It started with a trip to Louisiana. About 30 years later, it has turned into a sprawling epic for which, it seems to me, people don’t eat for weeks beforehand.
It’s the annual holiday jambalaya extravaganza that my husband and I have thrown for about three decades, as best we can remember. Time flies when you’re cooking big pots of food.
We fell in love with Cajun food during a visit to Louisiana, took a cooking class and decided to throw a holiday party. There were about 15 people at that first one, and I cooked enough jambalaya in a 9-quart orange Le Creuset Dutch oven that I bought at an outlet store.
Then friends brought friends, neighbors showed up, even out-of-towners starting saving the date. A few years ago, after adding on a bigger party space, we stopped counting the guests by number, instead estimating the crowd by square footage covered.
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There might be 40-some people over the course of the night. We don’t quite know.
Today, we spend two days cooking multiple batches, filling that same orange pot several times over.
I know that some people panic over having just a couple of friends over for dinner. You’re thinking “y’all are crazy.” I won’t lie: It is some work. But it’s manageable. And with good planning and doing things in advance, you can hold your own epic big feed for the holidays that friends will talk about for years and look forward to next season.
With good planning and doing things in advance, you can hold your own epic big feed for the holidays that friends will talk about for years and look forward to next season.
Why do this? I have asked myself that question over the years while emptying the garbage can and mopping mashed rice off the floors the day after. One reward is seeing the festive explosion of wild connections and fascinating mayhem that can only happen at a big party.
Having a dinner party for a few people is like mixing a cocktail. It requires precisely the right blend of ingredients for a pleasing balance, along with a bit of fussing over. A big party is more like making punch – pour a lot of interesting ingredients together and see what happens.
And things have happened. Here are a few highlights of past parties:
▪ To impress a girl he had just met, a neighbor put on his wet suit and dove into the hot tub with her. (It didn’t work.)
▪ A friend asked for a guest’s phone number because her brother wanted to ask the guest out. I gave it to her, then found out there were two guests with the same name. I’d picked the wrong one. (They went out a few times anyway.)
▪ I had to put the home entertainment system off limits after guests (my husband’s people, let me stress) brought the party to a halt by showing martial arts instructional videos.
▪ Then there was the incident involving a lighted pig decoration in a Santa hat, over which we will discreetly draw a veil.
A big party is more like making punch – pour a lot of interesting ingredients together and see what happens.
More important than the entertaining stories that the party generates, it makes us happy to offer something special for our friends once a year, especially when they tell us what an interesting mix of people they meet.
At some point in the evening, my husband and I manage to find each other and look over the crowd. We’re reminded how fortunate we are to have such a varied collection of personalities intersecting with our lives. Friends say the party makes their holidays. It makes ours, too.
Then it’s time to get out more jambalaya.
Moose is a Raleigh cookbook author and former News & Observer food editor. Reach her at debbiemoose.com.
Try This At Home
Debbie Moose offers guidance on how to pull off the epic holiday party.
Rule No. 1: You do not have to do it all. Choose to prepare what you enjoy making and find other ways to handle the rest. For example, if you enjoy making desserts, throw a dessert-only big feed. Or cater the rest of the menu, or ask guests to bring savory dishes and snacks.
I prefer focusing on the main dishes, so if guests want to bring something, I suggest a dessert or sweet. We get plenty of them.
I had to be reminded of Rule No. 1 when I started running out of marinated green bean salad, which is simple but people go nuts for it. A neighbor generously makes a couple of large batches for me now, since demand has pushed need up to at least 10 pounds of the stuff.
Guests bring their own adult beverages if they choose. We offer soft drinks.
▪ Pick out reliable dishes that you could make in your sleep, and that can feed a lot of people without too much trouble. This is not the time to experiment, or to arrange fussy little plates of tuna crudo. Soups, stews, chilis, gumbos and the like are good choices. Also, select things that can be made ahead and refrigerated or frozen. Doing ahead is important for your sanity.
Our menu has been the same for 30 years, and I’ve heard no complaints: chicken and andouille jambalaya, vegan red beans and rice (more veg-eaters attend these days), tossed salad, deviled eggs, marinated green bean salad and sliced bread. I add easy snacks or appetizers that require no preparation, such as a cheese tray and purchased guacamole with chips.
If you want to prepare more complicated sides or appetizers, figure them into your planning. Keep the menu balanced so you’re not preparing a lot of time-consuming items.
▪ Don’t expect RSVPs from everyone. Or even most. Assume all the people you invite will show up.
▪ Plan, plan, plan. I buy nonperishables – chicken broth, rice, paper products, etc. – at least a week before the party. I order andouille sausage from Louisiana a month ahead and freeze it. We collect hot sauces throughout the year to serve. And disposable plates, cups, etc., are the way to go.
Look at the cooking involved in the dishes you’ve chosen and map your strategy. As our party has grown over the years, we’ve had to start cooking a day ahead.
Here’s what we typically make on the day before the party:
▪ Two batches of jambalaya and store them in the refrigerator. Using foil pans lets me warm them in a low oven (you might need to add a little water) instead of on the stove.
▪ One batch of red beans.
▪ The full amount of marinated green beans and refrigerate, because they’re better if made the day before.
▪ Deviled eggs. These could be made early the day of the party as well.
▪ Do a last-minute check to see if you have everything, including ice. I try to avoid time-consuming trips to the grocery store on the day of the party.
On the day of the party:
▪ Make one final batch of red beans. Make one final batch of jambalaya timed to be ready about a half hour before the party starts.
▪ Warm the refrigerated batch of red beans, cook rice and put all the beans and rice in a slow cooker or two to keep warm for serving guests.
▪ Toss the salad.
▪ I think this is important: try to have everything done about 30 minutes before you expect people to begin arriving. That gives you a chance to get something to eat yourself. You’ve earned it.
Crowd-Pleasing Marinated Green Beans
This simple salad vanishes like a drop of water on a hot griddle. You can easily double or triple it to feed a horde. It’s a great do-ahead dish – make it the day before the party and refrigerate. From “Fan Fare: A Playbook of Great Recipes for Tailgating or Watching the Game at Home” by Debbie Moose (Harvard Common Press, 2007).
1/2 large red onion, thinly sliced
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup herb-flavored white wine vinegar or regular white wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 pounds fresh green beans, ends trimmed but left long
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Place the sliced onions in a colander over the sink.
In a small bowl, stir together the oil, vinegar, salt and pepper until combined. Stir in the garlic. Set aside.
When the water comes to a boil, add the green beans. Cover and cook for 5 to 10 minutes or just until the beans are bright green; do not overcook. Pour the beans and hot water over the onions in the colander. Rinse under cold running water to cool down. Drain well for a few minutes.
Place the beans and onions in a large bowl or large resealable plastic bag. Pour the dressing in and mix with the vegetables. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight, stirring or shaking occasionally. Let come to room temperature before serving.
Yield: 8 servings
After more than three decades, this is the dish that makes our party. You can prepare batches a day ahead and refrigerate, then gently reheat. I store it in covered foil pans and warm it in a low oven, adding a little water if it looks dry. Because some of our guests have tender taste buds, I don’t spice the jambalaya as strongly as I would for myself, and put out a selection of hot sauces for those who like the heat. Andouille sausage is easier to find around here than when I started cooking this traditional Cajun dish, but I still order the real thing from Louisiana. A version of this recipe appeared “Fan Fare: A Playbook of Great Recipes for Tailgating or Watching the Game at Home” by Debbie Moose (Harvard Common Press, 2007) but I’ve made some tweaks over time.
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 1/2 to 3 pounds cooked chicken, shredded (see note)
1 1/2 pounds andouille sausage, diced
4 cups chopped onion
2 cups chopped celery
2 cups chopped green bell pepper
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
5 cups chicken broth, or more as needed
2 heaping teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
Vinegar-based hot sauce, such as Tabasco, Texas Pete or Crystal, to taste
2 tablespoons Kitchen Bouquet
4 cups long-grain white rice
Place a large heavy pot over medium heat and heat the oil. Add the chicken and cook, stirring, for 2 or 3 minutes, then add the sausage and continue to cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes or until the meats are lightly brown. Remove the meats from the pot and set aside.
Add a little more oil if necessary, then add the onion, celery, bell pepper and garlic. Cook, stirring, until tender but not limp or brown.
Return the meats to the pot. Stir in the chicken broth, salt, cayenne pepper, hot sauce and Kitchen Bouquet. Bring to a boil. Add the rice, stir, and return to a boil. Be sure there is enough chicken broth to cover all the ingredients and add more if necessary (a little too much is better than not enough).
When the mixture is boiling, cover the pot, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes. Do not lift the lid during this time. At the end of 10 minutes, remove the lid and use two large spoons to quickly turn the rice from top to bottom. Cover the pot, turn off the heat and let sit for 20 more minutes. At the end of that time, check to see if all the liquid has been absorbed. If not, cover and let sit a few more minutes.
Note: To get the chicken meat, you can poach chicken breasts or cook them in the microwave, or shred the meat from cooked rotisserie chickens for a mixture of white and dark meats. I find it easiest to cook chicken breasts in the microwave.
Yield: 12 servings
Nutty Blue Cheese Ball
Make this up to three days ahead of the party and you have a munchie all ready to go. This recipe is from my book “Fan Fare: A Playbook of Great Recipes for Tailgating or Watching the Game at Home.”
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, at room temperature
3/4 cup crumbled blue cheese, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
1/2 to 1 cup chopped walnuts
Crackers for serving
Place the cream cheese, blue cheese and mustard in a food processor. Process until smooth. Add the chives and pulse just to blend.
Place a sheet of plastic wrap on a clean work surface. Spread 1/2 cup chopped walnuts in the center of the sheet in a single layer. Mound the cheese mixture on top of the walnuts and pull the plastic wrap around it, pressing and rolling to adhere the nuts to the cheese. Add more chopped nuts if necessary.
Twist the plastic wrap to help shape the cheese into a ball, then seal. Refrigerate for several hours, until the cheese ball is firm, or overnight. Serve with crackers.
Yield: 10-12 servings