If you, like most of us, feel you don't have much time to cook — let alone entertain — I have a few fast-fix strategies to make your next get-together a stress-free hit.
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.
I whipped up a quick, from-scratch spaghetti sauce that relies on canned tomatoes and requires only a short simmer, a beautiful antipasto platter, a green salad with crisp-cooked fresh vegetables done in the microwave and refreshed in ice water, garlic toast, and a quick, flourless chocolate torte with whipped cream and some frozen raspberries (use fresh if you have them) for dessert. Although the meal wasn't extravagant, the guests couldn't have been happier. If you find yourself facing the same situation, don't panic. A quick trip to the supermarket can be a boon. Think simple and hassle-free. There are many items you can personalize quickly without much effort.
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.
6. Super salad choices
When it comes to salads, embellish your favorite combination of greens — baby, romaine, spinach, etc. — with crumbled goat or blue cheese (you can buy it that way). Add toasted pecans or walnuts — toast them quickly in a microwave oven; a half cup takes only about a minute or less — and dress with a store-bought vinaigrette of choice.
Or slice fresh tomatoes — heirloom, if you can find them — and top with lots of homemade blue cheese dressing. You won't believe how quick it is to make, and it tastes much better than store-bought.
Try this recipe adapted from Ina Garten, the Barefood Contessa: Combine 1 cup dairy sour cream ( do not use no-fat) or mayonnaise, 3 tablespoons heavy cream or buttermilk and 1 tablespoon white wine or tarragon vinegar. Stir in 1 cup crumbled blue cheese and salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste.
A cold vegetable salad is another favorite. Combine cut-up canned artichoke hearts (drained and rinsed), canned hearts of palm (drained, sliced), green or yellow bell pepper chunks, chopped tomatoes, chopped scallions, drained capers, red wine vinegar, olive oil and lots of chopped fresh basil. Season with salt and garlic pepper and chill until serving time. Serve over cut-up salad greens.
If Greek strikes your fancy, make a green salad or pasta salad by tossing cut-up kalamata olives, scallions, tomatoes, cucumbers, green bell peppers, capers and Greek seasoning with an oil-vinegar dressing.
Combine this with assorted greens or cooked penne pasta. Add some cut-up rotisserie chicken pieces, if desired, for a main-dish dinner.
7. Quick indoor salmon in a grill pan
One of my favorite fast-fix ways to make salmon steaks on the stove top is in a grill pan with a little olive oil. (You can also cook skinless, boneless chicken breast halves the same way.) Sear over high heat a few minutes on each side — until cooked as desired — then add a splash of balsamic vinegar and cook a couple of minutes longer over high heat. Remove the steaks to dinner plates.
Return the pan to the heat and add several more splashes of balsamic vinegar (about 1/4 cup for two; more for additional servings) and reduce over high heat, watching carefully until slightly syrupy but still pourable. Drizzle over steaks. Season to taste with salt and pepper. I like to accompany this with steamed or pan-grilled asparagus spears.
Cookbook author Robin Miller includes her take on the same theme, 5-Ingredient Lemon Pepper Salmon, in her latest book, Robin to the Rescue: Quick & Simple Recipes for Delicious Home Cooking (The Taunton Press, 2008). She notes it is elegant enough for guests.
8. Fabulous chocolate finale
When it comes to dessert, serve the ever-popular Flourless Chocolate Torte, similar to ones still gracing many local restaurant menus.
It's the ultimate jiffy dessert to toss together — with a little assist from the microwave (it bakes in 15 to 20 minutes). Gussy up with fresh raspberries and whipped cream or raspberry sauce.
9. Sinful brownies
Another dessert winner is homemade brownies with a rocky road-style topping. Using a microwave to melt the butter and chocolate, you can whip up these brownies almost as quickly as those from a package.
Also fabulous are fresh navel orange slices topped with luxurious homemade caramel sauce.
To make the sauce, in a medium saucepan combine 3/4 cup each packed brown sugar and heavy cream, and heat to boiling over high heat, whisking constantly. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, about 5 minutes, until slightly thickened.
Remove from heat and stir in 2 teaspoons butter and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Spoon over orange slices on individual dessert plates and serve immediately. Try the sauce over apple, peach or nectarine slices, too.