It's been 31 Christmases since Toronto-born Vancouverite Susan Mendelson launched her catering company, The Lazy Gourmet. Since then, Mendelson has written 10 cookbooks and catered for everyone from Sarah McLachlan to the French government at the 2010 Olympics. For not-so-lazy gourmets keen to cook for their own large-scale holiday buffet this year, take Mendelson's advice to heart: Plan, organize and have a good time.
The guest list
If you're hosting more than one holiday get-together or inviting guests who are strangers to each other, buffets are ideal formats, as they're easier to put together than formal sit-down affairs and encourage conviviality. Even "if this is your only party of the year," says Mendelson, buffets can still impress, but "you'll probably just want to invite close friends and family."
With 25 to 30 guests, an extra pair of hands will help. If planned carefully, however, the party can be manageable without staff. "Plan your table two days ahead of time," Mendelson advises. "Keep the dishware simple: two plates - one for dinner, one for dessert - and one fork per person." And ditch the knives: The meal should be "designed to sit on your lap or to eat standing up." Your cleanup should be simple, but, for extra ease, Mendelson recommends renting glasses: "You can fit nearly all the plates into a dishwasher. It's the glasses that take up space and energy."
Decor, Mendelson says, is a place for unrestrained creativity: "You don't have to go with flowers or candles. My sister puts Vietnamese dolls out. You could have votives or scrunched-up shawls running along the table." Just be sure not to toss any cashmere in the hummus.
No matter what you serve, stick to Mendelson's key principle: "Pick a menu that can be done ahead of time, so you're not dripping with sweat when your guests arrive. At the party, just throw it on the table."
To start, "have wine, beer and one signature cocktail. Also have sparkling water and cranberry juice, so people don't feel uncomfortable about not drinking." Skip the fussy hors d'oeuvre and offer holiday spiced nuts and a wheel of brie stuffed with mushrooms and then wrapped in puff pastry. "Serve it warm, like fondue, in a chafing dish."
The mains require more prep, but will be equally effortless on the big day. Start with a staple: "Cold poached salmon is coming back," she says. "Stuff it with fennel and rice. It's a great second dish." For the meat eaters, choose steak - sliced ultra thin, served at room temperature and drizzled with an espresso sauce. Pair it with a couple of salads and some quinoa, "a hip and happening starch," Mendelson says. For bonus points, throw a hot fennel gratinée into the mix. "It's done like scalloped potatoes, with cheese and cream, but it's with fennel - and it's phenomenal."
Dessert should be a cutlery-free affair. "People don't like huge dessert tables; they like little pickup pieces," Mendelson says, citing her "no-work chocolate bark." "Melt some chocolate, mix it with cranberries and toasted nuts and lay it out on a cookie sheet. When it's hardened, just crack it into pieces on a plate." And spare yourself an afternoon of slicing fruit: "Just have a bowl of beautiful baby mandarin oranges, bring a well-assembled cheese plate out and call it a day."
Elevate your cheese platter with Michael Aram's nickel-plated Botanical Leaf Cheese Service. "The cheese knife has a magnet on it, so you can attach it to the stem. You'll never lose it. It's amazing," Mendelson says.
Michael Aram Botanical Leaf Cheese Service, $195 at retailers across the country (visit www.michaelaram.com to find a store near you).
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