There are lots of cooks who will tell you that entertaining is very simple if you do a lot of planning and ahead-of-time preparation, but I also think that it is pretty simple in this day and age to pull together a last-minute gathering where people are satisfied and impressed. I think it all comes down to making a little effort look like a lot.
One of the first tricks I can tell you is to always have a few items on hand to throw together for appetizers – your friends or family will be much more at ease if they have something to nosh on while you are getting a main meal together. Most of these items are in my pantry/fridge because of the inspiration of our lovely friends Larry and Suzie, who are the most gracious hosts.
– Lupini beans (which come in a jar, usually in the Italian section or somewhere near the pickles): salty, firm-fleshed beans that look a little like large lima beans. The skins are inedible, so have a small dish available to your guests for discards (along with olive pits)
– Giardiniera (also in a jar, in the same sections): pickled carrots, cauliflower, celery, pepperoncini, and red bell pepper strips. They are vinegary, and sometimes spicy hot. If you find them with a strong yellow tint, I think they have tumeric in them. The best brands will have vegetables that retain their crunch.
– Assorted olives: throw them into a bowl and everyone is happy (at least those who like olives)
– Goldfish crackers: people secretly relish these little guys, and they lend a little whimsy. I particularly like the parmesan variety.
– Assorted cheese and crackers: I always try to have at least two kinds of cheese on hand, with enough variety between them to keep it interesting. For instance, a nice, creamy Port Salut and a firm, sharp Cheddar are good contrasts, as are Gouda and Roquefort, or Brie and Dill Havarti (a favorite of mine). Small boxes of crackers (like Carr’s) may be a little more expensive, but I find that they go faster and therefore, don’t have a chance to get stale. If you are like me, you hate throwing out uneaten food for any reason, especially just because of staleness.
You can always have more substantial things on hand, as well, but I don’t think that they are really necessary. That said, a bag of frozen, cooked shrimp is good to have around – just thaw them out and most people without shellfish allergies will scarf them down with vast appreciation. Don’t bother buying bottled cocktail sauce, though, as it is so easy to make with ingredients you should already have on hand. All you need is a little ketchup, prepared horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce (optional), salt, and black pepper; just start with about a third cup of ketchup as a base and add the other ingredients in small increments to your own taste.
Regarding main dishes, I think it is important for every cook to have at least three dishes they know how to cook well without using a recipe. For me, these dishes are usually one-dish meals that I serve with a salad on the side. In our low-carb era, I think people appreciate an excuse to eat pasta, so practice at making at least one good pasta sauce; puttanesca, bolognese, arrabiata, and alfredo are all good choices, and feel free to personalize it to make it memorable to your guests. To round out your meals, make sure you have a good entree salad down pat for the warmer months (a side salad is not needed in this case, obviously), and one good meat-heavy meal, be it roast chicken and roasted vegetables, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, or pork tenderloin and creamy polenta. From there, you can expand to more healthful and flexible options for your veggie friends and those who don’t eat eat red meat.
Part of the fun of this process is discovering what you are good at and what you hate; I, for one, really hate baking pastries and pies, but I love oven-cooked meals (so easy). Decide on a few trial recipes, enlist the help of two or three close, honest friends and let the tasting begin! Trust your instincts as much as possible. When you are out to eat, pay attention to flavors you like and dislike. Chances are, you’ll find out that some of your favorite foods are easier to prepare than you might initially think.