Culinary Masters

‘Tis The Season: Planning The Perfect Holiday Party

Luxury Living Tampa Bay

The tree is decorated, the cards sent and now it’s time to plan your annual holiday party. Here are some secrets from the experts to help you host a party that surpasses everyone’s expectations and keeps them talking long after it’s over.

While some of us may fret over the many details that go into throwing a lavish holiday affair, Lisa Parsons, catering manager for Roux Tampa, feels just the opposite. “I love planning parties,” she says.

Pulling together a special menu and creating a signature cocktail, whether for restaurant guests or friends and family is also second nature for Ben Pumo, chef/owner of Benedetto’s and Dan Coover, owner at Middle Grounds Grill.

Holiday Invite

For a special holiday touch, Parsons recommends surprising guests by mailing them a formal party invitation. In these days of social media, when a Facebook event invite is common and texting often replaces conversation, a printed invite can be quite a novelty. “People don’t get invitations anymore and they can be so much fun to send and receive,” says Parsons.

Standard holiday party invites are available everywhere, but Parsons suggests doing something a little different, like using the design motif of the Fleur-de-lis, the classic stylized lily. “Repeat the design on little cocktail napkins,” says Parsons. “It’s the little details that pull everything together and make such a difference.”


Holiday Theme

Scented candles, fresh flowers and holiday decor might be enough to make the house look festive. But how about going one step further and building the menu, cocktails and decorations around a special theme.

For a Spanish theme, Parsons suggest pairing red and white Sangria with tapas, the Spanish-inspired small plates. New Orleans calls for Cajun or Creole food and Zydeco dance music. Champagne cocktails, specialty cheeses and even a cheese fondue are a must for a French Bistro theme, perhaps with music from Edith Piaf, the French chanteuse from the ‘20s, playing in the background.

Background music is a must for parties, says Pumo. He also recommends creating a themed drink. A Benedetto’s classic holiday favorite? A Candy Cane made with grenadine, white crème de menthe and peppermint schnapps. Layer the liqueurs in a decorative glass for a fun look.

Holiday Open House or Sit-Down Dinner?

The holidays are a perfect time for an intimate formal dinner party with friends. For a nice added touch, Parsons suggests making nametags and placing them at each guest’s place setting.

If you want to invite a big crowd, an open house is the best solution. Guests can drop-in when they can and the host has more time to strike up a conversation and mingle with everyone. Keep the menu simple with food that doesn’t need to be kept too chilled or too warm. Finger food is a must, says Pumo. He also reminds hosts to be considerate of guests who might be vegetarians or vegans. Be sure to provide a menu that permits them to graze, too.

As an alternative to the traditional open house, how about hosting a dessert party with easy, small bites for people to sample? says Parsons. Or, stage a tree trimming party and ask your guests to help you decorate the tree.

For the final finishing touch, she suggests giving each guest a small holiday party favor. “Place them in a basket by the front door for guests to take home when they leave,” says Parsons. It will be the perfect end to a memorable evening.

Perfect Holiday Party Appetizers

Mozzarella Caprese with Roasted Eggplant Pesto, Benedetto’s

Ingredients for Pesto
3 cups packed fresh basil leaves
4 cloves of garlic
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup pine nuts or toasted almonds
¾ cup of grated Romano
Combine all ingredients except olive oil into food processor. Turn on high. Slowly pour the olive oil in until all chunks of garlic have been chopped fine. Set aside.

Ingredients for Roasted Eggplant
1 eggplant, ¼ inch diced and salted
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 pinches salt and 1 pinch pepper
In a bowl, toss the diced eggplant with salt and pepper. Let sit for 10 minutes (this will take the bitterness out of the eggplant). Add olive oil and toss again. Place mixture on a baking sheet and cook for 30 minutes at 375 degrees. Remove from oven and cool.

Ingredients for Balsamic glaze
2 cups balsamic vinegar
½ cup brown sugar
Mix vinegar with brown sugar in a sauce pan over medium heat stirring constantly until sugar has dissolved. Bring to a boil then reduce glaze back to simmer until glaze is reduced by half. Glaze should be the consistency of syrup.

Wash 4-6 chilled beef steak tomatoes and core each one. Cut off ends and slice ½ inch thick. Place on serving tray. Take 2 lbs. of fresh mozzarella rounds and slice each one ¼ inch thick. Place one round on each sliced tomato. Mix eggplant with pesto and spoon a generous amount on top of mozzarella rounds. Drizzle with Balsamic glaze. Add a fresh sprig of basil and shaved parmesan.

Artichoke Smoked Gouda Fondue, Middle Grounds Grill

1lb. of artichokes
½ lb. shredded Parmesan
½ lb. shredded Gouda
½ cup mayonnaise
1⁄8 bunch chopped parsley
Pinch of black ground pepper and mix all ingrediants together. Portion into 2 large baking dishes. Bake at 400 degrees for approximately five minutes until brown on top and bubbling. Serve with warm grilled flatbread.

Hot Crab Dip, Roux

1⁄2 lb. jumbo lump crabmeat, free of shells
1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese
½ cup mayonnaise
¼ cup grated Parmesan
3-4 green onions (finely chop white and save green parts
for garnish)
2 large garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1½ teaspoons Tabasco
½ teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
Salt and pepper to taste
½ cup panko breadcrumbs
Combine all of the ingredients in a bowl. Gently stir until thoroughly mixed. Transfer to casserole dish or cast iron skillet and top with breadcrumbs. Bake at 325 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes until lightly golden on top. Take out of oven and garnish with the finely chopped green onion tops. Serve with crostini and/or crackers along with a bottle of Tabasco hot sauce for those that like extra heat.

Happy Holiday!

By: Janan Talafer


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