Stress-free party planningPublished on December 10, 2007

  • Baked Goat Cheese in Grape Leaves

  • Gorgonzola and Black Mission Fig Cups

  • One-Bite Bacon Walnut Cheesecakes

  • Vietnamese Lettuce Cups

Tis the season friends and family get together for a late-afternoon drop-in, dinner party or even a late night soirée. With so much entertaining, it's nice gathering everyone around the table for a casual buffet party. We've asked three local experts - Sarah Faloon, founder of Absolute Events; Suzanne Charbonneau, owner of Buffet Charbonneau; and Gilles Benoit, director of operations at Bytown Catering - to dish out some tips about planning the perfect self-serve party.

1. Set the scene These days, dress-up dinner parties are all the rage. Whether you go tribal with a Survivor party, channel Happy Days with a 50s sock hop or create a whodunit with murder mystery suspense, a theme night is sure to ramp up the fun. Or you could ask everyone to sport their favourite hockey jerseys and chow down while watching the Sens kick butt. 2. Eye for detail Make your holiday spread look lovely on a large table or at smaller food stations. Add some artistic dimension to your table by placing food platters at different levels. No one needs to know the Sears catalog and an empty shoe box are hiding under the tablecloth. "It's true that you eat with your eyes," says Gilles. "If it looks good, it's bound to taste good."

And no one will mind if your good china stays tucked away inside Grandma's hutch during a casual buffet feast. Instead, use your everyday dinnerware, disposable or recyclable plastic dishes. 3. Playing it safe It's best to use warming plates and chafing dishes to keep foods hot. And cold foods can be set on ice, and left in the fridge until ready to be served.

A wide selection of appetizers, salads, main dishes and desserts will satisfy everyone's palate. Remember to consider the possibility of food allergies, plus provide options that will accommodate vegetarian and vegan guests. 4. Getting toasted Pair your scrumptious meal with a selection of alcoholic beverages and non-alcoholic juice and fruit punches. Suzanne says hiring a licensed bartender can make your job much easier. For a little extra holiday flair why not serve a spicy sangria or add cranberry juice to martinis. 5. Deck the halls Season your home decor with candles, funky napkins, ornaments and interesting centrepieces. Think about your music choices before the party, then set the mood early on by dropping some ambient beats. Ease into the evening with mellow tunes and move onto something more upbeat as the crowd warms up. Or jazz up your gathering by hiring local entertainment, such as a saxophone player, violinist or magician. 6. In good company A fun way to break the ice is trying out the latest party game to create fun conversation, says Sarah. Popular party options for the whole crew include Shout About Movies DVD games, Taboo or Cranium.

And remember your manners. A good guest will be on time, so the food doesn't have to be re-heated. Plus it's not polite to double-dip while you're perusing the buffet. Suzanne says hosts should remember dips are often wasted. "Dips should go out, just like disco," she says with a laugh.

Sarah also suggests guests bring a small token of their appreciation for the host, such as a nice card, flowers, candles, or a bottle of wine. 7. Money, money, money Staying on budget might seem daunting, but keeping a self-serve party simple and elegant will reduce stress levels and costs will stay low. If planning a buffet party seems demanding, consider hiring a party planner or caterer who can help keep your event organized and within budget. "Have fun with it," says Gilles. "You are not Martha Stewart, so it won't look like Martha's table. Just don't waste all your energy getting ready for the party, or you might not enjoy it." 8. Culinary choices A simple menu works best, plus remember that your guests will be balancing a plate while seated on your couch or mingling in a crowd, so avoid serving messy foods or those needing a knife. Popular buffet options include turkey, potatoes, leaf and bean salads, stir fry and a scrumptious array of desserts.

Another way to keep it simple is by offering an abundance of appetizers that are easily passed around. Or ask guests to bring a side salad or their famous shortbreads to a potluck buffet. "Always have enough food to go around," says Sarah. "With buffets, people tend to eat more and go back for seconds."

Here are six recipes for mouth-watering appetizers that are guaranteed to be crowd pleasers. Baked Goat Cheese in Grape Leaves

This warm, tangy creation is great for cold winter nights. It's a help-yourself appetizer to enjoy warm, slathered on sliced focaccia, baguette or crisp bread.

10 drained preserved grape 10 leaves (approx) cup chopped roasted 75 mL sweet red peppers

1 log (10 oz/300 g) soft 1 goat cheese

Pinch pepper Pinch

2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil 10 mL > Rinse grape leaves under cold water; pat dry and cut off any tough stems. Pat red peppers dry. > Line 6-inch (15 cm) pie plate or ovenproof shallow dish with grape leaves, shiny sides down, overlapping to cover side and bottom and letting some hang over edge. Scatter red peppers over bottom. > Roll goat cheese by 2 tbsp (25 mL) into balls; flatten into 1/2-inch (1 cm) thick discs. Overlap in circular pattern on red peppers. Sprinkle with pepper. Enclose cheese with overhanging leaves, placing more leaves on top, if needed. Brush with oil. (Make-ahead: Cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours. Add 5 minutes to baking time.) > Bake in 350F (180C) oven until hot and darkened slightly, about 20 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes. Peel leaves back to serve. Makes about 8 servings. per serving: about 116 cal, 7 g pro, 9 g total fat (6 g sat. fat), 1 g carb, 1 g fibre, 17 mg chol, 299 mg sodium. % RDI: 6% calcium, 6% iron, 14% vit A, 23% vit C, 5% folate. Gorgonzola and Black Mission Fig Cups

Simple to make, but with spectacular flavour, this appetizer is sure to have repeat customers. If Black Mission figs are unavailable, use any other fresh fig. cup Gorgonzola cheese, 175 mL softened (about 6 oz/175 g)

2 tbsp whipping cream 25 mL

2 fresh Black Mission figs 2

1 tbsp port 15 mL

2 tsp maple syrup 10 mL

1 pkg (1.4 oz/40 g) 1-inch 1 (2.5 cm) croustade cups > In small bowl, mash Gorgonzola with cream until smooth; set aside. > Cut figs into 12 wedges each; place in shallow dish. Add port and maple syrup; stir to coat. Let stand for 10 minutes. (Make-ahead: Cover and refrigerate cheese and figs separately for up to 24 hours; let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before continuing.) > Using spoon or piping bag with large star tip, fill each croustade cup with mounded 1 tsp (5 mL) of the cheese mixture; top with fig wedge. Makes 24 pieces. per piece: about 47 cal, 2 g pro, 3 g total fat (2 g sat. fat), 2 g carb, trace fibre, 10 mg chol, 149 mg sodium. % RDI: 5% calcium, 1% iron, 3% vit A, 2% folate. Sherried Orange Tenderloin with Smoked Paprika Mayonnaise

Serve these smoky mini kabobs with toothpicks or small metal skewers.

1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil 15 mL

1 tbsp dry sherry or orange 15 mL juice

1 tsp packed brown sugar 5 mL

1 tsp grated orange rind 5 mL

2 cloves garlic, minced 2 tsp each pepper and 1 mL ground cumin

12 oz beef tenderloin or 375 g pork tenderloin tsp salt 1 mL

smoked paprika mayonnaise: ? cup light mayonnaise 125 mL

1 tsp smoked sweet or 5 mL regular sweet Spanish paprika

Pinch each salt and pepper Pinch > Smoked Paprika Mayonnaise: In small bowl, combine mayonnaise, paprika, salt and pepper. (Make-ahead: Cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days.) > In bowl, whisk together oil, sherry, sugar, orange rind, garlic, pepper and cumin. Cut beef into scant 1-inch (2.5 cm) cubes. Add to bowl and toss to coat; let stand for 15 minutes. (Make-ahead: Cover and refrigerate for up to 4 hours.) > Place cubes on foil-lined rimmed baking sheet. Broil 6 inches (15 cm) from heat until browned but still pink inside, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with salt. Serve with Smoked Paprika Mayonnaise. Makes about 20 pieces. per piece: about 50 cal, 3 g pro, 4 g total fat (1 g sat. fat), 1 g carb, 0 g fibre, 10 mg chol, 80 mg sodium. % RDI: 4% iron, 1% vit A. Baked Brie with Caramelized Pear

A sweet pear on creamy baked cheese will have guests coming back for more. Serve with sliced baguette, crisp breads or flatbreads.

1 round (8 oz/250 g) 1 Brie cheese

1 tbsp sliced hazelnuts or 15 mL slivered almonds, toasted

caramelized pear:

2 tsp butter 10 mL

1 shallot, thinly sliced 1

1 pear, thinly sliced 1

Pinch each salt and pepper Pinch cup pear or apple juice 50 mL

1 tbsp brandy or pear juice 15 mL

2 tsp chopped fresh thyme 10 mL (or ? tsp/2 mL dried)

1 tsp packed brown sugar 5 mL > caramelized pear: In nonstick skillet, melt butter over medium heat; fry shallot, pear, salt and pepper until shallot is softened, about 5 minutes. > Add pear juice, brandy, thyme and sugar; bring to boil. Boil, stirring occasionally, until no liquid remains and pear is softened, about 5 minutes. (Make-ahead: Let cool. Refrigerate in airtight container for up to 24 hours.) > Place Brie on foil-lined pie plate or in small cake pan; top with pear mixture. Bake in 350F (180C) oven until cheese is softened, about 10 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with hazelnuts. Makes 8 to 10 servings. per each of 10 servings: about 111 cal, 5 g pro, 8 g total fat (5 g sat. fat), 4 g carb, 1 g fibre, 27 mg chol, 166 mg sodium. % RDI: 5% calcium, 2% iron, 6% vit A, 5% vit C, 8% folate. One-Bite Bacon Walnut Cheesecakes

These savoury creamy bites have a smoky crisp bacon crunch. cup graham cracker crumbs 175 mL

3 tbsp butter, melted 50 mL


6 slices bacon 6

3 green onions 3

3 pkg (4 oz/125 g each) 3 cream cheese, softened ? cup finely chopped walnuts 125 mL

3 tbsp whipping cream 50 mL > Line 8-inch (2 L) square cake pan with parchment paper or foil, leaving overhang for handles; set aside. > In small bowl, mix cracker crumbs

with butter; press evenly into prepared pan. Bake in 350F (180C) oven for 5 minutes. Let cool. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. > Filling: Meanwhile, in skillet, fry bacon over medium-high heat until crisp, about 5 minutes; drain on paper towel-lined plate. Reserving 2 slices; chop remaining bacon and place in bowl. > Finely chop 2 of the green onions; add to bowl along with cream cheese, walnuts and cream, mashing until combined. Spread evenly over base, smoothing top. Cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate until firm, about 3 hours. (Make-ahead: Refrigerate for up to 2 days.) > Meanwhile, cut reserved bacon into 24 triangles; set aside. Thinly slice remaining green onion on diagonal; place in ice water, cover and refrigerate until curled, about 1 hour. Drain and pat dry. > Holding parchment paper, remove cheesecake from pan. Using sharp knife and wiping clean after each slice, cut into 24 squares. Top each with bacon triangle and green onion curl. Makes 24 pieces. per piece: about 113 cal, 2 g pro, 10 g total fat (5 g sat. fat), 4 g carb, trace fibre, 25 mg chol, 108 mg sodium. % RDI: 2% calcium, 3% iron, 8% vit A, 4% folate. Vietnamese Lettuce Cups

This make-ahead sautéed pork appetizer is colourful, and the lettuce cups make it fun to eat.

Half small mango Half

4 heads Sweet Gem lettuce 4 or 1 head Bibb lettuce ? cup finely diced sweet red 125 mL pepper


1 tbsp vegetable oil 15 mL

12 oz lean ground pork 375 g ? cup minced red onion 125 mL

2 cloves garlic, minced 2

1 tbsp minced gingerroot 15 mL ? tsp ground cinnamon 2 mL tsp hot pepper flakes 1 mL

Pinch ground cloves Pinch

1 tbsp fish sauce 15 mL

1 tbsp lime juice 15 mL

2 tsp soy sauce 10 mL

1 tsp cornstarch 5 mL

2 tbsp minced fresh coriander 25 mL > Filling: In skillet, heat oil over medium heat; fry pork, stirring occasionally, until no longer pink, about 5 minutes. > Add onion, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, hot pepper flakes and cloves; fry until onion is softened, about 3 minutes. > Stir in fish sauce; cover and simmer over medium-low heat for 3 minutes. In small bowl, stir together lime juice, soy sauce and cornstarch until smooth; stir into pork mixture and cook until slightly thickened, about 2 minutes. Let cool. Stir in coriander. > Peel and cut mango into 1/4-inch (5 mm) thick slices; cut into 1/4-inch (5 mm) thick sticks. Separate lettuce to make twenty-four 3-inch (8 cm) cups, trimming any large leaves if necessary. > Mound 1 tbsp (15 mL) of the filling in each cup. Garnish with mango and red pepper. Makes 24 pieces. per piece: about 43 cal, 3 g pro, 3 g total fat (1 g sat. fat), 2 g carb, trace fibre, 8 mg chol, 94 mg sodium. % RDI: 1% calcium, 1% iron, 4% vit A, 13% - Written by Gemma Villanueva - Photography by Yvonne Duivenvoorden

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