Hosting a holiday party can be stressful, but is can also be simple. Really. It’s a choice.
And I’m a big advocate for simplicity–if for no other reason than now, more than ever, we need to gather with friends. Just to celebrate life and the season and our shared humanity.
It seems like it’s rare for people to invite friends into their homes, even for a pot of soup or a drink and a snack. One of the reasons is that the expectations seem so high–like we have to a mixologist and a caterer all in one to pull it off.
But you don’t, and here’s why.
The invitation is what matters
We all love to be invited. That’s the gift right there: the invitation into your home. Sure, the decor is not West Elm approved and the kids drew on the walls, there’s a stain on carpet and you don’t have time to cook for company given all the other holiday to dos. I get it but I think we’re all missing out.
Over the years a lot of people have told me that they’re intimidated to invite me over. They’re worried that their food won’t be up to snuff–whatever that means. And that’s where the trouble starts: expectations. The questions is: whose expectations, exactly?
I have to admit that during our first few years living in eastern Oregon, having worked in fine dining, I went a little overboard. I had dinner parties with multiple courses and plated dishes. Okay, way overboard.
Recently, my dear friend Ann confessed that the white linen table cloths made people kind of uncomfortable. Yeah, it was ridiculous! I did it for the sheer love of it.
And then it became unsustainable once we had kids. So, now I focus on making everyone comfortable. How?
By doing less, not more.
For example, our annual holiday party is a sourdough waffle open house on New Year’s Day. And we can do it every year (this will be the 12th, I think) because it’s so straightforward: we do waffles and coffee; the guests bring all the toppings. Then they stand around the kitchen eating off their plates or crowd around the dining table. No one is stressed out and everyone has a ball.
Sound good? Here’s a way to do it.
Planning for entertaining
As the great nation of snackers, everyone loves a party with appetizers. I like to plan for variety, and thinking in broad categories to find snacks that are:
Something for everyone!
These are wide open to many possibilities, but once I’ve considered the ingredients I have on hand in the fridge, pantry and freezer, it gets narrowed down pretty quickly.
For a casual get together, I keep it to just finger foods, so there are no utensils needed–only napkins. And sometimes I forget to put those out until the last second!
How many appetizers? One is actually enough for a group of four. But thinking in threes is a good principle to follow. Three appetizers is a reliable number for groups up to 10.
Just three. But what?
5 no-stress appetizer ideas
Mind you, it’s not hard to get on a roll and consider all the time-consuming appetizers you can create and bake from scratch. But the idea here is to take the pressure off, Keep it breezy so no one feels put out by the effort.
In that spirit, here my easiest appetizer go-tos:
The word is that pickle boards are the appetizer of the season. Works for me! I’ve always relied on having ready-to-eat jars of homemade pickles–cukes, dilly beans, beets, asparagus, carrots–to pull out at a moment’s notice. Even if you’re not a pickler (yet!), there are more and better options at the store and the farmers market. Again the number 3 is magic here; so pick three types of pickles (including olives), arrange them on a platter and call it good.
You can always add a little charcuterie, like sliced air-dried salami, or a wedge of strong cheese, like sharp white cheddar. But trust me when I tell you that the pickles have it going on all on their own.
Yogurt’s made a big switch of late onto the savory side of things. It’s the new hummus! I love using thick plain yogurt, like Greek, as a dip for crudités. Just mix plain Greek yogurt with finely chopped fresh herbs (like cilantro, mint, dill, basil) with a dash of lemon juice and a pinch of salt to taste. Or switch it out for mayo and/or sour cream in your favorite dip recipe for a fresh, tangy take on the old vegetable platter stand-by. For an updated presentation, put a swoosh of yogurt kip into a wide shallow bowl and arrange the veggies casually all around it.
Smoked wild salmon
Every summer, I brine, smoke and freeze a whole side of wild salmon, cut into chunks for a winter full of good snacks for skiing and entertaining. Good-quality smoked salmon is easy enough to find even if you don’t smoke your own. (Northwest style hot-smoked salmon, not to be confused with lox, nova or other cold-smoked fish.) Just unwrap and plate it with a knife and garnish with sliced cucumbers, radish or daikon, or veggie chips (my favorite). Instant dairy and gluten free snack.
Goat cheese log
Rolling good-quality goat cheese in a tasty topping is not a new idea, but it’s a perennial favorite that you can update and personalize in so many ways. I’m into pomegranate & pistachios; dukkah with hazelnuts; or preserved lemon & sumac. A drizzle of olive oil or honey over the top dresses it up effortlessly. (Note the Middle Eastern theme?) Serve with sliced apple or pear and crispy flatbreads.
Dried fruit and nuts
Apricots, plums, dates and pears are some of my favorite dried fruits that I keep on hand for my kids to snack on after school. It’s only recently that I’ve turned to them for appetizers, too, and it’s surprised me how our guests devour them. Dried fruits go great with cheese and nuts, like this recipe for homemade Smoky Tamari Almonds. Come to think of it, you can make a winning appetizer plate out of just these three items–fruit, cheese and nuts–and forget all the rest!
What all of these appetizers have in common–besides satisfying a host of cravings with little effort–is that they’re nutritious, too. Roasted nuts–crunchy and salthy–are addictive in a good way, right?
I mean, I love the classic spinach dip with sour cream and mayo as much as anyone (ah yes, with Fritos, no less!) but I do not enjoy how I feel afterwards. When I serve homemade appetizers featuring fresh whole foods heavy on the produce, everyone feels good from beginning to end.
I’d say that’s worth celebrating.
Smoky Tamari Almonds
Smoked and salted nuts are the perfect pairing for a holiday cocktail. I adore almonds, but feel free to use walnuts, pecans, cashews or a combination for an easy, make-ahead appetizer. I've tried them all and they're addictive--so much that you may want to make an extra batch. This recipe is easily doubled and makes a sweet holiday gift, too.
- 1 pound raw whole almonds substitute any raw nut
- 2 tablespoons tamari
- 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
- 2 drops liquid smoke
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt, plain or smoked
Combine the almonds, tamari, oil, liquid smoke and salt, if using, in a mixing bowl until the almonds are completely moistened. Let sit for a few minutes while the oven preheats.
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F and line a sheet pan with a silicone liner or parchment paper.
Stir the almonds once again and then arrange them in a single layer on the sheet pan. Bake the almonds on the middle rack of the oven until the almonds are beginning to dry out, about 10-12 minutes.
Shake the pan to roll the almonds over and redistribute them into a single layer.
Raise the heat to 350 degrees F and bake until they smell toasted and are completely dry, 5-7 minutes more.
Transfer to a cooling rack. Cool completely before serving or storing.
Bottled liquid smoke may sound like some artificial flavoring, like MSG. But it's actually real smoke collected from water vapors condensed into a liquid. Since it's filtered of tar and ash, liquid smoke is actually less carcinogenic than actually smoking foods. A terrific shortcut for certain foods, like these nuts, it's best used with a light hand.