Jo Gartin's Elegant (And Easy!) Dinner Party

Photo: Lisa Romerein

Hosting a holiday soiree doesn’t mean you have to transform your dining room into Santa’s workshop.

“There’s nothing wrong with adding some ornaments, but I say keep it simple,” says celebrity party planner Jo Gartin, whose A-list clients include Courteney Cox-Arquette and Brooke Shields. “I try to choose one theme or color.”

For this Italian-inspired feast for 12, Gartin focused on the color green. Succulents decorate the table and herbs are infused in cocktails and entrées – which are served buffet-style to give the gathering a “homey” vibe.

“It’s not too formal or regimented and a bit more intimate,” says Gartin. Plus, as a host, “it takes you out of the kitchen,” she says. “You’re not prepping plates and serving food forever. You just put everything out, and people can help themselves.”

Just remember that simple doesn’t mean boring. “Do things that have a little element of surprise,” says Gartin, who encourages adding personal touches to the menu and a bit of whimsy to the table decor. “It’s important to bring your personality into the party.”


Basil Martini

2 oz. gin
2 tbsp. lemon juice
1 ½ tbsp. simple syrup*
1 fresh, slivered basil leaf
Ice cubes

Combine gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, basil leaves and ice cubes in cocktail shaker. Shake well and strain into a martini glass. Makes 1 drink.

*To make simple syrup, mix 1 part sugar with 1 part boiling water. Stir until sugar dissolves and cool.

NEXT: Arugula Salad with Avocado and Pine Nuts & Crumbed Chicken>

Arugula Salad with Avocado and Pine Nuts

10 oz. baby arugula
½ cup pine nuts
½ cup diced red onions
1 large avocado, pitted and cubed
2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper
¼ cup olive oil

Gently mix arugula, pine nuts and red onion in a large salad bowl. Add cubed avocado on top. Toss with salt and pepper. Finish off by drizzling olive oil and lemon juice. Toss to mix.

Crumbed Chicken

18 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, pounded thin
4 cups seasoned breadcrumbs
4 eggs, lightly beaten
3 tbsp. butter
3 tbsp. olive oil
Salt and pepper
Lime wedges

1. Put breadcrumbs, salt and pepper in shallow bowl.
2. Dip chicken into eggs, then coat with breadcrumb mixture.
3. Heat butter and olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, cook chicken on one side until brown, about 2 minutes. Turn and brown on the other side, about two minutes more. Continue cooking until done, about 3 more minutes. Serve with lime wedges.

NEXT: Butter Sage Penne with Spinach >

Butter Sage Penne with Spinach

36 oz. whole-wheat penne (approx. 2 boxes)
1 cup sage leaves
½ cup butter
1 tbsp. agave nectar (or honey)
3 cups baby spinach
2 tbsp. milk or fresh cream
Salt and lemon (or black) pepper
Grated Parmesan

1. Boil penne pasta. Wash and dry the sage leaves. Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the sage. Cook very gently over a low flame taking care not to let the butter burn.
2. Add the agave nectar (or honey), washed baby spinach and cooked, drained pasta. Stir on high heat for 1-2 mins. Add fresh cream, salt and lemon pepper to taste, serve and top with grated Parmesan cheese.

NEXT: Caramel Apple Cheesecake >

Caramel Apple Cheesecake

1 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs (about 8 cookie sheets)
3 tbsp. melted butter
Cooking spray

1 ¾ cups sugar
½ cup sour cream
3 tbsp. all-purpose flour
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract
¼ tsp. ground nutmeg
3 (8-oz.) blocks cream cheese, softened
4 large eggs

½ cup sugar
3 tbsp. water
½ tsp. fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp. butter
2 tbsp. half-and-half
1 ¾ cups chopped and peeled Granny Smith apple (about 8 oz.)
Dash of nutmeg

1. Preheat oven to 350º F.
2. Make crust: Combine the crumbs and melted butter in a bowl; toss with a fork until moist. Press mixture lightly into bottom of a 9″ x 9″ x 2″ pan coated with cooking spray. Bake at 350º F for 10 minutes. Remove from oven; cool on a wire rack. Reduce oven temperature to 325º F.
3. Make filling: Place 1 ¾ cups sugar and next 7 ingredients (through cream cheese) in processor (or blender); process until smooth. Add eggs, one at a time; process until blended. Pour mixture into prepared pan. Place pan in a large roasting pan; add hot water to larger pan to a depth of 1 inch.
4. Bake at 325º F for 1 hour or until cheesecake center barely moves when pan is touched. Remove from oven; let stand in water bath 10 minutes. Run a knife around outside edge of cheesecake. Remove pan from water bath; cool on a wire rack to room temperature. Cover and chill at least 8 hours.
5. To prepare topping: Combine ½ cup sugar, 3 tbsp. water, and lemon juice in a small, heavy saucepan; cook over medium-high heat until sugar dissolves, stirring frequently. Cook 4 minutes or until golden (do not stir). Remove from heat. Add butter to pan; gently stir until butter melts. Stir in half-and-half. Cool slightly.
6. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Coat pan with cooking spray. Chop apples into small cubes. Add apple cubes to pan; sauté 5 minutes or until lightly browned. Stir in sugar mixture and nutmeg. Cook until juices evaporate and mixture starts to thicken. Let cool. Cut cake into 16 squares or 32 bars. Top each piece with a small amount of apples.

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