Well, there's one word to describe this time of year: It's par-tay. And while you've been invited to many a fabulous fete, have you ever thrown one yourself? Now, don't stress. Between us, shelling out a ton of cash to pull off gastronomic feats is for suckers. The smart route is following the advice of Colin Cowie, celebrity event planner and author of Dinner After Dark. He gave us a bunch of brilliant budget and easy-but-looks-spectacular tips.
1. Serve A Bubbly Drink
Make Champagne Rubies, one of Cowie's swanky sippers. Caramelize one cup of sugar (it'll turn brown) by cooking it on low heat. Allow it to cool, then moisten the tip of a champagne glass and dip it into the sugar. Add two frozen raspberries or strawberries to the glass, then pour in 1/2 ounce Chambord and top with 6 ounces champagne or sparkling wine. For a Christmas-colored garnish, alternate green grapes and cranberries on fancy toothpicks.
2. Offer Hearty Pica-pica
As an excellent alternative to a sit-down meal, serve steak skewers. And you can make them ahead of time. Pan-fry an inexpensive cut, like flank or minute steak, for one to two minutes per side in a hot pan that's been coated with oil. Let cool, then slice into thin strips and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Spear the pieces onto bamboo skewers, and arrange on a tray.
3. Upgrade The Cheese Plate
A hunk of cheddar isn't wowing anyone. Put out an assortment that offers a whole range of tastes and textures, from soft to hard and mild to sharp. Perfect grouping: a creamy chevre, a buttery Brie, a pungent blue, and a sharp Parmesan or pecorino. Arrange on a platter, with a thinly sliced baguette, walnuts, and a pile of dried dates and figs. Put it all out with some glasses and good red wine--an excellent complement to any cheese.
4. Deck Out The Place With Ornaments
The usual holiday decorations are pretty predictable. Change things up and choose one theme--like snowflakes, stars, or hell, even something funny, like dogs--then buy a whole bunch of inexpensive ornaments and go to town placing them all over--on plants in the living room, on doorknobs, scattered over the kitchen table, and hanging from the dining-room chandelier.
Party Pointer: scatter the candles around or group them together in a bunch.
5. Create Couture Cubes
Something a bit out of the ordinary, like a bowl of fruity, colorful ice cubes (or couture cubes, as the always-elegant Cowie calls them) will instantly grab your guests' attention. First, make this simple ice bowl. Put a small metal bowl inside a larger one, and fill the gap with water. Then place a soup can in the small bowl to weigh it down. At the same time, put small pieces of fruit, like cherries, lime, and grapes into ice cube trays, and fill them with water. Freeze both items, then slide the ice out from between the two metal bowls, and tumble the cubes right inside.
6. Illuminate With Red Bulbs
To create a warm, festive glow, Cowie suggests replacing some of your boring white light bulbs with red ones (most hardware stores carry them). Just unscrew a few whites, twist in the replacement reds, and voila! Instant lounge-like glamour.
7. Show A Chic Centerpiece
Who knew eggs could make such a pretty, glittery focal point? To make this eye-catching art, hard-boil a dozen or so large white eggs. Once they've cooled, gently paint or spray paint each egg silver or gold (buy the paint at the art section of a book store) to create a mix. When the eggs are dry, place them all in a big glass bowl, and put it in a central location.
8. Light Martini Floaters
This stylish idea is as frugal as it is creative. Just buy a bunch of inexpensive martini glasses, fill them halfway with water, and add red food coloring. Then top each one off with a white tea light.
9. Bundle The Napkins
There's no need to bust out the fancy linen. Buy a bunch of patterned paper napkins in a holiday hue, then roll each one into a bundle and tie it with a curl of pretty ribbon. Pile them all in a big basket close to the food.
10. Name-Tag Your Nibbles
It's fun to clue in your guests to what they're eating. Cowie suggests writing the name of each dish on a business card-size piece of white paper. Then make a horizontal slit in a mini apple, place the card inside, and position the fruit in front of the food.
11. Whip Up A Mousse
Chocolate mousse served in colorful mini-plastic cups will satisfy everyone's cocoa craving. First, melt 4-1/2 ounces bittersweet chocolate and one stick unsalted butter in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat. Let cool, then transfer mixture to a large mixing bowl. In another bowl, beat four egg whites and 1⁄8 cup sugar with an electric mixer. In a separate bowl, whisk four egg yolks and another 1⁄8 cup sugar. Fold the yolk mixture into the chocolate, then fold in the egg whites. Refrigerate for three hours, then scoop the mousse into cups and garnish with a raspberry. This recipe serves four to eight, depending on the size of the cups.
12. Make Clever Dip Bowls
It's pretty and inventive, and it'll add color to an otherwise ho-hum plate of crackers and spread. To prepare the pepper, simply slice off the top quarter, including the stem. Then, using a small paring knife, scoop out the inside and wash out any remaining seeds. Fill the pepper with a gourmet cheese dip (you can buy it at the grocery store and just add chopped scallions and a little lemon juice to jazz it up), and place it in the center of a platter.
13. Don't Forget Holiday Ham And Cheese