if you try to keep people elsewhere), no problem. As long as I can keep people from singing “Happy Birthday,” I will consider the party a success.

Off to buy the fresh ingredients, flowers, and lots of toilet paper! That’s the one thing a party must not run out of. :-)

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