It’s a bewitching time of year alright. It starts with Halloween, oodles of candy, spooky stories by candlelight—playing scared just to steal some snuggle time. Next you’re throwing a party, lounging fireside with friends, loved ones (more hugs) and hot buttered rum mugs. And if you’re like me, you’ve already pulled out your finest sandalwood and clove candles.
Visions of sugar cookies dancing in your head yet?
‘Tis time for the holidays! So how do you make it enjoyable for everyone…including yourself? No matter if you’re a first time host, or seasoned party maven, we know through experience, that memorable first impressions are not limited to blind dates, or business. It’s one thing to create a great time for guests, but it’s entirely another when you— the master of ceremonies, get to play and be merry too.
And that’s the goal here.
When entertaining, I’ve always felt that “introductions” or tastings, are just as important, if not more, than the main course. Not only are they designed to set the tone—they seduce, keep the anticipation alive from antipasto to espresso (or cognac).
From now until New Year’s, I’ll be sharing some wonderful holiday recipes, with simplicity in mind, so keep your eyes peeled!
But first things first—pour yourself something yummy (whatever awakens your inner party planner). I’m about to share a few tips and pair some exquisite cheese and wine that will leave guests swooning!
Shortcuts and homemade musts.
Have you already drafted a holiday menu—with a “mission impossible” theme? You’re heart might be in the right place, but who wants palpitations? I’d suggest…:
- Say “no” to doing it all. Making everything from scratch, although a lovely gesture, could backfire. Not to mention, it’s exhausting. Store bought phyllo pastry dough should never come with a side of guilt. There’s a time and place for playing Master Chef and depending on menu complexity and timing—your party may not be one of them. So spend your precious energy on what I call the “stars of the show”. If you’re a baking extraordinaire then by all means, do what you do best—just don’t over do it. If time is not on your side, then head to your favorite bakery or specialty gourmet store for some artisanal touches. I promise, I won’t tell.
- Say “yes” to help: If you have rock star family and friends who love to whip up something yummy for the holiday, or lend a helping hand behind the scenes, then just say “yes, yes…a thousand times yes”!
- Simple does not mean “so-so”. Using three ingredients as opposed to ten, does not make your food and wine tasting, well—any less tasty. As my favorite Venetian professor once said “Less is More”. So focus on quality.
- While you are sleeping…some of the most amazing things happen! I love cooking the day before, so long as the food agrees! Allowing soups, sauces, tapenades and sweets enough time to gel is just as important as offering guests the right atmosphere, beverage and time to get comfortable. Crock pots are a God-send, but if a slow, stove top simmer in the afternoon is more your style, then go for it. Vegetable based pureed soup options are aplenty; try smokey roasted cauliflower, butternut squash and apple or cream of mushroom. And for those who can not part with tomato based sauces, not even on Thanksgiving, traditional marinara or bolognese work wonderfully. Tapenades are also an easy, delectable addition to your party starters! I have two special favorites: kalamata olives and portobello mushrooms. As far as dessert goes, the options are endless, although I would steer clear of those best served warm, unless they are ridiculously easy and you have ample kitchen support.
Wine & Cheese= Magic
Pairing is an art form and there are sommeliers who honestly deserve a shrine for their genius recommendations. Here is a selection of familiar and maybe, not so familiar cheeses sure to become party favorites, including wine and beer that really make them shine:
Montboissie Morbier cheese, made from french cow’s milk, came to be in the 19th century. Hailing from the highest part of the Jura Mountains, in a small farm village in the Franche-Comté region, Montboissie producers used the day’s leftover curd to make a smaller cheese for their own consumption. As you can see, from the photo here (just right of the Turkish honey and crisp apple slices), its most notable trait is the dark vein of vegetable ash running through the middle. The bottom layer is traditionally made from morning milking and the top from evening milking. Today the ash is purely decorative, but originally it was used to prevent insects, spoiling or a rind from forming between milking. Montboissie is very aromatic, yet surprisingly mild, with a subtle nutty flavor—great with soft warm bread, preserves, nuts and grapes. Suggested Pairings: Try fruity wines, including: Gewurztraminer, Gamay, Chardonnay, Sancerre or Pinot Noir.
Manchego: Straight from the rugged wheat and brush fields of La Mancha, Spain, this firm cheese with mellow flavor is made from whole milk produced by Manchega sheep. It’s mild, buttery, and nutty, with a touch of salty sharpness typical of sheep’s milk cheeses. Suggested Pairings: Spanish sparkling wines (ex: Bohigas Brut Riserva Cava) or a Rioja.
Scamorza is an Italian cheese similar to mozzarella, made with cow’s milk. This cheese is typically found in the south, in regions like Campania, Molise, Abruzzo, Puglia and Basilicata. They can be smoked, stuffed and, although rare, can even be made with buffalo’s milk. The cheese is shaped into a sphere with a rope tied about one third of the way down from the top, resulting in a bulb-like head formation (see top photo, far left). It’s also been called the “strangled cheese”. Some say the word scamorza could derive from the terms “testa mozzata” or “capa mozza” both meaning “severed head”. What a lovely visual…your welcome! Suggested Pairings: Pinot Grigio or White Orvieto
Brie: Brie literally comes from Brie, a region in France. It’s a soft cow’s milk cheese, aged about four to five weeks, with an edible whitish moldy rind (see top photo, far left, just below the scamorza). You can serve it warm, slightly melted, and top it with strawberries, raspberries and almonds. Added to french bread, or topped with plum jam, this cheese will surely please. Suggested Pairings: Rosé (ex: Côtes du Rhône Rose), a Blanc de Blancs Champagne (a term used for champagnes made only from chardonnay grapes), a creamy Chardonnay (subtly oaked), or a cherry or raspberry fruit beer (ex: Purple Haze- Abita Brewing Co.)
Hosting a holiday party, involves time and effort, but with a rock solid menu, plan of attack, music on high and great company—a fabulous time can be had by all! Give these cheese and wine pairings a whirl! And remember, less is more!