Q: My boyfriend and I have had lots of surprise guests dropping by our new house during the holiday season, and I'd like to have something tasty to offer them. Do you have any suggestions for quick, but impressive meals and desserts I can whip up for our unexpected visitors?
Read on for Allie's extremely helpful answer - she has tips for whipping up last-second drinks, appetizers, dinner, and dessert.
A: There's absolutely no question that feeding and entertaining last-minute guests can be overwhelming! With a little preparation, a well-stocked pantry and freezer (and bar!), it can be very easy... and a lot of fun.
Here are a few of my tips for making sure you're always ready to welcome and pamper your guests with delicious food and drink.
• Keep a mixed case of "house" wine (6 red, 6 white) on-hand. I like to stock Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, since they seem to be crowd-pleasers and go with most everything - unless you're dealing with serious wine folks. Don't spend too much - $10-$15 a bottle is plenty. The key thing here is having enough quantity that you don't have to run to the wine store.
• For the red and the white, be sure you have 6 of the same bottle - one of the most important duties of a good host/hostess is keeping your guests' glasses full (and not waiting for them to finish their glass before pouring them another... which you'll have to do if you keep switching wines). It sounds like a lot of wine, but keep in mind that even if you don't have last-minute holiday guests, you'll probably make your way through the case over time.
• Keep a dozen bottles of good-quality beer on-hand. This is an opportunity for variety - buy different, fun beers (and a few light ones). If kept in the fridge, beer basically never goes bad.
• Keep a bottle of the basic liquors (vodka, gin, and scotch) on-hand. Some folks just have to have their cocktails! Liquors never go bad.
• Keep a 6-pack of each tonic and club soda on-hand. The liter bottles are cost-effective, but only if you're expecting a big crowd – they go flat very quickly once they're opened. If left unopened, cans of tonic and soda last a long time.
• Keep a couple of lemons and limes on-hand. A cocktail is often meaningless without the fruit! These will last a few weeks in the fridge.
• Keep mixed olives on-hand. They last for months in the fridge. Just bring to room-temperature before serving.
• Keep nuts on-hand. Keep mixed nuts in the freezer (so they won't go bad) and serve to guests while prepping dinner.
• Keep a few good quality cheeses on-hand. Make sure you have 3 nice, pretty pieces in the fridge - and a good variety of soft/hard, cow/goat/sheep.
• Keep cheese accompaniments on-hand. I like to keep an assortment of crackers and crisps (make sure to have a variety of shapes, sizes, and flavors). To step it up a notch, keep some fig jam and dried fruits around to put out with your cheese.
• Keep a nice dry sausage on-hand. All you'll have to do is slice it up and put it out with a Dijon or grainy mustard.
• Risotto. Risotto is a super-comfort food, and really simple to make with ingredients you probably have (or can easily keep) around - Arborio rice, onions, chicken broth, white wine, olive oil, butter, and Parmesan cheese. Our Basic Risotto is a great place to start, and then you can mix in whatever you may have on hand (frozen shrimp, frozen spinach, frozen peas...). A couple of my other favorite risotto recipes (which require picking up just one or two more ingredients) are Tomato and Sausage Risotto and Butternut Squash Risotto .
• Chili. This is an all-time crowd-pleaser. Make a big batch tonight, and store the rest in your freezer for unexpected guests - all you'll need to pick up is fresh sour cream and cheddar cheese. I love our Turkey and Bean Chili and our Chunky Beef Chili, both of which make a big batch and freeze well. Serve chili with some store-bought cornbread, or take a few extra minutes to whip up some Cheddar Cornbread or these Mini Cornbread Puddings with ingredients you may have around.
• Beef Stew. Everybody loves a bowl of rich, yummy stew. It just takes a couple hours to simmer up nice and tender, and it freezes perfectly! When guests are coming, just boil up some egg noodles (and toss with plenty of butter) for a perfect winter meal. I just did a "How-To with Allie" column on beef stew in our December '07 issue of Everyday Food (on stands now).
• Macaroni and Cheese. A rich mac and cheese with a buttery, crispy topping always gets raves (and freezes well, too)! This is one of my favorite recipes - make it through Step 5 and keep in the freezer. When making, cover with foil and bake until bubbling, then remove the foil and bake until golden (about 1 1/2 hours, total).
• Apple Crisp. Keep the crumble topping in the freezer (make through Step 2), then all you have to do is pick up some apples, toss with flour, sugar, and cinnamon, and bake it up; serve with some vanilla ice cream, and you've got the perfect winter dessert!
• Sundae Bar. I've never heard any complaints when I put out a few pints of premium ice cream with toppings. Keep some best-quality hot fudge (and/or toffee sauce) on hand and you're golden! Better yet, make your own hot fudge in about 5 minutes: boil 1 cup cream, then remove from heat and stir in 8 ounces chopped chocolate (off the heat).
• Brownies. Make a batch of these Super Fudgy Brownies and keep them in the freezer - they'll thaw in about 15 minutes.
• Chocolate-Chip Cookies. Make the dough, form into balls, and keep in the freezer - you can bake them up in about 20 minutes, for a gooey, delicious, straight-from-the-oven treat. Just use a small ice cream scoop to portion dough; place on a baking sheet lined with wax paper, and freeze. When they're firm, transfer to a plastic bag and store in the freezer. When you're ready to wow your guests with delicious smells and gooey chocolate chips, just bake them off from frozen (they'll need a few more minutes than if they weren't frozen). These Giant Chocolate Chip Cookies are on the thinner side, but I love them. If you have a favorite recipe, use that - the principle of making the dough and freezing it is the same.
I hope this information was helpful and inspiring! Cooking for others is the greatest pleasure - for everyone - and it doesn't have to be scary! Have a wonderful holiday -
Allie Lewis (Clapp)
Thank you Allie!