When it comes to entertaining, I often find that the casual gatherings and impromptu parties outshine more elaborate affairs. I think it's the combination of a relaxed atmosphere and last minute inspiration.
This summer, for example, I was visiting friends when one of the hosts spontaneously began making homemade crackers from corn and flour tortillas. It wasn't planned, but it was delicious. They were positively addictive and I've since started making them myself.
The best thing about these crackers is that they require almost zero prep, and can be seasoned however you like — a simple sprinkle of coarse sea salt, or a more complex blend of seeds and spices. My favourite is pink Himalayan sea salt and dehydrated minced garlic. It's like the best part of an everything bagel.
These crackers also cook so quickly, you even could make them fresh just before — or even during — the party.
And if you really want to put people over the edge, consider pairing the crackers with homemade ricotta cheese dip. I recently took a cheese making class in California and fell in love with the process. It was an artisanal cheese class and we used "just milked" raw cow's milk and various starters.
You'll need no special ingredients or equipment to make this treat, which relies on slightly acidic buttermilk to form cheese out of a blend of heavy cream and whole milk. Add a touch of salt and that's all you need.
Once the cheese is strained and cooled, I put it in a pretty bowl, add a sprinkle of good salt, best quality extra-virgin olive oil, fresh herbs and citrus zest. You can customize it and add your favourite herbs, or take a sweet approach and add a little jam and country ham or prosciutto. Delicious.
Once you make these crackers and the cheese a few times, you won't even need the recipes. They really are that easy. And they may well become your go-to entertaining recipes for 2013.
BUTTERMILK RICOTTA CHEESE DIP
Start to finish: 2 hours
3 cups whole milk
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Fleur de sel or pink sea salt, about 1/8 teaspoon
1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Fresh herbs, such as thyme, oregano or basil
Zest of 1/2 lemon or orange
In a large, stainless steel saucepan over medium heat, combine the milk, buttermilk, cream and salt. Slowly bring the mixture to a gentle simmer. As the milk solids begin to separate from the whey, give it a stir, then return it to a gentle simmer. When you see steam rising and solid chunks (curds) forming, turn off the heat and let the mixture cool for about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, line a mesh strainer with several layers of cheesecloth. Using a ladle, spoon the cooled curds and whey into the strainer. Place one layer of the cloth over the cheese. It will strain quickly at first. The longer you let it sit, the drier and more concentrated the cheese will become. Strain the cheese at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours.
Once strained, discard the liquid. The cheese can be used immediately, or covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days.
When ready to serve, place the ricotta in a decorative bowl. Use a spoon to form a well in the centre. Sprinkle the cheese with the fleur de sel, then fill the well with olive oil. Sprinkle with fresh herbs and citrus zest.
Start to finish: 30 minutes
12 round fresh flour or corn tortillas, at room temperature
2 tablespoons olive oil
Seasonings (such as fleur de sel, truffle salt, dehydrated minced garlic, minced dried onion, sesame seeds, etc.)
Heat the oven to 350 F.
Brush the tortillas on both sides with a thin layer of olive oil. Sprinkle with salt or the seasonings of your choice. Arrange the tortillas on 2 baking sheets (or bake them in batches). The tortillas can be close together, but not touching. Bake on the oven's centre rack for 20 to 25 minutes, rotating the pans after 12 minutes, until slightly puffy and golden brown.
Let cool and break into irregular shapes.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a grilling and Southern foods expert and executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market restaurants in New York and Washington, as well as Hill Country Chicken in New York. She is the author of three cookbooks, including "Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned."