Marinated or pickled vegetables, preserved in a jar, are a party pantry staple. Serve a spread of different vegetables, like marinated artichokes, mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, pickled green beans, and roasted red peppers together on a platter with toothpicks for a vibrant (and healthier) alternative to the traditional cheese plate. (They also come in handy if you want to dress up a plain-Jane dip or hummus.)
Like marinated vegetables, a spread of different kinds of olives, like Nicoise, Castelvetrano, and Kalamata, is a quick and easy snack that hosts can put together in minutes and pair with other finger foods like cocktail nuts. Not sure what you like? Opt for a mixture, or create your own custom olive mix, combining olives of different colors and sizes together, maybe with a twist of orange or lemon zest for brightness. Clodagh McKenna will even make her own tapenade by blending together pitted olives, olive oil, and some peeled garlic.
They are a cocktail-hour classic and an essential item for every host to have, whether you’re a Virginia peanuts or honey-roasted cashews person. I prefer the Whole Foods 365 or Planters brand salted mixed nuts — studded with hazelnuts, pecans, and Brazil nuts — as I can serve them alone, warmed up with some sugar and spice, or candied with some herbs for something unusual. Trader Joe’s is also a great resource for high-quality nuts that are easy on the wallet, too.
Most everyone has a jar of raspberry, grape, or strawberry jelly or jam in their fridge, a mealtime staple for making the classic PB & J sandwich. But a good jam, be it savory or sweet, multitasks well for cocktail hour. Cheese straws are the perfect match for savory-sweet tomato jam. Gussy up cream cheese with a dollop of hot pepper jelly (like this one from Stonewall Kitchen) or a smoky onion jam from Blackberry Farm, for a quick and easy app your guests will love. Or go fancy and pick up puff pastry and a wheel of brie for a decadent appetizer perfect for the holidays.
These are any smart host’s best friend when it comes to a last-minute hors d’oeuvre that looks good and tastes good, too. All you need to go along with that rich, green basil pesto; chunky tomato bruschetta topping; or salty olive tapenade is your favorite cracker, flatbread, even Melba toast. This year, we’re particularly enamored with the Lucchi & Guastalli Genovese pesto in the Regional Italian Piatti gift box from Eataly in New York City. (Get the whole thing — it doesn't hurt to have some high-quality pasta and sauce on hand in your pantry, too.)
Sure, chips and salsa are a party staple, a default item that hosts might first think of when stocking up for guests. We don’t disagree. Stick with the basics, like plain old corn chips and tomato salsa. This one from Tito’s is made with care in Rhode Island using 100 percent natural ingredients, and is pretty darn good. Or think outside of the box, maybe pairing blue corn chips with a peach-mango salsa from Trader Joe's.
Just because your mother or grandmother relied on these for everything from soup to roasting chickens, doesn't mean those packets of herb dip mix are bad to have on hand. We love the products from The Spice House, like this herby dill mix. With a cup of sour cream, maybe a dollop of mayo, and a bag of baby carrots, you’ve got yourself something that even the pickiest of guests can’t say no to. Or go exotic, and combine The Spice House's za'atar with olive oil for a dipper for bread.
Crackers might be a pantry basic, but celebrity caterer-to-the-stars Lulu Powers is never without a bag or two of potato chips. The crisp and crunchy snack-time favorite has a universal appeal, and a bag or two is easy on the wallet. Move over Cape Cod Potato Chips, we’ve got a new favorite: Trader Joe’s wavy chips. They have a bit of heft, unlike those paper-thin Lay’s, and a satisfying crunch.
The sky is the limit here. Pick up all your favorites, from Triscuits to Ritz, Stoned Wheat Thins to Carr’s wheat meal crackers. Or go fancy, with cheese straws, olive-oil toasts, or a perennial favorite in my house, Lesley Stowe’s raincoast crisps — thin slices of nut- and fruit-studded breads that are baked to a crisp.
To appease meat eaters, it doesn’t hurt to have a stash of salamis of all kinds on hand. Slice them up and then serve with a variety of mustards and cornichons for a real European-style treat. We love Creminelli's Barolo and Tartufo salamis, made just like they do in Italy, but here stateside in Utah.
Along with nuts, dried fruits like apricots, dates, and even cranberries are great to have on hand, and those from Bella Viva are of outstanding quality. Choose your favorite for a sweet garnish for cheeses, to use in lieu of a cracker, or as a vehicle for bacon. And everything is better with bacon.
While it might be cheaper to begin from scratch or opt for store-bought when making a bean dip, there is great utilitarian value in a can of black beans or chickpeas, even pinto beans, if you want to tempt guests with a (semi-) homemade rich and creamy dip or spread. It's easy, says Clodagh McKenna. All you need is a food processor, some garlic, maybe a flavoring like roasted red peppers, seasoning… and the beans, of course.
Need we really need to explain why it doesn’t hurt to have chocolate on hand? Who can say no when a box of nice truffles from Recchiuti Confections comes out, or a piece of Godiva is offered with their afternoon tea or coffee? Mindy Fox makes dessert by pulling out a hunk of chocolate, like Callebaut, after dinner to pair along with dried fruits and shell-on walnuts, for a sweet treat where guests do all the work.
Even if you love chocolate, you never know when a box of shortbread cookies, biscotti, or even a packaged chocolate chip cookie will come in handy. Serve cookies along with tea or coffee in the afternoon. Ruined the dessert? Pull out the biscotti and serve with a sweet dessert wine (these harlequin-dipped hazelnut biscotti from Aldo's are not to be missed). Cookies just might also come in handy if you ever forget to get graham crackers for the cheesecake crust…