Photo: J. McPherson
December means fuller social calendars, fuller bellies, and, for most of us, emptier wallets. You’d probably love to have a festive party, but the impending financial stress of such an event may numb the joy, or dissuade you from throwing something altogether.
We’ve asked two of the country’s most accomplished professional party planners for their tricks to throwing a successful bash without painful monetary investment. TV personality Joanne Weir authored Weir Cooking in the City: More than 125 Recipes and Inspiring Ideas for Relaxed Entertaining among other entertainment-oriented books, and Bibby Gignilliat began honing the art of the party long before she launched her first party planning company, Gourmet Gatherings, in 1999. She now owns Parties That Cook!, creating corporate team building cooking events and cooking class parties in San Francisco.
These innovative women both have a reputation for throwing top notch, elegant fêtes, yet they’ve recently had to adjust their party-throwing strategies as a result of the economic downturn. Here’s how they’ve found the path to indulgent, affordable entertaining, just in time for the holiday season.
Booze on a Budget
If you want to treat your guests to a glass of bubbly, but can’t afford the pricey stuff from France, consider a bottle of proseco. This Italian wine provides better flavor than champagne at an affordable price point. “It’s the way to bring festive bubbles into your party without spending too much,” says Weir.
“Boxed wine also deserves a second look,” she adds. “My personal favorite is Black Box Wines. I empty the bag into a decanter, which looks elegant.”
Pot Lucks: Always in Season
It may seem simple, but sticking with seasonal ingredients is a great way to save money and keep the class factor high. “If you buy tomatoes in December, they’re coming from Mexico,” says Gignilliat. “They’re not going to taste great and are way more expensive than persimmons, pears, apples, and pomegranates, which are all relatively affordable and delicious this time of year.”
Gignilliat also strongly recommends pot lucks and buffets. “Everyone is always asking what they can bring to a dinner party. Pick a theme for guests to work from so the party feels instantly pulled together.”
Both experts also buy in bulk when appropriate. “You can find great quality proteins at Costco,” says Weir. “I buy a huge chunk of manchego cheese and serve from it throughout the holiday season.”
Weir loves this Spanish sheep’s cheese because it has become affordable, and a lot of people don’t know what it is. “Manchego is almost always a conversation starter.”
Impressive Edible Greetings
As much as we’d love to get all Julia on our guests, expensive, labor-intensive dishes are not in the cards for your budget friendly fête.
“We’re in an age where easy, healthful, and simple is chic,” says Weir. Her favorite elegant suggestions, requiring minimal sweat and dough follow:
* Warm a mix of olive types with a bit of olive oil and a pinch of crushed red pepper in a sauté pan. Serve in small bowls as a pre-dinner snack.
* Roast whole raw almonds in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes. Toss with Kosher salt, a touch of olive oil, and some citrus zest.
* Make your own gourmet chips by toasting pita bread in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and olive oil.
“Think peasant food but serve it in elegant bowls or plates,” says Weir, who buys top round, bottom round, or chuck beef and braises it with red wine, onion, carrots, tomato, parsley, mint, thyme, bay leaf, and Savory Choice stock.”
When done, Weir blends the strained vegetables and herbs in a food processor with some Parmesan, then serves atop pasta as a starter. She plates everything in pretty serveware, including the beef roast, with a simple side of sautéed broccoli tops as the second course. “It’s a jaw-dropping, amazingly-affordable, two course meal.”
For dessert, Gignilliat swears by her homemade version of soft caramel spread, dulce de leche, when she’s tight on funds. She removes the label from a can of sweetened condensed milk and places it in boiling water for two to three hours, replacing the water as it boils off. “You get the most delicious, authentic dulce de leche,” she says.
Not only does Gigniliat give this, placed in a mason jar with ribbon, as a hostess gift, she also tosses the warmed spread with sliced apples, pears, and cranberries, then tops it with crushed amaretti cookies for a beautiful, super-cheap finale to holiday meals.
Set the Stage
It may seem like a challenge to fancify your home or apartment without investing a hundo for that Christmas tree you’ve been eyeing.
“There are so many ways to create décor drama with things you probably already have around the house,” promises Weir.
One of her favorite table toppers is actually a collection of all the candles she has at home. She places them in a cluster at the center of the serving table with the largest ones at the center, then lights them when it’s time to eat. “I also up the ‘wow’ factor by placing additional candles in unexpected places like the bathroom and the hallway.”
Both Weir and Gignilliat eschew flowers immediately when looking to save. “Flowers are expensive and only last a few days,” says Weir. “I forage instead. You can find amazing things in your backyard or on your block if you just look. I use bowls of persimmons or pomegranates as accents throughout the house, and fallen branches make for wonderful table runners.”
Get the Party Started
Gignilliat pulls out games to make for epic events. She’s had the most success with these:
Place a question under everyone’s plate that they have to answer at the end of the meal. Questions can range from the light-hearted (What’s your feeling on double dipping?) to the serious (What was the toughest thing you went through over the past year?).
Ask guests to write down the first two sentences of their autobiography and place it in a bowl in the center of the table. Read sentences periodically throughout dinner and have guests guess who wrote what.
Place the names of famous individuals on sticky labels and put one on each guest’s forehead. Ask people to walk around the party and ask yes-or-no questions of fellow guests to determine who they are.
“These activities get everyone laughing, crying and don’t cost a thing,” said Gignilliat. “After over thirteen years in this industry, I’ve realized fancy food items and expensive entertainment aren’t what make a party work. It’s these fun experiences that bring everyone together.”This article was originally published on 12/15/2009 and updated on 11/19/2010.