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Potluck Made Modern: A Holiday Survival Guide

My passion for entertaining is larger, much larger, than my actual kitchen and dining space. Some women may crave walk-in closets or a glamorous bathroom with Jacuzzi tub, but I salivate over six burners and room for twelve. As a restaurant veteran, I spent most holidays on the clock; when I “retired” (at age 30, LOL), I envisioned glamorous dinner parties at home replete with printed menus, elaborate courses paired with incredible wines, and did I say wine?

Then a little something called parenthood happened to me – and later, a brilliant moment of epiphany. I realized that people could bring a food course and a meaningful beverage with them as long as I provided the space, the fab tableware and the Diana Krall Christmas album on iTunes. Call it modern potluck, or call it the Anti-Martha Movement. I call it smart.

Potlucks needn’t be green Jell-O salad and bad casseroles – you can host a fantastic holiday party without stretching your tiny kitchen to the limit. Make it fun: indulge in a really great bottle of Champagne and offer it as a prize for the winning pairing. Then you, fabulous hostess with more style than Sara Lee, can focus on the décor and a single outstanding food and wine moment, and let your guests do the rest of the heavy lifting by assigning courses.

What follows is a seasoned pro’s guide to cheating your way through the holiday dinner party, complete with a few planning tips to make it that much easier on you and your fellow revelers:

Cheese and Charcuterie Course with Seasonal Cocktail

This is an easy choice for the non-cook or the aspirational mixologist. Have them select three fancy cheeses and accouterments – I like toasted nut bread, dried fruits and lavosh crackers. My hubby, a non-cook, arranges a mean cheese and charcuterie board – I love cured meats interspersed with small bowls of nuts, olives and sliced fruits to start a meal. Encourage your cheese provider to get contrasting styles – cow, goat, sheep and from a variety of countries.

Then have them concoct a simple cocktail to start the show. Our signature “Winter Cranberry-Cointreau Bubbly” features a shot of orange liqueur and fresh cranberries colorfully skewered with Clementine wedges for a garnish.

Winter Salad with High-Acid White Wine

Skip the oaky Chardonnays and look for a high-acid Grüner Veltliner or better Sauvignon Blanc for this course. Both of these wines have “green” undertones in their aromatics that are salad friendly. It’s easy enough for someone to bring a salad; just have them keep the components separate until you’re ready to toss it all together. My sister-in-law makes a great salad with arugula, crisp Asian pear, fresh pomegranate seeds and halved walnuts tossed in homemade Champagne vinaigrette.

Soup with Pivotal Red Wine

Soup has got to be the easiest thing to make ahead of time. Or if you’re a cheater, there are plenty of gourmet soup starters or ready-to-go items that require only warming and serving in a prettily garnished bowl. Your guest should pick one that can pair with what I call a “pivotal” red wine – grape varieties that are light bodied enough to segue between white wines and heartier reds in a meal, i.e., Pinot Noir, Gamay or Grenache. I recently made a decent chanterelle bisque with ‘shrooms my foodie neighbor foraged right here in Topanga. It paired beautifully with a bottle of Domaine Drouhin’s superb 2008 Pinot Noir. I have also found a great recipe for lentil with spicy Andouille sausage that works well with Grenache.

Protein and Powerful Red

You may want to take this one on yourself. I have three relatively easy protein entrée options that I serve with a side. Option number one is herbed pork loin with Syrah. Option number two is lamb chops with classic Rioja. Option number three is an old-school pot roast, a great excuse to open up big guns Cabernet or a Barolo in the cellar that I am dying to drink.

Each protein item can be cooked ahead of time – just slice and plate when you’re ready. I try to make the side dishes vegan, or at least vegetarian (those Brussels sprouts just taste better with butter). One veggie (sprouts, sautéed rainbow chard, haricots verts with almonds, colorful roasted beets or carrots) and one starch (pan-crisped polenta, Red Bliss potatoes with rosemary, risotto if I have time, black rice if I don’t) and one protein make a perfect plate. Think about color contrast and arrangement on the plate, or go family style and group items in unique bowls and platters on a buffet table.

And decant your big reds, whether they’re throwing sediment or not – it helps to bring the fancy.

Dessert with Fortified Wine

Just in case your guests need an extra reason for Advil, serving a fortified wine in small sipping glasses is perfect with dessert. While the classic and most crowd-pleasing in my repertoire is a simple flourless chocolate torte with ruby Port, I also love dry Sherry and aged Madeira, the latter of which is one of the sturdiest and most age-worthy wines in the world. I recently did a country-style caramel bread pudding with brioche that was de-lish with bottle of tangy Manzanilla Sherry I had been saving. Desserts are also easy to make ahead (or BUY) so encourage someone to bring it for you!

Grown-up Coffee with Chocolate

A not-so-secret secret from those that know me: I actually don’t like dessert. I especially loathe creamy things like ice cream and flan, eeeeeeek. What I love is unadorned, preferably hyper-dark chocolate with a bit of coffee or leftover red wine. Assign someone to bring some high-quality truffles or chocolate bars to share for your final course; it’s like the little petits-fours plate at a restaurant, the final grace note that comes with your check and that last bit of warm coffee or sip of vino. And get real coffee, for goodness’ sake. The holidays are not the time to serve your everyday Trader Joe’s brew (guilty as charged), so invest in some better beans for your next holiday potluck.

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