Sunday, December 14, 2003

Party tricks will treat guests ... and host

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

I'm no Martha Stewart (I remain unindicted), but I have hosted my share of parties. And I've learned through trial and much error a few tricks to home hospitality. Here then, are my 10 tips for successful holiday entertaining.

1. Get organized. Find recipes and make sure most - if not all - can be prepared ahead. Compile shopping and to-do lists.

2. Invite one to two people who laugh often and loudly. Bribe them to arrive early and stay late. But remember, there is a fine line between "life of the party" and "obnoxious."

3. Don't overdo it. Cook your specialty, but don't try to prepare everything. Buy bread and desserts (unless they're your specialty) or ask someone else to bring them.

4. Recruit helpers. There are usually several people (God bless them) who volunteer to cook or to help set up tables and clean. Never say no to kind offers.

5. Serve familiar food, but try to give guests something new to munch on. Spiral-sliced ham, vegetable dip and saucy meatballs are de rigueur here. But add a little adventure to your menu. One of my favorite party dishes is a Middle Eastern roasted red pepper dip made with ground walnuts and pomegranate molasses. Not only is it delicious - sweet, tart and smoky with a spicy edge - this thick, brick-red dip is mysterious. Guests invariably try to figure out what's in it.

6. Behold, the power of cheese. A melted wheel of brie smothered with pepper jelly is always a winner, but again try something new. Create your own cheese platter, using three or more different cheeses. Offer cheeses of different flavors and textures. Or serve several from the same country or region. Identify each cheese with small flags or labels. Serve the cheese on a rustic wooden board with sliced baguette and dried fruit, such as figs and apricots, and toasted walnuts or almonds.

7. Set up serving stations to encourage guests to move about the house. For some reason, people love to loiter in the kitchen, no matter how cramped and crowded. To counter this, set up the bar in the basement and the dessert station in the family room (or vice versa). According to my personal experience, though, many people will grab their drinks and desserts and return to hang out in the kitchen.

8. Lock up the dogs and small children. (Or at least hire a sitter.) Sure, the children are cute, but they don't party like the old folks. And most would rather watch a Disney DVD with other kids anyway. As far as the canines, sometimes the most well-behaved dogs show off by barking, rough-housing or stealing food. On different occasions, I've lost half of a cake and a serious hunk of beef tenderloin to unruly dogs. Plus, not everyone likes dogs - especially when the hounds are eyeing their chips.

9. Don't forget the vegetarians and nondrinkers. Provide something more substantial than a veggie tray for noncarnivores. Soup is nice. Serve an alcohol-free punch for those who don't imbibe.

10. Finally, as difficult as it often is, enjoy yourself. People don't come to parties just for your food, but for your company. And don't fret about cooking mistakes or disasters. Most won't know unless you confess. That cake the dog gnawed on years ago? We trimmed and served it, without telling anyone. Guests thought it was remarkably moist.


Muhammara (Hot and Sweet Red Pepper Dip)

21/2 pounds red bell peppers

1 to 2 small hot chiles, such as hot Hungarian or jalapeno

11/2 cups walnuts, coarsely ground (about 6 ounces)

1/2 cup wheat crackers, crumbled

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses, or more to taste

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon sugar

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons toasted pine nuts or chopped, peeled and unsalted pistachios

Roast bell peppers and chiles over gas flame or under broiler until blackened and blistered. Place in covered bowl to steam 10 minutes. Rub off skins and slit peppers to remove seeds and membranes. Spread peppers skin side up on a paper towel to drain 10 minutes.

In food processor, grind walnuts, crackers, lemon juice, molasses, cumin, salt and sugar until smooth. Add bell peppers; process until pureed and creamy. With machine on, add olive oil in a thin stream. Add chile to taste. If paste is too thick, thin with 1 to 2 tablespoons water. Refrigerate overnight to allow flavors to mellow.

When ready to serve, transfer dip to serving dish. Sprinkle pine nuts or pistachios and cumin on top; drizzle with olive oil. Serve with toasted pita chips. Makes about 3 cups.

The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean (HarperCollins; $30)

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