With the year’s ultimate entertaining season in full swing, you can avoid being a harried host and be ready for whatever hungry surprise guests the holidays may throw your way with a slew of crowd-pleasing, lip-smacking foods that you can throw together at the last minute.

Keeping a few of these delicious starters on hand, you’ll be able to keep calm and merry on (having a bottle of champagne in the fridge doesn’t hurt, either) with some tasty store-bought morsels that can quickly go from the package to a pretty plate. Armed with these secret weapons, bring on the drop-ins! You’ll be company-ready when the doorbell rings.

Here are some of my favorite ways to get the party started:

1. Melted Brie on Apple Wedges with Rosemary: Slice 2 large apples (red and green, like Granny Smith or Fuji are especially festive) into ½-inch slices. Dice up a large round of Brie with the rind trimmed or removed, if preferred. Place the apple slices in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper; top each with a slice of cheese. Scatter over some chopped rosemary, season with a little kosher salt and broil until the cheese is melted and bubbly. Transfer to a platter and serve.

2. Keep slices of baguette in the freezer for bruschetta. Thaw and toast the slices until golden. Top with your favorite spread – like pesto, tapenade or chopped roasted red peppers and Gorgonzola.

3. To make store-bought tortilla chips taste almost homemade, warm them on a rimmed baking sheet in a 350 degree oven for a few minutes. Squeeze a little fresh lime juice over them, place in a bowl and serve with salsa or guacamole.


4. You can never, ever go wrong with an antipasti board: prosciutto-wrapped breadsticks, salami, olives and hunks of Parmesan cheese.

5. Put out a big, wooden bowl of pistachios in their shells and watch them disappear. Make sure you have another bowl for the discarded shells.

6. Dress up popped popcorn. Combine 2 tablespoons of sugar with 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon and 1 teaspoon chili powder in a small bowl. Melt 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter. Drizzle the popcorn with the melted butter and sprinkle over the sugar mixture. Season with some kosher salt and toss well to coat.

7. Serve a bowl of bocconcini (small balls of mozzarella) bathed in extra-virgin olive oil, crushed red pepper flakes, lemon zest and chopped fresh basil. Good, crusty bread on the side to sop up all those lovely juices.

8. Roasted Shrimp Cocktail is elegant and always a welcomed nibble. Keep a stash of frozen shrimp on hand. Thaw under cold running water. Place the shrimp on a rimmed baking sheet, toss with extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper and roast in a 400 degree oven until cooked through, about 8 to 10 minutes. Serve with quality cocktail and tartar sauce (preferably made without high fructose corn syrup) and some toasted breadcrumbs. Let your guests first dip in a sauce, then into the breadcrumbs for a delightful, crunchy bite.

9. Serve good goat cheese on crackers topped with hot pepper jelly and a snip or two of chives.

10. Feta cheese and honey are flavors made for each other. Warm some honey in a small saucepan. Unwrap the feta and pat dry. Season with a little salt and pepper and drizzle over the warmed honey. Serve with some toasted pita wedges.

The Secret Ingredient: Remember, presentation is crucial. Try different vessels, like old wooden cutting boards and martini glasses, for a unique and fun way to serve your food.

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