It’s winter in Kansas City, but that doesn’t mean our social lives should lie dormant. In fact, winter is an excellent season for party-giving in Kansas City. Consider the advantages: you don’t have to get your outside areas spiffed up, or worry about having a Plan B for inclement weather. You know it will be cold, so you can focus on making your house as cozy and inviting as possible. You can serve hearty, comfort food (stews, chili, casseroles) most of which are not only less pricey but taste better made ahead.
Here are some easy-to-execute ideas for parties to have in the winter months.
Crazy Little Thing Called Valentine’s Day
I used to work at Hallmark Cards, the General Motors of emotion (a clever card writer made that descriptor up). Hallmarkers like Valentine’s Day a lot, as do florists, jewelers, restaurateurs and chocolatiers. But does anybody else really like Valentine’s Day? I don’t particularly, but it is a great excuse to have a mid-winter party. This year Valentine’s Day falls on a Tuesday, not a great night for partying, but you could plan something for either the February weekend before or after. Here are some ideas for celebrating.
I heart Valentine’s cocktails It’s so easy to throw together a Valentine-themed drinks party. Think red and pink roses, chocolates, a clever signature drink (see sidebar) and you are on your way. Invite your favorite friends from every corner of your life. Don’t forget those who are single and ready to mingle.
I have a friend who has a beautiful-in-its-simplicity cocktail party concept that you could steal; I know she wouldn’t mind. She invites people via email for “Cocktails and Charcuterie from 7ish to 9ish.” She hires a bartender and turns her kitchen table into a lavish but easy-to-assemble charcuterie board with prosciutto, salami, mortadella, sopressata, various cheeses, nuts, fruit (grape bunches are tasty and pretty), crackers and olives. Guests can either make dinner out of it or just nibble and go on to dine somewhere else. Everybody wins.
Email me for the instructions for how to build a charcuterie/antipasto platter.
Celebrate sisterhood Women must hang together; it’s a need as old as civilization. Invite your inner tribe of chicas to come over for an elegant Valentine-themed Champagne luncheon. Set your table with pink linens and your prettiest dishes and glassware, and serve something girly, such as tarragon chicken salad or caramelized onion quiche. (I have recipes!) Play all-girl music, like Beyonce, Diana Krall, Norah Jones.
Spaghetti with meatballs is comfort food, perfect to serve at a homey winter dinner party. Invite people for spaghetti, and it automatically conveys to them a comforting wealth of information: No neckties. Bring red. Come hungry.
For the host, spaghetti answers the question of what else to serve: Prosciutto-wrapped melon, figs or pears; a leafy green salad, garlic bread. And lots of freshly grated parmigiano reggiano.
I’ve written about my Spaghetti and Meatballs for a Crowd recipe a million times. It is simple and perfect and yours for the asking (just email me!). Be forewarned, you will need a slow-cooker. And four jars of store-bought marinara sauce.
Hooray for Oscar Parties
Canned speeches. Questionable fashion choices. Show Biz fakery. What better way to enjoy them than with friends? Oscar night is Sunday, February 26, and if you invite your own rat pack to an Academy Awards party right now, they will like you, they will really like you. And a remarkable thing will happen: they will actually make an effort to see the nominated pictures.
The most important Oscar party requisite has to do with televisions and seating. The ceremony is long, so make sure everyone has a comfortable seat and a view of the telly. It’s best to have at least two televisions and viewing areas, because you will have two kinds of watchers: the die-hards who are glued to the telecast, and the more casual viewers, who attend mainly to socialize.
Rearrange your furniture into lounge-like vignettes to create a cozy atmosphere. Provide floor cushions or drag in soft chairs from other parts of the house if you need additional seating.
People will want to graze, so a buffet table is the obvious serving tactic. I recommend serving a spiral-cut ham with tiny rolls and gourmet mustards, or a beef tenderloin, sliced and served at room temperature with baguette slices and horseradish sauce. Set up a separate dessert table if you have room, with bite-size brownies, cupcakes and cookies. Consider offering cinematic nibbles like popcorn, Junior Mints, Milk Duds and Twizzlers.
Download Oscar ballots from oscar.com, print them out and distribute them before the broadcast. Give a prize to the guest who predicts the most winners.
There is nothing so inviting on a cold winter day as a bowl of soup, and the smell of it simmering on the stove makes your house a wonderful place to be. What better reason to invite friends for dinner?
There are several benefits here, an obvious one being soups must be made in advance. When soup is the main course, it frees you to indulge in other little flights of fancy that you might not otherwise have time for: homemade biscuits maybe, or a salad made with roasted beets, or a cranberry-pear sorbet (email me for the recipe!) for dessert.
If you don’t want to bother with making stock, it’s okay to use canned. I especially like a brand called College Town, available in some Kansas City grocery stores. The flavor of any canned stock can be vastly improved by simmering it for 20 or 30 minutes with browned onion, carrot and celery — which you then strain out before using.
The possibilities for a soup dinner are limitless. I especially like two recipes from The Barefoot Contessa: onion and fennel soup gratin and cauliflower and celery root soup. Or you could make a jambalaya or gumbo or a hearty lentil soup. Or a cioppino! There’s a terrific recipe for it in Beyond Parsley, the cookbook of the Junior League of Kansas City, Mo. If you don’t have that cookbook, darling, it’s a tragedy. But email me and I will send you the recipe!
Merrily’s top 10 tips for hosting a winter cocktail party:
• Plan it for two hours only. Otherwise you won’t get the critical mass that makes a cocktail party fun.
• Invite people from varied circles. You don’t have to know people well to invite them for drinks.
• Don’t worry about your house being too small. People like to be elbow to elbow.
• Don’t worry about not having enough seating. Nobody sits at a cocktail party.
• Hire a bartender. Nobody wants to see you working at your party.
• Serve only finger food. Don’t make your guests juggle plates, forks and drinks. (Email me for my favorite cocktail food recipes.)
• Place the bar where you want people to congregate. Put ice (and plenty of it) in coolers underneath or near the bar.
• Simple no-fuss cocktail: Mix a quantity in advance, serve over ice in a tall glass, garnish with lime.
• A full bar is nice, but you don’t need one. A signature drink, along with wine and beer, is enough for a respectable cocktail party.
• Have plenty of non-alcoholic options for non-drinkers and designated drivers.