Spontaneous sociable needn't mean subpar snacking

One reason most of us love the holiday season is that it provides opportunities to spend more time at home with family and friends. One reason most of us who are the family chefs dislike the holiday season is the stress it provides when we spend more time at home with family and friends.

Certainly, some of the get-togethers are planned down to the last detail. But what's often more fun are those gatherings that tend to be spur-of-the-moment, or at least spur-of-a-day-or-so in advance. Inevitably, there's the stress of deciding what to feed folks after we've issued our generous last-minute invitation.

Our exercise du jour, then, is to plan ahead for those wonderful, spontaneous gatherings that aren't planned ahead. Certainly, we all have foodstuffs in the larder that we keep on hand in case of a can't-get-to-the-grocery emergency. Now's the time to take stock and figure out how to use these sometimes disparate items to create a seemingly coordinated menu. And just as we do when planning family meals, there's usually a theme that's most popular with the gang.

It simply takes a little creativity to come up with a plethora of good tastes based on what's already in the house, or what you like to get during a stock-up trip to the grocery or the membership warehouse.

Here's what we mean.


50-50 quesadillas

Although these days most home cooks worth their aprons would be embarrassed to serve tortilla chips and salsa to guests (even though the family noshes on them all the time), you probably have the chips and salsa and even queso dip on hand. If not, go for a couple of slightly more "exotic" salsas, like mango, pineapple or black bean. And do buy some guacamole (jar or frozen) and keep that available too.

To star in your last-minute show, fix these crab and chicken quesadillas, using stock-up ingredients that have a relatively long shelf life in the fridge. The quesadillas will only take you about 20 minutes to fix. So while they enjoy the beer or sangria or even pre-mixed Margaritas that you keep in stock, you can do these "grilled cheese sandwiches."

If you're seeking another comestible offering, chop about 1/4 cup vidalia onion and add to 1 can black beans (drained) in a medium pot. Add some chicken broth to moisten, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, while you do the quesadillas.

1 cup chopped scallions, divided

2/3 cup reduced-fat sour cream, divided

4 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro, divided

1 tablespoon minced garlic (from a jar), divided

3 medium jalapeño peppers, seeded, pith removed, finely chopped, divided

1 pound good-quality blue crab claw meat (the homogenized product from Phillip's has a really long fridge life)

1 pound cooked boneless chicken breast, finely chopped

1 1/2 cups frozen corn kernels, "cooked" in the microwave, patted dry, divided

1 1/2 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese, divided

1 1/2 cups shredded yellow cheddar cheese, divided

16 to 18 (8-inch) flour tortillas

Sliced scallions greens and/or cilantro sprigs, garnish

In each of two bowls, combine half the scallions, sour cream, cilantro, garlic and jalapeño peppers. Add the crab meat to one bowl; add the chicken to the other bowl. Stir half the cooked corn into each bowl.

Heat broiler. Arrange tortillas on a work surface. Combine the Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses. Sprinkle some of the cheese mixture onto each of the tortillas. Spoon the crab mixture on half the tortillas and fold each over/in half. Spoon the chicken mixture on the other half of the tortillas and fold each over. Arrange on baking sheets. Broil each type of tortilla about 6 inches from heat source until tortillas are lightly browned and cheese appears to be melted. Let stand about 3 minutes before slicing each quesadilla in half width-wise. Arrange on platters. Garnish with cilantro sprigs and/or finely sliced scallion greens. Makes 32 to 36 quesadillas.

Tex-Mex casserole

Here's a casserole-type dish you can use as a dunk for tortilla chips or as a fill-your-own taco. It doesn't take long to thaw frozen chicken breasts in the microwave and doesn't take much longer to put together this taco filler.

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken in bite-size pieces

1 tablespoon reduced-sodium taco seasoning mix

1 tablespoon olive oil

About 1 1/3 cups bottled salsa (medium heat is fine)

1 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

2 (4-ounce) cans mild whole green chilies, drained, thinly sliced

1/2 cup reduced-fat sour cream, for serving

1/4 cup sliced ripe (black) olives, for serving

Shredded lettuce, chopped onions and tomatoes, guacamole, for serving

Tortillas chips or taco shells, for serving

Heat oven to 425 degrees.

In a bowl, combine chicken and taco seasoning. In a large, non-stick skillet, over medium-high, heat olive oil. Add chicken mixture and cook 4 minutes, until browned, stirring often.

Spray-coat a 9- x 13-inch baking dish. Add cooked chicken. Top with salsa, cheese and chilies. Bake for 10 minutes, until cheese is melted. Serve with suggested toppings/garnishes. Makes 10 or more appetizer servings.

That's Italian

We (almost) always have the wherewithal in the house to fix a gorgeous and satisfying antipasto. That includes roasted red peppers, marinated mushrooms, marinated artichoke hearts, olives (black and green), tuna in olive oil (I use this as the centerpiece on the platter), anchovies and cheese (it's OK if it's not Italian. All I usually have to acquire at the last minute are salami, cappacola, prosciutto or the like. And some Italian bread or French baguette.

Tomato crostini

Instead of one baguette, buy two, and use the second for colorful (and easy) morsels.

About 16 diagonal slices (3/4 inch thick) of baguette

Cooking spray

About 4 cloves garlic, halved lengthwise

2 cups chopped plum tomatoes

1/4 cup chopped, fresh basil

1/4 cup chopped (pitted) kalamata olives

4 teaspoons capers, lightly rinsed, well drained

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

Shredded parmesan cheese, garnish

Flat-leaf parsley sprigs, garnish

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly spray tops and undersides of bread slices and arrange on baking sheets. Bake about 3 minutes on each side, until very lightly toasted. Let cool slightly. Rub garlic halves over top sides of toasted bread.

In a bowl, combine tomatoes, basil, olives, capers, olive oil, salt and pepper. Divide tomato mixture among toasted baguette slices. Bake about 4 minutes, until well warmed. Remove from oven to platter(s). Sprinkle on some parmesan cheese and garnish with parsley. Makes 16 crostini.

Tuscan beans

This antipasto-style dish makes a pleasant textural contrast to the above crostini. And only takes moments to fix. Some fresh Italian bread goes well with it. So does a red zinfandel.

1 medium red onion, chopped

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

4 cups canned white beans (e.g. cannellini or smaller), drained, rinsed, and drained again

2 cups crisp-tender cooked green beans in 1 1/2-inch pieces

1/3 to 1/2 cup best quality olive oil

Fine sea salt

Freshly ground pepper

16 ounces (2 cans) tuna packed in olive oil

2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat leaf parsley

In a small bowl, combine red onion and vinegar and let stand 15 minutes. Drain onions. In a large bowl, combine some of the olive oil with white beans, green beans and marinated onions. Add salt and pepper to taste. Taste for seasonings. Remove to a serving platter. Flake tuna and scatter over the beans. Top with chopped parsley. Makes about 10 servings.

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