Monday, May 10, 2010

What should I serve at a cocktail party in a hotel room?

Hiii ESB,

My brother is getting married at the end of the month, and although they are keeping it super casual on the beach, my brother just sprung a cocktail party on my parents for the night before. My parents have been more than happy to help out with planning, but his fiancee was so capable that the couple never sought any advice or help; they don't have a wedding party, so they never expressed interest for a rehearsal dinner or anything either. HOWEVER just last week they requested some sort of get together for the night before. My parents, being some kind of superheroes, managed to get a presidential suite in a hotel on the beach for guests to come and go all evening for a cocktail party. Only problem is that their desire to keep the event open to everyone means that they can't afford to get it catered. My father swears he's got the liquor covered. Great. But what kind of food should we serve? Methinks that somehow I will be the one thrust into the kitchen making some of this food, and I'd love to get ideas about easy things to make that would complement the oodles of liquor we are all sure to drink.


I called in the big guns on this one. Here's what our lady Celia (a culinary/cocktail expert), had to say:

This one's a cinch. First and foremost, keep in mind that the night before your brother's wedding is not the time to dazzle a whole bunch of people with your culinary skills. I would consider myself a pretty well seasoned chef with almost seven years of experience under my belt, and even I wouldn't attempt to put in that amount of effort for one of my nearest and dearest the night before their big day. Seeing as you'll be in a hotel room sans kitchen, any sort of finger food or bite-sized hors d'oeuvres are out of the question. GOOD, those are a big fat pain in the ass anyway. All this considered, you can still offer your guests a night to remember with a beautiful spread of phenominal food. The easiest way to do this is to assemble an assortment of platters. You want things that can be bought, made, and stored a few days in advance and then quickly put together right before the party. Here are my suggestions...

1. A CHEESE Platter. Seriously, who doesn't love cheese? A cheese Platter is awesome because it is incredibly filling and can be assembled with very little effort. If you're a cheese fanatic, like myself, you can go to your local cheese shop and pick out all sorts of goodies. But if not, your local Whole Foods or Trader Joe's will have a nice selection as well. I typically like to do 1 bleu, 1 soft (like a camembert or brie), 1 stinky (like an epoisses), 1 not-at-all stinky (like a good quality cheddar), and 1 unexpected cheese (like a truffle cheese or Humboldt Fog). Make sure to add some accompaniments to your cheese platter such as dried figs or apricots, marcona almonds, fresh seasonal fruit, an open jar of honey or pepper jelly and some slices of baguette. Crostini should be made the day of and if you feel you have time to do that then by all means, do your thing. But if not, sliced un-toasted bread will do the trick.

2. A Mediterranean Platter is always a crowd pleaser. Artfully arrange groupings of assorted olives, a homemade flavored hummus (like this spinach one), crumbled feta drizzled with olive oil and topped with fresh chopped rosemary, oregano and parsley (chop the herbs the night before and store them in a baggie in your fridge overnight), pita wedges, tabouli, and marinated artichoke hearts.

3. An assortment of seasonal roasted veggies. RIGHT NOW, asparagus, fennel, wild mushrooms, and endive are phenomenal. Asparagus just need their ends chopped off, I like to slice fennel in rings, mushrooms can be roasted whole, and endive is best sliced in half lengthwise. Drizzle with a fair amount of olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast at a higher temperature like 450º-475º until GOLDEN brown. This is key. If you don't let the natural sugars in the veggies caramelize, you'll just get a whole bunch of soggy veggies. GROSS. This is the kind of goldenness I'm talking about. Make sure to roast your veggies in separate pans because they all require different cooking times. This can also be done the day before and stored in the fridge. Serve them at room temp the day of the party.

4. Charcuterie! This one's a no-brainer. Go to your local deli and have them slice up some proscuitto, salumi, mortadella, and bresaola. Arrange on your platter with a nice jar of mustard, some cornichons, and Italian breadsticks. If you're feeling extra fancy, add some rillettes or pâté or even some homemade tapenade.

This will definitely offer your guests a fresh and hearty selection. Also remember that you are hosting a cocktail party, not a dinner party. Obviously you don't want to run out of food, but most people do not eat dinner-sized portions at events like this. A general rule of thumb is to account for 10-12 bites per guest. You're always going to have that one person that loads their plate up with stuff from every platter and the one person who just takes a couple nibbles the whole night, but everyone else typically falls in between. For dips and spreads, I like to make roughly 2 cups per 10-15 people. When it comes to meats and cheeses, 2-3 oz. per head should be sufficient. This means 2-3 oz. total, not 2-3 oz. per meat and cheese. So for every 10 guests, you'll be buying a total of 1 1/2-2 lb. of assorted meats and cheeses. If your budget is tighter, buy more of the lower cost components and less of the higher cost ones. In other words, buy more mortadella than you would proscuitto.

If your budget is extra tight, don't go through the hassle of rentals. Depending on how many guests you are planning on having, the hotel might be willing to provide you with some cocktail plates, glasses and silverware. You ARE paying for the presidential suite, after all. And if not, ask friends and family to pitch in. Many of the parties I've catered have used mismatched pieces and the result is always charming. Make a list of exactly what goes on each platter to ensure you won't forget anything. Give yourself about an hour to assemble them and ask a friend to help you out. Two heads are always better than one.

And last, my husband is a sommelier so I asked him to give me some wine tips to pass along to your dad. On average one bottle of wine per three guests is recommended. This is the norm, but if your friends and family tend to be heavier drinkers (like mine), you should buy a little extra for insurance. We had 24 guests at our rehearsal dinner and went through 18 bottles of wine. I'm not even sure why I'm admitting this publicly, other than to give you an example. Assuming you're looking to buy bottles that fall under the $10 range, remember that you'll get more bang for your buck with a malbec or syrah than with the more popular varietals like cabernet or pinot. No, the bottles won't be bigger, but the quality will most likely be better. As for white, sauvignon blanc is always a safe bet; rarely mind blowing but definitely people-friendly. Also consider doing screwcaps. Many people tend to think that screwcaps are "cheap" or "lesser quality" but that simply is not the case. When it comes to lower priced wines, your chances of getting a corked bottle* here and there are pretty hefty, which is impossible with screwcaps.

Hope this helps and happy planning!

*If a cork comes into contact with some sort of contaminant, it will produce TCA which in turn will kill the aroma and the flavor of the wine. Since it is passed on through the cork itself, this only happens to certain bottles during the bottling process. For me, moldy newspaper is the best description of what a corked wine smells like. It's not at all bad for you to drink a corked wine, but it is pretty foul. Cork taint is completely unavoidable (unless you use screwtop), and roughly 8% of all wine bottles using cork are affected by it. If you've ever smelled/tasted a corked wine, you will never forget it. On that note: please, please, PLEASE don't mistake small particles of cork in your bottle or glass for a corked wine. I'm sure your sommelier or server will gladly switch out your bottle/glass if you do so, but they'll probably be rolling their eyes and saying snarky remarks under their breath at you as they walk away from your table.

(Image by Julia Randall via FFFFOUND!)


  1. This is amazingly helpful - great party-planning tips in general. Thanks, Celia!

  2. Yes. Awesome awesome advice.

    If you have a little extra time the day before, and feel comfortable doing a few extra things, I find that these: or a quick deviled egg with a little of whatever yumminess is in season chopped up and thrown in never disappoint.

  3. i knew you'd pick the best picture. i just KNEW it. :)

  4. you can NEVER go wrong with cheese.

  5. oh wow!
    how rad that there are so many smart ladies here.
    ask celia, the esb food expert, hahaha.
    this blog has the best answers to all questions, for sure.

  6. great advice from celia as usual!

    kiwi ordered artisan salami from creminelli a few weeks ago and it was just amazing! the wild boar and black truffle tartufo were my favorites. i second liz, you can never go wrong with cheese.

    happy party planning!

  7. When my in-laws did this for my brother in laws wedding, the just got a sandwich platter and chips, no joke. The wedding was pretty nice, and the hotel room was pretty shmanshy, but everyone had just flown in and really didn't care... they wanted a drink and they wanted to eat. Beer, sandwich, done.

    Though cheese sounds really nice to me.

  8. @Meg thanks for your comment. that is so helpful.

    p.s. I bet the gluten-free people were STOKED.

  9. Wow, this is super helpful. I'm planning a wine and cheese party this weekend for my graduation, and this is all really useful advice.

  10. Don't be embarrassed at how much your family drinks, Celia. I thought one between three was a typo at first, it seemed so paltry. But then, I'm British.

    Excellent advice. Kinda made me want to throw a little party.

  11. Actually if you have a Whole Foods near you they will cater the type of platters listed above for less than it would cost you to put them together individually. Any for a lot less hassle!

  12. Great suggestions! And my mouth may be watering a bit right now...prosciutto!

  13. this is awesome, especially the wine part, being that we're only two weeks away and still picking out alcohol. thanks, celia!

  14. I would suggest serving an easy to make cocktail. A friend of mine sent me this recipe that was a hit at my last cocktail party:

    2oz 360 Vodka
    1/4oz Sour mix
    1/4 oz Simple syrup
    1/4 oz Blueberry juice
    1/4 oz Lemon-lime soda

    In a sugar-rimmed highball glass, add a handful of blueberries and fill with ice. In a separate cocktail shaker, gently muddle five blueberries before adding 360 Vodka, sour mix and blueberry juice. Fill cocktail shaker with ice and shake sharply. Strain into glass and garnish with a blueberry skewer.

    The perfect summer cocktail ;)

  15. Great advice for party-planning! :)


  16. I would also not recommended make individual cocktails. If need be, break out a few pitchers of mojitos, margaritas, or what have you.

    But, really, this isn't the time for fancy-pants personalized drinks. For that, they can go to Starbucks.

  17. If you would like something sweet to complement the outstanding selections mentioned here, you could make up a platter of fruit skewers. Way easy to make the day before. Just cut up a few melons, a pineapple, and get some grapes. Thread the cut up fruit and grapes on skewers (or skewers cut in half) and arrange on a platter. Garnish with berries and pieces of starfruit if you have the budget. These are cheap cheap and really pretty on a tray.

  18. New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs are electric and cheap. You can't find a better white unless you sell out and go for a homely Chardonnay that won't offfend, but also not impress, anyone. I also recommend mixing some champagne with some St. tastes like sophistication in a glass...