Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Surprise!...guests that is...put down the toilet seats, sweep the dog hair under the rug and hope you've got something to feed them

I love entertaining. No. Strike that. I'm not sure if you can call what I do entertaining (unless you're talking about me burning myself or breaking things while company is over). I love food, drinks, music and people. And there's nothing better than putting them all together at my house. I'm no Martha Stewart... far from it in fact. I'll admit that I join right in the party when I have company. My place settings are nothing more than my every day dishes and to make it extra special I break out actual napkins instead of the ripped-in-half paper towels I usually use at dinner. If I have fresh cut flowers on the table it's only ever by pure coincidence and I'm sure I've accidentally served one or two guests a drink in a dirty glass. Sorry. But for me a get together isn't all about pinkies in the air and pomp and circumstance. I like to graze on yummy finger food, mix drinks and demolish cheese trays. I like to play old records and get extra loud and rowdy. I like to tell stories. I like to laugh... a lot. And I like to not worry about having to talk to my guest over my shoulder as I cook something elaborate that needs to be served last minute. And I certainly don't want to dread inviting people over at the last minute. Some of my favorite get-togethers have been very spur of the moment. "You'll be over in 45 minutes?" I say to them over the phone. "No problem...Can't wait to see you!". And I mean it. No problem! Want to never worry again about having to entertain some spur of the moment guests? Or just cut down on your stress level for a planned gathering? I can help.
I'm sure you've caught the tail end of a Food Network show where they're saying, "These are all items I'm sure you have in your pantry", and then they go on to list truffle oil, Spanish imported Marcona Almonds, 10 year plus aged balsamic vinegar, etc. Then you sit there thinking to yourself, "How pathetic is my poor pantry that I only have REGULAR almonds and store brand olive oil!". Don't let them get to you, and even more important, don't just stock your cabinet with chips, salsa and pretzels. Here are some things you can keep in your pantry AND in your fridge to be used in all sorts of yummy ways at a moment's notice:

-Good crackers: Crackers are the backbone of a party. You can put ANYTHING on them and you'd be shocked at how many crackers that lone picky eater will consume. I keep Stoned Wheat or Water crackers on hand at all times.

-Dried fruit(stone fruit) : I keep a bag of dried stone fruit in the closet at all times. Adding a handful of them to a cheese plate makes it look fancy, kind of healthy and pretty. Plus, if you keep dried figs in that mix you can make this compote to spread on a cracker then top with a soft cheese. I haven't found a better accompaniment for cheese yet: Fig Compote (recipe at bottom of page)

-Nuts(almonds, walnuts, peanuts, any kind will do) : Nuts are another versatile item. You can make candied nuts to top a last minute, boring salad: Candied walnuts (no real recipe...put walnuts in a dry pan on medium heat and sprinkle with granulated sugar...stir steadily until coated with melted sugar and browned...watch for burning as it can happen fast) or you can make either of these awesome bar mixes out of them: Maple Rosemary Nuts OR Honey Roasted Peanuts (recipes at bottom of page)

-Honey : Drizzle honey over fresh strawberries, use it in your Honey Roasted Peanuts, or make one of my all time favorites...Honey, Ricotta and Pine Nuts on a Toast Point (another non-recipe...take old baguette...slice thin and toast in oven on both sides...let cool...top with a dollop of ricotta, then drizzle with honey and top with a few toasted pine nuts). The hubby loves the ricotta and honey mixture. I think you will too!

-Onions : I'm not sure if I could cook a meal without onions. I use them in just about everything. So if you've got some in your pantry you're in luck. You can make either of these showstoppers: Swiss and Onion Tarts (recipe below) These are SO yummy and couldn't be easier. Store bought phyllo dough from your freezer (another staple ... more below), onions and some cheese! And people think you worked so hard on them...suckers ;) Caramelized Onion Dip (recipe at bottom of page) I took this to a family picnic a few weeks ago and people just about licked the bowl when it was all gone. Caramelizing the onions takes a bit of time but once it's done you just mix a few other staples together and there you have it. A dip that isn't your same old Lipton Onion Soup Mix dip. Serve with some pita chips, crackers or some crudites if you have fresh veggies in your fridge.

-Cheese!!!! : Cheese has such a good shelf life if properly stored. Even if you get a little bit of mold on it just scrape it away and you're all set. And who doesn't love cheese?? A nice brie on a board with some of those crackers and stone fruit from your pantry and you have a classic AND about the easiest last minute snack to put out for those "We'll be over in FIVE minutes" guests. I try to keep these cheeses at all times: Cream cheese(I use it in the onion tarts and prosciutto purses). Ricotta(in the Ricotta, Honey Toast Points). Swiss(In the Onion Tarts AND as a good mild cheese for a cheese board). Good, sharp cheddar(cheese board cheese and I pretty much always have it for last minute quesadillas or tacos). Goat(best cheese for a boring salad along with those Candied Nuts I talked about). Sometimes I'll pick up a nice, soft cheese or one speckled with truffles for a special occasion, but you can do so much with just these staples.

-Cured meat : Have you ever noticed how long prosciutto or pepperoni or hard salami lasts in the fridge? I swear it only gets better with time (ok...maybe that's not entirely true...but you get my drift). Keep some good pepperoni or hard salami for your cheese boards...the carnivores at your party will appreciate it. OR make this super easy and oh so yummy finger food with some prosciutto and a few of your other staples Prosciutto Purses - with cream cheese, goat cheese and dill (recipe at bottom of page). **A good chartucerie plate can go a long way. Here is a picture of the real deal(pic right). This is from Beneluxx Tasting Room in Old City Philly. This guy makes all of his cured meats in-house. If you can pull something like this off you've got it made. Until then some good cheese and a few slices of prosciutto will certainly be well received**

-Good olives: For martinis!! When I lived in the country I would lose my mind if I ran out of green olives for my martinis. Because of that, to this day, I still keep a few jars in the pantry. You can also toss plain old green olives in a quick marinade of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and and italian blend of dried spices and serve OR if you keep a pre-made jar of marinated olives in your pantry you can just tell people you marinated them yourself...it's ok...I won't tell ;)

-Phyllo dough: This is the trick to making those Swiss and Onion Tarts I talked about. Also, it lasts for an eternity in your fridge so you can break it out at any time you need it. Looking for one of the most versatile recipe bases ever? Line muffin tins with a few layers of phyllo dough (dabbing it with butter between each layer) then bake until just golden. You can fill these puppies with anything! Sweetened ricotta and fresh fruit (or macerate your fruit in some sugar and balsamic vinegar then top your tart with it), cheesy vegetable mixture (then bake off again with tin foil over the tarts to they don't burn...remove tin foil during the last minute or so of baking), or you could even fill it with some pre-made chili and top it with some cheese. That would be delicious! The sky is the limit for these puppies. **pic left...I couldn't find my muffin tins last weekend so I improvised and rolled it around my cheesy vegetable mixture...the proof is in the pudding...it turned out great!**

-Frozen shrimp(raw): Did you know that most of the shrimp you buy "fresh" at the grocery store was previously frozen aboard a ship or at the farm? Yup. A lot of the seafood you buy has been flash frozen and then shipped. Now, some seafood doesn't hold up to freezing as well as you would hope...but that's not the case with shrimp. A bag of good quality frozen(raw) shrimp in your fridge can go far. You can make a classic... Shrimp Cocktail (recipe at bottom of page) or Bacon Wrapped Shrimp(just wrap thawed, peeled shrimp in bacon, secure w/tooth pick and either bake at 375, flipping halfway through until done OR pan sear, flipping until bacon is crisp and shrimp is pink) (bacon can be frozen too and this should also be a staple...bacon freezes VERY well) or if you can chop up some left over Shrimp Scampi or Cocktail, mix with mayo, salt, pepper and chopped celery and fill a phyllo cup with it. Maybe line the cup with some lettuce and you are ALL set.

Noticed that you haven't seen a lot of veggies in this list. You can always put out some crudites with your onion dip or add frozen spinach to your onion tarts if you've got it. But fresh fruits and veggies don't notoriously have the best shelf life so I didn't include them in this "out of the pantry" list of recipes.

Have some time to plan for your get together and need something WOW worthy? Make this pate'. It takes a little work, but with the time you're saving on the rest of your munchies, you can do it. Even non-liver-lovers will gobble this up. And the best part is it costs next to nothing to create.
Chicken Liver Pate::::
-3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, divided
-4 bacon slices, chopped
-1 1/2 cups chopped onion
-1 garlic clove, minced
-12 oz chicken livers, trimmed
-1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored, cut into cubes
-1 tablespoon chopped fresh marjoram
-2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled, quartered
-2 tablespoons dry Sherry, bourbon, or Cognac
-1 1/4 teaspoons salt
-Fresh parsley sprig

Melt 1/4 cup butter in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add bacon and sauté until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add onion and sauté until pale golden, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and stir 1 minute. Add chicken livers, apple, and marjoram; sauté until livers are no longer pink inside and apple is soft, about 8 minutes.
Transfer warm liver mixture to processor. Add hard-boiled eggs, Sherry, and salt; puree until almost smooth. Transfer mixture to fine to medium sieve set over large bowl. Using sturdy rubber spatula, press mixture through sieve into bowl. Mix in remaining 1/2 cup butter. Season pâté to taste with freshly ground pepper. Cover and chill.

Fig Compote::::
-1/2 cup dried mission figs
-1 tsp. orange marmalade or jam
-1 tbs. orange juice
-1 tsp. brandy(I've used bourbon or dark rum in a pinch as well)

If you have one of those mini-food processors throw the figs in it and let 'er rip until figs are very finely chopped. OR just finely chop by hand. Add all ingredients to a sauce pan and cook on med-low heat for about 5 to 7 mins or until the mixture thickens a bit. If too thick add more orange juice...if too thin cook some more. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature with cheese tray. It goes SO well with brie and nutty swiss cheeses. AND it's to die for on a cracker with some pate'. I want some now.

Maple Rosemary Cashews::::
-8 cups(this make a lot) raw cashews (you can substitute other nuts but the cashews really are tops)
-5 tablespoons pure maple syrup
-2 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
-1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
-1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
-Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 375. In a large bowl, toss the cashews with the maple syrup, olive oil, rosemary and cayenne. Spread the cashews on a large rimmed baking sheet and toast for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until browned. Immediately season the cashews with salt and pepper; let cool, tossing occasionally.

Honey Roasted Peanuts::::
-2 cups peanuts
-2 tbs. butter (real butter...no margarine...it's important)
-2 1/2 tbs. honey
-2 tbs. granulated sugar for coating - optional

Preheat oven to 350. Heat butter and honey in the microwave until butter is melted. Toss with peanuts. Spread mixture on foil lined baking sheet(not greased) and bake for 5 - 7 mins, checking and stirring every other minute or so. Remove when they are a golden brown. You'll recognize the color of store bought honey roasted peanuts. As with all nuts watch carefully while cooking as they can burn easily. Once removed let cool for 1 - 2 mins then toss with granulated sugar if desired. Let cool then serve. These are worth every second of cook time. They're amazing.

Prosciutto Purses::::
-12 slices of prosciutto (domestic is ok for this)
-1 1/2 tbs. fresh dill (chopped)
-1/4 cup cream cheese (at room temp)
-1/8 cup goat cheese (at room temp)
-1/2 tsp. black pepper
Mix the dill, cream cheese, goat cheese and pepper together. Spread the mixture in a very thin layer on each slice of prosciutto. Roll length wise and place on serving tray seam down. Enjoy!

Swiss and Onion Tart::::
-1 medium onion
-2 1/2 tbs. butter
-6 sheets of phyllo dough
-1/2 cup swiss cheese
-1/8 cup cream cheese
-1/2 tsp. onion powder
-1/2 tsp. black pepper
-salt to taste

Slice the onion thin and slowly sautee in 1 tbs. of butter until translucent over med-low heat. Meanwhile stack the 6 sheets of phyllo dough and cut into circles big enough to fit whatever muffin tins your using with some overlap (this recipe makes about 6 big tarts or 12 mini-muffin size tarts). Take the phyllo rounds and begin layering in the greased muffin tins, one layer at a time, brushing with butter between each layer (use that extra 1 1/2 tbs. of melted butter for this). Bake the phyllo, empty, at 350 for about 10 - 12 mins or until just barely golden. You don't want them to get golden brown yet. Remove and fill with this mixture: sauteed onion, swiss, cream cheese, onion powder, black pepper and salt(all stirred together of course). Bake filled tarts, covered with foil for another 10 mins then remove cover and bake for another 2-3 mins until phyllo is golden in color. ******This is just the most bare bones and basic "use what you've got in the house" version of this. You can add LOTS of things. I added sauteed swiss chard and bacon last weekend and they were wonderful...use your imagination! My muffin tins were missing last weekend so I rolled the phyllo around the stuffing instead of filling tins and it worked just as well(Picture above in the "Phyllo" section)******

Caramelized Onion Dip::::
-2 tbs. butter
-2 medium onions
1 cup sour cream
1/2 pound cream cheese(room temp.)
1/2 tsp. onion powder
1 tbs. chopped parsley(if you don't have this one it's not a big deal)
1/2 tbs. Worcestershire sauce(this one you DO need this though)
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper(season with the cayenne to taste...you might need a bit more)
salt and pepper to taste

In large skillet over low/med-low heat sweat onions in the butter until soft and golden brown. Take it slow as to not burn them. This will take about 30 mins. At the very end add 2 tbs. of water and stir until evaporated...3-ish mins. Let onions cool slightly. Once cool coarsely chop the sauteed onions and mix in a bowl with the sour cream, cream cheese, parsley, onion powder, Worcestershire sauce and cayenne. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve at room temperature(if it's cold it just doesn't spread, dip or taste the same). This will last in your fridge for a while...perhaps a week or a bit longer.

Shrimp Cocktail:::: This one is almost too easy and it will FLY off your buffet
-1 pound of frozen shrimp - raw and shell still on
-1 onion, quartered
-2 tbs. salt
-1 bay leaf
-1 tbs. whole black pepper corns

Put onion, salt, bay leaf, peppercorn and squeeze lemon into a medium pot of water. Bring to boil and simmer for 5 - 10 mins to let it get all flavorfull-ey ;) Add frozen shrimp and reduce heat to medium. Cook shrimp until they JUST turn pink and opaque...about 2-3 mins for fresh shrimp or 5-6 mins for frozen shrimp. You can always fish one out, cut it in half and check for doneness...then munch on it ;) When done, strain and cool in the fridge until cool enough to handle. Pell the shrimp(leave the tails on) and then put back in the fridge to chill completely. Serve with ::::
-1 cup ketchup
-2 tbs. horseradish(I use 3 but I like it hot)
-a splash of lemon juice if you like, but I just use horseradish and ketchup
Mix all ingredients, chill and serve alongside shrimp for dipping.

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