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Naperville Eats: Entertaining tips for holidays

Linda Komes garnishes a plate of deviled eggs for her holiday buffet table. |  Judy Buchenot~For Sun-Times Media
Having a colorful variety of items makes a buffet seem more appealing, says Naperville resident Linda Komes The meatballs in the slow cooker are a favorite with her holiday guests. |  Judy Buchenot~For Sun-Times Media

Facts

Wassail 6 cups apple cider 2 cups cranberry juice 1/4 cup sugar 1 teaspoon aromatic bitters 1 cup rum 3 to 6 sticks cinnamon 16 whole cloves 1 teaspoon whole allspice Two oranges studded with cloves Place cider, cranberry juice, sugar and bitters in a large pot. Wrap cinnamon, cloves and allspice in a muslin spice bag, cheesecloth or paper coffee filter. Tie closed and add to mixture along with oranges studded with cloves. Simmer 10 minutes. Remove spices but keep oranges floating in the mixture. Keep warm until serving. Just before serving, add rum. Makes nine 8-ounce servings. To make the non-alcoholic version, add one cup orange juice and omit rum. Meatballs 2 pounds ground beef 1 1-ounce envelope dry onion soup mix 1 cup bread crumbs 3 eggs 12-ounce bottle chili sauce 12 ounces water 1 cup brown sugar 15-ounce can whole cranberry sauce 15-ounce can sauerkraut Combine ground beef, soup mix, bread crumbs and eggs. Form into 75 meatballs and place in foil-lined pan. In a saucepan, combine chili sauce, water, brown sugar and whole cranberry sauce. Simmer until sugar melts. Pour mixture over meatballs. Spread sauerkraut over all. Bake at 350 degrees for 1.5 to 2 hours. Place in slow cooker and keep warm on low. They can be made in advance, cooled and refrigerated overnight. Bring to room temperature and reheat for about one hour.

Naperville residents Linda Komes and her sister Barb Christensen have the perfect Christmas gift. Each year, one of them opens up her home to family and friends — no bow required. It’s a gift of time — and cooking expertise.

“We take turns using each other’s homes,” Komes says. “We both love decorating, and each year, we pick a theme. Last year we did a Scandinavian theme with a lot of red and white things and snowflakes. The decorating determines the theme, and then the food follows the theme.”

One year Komes was inspired by an attractive napkin design, featuring a cardinal so the sisters had a cardinal theme. Another year, a trip to China determined an Asian theme. Candy canes, southwestern souvenirs from a South Dakota trip and poinsettias have all inspired them.

Komes, 61, and her sister prefer an open-house-style event where finger foods are served. Guests can then come and go according to their busy holiday schedules.

“We call it graze and go,” Komes says.

Komes typically avoids scheduling the event for Christmas day since there are usually many other family obligations on that day.

Komes says she has a “formula” for planning her menu.

“There are three categories: hot things, cold things and sweet things,” she says. “I try to have eight different things in each category for our average guest list of about 24 people.”

When figuring out how much to make for each recipe, Komes says she plans on having two servings a person.

Although the menu can vary to accommodate the year’s theme, there are some recipes that always are included in the formula.

“We always have meatballs, because everyone loves the meatballs,” she begins. “And we do a wassail. We can do a nonalcoholic version if there are going to be some kids. We just leave out the rum.”

Other favorites include pork tenderloin sliders, miniature quiches, chicken wings, mini brats wrapped in pastry, hot crab dip and hot mushroom dip.

“We also think about how the table will look and include things that will make the table look pretty,” Komes says. “We usually end up with about half new things and half old favorites.”

The wassail stays on the stove to keep hot while the other items are on a buffet table. Slow cookers and warming trays are used to keep dishes hot.

“But we pass around some things also like the rye toasts with melted cheese,” she says. “They are best when they are eaten right out of the oven.”

One lesson that Komes has learned is that clever, labor-intensive items often don’t get eaten. One year she made an elaborate vegetable tree using a Styrofoam cone.

“No one wanted to take a star-shaped carrot and ruin it,” she recalls. “And I once made penguins using olives that were really cute, but again, no one ate them because they thought it was a decoration.”

Komes tries to do as much as possible in advance so that the days goes smoothly. She shares two of her tried-and-true recipes for others to try at family gatherings this holiday season.

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Facts

Wassail 6 cups apple cider 2 cups cranberry juice 1/4 cup sugar 1 teaspoon aromatic bitters 1 cup rum 3 to 6 sticks cinnamon 16 whole cloves 1 teaspoon whole allspice Two oranges studded with cloves Place cider, cranberry juice, sugar and bitters in a large pot. Wrap cinnamon, cloves and allspice in a muslin spice bag, cheesecloth or paper coffee filter. Tie closed and add to mixture along with oranges studded with cloves. Simmer 10 minutes. Remove spices but keep oranges floating in the mixture. Keep warm until serving. Just before serving, add rum. Makes nine 8-ounce servings. To make the non-alcoholic version, add one cup orange juice and omit rum. Meatballs 2 pounds ground beef 1 1-ounce envelope dry onion soup mix 1 cup bread crumbs 3 eggs 12-ounce bottle chili sauce 12 ounces water 1 cup brown sugar 15-ounce can whole cranberry sauce 15-ounce can sauerkraut Combine ground beef, soup mix, bread crumbs and eggs. Form into 75 meatballs and place in foil-lined pan. In a saucepan, combine chili sauce, water, brown sugar and whole cranberry sauce. Simmer until sugar melts. Pour mixture over meatballs. Spread sauerkraut over all. Bake at 350 degrees for 1.5 to 2 hours. Place in slow cooker and keep warm on low. They can be made in advance, cooled and refrigerated overnight. Bring to room temperature and reheat for about one hour.
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