Nov 14, 2014 11:07AM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
By Kimberly Cooper
Some people are natural hosts, throwing great parties with ease. Then there are those of us who could benefit from expert advice and services to make a party shine. And seeing how it is party season, we knew we’d need some great ideas from the experts. We’ve asked a few local catering experts to weigh in with their tips and tricks on throwing an amazing bash. From themes to decorations and, of course, food, they’ve given us all the tips to celebrate with style.
The Main Ingredient, located in the heart of Annapolis, is one of those places that just knows how to get it right. Evie Turner leads the way and adds style and panache to each party she throws. She was kind enough to share some of her expert tips with us, especially on how to please a picky crowd and choose the right bites for a party. Julie St. Marie Catering and Event Coordination is run by, well, Julie St. Marie. When it comes to throwing excellent parties where every detail is perfect and on point, she is the go-to. We knew she’d have some excellent party-throwing tips for us, especially in terms of what can make your event stand out like no other. Rebecca C. Mullins, retail manager at Captain’s Ketch Seafood Market in Easton also knows a thing or two about party planning and menu options. At the market, there’s no downtime during the holidays as patrons flock there for fine seafood and catering, often to please a holiday crowd.
Each answered our questions and we think you’ll find more than enough to inspire your own, fabulous party planning this season.
If you had to choose one element, what would it be to make your party stand out? A signature cocktail? The atmosphere? An overall theme?Evie Turner: The location or the theme. A different or unique location creates an element of surprise and intrigue. The location also denotes the feeling of the party—warm and cozy in a decorated home for the holidays. A fire pit outside if we are in a field. However, themes motivate the guests to dive into the party, live it for the night, escape into the theme.
Julie St. Marie: Select a theme and carry it through the entire party. Start with your invitation and continue with the menu, décor, table setting, and beverages.
Rebecca C. Mullins: Choose a theme and involve your guests. It makes great conversation openers with guests involved. Funny hat party, mask party, ugly sweater, un-birthday party (everyone gets a present).
In terms of catering and parties, one of the newer trends seems to be alternative style menus such as vegan or gluten-free. Do you think this trend has a place in the party arena? Or is the menu too selective?Turner: No choice here, we must evolve with the menus these days. Hosts know their guests and their dietary restrictions. For example we may decide to include a quinoa as the starch instead of a daphenoise potato now. We recently catered a sit down pre-choice dinner and everything had to be gluten free and vegetarian. We have to respond and have these options available.
St. Marie: As a host, you want to make your guests feel comfortable and have options so that they can also enjoy the party and the food. Caterers need to be flexible and have the culinary skills to accommodate numerous “food preferences.”
Mullins: I think it is great to have special diet dishes. A lot of people who don’t have allergies or special needs would not typically try gluten free, vegan, or vegetarian so it opens a new door of food to people.
Let’s talk drinks and cocktails. When throwing a great party, what one or two cocktails would you suggest? Would it better to have a “make your own” style cocktail bar?Turner: Traditional drinks turned into shots, a small nip upon arrival instead of one full drink. That way a guest can move on to something they really prefer after “warming up” to the party.
St. Marie: A successful party flows from the minute guests arrive until they leave. If you are having the party catered, have a server at the entrance with a tray of your signature cocktail.
Mullins: It is fun to have a signature drink or cocktail but don’t forget the designated drivers and the ones who don’t drink. Virgin Mary, which is a nonalcoholic Bloody Mary, can be made, or make a special punch with floral ice cubes in it or dry ice for a smoke effect. Don’t let them end up at the kids drink table.
How can party hosts incorporate a theme into their party without going overboard? For example, if the party is a winter wonderland theme, what can they do to keep with the idea but not make it too obvious? Or is obvious better?Turner: I think it’s a fine line, you want to bring in the theme without getting too DIY. Hosts can get carried away or over commit to décor ideas and then all of a sudden feel overwhelmed. It really depends on theme and whether you are working with a blank slate or adapting your home to a theme. The foundation may have to be the deciding factor.
St. Marie: A theme doesn’t have to shout to be known. Subtle touches can be simple, but make a statement. For a Winter Wonderland party I would incorporate the use of blue, silver, and white into the décor.
Mullins: You don’t have to go overboard with following a theme. A Winter Wonderland party; make snowflake cheese puffs, but use a snowflake cookie cutter, then cut out shapes in puff pastry and sprinkle with some parmesan and/or asiago grated with a pinch of cayenne for a little bite. Instead of having just cubed cheese, you can use any kind of cheese and use cookie cutters for different holiday shapes. Add snowflake doilies to the table or maybe serve a Godiva chocolate martini.
When it comes to food, what are two or three great bites that every host should have on hand at their party?Turner: Nuts—sweet and spicy nuts, rosemary infused nuts, pistachios, something salty at the bar with your first cocktail, bite sized desserts, something gooey, and savory. For example, a clean and easy to pick up item like a tart filled with wild mushrooms and gruyere. What flies off the plate first? The protein. These days, folks are eating less bread, less starch.
St. Marie: Crab, beef, and shrimp! Mini Crab Cakes are also always a hit.
Mullins: I think brie is one of the best items to always have on hand. Whether you serve it raw with crackers or wrap it in pastry with your favorite preserve, it is a fast, easy appetizer everyone loves. Shrimp cocktail is also a great finger food guests can never get enough of. You could do the traditional shrimp with cocktail sauce or try something new; shrimp with blackening seasoning grilled or baked and served with a sweet chili sauce.
For décor, what are some nice elements to include without making your party too campy?Turner: Always candles, always flowers, and you can never go wrong. Twinkle lights, stringing lights, lanterns. Lighting creates warmth and comfort. I believe in keeping simple and in threes. I love solids with a hint of pattern whether it’s in your china or in a pillow.
St. Marie: Lighting is crucial! It can be something as simple as stringing white bulb lights from the trees, if you party is outside, or, if it’s inside, hanging them around the room, your bar, or buffet table. Candles always add a warm and inviting element to your tablescape. I have incorporated décor into the menu by featuring a “make your own” S’mores bar. I put decorative rocks in a vintage box to hide the sterno. I placed long skewers, chocolate, graham crackers, marshmallows, and other fun elements into vintage jars. It was the focal point of the dessert table so no other decoration was necessary.
Mullins: Having fresh flowers and plants help make a fragrant and homey atmosphere. Have some nice background music, upbeat but not too loud. Lighting always makes a difference. Put some candles around. If you are afraid of the fire, they make some great realistic battery operated candles. They are also great for making a welcoming entrance way.
Any other tips and tricks you can suggest?Turner: My biggest advice to any host/hostess is to make sure you enjoy your own party. Figure out a way, set up as much as you can ahead of time (begin 2–3 days prior), pull out your serving pieces, china days before, design a menu that does not keep you in the kitchen all night, and assign tasks to guests. Pour wine or hire a caterer!
St. Marie: You don’t have to make yourself crazy to throw a great party. The key is to be organized, make lists and a plan, and follow it. I have many clients that like to prepare part of the food or dessert and then hire us to set-up, serve, and clean-up. They are able to enjoy their party instead of working the entire time.
Mullins: Enjoy your time. Coming from a large family, there has always been friends, family, relatives coming over for get-togethers. Whether it be outside in the yard for a cook-out, fire ring with lights in the trees, or cold winters inside with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres around a Christmas tree, the best thing about any party you throw is the people you invite.