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You’re Just in Time for Dinner!

Unexpected guests at mealtime? Not a problem

By Laura Leon

It was one of our first dinner parties. As a young couple, the excitement of opening our home to friends and loved ones, combining our mutual love of cooking and entertaining, was palpable. Everything in our little apartment was tidy and bathed in candlelight. The table linens, in richly colored checks, that my mother had bought me for Christmas, provided a festive, almost Scottish note to the wintry night, underlining the cozy warmth experienced by guests, red nosed and teary-eyed from the weather outside, as they climbed the stairs to our humble abode to share a feast of the senses.

And then, disaster.

We had carefully planned the menu, keeping in mind things like seasonal ingredients and how the menu—developed over several weeks and consultations with dog-eared Silver Palate cookbooks and Gourmet magazines—would look in a menagerie of funky china and stoneware. The main event was to feature small but festive Cornish game hens, glistening under a golden crusty skin, and redolent with sage, alongside a nutty pilaf and ruby-jewel-toned beets. Ten game hens. Ten guests. But wait—horrors!—a dear friend, invited solo, quite unexpectedly brought along an old acquaintance, who was visiting and otherwise had no place to go. Ten game hens, eleven guests, and two hosts momentarily flummoxed. In case you’ve never seen one, a game hen is a twee birdie that (I can say now, from a distance) looks pretty but provides scanty meat, and therefore is mighty difficult to multiply.

Suffice it to say, we subtly split one of the hens into two, which we served to ourselves after conniving, sotto voce, to give our friend and her buddy the minimal servings. We just arranged the dishes in such a way that nobody was the wiser that we had much smaller servings of the main dish. This is the sensible, indeed, the only way to go, short of trying to convince those who know you and have seen you devour just about everything, that you don’t particularly care for what you’ve made a point of serving to the rest of them, or that you’ve developed a late-onset allergy. The only other thing to do is to simply clarify, at the point of invitation, whether extra guests are welcome.

Still, there are those occasions, other than dinner parties, where folks just pop in unexpectedly, and you’re in a bind as to what to serve them. This happened to me recently, as an old friend and former babysitter dropped in from, I kid you not, Alaska, along with an Albany beau. On a hot late Sunday afternoon. When, because of a hectic schedule, I was planning on putting together a Mexican-inspired antipasto utilizing odds and ends like a third of a bag of frozen shrimp, 2 ounces of salmon, three ripe avocadoes, and a dented can of hearts of palm. These are the times when having a well-stocked pantry of all sorts of canned beans and pastas and rices is like manna from heaven, and to these I turned, augmenting the meager store of jerk seafood with good quality Mediterranean tuna, a salad of chickpeas flavored with peppers, cilantro and chopped tomato, and a spur-of-the-moment rice salad. The avocados, transformed into creamy guacamole, shared with chips and carrot sticks, was a feast onto itself, and the surprise hit of the evening were the hearts of palm, to which I had added some odds and ends from the fridge: a smidgen of chopped red onion, the good half of a days old cuke, cubed, and some cilantro and olive oil.

It’s always handy to have, in addition to those beans and such, a few jars of things like relishes, preserved fruits and vegetables, chutneys, roasted peppers and marinated artichokes. I like, too, to have an assortment of olives, either jarred or, preferably, bought in bulk and stored in the fridge. Crackers or breadsticks are an easy go-to, but only if your family remembers to seal their respective boxes between midnight noshes. While it’s not a “dinner” per se, one can easily and very satisfactorily sate out-of-the-blue guests with a pretty platter of such staples, augmented by a bunch of fresh greens or herbs, if you have them, or a sprinkling of good-quality nuts or almonds. Another staple worth keeping on hand is tortillas—easy to cut into pieces, drizzle with oil and maybe garlic or salt, and quick-roast in the oven. This is good on its own, with a glass of your favorite beverage, but also makes a great raft for whatever dips or salsas you have in the house.

Cheese (like bacon) makes everything better, and what better way to use up all those odds and ends in your kitchen but by cutting them into manageable slivers. Served on their own, they’d look rather sad, not to mention the fact that your husband will cut a ridiculously large slab off the already paltry portion, further exposing the fact that you’re just not prepared. Or, worse, that all you think your impromptu guests are worthy of is weeks-old, refrigerated cheese . . .

In colder weather, it’s really easy to whip up a hearty soup in relatively short time. I know, soup is so much better when you’ve carefully sautéed and built your flavorings, but we’re talking party in a pinch. You can make a really acceptable tomato soup with onions, canned diced or crushed tomatoes, red wine, broth (or water) and some seasonings. It’s also relatively simple to concoct a minestrone style soup, using whatever you’ve got lying around in your fridge or pantry, and incidentally, using up a scrap of good hard cheese. The nice thing about this type of quick thinking is that you can put these meals together while chatting with friends, and you don’t leave the impression that you’re working your butt off just to feed their gate-crashing selves. And people always love a good cup of hot soup.

Another easy way to feed unexpected guests is to do breakfast, for dinner. The only catch here is that too many people are scared by the prospect of serving eggs, especially to more than just one or two diners. Figure out what your comfort level is, and then work with that and, as always, whatever you’ve got. Omelets can be really fun, and nobody expects them all to be served at the exact same instant. Simply sort out your filling ingredients in little dishes and cups, and place them on a larger tray. (This brings me to the point about having on hand an assortment of odd bits of china, pottery, basketry, etc. By placing smidgeons of ingredients in, say, a small rustic Mexican dish, and combining that with a few others in such small containers, you add interest and charm, and remove the thought that one’s staring at a bare smidgeon of ingredient.) Pancakes are frightfully easy to whip up. Even easier is something that strikes at some hidden chord within us all: toast with melted butter, or if you’re lucky, any other sort of treat like pate, cheese, jam or cold meatloaf.

All things being equal, the main point about dealing with unexpected guests isn’t so much about what’s in your pantry, but how you greet their presence, and the welcome you provide them. We live in a world of texts and IMs, where contact is made in a blast announcement on Facebook, a quick e-mail from work, or, possibly, a voice-mail message. To a large extent, we’ve lost the art of dropping in and visiting, at least in part because that takes communication skills and time. For me, for so many occasions and reasons, food is the great communicator, that little something that links us to each other, and perhaps to other times and memories. When somebody has made the point of stopping by to say hello, that’s a special gift. What better way to appreciate that gift, that moment, than offering a little something, however humble, to share. To my mind, it’s that, not the whole opposable-thumb thing, that distinguishes us from the animals.

One of the most gratifying, if humble, moments that I’ve encountered came when a dear friend stopped by unexpectedly at dinner time. I was home alone with three very small children, and my meal plan had been warmed-up leftovers. I ended up turning the previous night’s leftover veggies into a rustic gratin with cheese and eggs, and supplementing the meal with a simple salad of whatever greens and herbs I had in the kitchen and garden, along with a crust of good-quality bread. It was simple and homey and seat-of-my-pants, but when it was over, my friend, with real feelings, pronounced it the best meal he had ever had. Like the food critic Anton Ego in Ratatouille, he savored the simple goodness of home cooking, however meager the ingredients or humble the source. “Perspective,” says Ego. “Tell the chef I want a little perspective.” This is what all should remember when dealing with the challenge of uninvited guests arriving at mealtime.

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TABLE SCRAPS

The Mill on Round Lake (2121 Route 9, Round Lake) has unveiled its newly renovated outdoor bar and fire pit, and if that’s not enough to persuade you to spend some al fresco hours here, there’s also a new bocce ball court. The indoor portion also has seen improvement, with the addition of another dining room, fireplace, more restrooms, and an expanded warm-weather menu soon to come. Call 899-5253 for more info. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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