How to Stock Your Pantry So You’re Always Party Ready
Even with just a small chunk of manchego, a lonely apple, and an about-to-expire container of hummus in my fridge, at the drop of a hat, I can always pull together a spread of delicious nibbles and spirited drinks for an intimate group of friends. How? First, I stock my pantry so I’m always party ready, then I creatively think about how to turn a simple can of tomatoes into a scrumptious hors d’oeuvre. It takes a little ingenuity, but with some kitchen smarts and a party-ready pantry, you, too, can throw an impromptu fiesta with 10 minutes’ notice. Here’s how it’s done.
A cheese plate is the world’s easiest appetizer; you don’t even need to slice it. Simply plate it on a wooden board with a cheese knife, and bam—a ready-to-eat app. Since cheese is a crowd-pleaser and requires no cooking, it’s a good idea to always have a block in your fridge. Sharp cheddar, parmesan, manchego, brie, and goat cheese are versatile snacking options. Don’t be afraid to get crafty with them. If you have a bunch of small, random pieces of cheese from last week’s pizza night, pop them in the food processor with a little wine, garlic, and herbs. Blitz until smooth, spread on bread, and bake. Trust me, your friends will be impressed by your gourmet cheese toasties! Only have half a log of goat cheese? Place it in a ramekin, drizzle with olive oil and honey, and bake until it’s warm and bubbly. Serve with crackers or crostini.
Trader Joe’s is the best place to stock up on affordable canned foods, so next time you're there, pick up canned beans (black, white, and garbanzo), tomatoes (diced and sauce), and seafood (tuna, sardines, and crab). Keep these cans in your pantry at all times, and when a party comes a-calling, open the cabinet door and get creative. Process a can of black beans with a little beer, cumin, smoked paprika, dried oregano, and hot sauce. Bake it and then serve the hot bean dip with tortilla chips. The same technique can be applied to white beans with wine, fresh herbs, and parmesan cheese. Season baked garbanzo beans with smoked paprika, salt, and pepper; then fry or bake until crispy. Combine a can of tomatoes with goat cheese, feta, or mozzarella; dried basil; oregano; and plenty of black pepper, and bake until bubbly for a delicious marinara dip. Mix canned seafood with mustard and mayonnaise, and serve on crackers or toasted bread.
I hate wasting food, so whenever I end up with any leftovers—be it half a baguette, one Italian sausage, or vegetable soup—I pop it in the freezer to use at a later date. The first thing I do when I hear an old college friend is in town and planning to stop by for a drink? Open the freezer to see what I can use. Any bread can be turned into a vessel for cheese or spreads. Sauces can be dips. Meats can be thawed and cooked, then sliced and served as a snack. Puff pastry is a frozen ingredient that is always in my freezer. It’s a hostess’s secret weapon; it can be used in hundreds of different ways. Roll it flat and make a pizza. Cut out 3-inch circles of dough and fill them with any vegetables and cheese you have (kale and fontina, mushrooms and gruyère, bell peppers and Monterey Jack). Fold into half-moon shapes to enclose the veggies and cheese, then bake to make tasty empanadas. Other puff pastry ideas: ham pinwheels, sugar and cinnamon bites, or jam- and cream cheese-filled pastries.
Nuts are a healthy snack that jazzes up any appetizer spread. Stock your pantry with your favorite nut blend or single nut type (walnuts, almonds, cashews, peanuts, etc.). For raw, unsalted nuts, toast and season them before placing them on your cheese board.
When guests show up at your house, the second question a hostess should ask is "Can I get you a drink?" (The first is "May I take your coat?") The most effortless thing to offer is wine, so always have a bottle of red and a chilled white on hand. Always. If you have the means to make a cocktail, do so. It doesn’t hurt to have a couple of beers in your fridge, either!
I am a huge fan of dips. They are delicious and easy to make. Throw a bunch of ingredients into a food processor and you’ve got an appetizer in less than 10 minutes. A random jalapeño, half a block of cream cheese, a dollop of mayonnaise, and a jar of artichoke hearts turn into dip in no time. A huge handful of herbs, nuts, and oil can be made into a pesto dip. Beans, cheese, tomatoes—all of these ingredients can be turned into a party dip. Even canned tuna can be whipped into a smooth, scrumptious dip when processed with vinegar, oil, cream, and butter. Tuna mousse, anyone?
Sparkling water and sparkling wine are two pantry staples I always have on hand. The sparkling water is an elegant and refreshing option (jazz up with syrup or fresh citrus) for people who don’t imbibe alcohol, and sparkling wine is perfect for getting any party started.
Another thing you should stock up on the next time you’re at Trader Joe’s? Jars! Artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, kalamata olives, pickles, and capers are ingredients that typically have a long shelf life even after they've been opened. Serve olives and pickles alongside nuts and cheese, or use these jarred items to make a yummy dip!
Some sort of crackers or chips is crucial to the party-ready pantry. Pretzels and breadsticks work well, too. You always need something crunchy on your appetizer spread, and crackers and chips are the necessary vessel for any party dips you may end up making.
If you happen to be out of chips or crackers but have tortillas, pitas, lavash, or bread, use your oven to make your own chips and crostini. Drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and bake until crispy. Voilà! Homemade chips.
Don’t forget about the presentation of your appetizers! A party should be more special than your everyday life, so make an effort to present your spread in a visually pleasing manner. Keep toothpicks and pretty cocktail napkins at an arm’s reach. Have plenty of interestingly shaped boards, platters, and bowls for plating your mouthwatering creations. Most importantly, have fun with it!
What items do you stock your pantry with to be party ready?