by Melissa Darpino
Every year, at about this time, my perception of my everyday world begins to change. Although I no longer live in a region where the first frost reawakens my holiday senses, I can still see the shift occurring as September rolls on by. Neighbors return from vacation, children return to school, and the ubiquitous countdown begins; only ninety-six shopping days until Christmas. Our homes shift from being sanctuaries from the outside world, to centers of collective joy. We display our menorahs and Christmas trees in windows for the world's enjoyment, as well as our own. There is no other time of the year when droppers-by are welcomed with as much enthusiasm as the weeks that fall from Thanksgiving to New Years Day.
As children, this time of the year seemed magical. As adults, it can seem exhausting—updating the holiday card list, shopping for gifts, planning those meals we hope will be unforgettable. And, of course, it is the time of year to renew and be thankful for our families and friends. Welcoming them graciously into a home that is prepared for their planned (or many times unplanned visit) can seem easy and effortless if some basic provisions are acquired in advance.
Following is a list of items that can be found in the local supermarket, gourmet shop, and mall. Many items you may already have in your home, and most have multiple purposes. Mixing and matching food, beverages, and entertainment from this checklist allows you to spend quality time with your guests, rather than too much time in the kitchen.
Although all of the items on the list can be found in most areas of the country as well as many places around the world, custom-tailoring the checklist for your area or your preferences is easy. Just remember that the main idea is to keep on hand non-perishable, easily prepared items that allow your guests to enjoy you, as well as the food and drink.
Finally, envision your friends and family dropping by. Are all items readily accessible? Well-chilled? Do you have all of the necessary utensils? Asking yourself these questions, and preparing now, will allow you and your guests to return to those child-like memories of The Holidays.
Keeping a huge range of beverages in your home isn't necessary, but a few, well thought-out choices that complement the food you are offering will be remembered. Alcoholic:
The holidays, especially New Years Eve, are synonymous with Champagne. Whether from the French region, or a domestic sparkler, two bottles should be chilled at all times. Also, two bottles of red and white wine of your choice should be in immediate reach. If your crowd enjoys martinis, a good gin and vodka (one bottle of each) will be needed, along with a bottle of dry vermouth. (Don't forget the olives.)Nothing finishes a meal, or creates an instantly toasty environment like sipping warm glasses of Grand Marnier or Sambuca. Keeping a bottle of any brandy, port, or dessert wine is not essential, but is simple, elegant, and easy.Beer is a favorite any time of the year, but you may want to keep a six-pack of both a lager and a winter ale. If you're unsure of which to buy, give your regional brewery a try, or ask your wine and spirits merchant for help. Most convenience stores offer many micro-brewed beers as well.
Whether at breakfast or after dinner, freshly ground and brewed coffee or steaming hot tea is a must. The rich, sweet, Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee is just right for special occasions, and special guests, while the aromatic Earl Grey tea and exotic herbal varieties are classic choices of today's ever-growing audience of tea-lovers. Make any coffee or tea ultimately better by serving real cream. Keeping two pints in the house is a must during the holidays.
A bottle each of sparkling water, orange juice, and cola will serve as mixers, as well as beverages for children and drivers.
Unexpected guests can arrive at any time. Many of the following items can be mixed and matched to serve different purposes.
Breads are as essential to holiday entertaining as Champagne and wine. Either with pasta for dinner, or with cheese and wine, a fresh loaf of baguette or two should always be on hand. A loaf of egg bread makes the fluffiest french toast around. Dust with powdered sugar and serve with jams and coffee.
Some well wrapped cheeses go far as emergency nibbles. A small round of Gouda or Edam, sealed in its red wax shell, will last for weeks and can be eaten as cubes or slices or substituted for cheddar in cooking.
Two pounds of a tubular pasta can serve eight, and stays warmer longer than thin strands. Keep a jar of tapenade or caponata in the kitchen to toss with the pasta, or serve with toasted baguette and shards of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Martinis require them, but even on their own, olives are perfect on the coffee table. Gourmet olives from Italy, France and California look elegant with just a simple toothpick.
Shortbread, biscotti, or fine chocolates are rich, classic holiday sweets that can be kept indefinitely.
Since spending time with your guests, and enjoying one another is the focal point of holiday visits, only a few other essentials are needed.
Music allows you to set the mood and the pace of the visit. Compilation compact discs allow you to play styles of music without having to constantly change discs. Wine and pasta for dinner? The soundtrack from the movie "Big Night" is the one.
Martinis and olives? One of the many Lounge Music Collections, including Rhino Record's "Bachelor in Paradise: Cocktail Classics from MGM" are available in most music stores across the country.
Coffee and after-dinner drinks as well as brunch would go well with Cole Porter's "Songbook, Vol. II," from Polygram Music, while Sony's Musical Meals series features party music selected by chefs like Emeril Lagasse (Cajun Cookin'), Dean Fearing (Southwestern Cookin') and Alice Waters (Sunday Brunch).
No matter if your holiday decorating style is simple or ornate, two or three pillar-style candles on a white plate is the most elegant dinner or coffee table centerpiece. If your home is not already scented with other holiday decorations, choose a candle with a light fragrance of cranberry or cinnamon.
Finally, after effortlessly entertaining for a full month, you'll want to keep some variation of these items on hand all of the time. Now, anytime unexpected guests stop by, even if it doesn't fall during that magical month, you can greet them with the same warmth we wish we had all year 'round.
Melissa Darpino is the Events Coordinator for Stepps on the Court in Los Angeles, CA.
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This page originally published as part of the electronic Gourmet Guide between 1994 and 1998.
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This page modified February 2007