You're not really thinking of throwing some big holiday parties this year, are you? No, of course not. However, it's likely that you may be stopping by friends' and families' houses, and maybe expecting some folks and kin yourself, for low-key, safe-distance entertaining.
What to serve? If you're thinking of serving such things as hummus, guacamole and chips, spiced nuts, or shrimp cocktail, think again. Picture all the grubby little hands dipping into the same bowls all evening. If you plan to serve such interactive communal foods, please provide little plates and utensils. If you're sure of everyone's health and stamina, then, by all means, let Uncle Chester double-dip his shrimp tail into that spicy cocktail sauce!
Some good items to have on hand for spontaneous entertaining can range from the budget-conscious (popcorn, chips, dips), to the extravagant: fancy nuts like cashews and macadamias, caviar, exotic cheeses. If you like shortcuts, go ahead and get that commercial brand of hummus, but please doctor it up with some fresh garlic, lemon juice, and a sprinkle of cumin.
Have a jar of olives? Discard the liquid or oil from the jar and add the juice and rinds of a lemon and an orange, some fennel seeds, and a few slivers of garlic. If you have popcorn in the house, doll it up with some Old Bay seasoning sprinkled on top. Large flour tortillas spread with a thin layer of cream cheese, a smattering of diced pickled chiles, rolled, chilled, and then sliced into pinwheels make an addictive appetizer.
My mother's best friend Fanny was an artist and a serious gourmet cook. She always kept a tin of homemade Melba toasts in her freezer to serve with jarred taramasalata that she had enhanced with a few drops of onion and lemon juice. To make her toasts, cut the crusts off slices of Pepperidge Farm Very Thin bread, quarter them, brush with melted butter, and bake until golden. These last forever, and are also delicious with a little jar of caviar!
Some other good things to have on hand in the freezer are pre-made spanakopita, and little puff pastry shells that you can fill with caramelized onions and blue cheese or creamed spinach or crab dip. Miniature cheese and country ham biscuits from Callie's of Charleston are always a big hit. (Good to have for holiday breakfasts, too.) I have even served Tyson's Buffalo-style hot wings many times without shame; there is always one guest standing in the corner by the wings, looking very greasy and grateful at the same time.
From the cupboard, it is always good to have a variety of crackers, chips, and nuts on hand. In the refrigerator, have a variety of cheeses that have a long shelf life, such as the vacuum-sealed goat cheeses you see at every grocery store. Serve this with lots of chopped garlic, fresh thyme leaves, and a drizzle of olive oil.
Another option is to buy your party foods from restaurants and takeout shops. Keep a soup from the Wainscott Seafood Shop in your freezer. Get a platter of sliced-up dosas and uttapams with chutneys from Hampton Chutney Company. Some barbecue and quesadillas from Smokin' Wolf, Townline BBQ, or La Fondita are always a hit. Keep in mind as well that a lot of these holiday foodstuffs are also good as gifts, such as spiced nuts, homemade Melba toasts, marinated olives, and certain cheeses.
For the sake of safe socializing, I would highly recommend you use small plates and cups and have utensils for everything. I have been experimenting with a variety of compostable, biodegradable items, and have come to the conclusion that either paper (reed and pulp) or bamboo is best. The palm leaf kind are unpleasantly splintery and flimsy. If you want to go all fancy, there's a Japanese brand called Wasara that makes beautiful plates, bowls, etc., from bamboo and sugarcane byproducts. Or, you could just pull out the fancy family china and be prepared to wash dishes!
Lastly, for entertaining, it's always nice to have a sweet on the table, such as homemade peppermint bark, a simple cake, little squares of shortbread (Kathleen King's recipe is the best), brownies, and some fruit.
Keep your freezers, fridges, and larders stocked and ready for the holiday season, and you'll be prepared for any and all occasions. Stay healthy, stay safe, and a cautious cheers to all!