Entertain with ease with a make-ahead menu of big-flavored small bites and batched seasonal cocktails. By Cheryl Slocum
March 06, 2015
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Throw a Casual Cocktail Party for Spring
Pioneering Atlanta bartender Greg Best says cocktail parties are a chance to break routine and have some fun–and that goes for the host, too. "If you're stuck behind a bar, you're not fulfilling your guests' requirements," says Best, whose newest restaurant opens at Atlanta's Krog Street Market in late summer. His solution: big-batch drinks paired with snacks that keep the party emphasis carefree and easy. With Cooking Light's menu as the springboard, Best offers cool sips and inspiring tips for this and many parties to come.
Looking for some tunes for your party? Check out CL senior editor Cindy Hatcher’s Casual Cocktail Party Spotify playlist.
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Sweet Pea Crostini with Ricotta
Impress your company with this easy-to-prepare appetizer. Making your own ricotta is incredibly simple and doesn't require special equipment. Our microwave trick is foolproof. The pea mixture is quick and easy to make, but you can also mix it up ahead, along with toasting the bread, so that you can simply assemble the crostini when you are ready to serve your guests.
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Offer Fuss-Free Fare
Be sure to offer finger foods that guests can enjoy with a drink in one hand like deviled eggs. Fresh, hard-cooked eggs can be a nuisance to peel, but steaming them makes it easy. You can cook the eggs and prepare the filling two days in advance, but wait to fill the whites until the day you plan to serve them.
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Season Creep Cocktail
For this drink, Best uses yellow Chartreuse–an herbal liqueur flavored with saffron and honey. Substitute Strega, an Italian herbal liqueur, if you wish.
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Mix Up the Menu
Offer at least three to four different small bites with big flavor so everyone can enjoy the variety without filling up. Even the choosiest guests will find something to savor. Stagger servings to create a little buzz as each new item is introduced.
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Fresh Artichoke and Kale Dip
Fresh artichoke leaves make the best earth-friendly disposable utensils: Their shape is perfect for scooping up dip, and after you nibble the tasty meat from the base of the leaf, you can toss it out guilt-free. Cook the artichokes and kale up to two days ahead–it will be a time-saver during the last-minute rush of putting on a party.
The filling is based on picadillo, a Latin dish of ground meat with flavorings that vary by region. This version, with sweet raisins and salty olives, is Cuban-influenced. You can freeze unbaked pastries up to a month ahead; bake from frozen for a few minutes longer.
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Vera Kollans Cocktails
This drink is Greg Best's twist on the classic fizzy lemonade cocktail, Tom Collins. Tip: Slap mint between palms to release fragrant essential oils.
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Blood Orange and White Chocolate Cream Cups
This sweet, tangy, and creamy dessert makes the perfect two-bite finale and, best of all, clean up is a breeze! The beauty of finger food is that there are no utensils and few plates–so there's very little to wash once everyone has left and the post-party work begins. You can make the cups up to a day ahead.
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Stocking a Home Cocktail Bar 101
1. Base Spirits
Best, pictured with friend Morgan Jones, recommends keeping vodka, gin, light rum, brandy, and a whiskey, such as bourbon. "Stocking a home bar is like keeping a core spice rack," says Best. "You can do so much with just these five basic spirits."
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Dry white and sweet red vermouths (store half-bottles in the fridge) and bitters–including Angostura, Regan's Orange, and Peychaud's–add complexity to cocktails. You can also expand on this list with liqueurs like Triple Sec, Curaçao, and Campari.
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3. DIY Mixers
Club soda and tonic are staples you should always have available. When you add them to fresh juice or flavored syrup, you can create mixers that are less sugary than store-bought.
Fruit Syrups: Best boils equal parts turbinado sugar and water until dissolved, then adds and simmers a highly acidic juice like pineapple or cranberry for a few minutes. For dimension, he adds a fresh or dried herb or spice over low heat.
Herb or Spice Syrup: Natural syrups–honey, maple, and agave–marry best with citrus zest, dried herbs, and spices. Best slightly thins syrups with water and heats over low heat. He limits flavorings to one or two and simmers until the desired intensity is reached.
Shelf Life: If you plan to use syrup within a few days, refrigerate, covered, in a glass jar. To keep syrups for up to three weeks, add ¼ ounce vodka for every 3 cups of syrup to prevent fermentation; refrigerate as directed above.
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The Game Plan
Up to 5 Days Ahead
• Make and freeze lamb pastries
• Prepare and chill pineapple syrup
Up to 2 Days Ahead
• Cook eggs and make filling
• Cook artichokes and kale
Up to 1 Day Ahead
• Toast bread and make pea mixture
• Make white chocolate cream cups
2 Hours Ahead
• Make ricotta
• Assemble artichoke and kale dip
1 Hour Ahead
• Make both cocktails; store in pitchers in the refrigerator
30 Minutes Before Serving
• Fill egg whites
• Assemble pea crostini
• Bake lamb pastries
• Bake kale dip