A cocktail supper is my favorite type of gathering (no, not just because it’s an excuse to serve French 75s, although I do love a good French 75…). Sure, the seated, plated dinner and buffet brunch are wonderful in their own right; when I catered (a lifetime ago) those types of formal meals were, so to speak, my bread and butter. But if I’m entertaining for myself in my own home, the cocktail supper will always be my choice of format. It is the perfect balance of sublime and spectacular, a mix of sparkling side conversations, scented candles, and simple bite-sized morsels. A hostess can enjoy a cocktail supper as much as her guests do. If one of the items being served doesn’t turn out perfectly, there are others to cover for it. Early departures and late arrivals ensure there’s always something new going on.
I love all of these aspects of the “Join Us from 6 to 8” evenings, but most of all I love that food and friends get equal emphasis, both mingled together in an endless combinations. It’s hard to mess up one of these events. It can be formal or casual, early or late. Cocktail suppers are infinitely scalable and possible to pull off with little real planning (I didn’t say ideal, just possible).
When I was growing up the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s were like one long, non-stop cocktail supper. My mother kept supplies on hand to put out a spread when friends stopped by to deliver presents, and friends did the same when we were making our rounds. Mama’s staples included:
- Roasted pecans (usually with both sweet and savory varieties)
- Cream cheese with pepper jelly (Wheat Thins)
- Cheese straws (she made her own, always with a hint of cayenne pepper)
- Chocolate candy (Almond Roca or Andes mints)
In the way that things change and stay the same, my staples include:
- Goat cheese (or Boursin) (Cracked Pepper Triscuits)
- Aged Parmesan (shaved with a vegetable peeler) with fresh pears or apples and fig preserves
- Dove Promises (milk and dark chocolate)
When the evening calls for a real cocktail supper, with invitations and everything, I add:
- Meat with Sister Schubert rolls (beef tenderloin if we’re being fancy; pork tenderloin if we’re being ordinary; honey-glazed ham if we’re being lazy)
- A cold vegetable platter (sugar snap peas, carrots, cherry tomatoes, steamed green beans, steamed asparagus, steamed Brussels Sprouts) with a dip (curry dip is always good – curry powder, sour cream and mayonnaise; onion dip is a good one, too)
- Hot crab or artichoke spread, with either pita chips or garlic toasts
Sometimes I’ll make cookies; sometimes I’ll buy Pepperidge Farm (Bordeaux are my favorite). Special occasion items that may appear from time to time include new potatoes with sour cream and caviar, and mushrooms stuffed with spinach (both recipes I learned from my mother).
Of course the other key ingredient for a cocktail supper would be the cocktails. In my parents’ era, before the opulent 80s turned the world into wine snobs, the only wine served (if any) was Lancers Rose or Ernest & Julio Gallo Hearty Burgundy. It made no nevermind, since everyone drank liquor. Now that we’re in the back-to-basics 21st century I usually serve a red blend (Meritage), a Sauvignon Blanc and an ale, which seems to suit every guest. If it’s a big soirée I’ll also have sparkling wine, sparkling water, vodka, gin, bourbon and scotch.
Light some candles. Play some music. Use real napkins. And remember this essentially important, universal truth: If the food and company are good, no one will notice dusty bookshelves. So call some friends and share some food, this holiday season and all year.
Week of December 9| 2013
|Baked Cheese Grits | French Green Beans
The secret to great cheese grits, as I learned from a good Southern cooking friend, is to cook the grits in milk or cream instead of water. Makes a huge difference and definitely makes this rich enough for a main course: cook 1 c. grits in 4 c. boiling milk/cream; stir in 1-2 Tbsp. butter, 1 c. grated cheese (I use a mix of sharp cheddar and parmesan), 1 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. Worcestershire, and 3 beaten eggs. Bake at 350° for 25-30 minutes. Serve with steamed green beans (with a bit of butter & salt).
|Old-Fashioned Meat Loaf | Mashed Potatoes
My quest for the perfect beef stew is matched by Bernard’s quest for the perfect meat loaf. This week we’ll try this one from Melissa Clark and Bobby Deen (Memphians take note of Ben Fink’s picture credit). Will serve with mashed potatoes (if you need a recipe for the potatoes, I’ll once again recommend Tyler Florence’s Velvety Potatoes).
|Parmesan Chicken | Green Salad
This recipe for Parmesan Chicken from Ina Garten is easy and delicious. I also learned recently of another, simpler and equally delicious preparation: dip chicken breasts in Italian dressing then dredge in a mix of bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese (equal parts). Bake at 350° on parchment lined sheets for about 30 minutes (less if you pound the breasts thin before baking). Serve with crisp green salad (or cabbage slaw) and lemon vinaigrette.
Bacon-wrapped Dates | Corn Cakes w/Sour Cream | Pear & Rocket Salad
This is easier to pull off than you think: make your corn cake batter (this recipe from David Lebovitz, adapted from Chez Panisse Vegetables, is good but will need substitution of frozen for fresh corn; this one from Gourmet (RIP, Gourmet) is even simpler and easy to customize). Let the batter sit for a few minutes while you wrap dates in bacon (1/3 slice for each date). Place dates on baking rack atop baking sheet and bake at 375° for 10-12 minutes. While dates are baking, fry corn cakes. While dates cool and cakes rest, toss some sliced pears and fresh arugula with lemon vinaigrette. Serve everything family style with sour cream and other corn cake toppings to your taste (green onions, chile, bacon, cheese, caviar….)
I’ve used (and posted) this recipe from Rescue Chef Danny Broome several times now, and it’s always good. We season it more than the recipe indicates, both for salt and heat. It will keep everyone warm on a cold winter night.