I’m in the beginning stages of prep for a small, casual dinner party tonight and as I’m watching my bread come together inside the bowl of my stand mixer, I find my mind wandering: how do I go about throwing dinner parties and how might my experience help others to pull off easy weeknight menus for friends?
I also recently had a talk with a good friend who struggled a bit at his last dinner party. He wanted to make as much in advance as possible (smart) but under-estimated marinade and cooking times so he wound up feeling rushed as he was getting dinner on the table for his friends. We want to avoid that because the cook is the person who should be having the most fun!
Throwing a dinner party is a nice change up from the daily dinner routine of feeding yourself and your family, but I realize as more times passes that the simple structure of forming a menu and executing all of the steps needed is the same.
I thought I’d share with you my basic foundation rules of approaching an evening like this and hopefully shed some light on how easy it is to put on an event that is both inexpensive, not time-intensive and fun—oh and don’t forget delicious.
Here’s my approach
I begin with a main dish idea that is slow-cooked. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s made in the slow-cooker. It could be braised in the oven, poached, made into a soup, etc. I like starting with this because a) it takes the longest and b) can be made in advance (the day before or the morning of). This way, I’m not scrambling in the kitchen with a new trendy dish that I’ve never made before. I go with tried and true.
An easy side: I almost always do crispy potatoes because they just benefit from sitting in the oven for awhile. I love to have these going (with a sprinkling of herbs and garlic powder) as my guests arrive so that they smell something really good when they walk in. These really gets them excited to eat and sets the mood!
Next, I make bread. Sounds hard, but I assure you it is not! From No-Knead to Pain de Mie to a simple sandwich loaf-turned-rolls, the idea is to offer something really home-y and satisfying that helps your guests to feel taken care of. Bread (to me) just says: Relax friends, you’re in for a treat. I’m taking care of you now.
I mean, the thought of coming over to someone’s house to eat whatever they make can be daunting, right? Do don’t get to choose what you eat, you’re at the mercy of the cook and what if you don’t like what’s being served? I am always astounded that folks have the courage to come over for dinner and eat whatever I make. I realize I’m a professional but dinner parties are not about the food. They are about the company. In any case, bread wins every time so throw in a fresh loaf! Here’s a great (and easy) recipe to follow.
About an hour before my friends arrive I throw together a quick & light raw vegetable salad. I like the bright alternative to a heavy braised dish that can often come out quite rich. Having a salad (with any cheese on the side) allows your plant-based friends to enjoy without the worry, too!
Finally, dessert! As a pastry chef, I know that if I have the time I can really knock dessert out of the park, but typically I don’t go all out. Something simple, easy to serve and light is my go-to. Homemade ice cream sandwiches with chocolate chips cookies and store-bought ice cream is an easy dish and can be made in advance. You want your dessert to be a nice segue into long talks and wine-sipping, so don’t go overboard!