Each winter, I host a little retreat for some of my closest photographer friends. We hole up at home in Maine in our coziest sweaters and work together, talk, laugh, occasionally cry, make lists, photograph each other and laugh some more.
In previous years I’ve cooked a hearty ragu or lasagne for the welcome dinner but this year I decided to switch it up and do a festive cocktail party with clever little hors d’oeuvres. I’ll share what I cooked in part II tomorrow but I thought it might be helpful to share some of my tips and suggestions for actually enjoying hosting such a party vs. being stuck in the kitchen away from the action.
HELPFUL TIPS FOR HOSTING A COCKTAIL PARTY
No deep frying
It’s messy and your house will be stinky. Trust me on this one.
Account for enough food and drink for each person
I don’t know about you but whenever I read magazines or cookbooks that say things like “allow 3-4 bites per person for a 2 hour event” that sounds like a pretty crappy time to me. 1 bite-size morsel to eat every 30 minutes? Time to leave and go get a burger! If I’m standing around talking to people at a party then I want to eat something delicious at least every 10 minutes. Also consider that many people like to try “one of everything” so if you decide to make lots of different hors d’oeuvres you’ll likely need more of each.
Have a plan
List out your menu. Write out your shopping list. Work out the steps/timing required for each item. Ask yourself “Can I do this? Do I want to do this?” Revise plan accordingly. I have a tendency to overcomplicate my menu and it’s only when I realize I’ll be cooking/prepping for 16 hours that I say “Cool, I’m going to pick up some of those little ready-made brie pastry things from the Whole Foods freezer”.
Make sure everyone can eat something
Check food allergies and dislikes ahead of time. I once hosted a cocktail party for 16 people including 2 gluten-free guests, 1 Pescatarian and 3 people doing Whole 30. It wasn’t easy but I made sure at least 2-3 different items would be edible for each person. If you know in advance, you can plan accordingly. Don’t be the guest who announces that they’re lactose-intolerant vegetarian on arrival (yes, that happened once). If in doubt, aim for 2-3 different vegetarian options (plus non-meat recipes are usually cheaper!). Labeling your food is helpful for guests with dietary restrictions.
Have a menu that makes sense
Consider texture – you don’t want to have 4 mushy dips and not much else as well as the food group – 4 recipes involving red meat could be too rich (not to mention expensive. 1 dip, 1 “something on bread”, 1 “something on skewer, 1 “something in pastry” would work. You also want a mix of seafood, vegetable, red or white meat options.
Recipes that can be made ahead of time will enable you to be more present
It’s no fun if you’re stuck in the kitchen trying to tie chives into knots around artistic bunches of asparagus. You can have 1 or 2 dishes that need your undivided attention for a few minutes but no more than that. Otherwise you may as well just go work for a catering company.
It’s OK to cheat
By cheat, I mean to serve food that you might not have actually cooked yourself. Store-bought appetizers. The whole point is to have a fun evening with your friends right? Not to make them think you’re the next Martha Stewart. Because there can be no other Martha Stewart so don’t even try. Pick up frozen hors d’oeuvres and wow your friends with your scintillating conversation vs. your artfully tied asparagus bundles.
You don’t have to pass everything
Stationery food – cheese plates, crudite bars with dips – located in different areas will encourage movement, mingling and conversation. You can also rope a few friends in to walk around with a tray, it’ll encourage conversation.
Don’t overcomplicate drinks.
You don’t need a full bar. Consider a signature cocktail that can be mixed ahead of time. Ice buckets filled with Champagne or Prosecco always work. Hire a bartender if you have more than 10 guests. Make sure you have iced water in jugs and non-alcoholic offerings for teetotal/designated driver guests.
If you’re inviting 20 guests then consider getting your party catered. Or do a potluck thing. Or have big chafing dishes of a braised meat and mashed potatoes. Hors d’oeuvres for 30 guests is a job best left to the professionals.
Think about logistics and guest comfort.
Can an item be eaten in one or two neat bites whilst holding a glass of champagne? Or will your guests be awkwardly dropping crumbs all over the floor. Sauces are not your friend at a cocktail party. Likewise recipes containing chopped spinach that can get stuck in teeth. Lots of little cocktail napkins are helpful.
Play it. Make a playlist that fits your event. A quick look on Spotify found this gem. Cheesy? Why not! https://open.spotify.com/album/1MfMLICPGQRaev3gAZ3AMg
Choose food that tastes good at room temperature
If a food item will go soggy if not served and eaten immediately it’s probably not the right one for a cocktail party.
Presentation goes a long way
If you’re making more than a couple of different hors d’oeuvres then it can be helpful to set out your platters in advance and assign each to a dish. Nothing worse than realizing you have one clean platter left and it won’t work with the food that just came out of the oven. Chives, pomegranate seeds, edible flowers, sprigs of rosemary can all be used to fancy up your dishes.
Allow more time than you think you need
Ideally you want to have most of the cooking/preparation done in advance so you have at least an hour to relax, have a sip of champagne, shower and dress. If you greet your guests in a frazzled mood with food stains down your shirt it won’t really set the tone for a fun event. Clean the house (or schedule a cleaning!) in advance and set out extra towels, toilet paper etc. Buy extra napkins, trashbags and aluminum foil, plastic wrap and baggies.
Dessert ends the party
If you want people to get the message that the kitchen is closed and it’s time to head home, then bringing out sweet treats or a platter of tiny desserts will help them get the message.
I’d love to hear about your tips, tricks or suggestions for a great cocktail party – say hi or leave a note in the comments! What’s your go-to recipe?