Anyone who’s ever thrown a party knows that its success is dependent on more than simply the food and drink. When to have the party, where to have it and whom to invite are all key decisions. And while any one of them can sidetrack a perfectly planned event, one surefire party buzzkill is a stressed-out host.
Any get-together is going to entail a certain amount of hard work on the part of the party-giver, but as is true in most things, timing is everything. Some tasks are inevitably last-minute. It’s hard to dust on Sunday and still have a spotless coffee table on Saturday, at least at my house.
Many things can be done ahead, though. Centerpieces can be arranged, linens can be ironed (if necessary) and much of the food can be made well ahead of the big day. The more items you can knock off your to-do list, the less stressed you’ll be on the day of the party.
Since I’m a food writer, I’ll focus on what I know best, food, and that starts with menu planning.
When you’re planning a menu for any event, whether it’s an elaborate dinner party or small get-together with drinks and a few bites, it’s important to keep color, texture and flavor in mind.
The adage that people eat with their eyes is true, so plan accordingly. Create a menu that has a variety of colors. Something as simple as a platter of roasted red, yellow and green peppers can bring a buffet to life.
Texture is also key. The crunch of a crudité platter is wonderful, but not if the only other options on the table are chips, crackers and mixed nuts. That’s why those veggies and crackers are always sitting next to a bowl full of dip or a silky, soft cheese.
Flavor is another critical element. Imagine a meal made entirely of incendiary or acidic dishes. No one wants their mouth in a perpetual pucker for the entire evening. While one or two zippy dishes would be welcome, for them to shine as they should, they need to be sitting next to dishes with more neutral flavors.
Perhaps that’s what makes planning a cocktail party so much fun. You’ll want to serve a handful of different appetizers, which makes room for lots of tastes and textures. Healthy and decadent, spicy and sweet, protein and plant-based dishes — all can find a place on the tablecloth.
So have fun, but whatever you choose to serve, make sure to plan at least a few appetizers that can be frozen a week or two ahead of time and a few that can be made and kept chilled a day or two ahead. Then, if you feel the need to throw in one or two bites that need to be assembled or cooked just before the party, you won’t feel overwhelmed.
When I think of appetizers that I can fix, freeze and forget, at least until it’s time to bake them right before a party, I often think of ones that are puff pastry-based. Not only do they often freeze beautifully, but they’re usually the most popular item on the menu. There’s something about a warm, savory filling wrapped up in buttery puff pastry that makes them disappear quickly.
For that reason, I always find a way to include a two-bite turnover in my party plan. I’ll often fill them with a spiced meat mixture, or a spinach and cheese combo, but the ones I get the most requests for are my Mushroom, Goat Cheese and Thyme Turnovers.
Chopped mushrooms are sautéed with shallots, garlic and thyme. Dry white wine is added for a bit of acidity before the mixture is combined with creamy goat cheese and stuffed inside puff pastry rectangles. The unbaked turnovers are kept in the freezer until I’m ready to pop them in the oven and bake until golden and flaky.
Of course, homemade puff pastry would be heaven in this recipe, and if you have the time and interest to make your own, by all means, do it. Still, a memorably delicious appetizer can be made with store-bought puff pastry. There are some brands that are made with only butter, and if you can find one, it’s worth the extra cost. But any puff pastry works well in this recipe.
Meatballs, in any form, are another party favorite that you can make ahead and freeze. I always have meatballs in my freezer, party or no party, because it doesn’t take much to turn them into an easy meal, whether they’re sitting on top of a plate of pasta or stuffed inside a sandwich. They need only to be pulled out of the freezer and baked before they’re ready to be used in any number of ways.
Those of us from a certain era remember the ever-present cocktail meatball, coated in a strangely sweet sauce made primarily out of grape jelly. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since then, and these Ricotta Pesto Meatball Crostini are the perfect example of the cocktail meatball’s evolution.
Ricotta, a neutral Italian cheese, lends moisture and tenderness to these pesto-flavored beef meatballs, which are baked, cut in half to ensure stability (no one wants a meatball falling off and messing up their party frock), set on top of a cheesy, toasted slice of baguette and covered in a quick and easy homemade marinara sauce. A sprinkling of more Parmesan tops off this hearty appetizer.
The result is a satisfying and fun crostini that makes your meat-loving guests supremely happy.
Not every make-ahead appetizer should be frozen. Fresh produce, for instance, does not freeze well, so don’t wrap your crudité tray up and pop it in the freezer a month in advance. A defrosted cucumber stick is not something you want to serve your guests.
Ultra-creamy foods, such as custards or big blocks of cheese, also do not fare well in the freezer. So, assembling the cheese platter is going to have to wait until closer to the event.
Of course, your fresh vegetable and cheese platters can be arranged the day before and kept, covered, in the refrigerator. The same is true for any dips or spreads.
Speaking of spreads, it’s easy to purchase a container of hummus and set it out with some pita chips, but if you’d like to kick it up a notch, or three, this Roasted Butternut Squash Hummus will not disappoint. The flavor is addictive, with a heady dose of warm spices including cinnamon, cumin and coriander, mixed with nutty tahini that plays off the slightly sweet roasted winter squash. A striking scattering of pomegranate seeds and fresh cilantro leaves gives this make-ahead spread a festive look.
No matter what you serve at your get-together, make sure you don’t spend all of it in the kitchen or running around filling everyone else’s glass. Take the time to enjoy your family, friends and the moment. These times don’t come around often enough.