We’ve all been there: friends seem to appear at your doorstep at the last minute, they call that they just happen to be in the neighborhood and that they are now mere (!) blocks from your home, or you bump into a pal and you would just love to head back to your place to catch up over a cuppa or a glassa – but you’re unprepared.
It’s always a blessing and a curse when these last-minute get-togethers seem to appear out of thin air. I really do love having friends stop by – my apartment in midtown Manhattan always manages to become a last-minute crash pad, pit-stop, pre-interview prep space, and a community meeting ground for young artists and creative-types, where old and new friends stop by and want to stay for a while. And it has only been through good-old trial and error that I’ve learned to become prepared for last-minute guests.
At Praxis, we love our personal quick fixes and simple joys, and one of my greatest personal pleasures is taking great care of guests with minimal personal effort or expense on my part. And when this happens, I can honestly say that I hear the voice of Ina Garten in my head, saying: “How easy was that?”
I just love feeding, nurturing, and catching up with friends at my apartment – whether it is for a few hours or a few days. And it’s become a cinch for me. I’ve never really thought much about this inherent skill in my back pocket, but when I was asked to help a friend set up his new apartment a few weeks ago, I set up his pantry and living room in the ways that I have learned to prepare for my own guests and visitors. He was so surprised at how easily this came to me, and I realized how many of my regular fridge and pantry items were selected not for my own needs, but in preparation for my many (and well-loved) last-minute houseguests and friends. I now prepare for these visitors the way I would shop for another member of my household. And I love it. So, Praxis readers, here are a few tips from a well-oiled-machine-of-a-host. Check out these few additions to your pantry, your fridge, and your apartment that really can turn your next last-minute surprise into a breeze. And not rob the bank, either.
The food items that I keep on hand for guests are never quick-perishables. One really never knows when friends might pop by, so it’s important that any additional food I keep on hand does not rot or go bad quickly. It’s also not a particular love of mine to be the cook of great big meal at the last minute. I try to keep simple snacks with great flavor as my basics. If my guests are really starving, there’s always takeout (or seamlessweb.com if we’re really lazy or having a great time together).
Here’s what’s currently in my regular hosting toolkit:
For the Kitchen
When a guest arrives, I’ll usually throw together a few of these items, pairing savory with sweet flavors, crunchy with softer textures, and will often keep to a regional palatte (I’ll often stick to thinking Italian, French, Asian, or Mediterranean in flavor. I’ve included some basic pairings at the end of sections below).
- Parmesan Reggiano: Some might say that Parmesan, the great aged cheese of Italia, is a “perishable” item. But I keep a block of good Reggiano cheese in my fridge at all times, because a good block of Parm can be used so many ways, and it lasts for weeks in the fridge. For last-minute guests, it’s the ultimate flavor booster: I’ll grab a knife and sever-off some shards of fresh parm with cracked pepper. So simple – it’s also delicious with fruit, wine or basic crackers. I also like to pair this with a fig jam or with something savory like grocery-bar olives (see below).
- Grocery olive-bar selection: Easiest last-minute appetizer. Head to the olive section of your local market and grab the meatiest selection of olives that speaks to you. The combination of sizes, colors, and flavors is great to satisfy different guests and the container can last for weeks in your fridge. Just make sure your guest has his or her own plate for pits.
- Biscuits/Digestives: I’m not a huge cookie fan, especially because a good cookie is hard to find cheap and at-the-ready. I prefer a digestive or tea biscuit to pair with teas because they can last a long time in your pantry. I love the Kedem brand Vanilla tea biscuits. Literally 75 cents a package. Great with tea and some fruit. And so damn cheap. Pairs well with a quality preserve (I love Bonne Maman brand’s Raspberry Preserves) and dark chocolate (see below) and you’re good to go.
- Quality dark chocolate: This need not be expensive. So many rip-offs out there for crazy chocolate brands. I just head to Trader Joe’s, where three bars of Belgian dark chocolate costs a mere $1.79. I usually break apart a few pieces to have with tea and biscuits (or sometimes candied ginger and fresh orange slices) when friends stop by.
- Pumped-up roasted nuts: I like to keep any two of these store-bought or homemade treats at a time. Cashews, almonds, pecans, walnuts, peanuts, pistachios – once I bring them home from the grocery store, they go straight into airtight mason jars. I’ll throw in some interesting spices or dried herbs, like curry and cinnamon, or thyme and black pepper, or cumin and brown sugar. Shake and let them soak up that flavor as they wait for guests in your pantry. A note to readers: all nuts should be pre-shelled. Nothing worse than collecting pistachio shells around your floor after everyone leaves. No shells = less cleanup, less mess.
- Dried Fruits: Cranberries, figs, mango, apricot, apples, banana chips. Anything goes here. Store in airtight containers. Really airtight, though. Nothing worse than dried fruit that is actually cardboard. The classic pairing of nuts and dried fruit can ease the weary traveler and bring them back to life within minutes.
- Citrus: I keep a lemon or lime in the fridge at all times. To be paired with seltzer/mixer/vodka which is hiding in the freezer. Also, the zest goes a long way, folks! Zest over fresh ricotta with honey, zest into a drink with fresh mint, zest your way to happy guests and really deeply flavored foods.
- Tea: I keep my main stash of teas in the pantry, but keep a selection of my full collection available in a small basket in our living room for guests to pick their favorite teas. I like to have at least one black tea, green tea, a jasmine blend, and several herbal selections. Three brands we always have on hand are Celestial Seasonings brand Sleepytime & Tension Tamer teas, as well as Traditional Medicinals brand Throat Coat. Friends consume these like crazy. Don’t forget to have Honey, sugar, and some form of milk available if you do not regularly consume these products yourself.
- Hot cocoa: I hate hot cocoa but do often receive it as the gift of choice around the holidays. Friends love to consume these fancy freakishly sweet treats, and I am so happy they do.
- Bottled Mineral Water or Seltzer: I wait until Gristedes has them on sale (10 for $1, or sometimes will cave for 60 cents a pop). I stock up because it’s a great thing to have on hand for guests. I use seltzer as a mixer for friends who love alcohol, or I’ll serve with ice and a lemon wedge for a non-drinker, or for a dessert-loving guest, I will even pair a scoop of ice cream with seltzer for a classic soda-shop ice cream soda. *Note to readers: Always open the Seltzer bottle over the sink. Or you might just spray your guest.
- Wasabi Peas & Candied Ginger: I like to serve these two store-bought treats when I serve an Asian tea blend to a guest, such as a green tea, oolong, or jasmine. Friends love the sweet, spicy, salty combo of the two snacks with the floral notes of the tea.
- Fresh fruit: If you do not regularly keep fresh fruit on hand, START. Apples, grapes, pears, and oranges are my top selection here, as they make the transition from sweet to savory very well. Plus, other fruits won’t last as long in the fridge. A great mainstay in my fridge. For cheap fruit in New York, head to Stiles Farmer’s Market on 52nd Street or 40th Street – they sell apples, oranges, and grapes for $1 per pound. A great buy.
- Quality Prosciutto/Salami: Some might say that these items can cost a fortune, but I beg to differ. Build a relationship with your local butcher or if you live in Manhattan, find a Western Beef market or Trader Joe’s and start building these items into your repertoire. A domestic prosciutto can run for as little as $5.99 per pound at Western Beef Grocery & Market. Thank you to the Italians and the French for these delicious protein-rich treats with a long shelf life, and adding huge flavor boost to appetizers and snacks. Since it’s summer, possible seasonal pairings include fresh figs, melon slices, cold hothouse cucumber slices.
- Great mustard: I keep a honey mustard and whole-grain mustard (I like Maille brand) on hand in the fridge. Can turn an ordinary snack into a delicious one in seconds.
For the Living Room:
As I set up my friend’s new living room, I realized I had developed some handy personal tricks to keep my own friends feeling comfortable and at home in my apartment. Here are a few ideas to keep on hand:
- Spare set of keys: We keep a spare set of keys hidden in a decorative container in the living room. When a friend is visiting, I may or may not be able to meet them at all times, so we provide our guests with a spare set to give them ease of access. Don’t leave these out in view, you never want anyone visiting your place to know there is a spare set of keys lying around.
- Wireless password/important numbers: I hate running around trying to find the detailed wireless network information for my guests. So I ended up typing it up and putting it in a folder that lives on our coffee table. Now no more scrambling or confusion, and they can access the web if need be quickly and easily.
- Subway Map/City Moleskin: I realized that more often than not, friends were asking me about which subway to take or how close a certain location might be from my apartment. On my coffee table sits a “New York City” Moleskin brand notebook. Moleskin has released over 15 guides to cities around the globe, and within its sleek and small and container, it holds numerous city maps and guides. A great asset to help a traveler get their bearings in a new city. Moleskin also has released guides for all major US cities.
- Candy jar: We keep a small glass candy jar running at all times. Friends love to feel like kids again when they get to treat themselves to a jolly rancher, peppermint, or Andes mint, and often times returning guests bring us a bag of something sweet to help replenish the stash. Makes providing a host gift for us a breeze, and keeps guests feeling like kids again.
- The Art of the Coffee Table: Coffee table books and displays are not just there to show off your personal taste – they are a great way to spark conversation, help new acquaintances get to know you better and have something to DO if they are shy and not yet comfortable in your place, and this can be a great way to show off your latest favorite novel or film. Keep clutter to a minimum by choosing three or four great pieces to show off at any given time. If you live in the New York area, and you are in need of some great coffee table books or decorative items for display, head over to your nearest Housing Works (See locations at shop.housingworks.org) and get yourself some great coffee table books in subjects that interest you. You’ll pay less than 10 bucks for some instant culture and conversation boosters.
What are your personal tips and tricks for last-minute houseguests? How do you stay prepared for those surprise get-togethers? Share your tried and true ideas with Praxis readers below. We can’t wait to hear what you’ve got up your sleeves…
Post authored by Jacob Liberman