Whoever said it's the most wonderful time of the year never planned a holiday party. Aunt Teri doesn't eat meat, Aunt Jamie is allergic to the color green, and Uncle Chris hates -- hates -- anything that isn't steamed. How does one please such discriminating tastes?
The answer is simple: you don't. But it is possible to achieve some semblance of balance without invoking a family debacle that resembles the Red Wedding scene from Game of Thrones. I spoke to Well Dressed Food owner David Tomberlin to get some tips on how to plan a party that pleases everyone and no one at the same time. And David should know -- he's been in the food business since 2007.
"I think we've been in every storefront on this block," David said with a laugh. "This October marked the second anniversary here. We added the deli, the espresso bar, and all of the food portion, mostly doing lunches. Recently we've expanded to doing dinners, and this last week we started doing deliveries."
Well Dressed Food also has a small market, beer, cafe, and the know-how to cater anything from small parties to large events and weddings. David said that's taken off over the past year, so much that they already have events booked through next summer.
"We've learned a lot as we've grown, and that stuff can be applied to any kind of event someone might be hosting," David said.
Keep it simple
David's first bit of advice is perhaps his best for striking a balance between guest satisfaction and a stress-free kitchen. Simpler is better on many levels because it not only means the food will be more accepted by guests, it also means it will be easier to prepare.
"Make one thing kind of the center, and do it really good," David said. "Don't try to do everything or you're going to drive yourself insane. People remember if it's the best turkey or roast beef they've ever had; they're not going to remember the rolls so much. There's nothing more deflating than spending two days making the perfect roll that nobody touched."
David also recommends keeping the appetizer count low. Guests might appreciate a six-appetizer spread a little too much and end up full before the bird's out of the oven. Do a couple of really good appetizers and leave them hungry for more. To make things even easier, David shared a recommendation -- scroll down and you'll find his recipe for Black Forest ham, cheddar, and chutney pinwheels.
Know who you're feeding
Simply put, think about who's coming over and plan accordingly. You'll probably need heartier portions to feed a barbarian horde than a ballet company.
There are formulas to figure out exact amounts, but David finds them cumbersome. If he's serving a popular dish, he makes a rough estimate of how much he thinks each person will eat and doubles it.
"I'd rather have food left over than have people going hungry," David said. "But if it's a special salad grandma makes that only one person likes, don't do a lot of it."
They're classic for a reason, right? David recommends going with dishes that are generally adored by all. Who doesn't love macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, or baked ham?
In keeping with simplicity, most classic recipes are easy to make in large quantities since they don't require any attention once they're in the oven or on the stovetop. While that mac and cheese is baking, you can start putting things like salads together.
"We'll do something like mac and cheese for kids if we're catering a wedding, and it's funny because we usually get adults asking if they can have some, too," David said. "People love these good, simple meals, even when they have fancier options."
Do a different take on an old favorite
Kind of like the new Ghostbusters movie, only better.
If your family has a favorite classic dish, do something a little different with it.
"I do a teriyaki meatloaf that people love," David said. "There are lots of ways to do a different take on standard dishes."
The key here is not to shy away from flavor. Search cookbooks or the internet for ways to add a spicy variation to any meal. Oftentimes, this can be done using things that are probably already in your spice rack. A mustard-bourbon-glazed ham tastes as good as it sounds, and a Jambalaya casserole is as delicious as it is easy to prepare.
Don't be afraid to ask for help
Help. It's where places like Well Dressed Food come into play. It's also where friends and family can get involved. Have a few trusted allies show up early to help set things up, ask them to bring a dish, or both. Don't be afraid to leave the cooking up to others.
David said there's no shame in grabbing a few pre-made items to round out dinner options, and it'll save time and lower your bubbling stress levels.
"A lot of stuff can be done ahead and frozen," David said. "Hors d'oeuvres are particularly good for this. Crab cakes and a lot of finger-type foods can all be made ahead, frozen, then cooked off the day of."
David cautioned that it's important to plan accordingly, and some foods, like beef tenderloin, can't receive the frozen treatment.
"I'd mix and match as much as you can stuff that can be done at room temp," David said. "Beef tenderloin can be served at room temp, so cook it up to medium rare and it can sit at room temperature and be served that way, as opposed to mac and cheese, which you'll want hot and warm."
On that note, it's also important to know how much room you have for cooking, heating, and re-heating food. Most household kitchens aren't equipped to handle preparing massive amounts of food at the same time, so make a couple of cold things, like fruit salad, that can be stored in the refrigerator while a casserole is baking in the oven.
"Make a list," David said. "Here's the five things I'm doing, here's the three that cook the longest. Organize it by how long it has to cook and how long it has to rest after. That's something a business like ours will take care of for you."
Black Forest Ham, Cheddar, and Chutney Pinwheels
Makes 30 pinwheels
* 1 package frozen puff pastry (2 sheets) - we use Pepperidge Farm's
* 1 egg, lightly whisked with 1 Tbsp. water
* 6 cups Major Grey's Chutney - we use Stonewall Kitchen's
* 6 oz. very thinly sliced Black Forest Ham - we use Boar's Head
* 1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese - we use Boar's Head Vermont Sharp
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
- Defrost pastry according to box directions. On a lightly floured board, roll one sheet of the pastry into an even square (approximately 12 inches).
- Spread six of the chutney on the pastry, spreading evenly but leave a 6-inch border of pastry at the top and bottom. Place six of sliced ham evenly on the chutney layer, and cover that with six of the cheddar.
- Brush one exposed end of the pastry with the egg wash and roll tightly starting with the other end, pressing to seal the border to the roll. Repeat the process with the second pastry sheet.
- Wrap each roll in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
- Remove and unwrap rolls. Brush each roll evenly with egg wash. With a sharp knife, slice each roll into 6-inch slices, placing each slice on a parchment lined baking sheet.*
- Bake for 15 minutes until golden brown.
* Make ahead note: You can freeze the pinwheels on the trays at this point. When frozen place in a ziplock bag (tightly sealed) and freeze for up to three months. To finish, place frozen pinwheels on a parchment lined sheet tray and bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes.
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