March Madness munching

Restaurants and grocers give hoops hosting tips.Don’t make it fancy, local experts say.

Talk about a slam dunk. One of the easiest hosting gigs is having people over to gather around the television for a sporting event. Just provide a decent TV, food and drink and it’s nothin’ but net.

A great chance is coming up with March Madness, the NCAA Division I Basketball Championship tournament. The most popular games are the Final Four, but others offer excitement, as well.

If you and your crowd have tickets for early round action at the University of Dayton Arena, then you can host a dinner before the game or dessert afterward. To have people over for TV viewing, check your local listings to see which games you can get.

Your invitation can be casual — email, phone calls, an announcement at work, etc. And the invites can even be last-minute if you want to see if your favorite team advances.

When planning the menu, breathe a sigh of relief and break out your favorite cheese ball recipe because sports party food is simple, hearty fare.

“Don’t try to make it fancy,” recommends party-giver Candace Rinke, owner and chef at The Hawthorn Grill in Kettering. “March Madness gatherings are a good time to serve ‘guy food.’ That’s what people want. For the last sports party we had in our home, I served white bean chicken chili, pulled pork sandwiches, wings, ribs. People loved the menu.”

Guests like to eat soon after arrival and then “graze” during the game. Traditional tailgate foods are crowd pleasers: barbecue sandwiches, potato skins, meatballs, sub sandwiches, a spicy salsa cheese dip, franks and other favorites. Pizza is a winner and so are wraps, and, of course, snacks a’plenty.

Experts recommend if you want to try a new recipe, only do so for one dish. Other than that, stick to tried-and-true winners.

Many guests are more than happy to bring a dish. If it’s a large group, make it a true potluck and take your chances. With a smaller group, assign people categories to bring (appetizer, salad, snack, etc.).

Don’t hesitate to turn to your favorite party-food supplier. “Very popular right now is our pretzel stick tray with beer cheese and nacho cheese,” says Maggie Trumball, deli manager at the Kroger Marketplace in Liberty Twp. “Letting us make dogs-in-a-blanket tray for you really saves time. For something a little different, our Asiantizer tray has pot stickers and miniature egg rolls.”

Wings and tenders are popular with Kroger customers and others. The manager at Frickers in Troy says orders for 6-8 people can be phoned in the day of game but recommends giving your favorite wings-maker a day or two notice.

You’ll please health-conscious guests by including vegetables, fruit kabobs, a salad or other nutritious offerings. If your party is on any Friday before Easter, make sure you have choices for people abstaining from meat on Fridays in Lent.

Dessert is a must. Knock yourself out making a cake decorated like a basketball, if you wish. “But the best desserts are finger foods like cookies, brownies or bowls of Peanut M&Ms,” Rinke says.

Even for casual food, set a nice buffet table. Party supply stores have fun ideas — basketball plates, napkins, table cloths and other decorations.

Sports parties are a good time to announce B.Y.O.B (bring your own beer) or have a big cooler with beer, soft drinks and water.

Clean-up? It’s a snap when you put a basketball hoop over the trashcan and recycling bin.

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