Entertaining With Ease

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For many of us, the holidays are a time of indulgence; we roll out the best of our best, pour our heart and soul into the gifts we make, the energy we give to others, and the dishes we prepare – even in how we deck our halls and tables with good tidings and cheer.


Biting Off More Than You Can Chew

However, for some, rolling out all the stops can backfire. I know many a friend and family member who has been bed-bound on Christmas from simply doing too much. Christine Hanna, President of Hanna Winery & Vineyards, and the author of "The Winemaker Cooks," agrees. A seasoned hostess, and cooking teacher, herself, Christine embraces the "casual elegance" style of entertaining. From casual Sunday night dinners, to elegant baby showers, and festive holiday fetes, Christine has done a fair share of entertaining, naturally making mistakes – and learning from them – over the years. Her first word of caution? "Don't bite off more than you can chew," she cautions, "be realistic about what you can and want to do."


Mind Your Menu

When planning the menu for your gathering, keep in mind how much time – and energy – you have to expend. We would all love to wow our guests with our crafty ingenuity, impeccably decorated homes, and homemade meals, making a homemade foie gras terrine or a spiced cake, complete with handmade marzipan pears, from scratch, but it can be exhausting – plus, there is much more to the holidays than all the glitz and glam.

"Complete exhaustion by the time your guests arrive because you've made miniature marzipan pears to decorate your dessert, serves no one," Christine says. "People aren't coming to your home because they expect a four-star experience," especially around the holidays. "They're there to experience your friendship and warm hospitality, so don't feel like you need to do culinary acrobatics to impress them."

Christine also offers caution against the latest and trendiest culinary concoctions, instead opting for what's tried and true. There is something to say about the aroma of slowly braising short ribs that is inviting and warming. "People respond to comfort food," Christine says.

She also encourages hosts to opt for a couple of dishes that can be made in advance, allowing you to enjoy your party, too. There is an effortless flair to the hostess who can "calmly pour a glass of wine and chat with [her] guests." Organizing your tasks and timing by making a plan is one of the surefire ways of eliminating some of the angst and worry associated with entertaining. Work the timing "so you can welcome your guest and enjoy a little cocktail time, then retire to the kitchen to begin to plate. That way, you don't feel like you're missing the party," Christine advises. And include the little things on that list. Often, when we're so focused on getting the meal on the table, we'll forget the details. Maybe we'll have water glasses on the table, but no water in the pitcher. Or we'll completely forget the bread to serve with the meal. Plus, writing down everything that needs to be done ensures that nothing falls through the cracks – like your roasted Brussels sprouts? They'll actually make it in the oven, too.


The Helpful Guest

It can also be stressful, for some hosts, when your guests offer to help. Whether you don't want to cede control of the kitchen, or dislike your guests' taste in food, the situation doesn't have to be troubling. "If a guest wants to contribute," Christine says, "and you're ok with that, have them either bring wine or dessert. It's too hard to have a guest come in and have to prep and plate a dish in an unfamiliar kitchen." Also have a couple non-culinary tasks on hand for when guests offer to help. Christine suggests something simple, like lighting candles or filling water glasses. "Have matches and a full water pitcher readily available so you don't have to hunt for them, and your guests don't even have to ask."


The Perfect Pairing

Another element of stress in entertaining can be choosing the right wines to pair with your meal. As a vintner, Christine is asked a myriad of wine-related questions on a daily basis; she simplified some basic principles to follow for us:

"In general, [when pairing wines with food,] you're looking for either a contrast or a match. Salads are notoriously difficult [to pair] with wine, so temper the acidity in your dressing so it doesn't make the wine taste sour. Cheese and/or nuts in a salad [help to] create a rounder mouth feel and provide a bridge to the wine."

Additionally, don't be afraid to get creative with the wine pairing, Christine tells me, "I serve red wine with chicken and roasted or grilled fish." Looking for a versatile beverage that pairs well with a variety of dishes? "Champagne and sparkling wine go with just about everything, except heavy meat dishes," she explains. The greatest concern of hers, when it comes to pairing wines with food, is the sweetness of the food. "If I'm serving pork with roasted apples or figs, I make sure to add some acid to the dish, with vinegar or wine, to balance the sweetness, otherwise the wine can taste sour paired with such a sweet sauce." The same is true for dessert wines. Often the pairings work, as dessert wines are so sweet. Yet, Christine cautions, "If you have a really sweet dessert, it will make even the dessert wine taste tart."


To infuse your next holiday gathering with some wine-country casual elegance, try Christine's Grill-Roasted Herbed Turkey with Chardonnay Gravy. Her Cumin-Crusted Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Salsa Verde is one of her cooking class favorites, and perfect for both dinner for two or ten. And, while you have the grill fired-up, why not try her Grilled Radicchio Salad with Gorgonzola and Balsamic Vinaigrette, a wonderful melding of flavors that will surprise you.

This story was originally published November 26, 2010.