'Tis the season for parties! To increase the odds that you and your family members will be happy hosts and guests, I talked with James Beard Award-winning authors Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg — the husband-and-wife team behind The Flavor Bible, What to Drink with What You Eat, and this month's new release The Food Lover's Guide to Wine. (I'm lucky to have known them for years.) Excerpts:
What foods do you recommend hosts serve at their holiday parties?
Karen: In the United States, we have every single ingredient — every fruit, vegetable, meat, and grain you can imagine. How do you narrow it down? At the holiday parties that touch us the most, people serve us something that means something to them. It's nice to have food that's a celebration of the host. Serve whatever is a reflection of you. It can be your ethnic heritage. It can be the region where you grew up. It can be vegan.
Andrew: And make sure it's easy to eat! Make it mobile. If it's finger food, make sure it's just one bite. If you're doing a little bruschetta, use a small French baguette.
Karen: Make sure it's not a three-bite half-sandwich. You want to be able to put it in your mouth and swallow and get back to your conversation.
What wine is best to serve?
Karen: It depends on the food. If you're serving Chinese food, you would want to get a wine that tends to enhance the flavors of Asian food — such as a gewürztraminer. The root of the word means spice, and it tends to go with spicy dishes. It's really a fruity wine.
Andrew: You can actually put a wine that's going to go with a dish next to that dish. If you are serving something Asian, put the gewürztraminer next to it. If you're serving meat, you can put an appropriate bottle of red wine next to it...
Karen: ...as opposed to having the bar set up on one side of the room, and the food on the other.
Andrew: It's going to make you look good as a host. The wine's going to taste better, and the food is going to taste better. [See the pairings in What to Drink with What You Eat.]
Should you ask hosts what they're serving so you can bring a wine that goes with the menu?
Karen: You want to bring something your hosts will enjoy at their own leisure and not necessarily at the party.
Andrew: Make sure the wine is a reflection of you. Or if you've been out to dinner and know they like pinot noir, bring a bottle of pinot.
Do you need to give an expensive wine?
Karen: No! There's often little correlation between price and quality. You don't have to spend a lot of money on a bottle of wine to have a lot of pleasure.
Andrew: We have a sidebar in The Food Lover's Guide to Wine on "150+ Wines Under $15."
Karen: Give the best wine you can afford. Unless you know someone loves Two-Buck Chuck, you probably don't want to give them that! [The bargain-priced Charles Shaw brand sells for $1.99 – hence the nickname.]
What are holiday food no-no's – say, fattening foods or peanuts?
Karen: With the holidays, you don't have to be as careful about the fattening part. It's a time for indulgence. With allergens, you want to be sensitive to that. If you're a good guest, you'll alert your hosts in advance or otherwise not complain if there's nothing you can eat. But if you're a good host, you're going to make sure there is. If you do serve chicken satay with a peanut sauce, you should make sure it's clear to guests that there are peanuts in the sauce. But I think people with severe allergies also know to ask.
Andrew: I made some holiday bread and brought it to a friend, who asked if there were any nuts in it. He wanted to make sure he could serve it to his son, who has a severe peanut allergy. Have a variety of foods. If you're serving meat, also have a vegetarian option and a gluten-free option. It's not so hard to do.
What's the best present to bring to a holiday party?
Karen: Wine is a perfect gift. With Christmas cookies, people will feel the need to consume them so it's not always a welcome gift. With a bottle of wine, you could enjoy it that day, or you could enjoy it a year from then. It's easily re-giftable. And you can really personalize it. You can also give someone a bottle of wine and a wine-related book. If you go to Amazon, they have lists of the "Most Wished For" books by category. The number-one "Most Wished For" wine book is The Oxford Companion to Wine. No. 2 is our book, What to Drink with What You Eat, which features pairings for wine as well as beer, spirits, coffee, tea, fruit juices, and even water. The No. 3 book is our new book, The Food Lover's Guide to Wine.
What about classic food and wine books?
Andrew: I don't need another copy of the Joy of Cooking. And I love my Joy of Cooking. It's all marked up!
Karen: Most people have the classics that have been around for decades. So you're safer giving one of the new releases. Our book The Flavor Bible is the No. 11 "Most Wished For" cookbook on Amazon, so there are apparently lots of people who'd be happy to receive it!
What do you think about cookie exchange parties?
Andrew: They're a great idea — and not just for cookies. Last week I came home with bags of groceries and ran into a neighbor. She said, "I wish someone would cook for me!" I made vegetable soup and dropped some off for her. She returned my Tupperware with her homemade Minnesota wild rice soup in it. How about a soup-exchange party?! People can freeze soup. It's sort of like the bottle of wine. You don't have to have it right away. With a cookie exchange, you've got the time-clock ticking.
What about the best wine for a cookie exchange?
Andrew: For a cookie exchange, a Moscato d'Asti is the perfect wine. Most are under $15. We've never met a brand we didn't like. Our favorite vintner is Vietti, who makes the Moscato d'Asti that's our favorite. It's very low in alcohol — just 5.5 percent. A regular bottle of wine is closer to 13 percent. With a daytime event, you don't have to be so nervous. It's hard to over-indulge on it.
Karen: It's the single most dessert-friendly wine out there. A lot of brides will serve Champagne with wedding cake. Champagne is typically dry. You want a sweet wine with dessert. At our niece Gail's wedding in August, we recommended Moscato d'Asti with the cake, and everyone fell in love with it!
Was Julia Child right — should we make our holiday foods with real butter?
Andrew: No question.
Karen: Absolutely. It's our one time of year to celebrate and do things up right. Real butter makes such a difference.
What's your favorite Christmas cookie cookbook?
Karen: For me, honestly, it's the book of childhood — Betty Crocker. If you want to get a little more elaborate, we love Rose Levy Beranbaum's Rose's Christmas Cookies.
Andrew: Her recipes, they're perfect. She tests and re-tests. And she's a great, natural teacher.
What are your recommendations for enjoying holiday foods and parties without gaining weight? You both ran marathons.
Karen: We haven't run a marathon in a while! We'll have a little cup of eggnog, served in a little demitasse cup.
Andrew: Help people out — serve smaller portions!
Karen: We might have a glass of wine, and then we'll switch to a glass of sparkling water. It limits calories and alcohol consumption.
If you're the host, should you open and use the wine, food, or tea gift from a guest at your party?
Karen: If it's a potluck, of course! But if it's a hostess gift, etiquette books generally suggest that you can open it but you don't have to. The guest should not expect that it be served. The host typically has put a lot of time and thought into the menus and pairings.
And you don't need to set out a homemade cookie gift platter either?
Karen: You certainly can, but you don't have to. A hostess gift is something for the host to enjoy after the party. There's a classic "Seinfeld" episode about how George Costanza's parents were insulted that their hosts didn't serve the marble rye they brought, so they secretly took it home with them. Mayhem ensues from George's efforts to replace it, which has Jerry stealing one from an elderly woman on the street who'd bought the last loaf.
What do you do with guests who won't leave at the end of your holiday party?
Karen: You start turning on the lights, blowing out the candles. If you do have a little parting gift, you can present it and say, "I know you have to get up early tomorrow..." Or, "Can I call you a cab?"
What food should you buy vs. make yourself?
Andrew: Pick your battle, if you're short on time or skill or both. A classic holiday specialty is a side of smoked salmon. That's a lot of bang for the buck, putting it out with toast points, creme fraiche, and chopped chives. And I enjoy baking, but I'm not a great baker. Dessert is something I sometimes pick up from a great bakery. I love making a roast, or using my crockpot, which keeps me with my guests instead of in the kitchen. For dessert, one of our favorite things to serve is fondue. Melt chocolate — anyone can do that! And anyone can cut up an apple and a banana! Dessert is a place I'll save some time and effort.
So cook what makes you feel comfortable?
Andrew: There's a reason caterers exist in this world!
Karen: The most important thing is for people to not not entertain because they think they're not good cooks. People want to spend time with their friends and loved ones. People aren't there to judge you, your cooking, and your entertaining skills. Do something simple. Don't feel you need to serve a 10-course meal with wine pairings. Serve a great one-pot meal plus dessert.
Andrew: Make sure you're not in the kitchen the whole time. Spend time with your guests. Do something you can prepare ahead of time.
What about preparing food while guests are there?
Karen: The preparation should be done in advance. You might want to consider doing a braised dish or crockpot dish – or something that's in the oven and doesn't need to be sautéed.
What if you've got a small kitchen or apartment?
Karen: You can have a small, intimate group and enjoy them, or you can have a party that's an open house. Invite some people from 2 to 4 p.m., and some from 4 to 6.
Andrew: One year for our holiday party in our small Manhattan apartment, I served a simple roast leg of lamb with three different flavored mayonnaises and some great bread, along with a Buche de Noel [traditional French Christmas cake] for dessert.
Can I come visit?!
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