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Entertaining on the fly can be a frustrating ordeal—the checklist of needs feels insurmountable (flowers! dessert! take-home gifts! decor!), the maze of places to stop on the way home, daunting. And all those errands have to be run while you brainstorm a meal that doesn't offend your temporarily gluten-free, vegetarian BAE.
But we believe in your spontaneity. Your ability to make do—and better. You can throw a party anytime you get the itch, even if you only decide to do it while you're heading home on the subway. By making one strategic stop at the corner store, bodega, or pharmacy, you can pick up all the supplies you need to pull off a great dinner party with no planning at all. Interior designer Cate Caruso (you might remember her pink velvet couch) is known by her friends as the kind of person who tricks you into staying for dinner every time you see her—and she let us in on the essential supplies she scoops up on the way home to make it possible.
Last-Minute Party Supplies:
Buds and Unscented Candles (For Decorating)
Cate's local bodega is admittedly flush with flower options that your local CVS might not have—but she specifically chose inexpensive types that seem to pop up everywhere during colder months: magnolia leaves, ornamental cabbages, and thistle. "Look for flowers with structure or volume," she suggests, since they're easier to arrange simply. If your store is low on inventory, you could pick up hydrangea or pale roses, or forage sprays of ferns from your planters.
"Don’t get overwhelmed by all the possible iterations of table decor," Cate says. "Instead choose one colorful thing and let that guide the rest of the palette and tablescape." To keep the thistle from feeling stiff and prickly, Cate cut the stems at a variety of heights to give dimension to the arrangement.
Cate bundled the stems of the magnolia leaves with twine and tucked the thistle into tall silver containers she pulled off a shelf. Realistically, shopping for a vase is going to be a waste of your time on the day of the party; Cate encourages hosts to be creative with what they've got on hand.
Play with scale. Small bud vases go a long way. Tall narrow vases are easy to arrange. If you don’t have any, use a tall water glass and wrap the stems in twine or ribbon for a more decorative touch.
To keep cut flowers fresh for longer, Cate spritzes a little Windex in the water before adding the stems. "It kills any bacteria in the water that might cause them to die sooner," she says. "Use bleach if you have it, but countertop cleaner will work in a pinch."
She also picked up some tall candles that seem to be sold at every bodega in New York: "Cheap candles will do the trick for the night—as long as they aren’t scented!" Votives are nice and twinkly, but something taller will feel more elegant.
Nuts & Chocolate (For Appetizers, Take-Home Gifts, and Dessert)
Cheese dip is amazing and all, but a jaunt to the specialty store for Emmenthaler and Gruyère might not be an ideal pit stop on your way home. Instead, Cate suggests making a nut mix—because even nuts and herbs are something you can find at the corner store (maybe you even have the latter growing at home?).
- 2 1/2 tablespoons butter
- 2 teaspoons dried rosemary (crumbled)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 cups walnuts
Cate had Parmesan cheese and a few links of salumi that bulked up this appetizer plate, but just the nut mix would be plenty. "I recommend doubling the batch," she says, "because then you can send each guest home with some after the party."
A quality piece of chocolate is dessert in and of itself—but also the start of so many simple pantry dive desserts (we like melting it down to mix with nuts and marshmallows to make Rocky Road). Plus, it's something that even a corner store stocks.
Cate also keeps carafes of infused vodkas in the freezer—"Basically everything infuses for two months and then you have a beautifully colored, playful punch at the end of the meal!"—which feels very special but doesn't include a lick of night-of prep time to serve.
Parchment & Ribbon or Twine (For Gift Wrap)
To gift wrap the leftover walnuts, Cate used parchment, holiday ribbon, and little gold and silver washers that she picked up at the hardware store. Instead of trying to pick up little gifts to give at the end of the night, just plan to send your friends home with extra appetizers, dessert, or even a bottle of whatever you were drinking—done up with extra ribbon you've saved from presents for this purpose (that's what Cate does).
Eggs (For Dinner)
If you don't have a carton of eggs in the fridge, we can't help you. (Just kidding!) But truly: Don't make yourself crazy by trying to source a responsibly raised chicken or a marbled cut of beef at the last minute. If you don't have eggs, the corner store will—and it doesn't hurt your guest list that they're also vegetarian. Cate made slow-baked frittata, since it can be cut into portions and keeps for some time. "Right when you get home, knock out the frittata," she says "and then don't worry about dinner again until you set it on the table."
- 10 large eggs
- 2 1/2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano Reggiano, plus more for serving
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 40 turns from a black pepper mill
- 7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus more for serving
- 1 medium (1-pound) head of broccoli (4 cups once trimmed)
- 1/2 of a red onion, sliced thinly
- 1 heaping tablespoon chopped garlic
- 1/8 teaspoon plus a large pinch of dried chile flakes
- 1 squeeze lemon, to taste, for serving
Putting it All Together
Don't try to compete with the color of your flowers (or candles, or your main course if that's what you consider the best centerpiece—like us). "The thistle’s heather blue, cabbage’s amethyst, and green from the magnolia leaves provided a cheery punch of color," Cate explains, "so I just added some barely-colored glasses and an otherwise neutral collection of dishware."
By keeping the backdrop simple, even bright colors feel welcoming rather than competitive—and it didn't hurt that the golden afternoon light gave everything a warmer glow.
Cate Caruso is an NYC-based interior designer; she founded Studio C in 2014 and received her design degree at Parsons School of Design.