Entertain this season and keep your connections alive

Entertain this season and keep your connections alive

If you live by yourself, just the thought of holiday entertaining can be overwhelming.

Planning? Your job.

Vacuuming? Your job.

Cooking? Your job.

Chef SoloCleaning up? Well, you get the picture by now. I’m tired just writing about it.

But, if we live by ourselves, keeping our connections to other people is really important, particularly during the holidays.

“Brain studies show that the well-being hormone, or neurotransmitter, serotonin, really gets activated when one is in the presence of others,” Irene Coletsos, MD, a psychiatrist at Cape Cod Healthcare Centers for Behavioral Health, said. “We’re really a social animal.”

There are lots of ways that food can help maintain connections during the holidays. We can invite people to our homes for a meal or cup of tea; take food to first responders or nursing home residents; or help serve at a community event. The fact that we’re doing something for somebody else is what’s important, said Dr. Coletsos.

Even if we’re at home baking cookies for someone, our brains get a serotonin boost from thinking about somebody else.

If reaching out feels overwhelming or too much of a risk, she suggests focusing on the very first step that might be required to, for example, invite someone for dinner. Perhaps the first step is finding the phone number of the person you want to invite. If that feels OK, then you can progress to the next step – writing it down or even dialing.

Need to be braver? Think of the most fearless person you know and how that person would do it. Dr Coletsos likes to imagine Xena the Warrior Princess, who would hardly blink at proffering a dinner invite. And remember, this isn’t just helping you. It’s a connection for someone else, as well.

“I think people undervalue the value of their own gestures,” Dr. Coletsos said. “And often something that might feel very small to the person offering it, might be quite huge to the person to whom it’s offered.”

Once You Have Decided

If you do decide to entertain, remember it doesn’t have to be a Big Event. A quiet dinner with a few good friends or fancier-than-usual morning coffee with a couple of pals is a nice respite during the holidays – or a way to break up the cold winter months.

Here are 10 tips I gathered from friends, family and my own experience to make entertaining easier, and I’ve added three holiday recipes, as well.

  • Plan, plan, plan. Think about a menu you can mostly do ahead and then please, please, when guests offer to help, say yes. And don’t be shy about asking for help: “Would you mind filling the water glasses?” People like to help.
  • Let go of perfection. Parties are a lot more about conversation and friends than whether your silver is polished or the china is fancy. And as my mother used to say, tidy before the party, clean afterwards.
  • If you potluck, don’t depend on someone else to bring something critical. That way if you have a last-minute cancellation, you won’t be missing the ham.
  • Entertaining doesn’t have to mean a meal. Do appetizers or desserts or afternoon tea or morning coffee.
  • Invite five other people to bring an entrée for six (you are No. 6). Everyone gets to taste a portion of something and then take home containers of someone else’s cooking for the freezer.
  • Rethink elegance. If ever there were a time to use disposable plates and cups, holiday entertaining was it. If the conversation is fun and the food is good, no one will care what they are eating off of. Just remember to recycle.
  • Serve food that makes guests to do the serving. One favorite ploy: A baked potato bar. Bake one big potato per guest and then offer sides: chili (with or without meat), cheese, salsa, broccoli, sour cream, caramelized onions, guacamole, smoked salmon, bacon bits … you’re limited only by your imagination.
  • Reach out to other people who might be alone and ask them to join you, even if you don’t know them well. I did this after my divorce and created some great new traditions.
  • Instead of one big event, do two smaller ones but serve the same menu. Trust me, your book club will never know that you served the same stew to the neighbors last week. Look for foods that freeze well and that you can make in double batches.
  • Limit your bar options or tell folks to BYO. And please, for your friends who choose not to drink alcohol, consider one fun non-alcoholic option that’s a change-up from seltzer.

Here are a few recipe ideas from Chef Solo to get your party started!

EASY BLUE-CHEESE BOMBS

There are lots of versions of these on the web, but this is the easy-peasy version I used.

  • 1 cup blue cheese crumbles or enough to cover the bottom of a pie plate
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tube refrigerated biscuits

Melt the butter in the bottom of a pie plate or baking dish. Sprinkle with crumbled blue cheese – enough to cover the bottom. Cut the biscuits into quarters and place on top of blue cheese. Bake according to directions. Take them out of the oven and invert them onto a plate. Serve warm.

GINGER-BASIL GRAPEFRUIT MIMOSAS

This ginger-basil-grapefruit spritzer is alcohol-free but still has a bit of a kick. It’s adapted from Simple Cooking, a cooking site for singles and couples. This makes about 6 “cocktails.”

  • 1 grapefruit, more if you want garnish.
  • 3 12-ounce bottles of ginger beer (available at most supermarkets)
  • Handful of fresh basil
  • 1/4 cup basil simple syrup (recipe below)

Juice the grapefruit. Fill a pitcher half way with ice. Pour in ginger beers, fresh grapefruit juice and simple syrup. Mix well. Garnish with grapefruit slices and fresh basil.

BASIL SIMPLE SYRUP

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup loosely packed fresh basil

Place sugar and water in a small pan over medium heat until sugar is fully dissolved, about 2 minutes. Add the basil. Steep for 15-20 minutes and strain and discard basil. Place syrup in a glass container and chill. It will keep for a few weeks chilled.

CHRISTMAS COOKIES

These buttery cookies come from an early 1960 cookbook series called “Make It Now, Bake It Later” by Barbara Goodfellow. I’ve made them for more than 40 years. The total recipe makes as many as 100 cut-out cookies but you can cut the recipe in half, or make the dough weeks ahead and freeze it. Wrap it in small batches so you can make cookies on the fly. I’ve included the original icing recipe but you can also use store-bought or enjoy them without icing. It’s all good.

  • 6 cups sifted flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups butter – yes, that’s 1 pound. No substitutions!
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 4 unbeaten eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla

Sift flour and salt together.

Cream butter until soft. Gradually add sugar, creaming after each addition until it’s light and fluffy.

Add eggs and vanilla and mix well until any lumps are small.

Add flour-salt mixture a little at a time and mix in well.

Cover and refrigerate at least 5 hours.

Using a small portion of chilled dough at a time, roll out to 1/8 inch thick on a well-floured surface. Dip your cookie cutters in flour and make sure to flour your rolling pin.

Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet at 375 for 8 to 10 minutes.

When cool, frost or sprinkle with icing sugar.

FROSTING

  • 4 egg whites
  • ½ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • 5 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar (or so)

Beat egg whites with cream of tartar and vanilla until foamy. Gradually beat in the shifted powdered sugar until frosting stands in stiff peaks. Now, you can divide it into portions (paper cups work well for this) and add whatever food colors you like. Plastic knives and toothpicks are good applicators! And you can go crazy with sprinkles or other decorations. The icing will harden in an hour or so.