Break out the cocktail glasses and warm up the fireplace: It's time to blast a little holiday cheer in the direction of your friends and family. Cooking a full dinner for guests is too overwhelming this time of year, but most appetizers can't knock the edge off an appetite unless you plant yourself next to the crab dip and bring your own supply of crackers.
Chef Rachel Zell understands the tricky line you need to walk when throwing a cocktail party. You want finger food that's also real food. And you probably don't have a lot of time to spend making it. A French Culinary School graduate and a restaurant veteran and caterer in New York, San Francisco and Richmond, Zell now works as a private chef, creating dishes with big flavor but without a lot of prep work. Most of her recipes can be made ahead of time; those that can't take only a few minutes to prepare.
And the luxury of time — the time to enjoy your own party — is probably the loveliest gift you can give yourself this holiday season.
Ginger Holiday Cocktail
Serves one Ingredients
- 1 teaspoon of finely grated ginger
- Juice from 1/2 of an orange (approximately 2 tablespoons)
- 1 tablespoon of honey
- 1 1/2 ounces of dark rum
- 1 tablespoon each of cinnamon and sugar
Directions Mix the cinnamon and sugar together on a small plate. Moisten the rim of a martini glass using the squeezed orange. Turn your glass upside down and dip the rim into the cinnamon sugar. Place the rest of the ingredients into a cocktail shaker, stir to dissolve honey, fill with ice, shake and strain into the glass. Garnish with an orange twist.
Serves 10 to 12 Ingredients
- 1 pint of coffee ice cream
- 12 cups of strong brewed coffee, chilled
- 1/2 cup of sweetened condensed milk
- 1 cup of coffee liqueur (optional)
- 4 cups of whipped cream
- Dark chocolate (for garnish)
Directions Mix the sweetened condensed milk, the optional liqueur and coffee together in a punch bowl. Add ice cream and break it into quarters with a spoon or knife. Heap whipped cream in the center. Finely grate or shave the dark chocolate on top of the whipped cream.
- 2 pounds of assorted cheeses (sharp cheddar, Gouda and Mahon make a good combination, but any variety, including smoked, will work; steer clear of ammoniated brie rinds and any blue cheeses, though)
- 1/4 pound of cream cheese
- 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter
- 2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
- 1 to 2 tablespoons of white wine (go easy)
Directions Cut or grate assorted cheeses into small, uniform pieces. Then place in a food processor with the cream cheese, butter and garlic. With the food processor running, slowly add wine. Be careful — if there's too much wine, the taste will be overpowering. Blend until creamy. Form the cheese into a log (or place in a small bowl as a spread). Chill until ready to serve.
Makes 10 skewers For the vinaigrette Ingredients
- 1/2 cup of loosely packed basil leaves
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1/4 cup of red-wine vinegar
- 3/4 cup of extra-virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
Directions Combine the basil, garlic and vinegar in a food processor. With the food processor running, slowly pour in the olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. For the skewers Ingredients
- 2 cups of fresh mozzarella ciligene (grape-sized balls)
- 1 pint of cherry tomatoes
- 1/2 cup of sliced, roasted red peppers
- 1 cup of freshly stemmed basil leaves
- 8-inch wooden skewers
Directions In a bowl, toss the mozzarella in the basil vinaigrette. To assemble the skewers, alternate the tomato, mozzarella and red pepper with a basil leaf in between.
Serves 10 (best prepared three days in advance) Ingredients
- 1/2 cup of Sauer's pickling spice
- 1/2 cup of white vinegar
- 3/4 cup of canola oil
- 3 tablespoons of capers
- 1/2 of a red onion, thinly sliced
- 3 stalks of celery, thinly sliced
- 1 pound of peeled, raw medium shrimp (tail on)
Directions In a bowl, combine all of the ingredients except for the shrimp. Steam the shrimp until pink (approximately five minutes) and add to the pickling mixture. Marinate in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours, but preferably three days.
Cocktail Lamb Chops With Papaya Honey Mustard
Serves 10 (two lamb chops each) For the lamb Ingredients
- 20 single, French-cut lamb chops
- 1/4 cup of olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
Directions Preheat the grill. Brush the lamb with the oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Grill medium-rare, about two minutes each side. Brush on the sauce (recipe below) while lamb is still hot from the grill. For the papaya honey-mustard sauce Ingredients
- 4 tablespoons of Dijon mustard
- 2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar
- Juice of one lime
- 1/2 cup of honey
- 1 cup of seeded and cubed ripe papaya (mango can be substituted)
- Salt to taste
Directions In a bowl, combine the mustard, vinegar and lime juice. Bring the honey to a simmer in a small saucepan and cook on low until the color darkens (approximately 10 minutes). Add the papaya to the honey, stir and continue cooking another 10 minutes. Finally, add the honey-papaya mixture to the mustard mixture and blend well.
Makes two dozen For the buttons: Ingredients
- 2/3 cup of unbleached, all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup of sugar
- 1 teaspoon of baking powder
- A pinch of salt
- 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter (cut into cubes)
- 1/2 package of vanilla instant-pudding mix
- 1 large egg
- 1/4 cup of milk
- 1/4 cup of vegetable oil
- 1/4 cup of vanilla rum (light rum can be substituted)
- Nonstick cooking spray
Directions Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat two mini-muffin pans with nonstick cooking spray. Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer. Mix on low and add butter, turning the mixer up to medium-high. Continue mixing until the mixture resembles gravel. Add the pudding mix and egg, then turn mixer up another notch. Add the liquids and mix until smooth, with no lumps. Pour into prepared pans. Bake for 20 minutes or until the tops turn slightly brown and a toothpick comes out clean. Dip in syrup (recipe on right). While the buttons bake, prepare the syrup: Ingredients
- 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons of water
- 1/4 cup of sugar
- 1/4 cup of the same rum you used for the buttons
Directions Melt the butter with the water and sugar. Bring to a low boil and simmer until the sugar is dissolved. Take the syrup off the heat; add the rum, and stir. While the buttons are still warm, dunk each into the syrup using a fork and allow to cool on plate. Remove the buttons with a small spatula to a serving platter.
Chef Zell's Tips for a Successful Party
- Assign serving dishes and utensils a few days before the party. That way you'll know if you need anything, and you won't be scrambling at the last minute.
- Clear out your refrigerator ahead of time to make room for all of the extra food.
- Think like your guests: Is there a place to set down drinks or trash? Will the food you plan to make be too difficult to eat and/or serve? Are there options for meat lovers and vegetarians alike?
- Separate the food and the bar to encourage mingling.
- Chill the wine!
- Don't forget music!
- Remember that the host sets the tone, so be relaxed at your own party. If you have fun, the guests will, too. I can't stress this enough.