Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Christmas Eve Open House

My mother has a Christmas Eve-afternoon tradition of inviting over thirty or forty of her friends. They show up when they feel like it and stay as long as they feel like staying, and it's really my favorite kind of party with some of my favorite people--really, my mother has just incredible friends. Mom always has homemade eggnog with bourbon and champagne, and my stepfather has an extraordinarily well-stocked liquor stash. They also sort of casually collect wine, and they have wonderful taste. People generally bring plates of cookies and Christmas candy and fruitcake, which Mom sets out, but the big attraction is the food.

My mother makes a few things really well, and her Christmas Eve Afternoon spread is her best of the best. Everything varies from year to year, but every year she makes these glazed meatballs that really are just plain frozen meatballs that are simmered in this mixture of chili sauce and apricot preserves and some other stuff, which, my God, I know how weird it sounds, but wow. My stepfather is a frat boy in a 71-year-old's body, and so she makes wings, only he can't take the spicy anymore, so she makes these tequila-lime wings, as well as honey-barbecue flavored. I'm not a fan of wings, but these are invariably the hit of the party.

I like dip, and so I am generally left in charge of dip at the party. Crudite with roquefort or dill dip, hot clam dip with bacon and scallions, and this artichoke-parmesan spread with roasted garlic on crostini--fabulous. That last thing is so rich it almost hurts to eat, so I pair it with tomato bruschetta with basil and a balsalmic reduction that complements it and cuts the richness a little. Chips and salsa, hummus and toasted pita. Last year I made queso fundido with chipotle and Mexican sausage. Spicy, and delicious. This year I'm thinking about a spinach dip with water chestnuts and bacon with pumpernickel bread.

Mom's cheese board varies from year to year. There's a brie or a camembert, something a little soft and runny, and some kind of goat cheese--last year I brought her a small-batch fresh cheese from West Virginia that I bought straight from the farmer. The farmer, incidentally, was so handsome that it hurt. Last year or the year before, she had a 4-year bandaged cheddar that isn't like anything else I've ever had in my life. The last few years, we've replaced the aged parmesan with a dry jack, which is really sharp and strong and powerful, and last year she got ahold of a Spanish manchego that was just incredible. Mom's a fan of stilton, but I like bleu d'auvergne or something a little less overpowering. She puts it all out with fruit and nuts and really yummy aged port.

There's always some yummy little nibbles--spicy honey-glazed pecans, marinated olives, shrimp or crab claws. Most people have a bigger meal planned later in the day when they come over, but this spread is enough to keep people pretty satisfied.

Mom's party is a great time, and the people make it. She's got really fascinating friends--scientists, writers, teachers, a retired judge, artists, musicians, all of these creative and smart and funny people, a few members of our extended family, the neighbors. The people are the party, and the food is peripheral. But the food is so good, I look forward to Christmas Eve all year long. I love it.

I am not going to start in with the recipes until January 1st. But if you're interested, shoot me an email or leave me a comment, and I can send a recipe for any of the stuff I've mentioned. Or leave me your ideas for your holiday celebrations and get-togethers.

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