Ah, the dinner party. We all have these notions of Sunday roast beef, white tableclothes and people making small talk with drinks while the over-ambitious appetizers burn in the oven 20 minutes past the time they were supposed to be done. Or maybe I’m being pessimistic…
At any rate it certainly doesn’t have to play out that way. Having a few friends over for dinner shouldn’t be all that complicated, and you can certainly pull it off. If you keep it simple.
The first concern is the guest list. I would recommend six people for the dinner party novice. It’s enough to get a mix of personalities and make for an interesting evening, but not so many people that you feel overwhelmed with feeding them and keeping them entertained. The obvious bonus to six being your magic number – you don’t have to do the dreaded “kitchen math” of altering your chosen recipes – most cookbooks these day have recipes that are made to serve four to six.
Which leads us to the food. Menu planning is very much akin to drawing up your Christmas wish list. Everything looks wonderful and you get carried away. It all looks so straightforward on paper. Eight courses, each with their own wine pairing? Marvelous! No. Not marvelous – it has the potential to be marvelous, but only after you’ve mastered three courses without a hitch. Remember that each dish in each course is made up of differenet components – some of which can be prepped in advance, but the timing can be different for each dish. So you have to think about all of those dishes making it to the table at the same time, and preferably hot. So start with three.
It’s easiest if your appetizer and your dessert are dishes that you can prepare ahead (or mostly). That way you only have to worry about putting together your entree at the last minute. Some suggestions for good courses:
Appetizer – composed salads are good. You can have the salad assembled in the fridge and add the dressing right as you’re about to serve. Tarts are also good because you can prebake them up to a day ahead and then serve at room temp or warm slightly right before plating – onion tart is my favorite one. Something classic you could do as an appetizer is also shrimp cocktail – which nearly everyone loves. But instead of serving it with just cocktail sauce, serve it with a trio of sauces (all of which you can make ahead) – cocktail sauce, a ceviche-style sauce and a pesto sauce – you could do anything you have a taste for.
Entree – I’m a big fan of one-dish preparations for the dinner party. Pasta dishes are wonderful and nearly foolproof – pasta bolognese, gramigna all salsiccia e vino, lasagna – all good choices. Roasted chicken with potatoes and carrots is a classic. The ubiquitous pot roast – do a beer pot roast in the crockpot – super tasty and super easy. Coq au vin is upscale favorite of mine. I tend to serve the entrees family-style at the table – not only is it easier on you the cook, but it puts everyone at the table at ease as well.
Dessert – parfaits are classic and tasty – a little pudding and whipped cream layered in a champagne glass never looked so good. Cake is always a hit (and can be baked the day before). Molten chocolate cakes are tasty and can be popped in the oven for 10 minutes after you clear the table – by the time everyone has their after dinner drink in hand, they’re coming out of the oven. A box of speciality chocolates is always a big hit as well – and it’s perfect on the off chance you’ve completely forgotten about dessert. Keeping them on hand as a back up plan in case something goes wrong with your planned dessert (not that it will!) is a good idea too.
Drinks – keep it simple. Mixed drinks are cumbersome if you’re planning on making them yourself while you cook. If you’ve got someone else to play bartender for you then go ahead, but I find that a nice bottle of prosecco is great apertif. Everyone loves sparkling wines and prosecco won’t break the bank – I’ve had lovely bottle for about $10. Wine or craft beer is good with your main course – make the choice based on the crowd your serving and what you’re making. Beer is great with pot roast, while wine is great with pasta. And for your digestif, espresso as well as either a bottle of port wine or calvados are good and go with just about anything.
The final touches to any dinner party involve the decor. Keep your table simple – a nice white tablecloth, your best dishes and silverware. Include a pepper grinder and salt cellar on the table so your guests feel free to adjust the seasoning to their tastes. A simple table arrangement lends festivity – a few votive candles on mirrors, a low vase of flowers, or something seasonal – for example, a grouping of gourds in the fall or a bowl of dyed eggs in the spring. Finally, back ground music is nice. Stick with the classics and have the volume low so conversation can still be had.
And remember – there are only disasters if you make mishaps into drama. Glide over any mistakes, laugh off the little pieces that don’t come together as you wish, and you and your guests will still have a perfect dinner together.