Garden Party Must: Mason Jar Cocktails

Pre-mixed cocktails in Mason jars with screw-on lids perched in an enormous galvanized-metal bucket.

I mean, obviously.

Moving beyond garden parties: if you’re having a summer wedding, I’m going to go ahead and insist that you do something like this (with alcoholic or non-alcoholic drinks, whichever you prefer) pre-ceremony; so fun, and I think it’s such a nice touch to give your guests something to sip on while they wait to watch you walk down the aisle.

Coconut-Lime Lemonade

Rum Punch

Pink Lemonade Spritzer

Sake Cocktails

St. Germain Cocktail (my personal favorite)

Small Space Entertaining: Tips And Tricks

Last night, I hosted an intimate (think wine, cheese, and crystal chandeliers) seminar on behalf of Mastercard and Better Homes & Gardens over at the Meredith building. The program was about how to entertain if you live (as I do) in a small, not-particularly-conducive-to-parties place, and I kicked off the presentation with a question that I received from a reader a few weeks back.

Q. Hi Jordan! I need your advice. My boyfriend and I live in a shack of an apartment while our friends live in quintessential “perfect houses.” We get invited to our friends’ houses for dinner parties often, but I’m too embarrassed to bring friends to where we live in return.

I want to entertain, but feel inferior because of my digs. Any suggestions for how to deal with this situation?

- Jenn

The answer, of course, is that I can definitely relate. Our apartment (pictured above) may be very “us” and (I think) kinda charming, what with the floorboards that all slant East and uneven doorways, but it’s nowhere near the kinds of places that some of our friends live in.

But!

Small space entertaining can be totally fun.

See? Totally fun. (That’s me and Francesca, totally having fun.)

Let’s talk about the whys and hows, from decor to food to cocktails to chilling out (seriously, things will go wrong - just chill out).

DECOR

It’s all about working with what you have, and finding creative ways to incorporate items that you already own into your decor (thereby saving both time and money). One nice bonus of small-space entertaining: unlike at larger parties, your guests are likely to notice all your special little touches.

Some Tips:

•Pull in furniture from other rooms, and move any and all furniture that doesn’t serve a purpose for the party into unused areas.

•Transform key pieces (for example, use your dresser as your buffet table, or convert your dining room table to a bar).

•Expand the size of your coffee table with an inexpensive plywood board (ask your local hardware store) and a tablecloth.

•Create additional surfaces with inexpensive trays (check out this JITH episode for a DIY Serving Tray idea that works wonders at parties).

•Lights & reflective surfaces work wonders - try using a long mirror as a centerpiece and top it with candles (go for 1/2 real, 1/2 faux to minimize smoke and heat).

•When it comes to flowers, think “dramatic”, not “big”, and swap in inexpensive blooms (carnations) for pricey ones (peonies).

•No need for fancy vases: you can pull in anything from teacups to creamers to sake carafes in a pinch (click here for my Celebrations article on unexpected flower decor).

HOW-TO: AT-HOME PICNIC

My favorite way to entertain for two at home: a coffee-table picnic like the one pictured above (that’s our Christmas Eve tradition).

Or course, you can skip the coffee table entirely and just head to your roof. No grass required!

Some Tips:

•A coffee table picnic works for up to 6, more if you create additional floor seating areas around your apartment.

•Chic, cozy floor pillows make all the difference (you can even use regular old pillows and toss pretty throws over them).

•Serve food in the kitchen so the table doesn’t get too cluttered.

•Use stemless glasses and other unlikely-to-break pieces.

•If you head to the roof, bring along a card table for the food/drinks, and let people serve themselves

FOOD

When it comes to food at a mini-party, the key is to make it all as easy on yourself as possible. Martha may make everything from scratch, but I certainly don’t…and when you don’t have a dishwasher you suddenly become quite fond of disposable cutlery (melamine works well too, and there are lots of gorgeous patterns out there these days).

Some Tips:

•A nice side-effect of having a small space: you’re guaranteed to be able to chat with your guests while you cook. They’re right there. Next to you.

•Try a buffet, and serve foods that can be eaten standing up (without utensils).

•If you’re uncomfortable not offering a sit-down dinner but straight-up don’t have the space, consider serving cocktails & apps and then heading to an inexpensive local restaurant.

•Crostini - I’m particularly partial to the Ricotta, Lemon and Honey Crostini pictured above - is a fantastic solution for small-space serving (it can be sweet or savory, light or hearty).

•To save time and money, try serving up store-bought dips with pretty extras (for example, add capers and arugula to hummus).

•Go for a selection of small plates (tapas) rather than the traditional appetizer-entree-dessert.

•Never underestimate the impact of a really great guacamole (my recipe includes tequila. Yes it does).

•Finally, since you’re only serving a handful of people, now is the time to experiment with labor-intensive preparations you’d never make in bulk, like the Apple Salad w/ Avocado, Pomegranate & Blue Cheese pictured above.

COCKTAILS

The most important thing to remember when it comes to party drinks: Let your guests serve themselves, or you’ll be playing bartender all night.

The second-most-important thing to remember: nothing saves cash like a signature drink. Serve up something special (like my guava sangria) and have a couple of bottles of wine, some beer, and something non-alcoholic on hand, and you’re good to go - no full bar necessary.

And, most importantly…chill out.

Because even when everything goes wrong (that’s Kendrick washing dishes in our bathtub on the day when I tried to cook a fancy, multi-course meal and both our stove and our kitchen faucet went on the fritz)…

It’s still fun. Sometimes messy, but fun.

How-To: Spectacular Park Picnic

Picnics are the best.

But the problem with picnics is that once you’re on one, you’re sort of…stuck. You’re all set up with a big blanket and lots and lots of stuff, you’re theoretically in the middle of a large expanse of grass or sand or some other convenience store-free locale…and if you forgot anything…

well…

too bad.

Below, my best tips on how to make your next picnic delicious, guava-flavored-wine-soaked, and generally a blast.

Dogs, first and foremost.

Also:

- A bigger-than-you-think-you’ll-need blanket (the more room you have to spread out, the better). Bonus points if your blanket is bright and adorable, like this one from Target.

- Lots of bottled water

- Extra cups, plates and napkins

- Plastic utensils, if you’re serving anything that can’t be eaten with your hands

- Trash bags

- Moist towelettes or wipes (especially if dogs and/or children are involved)

- Cooler with ice packs

- Something to read or do in the downtime (I think picnics are a perfect moment for a) frisbee and b) US Weekly)

- An awesome wine tote for your awesome sangria (or awesome boxed wine)

BRIE & APPLE SANDWICH

1. Layer Brie (shoot for the best quality you can afford and load it on) and thinly sliced green apple on a baguette. You can also add a few slices of turkey, if you like.

2. Drizzle with a little honey or honey mustard.

WATERMELON, TOMATO & BASIL SALAD (Remember to bring plastic utensils)

In a large bowl, combine 2 cups watermelon chunks, 2 sliced tomatoes (1 red, 1 yellow is pretty), 1/3 cup crumbled feta, and a big handful of roughly chopped basil. Toss with olive oil and sea salt.

MIXED BERRIES

CHIPS (Pack them in air-filled resealable bags to prevent crushing)

SOMETHING CHOCOLATE THAT WILL NOT MELT (I like banana-chocolate bread pudding from a store, but cookies work, too)

GUAVA SANGRIA

In a large pitcher, combine 1 bottle relatively cheap, preferably vaguely sparkly white wine (I use Vinho Verde, about $6.99 and even cheaper at Trader Joe’s), 3/4 cup guava juice, 3/4 cup orange juice, 1 thinly sliced lemon, 1 thinly sliced lime, 1 tsp lemon zest, and 1/2 tsp lime zest, and let sit overnight in refrigerator.

Just before serving, add a bunch of sliced strawberries and a splash of club soda (if desired) to each serving. Garnish with a lemon wheel or halved strawberry.

A few things to remember…

- If all the ice in the cooler has melted when you get home, the leftovers probably aren’t safe to save and re-serve

- Use multipurpose utensils (sporks!) to save space

- Extra munchies are always welcome: throw some fun additions like mixed nuts, olives, brownies, or mixed veggies with dip into your picnic basket

Easy Holiday Party Decor Ideas

I’m not big on time (or labor)-intensive holiday decor. You know those people who have houses that look like Christmas exploded inside from Thanksgiving through New Year’s, what with the greenery-wrapped bannisters, holiday-themed place settings, and a tree or wreath around every corner?

Very lovely; totally not me. Or at least not at this particular juncture in my life.

I put up a tree, keep a festive candle or two lit at all times, stick Santa hats and/or elf outfits onto the heads and/or bodies of any creature in my household who will hold still for long enough, and pretty much call it a day.

And when it comes to holiday entertaining…honestly? I think lots of candles and a little sparkle go a long way, and I don’t do much more in the way of decor. Even if I’m hosting a party, I keep things simple and easy, and spend my time focusing on important things, like cocktails.

So.

Some quick-and-easy suggestions for your holiday party decor:

- All those extra ornaments you have laying around? Put them to work, filling up a pretty bowl or clear vase and using it as a centerpiece. I like using just one color, like silver, or a bunch of mismatched vintage-style ornaments (you can pick up cool ones on eBay).

- No need for lots of expensive flowers - just a couple of branches of red berries in a tall vase will add instant color. Or you can go for a dramatic arrangement of plain branches and hang a handful of bold ornaments from those, too.

- Lighting is key, so if you don’t have dimmers, consider picking up a few low-watt lightbulbs, and using candles to up the atmosphere even more (that’s our traditional, prettily lit Christmas Eve picnic, above).

- And speaking of candles: a few go a long way, so to keep your apartment from getting overheated try mixing in a few flameless votives with the real ones (these are great - and affordable).

- I love this idea from Country Living: hang angel wings on the back of each guest’s chair for a sweet touch of spirit.

- Dress up hot beverages with DIY-ed chocolate spoons (just dip plastic spoons in melted chocolate, sprinkle on the toppings of your choice, and set on wax paper in the refrigerator to dry).

- Skip the spicy, foodie scents (which give some people headaches) in favor of crisp, pine-y ones.

- Instead of red and green, try a simple palette of blue and silver, gold and white, or graphic black-and-white with splashes of evergreen.

- For a rustic touch, fill bowls with scented glitter pinecones, and hang extras from doorknobs (or on the tree).

- Don’t forget to make the restroom pretty! You don’t have to do a ton: just make sure there’s plenty of supplies and a small candle burning. Since this is a space that your guests won’t spend much time in, this is a good spot to try out a fun scent; I keep a Wasabi Pear-scented candle in my water closet.

- Add festive little extras where you can, like bowls of peppermint bark (easy to make and inexpensive) scattered through the apartment, or fill little baggies with peppermint-chocolate pretzels and leave them by the door for guests to take with them when they leave.

- No fireplace? No problem: just tune your TV to the Yule Log station. Cheesy, yes…but I love it.

Related:

Easy Hors D’Ouevres

Sugared Cranberries

It’s that time again!

By which I mean Sugared Cranberry Time. Making a few batches of these is a holiday tradition for me, because they’re easy, they’re delicious, and the potential uses are endless (see below).

SUGARED CRANBERRIES

What you need:

1 bag cranberries

2 cups granulated sugar

2 cups superfine sugar

What you do:

1. Boil 2 cups water in a saucepan. Add granulated sugar and stir over med-low heat until totally dissolved.

2. Pour sugar water into large bowl; add cranberries and cover with foil. Leave to sit overnight (or at least 8 hours) in refrigerator.

3. Strain cranberries and pour into another large bowl. Add superfine sugar and toss until cranberries are thoroughly coated.

4. Pour cranberries into a large, shallow baking dish or cookie sheet and leave to dry (this can take up to a few hours).

Ways to use ‘em: 

- During a party, instead of those expensive nut mixes (place them in little bowls around your apartment)

- As drink garnishes (try a Winterberry Cocktail or Nantucket Red)

- On top of cookies, pies, and cakes

- As a little add-on to a present (just tie a small bag to the wrapping paper using a ribbon)

- As party favors (place them in little bags or jars and set them in a bowl by the door, or on each guest’s plate)

(I’m reposting this very old BetterTV video because a few of you have emailed me about getting errors when you search for older posts - my apologies. The links in some of my older posts don’t work because they direct you to a site - my old Tumblr site - that no longer exists. I’m slowly making my way through fixing all of them, but in the meantime if there’s anything you can’t find, just go ahead and shoot me an email and I’ll point you in the right direction!)

Perfect Pumpkin-Carving Weekend Heading This Way!

This coming weekend is a good one to get carving, no?

I mean…I’m not doing it.

Not this year (these photos are from two Halloweens ago).

My favorite part of the whole tradition is heading out to a pumpkin patch in the country and strolling through fields in search of a perfect specimen, and that’s not happening…and spending an hour or so sitting on the floor bent over a pumpkin and a knife is not happening, either.

Besides, I already made my nod to Halloween by picking up a miniature Superman costume (and halfheartedly looking around for those damn cat ears). I may make my way in the direction of a Pumpkin Ale or six in a couple of weeks.

But that’s it for me.

You, though…

You should totally do it!

And if you come up with a really spectacular design, send me a photo: I’d love to see it/post it as inspiration for others.

Some pumpkin-carving tips:

- Put down a big plastic drop-cloth for easy clean-up.

- Don’t forget to reserve the pumpkin seeds for roasting (just clean them well, season them with whatever you like, and roast them in a single layer on a baking sheet at 300F for about 40 minutes).

- I always use a pattern book, and actually go through the tedious process of punching out the outline (per the book’s instructions) first.

- The more detailed designs will rot quicker; thicker, less-complicated designs are what you should lean towards if you want something long-lasting.

- When selecting a pumpkin, look for one with a sturdy stem (but don’t pick it up by the stem!).

- Cut a little “tooth” into the top of the pumpkin (on the least attractive side) so it’s easier to get the top back on in the right position.

- After you poke holes along the pattern’s design lines, rub the front of the pumpkin with flour to make the holes stand out.

- If you decide to use a Sharpie to draw out your pattern and then change your mind, a little nail polish remover should take it right off.

- Rub Vaseline all over the exposed areas of the pumpkin to make it last longer sans fur.

- Whatever you do, do not follow my instructions for making pumpkin soup.