If you're anything like me, December was the only time year when your parents came anywhere close to throwing what could be termed a cocktail party. Because it was the suburbs, my mom's friends mostly sat around the kitchen table nibbling directly from the serving trays and trading neighborhood stories. Because it was Texas, my dad's friends mostly stood on the porch, drank beers from the iced-down washtub in the garage and talked about cars and poon-tang. (I kinda miss Texas.) But the food was always good, nobody got into a flaming car wreck going home, and as far as I know, no divorce proceedings were ever initiated, so there you go.
Of course, I'm one to talk. My wife and I have never given a cocktail party, largely because that would involve cleaning up the house, and what with renting a couple dumpsters and a backhoe and blocking out a two-week block of time, we'd just be too knackered at the end to entertain. The closest we've come is the standard "having people over for drinks," which is a couple of steps below the cocktail party in terms of effort, particularly since given the relative sophistication level of my friends, the snacks most often consist of a couple bags of Doritos and a dish of almonds.
But that's the first step in successful party planning, for a holiday party or whenever: Throw the party you and your friends would like to attend, not the one you think you should throw. We're not a Wodehouseian crowd, true, but nor are we overgrown frat boys—our lot is primarily folks from the local music and indie-movie scenes and my wife's old MIT friends—and the combination of my wife's obsession with all things Eastern European and my southern heritage suggests certain possibilities for party foods. Think about these things as you're planning the party (Who's coming? What do these people have in common? What sorts of foods do my friends expect me to provide? What recipes do I want to show off to them?) and your menu is going to plan itself. What follows is a few suggestions based on the sort of things we'd serve if we ever get around to having a New Year's Eve party. If what you really want is a vat of chile con queso the size of a baby's bathtub, a meat and cheese platter from the supermarket deli and six bags of Chips Ahoy, which is also a menu I could get behind, then have that instead.
Liquor is a whole separate issue, and one with which I'm not much help, since I drink like a girl scout. You've probably figured out what you like to drink by now anyway. One suggestion: Buy a case or two of half-liter bottles of spring water to mix in with the booze. Even if you're drinking hooch (you do have a designated driver, I trust), take a minute to chug some water in between: You're much less likely to greet 2005 with a hangover if you stay hydrated.
Although I have a certain fondness for the pimiento cheese found in the deli coolers of any supermarket in the southern U.S., this homemade version is nearly as easy as opening a plastic tub and tastes much nicer. Make it a day or two ahead to allow the flavors to mingle and mellow, and serve as a dip with raw vegetables, cocktail breads, tortilla chips and crackers. Or, to go truly retro, use it to fill celery sticks. Your grandmother will be so proud.
Makes 4 cups
1 (4-ounce) jar chopped pimiento, drained
1 cup mayonnaise (regular, low-fat or, if you're stylin', homemade)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon ground ancho or other chile
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 clove garlic, chopped
8 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated
8 ounces Jack cheese with jalapeños, grated
Mix everything but the cheese together with a whisk, then fold in cheese with spatula. Refrigerate at least 6 hours before serving. Keeps in refrigerator up to 10 days.
In college, I made pin money as a waiter at the monthly English Department functions, which was the only time and place I've ever personally come across that now-declasse '50s cocktail party staple rumaki. A completely weird set of ingredients makes a surprisingly addictive finger food, and I used to take whole warming trays of leftovers back to my crap little student apartment. This is an hors d'oeuvre truly worthy of the name, and one that's well past time for reviving. Look for chicken livers in the freezer section if they're not in the meat department.
1) Mix together ingredients for the marinade and refrigerate.
2) Trim any of icky-looking gristly bits from the chicken livers, if necessary, and cut livers in thirds.
3) Drain water chestnuts and rinse lightly in cold water.
4) Cut bacon slices in half crosswise.
5) For each rumaki, spear a chicken liver piece and a water chestnut on a toothpick. Wrap with bacon. Place in a pan for marinating (something like a glass baking dish is excellent). Repeat until you're out of chicken liver pieces.
6) Cover rumaki with marinade and refrigerate 1 hour.
7) Turn broiler on high, with the rack about 4 inches away from the heat source.
8) Place marinated rumaki on broiling rack (I use a wire cooling rack in a half-sheet pan or lipped cookie sheet) and broil for 7 minutes on first side.
9) Turn rumaki over (one word: tongs) and broil on second side for an additional 5 minutes or until bacon is fully cooked. Make sure there are napkins aplenty.
Smoked Salmon Canapés
This is the all-time mack-daddy finger food, because it's delicious, elegant, and looks both expensive and swish when it's in fact relatively inexpensive and dead easy. You can get perfectly decent smoked salmon from either Scotland or Nova Scotia, vacuum-packed in plastic, for surprisingly little money at the deli counter or fish department at most supermarkets. Try Whole Foods (Wyoming at Academy) if you're not having any luck. If you can't find crème fraîche, a high-quality full-fat sour cream is an entirely adequate substitute.
1/2 pound thin-sliced smoked salmon
8 ounces crème fraîche
1 loaf cocktail rye bread (those little 1.5-inch square loaves of dark rye or pumpernickel from the deli counter)
1) Cut salmon into roughly 1-inch squares.
2) Place slices of cocktail rye bread on a serving platter.
3) Dot each slice with about a quarter-teaspoon of crème fraîche.