From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
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-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."

APPETIZERS IN LESS THAN 30 MINUTES

BRUSCHETTA BITES

1½ lbs. fresh ripe tomatoes, diced

1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, plus ¼ cup for coating bread slices

1 tsp. white balsamic vinegar

8 fresh basil leaves, chopped

Salt

Pepper

Juice of half a lemon (about 1 tbsp.)

1 tsp. honey

1 French baguette or Italian bread

1. Combine diced tomatoes, 1 tbsp. olive oil, balsamic vinegar, chopped basil leaves, salt, pepper, lemon juice and honey in a bowl. Let sit.

2. Slice the baguette on the diagonal into ½-in.-thick slices. Using a pastry brush, coat one side of each slice with olive oil. Working in batches, place slices oil side down in toaster oven and lightly toast.

3. To assemble: Place toasted bread slices on serving platter oil side up. Spoon some tomato mixture on each one and serve immediately.

MINI MEATBALLS

2 lbs. ground beef

2 eggs

½ cup onion, finely diced

4 tbsp. olive oil

½ cup bread crumbs, plain or seasoned

1 tbsp. smooth peanut butter

Salt

Pepper

1. In a large mixing bowl, combine ground beef, eggs, onions, 2 tbsp. olive oil, bread crumbs, peanut butter, salt and pepper.

2. Using a teaspoon, form 24 small meatballs.

3. Heat remaining 2 tbsp. olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, cook meatballs for about 10 minutes, turning frequently to brown on all sides. Serve with Dijon mustard mixed with a little brown sugar.

SAY CHEESE!

Gartin suggests serving an assortment of your favorite cheeses as the first course before dinner begins. "The variety makes for great conversation as guests all start to share slivers," she says.

Buy six types of cheese and place three kinds on either side of the buffet table for guests to sample. "You don't have to buy rare cheeses," says Gartin, who loves goat cheese and Brie. "It can be done affordably."

Pair the cheeses with nuts ("candied pecans are my favorite") or "something fresh" like figs.

MAKE IT PERSONAL AND PLAYFUL

CELEB INSPIRATION

TORI SPELLING

Gartin suggests adding crayons to each place setting (a nostalgic touch Spelling loves) and using kraft paper as the table runner so friends can doodle over dinner.

A HEARTY VEGETARIAN OPTION

BUTTER SAGE PENNE WITH SPINACH

36 oz. whole-wheat penne (approximately 2 boxes)

1 cup sage leaves

1/3 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 cheese

1. Boil penne. 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 to 2 minutes. Add fresh cream, salt and lemon pepper to taste; serve and top with grated Parmesan cheese.

Don't forget dessert!

CARAMEL APPLE CHEESECAKE

Crust:

1½ cups graham cracker crumbs (about 8 cookie sheets)

3 tbsp. melted butter

Cooking spray

Cheesecake:

1¾ cups sugar

½ cup sour cream

3 tbsp. all-purpose flour

½ tsp. ground cinnamon

1½ tsp. vanilla extract

¼ tsp. ground nutmeg

3 (8-oz.) blocks cream cheese, softened

4 large eggs

Topping:

1/3 cup sugar

3 tbsp. water

½ tsp. fresh lemon juice

1 tbsp. butter

2 tbsp. half-and-half

1¾ cups chopped and peeled Granny Smith apples (about 8 oz.)

Dash of nutmeg

1. Preheat oven to 350°.

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 350° for 10 minutes. Remove from oven; cool on a wire rack. Reduce oven temperature to 325°.

3. Make filling: Place 1¾ cups sugar and next 7 ingredients in processor (or blender); process until smooth. Add eggs one at a time; process until blended. Pour mixture into prepared crust. Place pan in a large roasting pan; add hot water to larger pan to a depth of 1 inch.

4. Bake at 325° 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.

4. Prepare topping: Combine 1/3 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.

5. 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.

Great to sip on!

BASIL MARTINI

2 oz. gin

2 tbsp. lemon juice

1½ tbsp. simple syrup*

1 fresh basil leaf, slivered

Ice cubes

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

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

CELEB INSPIRATION

ISLA FISHER

Along with Italian sodas and wine, this cocktail—which Gartin served at Fisher's baby shower—makes for a perfect dinner drink.

CREATE A LUSH TABLE

CELEB INSPIRATION

Courteney Cox Arquette

For her close friend, Gartin used fresh herbs and plants purchased at a local nursery as decor for a private bash.