Who doesn't dread the “We're in the neighborhood, can we stop by?” phone call?
One time, I was unprepared to welcome guests on the day my boyfriend's parents stopped by unexpectedly to see my new house. After several awkward minutes, I finally joined them at the dining room table with three cups of weak tea and a small bowl of leftover Halloween candy. Not my finest hostess moment.
Since then, I've tried to keep some things on hand that can be thrown together quickly in these types of situations—and that also make me look like a fabulous entertainer. The good news is, it doesn't really take much. Just stock your pantry and refrigerator with a few simple items, and you’ll be ready to throw a great party—no matter when your friends (or family) decide to drop by.
Here’s what to add to your shopping list and keep on stand-by.
1. Nuts to Nibble On
Nuts are the easiest snack imaginable, and if you think beyond the peanut, they’ll go from mediocre to memorable. Try smoked and flavored almonds found at farmer's markets and specialty food stores, jumbo pistachios peeking out of their shells, or whole cashews gently heated in a dry pan to bring out their buttery flavor. Just add a sprinkling of kosher salt before serving!
2. Say Cheese!
It doesn't necessarily matter what flavor—you just want something you can quickly slice or cut into one-inch cubes. If you want a break from the usual cheddar, try a smoked gouda, a creamy havarti, or salty shards of parmesan. (If you have a half hour or so of notice, take the cheese out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature before serving, which brings out its flavor.)
3. Fresh Produce
Nothing livens up a cheese platter like short, trimmed green onions and bright fuschia radishes just waiting for a dip in a pile of kosher salt. If you like fresh produce and usually have it around, you can bring out whatever you can find in your fridge when guests drop by. Just green apples? Delicious with a white cheddar or gorgonzola crumbles!
4. Jars of Pepperoncinis, Marinated Olives, and Roasted Red Peppers
Keep these three jars on hand, and you’ll have an antipasti platter waiting to happen! They’ll keep nearly forever in the pantry, and featured alongside roasted almonds, cubes of sharp cheese, or sliced salami, you’ll have your friends thinking you've been researching party ideas abroad. Add a cluster of red grapes, dried apricots, or whatever other fruit you have on hand for a classic finishing touch.
5. Wine and Other Beverages
You don’t have to keep a fully stocked bar for drop-in guests—just a few carefully selected items will satisfy almost everyone. Stash a good bottle of red wine in a cool, dark place, lying it down on its side to keep the cork moist. (But, remember, it won't last forever, so enjoy it and replace it every so often.) Also keep chilled white wine or a six-pack of beer in your refrigerator, and have something on hand for non-drinkers—club soda, flavorful tea bags, or a dark, rich coffee can all be prepared in minutes.
6. Fresh Lemons, Limes, or Oranges
By simply adding a wedge of citrus on the rim of a glass, you’ll instantly dress up a plain water or club soda. And if you’re serving cocktails, freshly squeezed citrus will liven up a recipe like no bottled substitute can. You can also add small wedges of ripe, juicy oranges on a cheese platter for a dose of color and a fresh taste. Watch how quickly they disappear!
7. Just Desserts
Unexpected guests don't always happen by during happy hour. If you have mid-morning or late-night surprise visitors, treat them to a pot of tea or coffee and some sweet snacks to nibble on. Homemade or store-bought cookies or lemon cake will keep nicely in the freezer, and you can easily thaw them (or put them in the microwave for a few seconds) by the time the drinks are ready. (Elevate your friend status to hero when you pull out the box of Thin Mints from your freezer.)
8. Cute Cocktail Napkins
Nothing makes a few snacks feel like a party faster than décor. Pick up small cocktail napkins in a few different colors, as well as quirky plastic toothpicks for stabbing olives or cheese, at the dollar store. If you want to really kick it up a notch, hit up flea markets for small porcelain dishes you can use as appetizer plates. For just a few bucks, you can keep a stash of 12 on hand in mix and match patterns.
You don't need to put on a feast for surprise guests, but it’s always nice to offer them a warm welcome. With just a few of these party staples in your pantry and refrigerator—well, don't be surprised if those drop-in visits become more frequent!
Photo courtesy of Stephanie Wesolowski.
Patti Sewall is a longtime writer, editor, and foodie who never has less than four kinds of cheese in her fridge at any given moment. After 20 years as a writer for a nonprofit, she is enjoying life as a freelancer, and is combining her love of writing with her joy of cooking and baking on her food blog, http://www.stewedragsandbuttermilk.com. She lives in Northern California with her two rescued golden retrievers.More from this Author