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Ready, Set, Celebrate

Stock up on these six ingredients for practically effortless entertaining—it’s the next best thing to having a caterer on call.

Maximizing the holiday season often requires being open to surprise opportunities. Maybe it will be the old friend who is back in town or the spontaneous night when family schedules are suddenly clear, but there will likely be a moment when you realize there’s time for a quick get together.

But what can you serve that’s worthy of such celebrations? Having your pantry and fridge stocked with the right special-occasion ingredients means you’ll always be well-prepared when guests drop by. Here are the must-have secret ingredients you need. 

Pesto. Drawn from the Italian word pestare, which means “to crush,” pesto is a flavorful sauce that can be a game changer when added to a quick frittata, used as a topping for crostini, or whirled into a soup for a bright pop of herbal flavor. Traditionally made from basil leaves, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic, and Parmesan, you can also find sun-dried tomato pesto works nicely, too. 

Phyllo Cups. These frozen mini pastry cups are so versatile you may find good uses for them year-round when you need an easy finger food. They can be a true lifesaver for holiday entertaining because they’re the perfect complement to both sweet or savory fillings and can be made easily in small or large batches. Fill them with a small piece of brie before baking and top with fig jam for an elegant appetizer, or pimento cheese and pepper jelly if you need to feed a crowd. They don’t need to be baked (they’ll thaw at room temperature in about 10 minutes) and are the perfect way to present chocolate mousse or whipped ricotta topped with a small piece of fruit. 

Marinated Artichokes. Buy a large jar of marinated artichokes (often available at a great discount in warehouse stores around the holidays) and it can sit in the back of your fridge for a month to help you through the season. Packed with flavor, artichokes are a delicious addition to any charcuterie spread. They also add a nice toothsome pop of flavor to pasta dishes (especially convenient if you are cooking for vegetarians) or loaded into a creamy baked spinach dip suitable for serving with chips, toasted bread, or fresh vegetables. 

Candied Walnuts. You can buy sweetened nuts ready to serve right out of the bag, but it’s easy (and a bit more affordable) to make a batch on your own in about 10 minutes. Combine 2 cups of walnut pieces with 1½ tablespoons of unsalted butter and 1/3 cup sugar in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Stir constantly for about 5 minutes until the nuts are glazed and fragrant. Transfer the nuts to a plate lined with parchment paper and separate them so they don’t stick together. When cool, these lightly sweetened nuts are an excellent way to dress up salads, incorporate into a cheese plate, or add a signature topping to dessert. Store in an airtight container up to a week. 

Frozen Cookie Dough. If you are concerned about having too many sweets sitting around during the holidays, keep some ready-to-bake cookies in the freezer instead. Just pop them in the oven to bake the perfect amount for your guests and fill your house with cozy scents. To freeze your favorite cookie dough on your own, shape into desired form and freeze on a baking sheet until solid before transferring them to a freezer bag for long-term storage. Unless you thaw first, remember to add a few minutes to your usual baking time. 

Frozen Shrimp. You can quickly thaw shrimp in less than 30 minutes, making this popular seafood a great secret ingredient for holiday meals. It works well in a wide variety of cuisines as either an appetizer or main course. For best results, transfer the desired amount to a resealable plastic bag and submerge in a bowl of cold water. Pat dry before cooking.

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