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Three ingredients to have on hand for easier fall entertaining

And a couple of ideas for how to use them.
Spiced pears [MICHELLE STARK  |  Tampa Bay Times]
Spiced pears [MICHELLE STARK | Tampa Bay Times]

Thanks to cookbook author Alison Roman’s new book Nothing Fancy, I’ve got entertaining on the brain. This is not an exhaustive list of pantry staples to keep on hand when having people over, but rather a few things that always make my dinner parties better.

A seasonal fruit

Spiced pears [MICHELLE STARK | Tampa Bay Times]

Having fruit on hand is a quick way to lighten and brighten a food spread. Even better when it’s something like pears, which can be used equally well in their raw and cooked states. (Apples are a good choice this time of year, too.) These roasted, spiced pears are my favorite way to render the fruit for fall: soft, buttery and slightly drunken from the addition of rum or bourbon.

Here are three ideas for how to use them:

  • Thinly slice pear halves and rest them atop crackers or small pieces of toast slathered with a nut butter or a creamy cheese.
  • Roughly chop pears and spoon over whole Greek yogurt mixed with a dash of vanilla extract or vanilla ice cream, for a decadent after-dinner treat.
  • These pears would make for an impressive dessert on their own. Leave the halves intact and serve on a platter with lots of whipped cream, the residual sauce from the roasting dish drizzled on top.

Roasted Pears

1 (2-inch) piece cinnamon stick

2 whole cloves

6 small pears, such as Bartlett, unpeeled, halved and cored

½ cup light brown sugar

¼ cup bourbon or dark rum

3 tablespoons lemon juice

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in small cubes

2 tablespoons honey

1 tablespoon rosemary leaves, from a small sprig, optional

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Choose a baking dish or roasting pan large enough to hold pears in one layer, or use 2 pans. Scatter cinnamon stick and cloves on bottom of dish.

Put pears in a large mixing bowl. Add brown sugar, bourbon or rum and lemon juice. Coat pears evenly with mixture. Transfer to baking dish, cut-side down, in one layer. Dot with butter.

Bake, uncovered, until pears are soft and well caramelized, about 45 minutes. Remove pears from oven and let them sit at room temperature. Shortly before serving, drizzle the pears with honey and sprinkle them with rosemary leaves, if using. Bake for 10 minutes. Serve warm with plenty of sauce from the baking pan.

Source: Adapted from the New York Times

Ricotta cheese

Ricotta berry cake [MICHELLE STARK | Tampa Bay Times]

From lasagna filling to fancy toast topper, ricotta can do it all. The mild, creamy cheese is a versatile ingredient to have in your fridge during entertaining season. Ricotta is great in baked goods, lending simple cakes a slightly savory flavor that makes said cake suitable for serving before, during or after a meal. The recipe for one of our favorites is below.

For appetizers or snacks, consider making smaller versions of ricotta toasts by smearing crunchy crackers or toasted squares of bread with the cheese, then topping them with fresh or cooked sliced apples or pears, roasted nuts or even just a drizzle of honey. When shopping for ricotta, try specialty grocery stores or a place like Whole Foods, where you can find fresher whole milk versions that are full of flavor.

Berry Ricotta Cake

Nonstick vegetable oil spray

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

¾ cup sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

¾ teaspoon kosher salt

3 large eggs

1 ½ cups ricotta

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted

1 cup frozen raspberries, divided

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9-inch-diameter cake pan with parchment paper and lightly coat with nonstick spray. Whisk flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl.

Whisk eggs, ricotta and vanilla in a medium bowl until smooth; fold into dry ingredients just until blended. Then fold in butter, followed by ¾ cup raspberries, taking care not to crush berries. Scrape batter into prepared pan and scatter remaining ¼ cup raspberries over top.

Bake cake until golden brown and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 50to 60 minutes. Let cool at least 20 minutes before unmolding.

Source: Adapted from Alison Roman

A good loaf of bread

Do not underestimate a good loaf of bread’s ability to save your dinner party. The ideal vessel for so many ingredients, bread can be the star of the meal, a humble side, even transformed days past its prime into something that will still add flavor and flair to your meal. Here are some ideas.

  • Croutons. One of the many great ideas in Alison Roman’s new cookbook Nothing Fancy is to serve croutons as a premeal snack, alongside other little bits to nosh on before the main event. Just bread in a bowl, no soup or salad required. We’re in. (You could also, of course, use these atop a soup or salad.) To make some croutons, chop your loaf of bread into bite-sized pieces. Place on a baking sheet, thoroughly coat with olive oil, then season with lots of salt and pepper. Bake in a 400-degree oven for about 15 minutes, stirring often so they brown nicely. They should be crispy and golden when they’re done.
  • Bread crumbs. Making your own bread crumbs is an ideal way to put older/stale bread to good use. To make, tear up bread into smaller pieces, then roast on a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes, or until slightly browned and hardened. Let cool, then place in a food processor and pulse until you have crumbs. (Some may be slightly larger than others, and that’s okay.) Place back on the baking sheet and mix with some salt and pepper to taste, a couple of drizzles of olive oil and 1 or 2 cloves grated garlic. Cook for another 5 minutes or until fragrant, then remove from oven. Use as a garnish like you would fresh herbs, atop pasta dishes, roasted vegetables — whatever you think could use a crunchy, garlicky cap.
  • Crostini. You cannot go wrong with little toasted pieces of bread topped with delicious things, like the ricotta cheese and spiced pears you already have on hand. Or how about blue cheese and a drizzle of honey? Cream cheese and capers? Slice your bread into roughly 2- or 3-inch squares (baguettes work well here), then cook on a baking sheet in a 400-degree oven just until fragrant and toasty. (You don’t want the bread to darken in color too much, otherwise it’ll be too crunchy.) Let cool just slightly, then top with desired toppings.

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