The best parties are the ones which seemingly spring out of nothing—the kind where a late lunch or a "quick drink and a catch up" turns into friends staying on for dinner, then lingering into the early morning. Dinner somehow magics itself together without a shopping list or any grand planning.
The key, of course, to these kinds of laid-back affairs, lies in a well-stocked fridge and good pantry supplies.
These are the essentials I like to have on hand so that I can pull together a dinner from a pantry without it feeling rushed:
Pasta: A mix of good-quality dry pasta is a cupboard essential. Toss with olive oil and fresh tomatoes for a pasta dish that feels light and fresh, or with a little cream and melted cheese for a richer, more wintry main. If you don’t have either ingredient to hand, brown a little butter in a pan with sage leaves, then drizzle over the pasta and top with shavings of Parmesan. Arborio rice (for a nice risotto), couscous (for salad), and barley are also all good cupboard staples.
Butter beans: With a drizzle of olive oil, some chopped red onion, and heaps of fresh parsley, these make a lovely side dish. If you want to serve the beans as a main, either add a little canned tuna, or mix the butter beans with fresh green leaves (baby spinach or radicchio are both lovely combinations, but whatever you have to hand will work well), a little wild rice (or any other kind of crunchy grain), and a few pomegranate seeds.
Good-quality canned tuna: Mix the fillets with chopped cherry tomatoes, a few capers, and parsley for a nice, hearty salad dish; or toss a tin or two into a tomato sauce with a few olives for a meatier pasta dish.
A nice hard cheese: I like to have a chunk of Parmesan or pecorino to hand at all times. Guests can nibble on the hunk of cheese with salami and bread. But I also firmly believe that a few shavings of a good cheese is all you need to transform pretty much anything (from a plain pasta to a baked potato) into a sophisticated dinner. Another favorite: hard cheese on crispbread (think crostini) drizzled with honey and sprinkled with a few nuts.
A nice soft cheese: Ricotta and mascarpone are my two soft cheeses, and I always try to keep a good stock of them in the fridge. Swirl into hot pasta to make a simple creamy sauce, then perhaps top with a few pistachios and chunks of crispy pancetta or salami. Both ricotta and mascarpone work nicely for dessert too: Whip with confectioners' sugar and serve with meringues or fruit. Or both.
Ready-made pastry, either puff or shortcrust: I bake sheets of puff pastry and then top them with whipped mascarpone or ricotta, fruit, chopped nuts, and shavings of chocolate (depending on what I have to hand) to make a rustic galette. And with a roll of shortcrust pastry, a few eggs, and a dash of cream, you can easily pull together a savory tart. Just toss in whatever else you have to hand (greens, onions, potato, salami, tomatoes, etc.).
Bread: Toast and top with tomatoes and oil for bruschetta, or any combination of cheese and salami for crostini. If you don’t have a fresh loaf, you can make your own with butter, flour, milk, and an egg.
Eggs: Make frittata, scrambled eggs, or spaghetti carbonara, or use as the base for a lovely thick custard or whip the whites into meringue. Bake the meringues in the oven for an hour and by the time you are done cooking and serving the rest of dinner, they'll be ready to eat.
Fresh herbs: I grow them in pots on our windowsill so that I'll have them on hand to cook with. Thyme, parsley, and rosemary are particular favorites.
Bowl of seasonal fruit: In winter, pomegranates are my favorite; they're decorative and work just as well in sweet and savory dishes. They're lovely in salads, scattered over something like couscous, or with meringues and whipped cream.
Frozen spinach: Sauté with ricotta and a sprinkling of nutmeg for a side dish to accompany anything from fried eggs to baked potatoes. Spinach cooked this way also makes for an exquisite filling in a savory pie or galette (that you can pull together with your supply of ready-made pastry).
And a few extras to always have on hand: salad greens, baby tomatoes, lemons, salami or chorizo, pistachios (to crumble into salads or over sweets) and a tub of ice cream in the freezer for the simplest of desserts.