Recently, I was put to the test when some out-of-town relatives dropped by for dinner on a moment's notice. With about three hours to pull a meal together, I opted for fuss-free creations that looked appealing and tasted delicious, relying on my refrigerator, freezer and well-stocked pantry.
Here are 10 ideas I rely on at various times, depending on the meal and the diners. Recipes are included for some. Keep in mind, especially during these difficult economic times, that it's often more cost-effective to entertain at home than in a restaurant. Splurge on food to cook at home as your budget allows.
1. A fashionable chicken salad sandwich
High on my list of best chicken salads is one I copied from Campanile restaurant in Los Angeles that includes napa and red cabbage and red onions or scallions. Campanile serves it on olive bread slices, but it's such a versatile recipe — for lunch, brunch, supper or picnics — that you can serve it simply as a salad, without the bread. Sometimes I even leave out the cabbage, adding unpeeled, diced European seedless cucumber (about 2 cups) instead.
2. A saucy pasta
OK, I know what you are thinking: Why would you serve spaghetti sauce and pasta when friends drop by? Why not? It's not only economical, versatile and delicious, but my favorite version — it gets top marks from diners — is a breeze to make. Half an hour, max, is all the simmering that's required. Fennel seeds, white wine or vermouth (or even red wine) and Worcestershire sauce give it pizazz and wonderful, special flavor. Serve over any kind of cooked pasta — consider tortellini or ravioli — or even steamed fresh vegetables or spaghetti squash.
3. Picturesque antipasto platter
An antipasto platter is a fabulous choice to accompany dinner or by itself as a leisurely weekend lunch. Beautifully arrange lots of different foodstuffs on a large oval or round platter and guests are bound to be impressed.
Include choices like fresh mozzarella cheese slices alternated with whole basil leaves and tomato slices; a pile of canned, drained artichoke hearts drizzled with a little Italian dressing (or marinated artichoke hearts, drained); roasted red pepper pieces (jarred are easiest); a small dish of homemade olive tapenade or pitted whole kalamata or green olives; prosciutto or salami slices; rolled-up slices of provolone cheese; and whatever else strikes your fancy.
Even though it's Greek, rather than Italian, I often add some drained, jarred dolmas (stuffed grape leaves) drizzled with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. It's all about the presentation here.
4. Veggies on the barbie can't be beat
Grilled, in-season fresh veggies with a splash of olive oil, some fresh basil and balsamic vinaigrette are always a hit and take minimal preparation and attention. Use a mix of textures and colors such as quartered red, yellow or green peppers; fat asparagus spears; lengthwise zucchini slices; small yellow squash halves; lengthwise eggplant slices; scallions; tomato halves or slices; onion wedges (yellow, white or red); leeks; fennel; or whole mushrooms.
Brush with olive oil prior to grilling, if desired, and grill over direct medium or high heat for best results. Grilling, whether over gas or charcoal, heightens the vegetables' natural sweetness, resulting in a fabulous smoky, caramelized flavor. Keep in mind vegetables are best cooked until crisp tender.
After grilling, drizzle with herb-flavored oils, vinegars or vinaigrette dressings and sprinkle with chopped fresh herbs, sea salt and pepper.
5. Great grilled meats
Don't overlook the grill — a useful tool when you're in a hurry. Barbecue steaks (New Yorks, porterhouse, rib-eye, spencer or sirloin), chicken breasts or halibut, swordfish or salmon steaks. Purchase them on sale at good prices and keep some stashed in the freezer, if desired (but be sure to thaw before cooking). No need to marinate them when time is short.
Simply serve a homemade or doctored-up store-bought pineapple salsa, a tomato-feta relish or guacamole with roasted, frozen, thawed corn kernels tossed in.