How to Make Your Kitchen Perennially Party-Ready

Merrily tells you how to supply your kitchen, be it humble or grand, for easy, last-minute entertaining .

Merrily Jackson. Photo by Corie English

The kitchen of my dreams has not one but two islands (such as the Hamptons beach house in Something’s Gotta Give), acres of gleaming Carrara marble countertops, sinks inside of sinks, a six-burner Dacor range, and an icemaker that makes ice like the ice you get at Farina. 

The kitchen of my reality, a modestly sized South Hyde Park eat-in, has none of these extravagances; you don’t really need them for people to have a good time at your house. 

Far more important—in addition to a good sound system, picturesque lighting, and premium hooch—is a sunny attitude and a well-stocked kitchen. In fact, with the right supplies on hand, you can have people over at the drop of a cocktail napkin. Here are some suggestions for what to keep in your cupboard, freezer, and fridge to have a party-ready kitchen.

Nice Noshes for Cocktails
Here’s a cocktail snack your foodie friends will never turn down: microwave popcorn, fresh out of the oven. Popping it makes the house smell good, and it tastes equally delicious with cocktails, wine (especially Sancerre), and soft drinks. And it’s nonperishable, so you can always have a stash of it. Black Jewell is my favorite brand; I zhuzh it up with Cajun spices (pulverized in my spice grinder to make them adhere better to the popcorn), freshly grated Parmesan cheese, truffle salt, or chopped, fresh rosemary and thyme. 

Hard cheese, while certainly perishable, if wrapped properly lasts in the fridge for close to a month after it’s open, so it’s easy to keep a supply on hand. I love serving hard cheese like extra-aged gouda with warm slices of crusty baguette—it tastes so much better than cheese served on crackers. You always can have fresh baguettes on hand if, the minute you get them home from the market, you chop them in half vertically, wrap them in foil, and stow them in the freezer. To serve a frozen baguette, warm it in a 350-degree oven for about ten minutes, after passing it quickly under the tap with the water running.

 Other crowd-pleasers to keep in your party pantry: oil-cured olives, cheese straws, smoked almonds, honey-roasted peanuts, Cape Cod Kettle Chips, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, and my personal fave, Jalapeño-Cheddar Cheetos. The latter three possess no nutritional value whatsoever and are highly addictive. Serve them in your fanciest little serving bowls.

Stay for Dinner, Darling!
In my cupboard, you will always find a couple of pounds of rigatoni or penne pasta and several jars of Lidia’s Marinara sauce, delicious on its own and even better if you doctor it up with any of the following in any combination: heavy cream; imported capers; roasted red peppers; vodka or red wine (reduce these down a little); or mushrooms, pancetta, or Italian sausage. 

Don’t judge me, reader, but I prefer canned clams to fresh. For years I’ve used an adaptation of a recipe from Bumble Bee brand clams for linguine in clam sauce. You toss canned clams in a pan with bottled clam juice, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. Since it requires only items from the cupboard, it’s a good dinner to serve when you have no fresh produce on hand. Email me and I’ll send you the recipe.

I also recommend keeping a whole chicken in your freezer. There is nothing like roast chicken. It’s the perfect dish, no matter what the circumstances. It can be elegant or homey, a dish for a dinner party or a family supper. You can thaw a frozen chicken in a couple of hours by unwrapping it, dropping it in a pan and covering it with cold water. Stuff the bird with a couple of garlic cloves and half a lemon; season the skin with paprika, salt and pepper. Roast it at 325 degrees for about 90 minutes, basting it whenever you think about it. When the leg bone wiggles and the skin is brown, it’s time to eat.

Improvised Desserts
Once, decades ago, before everyone had four-wheel drive, my two college roommates and I were snowed in, confined to our crudely equipped off-campus apartment. From ingredients on hand, my roomie Janey made dessert: a cobbler of Bisquick and store-bought frozen blackberries. It was utterly delicious. In fact, it is the dessert against which I have since privately measured all other desserts. I’ve never been able to recreate that cobbler moment, but the experience taught me that with a box of Bisquick, some frozen fruit, and sugar, I’ve always got the ingredients for a tasty, homemade dessert. 

I also try to keep a box of Belgian chocolates in the freezer, hidden from my husband who can’t leave them alone. Boxed chocolates, plated on a pretty serving dish and plopped down at the center of the table, make a nice finish to a very casual dinner with friends. As do scoops of Ben & Jerry’s Triple Caramel Chunk, drizzled with amaretto. Or Haagen-Dazs raspberry sorbet, splashed with limoncello. Or, for purists, plain vanilla ice cream, smothered with warm American Spoon hot fudge sauce and some crispy almond biscotti on the side.

A doctored-up brownie mix is another easy, straight-from-the cupboard dessert solution. Any brownie mix can be vastly improved by adding a teaspoon of vanilla extract and a tablespoon of instant coffee to the batter. You also can stir in chocolate chips, chopped macadamia nuts or chopped candy bar of your choice. The best made-from-scratch brownies in the world are Outrageous Brownies from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. Next time you’re in the mood to bake, make a batch of them and freeze them for unplanned gatherings chez vous.

Dressing Up Your Kitchen for Company
While we’re on the subject of kitchens, here are a few tips for dolling up yours before a party. If, like me, you tend to accumulate clutter on your kitchen countertops, clear that stuff off. Put away anything that isn’t pretty—you’ll feel better. 

Bring in some fresh flowers (hydrangeas or tulips are always pretty in a kitchen) or a small potted plant—an herb or a simple pot of ivy works well. A living thing animates the space and brings instant cheer to the room. 

Place a bowl of fruit somewhere, to add a shot of color. Lemon and limes are always right, as are Granny Smith apples.

Once your guests arrive, relax and know that people feel privileged to be invited into your home. Remember, if it’s perfect, everyone will hate you. And don’t forget the music! 


Marvelous Yet Decently Priced Wines for Company

While you’re stocking up your pantry, lay in a supply of wines for entertaining. Here’s a list of terrific wines; almost all are under $15—they are available at select Ball’s Price Choppers.

Red

  • Old Soul 2020 
  • Josh Cellars 
  • Francis Coppola 

White 

  • Phantom Chardonnay 
  • Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 
  • Kung Fu Girl Riesling 

Rosé

  • La Vielle Ferme 
  • Noble Vines 
  • Erath Oregon 

Prosecco 

  • Mionetto Prosecco 
  • Lamarca Prosecco 

Email me with your entertaining questions, dilemmas, or triumphs at mjackson@inkansascity.com

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