party time

Springtime is a great reason to throw a fun-filled party full of happy colors and delectable treats. Between graduations, wedding engagements, bridal and baby showers, you’re bound to play hostess at some point. With a little preparation, you can save yourself a lot of headache at the party. Start a few days in advance to ensure you have everything—including time to yourself to relax.

The most important question when hosting any party is how many guests to invite. Plan according to your space limitations and budget. If you’re having a family oriented get-together, be aware of kids’ vacation schedules. For birthday parties, get your invitations out three weeks in advance; two weeks for informal backyard gatherings or picnics. As a rough rule of thumb for other gatherings—graduations, bridal showers, engagement parties—send an invitation six weeks in advance.

The decor of your party sets the tone. Light pastel colors always work for spring—think lavender, yellow, pink, sage green—and soft orange and turquoise are particularly popular. Always stick to two colors: one light/neutral color and one bright shade that pops.

For centerpiece ideas - Fresh fruit is beautiful, simple…and ultimately tasty for the guests! Choose fruit people can eat easily: mounds of cherries, strawberries, apricots and grapes. White unscented candles are classic and affordable. Buy them in different shapes and sizes—tea lights, floating votives, pillars—and crowd them together in groups on tables. Just be sure to avoid scented varieties, as guests may be allergic and the smell will conflict with the food.

Set up a self-serve bar with one signature drink as well as beer, wine and soft drinks. Some people are uncomfortable at parties, especially when they don’t know people. Having a self-serve bar gives them something to do and is a way for them to meet people.

3.2.3_2A_Antipasti Salad

Forgo catering. My favorite appetizer suggestion is to serve antipasto platters, bread and a few simple desserts. Antipasto plates are colorful offerings of marinated vegetables—think artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers or pickled radishes—salty olives, rustic artisan breads, natural deli meats, small bites of seafood and rich cheeses. With antipasto, it’s always best to keep things simple and incorporate a few fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables and you’re set. Try these simple ideas:

  • Jarred marinated artichoke hearts served with water crackers and Camembert cheese
  • Sliced tomatoes marinated in Italian dressing, served with slices of havarti cheese and garlic-stuffed green olives
  • Thinly sliced Genoa salami and Cacio de Roma cheese served with crusty bread
  • Shaved prosciutto with chunks of fresh cantaloupe and a bowl of mixed roasted nuts
  • Jarred roasted red and yellow peppers, garlic hummus and pita bread
  • Toasted focaccia bread with sardines and sweet onions
  • Olives, capers, sweet pickles and natural pepperoni or smoked peppered turkey breast
  • Roasted almonds, walnuts and pine nuts served with dried and fresh figs in season
  • Homemade garlic bread served with marinated cubed tomatoes and cold shrimp
  • Grilled vegetables with marinated fresh mozzarella

When planning for a large group or party, set out platters that mix and match an assortment of antipasto or other types of appetizer items, like this:

Meat: Start with a selection of natural deli meats—maybe pepperoni, salami and prosciutto—then add mixed olives, a wheel of creamy brie, deviled eggs, roasted vegetables and crackers.

Vegetarian: Present marinated olives or olive tapenade, sliced semolina bread, fire-roasted peppers, vegetarian stuffed dolmas and roasted garlic hummus.

Seafood: Consider a plate of thin crackers or crostini served with sardines, anchovies, Italian tuna and smoked salmon, then add cream cheese, sliced marinated onions and capers.

Fresh Fruit and Nuts: Serve chunks of fresh cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon alongside natural deli meats, cheese and add toasted walnuts and roasted, salted pistachios.

Roasted Vegetables with Cheese: Pair roasted vegetables with tangy cheeses like feta, Gruyère or aged Manchego. For the roasted veggies, think about eggplant, beets, bell peppers, zucchini, carrots, tomatoes, asparagus, onions and garlic. Simply toss raw veggies with a bit of olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet in a 450°F oven until tender.

Cheese and More Cheese: Look for out-of-the-ordinary cheeses like cheese made with red peppers or black peppercorns, rosemary coated Manchego, Caciotta cheese with green olives, Gouda with mustard seeds or cumin, goat cheese made with red wine and Sottocenere cheese with truffles and a hint of cinnamon. Then combine them with a few traditional ones like provolone or fresh mozzarella. Serve with slices of fresh crusty country bread.

Here are a few other ideas for appetizers for your next party. What are your favorite party foods?

party appetizer 1

Tortellini Salad Skewers

Any vegetable can be substituted for the sugar snap peas.

Makes 12 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 (9-oz.) package refrigerated cheese tortellini
  • 1 (8-oz.) package frozen sugar snap peas
  • 68 (4-inch) wooden skewers
  • 1 pint grape tomatoes, cut in half

Mustard-Dill Vinaigrette

  • 1/2 cup white wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
  • 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 2 pressed garlic cloves
  • 2 teaspoons sugar or honey
  • 1 1/4 cups olive oil
  • Kosher salt and pepper to taste

Directions

Cook tortellini according to package directions.

Place sugar snap peas in a small bowl; cover with plastic wrap. Microwave at HIGH 2 minutes. Let stand, covered, 2 minutes.

Make the vinaigrette:

Whisk together vinegar, fresh dill, Dijon mustard, garlic and sugar. Add olive oil in a slow, steady stream, whisking constantly until thoroughly combined. Whisk in kosher salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Thread each skewer with 1 sugar snap pea, 1 tortellini and 1 tomato half. Place skewers in a 13x9 inch baking dish.

Pour Mustard-Dill Vinaigrette over skewers, turning to coat. Cover and chill 4 hours. Transfer skewers to a decorative serving platter.

party appetizer 2

Chicken Salad-Stuffed Eggs

Makes 48 appetizer servings

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds skinned and boned chicken breasts
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 24 large hard-cooked eggs, peeled
  • 1 cup mayonnaise (light works fine)
  • 2 green onions, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Directions

Sprinkle chicken evenly with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Grill on an outdoor grill, covered with the lid, over high heat (400° to 500°) for 6 to 8 minutes on each side or until done. Let stand 15 minutes; cover and chill at least 30 minutes.

Slice hard-cooked eggs in half lengthwise; carefully remove yolks, keeping egg white halves intact. Arrange them on serving platters. Set yolks aside.

Stir together mayonnaise, the  next 4 ingredients (onion-lemon) and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt in a large bowl.

Pulse cooled chicken and egg yolks, in batches, in a food processor 3 to 4 times or until chunky; stir into mayonnaise mixture.

Spoon chicken mixture evenly into egg white halves. Cover and chill at least 1 hour.

party appetizer 3

Basil-Cheese Roulade

Makes 12 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 (8-ounce) package light cream cheese, softened
  • 4 ounces Roquefort cheese, softened
  • 1 cup fresh baby spinach leaves
  • 3/4 cup fresh Italian parsley leaves
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves
  • 1 garlic clove, sliced
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup (4 ounces) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped walnuts, toasted
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes
  • Garnishes: fresh flat-leaf parsley, fresh basil, edible flowers
  • Assorted crackers

Directions

Beat cream cheese and Roquefort cheese at medium speed with an electric mixer until smooth.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Spread cheese mixture into an 11x8 inch rectangle onthe  parchment paper. Cover and chill 1 hour.

Process spinach and the next 4 ingredients (parsley-oil) in a food processor until smooth.

Stir in freshly grated Parmesan cheese, chopped toasted walnuts and chopped sun-dried tomatoes.

Spread spinach mixture evenly over cheese rectangle on the parchment covered pan. Using the parchment paper as a guide, roll up, jelly roll fashion.

Wrap in parchment paper,twisting the ends to seal and chill at least 2 hours.

Remove paper and garnish, if desired, with parsley and flowers. Serve with assorted crackers.

party appetizer 4

Mushroom and Parmigiano Bruschetta

12 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups chopped seeded plum tomatoes
  • 6 tablespoons sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon capers
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar or honey
  • 3/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 30 thinly sliced basil leaves
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 cup sliced cremini mushrooms
  • 1 cup sliced shiitake mushroom caps
  • 1 cup sliced baby portobello mushroom caps
  • 3/4 cup chopped green onions
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 24 (1/2-inch-thick) slices diagonally cut baguette, toasted
  • 3/4 cup (1 ounce) shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions

Combine the first 7 ingredients (tomatoes-basil) in a medium bowl; set aside.

Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add mushrooms, onions and garlic; cook until tender, stirring frequently. Add mushroom mixture tothe  tomato mixture; toss well to combine.

Spoon about 1 tablespoon of the mushroom mixture onto each bread slice. Sprinkle evenly with cheese. Serve immediately.

party appetizer 5

Shrimp and Boursin Cheese Melts

Makes: 28 melts

Ingredients

  • 2 (150 grams) boursin cheese containers
  • 1/4 cup  light mayonnaise
  • Pinch cayenne pepper
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 28 (1/2" thick) slices of baguette, 2½" wide
  • 1 pound small shrimp, cooked and patted dry
  • Chopped fresh parsley

Directions

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Place the boursin cheese, mayonnaise, cayenne pepper and lemon juice in a bowl and mix until well combined. Divide and spread the mixture on the baguette slices and set on the baking sheet.

Top the cheese mixture with one whole shrimp. (Can be made to this point several hours in advance; refrigerate until ready to bake.)

Bake the melts in a preheated 425 degrees F oven for 10 minutes or until the bread is lightly toasted on the edges and bottom.

Arrange on a large platter, sprinkle with parsley and serve.

party appetizer 6

Polenta Cups with Braised Beef

Not a quick dish but all the preparation can be done well in advance.

Servings: 12

ingredients

  • 8 cups chicken stock
  • 2 cups polenta
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 1/2 pounds boneless beef chuck-eye roast, cut into small cubes
  • 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 cup shallots, minced
  • 2 tablespoons garlic, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • 3/4 cup red wine
  • 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
  • 1/2 tablespoon whole black peppercorns, crushed
  • 5 thyme sprigs
  • Salt and black pepper to taste

Directions

To make the polenta:

Bring the chicken stock to a simmer. Whisk in polenta. Cook for 30 minutes or until tender, whisking frequently. Add butter. Line a deep-rimmed cookie sheet with wax paper. Pour polenta onto the baking pan and spread evenly to 1" thick. Allow to cool at room temperature; transfer to the refrigerator and chill for a minimum of two hours.

Remove polenta from the refrigerator when completely chilled and firm. Cut circles into the polenta using a 2" cookie cutter. Scoop out the centers of each polenta circle with a 1/2 teaspoon measuring spoon, taking care not to make a hole in the bottom of the circle. Polenta cups may be prepared up to 2 days in advance at this point.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

To make the braised beef:

Season beef with salt and pepper to taste. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add meat to pot, searing on all sides until dark brown. Remove meat from pot to a bowl and reserve.

Add shallots and garlic to the Dutch oven. If necessary, add remaining oil. Sweat for 5 minutes. Add tomato paste and cook until paste becomes fragrant and dark red, approximately 3 minutes. Reduce heat to low and whisk in the flour. Whisk in the beef broth, breaking up any lumps. Add wine, Italian seasoning, thyme and peppercorns. Simmer over low heat until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.

Add the reserved browned beef to the sauce and bring to a boil. Cover and place in the  oven. Cook until tender, about 1 1/2 hours. (Sauce should continue to be at a light simmer while in the oven. If the sauce stops simmering bring it back to a simmer on the stove top and return to the oven.) Remove the beef from the sauce, cover and reserve.

Strain the sauce through a fine mesh strainer and reserve.

Shred beef while warm, discarding any pieces of fat. Toss shredded beef with some of the reserved sauce to coat and keep warm.

Warm polenta cups in a 250 degrees F and fill with shredded beef. Serve.

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Comment by Jovina Coughlin on May 16, 2014 at 8:32am

Thank you so much. I hope you and your guests enjoy these recipes.

Comment by Antionette Blake on May 15, 2014 at 11:00pm

This is perfect timing as my son's high school graduation party is next weekend and I will try a few of these.  Thank you for a great post.

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