Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Dec. 23, 2005

Inspiration or insulation?

This holiday season has been a particularly busy one - or maybe because I'm older, I can't juggle as many projects as I once did. Whatever the case, I've been on the lookout for decorating ideas, recipes and suggestions for making our end-of-the-year celebrations simpler.

The problem is that whenever I look in magazines for ideas, I see that their approach to Christmas is Martha Stewart-designed tables, mothers and daughters wearing pink and red taffeta dresses, fathers and sons wearing L.L. Bean sweaters and pants, gifts wrapped in homemade paper and tied with homemade bows and a well-behaved cat or dog curled peacefully by the tree. Those scenes don't bear a whit of resemblance to what our holidays are like.

In a recent Ladies Home Journal, a couple of the recipes were for pistachio pink peppercorn-coated herbed goat cheese and spice-rubbed cured ham with apple-maple sauce. If the name of any recipe has more than two or three words, I'm already tired just from reading!

The Manhattan Mercury recently ran an Associated Press article with a San Francisco dateline: "Entertaining tips from the professionals, to ensure fun for everyone."

The lead said: "'Tis the season to make up the guest list, send out invitations, cook, clean and decorate for a holiday party. But with time and money at a premium, how can you do it all without taxing your energies or your budget?"

I was intrigued, but skeptical. I wondered if they could actually answer that question for me.

The article continued:

"Here are some answers from the professionals. Asked for their advice, four San Francisco Bay Area caterers volunteered real-life, down-to-earth entertaining tips to help you throw a beautifully orchestrated party with limited resources."

Real-life, down-to-earth tips? Fabulous! This was exactly what I needed.

". . . According to these experts, the biggest mistake people make is trying to do too much.

"Remember it's about your friends and traditions you are celebrating, not the cost. Keep it simple. Set a budget and stick to it," the caterers said.

Amen, I said to myself.

But as I read further, I realized their audience must be someone from another social status - or perhaps from another planet.

Some of their specific tips:

"Setting the scene:

For a simple, inexpensive centerpiece, line eucalyptus leaves down the center of your table; intersperse with pomegranates, persimmons and pears."

Oh, sure. I always have a few spare eucalyptus trees just begging me to defoliate them for a small soiree. And pomegranates and persimmons are always on my grocery list.

"What to serve?

*Buy a side of smoked salmon and serve on a flatbed spread with wasabi-seasoned creme fraiche. Serve melon wedges with prosciutto and a light sprinkle of anise-flavored Italian liqueur.

*Top crostini with caramelized onions, fig jam and Gorgonzola cheese.

*Toss large shrimp in the shell with a lemon-basil pesto. Bake on a bed of rock salt in a gratin pan.

*Pipe or spoon softened goat cheese on endive leaves and garnish with a pear or apple slice and chopped toasted walnuts or pecans."

Somehow I seemed to have missed the year that softened goat cheese became a part of the Christmas tradition.

"To save time, serve the hors d'oeuvre components for guests to assemble. For example, instead of a platter of crostini topped with olive tapenade, simply serve the toasts in a basket beside the olive spread."

Huh? I don't know about you, but I wouldn't know wasabi, fraiche, crostini or tapenade if they bit me on the nose. Plus, my cupboards are full enough without keeping a supply of anise-flavored Italian liqueur, fig jam or rock salt on hand.

One of the decorating ideas did catch my eye, though.

"Walk outdoors for inspiration. Pick up leaves and berries to fashion into decorations."

On second thought, I doubt I'll be following this suggestion either. At this time of year, I associate the outdoors more with insulation than inspiration!

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