Last fall, four esteemed local caterers gathered for a photo at the Buckeye Roadhouse in Mill Valley after sharing some of their holiday entertaining tips. From left to right; Stan Vail, president of All Seasons Catering; Ann Walker of Ann Walker Catering, Lisa Hines of Bella Cucina Catering and Stephen Denison, president of McCall Catering. Here’s their advice on how to host an easy, fun and memorable holiday party.
What is your go-to appetizer for the holidays?
SD: High-quality simple stuff that’s easy to eat. Iced shrimp, smoked salmon, or all the great local foods—olives, Marin cheeses, pickled garlic, Hog Island oysters.
AW: I prefer to serve “meal by the bites”—lots of little treats that can be enjoyed in no more than one or two bites. Popular choices are shiitake mushroom cakes dabbed with Chinese black bean aioli, leek and gruyère tartlets, and ahi tuna poke on sesame toasts.
SV: My personal family favorite (from my grandma) is dates stuffed with cream cheese and wrapped with bacon, then broiled. As a caterer, I like to offer roasted baby pears with fresh herbed cheese and pancetta.
LH: Dates, roasted almonds, sliced prosciutto, and shaved Reggiano with rosemary potato crostini are fabulous for grazing before dinner.
Do you have a favorite holiday party drink?
SD: Champagne—a good blanc de noir—followed by martinis and Cosmos, and then wines (I’m sounding like a lush here).
AW: Red! How about Negronis—vodka or gin with Campari and sweet vermouth? Normally they’re served in a martini glass, but that makes for messy walking, so use champagne flutes instead. Or Campari and sodas, or sparkling wine with a dash of cassis—a kir royale.
SV: A Godiva chocolate martini with Godiva chocolate liquior, crème de cacao, and vodka, shaken and stirred and poured into a chilled martini glass—mmmm. Hot mulled cider with fresh ground cinnamon, clove and nutmeg with fresh lemon zest (this is best when you’re in a hot tub). And finally, a mug of hot chocolate made with Scharffen Berger bittersweet chocolate, milk, sugar, vanilla, fresh ground cinnamon and a pinch of cayenne, served hot in a big mug…to be sipped while sitting in front of the fire.
LH: A really hearty Cabernet, a super Tuscan wine, or fabulous Champagne.
What’s your preferred timing for a party? From three to six? Five to eight? Starting at 7 p.m.?
SD: It gets dark early during the holidays, so five o’clock—no ending time.
AW: It depends which day of the week. Three to six on a Sunday, five to eight on a Saturday, and seven during the week, or if you’re offering a complete meal.
SV: Definitely starting at 7 p.m.
LH: If you are doing an open house, three to six is great. If you are going all out to do a fabulous cocktail party or dinner, 7 p.m.
Do you usually include an end time?
SD: What time does the sun come up over the bay? No, no ending time.
AW: I think it’s a good idea. It also indicates the type of party. If you’re offering appetizers only, let your guests know so they can, perhaps, make plans for dinner later.
SV: As a caterer, always. At home, never.
LH: No, parties have a life of their own!
Do you like to dress up for holiday parties?
SD: Does a sport shirt count as dressing up? (I often wear a tuxedo when working.)
AW: Absolutely. We’re a pretty casual crowd in the Bay Area, so it’s fun to have an opportunity to put on fancy clothes.
SV: You bet!
LH: Of course. Parties are a great reason to show off the latest in fashion (no reindeer sweaters, puh-leeze!).
Kids or no kids? If yes, then do you provide something for them to do?
SD: Absolutely, kids, no matter how young or old. It’s a great way for them to learn traditions and how to join in. At Thanksgiving or special dinners we don’t have a kids’ table, but instead seat everyone together at one table. Sometimes we’ve needed to clear out the living room to have a large enough table—or even tented the backyard so we can all sit together. We usually have multiple generations [over], so it’s great to have everyone together.
AW: Sunday afternoon parties are a good time to include children, and the menu must have foods that interest the children, too. How about cookie decorating for the kids and, perhaps, some adults as well? Or ornament decorating?
SV: No kids!
LH: Yes! The holidays are all about the kids, but parties that include them should be in the afternoon or early evening only. We like to set up tables topped with plates of sugar and gingerbread cookies (with lots of mommy’s helpers on hand) for the kids to decorate and take home.
When you’re entertaining at home, how far in advance do you prepare the food?
SD: That day, maybe a few things a day or two before, but we might spend the week getting the house ready.
AW: I love to entertain at home. My favorite style is a sit-down dinner for no more than ten people. Paella is one of my favorite one-dish meals. I offer a few tapas to begin with, such as Spanish fried almonds, some olives, perhaps some queso manchego with quince paste. The ham and cheese croquettes from my Tapas book are easy to make [ahead of time]; they can be frozen and then cooked just before guests arrive.
SV: I always plan a menu that I can start a few days ahead of time. Things that I know I can prep and get ready so all I have to do is finish them while my guests are here. I like to have fun at my parties. If I am in the kitchen too long, then I start to feel like I am at work.
LH: For me, it is all about how my house looks. So, I decorate the day before and the morning of, and then I prepare the food right before the guests arrive. That way I can relax and have a glass (or three) of wine!
What are your thoughts on potluck?
SD: I like ’em. Many of our friends are chefs or in the industry, so what they bring needs little or no additional preparation—they’re culinary-curious and use all the great local ingredients we have year round. They also know to bring enough quantity. But make certain to have enough in the larder for backup, just in case.
AW: Potlucks can be great fun if organized well. Plan a meal together and have each person contribute what he or she does best. Everyone is so busy during the holidays, so they might just want to buy something to bring. That’s just fine! And don’t forget to include the wine too.
SV: There is a time and place for them, but with our busy lifestyles, most people prefer not to be asked to bring something to eat to a party.
LH: Next question!
What is the most important aspect of setting the mood? Lighting? Music? Food?
SD: A smile at the door, enthusiasm, and an inviting home.
AW: Lighting, music and food—all are important. And the details must fit the space. Too much is too much.
SV: I think all of the above are important, but real friends and family create the mood when they get together.
LH: No party should ever be without music and great candles to create the mood, but the food is always what people remember.
What’s the most creative hostess gift or host gift you’ve ever received?
SD: A new set of sheets when guests spent the night.
AW: A Tête de Moine cheese shaver and the cheese, too. The cheese is put on a spike on a wooden round and there is a lever to rotate that literally ruffles the cheese. Fun, useful and delicious.
SV: Now I am talking out of both sides of my mouth, because my favorite host gifts are a special cookie made by my guest or a handmade card, something that he or she took time to think about, to say “thank you” for the time he/she knows I put into the food.
LH: Everyone always brings me wine or flowers—not very original, but much appreciated!
What are your thoughts on hostess or host gifts?
SD: Unnecessary for us—just having everyone there is enough—but mandatory for me to bring when I’m a guest, even if it’s just a bottle of wine (but in that case, gotta be careful about re-gifting).
AW: No flowers, please. When guests arrive with flowers, you must go, find a vase and arrange them, taking time away from your guests. Candles are always nice. A Christmas ornament if you know the person’s style well.
SV: It is all about the love….
LH: I was taught never to go to someone’s home empty-handed… and always send a thank-you note.
Do you ever give out party gifts? Any memorable party gifts you’ve received?
SV: Not gifts per se, but we always have some kind of ritual, like at Thanksgiving having guests write what they’re thankful for on a piece of paper. Then have an elder read the contributions, asking guests around the table to guess who wrote which one. Memorable gift? A couple of New Year’s Eves ago, a friend brought his entire karaoke setup—wigs, musical instruments and all. It sounds silly, but it was a riot. We still laugh when we talk about it. Thank goodness the negatives have since been burned.
AW: I usually don’t when entertaining at home unless it’s something I’ve made, like jam or candy, but my clients do give them out sometimes, mostly at weddings.
The most memorable gift I’ve received was a fabulous large leather traveling bag at a party in Argentina. And it was engraved with my initials!
SD: My favorite gift is infused oils and vinegars, such as Porcini olive oil or pomegranate vinegar.
LH: I always give favors when I have small dinner parties or when I’m having parties for my kids. My client Riccardo Benavides does over-the-top gifts when he hosts intimate dinners in his home. For one of his dinners two guests didn’t show, so my waiter Tony and I both received crystal Tiffany bowls as thank-you gifts.
Thoughts on candles?
SD: All over the house, all sizes, all colors. Everyone looks great in candlelight. (Turn off all overhead lighting.)
AW: Love candles, but keep them in sight. When you move from the living room to the dining room, blow the other ones out.
SV: I am a friend of Michael Salit, of Mill Valley Candleworks, so I say candles everywhere!
LH: I love candles but I always keep an eye on them (and I blow them out before everyone gets too crazy!).
Do you prefer dress-up or casual?
SD: Shannon (my wife) looks great in velvet and jeans.
AW: At home, I like the wafty look!
SV: Casual dress-up!
LH: Dress-up. When someone is taking the time to have you in his or her home, dressing up is respectful.
What is your favorite seasonal dish?
SD: Barbecued Willy Bird turkey for Thanksgiving, a Christmas goose, and cracked crab on Christmas Eve. Sauerbraten and red cabbage is also a traditional dish.
AW: Our Christmas Eve tradition is homemade tortellini in chicken broth and cracked Dungeness crab. Lots of sourdough bread and a big salad. Chablis or a good unoaked or very lightly oaked California Chardonnay.
SV: Some of my favorites: mustard-crusted rack of lamb with a cranberry chutney, caramelized butternut squash, cranberry upside-down tart, cocoa nib macaroons, peppermint bark, chocolate pecan tart.
LH: Lamb tenderloins with a pomegranate glaze skewered on fresh rosemary. (Be sure to get local and organic ingredients from the farmers’ market!)
Mistletoe: yes or no?
SD: Absolutely—with mouthwash at the ready.
AW: Love it!
LH: Absolutely—it keeps things light and flirty!
Mimi Towle has been the editor of Marin Magazine for over a decade. She lived with her family in Sycamore Park and Strawberry and thoroughly enjoyed raising two daughters in the mayhem of Marin’s youth sports; soccer, swim, volleyball, ballet, hip hop, gymnastics and many many hours spent at Miwok Stables. Her community involvements include volunteering at her daughter’s schools, coaching soccer and volleyball (glorified snack mom), being on the board of both Richardson Bay Audubon Center. Currently residing on a floating home in Sausalito, she enjoys all water activity, including learning how to steer a 6-person canoe for the Tamalpais Outrigger Canoe Club. Born and raised in Hawaii, her fondness for the islands has on occasion made its way into the pages of the magazine.