We had a couple friends over for drinks yesterday afternoon. It was lovely; a few cold beers, a handful of chipotle-spiced walnuts to munch on, and a sunny deck. And then another friend called, and another, and in our beer and sun soaked state, we invited them all over for dinner.
I could have ordered pizza. I almost ordered pizza. But this is just the kind of challenge that the Electrolux “Are You Party Ready?” campaign is all about. Entertaining on the fly makes me feel just a bit like I’m on a reality tv show; 60 minutes to make a celebratory meal from the ingredients in your fridge. Go! But I love the flexibility of having friend over anytime, and I love to feed them. So I’ve developed a few tricks over the years, to keep my sanity and enjoy my friends. The folks at Electrolux suggested that I share these tips with all of you.
My favorite impromptu entertaining tip is to always keep a bottle of Champagne in the fridge. I know it takes up space, but you just never know when you’ll have an occasion to celebrate! And sparkling wine makes even the smallest event into a true celebration. I can’t take full credit for this tip, it’s really Jeff’s idea. He’s a big believer in the importance of Champagne. In fact, Champagne glasses were our very first joint purchase, made long before we were even living together. As Mereille Guiliano has so often proclaimed, Champagne goes with just about everything, so whatever you’re serving, it provides ultimate flexibility. And even if your cupboards are bare, with a glass of Champagne in hand, your guests will feel like a million bucks. Plus, the bubbly will distract them long enough for you to make a frantic call to your favorite delivery guy.
My second favorite entertaining tip is less optimistic, but perhaps more practical. Keep a loaf of good bread in the freezer. If friends drop by in the morning, make French toast. A neighbor pops in at lunch? Nothing dresses up canned soup better than buttery homemade croutons. Your boss invites herself over for a drink after work? Well, first pull out that Champagne! Then toast up a few slices of bread and top with whatever you have on hand – chopped tomatoes tossed in balsamic vinaigrette, or mashed cannellini beans and chives. Even a topping of canned tuna mixed with capers will impress her.
So last night, as the doorbell rang, I pulled a few cheese-topped toasts out of the oven, grabbed a bottle of Champagne from the fridge, and we were off to a good start. Thankfully, I had been planning on steak for dinner. But with a few extra people, I had to stretch the meal. Trusty freezer-bread to the rescue! I love the thrift of a panzanella salad. Stale bread turns into something wonderful when surrounded by bright red tomatoes and sweet onions. Our supper of pesto steak and green salad was stretched to feed the masses with a bright panzanella. And as we move further into tomato season here in New England, I can promise there will be more panzanella on my table this summer. You could add more veggies than I did; cucumbers or peppers would be wonderful. Next time I might throw in some pitted olives. And if you’re looking for a bit more heft, I’d suggest some fresh mozzarella cheese, or even a few grilled shrimp.
As for dessert, well, that trusty loaf of bread (ok, I admit, I actually had two loaves!) saved me again. I’m typically a big fan of bread pudding as my go-to dessert in a pinch. Bread pudding is infinitely flexible, and accommodates everything from bananas and chocolate to apples and cinnamon. But with an abundance of cherries and berries in my fridge, I experimented with a charlotte instead. Buttery bread encasing sweet fruit and topped with a bit of chocolate sauce made for a rich dessert. But I will admit that I’m still partial to the bread pudding, so homey and gooey and rustic. The charlotte may win points for style, but it’s tough to top the taste of a rich bread pudding, particularly one serves with a bit of bourbon sauce!
Do you have any favorite tips for entertaining on the fly? I’m sure you do. I’d love to know your tips so leave me a note, and also check out Kelly Ripa’s Are You Party Ready? site to share your entertaining tips!
Party Perfect Panzanella
Serves 6-8 as a side dish
4 cups cubed French, Italian or good quality white bread
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
4 medium-sized tomatoes, sliced in wedges
1/4 cup thinly sliced fresh basil
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a large bowl, toss the bread cubes with half of the olive oil, a generous sprinkle each of salt and pepper, and the oregano and garlic powder. Arrange the bread on a greased baking sheet and toast in the oven until golden brown.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, soak the onion in enough water to cover for about 10 minutes, then drain.
Wisk together the remaining oil, the vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. In a large bowl, toss the toasted bread, the tomato, the basil and the onion with the vinaigrette.
Serve immediately (really, I mean right away! you don’t want to eat soggy bread).