The holidays. Love 'em or loathe 'em, they're here, complete with pumpkins, pilgrims, plump guys in red suits...and parties!
Pot luck, probably. You're already juggling a stack of invites and you might even volunteer (or, more likely, be volunteered) to throw a bash yourself. And now that good ol' Aunt Mabel has retired to Florida and taken up windsurfing, you can't count on the fam anymore to feed you the major holiday dinners.
Panic not. It's easier than you think to feed your crowd, even if your idea of a homemade turkey dinner is nuking a frozen pot pie. These days, with so many easy-fix ingredients, putting together a party menu can be pretty dang close to foolproof. Especially if you do it up right in the wine department. So, as long as you've got enough food (and the number of your local pizza delivery on speed-dial) for a hungry mob that hangs around hours longer than expected, you, too, can be a holiday hero.
Let's look at three basic scenarios that should cover all the bases.
Host supplies a carve-as-you-go bird or spiral-sliced ham and some wine and beer; you and the other guests kick in the pot-luck apps and decent bottle of vino and/or micro-brew.
For once, though, let someone else bring the chips and salsa. You're gonna show off a bit. It's the holidays after all! And, miracle of miracles, you're going to pull it off without even turning on your stove. So grab a serving platter (even a plastic one from the supermarket will do), crank up the tunes, and these No-Cook apps will practically assemble themselves.
Cranberry sauce and mint jelly.
It's not your party. You don't know who'll be there. And you've got no idea what the host's already pouring. Don't bring bubbly. It'll probably be the only bottle and never make it around the room. And don't bother with chardonnay. That's what everyone else will bring. Instead, go with a mellow, easy-drinking red like this year's fresh, fruity Beaujolais Nouveau (or California's counterpart, Gamay Beaujolais). It's inexpensive (around 10 bucks, max) and will be a crowd pleaser.
Scenario II - Major holiday sit-down dinner at someone else's house
Standard bird. Guests bring side dishes and something to sip. This one shouldn't tax your culinary skills, either. You can assemble any one of these sides in five minutes or so. Then, stir, cover and bake 'til they're hot.
1) Maple-Pineapple Yams Canned yams, canned crushed pineapple, maple syrup and lemon juice.
2) Green Bean Medley Green beans (canned or fresh), bacon bits, slivered almonds and canned mandarin oranges.
3) Four-Onion Bake Canned pearl onions, chopped red and green onions, canned cheddar cheese soup, top with canned fried onions.
Everything here is fairly light and a tad sweet, so steer clear of reds or super-dry whites. Now's a great time to pop the cork on a gewurztraminer -- fruity, flowery and just a tad sweet enough. (Even Aunt Mabel loves gewurztraminer, though, after two glass, she can't pronounce it.)
Scenario III - Major holiday meal at your place
It's your first time. Play your cards right. Choose your friends wisely and you'll breeze right through it. 'Cause now you get to call the shots on who brings what. "Volunteer" somebody who's done the roast-and-carve ritual before to handle the bird. Recruit a persuasive sweet-talker to get the would-be couch potatoes to do the serving and clearing, and you'll have the logistics nailed.
You're hosting a full meal. But you don't have to deal with any pesky two-page recipes. Just stick with simple, sure-fire winners; delegate like crazy, and nobody will care that you haven't spent a week chained to your stove.
Ask one or two of your nearest, dearest and, most importantly, punctual friends to bring some apps. Hot or cold, doesn't matter. You'd better have something to nibble on for the first arrivals, too, just in case. Everyone loves smoked salmon, right? Pick up a quarter pound or so and cut into thumbnail-sized bits. Smear some herb-flavored cream cheese on your favorite cracker and top with the salmon. Bring on the other apps as they arrive. Mix and mingle awhile.
Lay in lots of bubbly. Some of the best California sparklers (Domaine Chandon, Mumm Cuvee Napa and Gloria Ferrer) are deep-discounted this time of year and will probably cost you less than a decent chardonnay. Blush-colored blanc de noirs are extra festive. Have some less-pricy Spanish Cava (Segura Viudas and Paul Cheneau) for backup just in case you run out.
Bring 'em to your table with a big, eye-grabbing salad full of color and texture. Make your own combo from baby spinach leaves, romaine lettuce, broccoli and red cabbage slaw, sliced raw mushrooms, shredded carrots, cherry tomatoes, raw red bell pepper strips, pitted olives, croutons and cooked baby shrimp. Supply three salad dressings, such as parmesan, blue cheese and honey mustard and let everybody do their thing.
Though salad's usually served without wine, you can keep the bubbly flowing to occupy your guests while you get the main event ready to go.
You have a lot of options here, depending on your GQ (gutsiness quotient). If you really trust your DRC (designated roaster-carver), go for a whole turkey. You might have to put the bird in the oven before they show up, but once they're there, they're in charge. For smaller groups, a rolled and tied turkey breast is an easier alternative. Check with your local butcher and arm yourself with a good basic recipe for roasting time and temperature. Or, if your GQ's zero (and no one else has a clue) you can always get a ready-cooked turkey from a supermarket or specialty store. But make sure to rub it with a tablespoon each of soy sauce and olive oil, plus a touch of liquid smoke if you like, for some much-needed color, flavor and moisture.
I like to make my own gravy with pan juices, broth (homemade from the giblets or from a can) and wine. As for dressing, I find it easier to cook it in a separate pan rather that stuffing it inside the bird. Try a sausage-apple-onion-cornbread version from scratch, or, you can fake it by adding chopped sausage, apples and onions to a packaged mix. Pour in some broth to moisten, cover and cook it next to the bird.
Get your guests to bring the obligatory candied yams, some kind of greens and maybe mashed potatoes. If you've got the energy for one more side dish, steam, boil or nuke some fresh or frozen baby carrots 'til they just lose their crunch, add some butter, orange juice concentrate and Myers rum. Bake 'em 'til they're glazed and bubbling.
Somehow you'll manage to get the carved turkey and all the sides on the table at approximately the same time. Congrats, the rough part is over. Now you can sit back, relax and enjoy while you bask in your new reputation as instant wine-matching guru.
Here's the wine plan
First, wow 'em with stemware -- three glasses per person. Put out all the bottles supplied by your guests, plus a few ringers from your collection. (Go for off-dry whites, blush/roses and light reds.) Inform your guests that one glass is for white, one for pink and one for red. And, if anyone still wants bubbly, they can keep that glass, too. No rules. Just taste everything with everything. By the time everyone has finished a third helping, they'll have enough info to swap ideas on what works and what doesn't.
You've done plenty of cooking. Leave this one to the pros. Pick up some pumpkin, pecan and/or mince pies (preferably bakery-quality) and some good butter cookies. For a personal touch, present a bowl of whipped cream (homemade or from a tub) doctored with vanilla extract, powdered coffee or orange liqueur. In addition, I like adding a platter of autumn fruits and nuts for anyone who wants something light.
Pour some tawny port, some good cream sherry or some Asti Spumante (or other semi-sweet sparkler), listen to all the grunts and mumbles of contentment and bask in the appreciation. You did good!