Can I Bring Anything?

Illustration by Brian Justice
Illustration by Brian Justice

So often it’s an empty-sounding question. In support of great dinner parties everywhere, our ace of entertaining shares “best practices” for bringing it, baby

reader emailed me an anecdote that might strike a familiar note with you. She was hosting Christmas dinner for her husband’s side of the family. Her sister-in-law had volunteered to bring the mashed potatoes. “Twenty minutes after the dinner was scheduled to begin,” writes the reader, “she waltzed in with a five-pound-bag of raw, unpeeled potatoes and an empty pot.”

Talk about harshing your hostess mellow. Haven’t we all had That Guest? Decades ago I tasked a friend with bringing bowls of chopped tomatoes and shredded lettuce for Taco Night a mi casa. Perhaps she resented the assignment because she came with a couple of whole tomatoes and a lettuce head, unapologetically dropped them on the kitchen counter, and wandered off to join the party. Petty of me, but I’ve never forgotten it. Herewith, some gentle guidance for not being That Guest.

Offer something specific

In my early years of dinner-hosting, I insisted on making everything myself. These days, I love to collaborate. When someone asks “can I bring anything?” I usually take them up on it, especially if that someone is a passionate cook who volunteers something specific. “I’ve been making this asparagus dish with pancetta and leeks,” one might hazard. “I’d love to bring it if that will work well with your menu.”

Maybe you and your tribe hold to a different doctrine as regards guests bringing menu items to your dinner parties. Maybe you have the time and energy to do it all yourself and even take a nap in the afternoon. Maybe you have budget to call in a catering SWAT team to manage everything. But it certainly never hurts to offer to bring something and to show you mean business by proposing a particular thing. If you’re not a cook—and many great guests are not —you could say “there’s this fabulous bakery by my house. Could you pick up some bread or a dessert?” Such pre-party exchanges are much easier now that everybody texts and emails.

Mess up your own kitchen

If you do cook something, prepare everything, and I mean everything, at home. If you are going to create chaos, darling, do so in your kitchen, not your host’s where, at party time, every inch of counter space is precious. Choose a dish that can be served at room temperature. Avoid piping hot or icy cold, unless you are certain there is oven and fridge space. Emile Henry produces beautiful oven-to-table baking dishes (available at Pryde’s Kitchen and Home) that make anything you put it in them look important. They ain’t cheap but they bake evenly, don’t chip or crack, and clean up beautifully.

If you are bringing something store bought (no crime in that), put it on a pretty platter or bowl and, for extra points, drop a garnish on it.

Have shaker, will travel

Here’s an idea that will be zealously received by all concerned: volunteer to bring a pre-dinner cocktail—something that doesn’t have a zillion ingredients—then own the job of mixing it and serving it to guests. The negroni is hot right now, as are the Moscow mule and the gimlet. I would never turn down a champagne cocktail or a homemade whiskey sour. (I have recipes for these drinks. All have only three ingredients. Just e-mail me.) You’ll want to confer with the host about proper glassware for your chosen drink. Know that you will incur the wrath of everyone if you show up late for a party where you are bringing the aperitif.

Dip this, honey

Punctuality is also important for them what brings the appetizer. When hostesses job something out, it’s usually the starter.

Spiced nuts are lovely to bring because they are so portable, and people scarf them down almost faster than you can replenish them. I have some swell recipes, yours for the asking.

My friend Bernie Ashcraft jokes about how she brings the Barefoot Contessa’s pan-fried onion dip to everything. But it’s always so delicious; people now expect it and she gets tackled at the front door. There would be a serious reckoning, I think, if she walked in with anything else.

A cheese tray is another solid solution. Choose something sharp (like English cheddar), something creamy (like Camembert) and something funky (like Gorgonzola). You want sturdy crackers that are not intended to be show-offs on their own, like stoned wheat thins. And you want something sweet—like fresh figs, dried apricots or slices of apple or pear—to round things out.

Whatever appie you bring, sell it to the folks. Spread the fromage on crackers, dip some chips and pass them around, tell people what they’re eating. At parties, guests are often too busy talking and drinking to pay much attention to the starters, but they do need to eat something to absorb the booze, so your aggression will be appreciated. 

Be smart with the a la carte

If you volunteer to bring a soup, salad or side dish, it goes without saying (yet here I am, saying it) you should coordinate with the hosting unit to avoid ingredient overlap. You don’t want to bring Ina Garten’s excellent roasted potato leek soup if the dinner includes her potato-fennel gratin. Yes, I know, this is the third time in this issue I’ve mentioned an Ina Garten dish. I can’t help it if she’s the best recipe developer in America. Winter Slaw from her new book Make It Ahead would be a perfect salad to bring to a February dinner party, but go easy on the kale.

If you’re invited to a gathering where chili or a hearty stew is being served, allow me to recommend Zingy Cornbread, an easy, crowd-pleasing recipe (email me!) I found years ago in the Junior League of Albuquerque’s cookbook Simply Simpatico. Food Snobs be warned, it calls for Jiffy cornbread mix and a slew of “shelf stable” ingredients.

Orange you glad to be bringing dessert?

I have the perfect dessert (e-mail me!) to bring to a late-winter dinner party: Marcella Hazan’s “A Farm Wife’s Fresh Pear Tart.” It’s portable, wonderful at room temperature and simple to make—you don’t even use a tart pan. Best of all, it’s seasonal; it’s never a bad idea to bring a pie, tart, cobbler or clafoutis made from whatever fruits are in season.

In fact, almost any fresh fruit is delicious simply sliced or chopped, placed on a half-sheet, dusted cut-side-up with sugar, popped into a 450 degree oven until carmelized, then spritzed with a little orange juice. But remember to do your slicing, chopping and oven-popping in your own kitchen, Sweetie. Your hosts will love you for it.

A splendid appie to bring to a party 

EE_sidebar_Feb15I’ve been making this recipe since dinosaurs roamed the earth. It’s the perfect solution for the time-challenged appetizer-bringer because you use frozen shrimp and marinate it for at least two days; the frozen-shrimp texture goes completely away. People love it, even those not crazy about shrimp.

Fiesta Pickled Shrimp

2 pound bag of large, tail-on, peeled, deveined, and cooked frozen shrimp (You want the size that is 21 to 25 per pound. I get mine at Costco.)

2 large red onions, thinly sliced (I use my food processor.)

7-8 bay leaves


1-1/4 cups vegetable oil

3/4 cup white vinegar or rice vinegar (not seasoned)

1-1/2 teaspoons salt

2-1/2 teaspoons celery seed

3 or more tablespoons nonpareil capers with liquid

Dash Tabasco sauce

Fresh dill or chives for garnish (optional)

Alternate frozen shrimp and sliced onions with bay leaves in a shallow glass baking dish. Mix all marinade ingredients and pour over shrimp. Cover with foil and refrigerate for at least 36 hours (48 if possible), spooning sauce over shrimp several times while marinating. To serve, drain and mound onto a platter. Garnish with fresh herbs.

A serving note: These are not quite the perfect finger food because guests are stuck with a shrimp tail. Serve with toothpicks and extra cocktail napkins.

Questions about entertaining

Merrily would love to answer them. Email them to her at: essentialentertaining@spaceskc.com

Follow Merrily on Twitter @MerrilyJackson