Simple grocery store hacks to pull off a classy, last-minute cocktail party

June 17, 2024 | How to make the perfect cheese platter (WTOP's Rachel Nania )

WASHINGTON — It’s the Thursday before Christmas and somehow, your calendar is clear of deadlines, barre classes and office parties.

And while you could take the night off and spend it with your DVR, you decide to dive right into the holiday spirit and invite some friends over for a few festive drinks.

With the click of a mouse, the evite is out. Then, panic sets in: The only contents in your fridge are a jar of expired pickles and a half-empty bottle of wine — hardly a spread suitable for your posh pals.

What’s one to do? Just get yourself to the closest grocery store.

The experts at Whole Foods Market share a few party tricks that require minimal effort on your part, but make it look as though you’ve prepped for days.

Nothing says “party” quite like caviar

“Caviar is just a word that’s associated with fun and all the ritz that you would want with a cocktail party,” says Jenna Murry, seafood team leader at the Foggy Bottom Whole Foods Market.

And you can have that “ritz” without breaking the bank. Murray says caviar is a great choice for a cocktail party because it’s more of a garnish than a main feature, so a little jar goes a long way.

Her favorite thing to do is to top a cocktail blini (you can find these packaged and ready to go at many grocery stores and specialty markets) with a dollop of crème fraîche and a sprinkling of smoked trout roe. The red beads add a pop of color and a smoky flavor to your holiday spread.

Top a cocktail blini with a dollop of crème fraîche and a sprinkling of smoked trout roe. (WTOP/Rachel Nania)

The cost: The appetizer takes less than 10 minutes to assemble, and Murry says a $15 jar of caviar should serve between 15 and 20 people.

“That certainly suits the bill because it leaves you time to focus on any of the other things that you need to get done for your party,” she adds.

Oysters and Champagne

While you’re in the seafood department scoping out the caviar, check with the pros behind the counter and inquire about their oyster offerings — because there’s always a place for oysters at a cocktail party.

“They’re fresh, they’re local, they vary with the season, they add a touch of class to your party and they’re also a really great conversation piece,” Murry says.

If you find yourself at Whole Foods, there’s no need to worry about your shucking skills — or lack thereof. The store’s seafood staff will open the $1 oysters and plate them on ice for you, free of charge.

“Then all you have to do is carry it home and put it on the table. It couldn’t get any easier than that,” Murry says.

There’s always a place for oysters at a cocktail party. (WTOP/Rachel Nania)

Quarter a few lemons, set out some cocktail sauce and open a bottle of bubbly — you’ll look like a cocktail party genius.

Get your antipasto on

Grab a few jars of marinated vegetables: It’s time to get creative with your antipasto appetizers.

Alan Morgan, culinary coordinator at the Foggy Bottom Whole Foods Market, has a few appetizer ideas that use easy-to-find ingredients from the store and take about 15 minutes to assemble.

Add a jar of roasted red peppers and a container of marinated mozzarella balls to your cart, and get ready for a festive treat. When you get home, slice the red peppers into 1-inch strips; wrap each strip around a marinated mozzarella ball and secure the pepper strip with a skewer.

You can either serve the appetizer cold or pop them under the broiler until the surface is slightly charred and the cheese is melting.

“It looks like you spent hour and hours doing it, and you really just spent minutes,” Morgan says.

Add a jar of roasted red peppers and a container of marinated mozzarella balls to your cart, and get ready for a festive treat. (WTOP/Rachel Nania)

Another easy-to-assemble appetizer that Morgan recommends is an antipasto skewer. On bamboo skewers, thread cubed provolone cheese, marinated olives, cubed salami, cheese tortellini (you can find these in the frozen food aisle or the prepared foods section of many stores) and marinated artichoke hearts. Set them out and enjoy.

An antipasto skewer is a quick and easy-to-assemble appetizer. (WTOP/Rachel Nania)

For a small bite that packs a punch of flavor, fill pitted prunes with cream cheese. Then, wrap the stuffed dried fruit with a slice of bacon and secure it with a toothpick. Broil the hors d’oeuvres in the oven for about 10 minutes until the bacon is crispy.

Build a better cheese platter

Amy Gomez, regional specialty coordinator for Whole Foods Market, is a cheese whiz, and she has some tips on how you can assemble a gourmet cheese platter in a matter of minutes.

To start, know how many you’re serving. Gomez says if you’re setting the cheese out as an appetizer, plan on each person eating between 2 to 3 ounces. Then, think about balance on the board. Gomez suggests having a firm cheese, a semi-soft cheese, a rich, spreadable cheese and if there’s room, a cheese that has herbs or some sort of added flavor, such as a truffle cheese.

Finally, consider your budget. It’s no secret that cheese can be expensive, so if you’re looking to cut down on costs, go for what Gomez calls “value-added cheeses” that are going to stand out, such as a sharp cheddar, Manchego and Camembert.

When you get home, it’s assembly time. Using your best cutting board, set the cheeses up first and then fill in the gaps on the platter with nuts, dried apricots, figs, grapes and even some salami or prosciutto if you like.

“It just makes it feel abundant,” Gomez says about the added nibbles. Plus, the salty flavor of the nuts and meats compliment the cheese. “Cheese is very fatty, and a lot of times it wants something salty to cut that fat. That’s why crackers and cheese often go so well together.”

Make a cheese platter look abundant by filling in spaces with dried fruits, nuts, grapes and even meats. (WTOP/Rachel Nania)

A crisp white wine or bottle of prosecco will also pair nicely with a cheese platter.

“A lot of people think of red wine with cheese, but Champagne is actually a really great pairing with cheese because it has those light crisp bubbles, and it really helps cut the fat that you get in the palate with a fatty or buttery cheese,” Gomez adds.

Sweet treats

Ditch the apron: There’s no need to bake up a storm for your festive gathering.

Especially around the holiday season, most grocery stores sell boxes of specialty chocolates, toffees and peppermint candies. Simply pick up a few of your favorites and set them out in bowls throughout your home.

If you have a few guests with dietary restrictions, consider picking up an almond milk or coconut milk eggnog. Whole Foods’ Regional Healthy Eating Associate Coordinator Kathleen Wood raves about the options from Califia Farms.

Many grocery store bakeries also serve gluten-free and dairy-free cakes and pies. Wood’s favorite this season is Kite Hill’s pumpkin cheesecake tart, made with almond milk ricotta and a gingersnap crust.

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