The holiday season is the most wonderful time of year for entertaining at home. Your decorations are already in place and play a backdrop for a festive gathering. Are you considering hosting a party to show off all the time you've put into trimming the tree, wrapping the mantel with garland and hanging wreaths on doors -- not to mention cooking for the occasion -- but think it's too much work?
Shane Stone, owner and chef at Chattanooga's High Haute Foods, says it's easy to get overwhelmed when trying to please the palates of a large crowd and make everyone happy.
"Hosts try to please everyone and accommodate every single guest's likes and dislikes when planning a dinner party," he says. "Having too many options can backfire and give your event a chaotic, unorganized atmosphere."
A self-taught chef from the Midwest, Stone moved to Chattanooga in 2007 and got his footing in the culinary industry working off-site events while working fulltime in area restaurants. The spinoff of that was starting his own business as a personal chef and caterer. In January 2018, High Haute Foods got its start, and the holiday season quickly became its busiest.
"People are just in the mood to celebrate, and food is central to any gathering. Whether it be heavy hors d'oeuvres or a formal sit-down dinner, you can't entertain a crowd without food," Stone says. "Food brings people together in a way not much else can."
Stone suggests hiring a caterer if it's in your budget -- that way, even if it's a small party, the host can interact with guests rather than worrying about the food, serving and the cleanup afterward.
But, if you can't afford it, here are five tips from the Good Housekeeping Institute to take the stress out of entertaining and put the fun back in it.
* Forget stocking the bar with untold numbers of bottles and mixers. Decide on one or two punch-bowl favorites, such as spiked apple cider or a festive cranberry punch, and let guests serve themselves. If it's a casual party, there are so many new cocktails-in-a-can you can put in a cooler and, again, let guests serve themselves. Provide a recycling container for your eco-conscious guests.
* Put together a charcuterie board instead of fussing over hot hors d'oeuvres. They're delicious and can be assembled in minutes on pretty wooden, slate or marble cutting boards. Include an assortment of cured meats, cheeses, olives, crackers, grapes, spiced nuts, jams and small breads or crackers. Don't forget knives for spreading.
* If you're serving things buffet-style, keep drinks and food on opposite ends of the room to prevent gridlock.
* Try making a schedule and assign yourself manageable tasks each day so you won't feel overwhelmed. For instance, you can decorate weeks ahead of time, shop for groceries a couple of days in advance, and start chopping or baking a day or two before.
* Trade in the traditional buffet for interactive food stations you can set up around the dining room, creating movement and encouraging mingling. Or, you might skip the tired holiday lineup and opt for plates such as charcuterie, smoked salmon on rye bread and one warm dish like turkey stew, chicken pot pie or risotto. Lay out small cups and spoons for guests to sample the spread.
While buffets are the easiest way to serve a crowd and allow for multiple taste experiences, Stone says a plated, sit-down meal allows the host and guests a chance to visit, relax and let the food play the starring role.
"I am a huge believer in local sourcing, and the Main Street Farmers Market is my favorite place to start when cooking for myself as well as clients," he adds.
As for the caterer's traditional holiday menu, there's one dish that guests can count on: Baked Sequatchie Cove Creamery Dancing Fern or Walden cheese -- whichever's available -- with homemade cranberry sauce and wheat crackers.
"It's a holiday tradition in our home," he says.
Cranberry Sauce Over Baked Cheese
1 bag fresh cranberries
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup orange juice
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
1 round Sequatchie Cove Creamery Walden or Dancing Fern cheese (available at Whole Foods)
Combine cranberries with sugar, honey, salt, orange juice, cinnamon stick and bay leaf in a small pot and simmer until liquid has evaporated and cranberries have burst open. Remove cinnamon stick and bay leaf; season to taste, then set aside to cool.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Place cheese in an oven-safe container with cooled cranberry sauce on top. Bake for 7-10 minutes, until the cheese is soft and the sauce is warm. Serve with your favorite crackers.