Easy Entertaining

I love to have parties. Well, not exactly parties -- I tend to think of parties as events that require a lot of planning and end up being very "official". The gatherings I have are casual and often are pulled together during the last hours of the workday when some friends at work start musing about getting together soon. Then I'll pop my head up and say, "Hey, why not make quesadillas at my place tonight?"

Before you know it, I've got one friend bring strawberries and tequila for the margaritas, another bringing three kinds of cheese and yet another offering to pick up some salsa and guacamole on the way over. Add to that a couple of pizza stones, some flour tortillas and other ingredients I've got on hand and we're going south of the border with little effort at all! We'll pop in a Latin CD and we're busy salsa-ing while we're putting together four or five quesadillas. It's really fun and low stress -- that's my idea of entertaining.

Just in case you're thinking that this is the sort of thing that's reserved for the bold, I'm going to share some of my favorite last-minute entertaining ideas. If you've got a little more time, feel free to expand on menus, add decorations and give a little more thought to music and beverages. My main rule, though, is to get your friends involved. When someone asks if they can bring something, say yes and give them a list. If someone wants to help out in the kitchen, let them. Better yet, get them all involved. That's half the fun.

Mexican in Minutes

I always have a variety of ingredients on hand at my home to satisfy my cravings for Mexican food. These become incredibly handy when it comes time to have a last minute gathering at my place with friends. Here's a partial list that will keep you south of the border whenever the mood hits:

  • flour tortillas
  • canned beans -- I'm especially fond of black beans
  • bottled salsa
  • bottled lime juice
  • a variety of cheeses
  • sour cream
  • green onions
  • black olives
  • tequila
  • frozen strawberries
  • bottled margarita mix
  • tortilla chips
  • canned diced tomatoes -- I like the varieties that come mixed with green chilies

With items like these around, it's easy to sauté some onions and peppers and add some spicy deli beef to make wonderful quesadilla fillings and layer pureed black beans, salsa, store-bought guacamole and sour cream for a dip to be enjoyed with chips. Add a blender with the makings for margaritas and you've got a party happening before you know it. If you're really lucky, you'll have some brightly colored plates to serve everything on and a CD filled with hot Latin music to get everyone in the spirit. It's time to salsa -- on the dance floor and with some chips!

Stir-frying Makes it Quick

Another great theme to take advantage of when planning quick get-togethers is the famous Asian stir-fry. Having some special ingredients on hand makes putting one together as simple as choosing some sauce items, an appropriate starch and some fresh vegetables and possibly meat from the market. To make sure I'm ready for stir-frying at a moment, I try to have these ingredients on hand:

  • hoisin sauce
  • chili-garlic sauce
  • ginger-garlic paste
  • soy sauce
  • orange juice
  • minced bottled garlic
  • Chinese five-spice powder
  • cornstarch
  • buckwheat noodles
  • short grain brown rice
  • canned water chestnuts
  • green onions
  • roasted peanuts

Having these ingredients on hand means being able to put together a great sauce and simply add veggies (which can be bought prepared and bagged from the grocery store) and some lean meat -- many grocery stores have such things on hand that are already cut into bite-sized pieces. Stir-frying is a method that, by its very nature, is fast and easy. If you are having a group over, have everyone bring an ingredient that they'd love in a stir-fry or ask one friend to bring frozen egg rolls to warm up and another to bring a bottle of plum wine -- a perfect accompaniment to Asian foods.

Pizza Party

Everyone loves pizza -- at least, when they get to choose the toppings! So why not cater to that desire by picking up a bunch of mini-pizza crusts (I like the ones made by Boboli) and letting friends top them any way they like? To make sure there will be a great mix of options, I try to have the following ingredients on hand:

  • pepperoni
  • assorted cheese
  • onions
  • peppers
  • tomato sauce
  • alfredo sauce
  • hummus
  • canned artichoke hearts
  • marinated mushrooms
  • canned mushrooms
  • sun-dried tomatoes
  • baby spinach
  • broccoli
  • bottled minced garlic
  • canned olives

Then you add some things you picked up from the store -- ranging from shredded chicken to crumbled goat cheese -- and you've got the makings for as many gourmet pizzas as you can make! Preheat the oven with as many pizza stones as it will hold and keep rotating new creations in as others come out piping hot. Make sure you've got cold beer and soda on hand ... and if you're feeling really ambitious, toss together a mixed garden salad. When you're at the market, you might want to pick up something sweet from the bakery for dessert or ask a friend to bring something that will fill that role. Ta-da! You've got yourself a pizza party!

When it comes down to it, quick and easy entertaining is all about having a stocked pantry and refrigerator and being ready to pick up a few things at the store and accept the help that's offered by friends. Then you can sit back and relax as a festive atmosphere makes itself!

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