Seasons by the Sea: Cocktail Party? You Got This!

Holiday season is upon us
Richard Brennan helped in the kitchen by making billionaire’s bacon and zucchini chips. Laura Donnelly

People frequently ask me, “Who is the best caterer out here?” I reply with the same answer every time: Art of Eating, Cynthia Battaglia, Brent Newsom, and a few more. How do I know this? Because I have attended parties that they have catered. I have never hired a caterer in my life. Why? Because I do all my own cooking and cleaning up for dinner parties and only give one big cocktail party per year. For this I also do the work, along with a lot of help from my friends, all good cooks.

As soon as I rattle off the names of the top caterers, nine times out of 10 the inquirer replies, “Oh, they’re much too expensive!” So I lower the bar slightly for them. “Then why don’t you go to the Loaves and Fishes takeout shop and get some of their beyond perfect frozen canapés like mushroom puffs and spanakopita and make your own cheese platter with a bunch of blobs from Citarella? Throw some grapes on it and get one of Citarella’s pre-made crudité assortments with dilly dip and be done with it?” If they balk at this suggestion I begin to wonder why they called me in the first place. “Then go to Brent’s for fried chicken and make some deviled eggs.” Click. You’re welcome.

Every year at the end of September I give a big cocktail party. The guests can range in age from 8 to 80 and there are usually 30 to 50 people. It is a most excellent mix and this is what makes a good party. Some of these guests are childhood friends, some might be local merchants I met the week before, most are artists, writers, architects, designers, teachers, and fellow chefs. Some years, if I’m feeling magnanimous, I might invite an ex-boyfriend or two, for while they may no longer pine for me, they do still lust after my roquefort gougeres and goat cheese loaded with garlic and thyme. This amuses and shocks all of my other friends. “You invited him?” See, a little soupçon of friction and surprise makes for a good party, too.

Here’s the point: Holiday season is upon us and maybe you should try to do your own catering for your own party. It’s not that hard and you’ll save money. (When I began hosting this party about 25 years ago, I was so broke, I invited about 10 people and they each had to provide a bottle of pink champagne for admission. Kind of pathetic, but it was festive nonetheless.)

To begin, get your booze well in advance. Buy in bulk and you can save a decent amount. Assign one of your friends to pick up ice a few hours before the party begins. I have a big cooler for beer and white wine, a smaller one for drink ice. Then make as much food in advance as you can. 

I make the aforementioned roquefort gougeres a week ahead and freeze them. The recipe is in Sheila Lukin’s “The New Basics Cookbook.” I reheat these throughout the party and enjoy passing them around, it gives me a chance to circulate and have a meaningful 10-second conversation with each guest before I move on. I make artichoke dip in advance and heat it up just when guests are arriving. Set out all of your platters and bowls ahead of time but don’t open boxes of crackers or chips too far ahead, our humidity will wreck them. 

Put a bowl of cashews and Snyder’s honey mustard bits by the bar. Open a few bottles of wine ahead of time so guests don’t struggle with your corkscrew. Cut up limes and lemons for the bar and leave a few extras in a bowl with a small cutting board and paring knife.

Feel free to have a few cheats. I order a platter of various dosas from Hampton Chutney Company and assign another lucky friend to pick them up around 4. If I’m feeling flush I also get a few pounds of boiled shrimp and cocktail sauce from the Seafood Shop in Wainscott. I am also not above getting some frozen chicken wings; they’re not bad.

Having friends who can cook helps, too. My best childhood friend, Dicky, comes every year with his wife, Beth, and daughter, Alice. Besides his famous billionaire’s bacon and mini B.L.T.s he makes in advance, he likes the showmanship of cooking during the party. One year it was tiny corn blinis with smoked salmon and creme fraiche; this year it was slow-baked, paper-thin slices of zucchini that came out translucent, crisp, and sweet. 

My friend Andrea has yearly assignments: Assemble the goat cheese and garlic, arrange flowers, and light candles. My son, Billy, is in charge of the bar, rearranging furniture, and finding music. Kathleen makes a beautiful cake every year. This time it was a four-tiered chocolate cake with white icing and colorful dots of tinted white chocolate. We dubbed it the “Southern belle meets Timothy Leary” cake. Andrew brought homemade jalapeño poppers and Fraser brought mini crab cakes on crackers. Delicious! Another of my cheats this year was ordering country ham from Benton’s and biscuits from Callie’s.

Even though this is just a cocktail party that starts at 6, I believe it is important to have a substantial amount of food, essentially enough for dinner, because you don’t want your friends getting blotto. The party always lasts well past 11:30. Why? Because my friends love each other and some of them only see each other once a year at this shindig.

I will admit that some years Dicky and I are scrambling and squabbling and sweating in the kitchen at 5:45. No biggie, some of the appetizers just don’t get done. After a shower and a “personality cocktail,” we are ready to rock ’n’ roll. 

I have kept a guest list for this party for 20 years. Some of our friends have passed away, gotten divorced, or moved. But the bulk of them are still here and I cherish them. People know it’s my birthday, but I don’t throw the party for me, I throw it for them.

I give a great party, and you can, too.

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