The holiday party season is here, and aren’t we glad!  Connecting with friends and neighbors at an open house – complete with decorations, a buffet, drinks, and perhaps a punch bowl is one of the best parts of hectic December.  The gatherings – dressy or casual, with or without caroling, for dinner or just drinks – are always a welcome invitation.

There’s a lot of variation in the source of the buffet.  It is sometimes catered, possibly a potluck, or totally prepared by the hosts. No matter who does the work, the goal is always to present a variety of house specialties, tasty finger foods, and seasonal fare.

Some gatherings are known for much anticipated dishes offered year after year – a particular paté, a comprehensive cheese board, or luscious lamb lollipops. Or you might see something new from the latest food trends.

Fortunately, there are good specialty mail order purveyors offering great food conveniently delivered to ease the load on party hosts.

One of my long time favorites is Nodine’s Smokehouse in Goshen, CT.  The Nodine family smokes a wide range of products, but it’s the hams that keep drawing me back. Bone-in, boneless, apple smoked, spiral-cut, or heritage Berkshire pork, these hams are the best.

A Nodine’s ham with an apricot-mustard glaze is a stunning centerpiece for a holiday buffet. I prefer bone in; it’s less prone to drying out and makes a great presentation.  When you’re ordering, add on some smoked cheeses for the buffet and some of their specialty bacon for cold-weather breakfasts. For a large crowd, include a popular smoked turkey for the buffet too.

D’Artagnan charcuterie sampler for 12

For authentic old-world paté and charcuterie D’Artagnan is the place to go.  The daughter of a chef, company founder Ariane Daguin grew up in Gascony, France, home of the finest patés and foie gras.  She now oversees a complete line of authentic French style patés, sausages, and cured meats made in the USA. Pick a couple items or choose a sampler for 8 or 12 to fill out a buffet. You can’t go wrong.  If you want to splurge, they sell caviar and foie gras too.

We tried the bountiful sampler basket for 12 ($125) which could easily be the basis of a buffet to feed many more. Included were three dry cured saucisson – pork, duck, and wild boar. Rustic pork paté de campagne, smooth liver mousse truffée , and shredded duck leg confit rillettes rounded out the spreadable choices.  

Poultry selections included dry cured duck and smoked chicken breasts.   Chorizo and French garlic sausages showed off D’Artagnan’s fine hand with seasoning. At the bottom of the box was a packet of paper thin slices of Jambon de Bayonne, Gascony’s answer to Italian prosciutto.

The charcuterie came with full descriptions of each item and helpful hints for setting up a professional display.  If you’re the lucky one who gets to prepare the platter, then you get to taste and nibble while you work. All of the products were fully cooked and ready to serve.

A number of years ago, I fell hard for smoked scallops – little bite size nuggets of sweet, smokey, almost creamy, seafood flavor. They’re a rare indulgence, perfect for a December bash.  Served with a simple horseradish sauce, they’ll jazz up any buffet table.

At Grindstone Neck of Maine, a family-run seafood smokehouse just north of Bar Harbor, they smoke genuine bay scallops along with mussels, Maine shrimp, and, of course, salmon.  They also have a smoked cheese sampler aimed at holiday parties.

A punch bowl is a favorite at December parties.  There’s always a crowd gathered around a bowl of colorful sparkling punch or a rich creamy eggnog.  At an annual party in our neighborhood, the punch bowl comes with a warning. First timers are cautioned that, although seemingly innocuous, it packs a wallop. Ladlers beware!

Last year I worked out a recipe for eggnog with a luxurious texture that includes cooking the egg yolks to allay any fears of eating raw eggs. Seasoned with cinnamon and clove, the rich eggy base combines with fluffy beaten egg whites for a winning combination.  I usually forgo the booze and put out bottles of brandy and bourbon to be added by the cup.

A dessert table laden with sweets – mostly cookies – is another hallmark of a holiday party. Marsha likes to make pecan fingers from a family recipe, Christmas trees squeezed out of a cookie press, and dark chocolate crinkles.

Cakes are a little harder to deal with, requiring a plate and fork but they’re in demand. We usually have a rum soaked bundt cake and an almond tort.  If you have a fruitcake, this is the time and place to put it out. You’ll be surprised at how many takers there are.

As host or guest, I hope you’re looking forward to the party season as much as we are.  Like Christmas, it only comes once a year.