Keep it simple: Quick and easy party dishes

Key lime tarts made in a muffin pan are less of a hassle to serve. — Photo by Kaylea Moore

This summer I find myself being invited to impromptu cookouts and dinner parties with no time and no idea what to bring. When I do plan ahead, I usually complicate the process — never ready when I’m supposed to be and always swearing that I will do something easy the next time. I arrive and need to reheat, unmold, cut up, or assemble something, getting in the way of the host and adding to the mess. This past weekend, I tried something new; I kept it simple, for the most part.

When I go shopping, I tend to stock up on things that I know I can use in a pinch such as canned beans, jarred artichokes, peppers, eggs, and cheese. The last thing I want to do in the summer is “run to the store,” braving the crowds and lines and battling for a parking spot. Instead, I find myself searching through the pantry and excavating the refrigerator to see if I can throw something together with what I have on hand.

Here are some quick and easy dishes, with items you may have in your kitchen, to throw together for the next party you attend.

Shrimp cocktail: This is such a simple dish and always a crowd pleaser. Buy shrimp already cooked or do it yourself at home. I usually keep a bag of shrimp in the freezer. Boil water with Old Bay or seafood seasoning and let the shrimp boil for a few minutes until pink and curled. Cool and serve with cocktail sauce and lemon. If you want to get a little fancy, try a poached seafood salad. Poach shrimp, scallops, lobster, mussels, and squid separately, but all in the same pot with water, a little white wine and a bay leaf. Transfer to ice bath to cool. Chop seafood and toss with lemon juice, olive oil, chopped parsley, and salt. Add sliced red onion, olives, capers, or jalapeñ;os.

Dips: I always have a can of beans on hand and experiment with different types of dip. Here is one of my favorites: Combine 1 can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed, 1 clove of garlic, a few pieces of jarred roasted red peppers, a drizzle of olive oil, and a pinch of salt in a food processor. Pulse until smooth. Add more olive oil until you reach a consistency that you like. Serve with toasted bread or pita and olives.

Pasta salads: Pasta is a staple in my house. I know that I can throw together some sort of dish with pasta and whatever else I can find. Try roasting vegetables: onions, peppers, zucchini, tomatoes, etc. and toss with orzo, feta, and a quick vinaigrette of garlic, Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Or make a pesto with leftover herbs. Use a combination of parsley, basil, blanched carrot tops, and arugula. Pulse in food processor with garlic, any type of nut (almond, walnut, cashew, pine nuts), toasted if you prefer, and olive oil. Season with salt and add Parmesan cheese if you like. Toss pesto with pasta. Serve warm or cold.

Deviled eggs: Although Jell-o salads didn’t stand the test of time, deviled eggs are as trendy now as they were 50 years ago. These old-school party favorites can be updated with toppings such as smoked salmon or crispy prosciutto.

Salad: Green salads are a great addition to any party and something that I can usually whip up with what I have on hand. I have a friend who always brings caprese salad; or tomato, basil and fresh mozzarella on skewers, which get gobbled up right away. But my favorite summer salad is watermelon and feta: Cube watermelon and feta and toss with sliced red onion, chopped mint, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar.

Dessert: When I make dessert, I like to go big, which results in a big mess and a whole afternoon of cooking and cleaning. I’ll make homemade strawberry shortcake, in which the biscuit dough needs to made, refrigerated, cut, and cooked or salted caramel brownies with pots, pans and bowls covered in chocolate and caramel.

This past weekend, I was invited to a cookout so I asked what I could make. Key lime pie was requested. The day of the party, I couldn’t find my pie plate, so I improvised with a muffin tin, which resulted in individual key lime pie tarts that didn’t need to be cut or plated. What I love about this recipe is the lack of measuring and the minimal mess as well as a quick prep time. I used the same bowl throughout the whole process, from melting the butter to whipping the cream, with a quick wash in between each step.

Key Lime Pie Tarts
(makes 12 muffin-sized tarts)

1 1/2 cups of graham-cracker crumbs (one sleeve crushed- use a ziplock bag to crush crumbs with your hands or a rolling pin)
6 Tbs. unsalted butter, melted
3 Tbs. brown sugar
pinch of salt
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
4 egg yolk
1/2 cup Nellie and Joe’s Key West Lime Juice (available at most Island markets) or fresh squeezed key limes if you can find them
Zest of one lime
1 cup heavy cream
Powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine graham cracker crumbs, butter, brown sugar, and salt. Mix well and press firmly into muffin tin (approx. 2 Tbs. per serving). Bake on middle rack until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Cool.

Lower oven to 325 degrees. Whisk sweetened condensed milk, egg yolks, key lime juice, and zest (reserve some for garnish). Pour over cooled crusts. Bake until center is set, about 10 minutes. Cool.

Whip heavy cream with powdered sugar. Top key lime tarts with whipped cream and sprinkle with lime zest. Refrigerate to set. Loosen tarts by sliding a knife around the muffin tin.