Living

Family friendly happy hours make socializing easy

With small children, work, household duties, family obligations and all those other things that fill up your life but leave you saying, "What is it that we did last weekend?" it seems nearly impossible to find time to socialize.

Enter First Friday Happy Hours.

WHAT IT IS:

Several families get together the first Friday of every month for a happy hour with children.

HOW IT COMES TOGETHER:

The host family provides a simple dinner (read: orders pizza) and beverages (alcoholic and/or non-alcoholic). Guests bring simple appetizers, a salad or dessert. Adults mingle and supervise kids; kids play. Festivities run from 6 p.m. until bedtime. And with small children, it usually means everyone is back home by 9 p.m.

GETTING STARTED:

Pick your crew. Having five to six set families is ideal for a First Friday crew. Most months there is at least one family that can't attend. More than five or six families at a house is too chaotic. Fewer than three leaves you some months where no one can attend. And having a set crew allows the families and the kids to know what to expect and look forward to seeing their playmates each month.

Set your calendar. Negotiate the year in advance. Who's hosting November? March? Decide if there are any months you want to skip. First Friday in July too close to the Fourth? Too many holiday activities for a December event?

Be clear on expectations. Make sure each family knows the score. The host family is expected to provide pizza and drinks. The host family also is in charge of sending out reminders the week of. Everyone else is expected to bring side dishes.

TIPS:

Choose wisely. Pick families whose kids are all roughly the same age. It gives the kids someone to play with and the adults something in common.

Keep it casual. Don't be afraid to pick up bakery cookies or serve on paper plates. Keep the focus on getting together and socializing, not impressing everyone with your entertaining prowess.

Give the kids space to play. Hit the backyard in the summer with all the yard toys you can find. In the winter, make sure the kids have space in the basement or playroom to run around.

Don't forget kid drinks/food. Beer and wine are a necessity but so are the juice boxes. Look for appetizers or desserts that both adults and kids enjoy like veggies and dip or chocolate chip cookies.

WHY IT WORKS:

Planning is done. After the initial picking of couples and whose month is whose, the hard part is done. You know when it will be. You know who will be there (more or less). And you know what to expect. Party planning pressure is off.

Prep is simple. Even when you're hosting (which is only once or twice a year), ordering pizza, grabbing a case of beer and tossing out some paper plates is not a tall order.

It's easy to cut your losses. Sometimes the littlest ones can party to the wee hours (like 10 p.m.); other times, they are done at 6:45. If it's meltdown city, you'll see everyone next month.

No sitters required. Finding a sitter is hard enough. And paying for one sometimes makes the cost of going out hardly seem worth it.

You get time to enjoy. Even with all the chaos that usually stems from small children running around, you have a few hours out of the house to spend time with your friends.

THE EATS:

Here are a few recipes for simple appetizers to take to your First Friday Happy Hours.

Asian barbecued meatballs

24 servings

Sauce:

1 cup tomato ketchup

2 tablespoons hoisin sauce

1 teaspoon rice vinegar

1/4 cup grape jelly

1 teaspoon soy sauce

Meatballs:

1 pound ground turkey

2 teaspoons fresh ginger, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 egg white

1/2 cup cornstarch

1/2 cup all purpose flour

2 cups all-vegetable shortening

- Combine sauce ingredients in small saucepan over medium-high heat. Heat to boiling; reduce heat to low and stir until sauce thickens. Remove from heat; cover to keep warm.

- Combine ground turkey, ginger, garlic, red pepper, salt and egg white in medium bowl; mix well. Form into small (1-inch) balls and set on waxed paper. Mix cornstarch with flour in small bowl; roll each ball in the mixture. Return to waxed paper.

- Heat shortening in saute pan to 365 degrees. Fry meatballs in batches about 2 minutes or until browned and cooked through. Drain meatballs on paper towels. Transfer meatballs to platter and serve with sauce.

Note: Meatballs can be baked instead of fried.

- Smucker's

Blue cheese and red onion jam crescent thumbprints

32 appetizers

1 package (3 ounces) cream cheese, softened

1/2 cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese (2 ounces)

1 package (8 ounces) refrigerated crescent dinner rolls (8 rolls)

1/3 cup chopped pecans

1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil

1/3 cup finely chopped red onion

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup apricot preserves

1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

- Heat oven to 375 degrees. In small bowl, mix cream cheese and Gorgonzola cheese with fork until blended.

- Unroll dough; separate into 2 rectangles, each about 11 inches long. Place 1 rectangle on cutting board; press perforations together to seal. Spread half of the cheese mixture over dough to within 1/2 inch of long sides; sprinkle half of the pecans evenly over cheese. Starting at 1 long side, roll up; press seam to seal. Cut roll into 16 (about 3/4-inch) slices with serrated knife; place cut sides down on ungreased large cookie sheet. Repeat with remaining dough, cheese and pecans.

- Bake 14 to 17 minutes or until golden brown.

- Meanwhile, in 8-inch nonstick skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion; cook 3 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until soft and lightly brown. Remove from heat. Stir in vinegar, preserves (breaking up large pieces of fruit if necessary) and thyme; set aside.

- After removing rolls from oven, immediately press back of a teaspoon into center of each roll to make small indentation. Spoon slightly less than 1/2 teaspoon onion jam into each indentation. Remove from cookie sheet. Serve warm.

- Smucker's

Mango black bean salsa

8 servings

1 (15.5 ounces) can black beans, rinsed and drained

1 (10 ounces) package frozen sweet corn, cooked according to package instructions, drained and cooled

1/2 cup chopped red pepper

1/3 cup chopped red onion

1/3 cup finely chopped cilantro

2 cups mangoes, chopped into 1/4-inch cubes

2-3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1/2 cup orange marmalade or guava jelly

1-2 serrano peppers, seeded, chopped, to taste

- Combine all ingredients in medium bowl. Refrigerate until ready to use.

- Serve with lime-flavored tortilla chips or as an accompaniment to grilled fish, chicken or pork.

- Smucker's

Candy bar brownies

20 brownies

1 package brownie mix with walnuts

Vegetable oil

Cooking spray

3 (6-ounce) candy bars with almonds and toffee

- Prepare brownie mix according to directions for cake-like brownie.

- Line a 13-by-9-inch cake pan with foil and spray with vegetable oil cooking spray.

- Spoon half of the brownie mix into pan with spatula. Place candy bars side by side on top of batter. Cover with remaining brownie mix.

- Bake according to brownie package directions (about 20-25 minutes). Let cool completely, then lift from pan using edges of foil. Sift powdered sugar on top. Cut into large squares or triangles.

Onion dip

12 servings

2 cups Vidalia onions, finely chopped

2 cups mayonnaise

2 cups Jarlsberg cheese, shredded

- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix and bake in gratin baking dish for 25 minutes. Serve with favorite wheat cracker.

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