Holiday parties are often more trouble than they’re worth. By the time December’s half over and you’ve survived a sloppy open bar or three, the idea of leaving the house ever again can be pretty unappetizing.
This year, take a cue from the Russians: Stay in and throw a banging dinner party.
Video: When hosting a dinner party, it can be easy to focus on the food and forget about the party. Fortunately, you don't need to do a whole lot (or buy a bunch of flowers) to make your home feel festive and welcoming. Just a few fancy details — like cloth napkins, and good salt — will elevate the evening in a decidedly elegant fashion.
In Russia, New Year’s is the holiday to host huge parties for your nearest and dearest. Public religious celebrations were banned during the Soviet era, so New Year’s Eve replaced Christmas as the blow-out end-of-year holiday.
Fundamentally, Russian New Year’s is a dinner party — a really spectacular one. Everything happens around the table, and while the food is obviously important, what you serve matters far less than how and why you serve it. It’s pretty much the pinnacle of party planning, hosting, and pacing; every holiday party could learn a thing from this rich tradition.
Here are some key elements of a great Russian New Year’s, any of which you can adopt for your next party.
Go Ahead, Show Off
Sure, this is kind of the point of throwing a party in the first place, but Russian New Year’s really leans into the “conspicuous opulence” school of hosting. Bring out The Good China, press the tablecloth, and polish the glassware and silver. Your guests deserve the best.
There’s No Such Thing As Too Many Snacks
Ask any non-Russian to tell you about their first Russian dinner party and you’ll probably hear the same thing.
They were seated at a huge, lavishly set table absolutely groaning with dips, spreads, cured meat, salads, pickles, cheese, bread, and bite-size snacks, participated in a never-ending series of vodka toasts, and ate until they couldn’t see straight.
Then, somehow, more food — the main course - appeared from the kitchen, and the whole process started again. This is the goal.
Every party spread, no matter how fancy the shindig, should contain a dip or two. Dips are easy to make, fun to eat, and much loved by pretty much everyone. French onion dip is never a bad choice — you can learn to make an excellent one here — but there are other options. Below you will find three luscious, creamy, flavour-packed dips and spreads to make, take and serve.
Appetizers (zakuski in Russian) are the beating heart of any good dinner party, so running out of them is catastrophic. Prepare accordingly: make extra of everything, and don’t let pride keep you from supplementing with store-bought items.
Loads of traditional zakuski come from a can, jar, or the deli case at a Russian market, so stock up on whatever pre-made snacks you like. Once you’ve got your spread sorted, arrange everything on the table well before your guests arrive, finessing place settings to make room for all those snacks.
Bonnie Frumkin Morales, chef-owner of Kachka in Portland, recommends scooting your plates so they hang over the edge of the table by an inch or two. (I learned this trick from her perfect cookbook, which would make a great gift for the chef in your life. I’m just saying.)
Don’t Overthink the Booze Situation
Speaking of place settings, they need exactly two glasses: a small shot glass for booze and a larger one for water. What goes into the shot glass is entirely up to you. Freezer-cold vodka — perhaps infused with herbs or spices — is traditional, but anything from champagne to really good beer to a large-batch cocktail is perfectly appropriate, so long as you stick to one crowd-pleasing option and keep it flowing.
This strategy makes planning and shopping easier, but more importantly, it leaves room on the table for more food.
Designate a Toast Master
Perhaps you’re wondering why the booze glasses need to be tiny. What kind of square-arse party tries to minimise the amount of alcohol you can have in one go? One that lasts all night and has a designated toast master, that’s what.
You need a reason to drink at Russian New Year’s, so ask an honored guest—ideally someone with the gift of gab, or at least without a crippling fear of public speaking—to lead the party in a toast before each round of drinks.
The toasts can be serious and heartfelt or goofy and ironic, dedicated to the health of the living or the memory of the dead, so long they give everyone a damn good reason to drink. As the night wears on, the sentiment behind the toasts gets realer and realer, and as corny as this sounds, it can be a powerful bonding experience.
Finish with Tea
After eating and drinking continuously for several hours, your guests need two things: a hot, soothing beverage, and someone sober to drive them home. Coffee’s great and all, but tea is the perfect stomach-settling accompaniment to a dessert spread. Make a huge pot or boil plenty of water and pass around a selection of tea bags—and your prettiest mugs, of course.
Whether you’re throwing a non-denominational winter dinner party or a full-on Christmas celebration, let Russian New Year’s be your inspiration. As for actual New Year’s Eve parties, remember this proverb: the way you meet the new year is the way you will spend it. Make it count.