A Guide to the Best Books on Entertaining

These days, I need little inducement to throw a party, but let's be honest, my early efforts were...abysmal. Full of good intentions, I worked like crazy and the results fell far short of expectations. Frustrated and more than a little discouraged, I took a long hiatus before attempting another party.

But I came around. With practice and advice from a few good books...eventually, my parties began to mirror my original vision.

In the weeks before a party, you'll find me on the couch, surrounded by a mountain of books. Fishing for both recipes and aesthetic ideas, I spend hours...sometimes days, paging through books. While I've managed to assemble a massive book collection...when it comes to party planning, I turn to the same books over and over again.

With holiday entertaining on the horizon, here's where I turn for inspiration:

Entertaining Simple: Recipes, Menus, Party Ideas for Every Kind of Gathering
by Matthew Mead
John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2008

If you buy just one book on entertaining, make it this one. Many entertaining books are long on fantasy, short on reality check...and the pressure to throw the "perfect" party keeps folks from hosting anything at all. Whether you're a novice or a seasoned party pro, you'll be culling ideas from this book for years to come. First chapter, Mead makes it clear: you don't need everything, you need the RIGHT things. Page 28 is your guide to a smart entertaining pantry: 12 place settings, 12 wine glasses, 1-2 large platters, 1 set of nesting mixing bowls, etc. Based on that list, Mead is a master at making every piece in his collection do double duty. The premise behind Entertaining Simple is about making the most with what you've got and then provide loads of inspiring ideas. Glass votive holders become: small dessert cups, handleless after dinner espresso cups, and vessels for everything from olives to candies. Drool-worthy images by Quentin Bacon are far from just pretty. I find myself studying these images, wondering, "Why didn't I think of that?!" Follow that up with Mead's thoughtful, well-chosen recipes and you'll discover....you can host a party and have time to enjoy it!

Southern Cocktails: Dixie Drinks, Party Potions, and Classic Libations
by Denise Gee
Chronicle Books, 2007

Who's thirsty? The minute I saw those frosty mint juleps, I was sold! Fortunately, this book delivers more than just a pretty cover. Cocktail recipes -- both single servings and drinks for a crowd -- are interspersed with fun stories of lore. Informative headnotes provide everything from recipe alternatives, serving suggestions, or point to the perfect tequila for The Ultimate Margarita (Tequila National from Jalisco.) With a decidedly southern spin, the fun begins long before you reach for a glass. In the Classics Chapter, Gee notes: "Traditions keep the fabric of the South richly woven, and the region's tried-and-true cocktails are decidedly its liquid assets." Not to miss is the handful of nibble recipes in the back offering Southern party favorites like Spiked Pimento Cheese, Freddie Lee's Cheese Pennies, and Vidalia Onion Cheese Toasts. This is one book I reach for over and over again.

Cocktail Parties with a Twist: Drink + Food + Style
by Alexandra Angle, Eliot Angle, Ericka McConnell
Stewart, Tabori & Chang

A surprising gem, Cocktail Parties with a Twist covers topics other books don't--got a microscopic apartment in the city? Set up a bar in the closet. The night is winding down and yet guests still haven't gotten the clue the party's over? Take a cue from the restaurant biz: close the bar down, turn off the music, and "stop being so damn exciting--let the conversation lull." This book covers food & cocktails for the fashionista sect. Minted shrimp canapes on a bed of pea and sorrel puree; cucumber cups (square, hollowed out cucumbers) with sweet pepper coulis; and precious jicama slices with avocado and crab salad. While several recipes are fussier than I care to bother with, there are plenty of recipes that are long on style with minimal work -- cheese crisps with white bean puree, for example. Chapters are divided into themes: the Urban Loft; Impossibly Small Apartment; Dock at Sunset; Glamour by the Pool's Edge. Here again we see captivating images with lifestyle shots a la Vogue, and I'm grabbing ideas all along the way.

Finger Food: Bite-Size Food for Cocktail Parties
by Elsa Petersen-Scheperlern
Ryland, Peters & Small, 2002

While I lean towards family-style or plated presentations, occasionally I need a go-to resource for finger food. I have ten or more books that cover the topic, but this is the one I actually use. Stunning photography and modern presentations lend an excitement long before the party begins. Chapters are divided into serving suggestion-formats: Spoons, Cups, and Quickies; Toasts, Buns, Tarts, and Cones; Pizzas and (puff) Pastries; Wraps and Pockets, etc. The outstanding photography, teamed with a layout that offers a clean presentation and plenty of white space, for sheer visual presentation, I'm constantly reaching for this book. The recipes themselves are a hit parade of familiar offerings, with a fun spin. Mini crabcakes showcase Thai flavors with a chili dipping sauce; meat balls are Vietnamese-style, redolent of lemongrass, cilantro, red chilies, and fish sauce; and a variation on pita pockets includes tea-smoked Chinese duck. You get the idea. Bloggers & food photographers take note: from a photography perspective, there's a lot to admire here.

Fandango: Recipes, Parties, and License to Make Magic
bv Sandy Hill
Artisan, 2007

In all the best ways, this book is pure fantasy. Should you find yourself flush with cash....why not to rent a helicopter for your repelling bachelor friends? The Indian-themed dinner on the cover includes live elephants and guests decked out in saris. Sumptuous themes look straight out of a movie (or life for the Paris Hilton sect), for me, this book provides loads of inspiration, taken down a notch. As you'd expect, the menus utilize sophisticated ingredients and yet, the presentations are entirely approachable for gilding the lily occasions. While I'm not likely to make the nasturtium mayonnaise, the accompanying steamed salmon wrapped in a banana leaf is a great way to accommodate a crowed for a plated meal. Getting into the mind of a top-tier caterer helps streamline your own events, which is why the event notes in the back of the book are especially valuable. This is a showstopper look at the luxe life but the presentations, props, and jaw-dropping photography keep me coming back for more.

Barefoot Contessa Parties! Ideas and Recipes for Easy Parties That are Really Fun
by Ina Garten
Clarkson Potter, 2001

This book is a classic. As many of you know, before Ina was a Food Network staple, she owned a legendary catering company in the posh Hamptons. Ina is famous for paring recipes down to their simplest and most flavorful. Parties is divided into themes--from Sunday breakfast to football parties and afternoon tea. What I found almost more useful than the recipes, were the insights from Ina's most successful--and disastrous parties (omelets for 20? Forget it!) One tip I've relied on over and over again, "Keep an element of surprise." I'm always on the lookout for a special spot or a fun twist to an evening, whether we dine in a back room prep kitchen or a coffee roasting facility. Recipes? I've made nearly all of them, but take my word for it...the recipe for Ina's Chinese Chicken Salad is worth the price of the book! Hands down, this is one of my top 10 favorite recipes and it never fails to please. (When asparagus isn't in season, I substitute green beans. Another variation, I cut the ingredients smaller and serve the salad in lettuce cups for a light and flavor-packed appetizer.) Studying Ina's menus, I've learned to minimize the selection, but serve the very best.

Food to Flowers: Simple, Stylish Food for Easy Entertaining
by Lulu Powers and Laura Holmes Haddad
William Morrow Cookbooks, 2010

Occasionally a book comes along that ups the ante and sends a ripple effect throughout the genre. This is it. Los Angeles-based caterer Lulu Powers has an approach that is simple, yet stunning. Dubbed the next Martha Stewart, Lulu is less about craft and long on style. Her book is jam-packed with tips (Lulu's Entertaining Cheat Sheet -- are your iPod playlists ready? The Twenty-Two-Minute Countdown: candles lit? Wine uncorked? Music on? Outdoor lights on?) And take note, when a pro gives up her source list, I couldn't be more thrilled. Four pages of contacts call out everything from housewares to specialty food & beverage companies. Smart examples of her parties range from Houseguest Breakfast to The Bowwow Bash dog party and "Shaken, Not Stirred": A Guys-Only Dinner (the usual suspects: bridal/baby showers, kids parties, and picnics are covered too.) Gorgeous photos are shot in a lifestyle fashion, drawing you in with an intimacy that makes you feel like guest at the party. And like my own pantry, Lulu mixes flea market finds with carefully chosen newer pieces. (Thanks to her, I instantly began a vintage champagne coupe collection.) Frankly, I've culled so many ideas from this book, there is a distinct marker: life before Lulu (black & white), and after Lulu (full on color!) This is a great book I'd welcome anytime, but if you're looking for a special gift, look no further.

Food for Friends: Simply Delicious Menus for Easy Entertaining
by Fran Ward
Ryland, Peters & Small, 2005

Australian chef Fran Ward offers a recipe-driven entertaining book that shares a culinary aesthetic with Donna Hay. What I love about this book is that the recipes are all extremely approachable and instantly put me at ease. Each of the twenty-five menus feature a work plan, divided into work that can be done the day before, on the day, and just before serving. A wide-range of flavor profiles span the globe from BBQ to the Mediterranean and Middle East. Photos take center stage in Food for Friends. A typical menu spans five pages, and as an example, the Weekend Dining menu includes eighteen photos. Visual attention covers all the bases--the table scene, individual dishes, and preparation steps.

Sips & Apps: Classic and Contemporary Recipes for Cocktails and Appetizers
by Kathy Casey
Chronicle Books, 2009

Kathy sums it up in the intro, "My philosophy in entertaining is simple: don't overdo it. Pick one or two signature cocktails for your get-together, select a few appetizers--being sure to have a variety of hot and cold--and make as much in advance as you can." I have nearly worn out my copy of this book. The Roasted Pear Crostini with Gorgonzola is my go-to recipe for fall. All the components can be done in advance and with a quick warming in the oven just before serving, I'm in heaven! The Sake Teriyaki Sticky Chicken Wings are another hit. And you won't believe how fast the Bacon, Blue Cheese & Pecan Cocktail Cookies disappear! Kathy's cocktail recipes offer refreshing twists on old favorites....and more than a few new innovations. Fresh herbs, for example, elevate cocktails with a sophisticated spin. One of my favorite recipes...Ginger Sake Cocktail "Sushi" is adult riff on jello shooters. Light and refreshing, they are a perfect blend of surprise and nostalgia. Photographers, take note: Angie Norwood Browne's stunning images will provide tons of inspiration.