The French have a fantastic take on the cocktail party. Called un apéritif dinatoire, it’s a dinner made of hors d’oeuvres and appetizers. Like tapas or mezze/meze or antipasti. More than nuts and chips—a meal.
Some beloved friends used to do this every year for the feast of Sainte Lucie, or la Fête de la Lumière, the festival of light. When they moved away, we missed not only them (shout-out to you!) but also their party, which was a chance to chat with people we rarely had opportunity to connect with as much as we’d like.
For us, “in a big way” means inviting over 30-some friends for dinner. We usually do a big bash in the summer, around July 4, with hamburgers, but that’s outside, where we have room for plenty of people. Our house is modest, and we have seats for just 16 people. If not everybody can sit, it’s best to have such a crowd that at least as many people are standing as sitting, and no chairs are at the table. The food buffet should be where folks have to get up to get at it, liberating a seat, which gets taken immediately, and which results in people mingling.
We have a big stack of plain white dessert plates from Ikea, as well as real silverware and glasses. No plastic allowed, and only the napkins are paper. People who are standing don’t want to balance a glass, a dish and a knife and fork. Therefore, most of the offerings are finger food. The ante is raised in France, because while Americans are unfazed by dips and foods that require licking one’s fingers (buffalo wings, nachos), the French don’t really do that. To-go French fries are served with tiny forks (charmingly represented by the Belgian luxury leather company Delvaux’s Belgitude collection, which includes a handbag that looks like a sachet of fries, and the keychain has a little red fork, just like the real ones. Check out the surrealist and so-Belgian video). There are people here who eat fruit with a fork and knife. This of course reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where George eats a candy bar with a fork and knife.
We want the menu to be varied and to be as satisfying as a dinner. Chips and dip with a cheese tray isn’t going to cut it. And as good as puff pastry baked with various fillings may be, one cannot live by puff pastry alone. This is a cocktail party plus.
Catering something like this just isn’t done around here. Maybe in big cities, like Paris, where socialites would not be in the kitchen themselves. Or for a milestone birthday or anniversary party, which, in any case, would take place at the community hall. But for a holiday drinks soirée at home, catering would be gauche. At least in our village.
Another option would be to hit a place like Picard or Thiriet, which have mind-boggling selections of frozen, heat-and-serve dishes, from simple to fancy. But as good as their stuff is, it’s still industrial. And kind of expensive. I’ll buy readymade pie crust but that’s the extent of it.
Other requirements for the food:
—Must be made in advance. It isn’t possible to mingle with guests and cook at the same time. By advance I mean two or three days to a couple of weeks. In looking for ideas, I found far too many for which “advance” meant two hours. That’s fine if you’re inviting four people, but not if you’re expecting three dozen. There are better things than cooking to do the day of party, like resting.
—Must be not just edible but delicious if it gets cold. Some items can be heated in the oven as guests arrive, but last time the grazing went on for six hours. Savory tarts are good. So are tartines.
—Must resemble a well-balanced meal: vegetables, starch, meat, cheese, dessert.
—Must be easy to eat. Salads are great for a crowd, but require more than fingers.
—Must be easy on the budget.
—Must be in season.
The party is Dec. 9. I started testing recipes the week of Nov. 20. Somethings look better on Pinterest than in real life. Failures included:
Roasted Brussels sprouts, split and stuffed with prosciutto—too much work, disappointing.
Mini stacks of sliced potato gratin—too much work; didn’t hold together.
Mac and cheese in mini cups of ham—too much work; didn’t hold shape; didn’t like the crackly macaroni on top.
Tuna/zucchini/carrot cake: too wet; didn’t hold shape; fade (bland). Will try another recipe. This is the French “cake,” which is savory, not a sweet gâteau. We will have plenty of those, too.
I have a few others that worked well. I wanted to make gougères, but they are best straight from the oven. Instead, I found a recipe for savory, cheesy madeleines. Two thumbs up from my taste testers. I froze half the batch to make sure they would not soggy after being thawed. I’m going to make a big batch this weekend to freeze. Here’s the recipe.Ever since I first had chicken satay on a beach in Thailand, I have been hooked. Rather than deal with little skewers, I use chicken wings, with a peanut dipping sauce. Under the broiler in advance, and then heated in the oven, one of the few things I heated last time. Despite their inherent messiness, they disappeared quickly. Will be doing this again. The recipe is from “Cooking Thail Food in American Kitchens,” by Malulee Pinsuvana. I love that one column is written in Thai. Authentic!
I will come back on Tuesday with more recipes, a proper menu, and the game plan for carrying this out so it isn’t harried. Even the budget–it’s possible to pull off a classy event without breaking the bank.
Are you entertaining during the holidays? Feel free to share your tips!