Short On Time

By Chandra Orr

September 12, 2008 5 min read

SHORT ON TIME

Serve the perfect party fare in no time at all

Chandra Orr

Creators News Service

Whether throwing an impromptu party for the whole family or hosting a spontaneous get-together for friends, holiday entertaining can be a hassle.

Don't stress. With one quick trip to the grocer's you'll have everything you need to put together the perfect party in a flash -- with no cooking required.

PERFECT PRESENTATION

A stunning presentation will turn ordinary eats into festive treats and transform pre-made munchies into hors d'oeuvres to die for, according to Jodi Citrin, Melissa Gibson and Katie Nuanes, authors of "The Little Black Apron: A Single Girl's Guide to Cooking with Style and Grace," ($15, Polka Dot Press).

"Presentation is paramount," Gibson said. "Creating an atmosphere that is relaxed, yet thoughtful, is ideal. Your guests shouldn't feel put off by a sloppy or thoughtless presentation. If an event feels seamlessly elegant and authentically warm, guests will react accordingly and party will be a huge success."

So grab a bunch of fresh flowers, set the mood with music, pull out your most stylish serving platters and hit the grocery store. It's time to get creative with readymade foods and quick-cooking culinary delights.

"Grocery stores are full of quick alternatives that help negate countless hours in the kitchen," said Nuanes, who praises the power of precooked rotisserie chickens. "They are the ultimate ingredient for a meal that can be pulled together in minutes."

The possibilities are endless. You can serve items as-is or add a bit of personality with fresh mango salsa, your favorite marinara or an exotic marinade. Shred chicken and serve with salads or use it to perk up plain pasta and store-bought soup.

"If you're feeling adventuresome, you can even wrap shredded chicken in iceberg lettuce and drizzle with Hoisin sauce -- found in the Asian section of your market -- for a quick lettuce wrap," Nuanes said.

The international foods aisle also holds the secret to side dishes in a snap.

"Basics like dried pasta and couscous are great," Nuanes said. "They're versatile and can be prepared in a pinch."

Dress up simple pastas with fresh store-bought pesto or add readymade curries to couscous. For a more balanced dish, add steamed vegetables - look for pre-washed, pre-cut blends in the produce department. Sprinkle on sun-dried tomatoes, gourmet olives and nuts for extra personality and flavor.

QUICK FIXES

Need more menu options? Stock your pantry, fridge and freezer now and you'll have no excuse when guests pop in unexpectedly, according to Matthew Mead, author of "Entertaining Simple: Recipes, Menus and Party Ideas for Every Kind of Gathering," ($25, Wiley).

"When friends from out of town call up unexpectedly, or you want to have a spur-of-the moment get-together, don't panic. With the great take-out restaurants and gourmet food shops these days, it is perfectly acceptable to let someone else do the cooking," Mead wrote.

Consider these quick fixes for appealing appetizers, stunning salads and decadent desserts:

* Create a show-stopping salad. Look for pre-washed, pre-chopped blends of baby greens, carrots and red cabbage. Add your own mandarin oranges, dried cranberries, walnuts and blue cheese. Serve on a simple white platter with a selection of complimentary dressings in single-serving shot glasses.

* Hit the bar. Check out your supermarket's olive bar. Chances are you'll find a stunning selection of fresh mozzarella, imported stuffed olives and marinated vegetables with garlic. Stock up on a few favorites and serve on short wooden skewers with a side of ciabatta, crackers and crisp bread.

* Give party platters pizzazz. First thing's first - ditch the plastic deli container. Instead, display rolled deli meats and assorted cheeses on a tiered cake stand for instant elegance. Transform a plain veggie tray into clever crudit? kabobs -- just arrange bite-sized pieces of broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and tomatoes on wooden skewers and serve veggie dip on the side in dainty egg cups or clear glass votive holders.

* Dress up desserts. Add a personal touch to frozen pies, pound cakes and cheesecakes with a generous helping of whipped cream and jam. For lighter fare, fill frozen puff pastries with whipped cream and fresh sliced or frozen strawberries. And don't underestimate the power of freshly baked cookies -- no one has to know you used frozen cookie dough.

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