As one of Ottawa's most popular caterers, executive chef Tracey Black knows better than anyone how hectic the holiday season can be.
Despite working overtime to handle Epicuria Fine Food Store and Catering's busy December schedule, Tracey also loves to entertain in her beautiful Navan home, with its gorgeous custom kitchen. She offered Ottawa At Home some valuable tips on how to make holiday entertaining a little less stressful.
What's your overall approach to hosting holiday parties? When I am entertaining, I really try to keep it simple. I have a reliable repertoire of party foods and always include some pre-made products, either from our own shop or other suppliers. Simple foods, presented well, will always be appealing to guests. There's absolutely nothing wrong with taking purchased items, replating and garnishing them to make them your own creations. I keep things pretty casual and like to serve foods tapas-style, paired with lovely wines. I often prepare a combination of dips, some charcuterie and some nice cheeses, served with crostini or fancy crackers.
How can people make entertaining a little more relaxing? Think about as many make-ahead items as possible. For example, if you're going to have a welcome drink as guests arrive, have pitchers of that cocktail pre-made so they can be served quickly. If I'm serving a sit-down meal, I'll usually have a plated first course, like a soup or a composed salad with smoked fish or seared scallops. When we renovated our kitchen, I designed a seven-foot-long plating station with this in mind. For mains, I often opt for braised foods like lamb stew, osso bucco or game stew. All of these can easily be made ahead and served with mashed potatoes, polenta, or a potato tian. Dessert could be something like tiramisu, served in fancy glasses. I usually plan a simple menu that will be delicious, but leave me with lots of time to visit with my guests.
How can we add a little more pizzazz to our parties? It's important to pay attention to presentation. Food always looks best on all-white plates and it's particularly nice if doing a buffet to have food at different levels on your table, whether you create height with the food itself or the serving dishes. When planning your plating, don't forget to include garnishes, and always make them edible. I love pomegranate slices, baby pears and little crab apples. They add a beautiful shot of colour to any plate.
What are some easy decorating tips? It's helpful to have some basic pieces in your cupboards that you can pull out for parties. I visit HomeSense regularly to pick up colourful table runners, platters and decorative items. It's easy to make a pretty display that complements your food; try filling a big vase with apples or oranges, for example. It's also fun to print up your menu and put it in a picture frame with a decorative paper border. Keep in mind that it's surprisingly inexpensive to rent fun glassware and dishes, and you get to send them back dirty, which is a real plus! You can also rent great linens to add extra colour to your table and, of course, flowers are always elegant on the table or sideboard.
Any other advice for people who might be daunted by the idea of hosting a big holiday party? When you consider the cost of the food and drink for a party, it's not a big additional expense to hire a few qualified servers, at least for the busiest part of the event. They can look after the bar, pass hors d'oeuvres, replenish the buffet and clear dishes, leaving you free to socialize and enjoy yourself.
Visit www.ottawaathome.ca for Tracey's Braised Lamb Shanks with Mushroom Bolognese recipe.
Holiday menu suggestion ?from Chef Tracey Black:
• Boucanerie Chelsea Smoked Salmon on Bryson farms organic greens with
pickled ox-eye daisy buds, lemon vinaigrette.
• Lamb Shanks with le Coprin Mushrooms Bolognese (recipe at
www.ottawaatahome.ca) and herbed parmesan polenta.
• Artisan Cheese Plate.