This is party season - but that needn't mean slaving until the wee hours when it's your turn to play host.
Sure, you've heard most of this advice before, the part about planning, preparation and not panicking. What you don't often hear is equally important: The real trick to throwing a memorable bash lies in restraint. Don't serve six courses at a dinner party, and there's no need to turn your cocktail spread into a bacchanalian extravaganza.
People try to do too much, says Ina Garten, whose new book is Barefoot Contessa Foolproof. Too many hosts have visions of handcrafted canaps - millions of them - or elaborate multicourse dinner parties floating around in their heads.
But it's better - for both the harried host and the anxious guest watching the frazzlement unfold - to make just a few really good, foolproof dishes, and to fill out the rest of the menu with interesting cheeses, clusters of grapes and fresh figs. Do as much ahead of time as possible and think about local resources: Is there a deli or artisanal food vendor who makes that dip or appetiser better than you do?
"Then fill in with what you're comfortable making," Garten says.
Buying hummus and tzatziki from your favourite restaurant, and decanting the dips into pretty bowls to serve alongside the crudite, will help stave off "party anxiety", says Diane Worthington, whose latest book is all about Seriously Simple Parties.
Worthington makes mini corn-crab cakes ahead of time, grills skewered chicken to serve with a mango-curry dipping sauce, and sets out platters of fruit and interesting cheeses. Then she adds a crowd-pleaser: an interactive crostini bar whose appeal belies its simplicity.
"You make the crostini - which is toast - then put out spreads and dips in little bowls. People love it," she says. "You can do different pestos, edamame pesto, a white bean dip, smoked salmon with creme fraiche."
Pate and salumi are wonderful and easy, but don't assume all your guests will dive into meat-based dishes. "There are vegetarians, pescatarians," Garten cautions. "There's every known variation."
A roasted vegetable tart can be a gorgeous thing to include on a party table, and the labour involved is about the same whether you're feeding 10 people or 50. A blue potato tart, for example, made by Michael Natkin, a vegetarian food blogger and author of Herbivoracious, is an absolute showstopper.
Nestled in flaky pastry, violet-tinged potato slices rest atop a garlicky chevre mixture. The tarts are made in long, free-form rectangles, then sliced into easy-to-grab pieces.
As for libations, there's no need to go into paroxysms of panic over the bar either, Worthington says.
"I always have red and white wine, sparkling water and a party cocktail. You cut down your worry about the bar," she says. "For the holidays, I would do a sparkling wine with peach nectar and peach liqueur, or Prosecco."
The final trick in the foolproof party plan? Make lists. Lots of lists.
"I have lists organising my lists," Garten says. "It's a complicated little jigsaw puzzle to make sure the oven turns on at 5:40 and everything happens when it's supposed to happen. If you make a schedule, then you don't have to think about it. I find it very calming."
And when the doorbell rings, the only thing left to do is party.RECIPE: MINI CORN & CRAB CAKES WITH GRILLED TOMATO AIOLI
Serves 8-121 large egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup Grilled Tomato Aioli (see recipe)Directions:
1. In a large bowl, combine egg, mayonnaise, mustard and chives. Mix in crab, corn and fresh breadcrumbs. Season with salt and cayenne.
2. Spread out the breadcrumbs. Divide crab mixture into 18 portions and shape into cakes about 4cm in diametre and 1.5cm thick. Coat completely with breadcrumbs. Transfer to a clean baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap and chill 1 to 6 hours.
3. Melt a tablespoon of butter with a tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add half the crab cakes; saute, turning once, until golden brown, about 2 1/2 minutes per side.
4. Top with dollops of aioli. Serve immediately.RECIPE: GRILLED TOMATO AIOLI
Makes 1 cup
Note: This sauce is also great for grilled meats or as a dip.1 medium ripe tomato, sliced 2cm thick
Pinch of cayenne or chile powderDirections:
1. Heat a grill pan over medium-high heat. Coat pan with cooking spray; grill tomato until it has dark grill marks, 3 to 4 minutes. Turn and grill another 2 minutes. Remove the skin and let cool.
2. In a food processor, finely mince the garlic. Add tomato and process until well blended. Add mayonnaise and process until smooth. Add basil and lemon juice. Season to taste with salt, pepper and cayenne. Use immediately or refrigerate up to 5 days.
Note: Soak your bamboo skewers in water for at least 30 minutes or overnight to protect them from flare-ups on the grill.Marinade:
700g chicken tenders, halved lengthwiseSauce:
Salt, pepper to tasteDirections:
1. For the marinade, combine the yoghurt, olive oil, lime zest and juice, red pepper flakes and black pepper in a medium, nonreactive bowl. Add the chicken and toss to coat well. Cover and refrigerate for 2 to 4 hours.
2. For the sauce, combine the yoghurt, curry powder, lime zest, juice and chutney. Stir to combine. Season to taste with red pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Chill.
3. Thread chicken onto bamboo skewers. Preheat an outdoor grill to medium-high or heat a lightly oiled grill pan over medium-high heat. Grill chicken for 3 minutes per side, or until cooked through.
4. Serve with the curry sauce for dipping.RECIPE: EDAMAME PESTO
Makes 1 1/2 cups1 garlic clove, peeled
Salt, black pepperDirections:
1. In a food processor, mince the garlic and almonds. Add the edamame, parsley, cheese and lemon zest; pulse until coarsely blended.
2. With the motor running, add the olive oil a slow, steady stream, blending until emulsified but some texture remains. Season with salt and pepper. The pesto may be prepared up to 1 week ahead, covered in an airtight container and refrigerated. Serve with crostini.RECIPE: BLUE POTATO TARTS
Serves 10Basic pastry dough:
2 to 4 tablespoons ice-cold waterTarts:
1 tablespoon minced fresh flat-leaf parsleyDirections:
1. For pastry, combine flour, salt and butter in a food processor; pulse until it looks like coarse oatmeal with a few larger chunks of butter. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons water over flour mixture and pulse just until dough starts to come together (add more water if necessary). Gather dough into a ball, flatten into a disk and wrap in plastic. Chill 1 hour or up to 2 days.
2. Preheat oven to 200C. Slice the potatoes into very thin, even slices.
3. In a small baking dish with a cover, toss the potatoes with 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1/4 teaspoon truffle salt. Add rosemary and water. Cover and bake until the potatoes are tender, but not falling apart, about 15 minutes. Remove lid and let cool.
4. Line a baking pan with baking paper. Roll out the pastry crust into two 10x30cm rectangles; transfer to the baking sheet. Use your hands to form a low raised edge all the way around. Prick dough all over with a fork. Bake until golden brown, 10-15 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool 10 minutes.
5. Whisk together the cream, chevre, garlic and 1/4 teaspoon truffle salt. Brush tart crusts with olive oil, then spread the chevre mixture evenly over them. Lay potato slices over chevre in neat, overlapping rows. Brush with oil; sprinkle with salt.6. Bake 10 minutes more. Remove from oven, cool slightly, then drizzle with the balsamic and garnish with parsley. Cut each tart into 5 slices and serve immediately.
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