They may have more recipes or ideas to draw on when unexpected guests arrive, but professional cooks and caterers have no more time than the rest of us when it comes to whipping up quick nibbles or getting food on the table fast.
And the expectations of their guests are generally higher.
How do they do it? What do the pros keep in their kitchens for those inevitable emergencies?
For answers, we picked the brains of some food professionals.
Most times, they agreed, people are reluctant to just stop by, unannounced. Instead, they are more likely to give a warning -- no matter how brief -- that generally allows the cook time to run to the freezer or the local take-out, or draw from a quick-fix repertoire.
Marilyn Anthony, manager of TreeTops restaurant at the Rittenhouse in Philadelphia, offered some ideas on stocking up for last-minute nibblers.
When making pantry choices, Ms. Anthony suggests selecting one or two key ingredients -- such as frozen shrimp -- that can be combined with various staples to create completely different meals and tastes.
She favors shrimp for its color, versatility and long freezer life when bought frozen in 4-pound boxes. Defrost only the shrimp you need, as you need them, and they will be "fresher" than those sold thawed at the market. And they may cost less.
For fast meals, she says, a cook must rely on quick-cooking basics, prepared foods (some store-bought, some made ahead) and do-ahead frozen foods.
For easy hors d'oeuvres, Ms. Anthony suggests an antipasto platter of roasted peppers, olives, dry salami, prosciutto, sliced fennel, basil-flavored ricotta and good Italian breads, garlic bread sticks and red wine. Or arrange a Mediterranean plate with hummus, baba ghannouj, stuffed grape leaves, olives, feta, crisp cucumber spears and freshly toasted pita chips.
Fresh spring rolls provide a taste of Asia. For these she uses rice paper wrappers that rehydrate in seconds when dipped in water. Serve wrappers with a choice of fillings -- shredded lettuce, carrots, lightly pickled vegetables, chopped cooked shrimp, shredded cooked beef and a light sweet-sour sauce. Guests can fill and roll their own to eat out of hand. No cooking needed.
"It can turn into a festive party activity," said Ms. Anthony. "Just put together whatever is on hand."
Those Italian ingredients also come first in the home kitchen of Lynn Buono, chef-owner of Feast Your Eyes Catering and Miss Amelia's Bar-B-Que in Pennsylvania.
"Pasta, sun-dried tomatoes and dried mushrooms make up a really quick hot meal," said Ms. Buono. "And a good virgin olive oil is essential. You can make pasta with olive oil and garlic and whatever else you have on hand -- anchovies, capers, even a tomato that isn't fabulous can be chopped to make a fresh sauce.
"Usually," she added, "there is fruit salsa or chutney in my refrigerator to serve with cold or grilled meats. Leftover turkey is great this way.
"And I always have pickled herring in sour cream in the refrigerator."
Other quick snacks -- the open-and-eat type -- on which she depends are dried cherries, smoked almonds, a good snack mix and gourmet chips (potato, vegetable, nacho, your choice).
"Those are foods most folks take to quite easily," said Ms. Buono. "Plus, you can keep them almost forever without their spoiling."
She began putting out bowls of dried cherries and nuts, she said, when her 3-year-old daughter became too fond of candy.
She also keeps a container stocked with holiday cookies, and makes her own fruitcake using dried, not candied, fruits.
And she added, "No holiday home should be without a bottle of champagne, a tin of good caviar and a box of toasts or crackers."
Use this fruit salsa from Lynn Buono to complement cold meats and shrimp. It is, she said, "very forgiving" and adaptable to seasonal fruits.
Makes about three cups.
1 1/2 cups (12 ounces) jalapeno pepper jelly
1 ripe papaya, pitted, peeled and chopped (or 1 cup drained chopped pineapple)
1/4 cup chopped cranberries
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1/4 cup finely chopped red onion
1 tablespoon finely chopped red pepper
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint or 1 tablespoon dried mint
1 tablespoon lime juice
Melt pepper jelly in a saucepan over low heat. Remove from heat. Add papaya, cranberries, cilantro, red onion, red pepper, mint and lime juice. Let stand at least one hour to set. Keep refrigerated.
Marilyn Anthony shares the next recipes for easy entertaining.
Basil ricotta dip
Makes two cups.
1 pound ricotta cheese
1/2 bunch fresh basil, leaves only, minced, or 2 tablespoons basil pesto
juice of 1/2 lemon, about 1 tablespoon
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Combine ricotta, basil, lemon juice, salt and pepper; blend well. Serve as a dip with sliced fennel, carrot sticks, red pepper strips or endive. Or, spread on Tuscan bread or garlic bread sticks.
Makes 6 servings.
FOR THE SAUCE:
2 tablespoons fish sauce (nam pla)
1 teaspoon hot sauce or to taste, optional
2 teaspoons sugar