ST. PETERSBURG — Tensions are high. Twenty guests in T-shirts and flip-flops eagerly await the most riveting words in poker: "Shuffle up and deal!" • It's a Texas hold'em party at Christine Sterling and Gary Mayfield's waterfront home and it's time to "Roll 'em!" • "What exactly is the dress code?" I ask Christine in my instant reply to her e-mail poker party invitation. • "Please do not outdress the hosts who will be barefoot, or in flip-flops at best," she responds. "Florida or poker shirts are the preferred attire." • There are many ways to throw a poker party, but I've discovered that "casual and comfortable" are the keys to a successful event. • Poker — hold'em especially — has been riding a wave of popularity in the last few years in large part due to the TV coverage of big-money Las Vegas tournaments. At-home weekly poker parties are common, too, and the type of poker varies among singles events, couples parties, ladies' night out, guys' night in — you get the picture.
Avid fans love the game, perhaps because it offers so many challenges. It takes patience, a decent memory, a few elementary math skills, but most important, the ability to read and learn about other people.
Most poker players know that the game is a formidable challenge. Thankfully, planning a good poker party is actually quite simple.
Where once the word "refreshments" at a poker home game meant grabbing a bunch of chips and a cold beer, today avid poker fans are not only crazy about poker, but crazy for good "poker food."
What is poker food?
As you might guess, food fit for a poker party should be:
• Easy to eat.
• Not so messy that the food sticks to the cards, greases up the tables or slops up the carpet.
• Plentiful and delicious.
Since poker can be a draining experience, it's crucial that guests be refueled with lots of food and drink. Also, since players who lose their chips will be hanging around for the next game to begin, snacking will keep them entertained.
"I read a lot of poker books to get ready for my parties and since everyone contributes drinks and food the setup is easy. No need to spend all week preparing," Christine says.
Christine's and Gary's poker parties typically begin around 7:30 p.m. "The secret," she says, "is to make things comfortable and easy for the guests — and us."
For Christine, personal style is everything. "We love entertaining and having friends over but we especially enjoying winning in our home!"
Play, then eat
After a few rounds of play, it's break time. Guests eagerly grab their plates, ready to sample an assortment of nibbles. The table groans with all the choices.
Judy Wagnitz's Over the Top Meatball Pitettes with a spicy piccata sauce and her Check-Raise Cheesy Crab Rounds made with sharp cheddar are a smashing success.
Lenny Kostas stimulates interesting conversation with his Green Eggs and Ham What Am dish. He makes it with fresh-cut honeydew melon and cantaloupe and skillfully molds it into a unique centerpiece, garnished with imported prosciutto, perfect for wrapping around the fruit.
The host creations are simple but luscious: Super Satellite Salmon Pinwheels by Gary combine seedless cucumber slices with fresh wild Alaskan salmon, fresh dill and sour cream.
Christine's World's Fair Deviled Eggs are perfectly seasoned with a savory brown spicy mustard.
There's a tantalizing basket of red and golden cherries with cut-up citrus, garlic-cheese dip with fresh vegetable crudites, and a variety of cheeses.
With this sort of food, nobody is terribly disappointed if they lose. Well, almost nobody.
Cookbook author Joyce LaFray is a freelance food writer based in St. Petersburg.
Over the Top Meatball Pitettes
Use small white pitettes (small pita breads), or multigrain style. The smaller size makes them easier to eat while playing poker.
3 pounds prepared meatballs (about 24), homemade or purchased
¾ cup maple syrup
2 (12-ounce) jars medium picante sauce
1 (12-ounce) jar seedless raspberry jam
2 (8-ounce) packages of pitettes, each cut into half (or may use regular size pitas, halved)
1 bunch fresh parsley (optional)
Thaw meatballs if frozen; brown meatballs if homemade.
In a medium bowl, combine maple syrup, picante sauce and jam. Mix together well, then pour mixture into the container of a slow cooker. Gently add meatballs so as not to break, combining meatballs with the sauce so they are completely covered. Slow-cook on low for 3 to 4 hours.
Warm pitettes in oven, then cut into halves. Fill each pita half with 1 meatball, then drizzle a few tablespoons of sauce over meatball in pocket. Stack nicely on serving plate. Garnish with fresh parsley if desired.
Makes 24 pita meatballs pockets.
Source: Judy Wagnitz
Check-Raise Cheesy Crab Rounds
You can use just about any kind of cheese in this recipe but the sharp cheddar gives it a special one-of-a-kind "bite."
½ cup shredded extra-sharp cheddar cheese
½ cup crumbled feta cheese
½ cup mayonnaise
1 (6-ounce) can fancy lump crabmeat, drained and flaked, cartilage removed
4 tablespoons finely chopped scallions, divided use
2 tablespoons finely chopped pimientos
2 teaspoons freshly grated horseradish
4 dozen round crackers
In a small bowl, combine the cheddar and feta cheeses well. Spoon in the mayonnaise, lump crab, 2 tablespoons of the scallions, pimientos and horseradish. Combine mixture well. Turn on oven to broil.
Spread each cracker with about 1 ½ tablespoons of the crab mixture, then place cheese rounds on a baking sheet and garnish each with the remaining 2 tablespoons
of scallions. Broil about
4 inches from the heat, for about 1 to 2 minutes, or until golden brown.
Makes 4 dozen crackers.
Source: Judy Wagnitz
Super Satellite Salmon Pinwheels
Purchase the salmon in 4-ounce packages found at the seafood counter, or use fresh cooked salmon or canned salmon as a substitute.
2 large seedless cucumbers
8 ounces smoked salmon, finely chopped
8 ounces sour cream
3 teaspoons freshly chopped fresh dill, divided use
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper
Carefully peel the cucumber, and then cut into ¼-inch rounds; you should have 48.
In a separate nonmetallic bowl, combine the chopped salmon, sour cream, 2 teaspoons of the dill and fresh lemon juice. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Using a teaspoon, drop a small amount of the mixture on top of each cucumber round and then spread mixture evenly over cucumber slices. Garnish slices with the remaining teaspoon of dill.
Makes 48 cucumber pinwheels.
Source: Gary Mayfield
World's Fair Deviled Eggs
The zesty brown mustard added to a good mayo and a favorite hot sauce combine to make a delectable comfort food.
6 extra-large hard-boiled eggs
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon spicy brown mustard
1 teaspoon favorite hot pepper sauce
Salt and pepper
Paprika for garnish
Cut cooked eggs in half and using a teaspoon scoop out the cooked yolks. Place yolks in a medium bowl and add mayonnaise, mustard, hot pepper sauce and salt and pepper to taste. Spoon mixture into the whites, or use a pastry tube for a more professional look. Sprinkle lightly with paprika and place on attractive serving tray.
Makes 12 deviled eggs.
Source: Christine Sterling
Planning a poker party
First, consider the game:
• Although players are often familiar with the rules, print out a simple set of rules for those who don't know it as well. As guests arrive, hand out a summary with "house rules" so
that everyone's on the same page.
• Spell out the rules so there is no confusion about the games. Include a list of poker hands for those new to the game so everyone knows what the best hands are.
Here's what to have on hand:
• Cards. Provide two decks per table, one for playing and another for players to shuffle for the next hand.
• Dealer buttons. Purchase a few online to keep track of who holds the deck, or just use a couple of round jar tops to keep the position.
• Poker chips. Use professional grade clay chips for best results, but plastic chips will do. Plan for about 100 chips per player in three different colors, with each color representing a different denomination.
• Poker table. Use a professional table, or convert your large tables by covering the surface with felt or padding.