Tips for throwing the perfect party

Cookbook author, Margaret Dickenson was interviewed about a story on planning your perfect party. (Photo: Jean Levac)

When it comes to Christmas, I know how to throw a party. Yet there was a time when my take-it-to-the-next-level Christmas cocktail shindig checklist looked like this:

■ Two supersized bags of Sun Chips: Check

■ Two dozen devilled eggs: Check

■ Two boxes of frozen hors d’oeuvres: Check

■ One case of red wine, any type: Check

Looking back, it seems pretty juvenile. But that was so last year. This year, Christmas will be a grown-up affair, complete with softly playing music, elegant decor and

Martha Stewart-esque flourishes. (But I’m sticking with the devilled eggs; they’re making a comeback, if Union Local 613’s menu is anything to go by.) And so, in the interests of throwing the perfect party this festive season, we’ve turned to the experts for their top 10 tips.

1. GET MARGARET DICKENSON to invite you over for one of her legendary soirees. It’s a stretch, but it would be great to learn from the Ottawa woman who won Gourmand World’s 2006 Best Cookbook in the World on Entertaining for Margaret’s Table: Easy Cooking and Inspiring Entertaining. Her first tip? Have a few small cocktail parties that start at 6:30 p.m. and an 11 a.m. brunch rather than one big knees-up. This allows you to be flexible with friends’ scheduling. Dickenson pre-cooks enough for three parties, and then assembles everything on the day. “We do my four-step plan,” she says. “We start with hot and cold hors d’oeuvres and a few plated appetizers, and then canapé soup served in a demi-tasse, then desserts and plum pudding with homemade lemon ice cream. You have a really strong menu you can make the same every night.”

2. SET A BEAUTIFUL TABLE

Start with your Christmas colour theme — purple is the festive colour this year — and work back from that. Pick out a few baubles for a centrepiece (no more than 12-inches high) and add silk flowers (they won’t wilt), coloured ornaments and artificial candles (that won’t burn the kitchen down).

“If it’s a cocktail party, have three or four napkins per person,” says Dickenson. For a formal dinner, arrange cutlery in order of use, starting furthest from the plate. Ditto for the various wine and champagne glasses, starting on the right and working in.

3. CHOOSE MUSIC WISELY

When I was an obnoxious Mohawk-and-combat-boot wearing punk, I once compelled my mum to turn off Perry Como’s Christmas Album (1968) and listen to Husker Dü’s Flip Your Wig (1985). Judging by her reaction — storming from the kitchen — it didn’t create a festive mood. While Christmas music compilations can be useful, you might be a bit carolled-out with the relentless O Holy Night at the mall. Instead, put together a hit list from your favourite era on your iPod, set it on low and hit shuffle. Music should act as a background — not soundtrack — to the party.

4. FIGURE OUT A THEME

Traditional or Mexican? Whatever you choose, start with an inspiration board, check out other ideas on Pinterest (an online bulletin board site) and get creative, says Wendy Leung at Beyond Events. “There could be a sangria station so people can mix their own drinks and a food station so they can make up their own plates. You could have a popcorn station or candy buffet, which is very popular right now.”

5. STICK TO A BUDGET

This doesn’t mean going for the party-sized Sun Chips, either. According to Leung, a cocktail party of any size generally means one to two drinks per person, per hour. “You can work out a per person budget, or if you’re a company, say ‘I have $10,000 and 120 people’ and work backwards from that. Maybe instead of oysters or a sit down meal, you have a cocktail party.

You need to ask “is it wine and cheese or beer and wings?’ ” To determine how far your budget will go, work out whom to invite — and avoid. Will the girls from daycare mix with your eclectic boho pals? Will they in turn ironically quote Baudelaire at your corporate friends? If so, consider holding a few smaller gatherings to accommodate different demographics in your life. “From a guest perspective, start at the inner circle and go to guest list B, depending on the size of the venue,” says Leung.

6. FAKE IT OR LEARN TO MAKE IT

If cooking isn’t one of fabulous things you do, bring in the experts. There are dozens of catering companies to choose from, but book early. Otherwise, says Jason Laurin, chef and owner of Essence Catering, try producing your own easy but impressive succulent bites, like Chipotle Shrimp with Avocado or the vegetarian-friendly Goat Cheese Mousse with Roasted Beets and Pears or Sautéed Ratatouille (see recipes). “Choose five bites, with two of them completely pre-made and not temperature dependent. The more intricate bite that requires assembly should go out first, then come back with one you can put out quickly,” he says.

7. LET YOUR GUESTS KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT

Is there a dress code? Open bar or BYOB? Set the tone in the invitation, spelling out if you expect “smart casual” or “whatever you got out of bed in.” Same goes for the party itself. If it’s “bring your own,” the polite thing to do is to buy a bottle for the party and one for the host’s cellar. Don’t always expect the host to serve it that night, warns Dickenson. “They’ve planned what wine they’ll serve, unless they’re counting on people to bring their own,” she says.

8. UPDATE YOUR CHRISTMAS LOOK

Paid too much last year for that once-a-while event frock? Wear it again with cool, printed tights, says fashion journalist Erica Wark. “It’s a great way to update a little black dress, stay warm and look très chic. You’ll have more than one event,” she adds, “so plan ahead. Pick out key pieces you already have, then make a list of what’s missing.” If what’s missing is sparkle, turn to Ottawa vendors, such as Nathalie Champagne in the ByWard Market Square at 819-684-1170 or facebook.com/nathalie.champagne.jewellry; Stella and Dot by Carmen Shera (613-324-3357) or stelladot.com/carmensheera; Osolee by Leeann Lacroix at (1-800-261-2462) or osolee.ca

9. CREATE BUZZ

If your event is big enough, consider inviting a few fashion and event bloggers and get your message out to the Twittersphere. “If people are talking about it, the more your event will be picked up and have buzz for next year,” says Leung. And it’s not a bad idea to invest in a little extra something-something like a photographer or portable photo booth that can spit out endless happy snaps on the night. For more information, contact Shutterbug Photobooth at (613-656-1426) or ottawa@shutterbugbooth.com; Mastermind Event at (613-726-6755) or events@mmecanada.com. Don’t signal “party over” by putting on your jammies and turning out the lights. Rather, says Dickenson, just before dessert, stop serving wine and instead offer a hot beverage, like her own concoction of lemon ginger tea with a few fresh pomegranate seeds in the bottom of the cup. Either that, or serve “end-of-meal” chocolates and coffee. “There’s a way of doing it elegantly,” she says.

10. BE RESPONSIBLE

Unless you plan on a massive sleepover at your place, it’s your responsibility to ensure your guests get home safely. Either offer cab chits or book a driver service like Responsible Choice at (613-248-0444) at responsiblechoice.ca or Operation Red Nose at rednoseottawa.com.

Goat cheese mousse with two fillings

1 each: Golden beet, candy cane beet, red beet

1 large Bosc pear

1 tbsp minced dill

3 tbsp white balsamic vinegar

1 tbsp honey

2 tbsp neutral flavoured oil

salt and pepper

Goat cheese mousse

1 4-ounce package of goat cheese

1/4 cup 35% cream

salt and pepper

Ratatouille filling:

1/4 red, yellow and orange pepper. Finely diced

1/2 zucchini finely diced

1/2 Chinese eggplant finely diced

1/4 red onion finely diced

4 cloves garlic minced

1 roma tomato finely diced

100 gr goat cheese, room temp

2 tbsp 35% cream

Salt and pepper

2 boxes Athens phyllo cups

Instructions:

1. Cook peppers, onion, garlic in 3 tbsp olive oil over high heat for 2 minutes. Set aside in a bowl

2. Cook zucchini and eggplant in 3 tbsp olive oil over high heat for 2 minutes. Place in the bowl with the peppers.

3. Add tomato and chill.

4. Mix goat cheese and cream until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Place in a plastic piping bag and seal.

5. Pipe a mound of goat cheese into the bottom of each phyllo. Keep in mind that the phyllo will start getting soft as soon as the cheese is piped in it. So serve it immediately.

6. Top the goat cheese with a 1/2 tbsp of ratatouille. Shave some parmesan over the top.

Chipotle grilled shrimp

For each 24 shrimp you will need:

3 chipotle peppers whole with adobo

2 cloves garlic

Juice and zest of 1 lime

Salt and pepper to taste

3 tbsp veg oil or other neutral flavoured oil

1. Place all ingredients in a food processor and blitz to a smooth paste. Pour over shrimp and marinade over night.

2. Prepare a grill or heat a grill pan. Add shrimp and cook for one-and-a-half minutes per side. Remove and allow to cool.

Avocado mousse

1 avocado seeded and flesh scooped

Juice of 1 lime

2 tsp agave syrup

salt/pepper

1. Place all ingredients in a container and blitz with an immersion blender till smooth.

2. Taste and adjust seasoning, then store in a squeeze bottle till needed.

Connect with Julie Beun |life@ottawacitizen.com