The Menus: Dinner for 15 Under $300 (see below)
Cocktails for 20 Under $200
Cookies for 20 Under $100
According to A-list event planner Mindy Weiss, the last thing most parties need is more. "Don't stress thinking 'More is more,'" says Weiss, who has handled over-the-top (yet somehow stress-free) celebrations for, among many others, Ellen DeGeneres, Ashlee Simpson, Eva Longoria Parker, Nicole Richie, Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony. Take the menu choices. You don't need to pile on exotic or trendy dishes. "I most often find when the client says, 'We need more,' what actually gets eaten is the familiar." As for the decor, remember that "this is your home, not a ballroom." Rather than try to turn your living room into Christmas at the Ritz by buying loads of holiday-specific decorations, "use things you have in your house – that crystal bowl you got as a wedding gift that you don't know what to do with."
Applying that philosophy, Weiss took on PEOPLE's challenge: a full sit-down dinner for less than $300, cocktails for $200 and a dessert party for $100. Doable? "Absolutely," says Weiss. With that budget, "You can entertain in a high-end manner." And don't feel you must follow her every suggestion exactly, she advises. "Get ideas, get inspiration. But put your own personality in too. That's the thing people remember."
Dinner for 15 Under $300To make your holiday dinner a big, expansive affair for 15, go with a buffet rather than passed platters, says Weiss. "I love buffets. A full table makes people feel warm, cozy and secure." Alongside favorite foods, Weiss works in decorative touches. "I pull things from my house and make it an art piece – Lalique statues next to the Brussels sprouts – those things in your home that you think, 'What am I going do with that?'" Or she'll hit flea markets for "vintage Indians and pilgrims." The menu is familiar – and affordable because of it: "The places that sell turkey and cranberries are buying masses of it." But she also thinks people should veer from the standards to "bring in something you grew up with." If homemade pie isn't one of your traditions, fine. It isn't one of hers either. "I stand in line at the bakery for my pie."
The Menu: Roasted Whole Turkey and Gravy
Carrot Pudding Soufflés
Roasted Whole Turkey and Gravy1 tsp. black peppercorns
1 tsp. Sichuan peppercorns
1 tsp. coriander seeds
2 whole cloves
½ tsp. star anise pieces
4 tsp. coarse sea salt
2 tbsp. finely grated peeled ginger (a 5-in. piece)
2 tbsp. finely grated garlic (8 cloves)
2 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
1 (14 lb.) turkey at room temperature 1 hour, reserving neck and giblets (discard liver)
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
2 bunches scallions, coarsely chopped
2 carrots, coarsely chopped
2 celery ribs, coarsely chopped
6 (¼-in.-thick) slices fresh ginger
1 cup Chinese rice wine, such as Shaoxing, or medium-dry sherry
4 to 5 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 tbsp. soy sauce
3 tbsp. cornstarch
Equipment: an electric coffee/spice grinder; kitchen string; a V-shaped roasting rack; a 17- by 14-in. roasting pan; a 1-quart measuring cup; a fat separator (optional)
To prepare turkey:
1. Preheat oven to 450ºF with rack in lowest position.
2. Toast spices with sea salt in a dry small heavy skillet over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until fragrant and coriander is a shade darker, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to grinder and pulse until finely ground. Reserve 1 tsp. spice mixture, then stir together remaining spice mixture with grated ginger, garlic, and butter to form a paste.
3. Rinse turkey inside and out, then pat dry. Fold neck skin under body. Starting at large cavity end of turkey, gently slide your fingers between skin and flesh of breast and legs to loosen skin, being careful not to tear skin. Using a spoon, slide spice paste under skin of turkey breast and legs, pushing butter out of spoon with a finger on outside of skin (do not put spice paste under turkey skin in advance). Tie drumsticks together with kitchen string and tuck wings under body.
4. Pat giblets and neck pieces dry and cut into 1-in. pieces. Heat vegetable oil in a 12-in. heavy skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers, then sauté giblets and neck pieces, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 5 minutes. Add scallions, carrots, celery, and sliced ginger and sauté, stirring, until lightly browned, about 8 minutes.
5. Add rice wine and boil, stirring and scraping up any brown bits, 1 minute. Stir in 4 cups broth, soy sauce, and reserved tsp. spice mixture and bring to a boil. Pour mixture into roasting pan, then set rack in roasting pan, arranging neck pieces and vegetables around rack as necessary (liquid should be just below bottom of rack).
6. Roast turkey on rack, rotating pan 180 degrees halfway through roasting, until an instant-read thermometer inserted into fleshy part of thighs (test both, close to but not touching bone) registers 170ºF, 1 ½ to 2 hours.
7. Carefully tilt turkey so juices from inside large cavity run into roasting pan, then transfer turkey to a platter, reserving juices in roasting pan. Let turkey stand, uncovered, 30 minutes (temperature of thigh meat will rise to 175º).
8. Make gravy while turkey stands: Strain pan juices through a large fine-mesh sieve into 1-quart measure, pressing hard on and then discarding solids, and let stand until fat rises to top. Skim off and discard fat. (If using a fat separator, pour pan juices through sieve into separator and let stand until fat rises to top, 1 to 2 minutes. Carefully pour pan juices from separator into measuring cup, discarding fat.) You should have 4 cups stock. If there is less, add more broth. If there's more, boil to reduce. Transfer all but ½ cup stock to a heavy medium saucepan and bring to a boil.
Whisk together cornstarch and ½ cup reserved stock in a small bowl until smooth, then whisk into boiling stock and boil, whisking occasionally, 2 minutes. Serve turkey with gravy.
Carrot Pudding Soufflés >