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entertaining: Avocados 101

Avocados 101

By Carol McGarvey

A little extra attention goes a long way. Learn the art of the avocado and enjoy this tasty treat year-round.

Pick the right one. A few moments in the store will ensure that your avocados are ready to eat whenever you are.

  • Firmness. When testing for ripeness, gently squeeze the avocado in the palm of your hand. If the avocado yields to a little pressure, then it’s fiesta time!
  • Color. Some rely on the darkening color of the fruit a cue for ripeness. But don’t be fooled, if the avocado is dark and still firm then it’s not ripe or ready to eat.

Keep it fresh. Saving some for later? Here are three quick ways to make it last.

  • Olive oil. Lightly brushing olive oil onto the flesh of the fruit can help prevent oxidation–keeping your avocado halves delicious.
  • Lemon juice. Squeezing a little lemon juice onto the flesh of the avocado will keep it fresh longer.
  • Tight seal. Tightly cover the avocado half with clear, plastic wrap. Press the wrap directly onto the flesh to limit the amount of surface area exposed to the air.

Enjoy it!

Don't show up to that Cinco de Mayo party empty handed!

Chunky Guacamole

Chunky Guacamole

Ingredients:
23 cup finely chopped seeded roma tomatoes
½ cup sliced green onions
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1–2 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon salt
18 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 very ripe avocados, halved, seeded, peeled, and coarsely mashed

Directions:
In a medium bowl combine tomatoes, green onions, lime juice, oil, garlic, salt, and pepper. Gently stir in avocados. Serve immediately or cover the surface with plastic wrap and chill for up to 1 hour. Makes 16 servings.

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entertaining: Ice Cream Serving Tips

Ice Cream Serving Tips

These genius tricks will get the ice cream in the bowl quicker and you back to your guests in no time!

Do It in Advance. Before a party, pre-scoop servings and plop them into muffin tins with cupcake liners. Freeze, and when it's time for dessert, just pull out each mound. It sure beats scooping in front of a crowd or fighting the pint in the kitchen!

Use a Knife. A quick way to serve an entire carton: Use a serrated knife to cut the ice cream container—cardboard and all—into easy-to-serve slices.

Nuke It. Put an entire container of rock-hard ice cream in the microwave and zap it in 10-second increments. Check after each burst until the ice cream is soft and scoopable.

Got Leftovers? Prevent the dreaded freezer burn by placing a layer of plastic wrap directly on top of your ice cream before replacing the lid. That prevents air from causing unappetizing crystals on the surface.

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entertaining: Celebrate Dad with a Father’s Day Party

Celebrate Dad with a Father’s Day Party

By Carol McGarvey

This time of year, it seems that women get a lot of party attention with Mother’s Day, wedding and baby showers, and, of course, weddings. So it’s time to turn the focus on Dad, Pop, or Papa—he answers to many names.

How about a backyard bash for the man of the hour? Think about what he likes. Is he a sports enthusiast? Does he love a good board game? Does he like to grill? Put those ideas together for a fun time for the family. If you have brothers or sons-in-law who are fathers, too, it’s fun to do a joint party. Their interests might offer other party possibilities.

The time of day you gather might determine your food choices. Is brunch a good time? If so, pick Dad’s favorite breakfasty-brunchy foods and have fun with those. If later in the day works better, a grill party with burgers, brats, and/or steaks might be in order. Set up a condiment bar with lots of options. How about homemade ice cream or his favorite cake for dessert?

For a beverage bar, put out some local craft beers or wines, along with lemonade, root beer, and bottled water for kids.

Inside or outside, you can decorate with memorabilia from the honoree’s interests. Or, if you’re celebrating multiple fathers, set up a photo display to mark the occasion.

If the family is sports-focused, set up a bocce tournament or croquet championship. If lots of young people are involved, a tug-of-war, corn-hole games, or potato sack races will bring some good laughs and good memories. If rain gets in the way, move the party indoors and bring out the board games for a championship tournament.

If Dad is a golfer, there are lots of fun decorating ideas to explore for your celebration. Decorate cupcakes with green icing and buy little flags from a party store. Make sand traps from Rice Krispie Treat ovals. Golf ball-shape cake pops make a good handheld dessert. Of course, you’ll want to mix things up by serving Arnold Palmers, drinks that are part lemonade and part iced tea.

You’ll all have a great time honoring an important man in your life on his special day.

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entertaining: It's Graduation Season, Time to Plan a Party!

It's Graduation Season, Time to Plan a Party!

By Carol McGarvey

High school and college graduations are a rite of passage this time of year. And, just like children’s birthday parties and weddings, they have become much more elaborate over time. Today’s graduation party is no longer just cake and punch for the family. They now can be an elaborate event.

After you compile the guest list, decide on the type of food your graduate wants. Typical food offerings include deli sandwiches, salad varieties, and a decorated cake, cupcakes, or the grad’s favorite dessert, from cookies to cheesecake varieties.

Some families add a chocolate fountain with strawberries, pound cake, grapes, and marshmallows for dipping. We have been to parties for which a local shop or caterer set up the makings for a taco bar for do-it-yourself, portable, and fun-to-eat snacks. And we have been to parties at a farm at which a hog roast was the main event.

You might consider a joint party with your graduate’s BFF or team members. The parents of a baseball team of close members rented a local ballroom together. Each teammate had a station where he greeted his guests, and the parents split the food, beverage, and rental costs of the hall.

When you have the basics worked out, send invitations to your family and friends. You can hold the party on the day of the graduation ceremony, depending on the time of day, or perhaps a weekend time close to the graduation event would work better.

For decorations such as streamers, balloons, and flowers, use school colors. Be sure to have a guestbook for future reference, along with a collage of photos of the graduate through the years. For a fun presentation, arrange the photos in the numerals of the graduation year.

It’s hard to plan the amount of needed food if your graduate has friends with parties on the same day. Student friends go from party to party, and some parents might do the same. They likely won’t eat a lot at each party. If that’s the case, snacks and cold drinks are a better choice than a sit-down meal.

Set up food tables with lines on each side for easier self-serving. Provide simple foods so guests can stand and eat if necessary. A sundae station, particularly on a nice spring or summer day, is a twist on dessert. A basket of fortune cookies can also be fun.

Parties these days often have photo booths, particularly fun if the graduate’s friends will be scattering to colleges and/or jobs away from each other. Have a designated photographer to get candid shots of the party. And to capture the moments of fun, place disposable cameras around the party and hope for good results and laughs after the party.

To be respectful to the guests who have brought gifts or monetary donations, encourage your graduate to send thank-you notes after the party. You won’t lose parent points by providing cards and stamps.

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entertaining: Set Up a Hot Chocolate Bar

Set Up a Hot Chocolate Bar

By Carol McGarvey

Baby, it’s cold outside. But, hey, it’s Iowa in winter, and we know how to roll with the punches. After sledding, ice skating, or just taking a walk to cure cabin fever, it’s always time for a party.

Grab some neighbors and friends and set up a hot chocolate bar. Just because. Break up the weekend with a simple get-together. Spring’s arrival might take awhile, so this is a good excuse to get together and warm up.

What’s nice is that a hot chocolate bar adapts easily to children and adults. Simple and tasty additions make it a fun time for kids. And with a little, uh, embellishment, this soothing drink turns into a spirited adult beverage. Everyone has fun.

Nothing fancy is required. Pull out all the mugs you have, the more mismatched the better. Offer chocolate only or also have some white vanilla chocolate for another choice. From scratch or a mix? Both work fine. Make it easy and fun. Whatever you prefer. For real ease, warm chocolate milk in pans. Serve in carafes or thermoses. Or use K-cups for making individual servings.

For kids, set out bowls and containers of fun garnishes—mini marshmallows, candy canes (whole ones for stirring and crushed ones for adding flavor), toffee bits, chocolate chips (or white chocolate, butterscotch, or peanut butter ones), cinnamon, pretzel rods, and canned whipped cream for squirting on top.

To offer some adult additions, consider Bailey’s Irish Cream, Kahlúa, rum, or flavored vodkas, such as Fluffed Marshmallow, Kissed Caramel, Vanilla, Raspberry (for adding to chocolate), or pear (for adding to white chocolate).

Stock up on paper straws and fun spoons from a party store. If you like, serve with a plate of cookies or cupcakes.

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entertaining: Host an Ugly Sweater Party

Host an Ugly Sweater Party

By Carol McGarvey

I have a good friend and former colleague who, one year, decided she was going to wear a different Christmas sweater or sweatshirt every workday during December. Yikes. Of course, by the end of the first week, we all were eager to see her offering for the next day.

It’s safe to say that many, many females gave in, even a little bit, to the obsession with holiday clothing. For some, the more garish the better. For others, subtlety was the key with a simple reindeer pin or a necklace of old-fashioned big Christmas lights. Hey, even some men got in on the fun with, uh, interesting sweaters.

Those days are mostly gone, but celebrating them can be hilarious. How about an ugly or tacky sweater party? Ugly sweater parties seem to grow in popularity each year and with good reason. They’re just downright fun.

Dig deep into your closet or, if you got rid of the evidence that you indeed owned a tacky holiday sweater or sweatshirt, hit the thrift stores. You’ll probably see some displays. Sorry, but, yes, you might have to pay for some of these twice—in the past and now. But it’s all in the spirit of fun. Or, of course, you can take a current basic sweater and glam and bling it up with holiday trims and create your own tacky creation.

Send out fun invitations or make it an online invite. Invite guests as early as you can. After all, this could take some planning. The idea is to have fun. Hang other old sweaters around for decoration. String holiday lights. Retro ones would be appropriate, such as oversize bulbs or even bubble lights for a blast from the past. Suggest guests bring tacky holiday family photos to share with the group.

If guests don’t have old sweaters, they can wear any old holiday gear, such as pajamas, crazy and colorful hats, mittens, and scarves or fun colored jewelry.

For food, hit the retro button again. Last holiday season, we at Welcome Home featured a decorated ugly sweater cake. Go to Wilton.com to order the pan. Decorate with wacky abandon. You or your favorite bakery might be able to create tacky sweater cookies, too. Other retro foods might include mini cocktail wieners in barbecue sauce, fruitcake, and cheese balls. For drinks, offer red and green sodas, Jell-O shots, or even grasshoppers.

At such an event, you must have a fashion show. Guests can vote on categories of sweaters, such as ugliest, most original, or most holiday spirit. Take lots of photos. You might get next year’s Christmas card out of the deal.


TRY IT. Need a recipe for your party? Try the Eggnog Ugly Sweater Cake or the Peppermint Hot Chocolate Ugly Sweater Cake from our recipe collection.

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entertaining: Host a ‘Celebrate Autumn’ Party

Host a ‘Celebrate Autumn’ Party

By Carol McGarvey

For many of us, fall is the favorite season of the year. Sweatshirts, jeans, cool weather, good times. So why not celebrate all things autumn with a bonfire or a hay ride?

If you know a farmer with a hay rack and a tractor, you’re way ahead of the game. And if the farmer is your friend, you’ll have a little more leeway in planning your rolling adventure, perhaps just around the place or in the woods on the property.

Kids of all ages will love this event, we’re quite sure. Set up tiki torches and twinkle lights—aka Halloween lights—around the central party location. Set up a table for drinks and food. Check to see if you can have alcohol on the property. If not, choose seasonal cider or hot chocolate.

For other foods, go with chili, hot dogs and buns, apples, and cookies. If you can have a bonfire, s’mores are a tasty seasonal treat that are fun to make too.

If you know someone who plays guitar or banjo, invite the player and have a sing-along. So much fun!

Farmer friends are pretty busy with harvest this time of year, so some commercial farms offer bonfires, hay rides, and corn mazes on a per-person charge basis. One such spot is Geisler Farm near Bondurant. “It’s our tenth year,” says Malinda Geisler, “and we’re busy, busy from September 5 to the end of October. The cooler it gets, the busier we get.” She says it is fun to see lots of groups come for fun, from Scout, church, and senior retirement groups to multigenerational family groups.

On 13 acres, Malinda and her husband, Darrell, offer a corn maze, hay rides, and a Fun Zone with activities. The farm is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Packages include Option A (corn maze, Fun Zone, and hayride) at $8 per person and Option B (Fun Zone and hayride—2 and younger free) at $5 per person. Hayrides include an ADA-accessible chair lift. A donated food item is good for $1 off the corn maze. The Fun Zone offers family-friendly outdoor activities, such as swings, tractor tire swing, rubber duck races, pedal carts, hamster roll, and corn hole toss games.

People bring slow cookers of chili and other hot foods, Malinda says. Or they bring sub sandwiches, pizzas, or elaborate spreads. “We even had a bridal shower here, which was fun.” Three LP-powered fire pits help to create the fall fun.

For pumpkin lovers, the Geislers harvest a 10-acre field of the orange orbs.

Plan your Autumn Party at Geisler Farms. 5251 NE 94th Avenue, Bondurant, 3½ miles east of Ankeny on First Avenue.

You can contact them at 515-964-2640 or GrowingFamilyFun.com.

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entertaining: An End-of-Summer Party

An End-of-Summer Party

By Carol McGarvey

Where did the summer go? That’s the lament of nearly everyone this time of year. Once the Iowa State Fair and Labor Day have passed, life as we know it changes. Practices take over, games start, classes and lessons begin, and meetings fill the squares on the calendar.

Before fall activities get too crazy, take a deep breath and plan a little party. Celebrate the summer, your friends, your neighbors, and the season ending and the one beginning. Call it a neighborhood picnic, a potluck, a cookout, a block party, or a get-together. Just do it.

Make it easy. Send invitations by email or phone. Don’t be shy. When someone asks what he or she can bring, grab onto the offer. To make it really easy, depending on the size of the group, you might do a main dish. Or make it a potluck and everyone shares in the fun.

Suggest that participants bring a dish or two to share and their own table service. You can provide beverages, depending on the size of the group, or suggest that guests bring their favorite beverage so you don’t have to provide a whole stocked bar. Have pitchers of lemonade or iced tea or bottles of water.

Fire up the grill and offer brats and buns or suggest guests bring their favorite meat. If your neighbors have gardens with juicy tomatoes, take advantage of summer’s produce and encourage them to bring a bowl of fresh vegetables. Everyone will love that. Make some easy root beer floats for dessert.

For kids of all ages, put up the badminton net or the croquet set. Offer silly prizes for the winners.

Is there a fledgling photographer in the group? Create a makeshift photo booth with handheld props to capture the fun. Put on some background music. If all the neighbors are invited, no one should complain about noise.

Autumn’s crisp air will be here soon, so soak in some of summer’s last sunshine.

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entertaining: Planning a Patriotic Party

Planning a Patriotic Party

By Carol McGarvey

The color scheme for a July 4th party is pretty easy. Pull out your red, white, and blue party gear and go for it. After all, you’ll be celebrating our nation’s birthday. It’s time for a bash. Make it tailored or make it funky—anything works.

This year, with the holiday on a Saturday, people will be more than ready to enjoy all the events of the day.

Call, email, or send paper invitations early. For this holiday, dance cards fill up quickly.

Check to see what’s going on in your community. Build your meal around events such as a parade or festivities at the park.

Give yourself a little independence. Your guests won’t mind sharing. Make the party a potluck. You provide the meat, and they can bring the side dishes. Or they can bring their favorite meats to grill, and you provide the add-ons. Burgers and brats are always easy and popular. Or mix it up a bit and grill chicken breasts and ribs. Kids enjoy hot dogs.

For beverages, offer signature drinks, such as pitchers of lemonade or margaritas. Have coolers full of beer. Make things easy and self-serve. Provide sturdy paper or plastic plates. It’s a picnic after all.

You know your friends. Would they rather sit and visit or be active? Croquet, badminton, or horseshoes might be fun. For little, little ones, offer coloring pages and markers or crayons. Crank up some patriotic music to add to the holiday festivities.

As the sun falls, a bonfire or fire pit can add to the party mood. Check to see if guests are planning on going to local fireworks displays. If so, serve your dessert before people take off; they likely won’t come back to your house after all the oohs and aahs of the fireworks.

Enjoy the spirit of the day and all it offers. Happy birthday, America!

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entertaining: A Party Just for Mom

A Party Just for Mom

By Carol McGarvey

For all she has done for you, how about giving Mom, Grandma, and mother-in-law a special party for Mother’s Day this year? The day is Sunday, May 10.

It can be as simple or as fancy as you wish it to be. Mom will appreciate it for sure. Check the weather forecast online. If the temperature is moderate and the sun is shining, perhaps an outdoor party is in order. If not, your guest of honor will love an indoor gathering.

You know the people involved. If a surprise party is something she would like, call relatives and friends. Mum’s the word, of course. Be sure they don’t tell.

For decorations, this is the perfect occasion and the perfect time of year for flowers. Around here, some lilacs might be out, along with some tall tulips. What’s Mom’s favorite flower? Have fun with that. You don’t need lots of real flowers to set the scene. Bring out the floral tablecloths, napkins, and place mats and add floral touches wherever you can. Think spring and play it up.

We’ll bet you can bring a tear and a smile if you place old family photographs around the party table, buffet table, or any other strategic spot. Pass them around and set the scene for who is in the photo and when and where it was taken.

If there are younger family members in attendance, have them make special greeting cards. We assure you that those will be the most special gifts for the mom or grandma at the center of the party.

For food, consider the guest list and the time of day. If it’s a brunch, pull out all the morning favorites, from casseroles to fresh fruit to muffins. If it’s a noontime event, offer several salads, rolls, fruit, and a festive cake or cupcakes. If it’s in the midafternoon or evening and men family members might be included, then consider grilling family favorites.

What’s Mom’s favorite kind of music? Some selections playing softly in the background can add a fun dimension to the party.

We know that not everyone’s mother lives nearby or still is living. That can open up a Mother’s Day party of a different kind. Perhaps you are in a group of mothers who need a party of your own. That can be a home party or a going-out party, whatever the consensus is of the group. Without question, the sky is the limit. Go for it.

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entertaining: Have Fun at a Recipe Swap Party

Recipe Exchange Party

By Carol McGarvey

No doubt about it. Girls’ Night Out is so much fun. But when winter winds blow, Girls’ Night In can be a riot, too.

Share the fun on the food by hosting a recipe swap. It’s easy to get in a rut with your recipes, so this just might be what can infuse your cooking with new ideas and new twists. It’s a bit like a potluck. As the host, you can orchestrate the plan so that not everyone brings a casserole or a dessert. Or you can take your chances. At any rate, everyone will sample it all, we assure you.

Invitations are easy. Just use recipe cards to print or type the details. Make it dinner for everyone or make it just fun appetizers or desserts. You can best judge what your crowd would like. For total whimsy, stipulate that each recipe must contain a certain ingredient. You decide what that is. Or make it a retro night and have guests bring a dish from the 1970s or ’80s.

Before eating, go around the room and have each guest discuss her recipe and her dish. Perhaps tell about any special ingredients or cooking instructions.

As hostess, you need to provide drinks, alcoholic and nonalcoholic, water, and soft drinks. Also provide bowls or plates, utensils, and take-home containers in case people want to share some samples.

Or make it a BYOC party—bring your own container. Ask guests to bring copies of their recipes for other guests to take home.

A party like this would work for families, too. Have everyone bring a favorite family dish. Collect the recipes, then make up a small booklet to pass out later so that each guest has the family specialties to take home with them.

Purchase small kitchen utensils at the dollar store to give as door prizes. Consider whisks, spatulas, pot holders, or plastics. Some groups make this a seasonal or semiannual event so they can swap new recipes regularly. The good thing about that is that it keeps you on the lookout for new recipes at all times.

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entertaining: Ladle Up a Soup Party

Soup Party

By Carol McGarvey

Winter in Iowa can make you want to crawl under the covers and hibernate. We all have done it.

But don’t. Make the most of what’s going on outside by gathering in some friends and neighbors and warming up your spirit with—what else?—some tasty soups. Soup has that magical power to make you feel warm, cozy, and revitalized.

Spending time with soup, bread, wine, and cheese is a great way to celebrate winter with good people. Such a party is relatively easy to plan. Plus, soups can be made ahead, which only makes them better anyway.

Determine the number of guests you can accommodate. For variety, offer at least two soups, one hearty and one creamy-based or pureed. Depending on your friends, perhaps one or two will offer to bring other varieties, and that’s fantastic. You’ll find that some guests will concentrate on one soup they love and enjoy whole bowls of it. Others will want to try all the flavors, and they’ll have small portions of each. Some options include standard or white chili and barley, minestrone, and butternut squash, white bean, and chicken wild rice soups.

Making this type of party into a potluck is easy. Assign someone a large green salad and someone else a loaf of crusty bread or a bowl of cracker varieties. Others might bring a bottle of wine. Unless you have enough dishes or oversize mugs for the group, it’s fine to use disposable bowls and plates for easy cleanup. You might ask someone to bring some extra spoons if you need them. And perhaps another friend could bring a light dessert or fruit to share. Slow cookers are a good way to keep soups warm during the party.

To personalize the soup tastes, offer some toppings. Options include some good croutons or toasted nuts, such as pumpkin seeds. Depending on the soups, sour cream, shredded cheese, and chopped green onions are good choices. A platter of cheese varieties to pass is a good accompaniment.

Choose some good breads or baguettes so guests can pull off a hunk to enjoy with soup. Allow guests to serve themselves. That way, they can take as much or as little as they like and aren’t embarrassed to pass up one or two. Soups can be slurpy and messy, so instead of your finest tablecloth, use brown wrapping paper as a table covering.

Have a discussion or even a vote on your favorite soups. Good ideas are worth sharing. So is soup. Likely, someone will want to take home some samples, so be sure to have some to-go containers with lids for easy toting.

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entertaining: The Season for Sparkle and Shine

Stemless wineglass by Riedel

By Carol McGarvey

Paper plates and plastic cups are fine for casual gatherings, but, hey, it’s the holidays. Let’s go the extra mile and bring out our best holiday dishes and stemware. What are we saving them for?

You may have noted that wineglasses in particular have taken on a new look in the last decade with the introduction in 2004 of the O, or stemless, wineglasses by Riedel, the German wineglass maker.

The company is credited with revolutionizing glassware choices for the enjoyment of wine. Bolton & Hay, the restaurant and home kitchenware supplier at 2701 Delaware Avenue in Des Moines, is the exclusive distributor for the brand in Iowa.

Wide usage

Doris Gorius, the Riedel brand manager for Bolton & Hay, says that besides homeowners, restaurants, particularly those with patios, often are choosing the stemless varieties. “Stemless wineglasses are a good choice for outdoor serving. They are great everyday glasses with a low profile, so they won’t blow over.”

She says that Riedel was first producer of upper-end grape varietal glassware to offer stemless versions. Basically, the O variety is a classic tumbler used by many as an all-around beverage drinking glass. It now has become a sophisticated wineglass used in restaurants, country clubs, wineries, and craft breweries.

Gorius points out that the stemless glassware is coming into its own as holiday and wedding gifts. Bolton & Hay has a room devoted to the glassware, often packaged in gift packs. “It’s often nice to make a gift of red wine, white wine, and champagne glasses,” she says. For special occasions, such as weddings, the glassware can be engraved.

Long history

Stemless glassware seems new, but it actually has been around for 10 years. Traditional stemmed glasses have the purpose of making the glass easier to handle, particularly when many white wines and some reds are served chilled. The stem helps to ensure that a warm hand doesn’t warm the wine in the glass. Certainly, stemless ware can be used for a chilled wine, but a wine at room temperature is the preference of many. Stemmed glasses often cause spills more easily, too. Without a stem, the glass doesn’t feel as fragile.

Choosing glassware means focusing on the wine to be used. Glasses for red wine have a wider bowl to allow the wine to breathe because reds need air for their aromas and flavors to develop. Glasses for white wine are narrower to allow for the wine to remain chilled longer. Ultimately, personal preference rules. Choosing crystal or glass is personal, too. Crystal, of course, is heavier and sometimes more expensive.

This spring Riedel introduced the O swirl wineglass for red and white wines and a decanter with a casual design with subtle grooves that helps in the swirling process. The process allows wine to be opened and aerated easily.

To acquaint customers with Riedel glassware, Bolton & Hay offers wine tastings at its store and also at other locations. In addition, Gorius, who formerly had her own catering business, offers cooking classes at the store. Earlier ones this fall have included Tailgate Bites, Dishes to Warm You Up, and Holiday Sides. The last one for this year will be Holiday Hors D’oeuvres at 6 p.m. Thursday, December 11. Cost is $35, which includes recipes, tips, food samples, and showroom discounts. Call 515-265-2554 ext. 231 or email Doris at Doris@BoltonHay.com to sign up.

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entertaining: Show Your Colors: Host an Election Party

Election Party

By Carol McGarvey

After the end of a long election season, it’s fun to host an election-watch party. You can celebrate the wins and also mark the completion of the seemingly never-ending TV commercial season.

This year’s November 4 election is a midterm election. There’s no presidential contest until 2016, so this year there are just gubernatorial, Senate, and House races to handicap in Iowa, as well as any local races.

Your space dictates how many partygoers you can invite. If you know not to discuss politics with some among your social group, then likely you shouldn’t invite them to your party. Or, if you make everyone agree to play nice, then you can host a bi-party party and hope guests are civil enough to deal with various outcomes. Try to handle discussion in a light manner.

For this event, everyone must be able to watch returns on TV. If there’s room, a second TV might be in order. Be considerate and safe, too, on channel selection. You might do better watching CBS, NBC, or ABC. Cable channels like Fox and MSNBC might ruffle some liberal or conservative feathers.

For decorations, of course, the primary colors are red, white, and blue. Balloon bouquets, napkins, and plates can carry out the theme. Check out a party store for more ideas.

Election results don’t happen until later in the evening, after the polls close, of course, so a few games might be in order. Make up a political trivia game and divide into teams. Or take a straw poll on a whiteboard and see how close the group comes to being right. Another game is keeping track of how many time commentators say phrases and buzz words, such as “historic moment.”

The food should last throughout the evening. Simple snacks, such as popcorn, cheese and crackers, and chips and salsa, are easy to make and to eat. Make some sliders or deli sandwiches for a more substantial snack. Serve fruits and veggies with dips, along with some sweet treats such as cookies or brownies. For a party like this, easy works well.

Offer beer, wine, soda, and water. For fun, how about some red and blue Jell-O shots?

For the sake of your party guests—and the rest of us—may the best candidates win.

Moscato Meatball Skewers

Photo Courtesy Gallo Family Vineyards Ingredients:
2 pounds bulk spicy Italian sausage
½ cup Gallo Family Vineyards Red Moscato
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ cup diced cucumber
1 lemon
¼ cup cilantro, chopped Parmesan cheese, optional

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350°F.

In large bowl, stir together sausage and Moscato until combined. Using medium cookie scoop, form meatballs and place on baking sheet, evenly spaced. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until no longer pink.

Meanwhile, in small bowl stir together all other ingredients to create yogurt sauce.

Thread meatballs onto skewers and serve alongside yogurt sauce. Garnish with additional cilantro and grated Parmesan cheese, if desired. Makes 32 meatballs. Recipe from Gallo Family Vineyards.

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entertaining: Moving Around with a Progressive Dinner Party

Progressive Dinner Party

By Carol McGarvey

With the days of summer waning and fall schedules looming, this is a good time to reconnect with neighbors and friends who have been traveling at various times during the past few months.

Sure, block parties are a blast this time of year, but how about twisting things up a bit? Just for the fun of it, how about a progressive dinner party?

This is a good way to ease back into fall. Share the load in a different way than a potluck. If everyone contributes, everyone shares the responsibility and the cost. And the fun increases immeasurably too.

The idea is simple. The party moves from location to location, with a different food course served at each location. It’s good for several hours of pure enjoyment. If you choose a neighborhood party, you likely can walk from house to house. If you are enjoying the company of friends whose homes are scattered about, you will drive to the next spot.

No matter how simple or elaborate you decide to have your party, one rule functions well: Have each host prepare his or her course ahead of time so that everyone can attend all the evening’s stops. Avoid having one person have to skip a spot because he or she needs to put the finishing touches on the next course. Having such a party be fluid is half the fun. Consider having certain people be “people movers” to make sure the party indeed progresses.

If you have never done this before, party planners advise having no more than 10 guests. Later, after you perfect the process, add some more. Choose guests who know each other. Or mix it up a bit with some new people, who will get to know each other as the party moves from location to location.

After the hosts are chosen, coordinate to keep costs down. Make things simple the first time you put on a party like this. Establish a budget to keep costs in check.

And, if you’re a host at one stop, make sure you can get away and be a guest at the next house. That’s half the fun. The beauty, of course, is that no one has to prepare the whole meal.

Set up a serve-yourself bar at each stop so the hosts can mingle and visit, not act as bartenders. A few moderately priced wines or a pitcher of drinks such as sangria or skinny margaritas works well. Offer a few nonalcoholic choices, too, such as sodas and water.

If someone in the group makes killer appetizers, that home is a natural for the first stop, hors d’oeuvres. The second stop can be the salad and/or soup course. And if someone has an ample-size dining table, make that home the location for the main course. Truly, the main course doesn’t have to be fancy. Brisket or pulled pork sandwiches from the slow cooker is just as much fun.

The pièce-de-résistance, of course, is the dessert course at the last stop. Have fun with it. Also be sure to serve coffee or after-dinner drinks, depending on the group’s choices. Anything to keep the conversation and the laughter going.

The All-Important Party Invitation

The invitation for a progressive party is so important, because it includes the time that each course is to be served, along with the name and address for each host spot. Include a cell phone number, too, in case someone gets lost. Guests certainly can come to only the course they like, although that hopefully won’t happen, but hosts need to have food to serve everyone every course.

If guests are walking, if all the host homes are in the same neighborhood, logistics aren’t such a problem. If all locations are in one neighborhood, a schedule might look something like this—5:30 p.m., appetizers; 6:30 p.m., soup and salad; 7:15 p.m., main course, and 8:45 p.m., dessert and coffee. But if guests have to drive to each location, you need to adjust the times on the invitations to allow for travel.

Be adamant about getting an RSVP from the guests. That’s only fair to the hosts.

If you like, plan the course around a theme, such as Halloween, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, or Cinco de Maya. This type of party also if fun for New Year’s Eve.

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entertaining: Good Friends and Food: Summer Weekend Brunch

Summer Brunch

By Carol McGarvey

All summer gatherings don't have to happen in the evening and focus on the grill. How about a Saturday or Sunday morning brunch? The main ingredients are easy—good friends, good food, and sunshine if you're lucky. Don't panic if it's your first time to host such an event. A weekend brunch is really fun. Bright colors in tablecloths, napkins, and dishes set the scene. Nothing needs to be matchy-matchy. Just do it.

Pick your patio, pick your deck, or pick a park. Be safe and pick a contingency plan in case of rain. As guests arrive, offer them a glass of wine, a mimosa (orange juice and champagne), a Bloody Mary, coffee, or juice.

You can make many brunch foods ahead. That gives you extra time to arrange the food table and mingle with your guests. And if your guests offer to bring a dish or two, the more the merrier!

An egg casserole or strata works nicely for a main dish. Make it ahead and bring it out hot from the oven at serving time. Have a selection of fresh fruits and veggies and dips, along with yogurt and berries for making parfaits. A spinach salad or one featuring other leafy greens always works well. Muffins or rolls are easy to handle, particularly if some guests will be walking around. Or, if you have the room and are so inclined, how about a toaster station, complete with flavored cream cheese and bagels or good breads to pop in the toaster?

If there are young children in your circle, it's fun to set up a separate low table for them. Offer fruit slices, veggies, donut holes or puffs, and string cheese. Small plastic bowls, depending on the children's ages and agility, work well. Provide juice or milk for them. Ask the mothers ahead of time about any food allergies. Place a few toys or balls on a blanket so the children are in sight of their parents but can have their own fun.

For dessert, a yummy cake—perhaps angel food to keep it light—or cookies and coffee are in order.

You'll find a leisurely brunch is the perfect event for slowing down and enjoying the day and your friends.

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entertaining: Dish Up a Little ‘Posh’ for a Spring Tea Party

Tea party

By Carol McGarvey

Warm weather offers so many occasions for an all-out tea party. Birthdays, bridal showers, baby showers, bridesmaids’ luncheons, retirement parties, and small special graduation parties are all perfect events for a lovely tea party. For some, it could be a way to celebrate the end of the school year or the end of an era, such as a group celebrating the last child’s graduation.

You don’t have to go all Downton Abbey, but it might be fun to bring out the beautiful china that you never get out of the cabinet or the closet. And plan to use the elegant serving pieces. Decorate the table with your prettiest tablecloths and napkins and candlesticks. Add the sweet touch of fresh flowers from a florist, supermarket, or farmer’s market stand.

Don’t worry if you’re not the fussy type. Your guests likely aren’t either. But in our ultracasual society, chalk this up to pure and simple fun. Let your invitations (printed or e-vite) set the tone. Put the accent on fancy. And if you want people to dress up (or even wear hats just for fun), let them know.

The nice thing about tea party food is that it all can be made ahead, except for the tea. Serve your crumpets buffet-style on a table or pass small trays of “afternoon delights.” Make it as formal or as informal as you like. You know the personalities of the crowd you are hosting.

Consider serving both sweet and savory bites. Remember that “tea” doesn’t mean you have to serve a complete meal. And go for pretty. Instead of stacked slices of turkey, for example, roll the slices for an attractive presentation. Cut the crusts off the little sandwiches—chicken salad, prosciutto and Boursin cheese, watercress, tuna salad, cucumber and cream cheese, smoked salmon, and egg salad all make delicious fillings. Remember the vegetarians in your midst; search for veggie finger sandwich recipes, such as those using hummus. Mini quiches, available frozen at outlets such as Sam’s Club and Costco, also work nicely.

For sweets, choose to make or purchase little cookies or bars, scones with clotted cream (can be purchased), madeleines, mini cupcakes, and/or cheesecake bites. Check out your local bakeries for yummy choices.

As for tea, you are safe serving the classics, such as oolong, Earl Grey, English breakfast, and/or Darjeeling. If the day is hot, an iced fruit-tea combination or chai with milk is fine, too. If there are purists in your group, be sure to brew loose tea, not tea bags. And, of course, you don’t even have to serve tea. Coffee, lemonade, or a light punch works, too.

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entertaining: Grilling Out

Grilling Out

This time of year just begs for the delicious aromas and flavors of grilled food. If you’re looking for other ways to grill besides throw it on and let it cook, check out these delicious alternatives:

Smoke it. Even if you haven’t invested in a smoker, you can get that great smoky flavor on your standard charcoal or propane grill. Soak wood chips in water to moisten and place into a foil packet with holes poked through it. Place the packet directly on the hot coals or burner, then place your food on the grate over the packet.

You can buy wood chips at many hardware and big-box stores. Experiment with various wood chips—oak, hickory, mesquite, and pecan, for example—to achieve different flavors. For the smoky flavor without the.. well.. smoke, try adding liquid smoke to your favorite marinade or barbecue sauce recipe. It only takes a drop or two.

Plank it. A wooden plank is a great way to add subtle smoky flavor to grilled fish, chicken, steak, Portobello mushrooms, and more. The plank can be made of many types of wood, each imparting a unique flavor profile.

Start by soaking the completely submerged plank in water for one hour before cooking. Place the plank over indirect heat (direct flame could cause the plank to catch fire or produce too much smoke). In the meantime, sear the meat directly on the grill grate, just long enough to get grill marks, then place on the plank and continue cooking until done. Layer whole herbs on the plank for added depth of flavor.

Skewer it. Kabobs are a good way to offer a variety of meats and veggies at a dinner party—and perfect for kids since the food is already in bite-sized pieces. Cut your meat and veggies to uniform sizes for even cooking. For efficiency, it often works better to load your skewers with foods that have equal cooking times, then add the kabobs to the grill according to the time each requires.

Be sure to soak wooden skewers in water to avoid burning, and coat metal skewers with cooking spray to avoid sticking. Leave at least ¼” between items on the skewers, and leave space on one end for easy handling.

Packet it. Aluminum foil packets are a great way to steam fish, veggies, and fruits on the grill. Delicate white fish like tilapia will easily fall apart if placed directly on the grate. A foil packet will steam the fish and keep it from drying out. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, wrap in foil and cook on medium-low heat for 8-9 minutes or until the fish is opaque and flakes easily with a fork.

Zucchini, asparagus, corn, and potatoes all steam well in a foil packet. Slice or chop into bite-sized pieces, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with desired spices, and cook until tender. Dense, starchy produce like potatoes and sweet potatoes should be sliced thinly to decrease cooking time.

Desserts are a cinch in foil packets. Wrap a halved pitted peach, cored apple, or pitted plum in foil and grill until tender and warmed through. Top with vanilla ice cream and a streusel topping for a hot-off-the-grill cobbler. Or wrap a peeled banana in foil and grill until soft. Top with ice cream and all the fixings for a banana split.

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entertaining: In the Winner’s Circle: A Derby Party

Horse racing


If you can’t make it to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby, host your own Southern-inspired party. Have your friends bring out their frilliest big hats full of flowers and ribbons. And, yes, of course, have a contest for the best one.

A Derby party is a great way to celebrate spring. Gather some friends or neighbors and celebrate “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” which has been run since 1875 in Louisville, Kentucky.

The Derby, of course, is the first step in the Triple Crown, followed by the Preakness Stakes and then the Belmont Stakes. For your party, you can celebrate the formality of the day with seersucker for men and elegant dresses and hats for the women. Or just make it a barbecue with frilly hats and call it fun.

This is the “run for the roses,” after all, so go traditional and decorate with some roses. Pick up Derby swizzle sticks, miniature horse items, horseshoes, and jockey helmets or silks at a party store. Even if you’re hosting a casual affair, it’s OK to bring out your finest crystal, chafing dishes, and serving items. After all, it is the South you’re celebrating.

For food, go with chicken drumsticks, potato salad, and coleslaw. Or be traditional and make burgoo, a stew of slow-cooked meats, vegetables, and spices. Google a recipe. For dessert, Derby Pie is a top choice. It’s a chocolate-walnut tart made with pecans, chocolate chips, and Kentucky bourbon. It was developed by the Melrose Inn in Prospect, Kentucky.

For lawn games before the telecast of the race, consider bocce or horseshoes.

Signature Drink

The official drink of the Derby is the mint julep. This version is from KentuckyDerby.com:

Mint Julep

Mint Julep Ingredients:
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
Sprigs of fresh mint
2 ounces Early Times Kentucky Whisky

Directions:

Make simple syrup by boiling sugar and water for 5 minutes, without stirring.

Fill a jar loosely with sprigs of fresh mint (uncrushed) and cover with the cooled syrup.

Cover and chill for 12 to 24 hours. Discard mint leaves. Store unused syrup, covered, in the refrigerator.

Make one julep at a time. For each, fill a chilled julep cup with finely crushed ice; pour in ½ to 1 tablespoon of the mint-flavored syrup and the whisky.

Frost the cup, garnish with a sprig of mint, and serve at once.

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entertaining: Say Cheese—and Wine, Too

Say Cheese—and Wine, Too

Hibernating during the winter is so easy, but don’t! Grab some friends and make your own kind of fun. A wine and cheese get-together is the perfect way to warm everyone’s spirits on a cold, cold night.

Such a party is a great way to explore the wonderful world of cheese. But the cheese shouldn’t stand alone. Pair it with a variety of wines and perhaps some other munchies and you have the makings of a fun time. And you don’t have to break the bank. Not all wines are expensive. Do your homework and ask your friends to bring a specific bottle of wine. They won’t mind contributing to the occasion.

Do a general tasting or plan a specific type to taste, such as Italian, French, or Australian wines or even the growing number of Iowa ones.

Check out the cheese display in large supermarkets near you. If there’s a cheese shop in your area, the cheesemonger will be happy to help you make some selections.

Invite a manageable-size group, about 10 or 12 friends. Make or purchase some tasting cards so people can keep track of what they like. It’s fun to compare.

Experts advise focusing on just a few cheeses, say four or five. Estimate about 1 ounce per kind of cheese per person. Make sure you have some variation in taste, but don’t go to extremes. Provide one cheese knife per kind of cheese; you can use a butter knife for soft cheese varieties and a sharp knife or slicer for firm varieties. Don’t serve your cheese cold. Take it out of the fridge about two hours ahead of the party so that it has a chance to get to room temperature. The flavor will be much better.

Generally, cheese breaks down into several categories. For your party, choose one from each category:

  • Soft cheese—Boursin, Brie, Camembert, Feta, Gorgonzola, Mascarpone, Muenster, Neufchatel.
  • Semisoft cheese—Baby Swiss, Colby, Fontina, Havarti, Morbier, Port Salut.
  • Hard cheese—Asiago, Blue, Edam, Emmentaler, Gruyère, Jarlsberg, Parmigiano, Pecorino, Romano, Raclette, Reggiano, Swiss, Zamarano.
  • Semihard cheese—Cheddar, Gouda, Graddost, Provolone, Cotija, Roquefort, Stilton, Sonoma Jack.

Get a couple boxes of interesting crackers and cut a baguette or a crusty loaf of whole grain bread into rounds. Have small bunches of grapes on hand so guests can take small portions. To upgrade things a bit, offer cut apples, peaches, and/or dried nectarines. Other munchies might include toasted walnuts, dried meat (such as prosciutto or capicola), olives, and some strong dark chocolate.

Wine & Cheese Pairings

These are not set in stone. Some wines go with several kinds of cheese.

With soft cheeses
Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet, White Zinfandel, Beaujolais, and Chianti.

With semisoft cheeses
Champagne, Riesling, Bordeaux, Chinon, and Chardonnay.

With hard cheeses
Tawny Port, Madeira, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.

With semihard cheeses
Riesling, Cabernet, Chardonnay, Chianti Riserva, and Sauvignon Blanc.

These are only some of the possibilities. Ask at the winery, wine shop, or your local supermarket wine section for assistance. Or, ask for ideas from your guest list. You just might be surprised how much one of your friends knows about cheese and wine pairings from previous parties or first-hand knowledge.

By Carol McGarvey

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entertaining: And the Oscar Goes to...

And the Oscar Goes To...

YOU, for planning a fun awards party for your friends. Watching the Academy Awards is a must for movie buffs. This year’s event has been moved back to March 2 so it doesn’t conflict with the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. So you have plenty of time to plan a fun bash.

Pull out all the stops. No jeans and T-shirts for this party, please. Have your friends dress up and pull out the glitzy items in their closets—you know, pearls, earrings, and makeup. After all, you might want to buy or rent a red runner for their entrance. This is red carpet time, for sure. Make sure that you or a friend, using a hairbrush as a microphone, “interviews” guests as they arrive. They may be wearing an outfit from Von Maur or Dressbarn, not Valentino or Armani, but you must ask, “Who are you wearing?” Flash your camera for posterity.

This is the occasion to pull out all your finest barware, serving pieces, and candlesticks. How about all those very nice wedding gifts that are still in the box? The more shine and shimmer, the better. Set up a bar area and serve some champagne. For those who get a headache from the bubbly, also have nonalcoholic or sparkling drinks, too. Make or purchase some festive appetizers.

Decorate your home with flowers, lots of posies. You don’t have to purchase fresh flowers. Ask friends if you can borrow their silk flower arrangements for an evening. Background music should, of course, be soundtracks to popular movies.

For this party, your TV will be the centerpiece. Depending on the size of your crowd, another TV might be in order, even if you have to divide guests between rooms. Watching—and critiquing—what the stars are wearing will be fun.

Create or download a ballot for picking the winners. Pass out ballots to your guests to fill out their selections when the party starts. At the end of the program, offer a special gag gift to the one who picked the most winners. Check out local party stores, which might have some Oscar statuettes or appropriate substitute “trophies.”

Dinner fare can be formal or casual. You know your guests. But do serve it buffet-style so that they can continue to watch the program on TV.

At the party’s end, pass out swag bags to guests, just as the people at the real program receive. Any little items such as toiletries, soaps, and chocolates work beautifully.

And if movies aren’t your thing, don’t despair. There are other awards shows that are fun to celebrate, too. Music buffs might enjoy the Grammy Awards on January 26, the Tony Awards for Broadway shows on June 8, or the Emmy Awards for television on August 24. —Carol McGarvey


Red Carpet Recipe

Tex Mex Cranberry Salsa

Tex Mex Cranberry Salsa Ingredients:
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
1 12-ounce package Ocean Spray Fresh or Frozen Cranberries
2 tablespoons chopped canned jalapeño peppers
1/4 cup fresh cilantro
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1 green onion, white and green parts, sliced
1 teaspoon lime juice

Directions:

Combine water and sugar in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Add cranberries; return to a boil. Gently boil cranberries for 10 minutes without stirring. Pour into a medium glass mixing bowl. Gently stir in remaining ingredients.

Place a piece of plastic wrap directly on top of salsa to reduce condensation. Best if served at room temperature. Refrigerate leftovers. Makes 2-1/2 cups. Recipe from Ocean Spray.

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entertaining: Hosting a New Year's Eve Party

Hosting a New Year's Eve Party

There are, of course, a couple ways to host a New Year’s Eve party. You can suggest your friends get together and go out for dinner at a nice restaurant and then come back to your house later. It’s not a ball-dropping Times Square party in the Big Apple, to be sure, but it can be fun nevertheless.

Or you can have a total at-home party and watch various celebrations around the world on TV. A lot of this depends on your friends, their ages, and how they like to party. Keep in mind that many people simply don’t like to be out on the highways and byways on New Year’s Eve.

  • But if you do want to party at home, it’s fun to have a theme. Perhaps your friends enjoy karaoke. Rent a machine and set up competitions—best duet, best solo male or female, best quartet. Just go with the flow and have fun.
  • Push back the furniture and make room for some line dancing. Be silly and enjoy yourselves.
  • Perhaps your group is totally into cards or games. Set up a poker night with all the trimmings and enjoy the competition. Other themes are fun, too. Just assess your friends and what they like to do.
  • For food, the sky is the limit. Have a lovely sit-down dinner with trimmings. Or, if everyone has done nonstop eating since Thanksgiving, perhaps it’s time for appetizers and snacks and a little grazing.
  • When it comes to planning the party, here’s a party estimate that works for many people—spend 60 percent of your party budget on drinks and the trimmings, 30 percent on food, and about 10 percent on your party decor. Cheesy as it might seem, lots of people love the classic party hats and streamers “because it’s tradition.”
  • You can make it BYOB, which cuts your costs and also ensures that people get their favorite beverages. However, as the host, you need to provide the setups, such as tonic, soda, soft drinks, lemon and lime slices, and ice. Because it’s New Year's Eve, you might want a few bottles of bubbly on hand for a toast at midnight.
  • Be responsible. If people have had too much to drink, DO NOT let them leave your home and drive into the night. Call a taxi, if they must leave, or pass out pillows and blankets for an overnight stay.
  • Serving a breakfast buffet a while after the midnight celebration (or for any guests who decide to spend the night) might be just the ticket. Scrambled eggs, bacon, rolls, and juice will fortify your guests for the trip home. It also will delay your guests being out on the road right after midnight. Happy 2014!!!!—Carol McGarvey
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entertaining: Host an Adult Costume Party

Host an Adult Costume Party

Why should the kids have all the fun? Adults have made Halloween party time in recent years. To add to the fun, make your gathering a costume party.

Let guests know right up front on your invitations that this is all about the costumes. You’ll be giving out prizes in all kinds of categories, so they MUST join in on the fun.

Costumes. You might offer rewards for scariest costume, most provocative costume, most innovative costume, best couples’ costumes, or most out-of-character costume. You get the idea.

Decorations. Let your ghoulish spirit run wild. Orange and black are the colors of the day. Throw in some purple and some lime green trimmings just for fun (make that slime green!). Any decorations that you have on hand for kids’ parties will work for this one, too. Use crepe paper, balloons, and natural items, such as bales of straw to sit on and real pumpkins for decorations. Check on the weather forecast. If you’ll be having the party outdoors, the decorations might change a bit. Check out online sources, party stores, and dollar stores for inexpensive items to create a party mood.

Food. Make it simple, and make it fun. Party snacks, from popcorn and trail mix to veggies and dip and salsa and chips, all work. Decide if you need some more substantive food, too, such as sandwiches and a salad or two. If there’s a nip in the air, this is a good time for a chili bar with lots of toppings. It depends, too, on how much witches’ brew you'll be serving. Having plenty of food on hand when guests are sampling magic potions is always a good idea. Be sure to have a supply of water, juices, and soft drinks, too. Making sure someone has a safe ride home is part of your job as a host, too. For dessert, have fun with cutout cookies and decorated cupcakes, just as you would for a party for kids. It’s all in good fun.

Prizes. Have silly fun with gag gifts. For the overall best-of-show costumes, however, you could give a serious prize, such as a dinner gift card or movie tickets. You could even name a king and queen for the evening.

Games. You know your friends. If they would like fun games, such as a scavenger hunt, go for it and have fun making up a list. Your neighbors might enjoy being part of the fun, when costumed people come to the door seeking birthday candles and other odd items. Or maybe your music-loving friends who would enjoy dancing or singing along to someone playing guitar. Be creative and see which friends have talents to share.

Rules. There are none. —Carol McGarvey

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entertaining: Summer's Last Bash

Summer's Last Bash

It’s almost time for summer to bite the dust, with school starting and other activities filling the calendar, but it’s not quite autumn yet. Don’t let summer get away without one last bash. Instead of worrying about cleaning the house or sprucing up the yard, how about moving all the festivities to a park? Outdoor entertaining is easy on everyone, and it can be downright fun. Some tips to consider:

  • Check the long-range weather forecast online. If you can get by with staking out a few picnic tables, all the better. But if even a little rain might fall on your parade, check on the availability of a park shelter. Call your municipality about reserving a shelter. There might be a fee, but peace of mind is worth something.
  • Do you need a site with a grill? Check to see what’s available. If needed, you might have to tote along a portable grill for brats and burgers.
  • Pack a blanket or beach towel or two for those who want to sit on the ground to eat or to visit.
  • Plan your menu with the weather in mind. If it’s 100 degrees in the shade, this might be the time to skip the potato salad with mayonnaise and eggs. Finger foods always are good choices for picnics.
  • Make it a potluck. Share the load, and share the fun. That way, each person or family only has to bring a dish or two to share, and no one minds that.
  • Make setup and cleanup easy on everyone. Disposable plates, cups, and utensils are the only way to go.
  • For salads or bowls of fresh fruits or vegetables, new little plastic items are just right for filling with ice to hold foods. They look like mini kids’ plastic swimming pools, but they work beautifully for holding bowls of food. Check out big box stores in the outdoor entertaining section.
  • If you have small children in the group, try to choose shelters or tables close to the playground equipment so parents can easily watch and play with the kids.
  • If there’s a chance the bugs and mosquitoes will crash the party, be sure to light citronella candles and carry along bug spray. Nothing ruins an outing faster than uninvited pests.
  • Tell all the guests to bring along outdoor games or balls to help entertain the troops.
  • Enjoy. It’s a fun way to create summer memories. You’ll remember your outdoor gathering fondly during a snowstorm next winter.

—Carol McGarvey

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entertaining: Host a State Fair Party

Host a State Fair Party

Can't wait for the Iowa State Fair? What do you like best? The exhibits? The animals? The Varied Industries Building? The concerts, free and not-so-free? The mass of humanity? Let's get real. It's the food!! We try and try to be good, but at the fair, that's not always easy. So how about giving in to your state fair cravings? How about a pre-state fair get-together at home with friends?

Decorations. Pull out your red, white, and blue decorating skills and have at it. Red and white checks are entirely appropriate. Or, if you're more a red or navy bandanna-type person, go with it. Actually, you can make those themes work together. Get red or blue disposable plates and napkins. An American flag here or there is delightfully in order. After all, what's more American than our state fair?

Food. Of course, think anything on a stick or anything that can be eaten by hand. No need for forks and knives here. Tradition rules, so corn dogs and funnel cakes are must-haves. Check your supermarket for funnel cake batter mixes. Make or purchase cake pops on a stick. For color and a little variety, cut tiny wedges of watermelon or other fruits and skewer them on Popsicle sticks. For finger foods, make up platters of nachos or bowls of popcorn or kettle corn. For beverages, lemonade and beer are standard fair fare. For dessert, make it simple. How about some really, really good ice cream like the cones on the main floor of the Agriculture Building? And, because this is Iowa and we have a thing about bacon, you could even stir little bits of bacon into vanilla ice cream if you like. We hear it's not bad.

Games. It is the fair after all, so gather games such as bean bag toss, ring toss, bocce, and darts from friends and neighbors and set up teams. If little kids are involved, have them bring their toy tractors for a little parade. Award inexpensive prizes to the game winners, just like at the fair.

Judging. Tell guests to bring their best baked confection—such as pies, cakes, and cookies—and set up a judging area. Have ballots for your guests, who will go around and take bites and rank the winners. The judging takes care of dessert for the party. All's fair.

Corn Dogs

1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup milk
1 quart vegetable oil for frying
2 16-ounce packages beef frankfurters
16 wooden skewers

In a medium bowl combine cornmeal, flour, salt, pepper, sugar, and baking powder. Stir in egg and milk. Heat oil in a deep saucepan over medium heat. Insert wooden skewers into frankfurters. Roll frankfurters in batter until well coated.

Fry, 2 or 3 corn dogs at a time, until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Makes 16 corn dogs. Recipe from AllRecipes.com.

—Carol McGarvey

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entertaining: Kids' Camping Party

Kids' Camping Party

Spring is in full force, and summer isn’t far away. How about a fun camping party for the kids? It can be for a birthday, a school’s-out event, or “just because.”

  • If this is to be an overnight camping party, make sure that everyone’s ready for that experience. Kids probably should be at least age 7. Be prepared in case a child might want to go home in the middle of the night. Keep parents’ phone numbers handy.
  • Indicate on the invitations that each child should bring along a sleeping bag, a pillow, and warm and comfortable pajamas.
  • Depending on the number of children invited, have enough tents for the group. Borrow some tents or fashion some—teepee-style—from four pieces of 5-foot PVC piping, 2 yards of fabric, and some duct tape. To calm everyone’s fears, make sure that there is at least one parent stationed in each tent.
  • For playing games and dividing into teams, get some colorful handkerchiefs, such as red ones and yellow ones, to tie on during competition. For a starter game, how about a scavenger hunt? The hunt is always fun and always competitive. Game prizes can be flashlights or glow sticks.
  • Particularly if you’re having a girls’ party, crafts might be the order of the evening. Get some inexpensive birdhouses to paint and decorate. Have a supply of supplies and trims and let the creativity begin.
  • Just for fun around a campfire or a fire pit, teach the partygoers some camp songs. They’ll remember the fun times for years.
  • Food is pretty easy for a camping party. For snacking before an actual meal, set up a trail mix buffet of pretzels, raisins, vegetable sticks, and popcorn. The healthful snacks will give them energy to play games and run around. For a meal, help the campers roast hot dogs and make s’mores. Have a supply of marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate bars on hand.
  • To calm everyone down before bedtime, how about showing a movie on a screen or a sheet attached to the garage?
  • With any luck at all—sweet dreams!

—Carol McGarvey

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entertaining: Host a Cinco de Mayo Party

entertaining

Hey, amigos, it’s time for a little fiesta! It won’t be long until Cinco de Mayo—May 5— a perfect time to party. But the cool thing about a fiesta is that it works any time you feel the need to get together with some good friends.

First, a history lesson. Many people think that Cinco de Mayo celebrates Mexico’s independence. Wrong. It’s actually about a relatively obscure battle that pitted 4,000 Mexicans against 8,000 better-armed French invaders in 1862. The battle of Puebla took place on May 5. This year Cinco de Mayo is on Sunday, so, yes, it’s OK to start your celebration on Friday if you like.

Decorations. Colors of the Mexican flag are red, green, and white, so use those as your color palette. However, any bright and festive color will work. “Overdone” is perfect. Use streamers, colorful blankets, and a classic decoration, big and colorful tissue paper flowers. Check out a party store. Or just search for directions and make huge numbers of paper posies.

Music. Unless you know the members of a mariachi band, go authentic with recorded salsa or tejano music. You know your friends. Play the kind of music they like.

Costumes. There are no costumes per se, but if someone wants to wear a large sombrero, that would be fun. Otherwise, bright clothing—the brighter, the better— is certainly in order.

Food. Buffet style works well. Use a sombrero as a centerpiece and a bright cloth for the table. A taco bar is fun. Consider beef, pork, fish, or chicken for the meat filling. Use baskets for the hard or soft tortilla shells and new, clean clay pots for the fixings. Be sure, of course, to cover the hole in each pot. If you have pottery bowls, those work, too. Have chips and salsa, guacamole, and queso (spicy cheese sauce) available for munching.

Classic drinks. Margaritas are a must. Have tequila, an orange-flavored liqueur, and lime juice on hand. Some say the margarita is the most popular cocktail north of the border. If someone prefers a Virgin Margarita, mix 2 ounces lemon-lime soda and 3 ounces sweet ’n’ sour mix. Moisten the rim of a margarita glass with lime, then dip the glass into 1 teaspoon of coarse salt to line the rim. Fill the glass with ice and pour in the soda-mix blend.

Mexican beers. South-of-the-border beers have made inroads up north. Some of the most popular are Corona, Dos Equis, Carta Blanca, Negra Modelo, Modelo Especial, Tecate, Sol, Pacifico Clara, and Victoria.

Finishing touch. When you’re at the party store, remember this: No one is ever too old for a piñata.

—Carol McGarvey

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entertaining: Planning an Easter Gathering

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Easter, of course, is the holiest of holy days, but it also is a celebration of new life and of spring, so planning a gathering for that day can be lots of fun.

  • First decide on your guest list and how big a gathering you want. Will it be a sit-down dinner or buffet? Often that is determined by how much space you have for the number of people coming. Many dining areas cannot accommodate large groups at a table.
  • Because it’s a celebration of renewal, shed winter and pull out your spring decorations. Use a light or pastel tablecloth and bright napkins. Add some fresh flowers to set the tone.
  • If you’re having a traditional Easter meal, decide on the main courses. Many people have ham, lamb, roast chicken, or turkey for the holiday meal. Likely you want a potato dish of some sort to accompany the entrée.
  • Other side dishes might follow family traditions. Is Aunt Mary’s raspberry salad a must at family get-togethers? Because spring is at hand, celebrate with asparagus, salad greens, and a carrot dish.
  • Hot cross buns are traditional at this time of year. Tackle them yourself or check out your favorite bakery and order some for pickup before your dinner.
  • For dessert, something spring-y also is in order. A lemon- or strawberry-based dessert will hit the spot nicely.
  • Is this a meal you’ll handle completely by yourself? Or are you hosting a potluck? Most people don’t mind bringing a dish. In fact, many want to do so.
  • If a traditional dinner doesn’t fit the group, go with a brunch, which is a favorite meal for many people. There are many brunch recipes available, and they can and often should be made the day before. Stick with a couple pans of the same recipe or have a couple different choices. Ham or another meat choice works well with the casseroles. And you can stick with the same choices of asparagus, a carrot dish, and a fresh fruit medley or compote. Or, if you prefer, fresh fruit (berries, grapes, kiwi slices, pineapple) on a skewer gives a nice presentation and is easy to handle. And a lemon, strawberry, or other fruity dessert is a good springtime choice.
  • If there are young children in the mix, dyed Easter eggs are a must. If the kids are staying at your home overnight, you can dye eggs as a project the day before. If not, you can do some ahead or have one of the mothers bring some. An afternoon Easter egg hunt is always a fun activity—for kids of all ages.

—Carol McGarvey

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entertaining: Throwing a Super Bowl Party

entertaining

If you can’t be at the New Orleans Superdome on February 3 for this year’s Super Bowl, you can throw a party instead. Keep in mind that you’ll likely have two kinds of fans—die-hard NFL followers who know every stat in the book and occasional fans who love the contest of the best and most expensive commercials. Either way, it’s a great time.

Have fun decorating. Go to party stores for football-theme plates and other decorations. If your favorite team made it to the Big Game, decorate in team colors with pennants, balloons, and streamers. Get some Astroturf at the hardware store and cut out a table runner and/or coasters in the shape of a gridiron. By all means, use paper plates and bowls and disposable utensils. Make it easy on yourself.

Greet guests with a game. Have each guest write his or her name on a piece of paper, along with a predicted score of the game’s outcome. The winner with the closest numbers gets the door prize. Make it a funny one.

Finger food wins. Most of your guests will be moving around, so make the food easy to carry. Finger foods that are transportable include slices of pizza, wings, slices of a large sub sandwich, chips and dips, and cold cuts and cheeses. Keep foods to be kept warm, such as queso dip, in your slow cooker. Be sure to have a veggie or fruit tray as an alternative to the not-so-nutritious fare.

Offer some dinner fare if you like. All the snack foods are great, but you may want something a little more substantial to offer as well. How about chili, lasagna, meatballs, or even a potato bar? Bake some potatoes ahead and set out a variety of toppings.

A little dessert. Cookies, another finger food, make a tasty dessert. Decorated cookies in the shapes of footballs or helmets work beautifully.

Tipping a few. Beer is the usual choice for the Super Bowl top beverage, but not everyone is a fan. Be sure to have sodas and water and perhaps some wine, margaritas, or mojitos. You likely know your guests’ preferences.

Halftime fun. If it’s a mild winter evening, encourage everyone to take a break at halftime and go outside to—what else!—throw a football around to work off some game frustration.

Taxi service? You know your guests. If it’s appropriate, you might offer pickup and delivery service to the party. If that doesn’t work for your crowd, make sure to have a designated driver or two. —Carol McGarvey

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entertaining: Making the Most of Holiday Leftovers

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Sometimes leftovers don’t get their due respect. But think about it. After all the planning and the cooking, leftovers are a holiday gift. With them, you can easily create other dishes for holiday visitors and family members without starting over from scratch.

First off, it’s important to make sure that perishable leftovers don’t sit out on the counter for more than two hours. For cooling foods in a hurry, package food in small portions. Here’s a guideline for keeping cooked foods in the refrigerator. When in doubt, toss it.

Ham, Sliced 3 to 4 days
Baked turkey 2 days
Stuffing 1 to 2 days
Pasta 3 to 4 days
Deli counter meats 5 days
Beef, Poultry, Pork, Fish 3 to 4 days
Gravy 1 to 2 days
Vegetables 3 to 4 days
Soups, Stews and Casseroles 3 to 4 days

With ham or turkey on hand, the possibilities are legion. Besides tasty sandwiches, think pot pies, salads, wraps, and soups for starters.

  • Pair pasta with leftover veggies or meats for an easy, quick, and filling meal.
  • Stuff a tortilla or a pita half with your favorite sandwich makings. Add some greens, tomatoes, mustard, and cheese.
  • Add diced ham to your favorite quiche recipe.
  • Open a can of your favorite vegetable soup. Add chopped leftover vegetables and some tomato juice for an extra-tasty soup.
  • Sauté vegetables and chopped turkey in some soy sauce and orange juice for a yummy stir-fry dish. Serve with rice.
  • Use leftover bread or quick breads to make a twist on flavorful French toast.
  • Cut extra rolls or bread into cubes and add to your favorite bread pudding recipe.

For more ideas, check out Butterball.com and Smithfield.com. —CM

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entertaining: Hosting a Fall Fire Pit Party

entertaining

From the beginning of time, fire's glimmer and warmth have been natural crowd magnets. It's no wonder then that a home accessory–the fire pit–continues the tradition. An ever-growing number of homeowners build or add in-ground or above-ground gas fire pits to their landscaping plans. Still others prefer the portable versions that can be moved to various spots in the yard.

Just light a fire pit and the glow acts as a magnet for neighbors and friends to congregate. Fire pits are meant to be casual, so nearly any gathering you might want to host can be pretty easy to pull off.

In the blistering heat of Iowa's recent brutal summer, we thought we'd never reach the cool of autumn. Now that we have, a fire pit party is the perfect and easy reason to gather the gang.

  • Invite your friends and neighbors to bring hors d'oeuvres and munchies. Their contributions can be as easy as popcorn, chips and salsa or guacamole, or a veggie and dip tray.
  • For a more substantial spread, make a big pot or two of chili or stew. Have crackers and rolls to fill out the meal.
  • Roast hot dogs or brats. Provide buns and condiments. Let everyone cook his or her own to get the dogs just right.
  • If the temperature is cold, serve hot chocolate, hot cider, or mulled wine to cut the chill and warm the soul.
  • Arrange lawn chairs, blankets, and/or pillows around the fire pit.
  • If there's a guitar player in the group, sing camp or folk songs and engage the children, too. Everyone will have a blast.
  • For dessert, is there any other choice besides s'mores? We think not. Provide graham crackers, chocolate candy bars, and marshmallows for roasting. If your gathering is a potluck, divide those ingredients among several guests so that all the bases are covered.
  • Nip in the air? When the conversation and the fire get going, you'll forget it pretty quickly.

–Carol McGarvey

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entertaining: Hosting a Kabob Grilling Party

entertaining


It doesn’t matter what kind of a party you are hosting. Make it a potluck to share the work and share the fun. No one seems to mind, and it always turns into an interesting mix of delicious morsels.

One twist on a potluck is a make-your-own-kabob party. Food on a stick is always a hit. Just ask the vendors at the Iowa State Fair. Anything goes, of course. You can have beef sirloin or tenderloin, pork tenderloin, sausage, chicken, or firm-flesh fish, such as halibut, tuna, salmon, or deveined shrimp. You can give your kabobs a flavor twist, such as Mediterranean, Mexican, or Asian, just by some of the sauces and side dishes you serve. Here are some ideas to get you started:

• Use wooden or metal skewers. If you are going to grill with the wooden ones, available at supermarkets, soak them in warm water for about 30 minutes so they won’t start on fire when you put them on the grill. To secure your foods on the wooden ones, consider using two skewers for each kabob. Metal skewers are available at kitchen shops, stores such as Target, and even larger hardware stores. They are, of course, reusable.

• For the potluck aspect, guests might be willing to bring chunks of various meats, veggies, fruits (for dessert kabobs) or side dishes or beverages. For side dishes, anything that works for any other potluck or picnic works for a kabob party, too—potato salad, rice dishes, salsas and chips, you name it.

• Anything goes for placing on skewers: bread, tofu, pineapple, mango, mushrooms, small pieces of corn on the cob, pearl onions, shallots, peppers, cherry tomatoes, and zucchini. If there are vegetarians in the group, just make sure to provide lots of vegetables to make kabobs.

• The meat or protein choice you have will help you to figure the size of the vegetable chunks for the kabobs. With quick-cooking seafood, you’ll want smaller chunks to cook more quickly. For hefty pieces of steak, chicken, or pork, use larger veggie pieces.

• If desired, marinate meats in various sauces or just Italian salad dressing or olive oil, salt, and pepper. For an Asian flavor, use teriyaki sauce. Marinate in the refrigerator about two hours for meats and about 30 minutes for seafood. You can brush sauces over the meats just before grilling, too. Or offer a variety of dipping sauces for the grilled meats. For sauce recipes, check your cookbooks or online sources such as AllRecipes.com, Epicurious.com, MixingBowl.com, CookingLight.com, and others.

• If you want to carry through to dessert kabobs, chunks of brownies and angel food cake grill nicely. Pair them with fruit such as pineapple, grapes, kiwifruits, or mangoes for colorful kabobs. You don’t even have to grill those. They’re good fresh, too.

— Carol McGarvey
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entertaining: Host an Ice Cream Party

entertaining


It doesn’t matter what our age is—we ALL scream for ice cream.

It might be a throwback to ice cream social days of yore, but how about throwing an old-fashioned ice cream party? Sweet! It’s perfect for a summer get-together and can cover all the age bases. A make-your-own-sundae party is a cool way to deal with the heat.

Putting on an ice cream party is fairly easy. Here’s the scoop:

• If there are lots of kids involved, make things simple. Provide plastic teaspoons or parfait spoons and plastic or paper cups or bowls. If you’re hosting adults only, it’s fun to dig out Aunt Mary’s glass dishes “just for pretty.”

• With kids, stick to the basics in terms of flavors: vanilla, chocolate, and a fruit option. With fewer choices, you can have more fun with toppings. If you’re hosting mostly adults, add a coffee flavor or some specialty items.

• The cool-flavor scene can be confusing. Here’s a primer. Ice cream is made of mostly cream and some milk, with a butterfat content ranging from about 11 to 18 percent. Gelato is mostly milk, with some cream and a butterfat content of about
4 to 14 percent. Granita has a sugar-syrup base blended with pureed fruit, coffee, or wine and no butterfat, so it’s dairy-free; its consistency is similar to shaved ice. Sherbet also has a sugar-syrup base and pureed fruit, with a small amount of butterfat (no more than 2 percent). Sorbet is similar to granita, but it is whipped, which breaks up the ice crystals and makes the texture lighter; there’s no butterfat, so it’s dairy-free.

• Decide on homemade ice cream or purchased. For ease in serving, especially on a hot day, you might want to limit the group to no more than 20.

• How much ice cream? Each guest likely will average three ½-cup servings. For 12 people, you’ll need 1¼ gallons total, or about 9 pints. For 20 people, have at least 2 gallons total, or about 15 pints. It’s always good to have a couple more in the freezer.

• For toppings, have fun—sprinkles, M&M’s, chocolate chips or shavings, coconut, smashed Oreos, broken graham crackers, maraschino cherries, and more. Ask about allergies. You don’t want to have chopped nuts for a topping if someone is allergic.

• For syrups or sauces, it’s safe to go with chocolate, caramel or butterscotch, hot fudge (keep warm in a mini slow cooker or fondue pot), marshmallow creme, and/or fresh berries, such as strawberries or blueberries. For an adult party, Kahlúa or espresso might be in order.

• To round out the party, serve homemade cookies or slices of angel food cake.

• If it’s an extra-warm day, you might want to scoop the ice cream into bowls ahead of time and freeze them. Scooping ice cream outside in the heat can be messy.

• Offer water or lemonade for beverages. Have LOTS of napkins during the party and moist towelettes for cleaning up sticky fingers afterwards. — Carol McGarvey

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entertaining: Hosting a Tapas Party

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Any occasion is a good time for a tapas party whether it’s celebrating a festive occasion or getting together after work on Friday. But, first, the question: What are tapas anyway?

Tapas likely originated in Seville, Spain, and have become a Spanish nightly tradition. The word literally means “lid” or “cover” (perhaps a piece of bread or slice of meat or cheese) to keep insects out of drink glasses.

These days, however, the word refers to “little bites” of food served hot or cold. Tapas can be as simple as olives or almonds, or they might be heartier appetizers, such as meats, vegetables, or seafood. Another choice is small toasted breads with various toppings. In other words, sharing tapas with others is a grazing party.

• You can focus on Greek, Spanish, Italian, French, or Mediterranean foods. To ease into the idea, choose some of your favorite American hors d’oeuvres.

• If you’re going to tackle the European way, put yourself in the spirit by renting Under the Tuscan Sun and purchasing a bottle of limoncello.

• Set your party for afternoon or early evening to be traditional. And, by all means, gather outside if you can.

• Tapas are usually finger foods, but you will want to have utensils available. Use small plates, and plenty of them, and toothpicks or mini picks for easy handling.

• Encourage your friends to play along and bring an appetizer or two to share the load and enjoy the fun. If they don’t want to bring food, ask them to bring a bottle of wine.

• Have a variety of wines, bottled beers, waters, and soft drinks. Spanish and red wines usually pair nicely with tapas.

• If it’s warm, consider making big pitchers of sangria. The fruity wine mixture is a good match for spicy foods.

• For tapas, consider grilled shrimp on skewers, hummus, roasted potatoes, and a variety of artisan cheeses with chorizo and other sausages. Mushrooms with garlic, salami, pickled vegetables, small meatballs, and dried cherries are some other suggestions.

• Gourmet shops, Trader Joe’s, and other specialty shops offer items to purchase that would work well for your party. Around here, olive lovers enjoy the variety of the olive bars at area Hy-Vee stores.

• For planning purposes, the rule of thumb is 6 to 8 bites per guest if it’s a cocktail party lasting about 90 minutes. If it’s more of a dinner gathering lasting about three hours, plan on 12 to 15 bites per guest.

• The whole idea is casual, so don’t make it formal in any way. — C.M.

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entertaining: Host a Spring Brunch

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Easter or any spring weekend is perfect for hosting a brunch. It’s a wonderful reason to gather family and friends, especially if you haven’t spent much time together throughout the winter. Brunches are casual, pretty easy to put together, and so fun to enjoy.

• Pull out your springy-looking pastel tablecloths and napkins. It’s time to lighten up!

• Think spring for food, too. If your gathering is on Easter, you might consider a spiral-cut ham and quiche Lorraine for the main dishes. Asparagus, fresh fruit salad, and yummy rolls are tasty and easy accompaniments.

• Perhaps guests will offer to bring dishes. Let them. The potluck approach just makes the meal more fun.

• If you have room for guests to sit down at a table, that’s great. But depending on the size of the crowd and the size of your dining space, buffet-style serving works well, too. Then people can sit all over your house. If it’s a nice day, perhaps some can enjoy the sun’s rays on your deck or patio.

• For desserts, consider spring flavors such as lemon, strawberry, and orange.

• Celebrate the season in a centerpiece of daffodils or tulips.

• If there are children attending on Easter, an egg hunt is always a fun activity for kids of all ages. Before the meal, how about dyeing some eggs? Hard-cook some eggs the day before and refrigerate them. Then set up an area where the youngsters can color eggs. Have markers so they can write their names on their creations. After brunch someone can hide the eggs for the hunt.

• If your crowd is too old for egg hunts, consider a game of charades. Write some Easter-theme clues on pastel paper cut into egg shapes and have guests act them out for fun.

• Be sure to include decorative bowls filled with jelly beans and chocolate eggs around the room. —C.M.

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entertaining: Host a "Giving Party"

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A fun trend in philanthropy embellishes the idea of writing a check and sticking it in the mail. So-called “giving parties” offer a new twist to home parties; instead of purchasing jewelry or kitchen items or bringing a hostess gift, you bring an item to donate to a charity.

There are various ways to set up a party, and there are numerous nonprofit groups you might choose to help.

• How about a women’s shelter? Often women and children come to a shelter without time to pack a bag. Pj’s, bags of toiletries, and small toys might be helpful.

• How about an animal shelter, where it costs lots of money to feed growing numbers of cats and dogs? Guests can donate bags of pet food for the cause.

• Food pantry supplies get low at various times of the year. Your friends could donate canned goods, boxes of cereal, and other dry goods items.

• In late summer, certain schools might need school supplies, such as backpacks, notebooks, markers, and other items for students whose families can’t afford them.

As the host, you might plan the party at your home. Or, if you know someone with a fabulous home that others would enjoy seeing, that homeowner or local celebrity might be willing to open her home. You might engage close friends to donate food or beverages for the party as their contribution. Serve a whole meal of casseroles, salad, and rolls. Or serve appetizers and drinks only, or set up a dessert bar.

Pick a charity to support and contact the administration of it to see what the specific needs are. Then when you invite people, you can target and suggest items that are needed. To beef up the excitement, perhaps the CEO or a marketing or development leader could explain the group’s work to your party guests. Aside from items, of course, cash is a welcome donation.

You know your friends. If you think a white elephant or regular auction would raise more funds, use that technique to develop donations, too. Donate a certificate for your famous pecan pie. Or an amateur photographer in the group might donate a family portrait session to the cause.

As with any party, your invitations should include date, time, and place. Explain the giving concept and suggest ideas of items that are needed. As a finishing touch, send each donor a thank-you note after the event for his or her contribution.

Friends will enjoy getting together and sharing some munchies and wine, and feel great that they have contributed to the community in a meaningful way. — C.M.

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entertaining: Host Your Own Fondue Party

entertaining


Everything old is new again, and a fun party in the middle of the winter is just what we need to chase those winter doldrums. How about digging out your fondue pots and forks? What’s easier than a serve-yourself party?

Fondue parties have been creating fun for a long time. Some of us received seven (!!) fondue pots for wedding gifts before the days when gift registries helped take care of duplications. We kept a metal one for meat fondue and a ceramic one for cheese and chocolate fondues.


• Plan on four guests per one fondue pot. It’s OK to use a slow cooker or a chafing dish if you need more pots.

• How about starting with an appetizer cheese fondue, moving to a meat one with dipping sauces, and finishing up with a chocolate fondue with dessert dippers?

• Set up different stations for the various fondue pots. A long table with guests moving down the line works, too.

• Metal pots work well for cheese and meat fondues. These are perfect for sit-down meals, which are actually safer than standing and eating.

• If you’re creating your own cheese fondue recipe, it’s best to stay within cheese “families.” Blend these varieties or groupings—cheddar, Colby, longhorn, and Monterey jack; Edam and Gouda; provolone and mozzarella; Parmesan and Romano; cream cheese, Neufchâtel, cottage, and ricotta; and Camembert, Brie, brick, Muenster, and Port du Salut. Use sturdy bread chunks and veggies for cheese fondue dippers. Check out recipes online or in cookbooks.

• For meat fondue, heat oil, broth, wine, or beer for the liquid. Serve small bowls filled with bite-size chunks of beef (such as round steak), chicken, or seafood. Use purchased or homemade dips and sauces for dipping. Give guests small plates and regular forks for removing meats from the fondue fork. Some guests might want paper towels for blotting meat chunks to remove excess oil.

• How much food to plan? Count on about 1 pound of food per person. One person likely would consume about one-third to half a loaf of French bread, 8 ounces seafood, 8 ounces meat, 4 to 6 ounces cheese, 8 ounces vegetables, and 8 ounces fruit. Certainly not everyone would eat that much, but it’s best to be prepared. With fondue, you can eat more than you think you can.

• Remember fondue etiquette. Do not touch your lips to a fork that goes back into the communal fondue pot. Remove the cooked meat and other dippers from the fondue fork before eating. (The fork will be so hot that you won’t want it near your mouth anyway!) If you have compartmentalized plates to separate cheese, meat, and dessert fondue dippers, great. If not, provide small plates for your guests so that the foods don’t intermingle.

• For beverages, beer and full-bodied wines work well, as do soft drinks. For dessert fondue, shots of Kirsch, a cherry brandy, go nicely with the dipped morsels.

• It’s easy to add a theme to a fondue party. Something retro would be appropriate.


Happy dipping! — C.M.
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entertaining: Host a Cookie Exchange

cookie


Nothing speaks Christmas quite like a tray of many, many kinds of holiday-favorite cookies. But the eternal problem of time often gets in the way of good intentions. Not to panic. A festive cookie exchange handles this issue in a fun, fun way.

Hosting a cookie exchange is a little like calling for a potluck. The premise is the same—the guests share the work and share the fun.

Invite friends who enjoy baking. They just have to bring lots of ONE kind of cookie, so it’s not overwhelming. At the end of the party, everyone takes home some of everyone else’s cookies—a lovely way to share the holiday spirit.

Everyone goes home with a colorful and tasty variety of cookie favorites. It works best to get an exact head count of how many are coming. Have each guest bring either a dozen or half dozen cookies for each of the other guests. You can have them bring the cookies already bagged. Or all the cookies can be put out on trays for guests to package. It’s whatever works best for your situation.

Encourage guests to bring extras for sampling, too. That way, some of the treats for the party are taken care of, too. If guests will be selecting their own cookie array, provide plastic baggies or paper plates and foil for them. Ask guests to bring copies of their recipes. That will avoid mailing out recipes later. Plus, it’s just fun to get a new variety of recipes to take home, especially important when people have sampled something they like.

Put on some holiday music so everyone can get into the mood. If there’s a musician in the group, suggest a sing-along of favorite carols.

If you host the party on a Saturday morning, you might want to serve quiche or a breakfast casserole, fruit, and muffins. If it’s an evening party, appetizers are in order.

Of course, you can just eat cookies, too! Serve with hot mulled cider, wine, or coffee. And don’t forget to offer milk for the cookies-and-milk purists among you.—C.M.

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entertaining: Host a Pumpkin-Carving Party

entertaining


Think you’re too old to get into the Halloween spirit? This fun holiday is second only to Christmas in terms of decorating and of adult-style gatherings.

Halloween is also the third-largest party day in the United States, behind New Year’s Eve and Super Bowl Sunday. That’s from the Hallmark folks, and they should know.

How about a pumpkin-carving party? This can be for adults only, but if you have kids, this is the perfect time to share the fun with them, too. The older kids can help out with little ones.

  • Tell your guests it’s BYOP—Bring Your Own Pumpkin—so they can choose the shape, color, and style they want. Encourage them to bring large gourds or pumpkins in other colors (the white ones are delightful). Pick up some mini pumpkins for the kids.
  • Decorate your porch or patio with Halloween trimmings to set the mood.
  • If it’s nice outside, center the pumpkin preparation on a picnic or small table. Cleanup will be so much easier than inside. Put newspapers under the table and offer garbage bags for wearing over their clothes “just in case.”
  • For adults, have large bowls for depositing the pumpkin pulp. Set out knives, tablespoons, and pencils for design planning.
  • For kids, no knives, please. Provide an array of markers or paints for their creativity. You can print jack-o’-lantern stencils from online sources, magazines, or newspapers, which often give ideas. Kids also can help dig out the pulp on the adults’ pumpkins with spoons or ice cream scoops. Wee ones might like to decorate mini pumpkins with stickers.
  • Award prizes, of course, for stellar work.
  • For drinks, have hot mulled cider brewing in a slow cooker or on the stovetop. Chill beer and other beverages on ice. For little ones, apple juice works well.
  • Standard autumn food is in order. Make a big pot of chili and set up a toppings bar. Offer various shredded cheeses, chopped onions, guacamole, salsa, and sour cream. Have a choice of crackers, such as saltines or mini soup crackers. Tasty corn bread and a colorful relish tray are good side dishes.
  • If pizza is more fitting for your crowd, set up a heat-and-eat bar with a variety of crusts and toppings so guests customize their pies. Warm them under the broiler or, if you are outside, on the grill.
  • For dessert, pumpkin-shape cookies, pumpkin bread, or pumpkin bars make great finger food.

Happy Halloween! – C.M. 

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entertaining: Autumn Decorating with Natural Items


Decorating for fall is fairly easy, especially when you can incorporate natural items into your home, patio, porch, or deck.

First off, autumn colors are mellow, warm, and inviting— buttery gold, cozy pumpkin, warm brown, and muted green. Think sunflowers and sheaves of wheat. Look around your yard or notice Mother Nature’s seasonal touches when you drive in the country. Take your cues. They are right in front of you.

     1. Autumn garden style is, above all else, comfortable and simple. Purchase a pot or two of mums for instant color. Mums look great no matter where you place themon a step, on a porch, or anywhere you want a spot of color.

     2. Pumpkins work the same way. Big or mini, orange or white, they quietly create a statement. Group several in different shades and sizes. For the mini ones, carve out an opening in the center and place a votive candle in the spot. Use them for place markers if you have dinner guests or put them in among decorative groupings in your home.

     3. Pull out every glass vase you can find. Fill them with natural items. This simple idea works well with shiny silver containers, too. You’ll love the contrast. Select groups of pinecones, nuts, berries, acorns, buckeyes, and interesting twigs. Put them in various spots around your home. You’ll love the touches of texture.

     4. Arrange colorful gourds in baskets. Like snowflakes, each gourd seems different from the others.

     5. Fill bowls for your tables with fruits and vegetables for natural touches. Choose squashes, apples, pears, pomegranates, and any others that look interesting.

     6. Stand long cinnamon sticks in a tall glass container or jar. For a more rustic look, put old Mason jars to work as vases.

     7. Go for a walk and gather colorful maple and other leaves. Scatter some on a dining room sideboard, a bedroom dresser, or a side table.

     8. For an evening cookout or gathering, make or purchase luminarias to add a glow to the festivities. A grouping of pillar candles works well, too.

     9. Arrange fall flowers or grasses in interesting containers, such as old paint cans, old milk jars, wine bottles, buckets, and old pitchers. —CM


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entertaining: Plan a Pool Party

entertaining


If you have access to a swimming pool, one of the natural must-do-it parties is, of course, a pool party. This is the time to pull out all the summertime stops.

The pool itself is the main attraction and the center of attention, so just go with it. Give your invitations—mailed on paper or sent electronically—a water theme. Blue and white, fishes, bright umbrellas—you get the picture.

Deck the family in bright floral Hawaiian shirts. And for music, well, two surfer bands are musts—the Beach Boys and Jimmy Buffett. Boomers in your group will feel right at home and will sing along, we assure you. Younger people will be forced to agree on the necessity of these bands, so you’ll have no problems.

• Bring out the tiki torches for effect. Go to a party store and check out the palm tree-inspired decorations and palm-adorned plastic or paper plates, napkins, and table decorations.

• Bright colors in tablecloths, lawn chairs, balloons, and market umbrellas are perfect. The umbrellas are necessary to provide guests shade from the sun and reflective water. You don’t want guests going home with deep sunburns.

• Play fun games. Set up a net for water volleyball or hoops for water basketball. Have a hula contest or play water limbo under a stream of water from a hose. Play Pin the Palm Tree on a map of Hawaii. Toss around bright beach balls. 

• For beverages, remember that you’re dealing with water here. You don’t want guests getting sloshed and acting silly in the water. Offer lemonade, iced tea, sodas, and bottled water. When people are out of the water, then you can dish up classic frozen drinks such as piña coladas and margaritas.

• For foods, make things easy on your guests and you, the host. Serve finger foods so you don’t have to provide sit-down tables for all the diners. Sliders, burgers, hot dogs, or brats on the grill; vegetables and dips; and tortilla chips and your favorite salsa work well. Fruit kabobs and lemon or key lime bars make a tasty dessert.

• If it’s a bright sunny day, keep in mind the reflective power of the water. Offer sunscreen to your guests.

• Especially with a pool party, and especially if there are children at the party, make safety your priority. Anyone can get a cramp, and anyone can start talking and forget to watch the kids. Make sure that everyone is mindful of who is in the water at any given time. – C.M.


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entertaining: Memorial Day Weekend: Let Summer Begin!

entertaining


Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start of the summer season. If you haven’t done so already, it’s time to hose down the deck or the patio, brush away winter, bring out the lawn furniture, and fire up the grill.
About this time, a gentle sigh of relaxation descends over central Iowa, and it’s time to kick back and enjoy (we hope!) fewer commitments and a lighter schedule.
This is a good weekend for graduation parties, and it’s also a good time to invite some friends and neighbors you haven’t mingled with for awhile.
• Plan a meal on the grill. This keeps the party outdoors, where everyone wants to be 
   anyway. Your house doesn’t overheat, and your kitchen stays a bit cleaner.
• Make the meal a potluck. You can provide the meat to grill if you wish, but others can
   bring salads, chips and dips or salsas, and other side dishes. That way everyone shares
   in the work and in the fun.
• Focus on seasonal foods. Celebrate fresh produce—strawberries, grapes, watermelon,
   cantaloupe, fresh greens, and other farmer’s market items.
• Offer a variety of beverages: wine, beer, sodas, lemonade, and bottled water.
• Make dessert easy with ice cream bars or make-your-own sundaes.
• Make cleanup a breeze with paper or foam plates. But if you know you’ll be
   entertaining a lot during summer and fall, pick up some inexpensive plastic plates.
   They’re easy to wash, come in festive and bright colors, and save money in the long
   run because you won’t have to purchase paper products each time.

While you’re at it, make sure the kids know about the true meaning of Memorial Day. Originally known as Decoration Day, it was established in 1868 to honor the dead from the Civil War. Since then it has become a day to honor all men and women killed or missing in action in all wars. It also is a day to remember family members and friends who have died, and many Iowans take flowers or plants to graves. – C.M.

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entertaining: Plan a Summer Party

entertaining


Spring is the perfect time for hosting a brunch. Celebrate spring or the fact that we made it through winter. Literally any occasion is brunchworthy.

As a combination of breakfast and lunch, brunch foods can draw from both. You might choose an egg dish, some sort of meat, pastries, salads, cheeses, and fruits. Really, nearly everything is fair game for a brunch. If you have a friend who feels comfortable helping out, you might want to set up a waffle station or an omelet bar.

But it can be much, much easier as well. Mixing and matching foods and dishes is a fun approach. And by all means, feel free to mix your dinnerware. Set up a buffet for easy serving. Then people can take
what they want.

Serve dishes that can hold at room temperature so you aren’t constantly worried about keeping something hot. Make it easy on yourself. After all, you want to mingle and have fun, too.

Because it’s a buffet and some people might be standing while eating, make sure that all foods can be eaten easily with a fork. When possible, cut foods into individual portions for ease in serving and eating. That means your guests won’t have to maneuver a knife, which is awkward.

If table space is a problem, serve the main items on one table. Beverages and desserts can be on other tables. That helps keep the crowd moving around, too, which encourages better conversation.   

Some general rules of thumb for a brunch:
• Choose an egg-based dish or casserole. It can include meat or not.
• Serve a meat- or fish-based dish, such as a casserole.
• Offer several side dishes, such as salads.
• Include pastries, such as quick breads, muffins, rolls, or scones.
• Include a couple sweets, especially in-season fruits, to add great flavor and color
   to your table. If desired, offer a sweet finish, such as cookies or cheesecake bites.
• Stock orange juice, milk, coffee, tea, and water. Depending on your crowd, you
   also might consider offering mimosas, sparkling cider, wine, or champagne.

Depending on your situation, add folding chairs or pull out ottomans for extra
seating. If the weather is warm enough, open up the patio or deck and really know that spring is here. —C.M.

 

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entertaining: Celebrate Mardi Gras

entertaining


If going to New Orleans, the mecca of Mardi Gras, isn’t in the cards this year, you can still party in central Iowa—even without the mega parades. Eat some Cajun food, listen to zydeco or jazz music, and wear colorful beads.
    
First, a history lesson. What is Mardi Gras anyway? “Mardi Gras” is French for “Fat Tuesday,” the last day of feasting before Ash Wednesday and the 40 days of Lent observed in many religious traditions. This year Fat Tuesday falls on March 8, and Lent begins the next day, March 9. Easter is on April 24.
    
Mardi Gras originated in Paris, but many think it actually goes back to Lupercalia, a Roman festival in mid-February to banish evil spirits and bring health to residents. The Church, in an effort to encourage people to give up pagan ways, created a carnival as a celebration before Lent. Mardi Gras came to America in 1699 with explorer d’Iberville. He set up camp on the Mississippi River about 60 miles south of where New Orleans is now and called the spot Point du Mardi Gras.
    
The party grew throughout the 1700s. Revelers started wearing masks and costumes by the early 1800s. The first parade was in 1837. Rex, “King of Carnival,” appeared in 1872 as a way to bring some civility to the occasion.
    
What is Shrove Tuesday or “Fat Tuesday,” the day before Ash Wednesday? The word “shrove” is past tense of “shrive,” meaning to get absolution for one’s sins. It’s the time to use up all the fat in the house before Lent starts, so preparing pancakes makes sense. Around here, a number of churches have Shrove Tuesday pancake lunches or dinners.
    
What are the Mardi Gras colors? Purple is for justice, green is for faith, and gold is for power.
    
Why beads? The history of throwing or wearing beads is murky, but some believe they arrived in the 1800s and were passed out by a man dressed as Santa Claus. They were an instant hit and are tossed from floats at parades. Go to a party store to find Mardi Gras beads.
    
What is a King Cake? Have you ever eaten one of the yummy cinnamon cakes
decorated with icing and sprinkles in purple, green, and gold? You can order one from New Orleans or make one at home (search online for a King Cake recipe). To be official, a King Cake must have a tiny plastic baby doll in the dough. Whoever finds the baby in his or her piece of cake must provide the next King Cake or host the next party. If you want to make sure everyone gets the baby doll, put a plastic doll from a crafts or party store in each cupcake you make. —CM

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entertaining: Choose the Right Hostess Gift

entertaining


While it’s fun to be a good host, it’s important to be a good guest, too. When should you take a hostess gift? What should you take as a hostess gift?

The Emily Post Institute, named for the maven of manners, says that it’s up to you about a hostess gift for a cocktail party, but if you’re in a generous mood, a bottle of wine or some muffins for the next morning would be a lovely gift.

For a dinner party, yes, a small gift is good. Wine, candles, and soaps are perfectly fine choices. If you bring fresh flowers, be sure they are in a vase. Don’t hand the host or hostess some wrapped flowers and walk away. Who has time to stop playing host and go dig for the right-size vase?

For a brunch or lunch, offer to bring a side dish, dessert, or drink for the meal. But be sure to ask first. Don’t just show up with something that may not go with the meal that the hostess planned.

For an overnight stay, there’s a resounding YES in the gift department. The longer you stay, the bigger the gift should be. If there is nothing obvious that you know your hosts would like, a restaurant or spa gift certificate is appropriate.

For the host who has everything, some lovely jam, lemon curd, or the to-swoon-for brownies you are famous for will be lovely kindnesses.

In this high-tech era of email, Twitter, and texting, it’s always appropriate to send or attach a hand-written note with your gift. What a concept.

The institute offers some gift suggestions that always hit the spot:
            • A book that fits the interests of the host
            • Pretty hand towels for the powder room
            • Unusual kitchen tools for an avid cook
            • Golf balls for the golfer host
            • Herbs and spices in pretty packaging
            • Coffee beans or loose tea for the beverage connoisseur
            • Small houseplant in a decorative pot
            • Depending on the time of year, some lovely bulbs for a blooming gift later in the year
    
When to give your gift? For a dinner party or brunch, offer your gift when you arrive. Be sure to put a note with your name on it if there’s a large crowd. For an overnight stay, take a gift with you, if you like. But it’s also fine to send it after you return home, after you get a hint about what your host might enjoy.
    
These days there is the debated question of regifting. Be sure your host would enjoy the bottle of wine you are passing along. Plus, it’s very important that the gift be in its original packaging.
    
Bottom line—before you regift, make sure that no one’s feelings will be hurt. Do the
original giver of the gift and the future recipient know each other? Are you sure they will never meet? Consider all ramifications before regifting.—CM

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entertaining: Be Open to Impromptu Parties

entertaining


Sure, at the holidays, it’s fun to plan big parties. Deck the halls, send out invitations, and cook for days. Every once in awhile, to be sure, that planning is worth the time and effort. But just as fun—sometimes even more fun—is the “let’s do it” attitude of putting on a party at the last minute.

The trick, of course, is being ready with some party staples. That means you’re ready to go when friends drop by or you decide to entertain at the last minute. Feeling comfortable enough to invite your friends in for an impromptu gathering is a gift to them and to yourself.

Make use of your freezer. Bake ahead and be ready. Bake some regular or holiday cookies and freeze them. Or make up some dough, form it into rounds with a scoop, and freeze. Then you have cookies ready to bake as your guests arrive, and your house or apartment will smell heavenly. Made-ahead brownies, likewise, can be thawing as you get ready for the party. Other freezer foods might include purchased or homemade meatballs. You can pop them into a fondue pot or chafing dish, mix them with some bottled marinara sauce, and have an easy hot appetizer.

What other pantry staples to stock? Fresh veggies such as baby carrots, broccoli florets, and cucumber slices are easy to put out. Olives are popular with many people,
so keep some jars of various olives in the cupboard. Dried fruits make tasty and
colorful snacks. Consider dried cranberries, cherries, golden raisins, and apricots.

Other munchies. Baskets of crackers and chips along with several blocks of cheeses make tasty munchables. Plain breadsticks stacked in a tall glass are great additions to the table. Mixed nuts and trail mix are easy to keep on hand. How about a large jar of dry-roasted peanuts to mix with holiday M&M’s? The trick, of course, is to save them and not sample. Microwave popcorn is an easy snack to keep on the pantry shelves. You don’t need all these items, of course, but it’s a list to get you planning ahead.

Beverages to have on hand. Besides bottled water and several kinds of soda, it’s good to have several bottles of wine in storage. Some party planners suggest you need six of the same white and six of the same red so that people don’t have to switch wines. Likewise, you might want to have some fun beers in the refrigerator, including several light varieties. You know your friends. Perhaps some basic liquors
are in order, too, such as gin or vodka.

Paper products. It’s easy to keep some paper napkins and paper or plastic plates
on hand. They’re great for serving and make cleanup a piece of cake.—CM

 

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entertaining: Plan a Ghoulish Party

entertaining


This time of year, it’s great fun to celebrate the spookiest season. The neat thing about Halloween is that it’s a good time for kids of all ages. Little kids and big adults alike enjoy the merriment. In fact, the season is second only to Christmas in the number of parties and the decorating involved. Go for it.

There are spooktacular ideas everywhere. Check out party stores or go online for ideas. The color scheme is easy—black and orange. Throw in some purple and lime green for a contemporary feel. Bring in natural autumn decorations such as pumpkins, gourds, Indian corn, bittersweet, and leaves and let your imagination take off. Add spiderwebs, jack-o’-lanterns, mummy shapes, gravestones, witches, and black cats. Make candleholders from mini pumpkins.

Send themed invitations. For an adult party, you might suggest that everyone bring a cut-out pumpkin. Arrange them on a table. Then light them with candles or flashlights inside the pumpkins for an eerie and decorative scene for your party.

Show your spirit outdoors by hanging mini lights in the trees and bushes. Decorate your front porch or entry in spirited fashion. Play eerie music to welcome guests. If you also are inviting little goblins, keep in mind that eerie for some translates to downright scary for others.

Spook ‘em. Place a rocking chair on the porch, tie an invisible cord or rope to it, and have someone in the bushes make the chair “rock,” presumably on its own. It’s fun to watch your guests’ reactions.
For foods, don’t be shy. Makes potions or witch’s brew—OK, punch—to fit the theme. Any flavor works, of course. Orange is a natural, but red looks like b-l-o-o-d. Dish up some candy corn, popcorn, orange and black M&M’s, and decorated cupcakes or cookies. Serve sub-style sandwiches or chicken wings (be sure to call them bat wings, however). Pizza slices also make good party fare as finger food.

As for games, consider the ages of the people at the party. “Pin the tail on the donkey” might become “pin the hat on the witch.” Cooked and slimy macaroni can become brains, and peeled grapes can act as eyeballs. Carving pumpkins might not work for young children, but they’ll enjoy using markers and beads to decorate a small or mini pumpkin. Charades with scary book, movie, or music titles is a hit with the older set. Old games such as Twister can have new appeal. —CM

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entertaining: Keeping the Kids Busy at a Summer Picnic

entertaining


1. Pick the spot wisely. If you are planning a gathering for guests with children, check out the location first. If all the children are young, a playground is important. Make sure there are swings, slides, merry-go-rounds, sandboxes, and the like. If there are older kids, too, be sure there are spots for them to play as well. Is there room for a game of bocce ball? Make sure someone brings along a net for volleyball or badminton. Even if the kids resist at first, as the time progresses someone will make it seem cool to play a game. Is there a basketball court? Guys especially can shoot hoops for hours.

2. Pool safety. It’s great if there’s a pool at the party site, but that does create some safety issues. Perhaps parents could set up a rotating “lifeguard” system around a
wading pool or a full-size one. Either way, make sure there are sand and pool toys, beach balls, flip-flops, and towels. The parents will probably bring those items for
their own children, but it doesn’t hurt to have an extra stash “just because.”

3. Busy, busy. The real trick is keeping kids entertained. Instead of burgers and hot dogs, how about a make-your-own-pizza party? You can’t beat the versatility. Bring pizza rounds you have made at home or have purchased at the supermarket. Bring along containers
of a ton of toppings. Generally, it works best if you have already cooked ground beef or ground sausage at home. Let your guests make their own personalized pizzas. Kids of all ages will love it. Keep kids away from the grill, of course, but they can have fun arranging their own toppings. The grill is a fast way to prepare pizzas, so you can cook a lot of them in a short time. Serve salad and fresh fruit, and everyone will be a happy camper.

4. Crafts. To keep the kids entertained after eating, how about arranging with one of the crafty mothers to bring along materials for a simple craft? It will help the children unwind a bit and work together on a project.

5. Dessert. What else would you have at summer gathering but s’mores? The time-
honored treat will evoke memories of summer camp for the adults and introduce
the little ones to an ooey-gooey delight, one that always leaves everyone wanting “some more.” –C.M.

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entertaining: Plan a Summer Party

entertaining


School’s almost out, and Memorial Day signals the official start to summer. Why not have a party?

1. Set the stage. Deck, patio, or open yard—they all work for a casual outdoor gathering. Find a spot for the serving table in a shady spot. Even an open garage works well, especially if there’s any wind. If you have enough tables to seat everyone, super. If not, place chairs around the scene. Some people don’t mind eating while standing, but others would prefer to be able to use their lap.

2. Light the night. If the party is to go into the evening, have fun with subtle lighting. Hang festive Chinese lanterns from the trees. Or string white twinkle lights through the trees, on bushes, or on buildings. It makes walking around safer and lends a nice glow. Or you might want to put votive candles in paper lunch bags weighted down with scoops of sand to line the sidewalks. Luminarias aren’t just for Christmas Eve.

3. Buffet—the only way. If you have a crowd, serving buffet style is easiest on everyone involved. It’s helpful if people might be arriving at various times, and guests may choose to serve themselves or nibble as they wish. If you use paper plates, have wicker plate holders or substantial Styrofoam plates to make it easier for your guests to carry food. If you really like to entertain often, investing in some reusable and unbreakable plastic plates makes perfect sense. Then you’ll always have them on hand. Mass marketers such as Target and Kohl’s offer a variety of choices in festive summer colors. Keep tablecloths secure with corner clips or by adding a large button, coin, or metal washer in the hem of the corners. On windy days offer a roll of paper towels or cloth napkins instead of light paper napkins, which might blow around.

4. Finger foods. Make serving and eating easy on everyone. Choose salads such as pasta, fruit, or potato varieties that are easy to eat. Vegetable skewers and fruit with dippers work well. Be sure to provide picks for easy pickup. If you are grilling, it’s great to offer chops or steaks if people will be sitting to eat. If they are standing, you might want to consider burgers and brats. Hollow out green, red, or yellow sweet peppers for serving condiments. Or set up a taco or quesadilla bar for self-service.

5. Unwanted guests. Those would be pesky bugs. Citronella torches or candles strategically placed will help keep them away.

6. Set the mood. Bring out the iPod docking system and create some fun playlists to provide subtle background music. Depending on the crowd and available space, you might want to set up some games, such as badminton, volleyball, bocce, or croquet. If young children will be attending, bring out sidewalk chalk, jump ropes, or bubbles.—C.M.

 

 

 

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entertaining: Plan a Wedding or Baby Shower

entertaining

Spring is the season to shower the bride-to-be or the mother-to-be with gifts and good times.

1. Pick a theme. The sky is the limit on wedding and baby shower themes. For weddings, themes can be traditional: kitchen, linen, lingerie, or general showers. If you are one of the planners, ask the bride what kind of a shower she would like, unless, of course, it's a surprise. Only she knows what she has or what she needs. If the couple has been living together for a time, perhaps they have all the housewares they need or have room for, so you can go in a different direction. Around-the-clock showers are fun. Assign a time to each guest on the invitation. If it's 4 p.m., the guest brings a gift the couple could use at that time of day. If there are several showers, avoid duplicates on the focus and the guests. Will you invite friends, relatives, colleagues, or a mix? Will it be a girls-only shower or a couples' shower with the guys, too?

If you are planning a baby shower, ask the new mommy if she wants the shower before the birth or after. Is the sex of the baby known? That might help with a theme. Pick the baby's nursery colors and let the guests know where the new mom is registered.

2. Food. Early on, decide if the shower will be at a restaurant, a church, or a home. If it's a women's-only event, finger foods, punch or drinks, fruits and veggie trays, and, of course, decorated cookies, cheesecakes, or cupcakes are in order. If it's a couple's party, you might consider heartier food, such as a barbecue with Frisbee or volleyball for fun. If the group is very small, a sit-down luncheon or meal adds to the celebration.

3. Decorations. Visit a party store for most items you'll need. Go with specific wedding or baby colors, if you like, and choose a formal or casual approach. That depends on the crowd and the location.

4. Games. Like them or not, they're fun and almost obligatory. It's easy these days. Go online and search for bridal or baby shower games. You'll find a ton of them, from word searches to name that ingredient or baby item scramble. For either bridal or baby showers, it's fun to ask the guests to write words of thought-provoking advice on cards for the bride or new mother to keep and ponder later.

5. Bottom line. You are celebrating something special, either a wedding or a baby's birth. Go for it, and enjoy. - C.M.

 

 

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entertaining: Plan a Sham-ROCKing Party

entertaining

Sure and begorrah, it’s true that everybody’s a little Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.

1. Go green for a day! Here’s your chance to go all out. While younger crowds might prefer pub crawls, at-home family parties are fun times for kids of all ages. Party stores stock all the decorative goods you need.

2. Get in the mood. Central Iowa loves to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. On the holiday itself, downtown Des Moines takes a long lunch break for the St. Patrick’s Day parade at noon. It is sponsored by the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. At the State Historical Building, there are Irish genealogy and other programs and entertainment on the holiday.

3. Have fun with food. Set the table with a green tablecloth and add some decorative potted shamrocks, carnations, or tulips from a florist or supermarket. Make some Irish stew or corned beef and cabbage for the entrée. Bake or purchase some Irish soda bread and add a lime Jell-O salad. For dessert, how about some green-frosted shamrock sugar cookies or some mint-frosted brownies?

4. And have fun with games. Adults and kids will have fun with Pin the Shamrock on a Leprechaun or Pin the Coins on the Pot of Gold. See how many different shades of green you can come up with—you know, mint, hunter, sage, and others. When things get really fun, give guests paper and pencil and have them create limericks.

5. Music. Surely someone in your group has some Irish music CDs. Play the tunes as background music for a festive touch. Depending on the music, perhaps a jig or step dancing might be in order. Put on your own group Riverdance performance.   

6. Libations. There are several ways to go here. Have traditional Irish beers, such as Guinness and Smithwick’s, on hand. Some guests might prefer Irish coffee or Bailey’s Irish Cream on ice with dessert. For children in the crowd, make green punch or mint-flavored milk shakes. – C.M.

 

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entertaining: Setting Up a Family Game Night

entertaining

Get off the couch! Take advantage of the cold weather to celebrate your family and friends.

1. Pick a night and stick to it. With everyone so busy with jobs and activities, families and friends can sometimes lose touch. Play the stay-inside weather to your advantage to reconnect. Turn off the computer and the cell phones. Focus on togetherness.

2. Consider the age of the kids. If you are turning this into a game night, make it age-appropriate. It doesn’t matter if you are playing Candyland, Texas Hold ’Em, or video games for toddlers or teens—they will love that you are focusing on what they like to play. Old favorites such as Monopoly, Scrabble, Yahtzee, and Trivial Pursuit also have strong appeal. If games aren’t your favorites, how about putting together jigsaw puzzles?

3. Movie night, too. Depending on everyone’s preferences, perhaps a movie night is more to your liking. Again, make movies age-appropriate. If it works out, take the kids to pick out a movie or two at the video store or at the library. If not, Mom or Dad can do the choosing. If you are hosting friends and not family members, check the viewing favorites of those in the crowd or delegate someone to bring a movie choice. 

4. Crafts and projects. Perhaps your group is more project-oriented. This might be the opportunity to teach about tool safety as you build a birdhouse for spring. Or how about scrap booking, using family photos as an impetus and remembering fun activities? For friends, it might be a good time to teach the
fine points of quilting or knitting.

5. Snacks, of course! This is a good time to spread out a blanket on the family room floor and order in pizza for an indoor family picnic. Or have dinner first and then pop some corn for munching. If they’re available to help, perhaps the kids can choose or make snacks late in the afternoon to get ready. Then they feel they really are part of the planning.

6. Embrace the cold. If weather permits (or you’re up to the challenge), pause the movie or take a break in the gamesmanship. Bundle up and take a walk in the crisp, clear air. You will feel invigorated for the next round of fun ’n’ games.

7. At the end of one get-together, plan for the next one. Choose a date and an activity. With older children, put one of them in charge to choose an activity or the food to serve. It makes winter more tolerable and creates memories at the same time.  – C.M.

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entertaining: Hosting a Holiday Party

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Make sure that you feel comfortable at your own party. Some simple tips will help.

1. Don’t stretch your resources. If a sit-down dinner doesn’t seem feasible, how about an appetizer buffet, a dessert bar, or a soup supper?

2. Work on getting the right mix of friends. It’s not wise to try to pay back all your social engagements in one party—the groups may not mesh. Limit the size of the party for easier managing.

3. Make as many dishes ahead as you can. Then you can enjoy the party more, and you won’t spend the whole evening in the kitchen. If your guests offer to bring a dish, let them. They’ll feel more like part of the event, and it will give fewer dishes to prepare. Also, it’s just fine to purchase some foods ready-made. No one minds, and it will give you more peace of mind.

4. Don’t blow your holiday budget on a centerpiece. Look around your home and showcase items you already have. Plus, you can create a festive look with pinecones, cranberries, and holiday greenery.  

5. You don’t need a full bar. Instead, offer two signature cocktails; make them ahead and add ice right before serving. Or serve beer or wine and bottled water.

6. Offer some low-calorie alternatives. Many guests really do try to refrain from high-calorie holiday goodies.

7. Store up. Even if you aren’t having a party, keep easy snacks on hand during the holiday season for drop-in visitors. – C.M.

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entertaining: Tailgating Tips

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Check out these safety suggestions and ideas for munchies, otherwise known as “game day grub.”

• Think through the situation. For an early game, consider foods such as breakfast burritos. If you have to travel to an away game, the cold-cut option might be easier to manage.
• Overall best plan: Keep it simple. Easy preparation and easy cleanup make a winning combination.
• Wash hands before, during, and after preparing food. Offer moist towelettes to your guests before eating.
• Keep raw meats and ready-to-eat foods in separate containers. Take extra plates and utensils to avoid cross-contamination. Pack meat products in one cooler  and other foods in another one.
• For main dishes, consider some of these options: burgers, brats, chili, barbecued steak, beef and cider
   stew, beef and salsa burritos, quesadillas, tacos, ribs, brisket, reuben sandwiches, and lasagna.
• Finger foods—nuts, trail mix, dried fruits, cheese and crackers, and cookies—are easy to take along and to eat. Plus they don’t need refrigeration.
• Meat and veggie kabobs can be made ahead and popped on the grill before kickoff.
• Do double duty. Chunks of onions, squash, peppers,    mushrooms, and tomatoes are great fresh, but they also can be tasty when grilled. Take a small metal pan along for grilling small vegetables over low heat.
• Remember bags of pears, peaches, apples, or berries for a healthful dessert.
• Use plastic bags and disposables whenever possible for easy cleanup.
• Pack foods in reverse order. The last items packed will be the first ones used. 
• Chill wine, beer, and soft drinks in the refrigerator the night before and transfer them to an ice-filled cooler before leaving for the game site. Pack cups for soft drinks. And include water, too, because alcohol acts  as a diuretic.
• Go, Team!! – C.M.

 

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entertaining: Gather the Gang

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Invite your friends for a fuss-free celebration of late summer or early autumn.

1. Keep your foods simple. Choose dishes that you can make ahead and that taste good at room temperature. That gives you more time to mingle with your guests and enjoy the party, too. If your friends offer to bring a
dish to help out, let them. They feel more a part of the planning, and it eases the burden a bit on you. Be sure to offer lots of appetizers so
your guests can graze at their own pace. In fact, just for fun, have a whole meal of appetizers.

2. You don’t have to make everything. It’s OK to purchase ready-to-serve items. Make the main dish, if you like, but fill in with store-bought fruits, cheeses, and good breads. Serve family-style or buffet-style, depending on your setup. Make serving as casual as possible.

3. If you are having a small, cozy dinner, it might be fun to pull out your best china and crystal and serve burgers and hot dogs on the patio. What a riot! Your guests will feel special, but you still create a picnic feel.

4. You have more room outside than inside your dining room, no doubt. So spread out! Your friends will mix more if they move around. For ambiance, add candles on tables or on the buffet area. The glow will add a festive touch. If you can, build a fire. It’s always fun to make s’mores. You are never too old for those. —CM

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entertaining: Colorful Summer Ideas

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These no-fuss tips are an easy way to dash some color into  your next summer party.

1. Hang brightly colored paper lanterns from trees and trellises, toss beach balls around the yard, and float rafts and inner tubes in the pool. It will instantly feel like a party!

2. Build a serve-yourself drink station with a variety of tasty options. Avoid glass and opt for beverages with vibrant labels and shatterproof packaging. Instead of regular ice buckets, chill and display drinks in colorful coolers and drink tubs.

3. Find creative ways to play up the theme. Use colorful beach towels as table runners and plastic beach buckets as vases for bright bunches of dahlias or gerbera daisies.

4. Set a table with themed favors and pool essentials for guests. Include bottles of sunscreen, inexpensive
flip-flops, magazines, extra towels, novelty sunglasses and a few disposable water-proof cameras for capturing the fun on film! —C.M.

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