These recipes, tips will help you put on a super holiday bash

The invitations offered the right touch of glamour; your seasonal decor is worthy of a magazine cover; and your food will be the envy of hosts everywhere. This season is party time, and tempting food and drink abounds at every turn. We've assembled a few tips and tricks that will help novices and experienced party planners get through this season with ease and style.

Portable nibbles

Go with three dips or spreads and five bite-size individual things -- cocktail shrimp, puff pastry bites, cranberry brie bites and something a little more substantial to fill people up, such as chicken skewers, advises Diane Phillips, author of Happy Holidays From the Diva of Do-Ahead (Harvard Common Press; $14.95). Plan on items in a variety of colors and shapes as well.

"Build your reputation with a few great dishes then add to your repertoire one recipe at a time; then everyone will think you're a great cook," says Phillips. "People want simple but delicious."

Phillips suggests a cold or room-temperature buffet for holiday cocktail party grazing. It's a confidence builder for people who don't entertain very often. "All the selections should be items guests can pick up and walk around with -- no knife and fork needed."

Dips are popular fare, but many of them are nothing but empty calories -- for example, sour cream or mayonnaise spiked with seasonings. Healthier options can give you the flavors you crave along with some vegetables and protein. Today's Spinach-Parmesan Dip, Tomato-Feta Dip and Crunchy Crab Dip are good options.

Give yourself permission to buy some items -- and have someone else do the work. Don't overlook the possibility of jazzing up supermarket or warehouse club ingredients to save time and effort. For instance, buy hummus and stir in extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and finely chopped fresh rosemary or thyme to punch up the flavor.

Or, doctor up softened cream cheese with Worcestershire sauce, garlic, chopped onion and chopped shrimp for a great seafood dip to spread on crackers.

Buy thinly sliced salami at the deli, roll it up with a cream cheese mixture inside and then cut the rolls in half.

The right drinks

Festive cocktails are perfect for holiday parties, but be sure to have a balance of nonalcoholic beverages available as well. Flavored iced teas, club sodas and coffees are good choices to offer.

If carbohydrates are a concern, distilled spirits such as vodka, rum and whiskey have no carbohydrates, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. As for calories, 1.5 ounces of an 80 proof distilled spirit has 100 calories, according to council data. Adding heavy cream and sugary liquids increases the fat and calorie counts quickly.

Here are a few serving suggestions:

Peppermint martini: This drink offers equal parts fire and ice for a delightful bit of frostbite. You can add a few drops of pomegranate juice to infuse a rosy glow. In a tall martini pitcher, mix 10 ounces pepper vodka, 4 ounces white creme de menthe and 1 ounce peppermint schnapps with ice. Strain into frosty glasses and garnish with candy canes. Makes 4 servings.

Spiked apple cider: In a saucepan, combine 24 ounces apple cider and 2 cinnamon sticks. Simmer on low 10 minutes. Cool and remove cinnamon sticks. Pour into glass mugs or highball glasses, top each with 1/4 cup brandy or to taste. Garnish with a cinnamon stick and float red hot candies on top. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 4 servings.

Citrus mojito: Crush mint and lime in tall glass. Add 4 teaspoons sugar or sugar substitute. Fill glass with ice. Top with 1 1/2 ounces citrus-infused rum and 7 ounces club soda. Makes 1 serving.

Be prepared, scout

Successful parties are well-planned. Plug in the date of the party on a calendar, then go back and mark each task such as ordering and shopping times, cleaning the house, setting the table, arranging flowers and such for the appropriate day. That usually relieves some of the stress.

"Don't challenge your culinary ability" says Phillips. "You need to do things you're comfortable preparing."

If you do everything ahead, arrange items beautifully on platters and put them out before the guests arrive, the only thing you have to worry about is replenishing trays -- so you can enjoy the party.

"Holiday parties are all about celebration and remembrance: They should be fun, filling you with joy, excitement and love for the people who will be coming and the knowledge that you will be creating happy memories. It's all about bringing people together you really care about," says Phillips.

Dip recipes

Crunchy Crab Dip

Yield: about 3 cups, 12 servings.

3/4 cup light sour cream

1/2 cup block-style 1/3 -less-fat cream cheese, softened

1 cup finely chopped celery

1/4 cup minced fresh chives

1/4 cup reduced-calorie Thousand Island dressing

3/4 teaspoon salt

8 ounces fresh crabmeat

1. Combine sour cream and cream cheese in a large bowl. Whisk until smooth.

2. Stir in celery, chives, dressing and salt. Gently fold in crabmeat.

Nutrition information per 1/4 cup

Calories...72 Fat...3.4 g
Cholesterol...22 mg Sodium...269 mg
Carbohydrate...1 g Protein...4.2 g

Spinach-Parmesan Dip

Yield: 2 cups, 8 servings.

1 teaspoon olive oil

3 garlic cloves, chopped

1/4 teaspoon salt

10-ounce package fresh spinach

1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, loosely packed

1/3 cup block-style 1/3 -less-fat cream cheese, softened

1/8 teaspoon pepper

1/3 cup light sour cream

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1. Heat oil in skillet on medium high heat. Add garlic and saute 1 minute. Add salt and spinach and saute 3 minutes. At first, spinach will seem to overflow in pan, but keep stirring. It reduces in volume as it wilts. Put spinach mixture in colander and press until moisture is drained from spinach.

2. Put spinach, basil, cream cheese and pepper in food processor and process until smooth. Mix spinach mixture with sour cream and Parmesan. Cover and chill.

Nutrition information per 1/4 cup

Calories...62 Fat...4.5 g
Cholesterol...10 mg Sodium...227 mg
Carbohydrate...1.5 g Protein...3.4 g

Tomato-Feta Dip

Yield: 2 cups, 8 servings.

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 garlic cloves, minced

14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes with basil, garlic and oregano, drained

4 ounces crumbled feta cheese

Cooking spray

1. Heat oven to 350 F.

2. Combine first five ingredients in a bowl. Sprinkle feta in a small shallow baking dish coated with cooking spray. Top with tomato mixture.

3. Bake 15-20 minutes. Serve with toasted bread slices.

Nutrition information per 1/4 -cup

Calories...65 Fat...4.8 g
Fiber...0.4 g Sodium...369 mg
Carbohydrate...2.3 g Protein...2.4 g

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