Go with a Theme. “I like to create a theme for a party. It’s fun and creative, and it keeps you from going crazy and buying all kinds of things that you don’t need. A theme reins you in.” Here are some of Chef Arlene’s favorites:
Spanish Flair: “The beauty of serving Tortilla Espagnola (the classic potato and onion omelet eaten throughout Spain) is that the tortillas can be made well in in advance and can be served at room temperature, so you’re not running back and forth from the kitchen heating things up,” Stewart said of this theme’s accompanying menu. “Side dishes can include platters of ham and chorizo, dates wrapped in bacon, cheeses like manchengo, and olives. A bubbly cava is an excellent, inexpensive beverage choice; otherwise you can make a big bowl of festive sangria garnished with citrus fruits.”
Italian Style: “Lasagna is a big crowd pleaser. Make a meat and vegetable version,” she said. “If you cook it the night before, or morning of your party, you can just heat it up when you need it. Serve a big salad, which you can also prep prior, bread sticks, and some good Italian red wine, which can be found for a good price, and you have party.” Make it even more fun by renting a few Italian or Italian-themed films to play in the background, like Fellini’s La Dolce Vita or Roman Holiday.
Caribbean Flavor: “A classic Caribbean peas and rice makes a great affordable platter. Jazz it up with toppings of avocado, tomatoes, chopped chorizo, cilantro and serve with sides of sweet plantains and beef or vegetable patties, which you can find in most freezer sections,” the culinary expert recommends. “To give the party a little island heat, I love to make a rum punch. This works for about 25 to 30 people: Fill a large punch bowl with two cups of dark rum, two liters of ginger ale, one quart of fruit punch, and one quart of orange or pineapple juice. To each glass you can add ice, a splash of lemon juice and a light dusting of freshly grated nutmeg.”
Middle Eastern: “Middle Eastern flavors are so delicious and easy to create. I like to serve roast chickens, or a leg of lamb, with a platter of vegetable couscous,” she said. “For the chickens, simply marinate the night before with a dry rub of one or two tablespoon each of smoked paprika, garlic and onion powder, cumin, salt, black pepper, a little bit of dry ginger, fresh cilantro and parsley. The next day, brush with a little olive oil and roast as usual. If a leg of lamb is in your budget, toast ground coriander, cumin, and cardamom and rub over the lamb, then make small incisions in the meat and insert about four garlic cloves, and marinate it overnight. Then roast it the next day. A three pound lamb takes about 45 to 60 minutes to cook at 350 degrees. An easy side dish can be made with instant couscous. Prepare the grain and put it in a platter. For your vegetables, saute a few shallots in olive oil, then add a can of drained chickpeas, a jar of roasted peppers, and some fresh chopped parsley. Mix with the couscous and serve.”
Touch of the South: “People love comfort food, and chicken and biscuits fit the bill. Add nice spicy coleslaw, or a raw kale salad, which is a nice unexpected treat,” Stewart suggested to personalize your meal. “If you can fry that chicken, great. If not pick it up locally. Same with the biscuits. You can upgrade those biscuits by drizzling a little honey or maple syrup on top. Serve with vodka-spiked lemonade. Add fresh mint if you can find it — or serve a good Southern-style cocktail like and an Old Fashioned.”
Cookie Decorating Party: This festive option is very family-friendly, and it’s quite cost-effective. “Make a basic sugar cookie or shortbread recipe or, (and don’t feel guilty about it) make cookies from refrigerated cookie dough. Provide a selection of frostings, sprinkles, candies and colored sugars for decorating,” Stewart said. “And serve the cookies with warm cider with a stick of cinnamon.” Roll out some butcher block paper on your tables for easy clean up. Then, have small, clear or colorful bags and ties handy so that guests can take some of their treats home.
What’s next? Exhale. “My most important tip of all? Remember, it’s all about having a good time!” Stewart reminded us. “Keep the focus on spending time with your family and friends — that’s what the holidays are all about.”
So, carry on, party people. Now you know how!
Suzanne Rust is a writer, lifestyle expert, on-air talent, and a native New Yorker. Follow her on Twitter at @SuzanneRust.