As a party planner, people expect you to be able to throw a fabulous soiree at a minute's notice—and I can—but not because I am a pro but because my pantry is well stocked. I have always had a knack for entertaining (hence the party planner profession) but as life got busier, it became more difficult to throw the impromptu party with panache. More than that, it was really hard to appear pleased rather than panic-stricken when friends rang my doorbell unexpectedly. The solution is, of course, preparation in advance.
Over the years I've developed a "party pantry": staples to always have on hand to unnerve last minute entertaining. Some of these items I try to keep in stock year-round, some are specific to winter warmings, but having any of them on hand will keep all your gatherings at a low-maintenance setting!
Tools to Have on Hand
1. Floral Knife
A good floral knife is an absolute necessity. You can't imagine how much easier flower arranging can be when you have a professional knife. Aside from your own displays, you'll have more flexibility in displaying the bouquets that guests hand you.
2. Cutting Boards
I also keep a collection of cutting boards in various sizes and shapes. I like to use them not only for kitchen work but also as informal serving platters for bread, cheese and charcuterie.
3. Panini Makers
For those of us with little time to either shop or plan, a sturdy panini maker is a gadget from the heavens! My friend makes the most amazing grilled cheese sandwiches with a chipotle on just a moments notice and it convinced me to buy one shortly thereafter. I've become a mad sandwich maker, pressing almost every foodstuff I come into with.
1. Vanilla Extract
Well, there are a few edible items I like to always have on hand and good vanilla is definitely one of them. I particularly like Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Extract from the . Used with a light touch, vanilla adds an elegance to almost anything you add it to, particularly wintry items like eggnog, hot chocolate, and hot apple cider.
In the shell they always look pretty heaped into a huge bowl. Walnuts also last a long time and impart a feeling of hominess. I have a few pretty antique nutcrackers that I put out with the bowl but for serious snacking, I have utiliatrian crackers ready and waiting in a drawer.
3. Bar Essentials
The bar is key. Aside from always having a bottle of champagne in the fridge (my personal weakness), I make sure to always have the bar basics on hand. The basic and essential inventory consists of: bottles of red and white wines, a bottle of vodka and for celebratory glitz—an assortment of high-quality bottled drink mixes.
4. Frozen Gourmet Hors d' Oeuvres
Finally, if you are going to "plan" for unplanned entertaining, a freezer full of tasty frozen hors d'oeuvres is a must. I rotate these every few months to keep them fresh, which means every so often we treat ourselves to a cocktail party for dinner. In addition I always have a good grainy mustard and a selection of hot sauces to serve with the appetizers.
5. Cookie Mixes
There are some new, additive-free and ever-delicious cookie mixes that I stock up on as well. The aroma of home baking, even when it's something simple, might have the unfortunate result of your friends dropping in unannounced more often.
When I was a kid, my mother always used fancy cocktail napkins when she entertained and to me, that's one of the items that suggest the difference between an evening spent in front of the TV and one that's special. I keep a drawer with both themed (such as winter or Christmas) and generic colorful napkins so we don't need to resort to placing rolls of paper towels around the living room.
Lastly, candles. If you have pets or kids around, LED votives are the way to go these days; I keep at least a dozen with frosted holders around.
Of course, dimming the lights, lighting candles and putting on music are the three magic touches. You will seem SO prepared; your friends will think you were just waiting around for them to arrive!