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6 things every holiday host needs in the kitchen

You never know who might walk through your front door during the holiday season: mother-in-law, boss, kids’ hockey coach, high-school ex, disgruntled neighbour, Brad Pitt … In December’s open-house atmosphere, anything is possible. Instead of relying on a supply of frozen pizzas and trying to cut them into different shapes for different functions (little squares for cocktails, big triangles for dinner, strips for snacks), why not invest in a few lovely, versatile ingredients that can get you through every entertaining pinch with panache? Here are six kitchen superstars with long shelf (or fridge) lives, short prep times and a big yum factor

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Quail eggs taste like ordinary chicken eggs, but are smaller and cuter, with a pretty speckled shell that can be used to your advantage. For an indulgent breakfast or unusual starter, serve them soft boiled (they cook in the amount of time it takes to bring cold water to a simmer) with a dollop of sour cream and a spoonful of caviar. Out of the shell, quail eggs fry up adorably for an unexpected topper, with Parmesan curls, on roasted asparagus, or poach quickly for a French bistro salad with frisée, garlic croutons and warm bacon dressing. $3-4 for a pack of 18 eggs

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Pomegranate season could not be better timed. If you keep one of these beauties in your fruit drawer throughout the holidays, you will never be without an off-beat breakfast, vibrant garnish, light dessert, cocktail enhancer … Try them mixed with freshly sectioned pink grapefruit and a bit of honey, tossed into a green salad, sprinkled over roasted Brussels sprouts, soaked in brandy and spooned over vanilla ice cream, dropped into Champagne flutes with prosecco or cava. (When shopping, avoid prepacked seeds, which are rarely fresh. To release seeds from the whole fruit, spank it with a wooden spoon before cutting open.) $1-3 each

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Smoked and dried duck breast is like sophisticated, ready-to-eat bacon and, although it’s a little expensive, you get a nice bang for about 13 bucks. You can pair it with figs or black plums in an arugula-based salad, or combine it with wasabi and crunchy apple for an elegant little sandwich. It’s also great laid over cooked pizza (don’t put it in the oven or you’ll ruin it), and I can’t say enough about how nice it is with fried eggs at midnight. About $13 for 85 grams

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What’s the humble spud doing on a list like this? Truthfully, potatoes can’t be beat for sheer versatility and shelf stability. Shredded, mashed, baked, stuffed, boiled or fried, they are the perfect vehicle for caviar, truffles, blue cheese, smoked fish, lobster or whatever other holiday nibble you can dream up. If russets and Yukon golds seem frumpy, experiment with red skins, fingerling or even purple Peruvians, which look great sliced thinly, fried and served alongside a feta-and-sour-cream dip. Just make a lot – last time I put these out people were trying to take handfuls home in their pockets. $1.49 to $4.99 for a pound

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In addition to everything else you’ll need in your liquor cabinet for the holiday onslaught, consider adding a bottle or two of European dessert wine such as Italian vin santo, French Sauternes or Spanish moscatel. Of course they’re delicious to drink on their own, but these fruit-scented nectars also stand in nicely for more labour-intensive desserts when served with dried fruit and nuts, or even plain biscotti (for dunking). You can also cook them – simmered on the stovetop, moscatel oro, for example, becomes a luscious syrup you can pour over a plain sponge cake with berries, and vin santo makes a luxurious poaching liquid for peach or pear halves. Starting at $17 for a 500-millilitre bottle of moscatel oro and going up from there

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Whitefish caviar is a festive gold colour and is native to the Great Lakes, making it less expensive and salty than traditional sturgeon caviar. The small eggs, which have a mild but authentic flavour and a crunchy texture, dress up simple smoked salmon or cucumber canapés in one easy stroke. But don’t stop there – try them over soft scrambled eggs, potato latkes, creamy pasta or broiled fish. The occasional spoon right from the jar onto a piece of butter toast isn’t too bad, either. About $22 for 4 oz

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