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Party Like a Star (On a Real-Life Budget)

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The Menus:

Dinner for 15 Under $300 (see below)
Cocktails for 20 Under $200
Cookies for 20 Under $100

According to A-list event planner Mindy Weiss, the last thing most parties need is more. “Don’t stress thinking ‘More is more,'” says Weiss, who has handled over-the-top (yet somehow stress-free) celebrations for, among many others, Ellen DeGeneres, Ashlee Simpson, Eva Longoria Parker, Nicole Richie, Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony. Take the menu choices. You don’t need to pile on exotic or trendy dishes. “I most often find when the client says, ‘We need more,’ what actually gets eaten is the familiar.” As for the decor, remember that “this is your home, not a ballroom.” Rather than try to turn your living room into Christmas at the Ritz by buying loads of holiday-specific decorations, “use things you have in your house – that crystal bowl you got as a wedding gift that you don’t know what to do with.”

Applying that philosophy, Weiss took on PEOPLE’s challenge: a full sit-down dinner for less than $300, cocktails for $200 and a dessert party for $100. Doable? “Absolutely,” says Weiss. With that budget, “You can entertain in a high-end manner.” And don’t feel you must follow her every suggestion exactly, she advises. “Get ideas, get inspiration. But put your own personality in too. That’s the thing people remember.”

Dinner for 15 Under $300

To make your holiday dinner a big, expansive affair for 15, go with a buffet rather than passed platters, says Weiss. “I love buffets. A full table makes people feel warm, cozy and secure.” Alongside favorite foods, Weiss works in decorative touches. “I pull things from my house and make it an art piece – Lalique statues next to the Brussels sprouts – those things in your home that you think, ‘What am I going do with that?'” Or she’ll hit flea markets for “vintage Indians and pilgrims.” The menu is familiar – and affordable because of it: “The places that sell turkey and cranberries are buying masses of it.” But she also thinks people should veer from the standards to “bring in something you grew up with.” If homemade pie isn’t one of your traditions, fine. It isn’t one of hers either. “I stand in line at the bakery for my pie.”

The Menu:

• Roasted Whole Turkey and Gravy
• Carrot Pudding Soufflés
• Traditional Stuffing
• Ruby Salad

Roasted Whole Turkey and Gravy

1 tsp. black peppercorns
1 tsp. Sichuan peppercorns
1 tsp. coriander seeds
2 whole cloves
½ tsp. star anise pieces
4 tsp. coarse sea salt
2 tbsp. finely grated peeled ginger (a 5-in. piece)
2 tbsp. finely grated garlic (8 cloves)
2 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
1 (14 lb.) turkey at room temperature 1 hour, reserving neck and giblets (discard liver)
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
2 bunches scallions, coarsely chopped
2 carrots, coarsely chopped
2 celery ribs, coarsely chopped
6 (¼-in.-thick) slices fresh ginger
1 cup Chinese rice wine, such as Shaoxing, or medium-dry sherry
4 to 5 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 tbsp. soy sauce
3 tbsp. cornstarch

Equipment: an electric coffee/spice grinder; kitchen string; a V-shaped roasting rack; a 17- by 14-in. roasting pan; a 1-quart measuring cup; a fat separator (optional)

To prepare turkey:
1. Preheat oven to 450ºF with rack in lowest position.
2. Toast spices with sea salt in a dry small heavy skillet over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until fragrant and coriander is a shade darker, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to grinder and pulse until finely ground. Reserve 1 tsp. spice mixture, then stir together remaining spice mixture with grated ginger, garlic, and butter to form a paste.
3. Rinse turkey inside and out, then pat dry. Fold neck skin under body. Starting at large cavity end of turkey, gently slide your fingers between skin and flesh of breast and legs to loosen skin, being careful not to tear skin. Using a spoon, slide spice paste under skin of turkey breast and legs, pushing butter out of spoon with a finger on outside of skin (do not put spice paste under turkey skin in advance). Tie drumsticks together with kitchen string and tuck wings under body.
4. Pat giblets and neck pieces dry and cut into 1-in. pieces. Heat vegetable oil in a 12-in. heavy skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers, then sauté giblets and neck pieces, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 5 minutes. Add scallions, carrots, celery, and sliced ginger and sauté, stirring, until lightly browned, about 8 minutes.
5. Add rice wine and boil, stirring and scraping up any brown bits, 1 minute. Stir in 4 cups broth, soy sauce, and reserved tsp. spice mixture and bring to a boil. Pour mixture into roasting pan, then set rack in roasting pan, arranging neck pieces and vegetables around rack as necessary (liquid should be just below bottom of rack).
6. Roast turkey on rack, rotating pan 180 degrees halfway through roasting, until an instant-read thermometer inserted into fleshy part of thighs (test both, close to but not touching bone) registers 170ºF, 1 ½ to 2 hours.
7. Carefully tilt turkey so juices from inside large cavity run into roasting pan, then transfer turkey to a platter, reserving juices in roasting pan. Let turkey stand, uncovered, 30 minutes (temperature of thigh meat will rise to 175º).
8. Make gravy while turkey stands: Strain pan juices through a large fine-mesh sieve into 1-quart measure, pressing hard on and then discarding solids, and let stand until fat rises to top. Skim off and discard fat. (If using a fat separator, pour pan juices through sieve into separator and let stand until fat rises to top, 1 to 2 minutes. Carefully pour pan juices from separator into measuring cup, discarding fat.) You should have 4 cups stock. If there is less, add more broth. If there’s more, boil to reduce. Transfer all but ½ cup stock to a heavy medium saucepan and bring to a boil.

Whisk together cornstarch and ½ cup reserved stock in a small bowl until smooth, then whisk into boiling stock and boil, whisking occasionally, 2 minutes. Serve turkey with gravy.

Carrot Pudding Soufflés >

Carrot Pudding Soufflés

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for ramekins
1 small shallot, thinly sliced (about ¼ cup)
2 lbs. medium carrots, peeled and cut into ½ in. pieces (about 4 cups)
1 bay leaf
Coarse salt
1 cup heavy cream
6 tbsp. all-purpose flour
2 ½ cups whole milk
¼ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
¼ tsp. ground ginger
Freshly ground pepper
6 large egg yolks plus 4 large egg whites

1. Melt 2 tbsp. butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add shallots, chopped carrots, bay leaf and 1 tsp. salt. Cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until carrots are tender.
2. Stir in cream. Bring mixture just to a simmer and immediately remove from heat; discard bay leaf. Using an immersion blender or a food processor, puree mixture. Transfer carrot puree to a small bowl and set aside.
3. Melt 4 tbsp. butter in medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir in flour with a spoon, cook, stirring constantly, 3 minutes. Whisk in milk gradually. Reduce heat to low. Cook, stirring often to prevent lumps from forming, 15 minutes. Whisk in carrot puree and remove from heat. Stir in nutmeg, ginger and 1 tsp. salt, season with pepper. Transfer to a large bowl; let cool completely.
4. Preheat oven to 400º. Lightly butter eight 6-oz. ramekins, set aside.
5. Add yolks, one at a time, to carrot mixture, whisking well after each addition.
6. Beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Fold into carrot mixture.
7. Ladle mixture into prepared ramekins, filling almost to the rims. Place ramekins in a roasting pan and transfer to oven. Bake until soufflés are puffed and set, and tops begin to brown, about 35 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool. Soufflés may be prepared a few hours in advance up to this point. When ready to serve, invert soufflés onto a cookie sheet.
8. Brush with melted butter and reheat at 350º for 8-10 minutes. Transfer to serving plates.

Traditional Stuffing >

Traditional Stuffing

8 tbsp. (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 medium onions, cut into 1/4-in. dice (about 3 cups)
6 stalks celery with leaves, cut into 1/4-in. dice (about 2 ½ cups)
1 (14-oz.) package seasoned bread stuffing cubes
½ cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 tsp. celery salt
1 tsp. dried sage, crumbled
1 tsp. dried rosemary, crushed
½ tsp. dried thyme, crumbled
¼ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 ¼ cups hot canned turkey stock, plus ½ cup more if baking all of stuffing outside of turkey

1. In 12-in., heavy skillet over moderate heat, heat butter until hot but not smoking. Stir in onion and celery, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, 15 to 20 minutes. (Vegetables can be prepared up to 1 day ahead and refrigerated. Reheat before continuing: In 12-in., heavy skillet over moderately high heat, sauté, stirring often, until heated through, about 5 minutes.)
2. Transfer to large bowl and add stuffing cubes, parsley, celery salt, sage, rosemary, thyme, salt, and pepper. Stir in 1 ¼ cups hot stock.
3. If using to stuff turkey: Use immediately to fill cavities and spread remainder in baking dish. If baking entire recipe as side dish: Preheat oven to 350º and butter 3-quart casserole or 9 X 13-in. baking dish. Transfer stuffing to dish and drizzle with ½ cup hot stock. Cover with aluminum foil and bake until heated through, about 30 minutes. Uncover and bake until top is slightly crisp and golden, about 10 minutes longer. Serve immediately.

Ruby Salad >

Ruby Salad

4-5 heads baby red leaf lettuce, torn
2 heads radicchio, cored and torn
3-4 heads of red endive, sliced lengthwise
½ cup dried cranberries
½ dried cherries
3 red beets, roasted, peeled and sliced lengthwise
½ cup pomegranate seeds
1 cup candied or toasted pecans
1 ½ cups crumbled blue cheese
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Serve with Balsamic Vinaigrette or Pomegranate Vinaigrette

Put the salad greens in a bowl and toss to mix. Add all the remaining salad ingredients. Season with salt and pepper. Add a few tablespoons of vinaigrette and toss well. Add a light more, if needed.

Cocktails for 20 Under $200 >

The Menus:

Cocktails for 20 Under $200 (see below)
Cookies for 20 Under $100
Dinner for 15 Under $300

Cocktails for 20 Under $200

People will say, ‘What if so-and-so doesn’t like my champagne? He’s used to Dom Perignon!'” says Weiss. With a cocktail party, she advises, “what you’re serving is what you’re serving. Let people be gracious. If they’re not, don’t invite them again.” In addition to nonalcoholic drinks, she recommends having one signature cocktail, such as the “Ruby Slip Martini” she created for Seal and Heidi Klum, which combines vodka, limoncello (Italian lemon liqueur), raspberry and peach juices. For a party of 20, she thinks 30 pieces of five passed hors d’oeuvres is right. Have a beef, chicken, fish and two vegetarian. “Don’t overdo it with 10 choices; five keeps up the excitement of ‘What’s next?’ ” Again, she goes for ease: In the assortment at left, she bought mini buns, frozen pastry shells and other conveniences. Lastly? “Great music. Only about 45 minutes of ‘holiday’ music then change it. Reggae? Motown? Classics? Rap? Know your guests well enough to know what they like.”

The Menu:

• Cocktail: Ruby Slip
• Warm Brie in a Crispy Cup
• Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Fig Jam
• Mini Hamburgers
• Polenta Stars
• Rare Roast Beef on a Grissini Bread Stick with Roasted Tomato Aioli

Cocktail: Ruby Slip

Recipe for 1 drink

1 fl. oz vodka
½ fl. oz limoncello
2-3 fl.oz fresh raspberry juice
2-3 fl. oz fresh or canned peach juice or nectar
Fresh lemon rind and fresh raspberries, to garnish

Put the vodka, limoncello, and juices in a cocktail shaker and mix well with cracked ice. Strain into a glass. Garnish with lemon rind and raspberries. Serve immediately

Warm Brie in a Crispy Cup >

Warm Brie in a Crispy Cup

Makes 20 pieces

5 wonton skins
½ cup butter, melted
8 oz. ripe Brie cheese
2 tbsp. white truffle honey (or other honey)
½ cup toasted almond slivers
1 ½-in. diameter cookie cutter
2 mini-muffin pans (12 cups each)

1. Preheat the oven 350º. Cut 1 ½ in. rounds out of the wonton skins (cut 4 from each skin). Brush each with melted butter and place in the mini-muffin pans.
2. Bake 8-10 minutes or until light brown. Remove the cups from the oven and fill each one with about 1 tsp. of Brie. Return to the oven and bake for a further 5 minutes or until the cheese has melted. Remove from the oven, drizzle with white truffle honey, and top with almonds. Serve immediately.

Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Fig Jam >

Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Fig Jam

Makes 12 pieces

6 pieces of white bread
½ pound thinly sliced Gruyere cheese
Fig jam
Butter for grilling

1. Divide cheese mixture among 6 slices of bread, spreading evenly.
2. Spread a thin coat of fig jam on each slice of bread. Then top with remaining 6 slices.
3. Coat outside slices with a thin layer of butter. Place sandwiches on a pre-seasoned panini grill or grill pan. Grill until bread is light brown. Remove from pan.
4. Cut crusts off sandwiches and cut into quarters. Top each mini sandwich with a small dollop of fig jam.

Mini Hamburgers >

Mini Hamburgers

Makes 40

½ cup chopped onion
1 tbsp. butter or margarine
1 lb. lean ground beef
1 egg, beaten
¼ tsp. seasoned salt
¼ tsp. ground sage
¼ tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper
Forty mini rolls, split. (Or purchase dough in the frozen food department at your market. Roll into quarter sized balls, wipe the tops with butter or egg whites and bake.)
8-oz. cheddar cheese slices, cut into 1-½-in. squares, optional
Forty slices of dill pickle
Add cheese of your choice if desired

1. In a skillet, sauté onion in butter. Transfer to a bowl; add meat, egg and seasonings.
2. Spread over bottom halves of the rolls; replace tops. Place on baking sheets; cover with foil.
3. Bake at 350º for 20 minutes. If desired, place a cheese square and a pickle on each hamburger; replace tops and foil and return to the oven for five minutes.

Polenta Stars >

Polenta Stars

Makes 36-48 stars

2 cups quick-cooking polenta
Vegetable oil for frying
8 oz. mild goat cheese, at room temperature
8 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
2 cups tomato chutney (purchase tomato chutney or tomato bruschetta topping at your local market).

1. Cook the polenta according to the package directions. Spread onto the prepared baking sheet and let cool. Cut into small stars.
2. In a large, deep skillet, heat 1-2 of oil to 250º. Fry polenta stars until they are light golden brown and crisp.
3. Put the goat cheese and cream cheese in a bowl and blend. Top each warm star with 1 tsp. cheese mixture and 1 tsp. of tomato chutney. Garnish with basil leaf.

Rare Roast Beef on a Grissini Bread Stick with Roasted Tomato Aioli >

Rare Roast Beef on a Grissini Bread Stick with Roasted Tomato Aioli

Makes 16-24 appetizers

Roasted tomato aioli (see directions below)
3 tbsp. roasted marinated tomatoes
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
Juice of ½ lemon
1-2 cloves garlic
Pinch fresh ground black pepper
1 ¾ cup mayonnaise
16-24 thin slices rare roast beef, about 3-in. long
16-24 leaves of arugula
16-24 Grissini breadsticks
Roasted tomato aioli
Basil oil
Fresh ground black pepper
Sea salt

1. To make the roasted tomato aioli, mix first five ingredients in a food processor until combined. Stir into mayonnaise.
2. To make the appetizers, lay a slice of roast beef on a flat surface and spread a thin layer of aioli on top. Place one arugula leaf at one end of the sliced beef and spread with a bit more aioli. Place one end of a Grissini breadstick on the arugula leaf and roll. Drizzle with basil oil; sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Note: Appetizers must be made just prior to serving. Making ahead of time will cause the Grissini breadsticks to become soggy.

Cookies for 20 Under $100 >

Mindy Weiss

The Menus:

Cookies for 20 Under $100 (see below)
Dinner for 15 Under $300
Cocktails for 20 Under $200

Cookies for 20 Under $100

“People go to trouble to find the fanciest dessert, when truly people want comfort food like old-fashioned cookies,” says Weiss, who set up a cookie bar at Eva Longoria Parker’s bridal shower. “Baking is very inexpensive. But you can find great cookies too.” Weiss buys both from bakeries and from big-box stores like Costco in L.A. It’s easy to make a party like this feel plentiful, because, as she points out, “with a dessert theme, guests aren’t starving; they’ve already eaten dinner.” She rounds out the offerings with a cocktail and other beverages, plus berries or fruit “for the dieters.” As for the cookies, elevate them with creative displays. Use glass jars, but if you don’t have them, “use bowls, or kids’ cookie jars, pitchers, vases. Delicious is delicious.”

The Menu:

• Pomegranate Champagne Cocktail with Candied Ginger Garnish
• Chocolate Chip Cookies
• Holiday Decorated Cookies
• Mini Cheesecake Tartlets

Pomegranate Champagne Cocktail with Candied Ginger Garnish

Recipe for 1 drink

6 fl. oz champagne
1 fl. oz pomegranate juice
Pomegranate seeds
Candied ginger garnish on a tooth pick

Put the champagne, pomegranate juice in a champagne flute or coupe. Garnish with pomegranate seeds and candied ginger garnish.

Chocolate Chip Cookies >

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Makes 28 large cookies

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp. baking soda
1 ½ tsp. salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 ½ cups packed light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 ½ tsp. vanilla
2 ½ cups semisweet chocolate chips (16 oz.)

1. Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 375º. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment or wax paper.
2. Whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt in a small bowl.
3. Beat together butter and sugars in a large bowl with an electric mixer at high speed until pale and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes.
4. Lightly beat 1 egg with a fork in a small bowl and add 1 ¾ tbsp. of it plus 2 remaining whole eggs to butter mixture, beating with mixer until creamy, about 1 minute. Beat in vanilla. Reduce speed to low and mix in flour mixture until just blended, and then stir in chips.
5. Scoop ¼ cup batter for each cookie, arranging mounds 3 apart, on 2 baking sheets. Flatten mounds into 3-in. rounds using moistened palm of your hand. Form remaining cookies on additional sheets of parchment.
6. Bake, 1 sheet at a time, until golden, 13 to 15 minutes. Transfer cookies to a rack to cool and continue making cookies in same manner using cooled baking sheets.

Holiday Decorated Cookies >

Holiday Decorated Cookies

Makes 48 cookies

To make the cookies, use any shape cookie cutter.

For cookies:
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
1 large egg
1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract
2 ½ cups all purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. ground nutmeg
¼ tsp. ground cinnamon

For frosting:
9 cups (or more) powdered sugar (about 2 ¼ lbs.)
4 ½ tbsp. pasteurized powdered egg whites
12 tbsp. (or more) water
Assorted food colorings
4 (or more) small disposable pastry bags
Plain round metal tips (1/16 to 1/8 in. in diameter; optional)

To make cookies:
1. Using electric mixer, beat butter and sugar in large bowl until fluffy. Beat in egg and vanilla. Sift flour, baking powder, salt and nutmeg over; stir to blend well.
2. Turn dough out onto lightly floured surface and knead gently 1 minute. Shape dough into ½-in.-thick rectangle. Cut into 4 equal pieces; wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least 3 hours and up to 1 day. Let dough soften slightly at room temperature before rolling out.
3. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350º. Butter large baking sheet. Working with 1 dough piece at a time, roll out dough on lightly floured surface to ½-in. thickness, lifting and turning dough often and dusting surface very lightly with flour to prevent sticking. Using floured 3- to 4-in. cutters, cut out cookies. Pull away excess dough from around cookies.
4. Transfer cookies to prepared baking sheet, spacing 1 inch apart (cookies will not spread). If using cookies as hanging ornaments, push 1 end of drinking straw through dough near top of each cookie; lift straw, then remove small dough round from straw. Gently reroll dough scraps; cut out more cookies. Transfer to same sheet.
5. Bake cookies until light brown, about 11 minutes. Let cool 5 minutes on sheet. Transfer cookies to rack; cool. Repeat with remaining dough pieces, baking 1 sheet of cookies at a time.

To make frosting:
1. Whisk 9 cups sugar and powdered egg whites in large bowl to blend. Whisk in 12 tbsp. water. If necessary, whisk in more water by teaspoonfuls or more sugar by tablespoonfuls until frosting is medium-thick and very smooth.
2. Place ½ cup frosting into each of 4 small bowls; mix colors using instructions in box on previous page. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover bowls and remaining frosting with plastic wrap to keep frosting from drying out. Store at room temperature.) Thin frosting in each bowl as needed by mixing in ¼ tsp. water at a time.
3. Using pastry brush or small metal offset spatula, spread frosting on cookies; set cookies aside and let frosting dry, about 30 minutes. Cut off small tip from end of 1 disposable pastry bag (cut off slightly more if planning to insert metal tip). Fold down top 2 inches of bag, forming collar. Holding bag under collar and using small rubber spatula, fill bag with 1 color of frosting. Repeat with remaining pastry bags, filling each with 1 color of frosting. Pipe decorations onto frosted cookies in desired patterns and colors. Let cookies stand until decorations are firm and dry, at least 4 hours. (Can be prepared 3 days ahead. Place cookies in single layer between sheets of waxed paper in airtight container; store at room temperature.)

Mini Cheesecake Tartlets >

Mini Cheesecake Tartlets

Makes 8 tartlets

2 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs
½ cup (packed) dark brown sugar
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
12 tsp. vodka
6 ½ tsp. vanilla extract
½ tsp. unflavored gelatin
2 8-oz. packages cream cheese, room temperature
½ cup plus ¼ cup sugar
2 vanilla beans, split lengthwise
6 tbsp. whipping cream
3 cups mixed berries (such as raspberries, blueberries and halved strawberries)

1. Preheat oven to 350º. Mix first 3 ingredients in large bowl until evenly moistened.
2. Divide mixture among eight 4 ½ x ¾-in. tartlet pans with removable bottoms; press over bottoms and up sides. Bake until light brown, about 12 minutes. Cool crusts completely in pans on racks.
3. Mix 8 tsp. vodka and 4 tsp. vanilla extract in small saucepan; sprinkle gelatin over. Let stand 10 minutes. Stir over very low heat just until dissolved. Cool to barely lukewarm.
4. Combine cream cheese, ½ cup sugar and ½ tsp. vanilla extract in large bowl. Scrape in seeds from vanilla beans. Beat in cream, then gelatin mixture.
5. Divide filling among crusts. Press bottoms of pans up releasing tartlets. Arrange tartlets on baking sheet. Chill 3 hours or overnight.
6. Gently stir berries, 4 tsp. vodka, 2 tsp. vanilla extract and ¼ cup sugar in bowl. Let stand 15 minutes. Top tartlets with berry mixture.

All menus by Mindy Weiss

Recipes courtesy Peggy Dark/The Kitchen for Exploring Foods, from Fabulous Parties by Mark Held, Richard David and Peggy Dark; Ryland Peters & Small (April 2008). Reproduced with permission