Entertaining 911 or what I now know about having a party

A couple of Christmasses ago, I attempted to make a pasta dinner for about 35 people, in a small house with an even smaller kitchen. Pasta (or anything that takes up every burner on the stove, and that you want to serve hot) is not a good choice for a large dinner party at home, even when friends step in to pull you out of the weeds. I knew better, but I was carried away by the deliciousness of Daniel Costa’s entertaining menu that year and wanted to share it.

I say this in the spirit of confession and to warn you against such a thing, unless of course you are outfitted with a commercial kitchen and several staff. Even then I say don’t do it.

Oh, it turned out all right. People had fun and that is really the only thing that counts.


What I know now

Always have minions — hired staff, husbands, your children or someone else’s children, or a few friends you have asked in advance for help.

I don’t mean to scare you off entertaining.

Have a better plan, that’s all. Here’s a plan that works, complete with recipes for tasty make-ahead appetizers; a list of essentials; and a check-list for all the things that get missed.


  • Napkins: Preferably not Halloween-themed.
  • Candles: Lots, votives, pillar, white.
  • Glasses: For any party over 12 people, rent them. At the end of the night, into the racks they go dirty, and into the garage or car to be taken back the next day. Best $25 ever spent. Get the breakage insurance — it’s like $2. Even minions don’t want to be washing glasses all night.
  • Forks: Rent these too, if you don’t have more than 12 or so. If you plan to entertain a lot, or serve multiple courses at sit-down dinner parties, pick up a few dozen cocktail/salad forks at a restaurant supply house or Superstore. See above re. washing up.
  • The great outdoors: Winter parties come with an extra refrigerator, the outside. Clear your refrigerator of all regular stuff and put outside in bins on the balcony or deck, or into the garage so your shelves are free for trays of party items.
  • Chill: Wine, water. Keep ice outside as well.
  • Ice: I always forget the ice; either freeze several trays ahead of time or buy bagged ice.
  • Empty dishwasher and garbage: Start the party with an empty dishwasher and an empty garbage pail. This will make you very happy later, when things get a bit crazy.
  • Tidy and clear surfaces of tables so there is room for plates and glasses. If you have precious furniture, place trays or pieces of glass or mirror on top.
  • Extra chairs and small tables.
  • Extra TP and guest towels.
  • Slippers or socks for guests and a place for shoes and boots at the door.
  • Set up the tunes before the party to play for at least three hours — you don’t want someone nerding out at the iPod dock. It’s supposed to be background music creating atmosphere, not somebody’s top ten. Later though, maybe dancing, and singing.

Party Essentials

  • Bowls of truffled popcorn, roasted olives, best quality potato chips, and spicy nuts in strategic places where people gather.
  • A water station: Tap and bottles of bubbly water with lots of glasses. Party food is salty and of course we want to follow the one drink/one glass of water rule.
  • If it’s a good party, no-one leaves. Be prepared with a Moroccan tagine, a chicken potpie, a baked pasta dish, or something like the Silver Palate’s retro Chicken Marbella that you can pull out of the freezer and put in the oven when it’s 8 o’clock and people are still arriving for your 6-8pm drinks party. You can feed everybody something a bit more substantial and make it seem like it was all part of the plan.
  • Serve a mix of hot and cold, passed and stationary hors d’oeuvres. Vary colour, style, and texture. Don’t have all your hors d’oeuvres on bread, for example, have some in a creamy base, some not. I like to make things obvious — if there are nuts inside, there’s a nut on top, that sort of thing.
  • Food safety is key: Appetizers made with mayonnaise should go from the fridge to a passing platter, rather than sitting on a table for hours. Cheese and charcuterie, smoked meats and oil-based items have a much longer window. Supplement with store-bought sushi, bocconcini skewers, and bacon-wrapped dates.


Cheese Board Basics

One of the simplest ways to entertain is to put out a selection of beautiful cheeses with some fruit, nuts and sweet/savoury condiments, maybe some charcuterie, pâté and breads and crackers. Display on a rustic plank or a polished walnut long board from Edmonton-based On Our Table with lots of small plates and cocktail forks. Buy the best cheeses you can afford. Leftovers can become the best mac’n cheese ever, a sandwich, grated over salads or pasta, or added to a soup.

If a cheese plate is to be part of a larger spread keep it simple: no more than three cheeses, all quite different in style. For example: one grana cheese such as Manchego or Parmiginao Reggiano; one young runny cheese such as The Cheesiry’s Bianca; and a blue. Tania Hrebeck from Everything Cheese suggests putting each cheese on its own platter, with suitable accompaniments.

Or, serve one large chunk of Sylvan’s Grizzly Gouda or an aged Ontario or Quebec cheddar.

Four fabulous places to purchase cheese for cheese boards, gifts, and gift baskets

The Italian Centre Shop
10878 95 Street, 780-424-4869
5028 104A Street, 780-989-4869
17010 90 Avenue, 780-454-4869 italiancentre.ca

Especially for Italian cheese, they have been at it a long time and they sell a lot of cheese. This is your spot for 24-month-old Parmigiano-Reggiano (their standard); Montasio of various ages; Piave Vecchio, provolone for sammies; also some interesting US cheeses, and a reliable source for Sylvan Star of all flavours. West end store manager Gino Marghella says, “Right now, I’m a big fan of Drunken Goat cheese from Spain. They soak the cheese in wine while it is aging. Put a thin slice on a nice fresh pear. It’s to die for.”

Paddy’s Cheese Shop
12509 102 Avenue, on the
High Street, 780-413-0367

Paddy’s has always stocked and promoted smaller production Canadian cheeses from BC, Ontario, and Quebec. Now, owner Fern Janzen is helping fledging Alberta cheesemakers such as Old West Ranch with their water buffalo mozz. She stocks all the Cheesiry’s pecorinos in season, David Wood’s stellar Vancouver Island goat cheese, and a varied selection of British and European cheeses.

“A Christmas cheese board should be over the top,” says owner Fern Janzen. “For your soft cheese, a triple cream with extra cream added, such as the Pierre Robert from France; then you should go with a semi-soft artisan goat cheese such as the English Ticklemore; and for local flavour, a fresh (under six months) or medium (six-nine months) Kitskoty pecorino.”

The Cavern
#2 10169 104 Street, 780-455-1336, thecavern.ca

This charming Parisian-style below ground-level café/wine bar/cheese monger is serious about cheese, and wine, and enjoyment. Cheeses in the display are in impeccable condition at perfect ripeness. This is where to find stinky Époisses de Bourgogne or lemony Mahon from the Baleriac islands. We don’t even choose anymore — we say ‘you pick,’ and it’s always perfect. Owner Tricia Bell says, “It’s so hard to choose one, but an old world triple cream Brie such as Prestige de Bourgogne is perfect for a holiday cheese board. Or something unusual like Don Heliodoro, a raw sheep’s milk cheese from Jumilla, Spain. It’s wrapped in rosemary, bathed in olive oil and aged for 15 months — nutty and spicy.”

Everything Cheese
14912 45 Avenue, 780-757-8532 everythingcheese.ca

Barely three years old, with a superbly chosen rotating selection of fine Canadian and European cheeses. Everyone here is passionately well-versed about the cheese selection, and their suggestions always spot on. They offer a cheese of the month club, Bonjour Bakery baguettes on Saturdays, plus grilled cheese sandwiches on Friday/Saturday.

Co-owner Tania Hrebeck suggests something different for the holidays; “the aged goat cheese Puligny St Pierre from France, or a fabulous Quebec blue such as Bleu Benedictine from Abbey St. Benoit, or Bleu d’Elizabeth from Warwick, with condiments and candied nuts.”

Excellent Condiments for Cheese

  • Zinter Brown Taste Garlic and Onion Jamboree
  • Kitchen by Brad Fig Jam
  • Hertier Onion and Raspberry Confit
  • Quince Jelly
  • Chestnut or Buckwheat Honey
  • Fruits of Sherbrooke 3Cs in Balsamic
  • Fruits of Sherbrooke Lemon Pepper Condiment
  • Newget Salted Karamel. Not really a condiment, but delish with cheese nevertheless.