Friday, September 3, 2010

Share the cooking and the fun for a simple, affordable party

I have a large sign that reads “Keep it Simple” hanging above my kitchen door. More than kitschy art, it is a valuable reminder for me, a woman who has a history of making things far more complicated than they need to be. This is particularly the case when it comes to entertaining.

Even in college, I made elaborate meals for my friends. One year, I made a honey-glazed smoked turkey studded with golden pecans, a sweet potato soufflé, and bourbon cream pumpkin cheesecake. The fact that I remember precisely what I made for Thanksgiving 15 years ago speaks volumes about my sometimes over-the-top entertaining personality. (I also remember my horror when one of my guests literally flicked all my perfectly-placed pecans off the turkey before he started carving it.)

I probably spent more than a week’s wages and hours of prep time on that meal. While I may not be serving pecan-studded smoked turkeys these days with my four children underfoot, there are plenty of ways I can entertain without being tied to my kitchen or busting our already-slim food budget. These ideas for entertaining can satisfy my desire to be among friends, while helping me live up to my “keep it simple” mantra.

Revive the Progressive Dinner. This is a fabulous way of hosting a party. You get all the benefits of a true dinner party with fraction of the work and expense. Round up enough friends willing to host part of a meal at their home—drinks and appetizers to start, followed by salad at another home, a main course at a third location, and top the evening off with dessert at the last home.

Host a Punched-Up Potluck. Determine an international theme—Mexican, French, Chinese—and encourage guests to bring dishes reflecting that country’s cuisine. Or draw on a favorite film to create a memorable evening: all things chocolate for “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” bruschetta, artichokes in Hollandaise sauce, and chocolate cream pie for watching “Julie and Julia,” a green salad, a variety of cheeses, fresh fruit, and champagne to mimic the fare in “Babette’s Feast.” Screen the theme-inspiring film after dinner.

Set up a Buffet. Elevate simple, well-liked foods—such as baked potatoes, pizza, pancakes, hot dogs, ice cream, omelets, or tacos—by asking guests to bring complimentary toppings. Chili, caramelized onions, sauerkraut, an assortment of mustards, shredded cheese, tomato wedges, pickle spears, chutney, and spaghetti sauce are all options to round out a hot dog buffet, for example. To ensure a wide variety, you may want to assign a specific topping to each guest.

Plan an Activity. Serve satisfying one-dish meals appropriate for the season: baked macaroni and cheese or potato soup are perfect for a fall or winter soiree, for instance. Then plan an activity to get guests engaged with one another. Try pumpkin carving, setting up a game of lawn darts or bocce ball, roasting marshmallows in the backyard fire pit, playing board games, or showing an outdoor movie, using a projector and a large, white sheet.

Hosting a potluck-style party gives you a chance to indulge your love of entertaining and also gives your guests a chance to shine. Encourage them to bring the dishes they especially enjoy preparing. Ask one friend to make her famous salsa as an appetizer, for instance, and another to bake his luscious brownies for dessert.

These budget-friendly parties are simple to host because most of the preparation can be done in advance. That leaves you more time to relax and enjoy your guests – and, simple or fancy, that’s the point of a great party.

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