"Do you have any ideas to help me throw a different kind of holiday party?"
That's one of the questions home cooks ask me most often at this time of year. They're tired of cooking yet another big sit-down dinner; tired of putting out huge buffet spreads of the usual hors d'oeuvres to serve with choices of red and white wine or beer, and maybe a punchbowl; tired of dessert parties that look beautiful and taste delicious but leave all the grownups wishing they hadn't indulged quite so much -- and all the children supercharged on sugar.
First, I suggest that you simplify and limit the menu, whether it's appetizers or a multi-course meal or sweet treats, to just a few special recipes. And maybe limit the guest list, too, inviting over just a few friends or family members one evening for a more intimate holiday celebration. Both of these approaches will make it easier for you, the host or hostess, to prepare and serve everything perfectly; and, just as importantly, it will make the food you serve all the more memorable.
Next, think about doing something different. Maybe cook a featured dish not normally associated with the holidays, yet one that feels festive and fun. And, while you're at it, choose one or more recipes that you can prepare ahead of time and cook quickly, so you easily perform the final steps after your guests have arrived. Better still, consider a recipe that you can cook and serve simply in batches; and maybe that also has a communal aspect to it, so all of your guests can join in the fun.
I know that all of those factors together sound like a tall order. But I know it's possible. Think of a do-it-yourself pizza party, for example; or a big pot of cheese fondue with good bread chunks, sausage cubes, and vegetable crudites for dipping.
Or consider the popular Japanese specialty of tempura.
The batter, bite-sized morsels, and dipping sauces for tempura are very easy to prepare in advance. And, once guests have assembled, the food cooks quickly batch by batch -- especially if you have one of those relatively inexpensive, easy, thermostat-controlled countertop deep-fryers sold everywhere today. (Be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions, and keep children safely out of the way.) Everybody loves the crispy, flavorful results -- which will be remarkably light when cooked at the right temperature. Serve a steady flow of tempura, and your guests will feel they've really had a memorable holiday party.
And so will you!
SHRIMP AND VEGETABLE TEMPURA WITH TWO DIPPING SAUCES
Serves 4 as a main course, 8 as an appetizer
1/4 cup rice flour
3 cups club soda, plus extra as needed
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper