There’s lots of coming and going over the holiday season, but not much time for all-out, formal entertaining.

A cocktail party is the perfect formula for casual, minimum-fuss gatherings.

Here are 5 ideas for almost instant parties:


1. Bubbly and Oysters

To drink: Chill a few bottles of Champagne, Prosecco or Cava then set them out in a large tub filled with ice. Set out a tray with champagne flutes and a selection of liqueurs, such as crème de cassis, Fragoli strawberry liqueur or limoncello. Guests pour their own champagne, add a splash of liqueur then garnish their drinks from small bowls of fresh raspberries, blackberries and pomegranate seeds.

To eat: Oysters. Shuck a few dozen oysters and set them on platters of crushed ice with lemon or lime wedges, Tabasco sauce and a bowl of mignonette (Try a mix of equal parts red wine and raspberry vinegars and finely chopped shallots.)


2. A Bourbon Bash

To drink: For a laid-back Southern vibe, mix up a mega-batch of bourbon and lemonade. Serve over ice in Mason jar glasses with a drop or two of hot sauce.

To eat: Corn and Bacon Fritters with Chipotle Crema.

Make the batter for these easy, delicious fritters in advance and store refrigerated (for up to several days). You can fry up the fritters before guests arrive and keep warm in a low oven until ready to serve.

Here’s the recipe from my book Market Chronicles: Stories & Recipes from Montreal’s Marché Jean-Talon (Les Editions Cardinal):


Corn & Bacon Fritters

Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer

  • ½ lb. bacon, chopped
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2/3 cup flour
  • 1 cup corn
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp hot sauce
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander
  • vegetable oil for frying

Fry bacon until crisp. Remove from heat and drain on paper towel. In a large bowl, whisk together egg and milk then add baking powder, salt and flour and stir just until batter is smooth. Fold in fried bacon, corn, shallot, hot sauce and coriander.

Heat 1/2 inch of vegetable oil in a large frying pan over medium high heat. When oil is hot, drop in spoonfuls of batter, being careful not to crowd the fritters. Fry until bottoms are golden, a minute or so, then flip and fry until the other sides are golden. Transfer to paper towel to drain. Keep warm in low oven. Continue cooking until all fritters are fried. Serve with chipotle crema.


Chipotle Crema

  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon mayonnaise
  • 1 teaspoon chopped chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
  • 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lime juice

Combine all ingredients. Refrigerate until serving time.


3. Wine & Cheese

To drink: The old rule used to be white wine only with cheese but many red wines also pair well with cheese. Consider Chianti with Fontina or Provolone and Pinot Noir with Brie or Camembert. Salty blue cheese is nice with Porto, Muscat or Sauternes.

To eat: Assemble a luxurious cheese platter. On a large wooden board, set out a selection of fresh, aged, soft and hard cheeses: One chevre, one blue cheese, a silky triple crème and a wedge or two of semi-firm and firm cheeses.

Add a fresh baguette or two, some lightly-toasted shelled walnuts, pecans or hazelnuts, dried fruits such as apricots, cranberries or raisins and a few small jars of good-quality honey, onion confit, porto jelly and fig jam.


4. Pizza Party.

To drink: A keg of beer.

To eat: Pizza, of course. Buy balls of prepared pizza dough from the local bakery or pizzeria. Assemble a variety of ready-made toppings such as marinated artichokes, pitted kalamata olives, roasted peppers, spicy cured sausage, sun-dried tomatoes or halved cherry tomatoes, cooked shrimp, fresh mozzarella cheese, shredded Fontina, Asiago or cheddar cheese. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F for 45 minutes to an hour.

Let the guests help to stretch the pizza dough out onto well-oiled round or rectangular pans sprinkled with cornmeal. Scatter with toppings, ending with cheese and a drizzle of olive oil. Bake for 10 minutes or until the cheese is melted and the crust is golden. Remove from oven and add a handful of fresh basil leaves.


5. Tapas

To drink: Sparkling apple cider, like they serve in Barcelona’s tapas bars. Or red wine, served from informal low-ball drinking glasses.

To eat: An assortment of little plates filled with tasty bites. Go for cured meats such as chorizo or Calabrese sausage and Serrano or prosciutto ham; Spanish Manchego cheese with the quince paste known as membrillo; a variety of olives; toasted baguette slices spread with tuna or shrimp salad, herbed goat cheese or topped with slices of roasted red peppers or marinated eggplant. Try stuffing pitted dates or dried figs with goat cheese and finely chopped pistachio.

For a hot, meltingly delicious and incredibly simple appetizer, buy a round of Brie or Camembert cheese and remove a thin layer of rind from the top. Scatter with chopped pecans, pistachios or walnuts and dried cranberries. Drizzle with a little maple syrup and bake in a 350 degree F oven for 15 minutes, or until melted. Serve with slices of baguette.