Cheap entertaining: The grilled-cheese party

I love to cook and I love to talk, which means that I love to entertain. Few things bring me more pleasure than having some friends over, whipping up something obscure and vaguely pretentious, and sitting around, enjoying their company. Most people pretend that entertaining is something that they do for friends and family. I have no such delusions: while I do everything in my power to ensure that my guests are having fun, I definitely entertain for my own enjoyment.

Entertaining in my house also tends to be an informal thing, and I like to put guests in the kitchen, stick an apron on them, and put them to work. Some of my best conversations have been around the kitchen table as my friends and I prepare food. Also, having friends in the kitchen tends to make them somewhat proprietary about the meal--they get to tell war stories about making it, while delighting in the other guests' enjoyment.

The downside is that all that cooking and grocery buying can get kind of expensive. One solution that I've picked up, courtesy of my Aunt Evie, is the grilled cheese party. The idea is simple: you invite guests to bring their favorite cheese, bread, or beverage (or sometimes all three). When they get to your house, you slice, shred, or otherwise prepare the cheese, bread, and accoutrements. Guests then combine the available ingredients to create their own versions of the perfect grilled-cheese sandwich. You, in turn, cook the sandwiches on an electric griddle.

Obviously, the one problem with this scheme is that you are reliant on your guests for ingredients. For that reason, it's a good idea to start with a few basic provisions. For cheeses, I like to provide a selection of three or four of my favorites, including cheddar, blue cheese, muenster, Swiss cheese, brie, or Gjetost. I also like to have a few different breads, some non-alcoholic beverages, some sliced apples and tomatoes, a nice bottle of wine, a six pack or two of beer, and paper plates. Also, it helps if you have some butter, olive oil, or non-stick cooking spray for oiling up the grill, as well as tongs or knives so your guests don't have to touch the cheese. On the other hand, if you're feeling a little informal, have everyone roll up their sleeves and wash their hands.

As your guests arrive, all you need to do is prepare their cheeses and set them out on the kitchen table. You may want to save the labels and put them with the appropriate cheeses, so nobody gets confused. Unless they've done this before, your guests will probably be a little nervous. Encourage them to try some of the stranger offerings, and to combine the cheeses. Personally, I generally go for three cheeses and throw in some apple slices after I'm done grilling. After your guests have piled up their bread with assorted ingredients, put their sandwiches in the microwave for 10-20 seconds, grill them for a minute or two, and watch them enjoy their creations. Many of your guests will show off their new-found cheese-blending skills, sharing their sandwiches with each other. When the evening is over, all you have to do is wrap up the cheeses and breads, toss out the paper plates, and clean off the griddle.

Not only is this easy to host, but it tends to be a lot of fun, especially if your guests have children!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and co-author of Military Lessons of the Gulf War and A Chronology of the Cold War at Sea.

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