It’s cold in Kansas City, but that doesn’t mean we should hibernate. Winter, in fact, is an excellent season for entertaining. Consider the advantages: you don’t have to get your outside areas dolled up, or worry about having a Plan B for inclement—you know it will be cold, so you can focus on making your house as cozy and inviting as possible. You can serve hearty, comfort food (stews, chili, lasagna, fava beans and a nice Chianti yukyukyuk), most of which are not only less pricey, but taste better made ahead.
Here are some easy-to-execute ideas for parties to have in the winter months.
First, Let’s Talk About Val
That’s what they call Valentine’s Day at my esteemed former employer, Hallmark Cards, Inc., where, as you can imagine, February 14 is serious business. Val falls on a Friday this year, so why not celebrate, even if you say “ick” to the visual of cuddling sweethearts whispering sweet nothings over crimson roses and stuffed animals. Here are some suggested formats for celebrating Val.
Cupid is Stupid party, for the discerning singleton. Collaborate with a couple of friends from different circles to host a Val mixer/cocktail party for singletons. Encourage guests to bring other single friends. Invite people for two or three hours only—don’t stretch it out over the evening or you’ll never get the kind of crowd that makes a party feel electric. And don’t have the emphasis be on people finding a love connection (way too much pressure!), but rather on broadening your social circle and finding interesting new friends to hang with. Email me and I will send you my list of pointers for how to throw a cocktail party.
Celebrate Your Homegirls. Men may come and go, but good girlfriends are with you for life. Invite your inner tribe of sistahs to come over for an elegant Val champagne luncheon. Set your table with pink linens and your prettiest dishes and glassware and serve something girly, such as Ina Garten’s lobster and potato salad (google it or email me and I’ll send you a link). Play all-girl music, like Joni Mitchell, Diana Krall, and Eva Cassidy.
Romantic Revels. Here’s an elegant and philanthropic way to celebrate with your beloved. The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival sponsors a black-tie, Val-themed gala every year, called “Romantic Revels.” It’s Saturday, Feb. 15, at the Intercontinental Hotel and the evening features a martini bar, silent auction, gorgeous ambience, dinner, and dancing, with lots of little surprises here and there. Tickets start at $200 a person and proceeds support HASF’s mission of making the Bard’s works available to the public through free professional theater and education programs. My valentine and I will be there; this year’s gala has a black-and-white dress code. Check out their website, shakespeare.org, for more info.
Spaghetti Night a Casa Tua
Spaghetti with meatballs is comfort, comfort, comfort food, perfect to serve at a casual, winter dinner party. Invite people for spaghetti and it automatically conveys to them a wealth of information: Dress casual. Bring red. Come hungry.
For the host, spaghetti answers the question of what else to serve: Prosciutto-wrapped melon, figs, or pears; a simple green salad, garlic bread. And lots of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano.
Email me for my “Spaghetti and Meatballs for a Crowd” recipe. I make the sauce in a crockpot, using store-bought marinara to which I add “country-style” pork ribs, which add amazing depth of flavor. The recipe serves eight to ten, depending on appetites and what else you are serving.
You could whomp it up for a bigger crowd by offering another pasta variety and sauce or two—perhaps a Bolognese sauce, a meatless sauce (if you’re feeding a vegetarian) and/or a white clam sauce—and calling it a pasta bar.
Oh, the Oscars!
Show Biz fakery. Questionable fashion choices. Political speeches from spoiled actors in tuxedos. What better way to enjoy them than with friends? Oscar night is Sunday, February 9, and if you invite your own rat pack to an Academy Awards party right now, they will like you, they will really like you. And a remarkable thing will happen: they will actually make an effort to see the nominated pictures.
The most important Oscar party requisite has to do with televisions and seating. The ceremony is long, so make sure everyone has a comfortable seat and a view of the telly. It’s best to have at least two televisions and viewing areas, because you will have two kinds of watchers: the die-hards who are glued to the telecast and the more casual viewers, who attend mainly to socialize. Rearrange your furniture into lounge-like vignettes to create a cozy atmosphere. Provide floor cushions or drag in soft chairs from other parts of the house if you need additional seating.
People will want to graze, so a buffet table is the obvious serving tactic. I recommend serving a spiral-cut ham with tiny rolls and gourmet mustards, or a beef tenderloin, sliced and served at room temperature with baguette slices and horseradish sauce. Set up a separate dessert table if you have room, with bite-size brownies, cupcakes, and cookies. Consider offering cinematic nibbles like Junior Mints, Milk Duds, and Twizzlers.
Download Oscar ballots from oscar.com, print them out and distribute them before the broadcast. Give a prize to the guest who predicts the most winners.
It’s Soup Season, Sweetie!
There is nothing so inviting on a cold winter day as a bowl of soup, and the smell of it simmering on the stove makes your house a wonderful place to be. What better reason to invite friends for dinner?
There are several advantages here, an obvious one being soups are best made in advance. When soup is the main course, it frees you to indulge in other little flights of culinary fancy that you might not otherwise have time for: homemade biscuits perhaps, or a salad made with roasted beets, or a cranberry-pear sorbet for dessert. (Yes, I have recipes!)
If you don’t want to bother with making stock, it’s okay to use canned. I especially like a brand called College Town, available in some Kansas City grocery stores. The flavor of any canned stock can be vastly improved by simmering it for 20 or 30 minutes with browned onion, carrot, and celery—which you then strain out before using.
The possibilities for a soup dinner are limitless. I especially like corn and crabmeat chowder, split pea soup, gumbo, and lentil soup. And my friend Terry Anderson’s white chicken chili. So many options! Email me and I’ll send you my favorite soup recipes.
Next Time You Bring an Appie, Bring This!
My dear friend Grace Thompson discovered this treasure of a recipe attached to a jar of Carole James’ Mango Chutney Spread. The recipe became a favorite of hers; she shared it with me and now it’s my new boyfriend. It’s so delicious! It’s fun to watch it disappear—people go nuts (pun intended) over it
Carole James Mango Chutney Spread
- 11 ounces cream cheese
- 3 tablespoons sour cream
- 8 ounces bacon, cooked crispy and crumbled
- 1 cup golden raisins
- 1 bunch green onions, chopped
- 2 cups cocktail peanuts
- 1 cup Carole James Seasonal Sensations
Mango Chutney* or other mango chutney
- 2–3 teaspoons curry powder
Soften cream cheese with sour cream. Blend cream cheese mixture with chutney, bacon, onions, raisins, and curry powder. Stir in one cup of peanuts. Don’t use a food processor! On a serving plate, form the spread into a mound. Top and surround with peanuts and serve with plain-flavored crackers (Bremnar’s Wafers are best).
Email me with your entertaining questions, dilemmas, or triumphs at firstname.lastname@example.org