The kitchen of my dreams has an acre of Carrara marble countertops, sinks inside of sinks, a fridge that doesn’t look like a fridge, a six-burner Dacor range and a built-in-bar.
The kitchen of my reality has none of these, and if yours does, you are fortunate indeed. But as appealing as all that stuff is, you most definitely don’t need it to entertain easily and often in your home.
Far more important—in addition to a good sound system, romantic lighting, and premium hootch—is a well-stocked kitchen. In fact, with the right supplies on hand, you can have people over at the drop of a corkscrew. Here are some suggestions for what to keep in your cupboard, freezer and fridge to have a party-ready kitchen.
Simple snackies to serve with drinks
I have a friend, a food writer and fabled host, who years ago moved to Napa. He told me his favorite cocktail snack to serve his foodie, wine-country friends is microwave popcorn, fresh out of the oven. I’ve stolen his idea. No one ever turns down popcorn; popping it makes the house smell good, and it tastes equally delicious with cocktails, wine (especially Sancerre) and soft drinks. And it’s non-perishable, so you can always keep a stash of it. Black Jewell is my favorite brand; I zhush it up with freshly grated Parmesan cheese, Cajun spices or fresh, chopped rosemary and thyme.
Hard cheese, while certainly perishable, lasts in the fridge for close to a month after it’s open if wrapped properly, so it’s easy to keep a supply on hand. I love serving it with slices of crusty baguette—it tastes so much better than cheese served on crackers. You can always have fresh baguettes on hand if, the minute you get them home from the market, you chop them in half vertically and wrap them in foil. To serve a frozen baguette, warm it in a 350-degree oven for about ten minutes, after passing it quickly under the tap with the water running.
Other crowd-pleasers to keep in your party pantry: oil-cured olives, smoked almonds, honey-roasted peanuts, gourmet potato chips and Pepperidge Farm Goldfish.
In my cupboard you will always find a couple of pounds of rigatoni or penne pasta and several jars of Scimeca’s spaghetti sauce, delicious on its own and even better if you doctor it up with any of the following in any combination: heavy cream; imported capers; roasted red peppers; vodka or red wine (reduce these down a little); or sautéed onions, mushrooms and pancetta or Italian sausage.
Years ago, my sister-in-law showed me how to make a clam sauce for linguine by tossing canned clams (which I like better than fresh) in a pan with bottled clam juice, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. Since it requires only items from the cupboard, it’s a good dinner to serve guests when you can’t get to the grocery store.
I also recommend keeping a whole chicken in your freezer. There is nothing like roast chicken. It’s the perfect dish, no matter what the circumstances. It can be elegant or homey, a dish for a dinner party or a family supper. You can thaw a frozen chicken in a couple of hours by unwrapping it, dropping it in a pan and covering it with cold water. Stuff the bird with a couple of garlic cloves and half a lemon; season the skin with paprika, salt and pepper. Roast it at 325 degrees for about 90 minutes, basting it whenever you think about it. When the leg bone wiggles and the skin is almost the color of mahogany, it’s time to eat.
Once, decades ago, before everyone had four-wheel drive, my two college roommates and I were snowed in, confined to our crudely equipped off-campus apartment. From ingredients on hand, my roomie Janey made dessert: a cobbler of Bisquick and store-bought frozen blackberries. I don’t know why, but it was indescribably delicious. In fact, it is the dessert against which I have since privately measured all other desserts. I’ve never been able to recreate that cobbler moment, but the experience taught me that with a box of Bisquick, some frozen fruit and sugar, I’ve always got the ingredients for a tasty, homemade dessert.
I also try to keep a box of Belgian chocolates in the freezer, hidden from my husband who can’t leave them alone. Boxed chocolates, plated on a pretty serving dish and plopped down at the center of the table, make a nice finish to a very casual dinner with friends. As do scoops of Ben & Jerry’s Triple Caramel Chunk, drizzled with amaretto. Or Haagen-Dazs raspberry sorbet, splashed with limoncello. Or, for purists, plain vanilla ice cream, smothered with Williams-Sonoma hot fudge sauce and some crispy almond biscotti on the side.
A doctored-up brownie mix is another easy, straight-from-the cupboard dessert solution. Any brownie mix can be vastly improved by adding a teaspoon of vanilla extract and a tablespoon of instant coffee to the batter. You also can stir in chocolate chips, chopped macadamia nuts or chopped candy-bar-of-your-choice. The best made-from-scratch brownies in the world are Outrageous Brownies from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. Next time you’re in the mood to bake, make a batch of them and freeze them for unplanned gatherings chez vous.
Tarting up your kitchen for company
While we’re on the subject of kitchens, here are a few tips for dolling up yours before a party. If you’re a packrat like I am, clear the clutter off of your kitchen table and countertops. Put away anything that isn’t pretty. You’ll feel better.
Living things bring instant cheer to the room. Bring in some fresh flowers (white hydrangeas or tulips are always pretty in a kitchen) or a small potted plant—an herb or a simple pot of ivy work well.
Place a bowl of fruit somewhere, to add a splash of color. Lemon or limes always work well, as do Granny Smith apples.
Once your guests arrive, relax and know that people feel privileged to be invited into your home. Remember, if it’s perfect, everyone will hate you. And don’t forget the music!