Party food both trendy and retro

Party food both trendy and retro

Everyone loves a holiday party. If it’s a fancy affair, you get the chance to dress up – maybe in those festive reds and greens that look a little silly any other time of year. But truth be told, it’s the food that we all look forward to when we’re anticipating a holiday gathering – unless we’re asked to bring along a dish or an appetizer. Chips and dip worked when we were in our teens and 20s, but they don’t exactly impress your host with your creativity. So what do people who serve food at holiday parties recommend?

Evalin Stearns of Catering by Evalin in Portland has been catering for 20 years in the greater Portland area. She doesn’t have a chance to go to many holiday parties as a guest, but she knows what she’d bring.

“Even though it’s winter, I’d probably bring a salad since I’m a farmers market kind of girl,” she says. Stearns would add candied pecans or almonds to the traditional mixed greens and other ingredients to make it a little more festive.

For appetizers, Stearns agrees that chips and dip don’t really cut it.

“The last party I did, not one chip went into the dip,” she says. “They just don’t go over well anymore.”

Stearns says people like her deviled eggs with smoked salmon and her wild white shrimp with mango any time of year.

“The shrimp are organic and cost a little bit more, but they’re worth it,” she says.

She also recommends a “newly discovered” cheese called Fromager d’affinois as an appetizer. It’s a double-cream cheese that looks like brie but is softer and more subtle in taste. Its sweetness goes well with sparkling wine or champagne, again making it a good holiday party choice.

“For a while, cheese wasn’t going well,” says Stearns. “That whole lactose intolerant thing. But the last few years it’s been popular, especially the exotic cheeses and bries.”

Stearns says squash dishes go over well in winter. One of her favorites combines sweet potato and winter squash with leeks and a little heavy cream. As for a main dish, she says people have been asking her to make an old-fashioned standby from the first Silver Palate Cookbook called Chicken Marbella. (Any Internet search will find you a version of the recipe). According to the cookbook, it’s a dish that can be served hot or cold and works both as a main dish and an appetizer (using wings and drumsticks instead of cut-up whole chicken).

“I use apricots instead of prunes,” Stearns says. “The capers, garlic, brown sugar make it really work for winter.”

As for dessert, caterers say rum balls and fruitcake are out of style. Pies and fudge will always be in. Michelle Clausen of At Your Service Catering in Portland recommends a couple of novelty desserts that both adults and children seem to love. The first is a s’mores parfait, a variation on those campfire treats, that combines graham crackers, marshmallows or fluff, and chocolate ganache.

For her catering clients Claussen sets up a s’mores station where guests can make their own. But for a holiday party, she suggests making them ahead of time in small Mason jars so guests can dig right in.

“It’s amazing how something so simple can take people back years to a favorite memory,” she says. “I love watching adults giggle like children when they make s’mores; it really is magical.”

Another novelty dessert is Claussen’s signature Pie Pop, a tart that literally looks like a miniature pie on a lollipop stick. Claussen says these can be made ahead and brought to a party in a dish lined with foam from a craft store (for standing up the Pie Pops.)

“They are really cute, not too difficult and very impressive,” Claussen says.

Claussen makes apple raspberry pie filling with a hint of balsamic vinegar for a little kick, as well as a blueberry pear pie filling with a hint of fresh ginger. But, she says, pre-made filling works as well.

“Add a little something to make it your own,” she says. “Add a little lemon to a store-bought blueberry filling, or combine two fruit fillings, add a little spice and you’ve got your own creation.”

When making your own pie filling from scratch, Claussen suggests making it a little sweeter and stronger in flavor than you normally would, since the dough-to-filling ratio is higher in pops than in pie.

“Try one first, “ she advises. “Too much filling and it won’t seal well. Too little and you are eating just dough. Try a few to see exactly how much you will need.”

The stylish holiday parties this year feature conversation-starting treats such as s’mores parfaits and pie pops.
The stylish holiday parties this year feature conversation-starting treats such as s’mores parfaits and pie pops.

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