You just know it's going to happen. During the holidays, a few friends stop in; they're visiting relatives and want to check up on their old friends. Or your teenager's college chums will drop by. A few minutes later, dozens are congregating in your kitchen, and they are ravenous. What's a hostess with the mostess gonna do? Whip out a few fast food tricks -- that's what. Here are some quick ways to fake out that unexpected company with some tasty treats, even a quick meal or two:
--Always stock up on specialty cheeses during the holidays, and keep them in your refrigerator. When a crowd starts to gather, bring out the cheese board, some special crackers, a bountiful bunch of grapes and voil?, you have an instant appetizer. My favorite cheeses are Boursin, peppered goat cheese and, yes, even cream cheese.
Cream cheese easily is doctored with a tangy Pickapeppa sauce or a green or red pepper jelly. There are lots of other spreads available in the grocery that are easy to garnish with extra olives, veggies and breads. A scooped-out bread bowl from the bakery is a great container for pre-made dips, too. Smoked salmon is another quick alternative and a very "gourmet" treat.
--Serve up some Christmas cheer, whether you open up a good bottle of red wine or heat up some apple cider on the stove seasoned with a sprinkle of nutmeg and a few cinnamon sticks. I also make Savannah, Ga., cook Paula Deen's Bloody Mary mix every year and pour it into decorative bottles to give away, so I have plenty on hand if I need to pop one open at my own house. Your guests will appreciate your hospitality and enjoy the appetizers even more while you whip up something fast for dinner (or call your favorite restaurant for takeout!).
--If your guests do linger into the dinner hour, there are lots of ways to serve them a quick meal while still visiting around the kitchen counter. Most of the time, these close encounters of the food kind do not leave us a lot of wiggle room. So think ahead, and be prepared. I stock up on frozen meats, especially marinated chicken breasts or pork tenderloin, which can be defrosted quickly in the microwave and put on the gas grill. (I use my gas grill year-round!) Frozen prepackaged seafood delicacies, such as bacon-wrapped scallops, are another hit and take minutes in the oven.
--In the fall, I always make up big batches of homemade chili and vegetable minestrone and freeze extra portions. Browse the frozen-food section of your favorite grocery or specialty store. You'll find lots of great family-style dishes that go way beyond the old "casserole" days -- restaurant classic soups from Chef Francisco (twice-baked stuffed potato is my favorite), Stouffers amazing array of products you can microwave, T.G.I. Friday's skillet meals and party sizes of Amy's chicken enchiladas. With a few extra toppings from the refrigerator -- shredded cheeses, sour cream, green onions, etc. -- these are perfect for one-dish meals.
--Prepackaged salads are another must-have when throwing together last-minute get-togethers for the holidays. You always can serve these as side dishes to your main menu and dress them up with festive touches. I always serve organic greens layered with red apples, cranberries or strawberries, nuts and a tart vinaigrette.
--For dessert, you always can reach for a specialty ice cream in your freezer. I like to drizzle a jarred caramel sauce over pumpkin ice cream. Or keep frozen cakes and pies handy, and finish them off with a chocolaty liquor. Actually, if your guests are full, just offer them a small glass of Baileys or another one of my recently discovered holiday dessert favorites: Europa's chocovine, which is red wine and Dutch chocolate liquor. It makes a great gift, too! And for less than $10!
FESTIVE STRAWBERRY NUT SALAD
1/2 cup Planters sliced almonds (You can substitute packaged honey-glazed sliced almonds, available in the produce section.)
3 tablespoons sugar
2 cups packed fresh spinach leaves
2 cups packed Boston lettuce
2 cups halved strawberries
1/3 cup Kraft creamy poppy seed dressing
Toss almonds with sugar in nonstick skillet; cook on medium heat until sugar is caramelized, stirring constantly.
Spread into single layer on greased baking sheet or sheet of wax paper; cool. Break into small pieces.
Toss spinach, Boston lettuce and strawberries in large bowl.
Drizzle with dressing just before serving; toss lightly. Sprinkle with almonds. Serve on chilled plates.
*For a fruity change, substitute tart fresh raspberries, apples or cranberries for the strawberries.
(Recipe from Kraft Foods Inc.)