Just the thought of the amount of work involved in entertaining at home is enough to do in some would-be party-givers. That's particularly true if the host chooses to handle all preparations alone.
There's no doubt that last-minute chores are the worst. Just when you want to look your best and exude serenity as you greet your guests, you discover there is just too much left to do in too little time. So take that into account when you begin planning your personal holiday soiree.
Pick a menu that can largely be prepared a day or more in advance. Think frozen for dessert. Choose a do-ahead soup that can be reheated quickly or a chilled seafood offering for a first course. And, above all, keep the main course simple.
If a menu based on a main dish that can hold in the warming oven for an hour or so fits your party plans, nothing could be better than our Duck and Wild Rice Casserole. It, like our other suggestions, can be cooked the day before and assembled quickly for final heating at the last minute. This is a dish that combines roasted duck with wild rice, apples, apple brandy and pecans in a casserole that will hold nicely.
This particular casserole is a good choice for a buffet, and it won't lose its character if kept on a hot tray or in a chafing dish. A vegetable side dish (we found lightly steamed broccoli a nice texture and flavor contrast), perhaps a simple salad and light dessert will make up a menu that can't be faulted. If you like to serve a first course or appetizers, choose a cold soup or finger foods that can be served with drinks in the living room. Then move to the dining room for the rest of the meal. The secret to nonstressful entertaining is to do as much ahead of time as possible.
Another good main-course choice for an informal gathering is our Two Sides Brown Noodles With Beef Stir Fry. This is a remarkably easy dish that can be almost completely prepared ahead.
The beef topping is a simple stir-fry mixture--strips of marinated beef cooked quickly with snow peas, won bok, onions and tomatoes. All of the chopping and marinating can be done a day ahead and, if you have a microwave, the topping mixture can even be cooked the day before.
Refrigerate the topping, covered, and then reheat it at the last minute in the microwave. Quick microwave reheating won't destroy the desired crisp texture of some of the ingredients.
If you don't have a microwave, the topping can be cooked and then refrigerated at the point where the tomatoes and snow peas are ready to be added. Just before serving, reheat the mixture and pick up the rest of the recipe at the point you stopped. In either case, the topping will taste even better if the flavors are allowed to blend.
The "two sides brown" noodle cake is an excellent contrast for the dramatic topping. It's based on an old Chinese classic, is simple to prepare and can easily be made even the day before and reheated when needed.
When ready to serve, the crisp-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside noodle pancake makes a wonderful base for the stir fry. The dish is very attractive, and everyone will think you have been slaving away in the kitchen all day.
For a more glamorous party--a cocktail buffet or after-theater supper--make your own Italian-style Torta Rustica . This looks and sounds quite complicated, but it's not, and your guests will never suspect how easy it is.
Our version uses a super shortcut in the form of frozen bread dough. It is simply rolled out and pressed into a springform pan, filled with all sorts of delicious cold cuts, cheeses and vegetables, covered with a bread dough lid and baked till golden.
Because the torta is served cold or at room temperature, it can be made a day or two ahead, thus easing the last-minute crunch inevitable with holiday entertaining.
As it requires a fair amount of cold cuts, a torta is not inexpensive; but the result is a spectacular-looking Italian-style sandwich that, when cut in thin wedges, will easily serve from 16 to 20 guests.
A cup of hot soup, a simple salad and some bon bons from the ice cream parlor will complement the torta nicely and provide a complete light menu.
The following recipes should fit nicely into most contemporary holiday entertaining plans. And each has added value in that they can be either totally or partially prepared ahead, a true boon for a busy host.
DUCK IN WILD RICE AND APPLE CASSEROLE
1 (3- to 4-pound) duckling
6 cups water
1 small onion, quartered
1 medium stalk celery, including leaves
2 (4-ounce) packages wild rice, rinsed
1/2 cup apple brandy
1/2 (1-ounce) jar wild (morel) mushrooms, reconstituted and chopped
1/2 cup toasted pecans
1 unpeeled red apple, cored and chopped