Several months ago we came across a video clip of an Italian-American comedian named Sebastien Maniscalco. In this particular bit, entitled “Doorbell”, Chicago-born Maniscalco compares the reaction of families today versus those of twenty years ago, when the doorbell rings unexpectedly. His portrayal of households faced with unanticipated company (which you should definitely watch by clicking here) is quite hilarious, and also, a little bit sad. As with most things comedic, an element of truth runs through it. Why do people, as Maniscalco points out, cringe at the thought of company? Why does the idea of entertaining, especially at the last minute, stress us so? We’re here to tell you that it doesn’t have to, and that with a change of perspective and some staples in the freezer, fridge and pantry, you can jump for joy when company comes calling.
Growing up our small apartment was constantly full of people. Our parents entertained at least once a week and, if you count coffee and galaktoboureko as “entertaining”, much more often. Several of our family and close friends lived within walking distance from us and they never hesitated to take a stroll in the evening and end up at our place. On other evenings, we would be the ones doing the strolling. We were not raised with restaurant dinners or theatre shows; household gatherings with friends and family was our entertainment. On special occasions, guests from out of town would stay with us for several days, and their visit triggered more invitees; everyone wanted to come and see our koubari from out of town.
This idea of opening your home to others has strong roots in Greek mythology and culture. Xenia is the ancient Greek concept of hospitality; a concept so important that Zeus (who ruled as the king of the gods on Mount Olympus) is sometimes referred to as Zeus Xenios, to honour his role in being the protector of guests. In ancient Greece, hospitality to travellers, and to those who were from far away was a religious obligation and encompassed certain rules, including that the host was to offer food, drink, bathing facilities and rest, to weary travellers. In turn, the guest was expected, as much as possible, to offer a present to the host in recognition of their kindness. These traditions are deep-rooted, which is why you will likely never enter a Greek home without being offered something to eat and drink, and why a Greek guest will typically bring a gift to the head of the household.
We really believe that our parents would do Zeus proud. Although entertaining a group of people entailed a lot of work and preparation, our parents never indicated that it was stressful. This is because they always remembered what was truly important; spending time with people you care about and sharing some food and drink, and laughs. They didn’t worry about whether or not the house was beautifully decorated, so long as it was clean. They didn’t worry about whether or not all the dinnerware matched; it never did, because, who has 30 identical dishes? They didn’t really worry about table seating; they just trusted that everyone would find a place to sit and eat, and if you were under 18, the floor qualified as the perfect place for you. To this day, when our parents entertain (and bless their hearts, they still do), they focus on ensuring that the people they care for feel welcome, and that there is enough food. They will never stop worrying about whether or not there is enough food.
It’s relatively easy to make sure you have enough food for guests when you know that they are coming, but how do you deal with the unexpected or last minute visitor? Sure, you can hide behind the door and pretend you’re not home, but that’s really not very nice. You can also open the door with your jacket on and proclaim, “Oh no! I wish I could invite you in…but I was just heading out!”, but then you risk them asking to come along. Awkward! Instead, be ready! If your only reason for avoiding the pop-in is because you don’t feel like a capable host, remember this…your friends are there to see you, not to judge you. And so, in the spirit of preparedness, below we have listed some of the most common things our parents would whip out when people came over. They are definitely things which could be served at planned parties, but they are also wonderful, last minute bites.
How to feed your friends and family without any stress, Greek-style
It is always helpful to have a few mezedes in the freezer, ready to be taken out and popped into the oven when company comes calling. Perfect options include frozen spanakopita and tyropites. These can be baked from frozen, or with minimal thawing, resulting in minimal time required to go from freezer to table (follow the link for these items to get cooking directions). Frozen, fully cooked meatballs or keftedes are also delicious. To heat them, simply place them in a 400 degrees Fahrenheit oven for approximately 20 minutes, or until hot. We actually keep trays of pitas and freezer bags of meatballs in the freezer and label them “company”. This makes us feel very on top of things.
Vegetables and crudités:
Common vegetables which our parents would put out for guests include quartered tomatoes and cucumber spears, both sprinkled lightly with salt. Fresh radishes are also popular, and if there is time, our parents make little radish roses by scoring the skin slightly and allowing the radishes to soak in a bowl of cold water. We don’t usually do this ourselves…we are not that on top of things.
Our parents never did carrot and celery sticks. Instead, they would include green onions in the meze platter. Yes, that’s right…green onions. They would cut the tip off, wash the onions, and serve them to guests. Although you may find this odd, if you are Greek, think back…we bet your parents served green onions too! It seemed to be very popular in Greek homes when we were growing up.
Aside from the common fresh vegetables listed above which are likely in your fridge right now (except for the tomatoes…those should be kept at room temperature on your counter), an assortment of bottled, marinated vegetables are also great to have on hand. Particular favourites in our homes are pickled onions, roasted and marinated red peppers, and hot pickled peppers.
Tzatziki and taramosalata are two dips which are perfect to have in the fridge, for guests and for yourself. They are delicious served with pita wedges, a nice loaf of country bread, or even slathered on crackers or served with vegetables. Tzatziki is also fantastic served alongside the meatballs you will dig out of your freezer.
Any cheese you have in your fridge would be great to put out for guests. In particular however, feta cheese makes a wonderful addition to a Greek table. We think that the most delicious way to serve feta cheese is the way our parents do; sliced and drizzled with Greek olive oil and then sprinkled with oregano. So delicious. If feta cheese is not a staple in your kitchen, you are living life wrong.
Our parents would never dream about getting all fancy and making devilled eggs. We are quite sure they don’t even know what devilled eggs are. Instead, they would simply prepare hard boiled eggs, peel them, slice them in half and gently sprinkle them with salt and pepper. That’s it. We have found that the best way to boil eggs, and to minimize cracking of the shell is to place your eggs in a pot large enough to hold them in a single layer and to then cover the eggs with cold water. Bring the water to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer and cook the eggs for 8 – 10 minutes. Rinse them under cold water to stop them from cooking, and to make it easier to handle and peel your eggs. Plan to make more of these than you think you need. They are usually very popular.
It really is a good idea to have at least two varieties of olives in your home. A nice assortment of olives, including Kalamata olives, makes any meze platter that much more delicious. Also, nothing beats the ease of simply opening up a container and pouring some olives into a dish. Remember to put out a small bowl for the pits and you are good to go.
It is also a smart idea to have nuts in your pantry (or fridge, if you will not be using them quickly). Favourites in our parents’ kitchen are walnuts, almonds and cashews, but any nut will do. Another option, (which is not really a nut, but which has always been served alongside nuts by our parents), are stragalia, or dried chickpeas. It’s a beautiful and reassuring thing to know that when all else fails, you can always whip out a bowl of nuts and a small glass of ouzo for your guest, and all will be well.
We hope that these tips for simple and quick bite options will make entertaining a little bit easier and a lot less stressful. Remember, just have fun with your friends and family and don’t worry about the pile of laundry in the corner or the mismatched furniture. Life is much, much more than that.