Without question, the holidays are the craziest time of year. But it's also when we most look forward to entertaining.
Gathering a big group of friends for a casual open house is one of the season's enduring pleasures.
Unlike a formal sit-down dinner party, an open house lets people come and go as their busy schedules allow.
The food is of the do-ahead variety, scaled to serve 25 but easily doubled or even tripled if you're having a big crowd. (For a truly large party, you might want to consider renting dishes and barware)
If your group is smaller, these recipes serve 10 for a sit-down dinner.
We supplemented our menu with excellent store-bought goodies, from smoked salmon and salami to cheeses and chocolates.
Incidentally, our recommendations for store-bought and mail-order edibles also make very good hostess and holiday presents.
Smoked Salmon Canapés
Buttery and flaky, these hors d'oeuvres are like little tarts, only simpler to make. Follow our topping suggestions, or try your own: sautéed mushrooms and stilton cheese, caramelized onions and anchovies, gruyère and chopped toasted walnuts … let your imagination be your guide. Variation: Tapenade Goat-Cheese Canapés
Radicchio Salad with Citrus, Dates, Almonds, and Parmesan Cheese
Sweet citrus and dates, in season throughout the West all winter long, pair beautifully with bitter radicchio. Tangelos and blood oranges would also work well in this recipe.
Spiced Beef Tenderloin
Redolent of warm winter spices, this silky beef requires a bit of advance planning because you're essentially curing the meat ― but it's very easy to do. (If you cut the marinating time to 1 day, the results will be good but not quite as silky or flavorful.) You can roast the beef up to 2 days ahead and serve it warm or at room temperature, with crusty rolls for making little sandwiches if you like. It's also very good with a spicy-sweet chutney, such as Sukhi's Indian-style tomato chutney or WillaBay cranberry chutney.
Sweet-Potato Soup with Prosciutto Crisps
Served in demitasse cups, this sophisticated little soup makes an easy-to-handle big-party hors d'oeuvre. For a purely vegetarian soup, garnish with chopped chives.
PARTY GAME PLAN
With a menu this easy, most of the planning ahead involves buying food (and renting party supplies if you're really having a crowd.
At least 2 months ahead
• Call party rental store if using
2 weeks ahead
• Purchase all mail-order foods except cheeses
1 week ahead
• Order cheeses
5 days ahead
• Prepare tenderloin
2 days ahead
• Make dough for canapés
• Make sweet-potato soup through step 2
1 day ahead
• Make salad dressing
• Roast tenderloin
• Roll out canapé dough and bake
• Set up bar area and buffet tables with glasses, plates, and flatware
Morning of the party
• Slice tenderloin and arrange on platters with chutney and rolls
• Prepare ingredients for salad
• Arrange cheeses, meats, and chocolates on platters
1 hour before guests arrive
• Reheat soup with cream
• Toss salad and arrange on platter or in a bowl
• Top canapés, slice, and arrange on platters
PARTY FOODS― OR GIFTS ― BY MAIL
The West teems with wonderful artisanal foods, often made in small batches by hand. Here are our picks for a holiday open-house party ― all are available by mail-order, and some can also be found in local stores. The cheeses, cured meats, and chocolates may be served on platters; we've used several of the other foods in the above recipes. All of them make great hostess and holiday presents.
We wanted the crunchiest, freshest almonds possible for the Radicchio Salad, with a bit of salty tang. The tamari almonds ($6.50 for an 8-oz. bag; 530/899-7909) from Maisie Jane's California Sunshine Products in Chico, CA, are just right.
Although known for its own made-on-premises cheeses, Beecher's Handmade Cheese, in Seattle, also sells a wide variety of other makers' cheeses. This year it's offering a Northwest Cheese Collection ($60; 206/956-1964) especially for Sunset readers: a hunk of mild blue Oregonzola, from southern Oregon; a wedge of the shop's prize-winning, cheddarlike Beecher's Flagship; sea salt-dusted, creamy yellow, soft-ripened Seastack, from the Washington coast; and firm, earthy Tumalo Tomme, aged on pine planks in the Oregon Cascades ― all expertly chosen at the peak of ripeness. The assortment also comes with thin-sliced fruit-nut crostini from Anjou Bakery in Cashmere, WA.
One of our all-time-favorite cheesemakers and cheese purveyors, Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station, CA, brings together five outstanding Northern California cheeses in its Tomales Bay Collection gift box ($65; 866/433-7834). In it are Cowgirl's own Mt. Tam, the company's smooth, pure-tasting best seller; salty, creamy Point Reyes Original Blue; St. George, a cheddary cheese native to the Azores and made in Santa Rosa, CA, by the Jose Matos Cheese Factory; Bucheret, a clean, sweet, melting-textured goat cheese from Redwood Hill Farm; and the stunning Jersey-milk Carmody by Bellwether Farms, which is bright yellow and has the heavenly aroma of butter and corn.
The new California Artisan Cheese Guild, an organization dedicated to supporting and encouraging the California cheesemaking community, has assembled a selection of handmade cheeses exclusively for Sunset. Its California Artisanal Cheese Course ($52, including overnight shipping; pointreyescheese.com or 800/591-6878) includes a wedge of Point Reyes Original Blue; a lusciously caramely Winchester Farms Gouda, made with a generations-old family recipe from the Netherlands; and a round of Cypress Grove Purple Haze, a fresh goat cheese coated with lavender and fennel pollen. The guild also throws in a jar of excellent Marshall's Farm honey, which is very good drizzled over the Point Reyes blue.
Chocolates and candies
We love the ChocolateBox Cafe of La Cañada Flintridge, CA, for its beautiful, velvety-centered chocolate ganaches and its sleek fruit- and nut-topped wafers, not to mention boxes that look like jewelry cases ― designed, in fact, by the company that creates boxes for Bulgari. From $10; 818/790-7918.
The most sumptuous chocolate gift box we've seen in years comes from master chocolatier Michael Recchiuti of Recchiuti Confections of San Francisco. Called the Obsession Box ($195; 800/500-3396), it's layered with delights such as Key lime apples ― wafer-thin cross sections of Granny Smith apples dipped in Key lime juice and bittersweet chocolate; fleur de sel chocolate caramels; elegant, intense fruit gels (pâtés de fruits); and burnt-caramel almonds; plus truffles galore.
We also thoroughly enjoyed the chewy wine-flavored jellies ($11; artisansweets.com or 925/932-8300) from Cranberry Sweets of Coos Bay, OR, and Panforte Company in Chico, CA's apricot almond panforte ($15 small, $31 large; 530/514-7631), a dense, tangy version of a centuries-old Italian treat.Enstrom's Almond Toffee , Sunset
From Moscow, ID, come the delightful confections of Cowgirl Chocolates, packaged in corrugated boxes with cut-out stars, decorated with tiny silver boots. Our favorites: sweet-then-incendiary Buckin' Hot Habanero Caramels and the shatteringly crisp Slow Roasted Peanut Butter Brittle. From $8.95; 888/882-4098.
The delicate flavors of Woodhouse Chocolate's creations never lose their appeal. We particularly like the real mint taste of the St. Helena, CA, company's Fresh Mint ganaches, so unlike the vamped-up toothpastelike mintiness of most chocolate mints, and the warmly spiced milk-chocolate Quatre Epices ganaches. From $12; 800/966-3468.
To pair with our Spiced Beef Tenderloin, we liked chunky, sweet-sour, Indian-style Sukhi's Tomato Chutney ($4.85; 888/478-5447) from Sukhi's in Hayward, CA, and compotelike WillaBay Crannie Chutney ($6; 360/665-6585) from Oysterville Sea Farms in Oysterville, WA.
At Fra' Mani Handcrafted Salumi in Berkeley, Paul Bertolli draws on centuries-old Italian techniques and top-quality pork to make nearly a dozen cured meats. For parties, we like to set out deep red, U-shaped salametto piccante, flavored with Spanish smoked paprika, and gently garlicky salametto, both of which are the centerpieces of spectacular small and large gift boxes (from $95; 510/526-7000) that contain delicacies like Spanish Marcona almonds and roasted piquillo peppers. Most meats ― like the giant, fragrant mortadella and the spicy fresh Calabrian sausages ― can also be ordered individually.
Moist, firm, fat-flaked hot-smoked pepper salmon ($23 for 1 lb.; 800/545-2935) from Roundman's Smoke House in Fort Bragg, CA, is our topping of choice for Smoked Salmon Canapés.
Made in Napa Valley makes several exceptional chutneys; its Mediterranean Tapenade ($8 for 9 oz.; 888/627-2859), with whole capers, crushed kalamata olives, and a splash of Merlot, works very well with goat cheese on our buttery Tapenade Goat-Cheese Canapés.