The groundhog predicted an early spring and almost immediately, people started to creep out from their winter-long hibernations, only to have to return back inside shortly afterwards for social distancing, self-isolating, and quarantining. Some spring! Although we may be stuck indoors for the time being, we can still try to look ahead to warmer, more hope-filled days. Perhaps when all this is over, think about throwing a little dinner party for all the friends you’ve missed spending time with. What better way to reconnect than to open the door, invite them in, and dish over dinner? But don’t let the idea of a so-called “dinner party” scare you. With these 10 helpful tips and three very uncomplicated recipes, you too can throw your friends a deceptively simple summer soirée.
- Invite only as many people as can fit comfortably at your table. One table offers an intimacy that larger parties can’t sustain, and you won’t feel like you’re catering some huge event.
- Set a budget to safeguard against going overboard, making sure it includes ingredients for your menu, whatever drinks you plan to serve, and some sort of decoration for your table.
- Prepare familiar dishes that don’t require a lot of at-stove attention. Use ingredients you already have or are readily available. You can easily elevate humble (read: inexpensive) ingredients by adding unusual elements or techniques, as you’ll see in the recipes included here. Do as much preparation ahead of time as possible so you can mingle on the evening of.
- Serve wine. It’s an easy beverage – chill if needed, open, and pour. Many liquor stores have discounts on half- or full cases of wine, so buying a mixed case of red, white, and rosé ensures you meet the preferences of all your guests. Set the bottles out on a separate table or bar that includes glasses and a wine opener so guests can help themselves throughout the evening.
- Create a cozy tablescape. Count your dishes, glasses and flatware so you have enough to go around. If you don’t, or if you hate washing dishes, there are plenty of fancier disposables are out there. Set out a vase filled with colorful flowers, conveniently purchased from the grocery store where you probably had to go anyway. Create further ambience with a variety of unscented votives that won’t mess with the scent of your delicious food. And use cloth napkins. People always think that’s fancy.
- Make a playlist of instrumental music that sets the mood yet still allows guests to converse without competing with song lyrics or house-thumping bass. My go-to is to put a few albums by pianist George Winston on shuffle.
- Keep the bathroom guest-friendly by cleaning it well, which includes hiding away your personal items, stocking it with disposable hand towels and extra toilet paper, and lighting a scented candle.
- Put out a few snacks so guests have something to nosh on when they first arrive and while you finish up the cooking. Bowls filled with nuts or some other snack mix, and a platter of cheese and crackers seem slightly more elegant than chips in a bowl.
- Serve dinner family-style. It’s much easier to deliver platters of food than to plate individual servings.
- Be a great host. Keep in mind that your guests are not really at your house to be fed. They are there to spend time with you and the other guests. Remain present and don’t be afraid to ask for a little help.
Now, let’s turn to the food. The recipes in this three-course menu are purposefully designed not only to align with these tips but also to celebrate the spring season. Active cooking time to make all three recipes (yes, all three!) is an hour at the most, including a couple of quick steps you can do the night before.
For an appetizer, I highlight spring’s trendiest vegetable by wrapping asparagus bundles in prosciutto and pan-searing them in batches ahead of time. A quick heat-up in the oven and a drizzle of balsamic glaze to add a touch of sweet to the savory is all it needs to be served.
For the main course, nothing says “welcome to my home” like roasted chicken. Inexpensive, simple, and classic. In this recipe, I add a little pizzazz to the pan by seasoning chicken portions (I prefer drumsticks and thighs) and veggies with za’atar, a tangy Middle Eastern spice blend that contains thyme, oregano, marjoram, sesame seeds, sumac (a crushed dried berry that offers a citrusy tang), and – sometimes – salt, then I roast them together in a cast-iron pan for a minimal effort, French bistro-like result. You can put the chicken into the oven as you and your guests enjoy the first course. The scent of roasting chicken will fill the air and whet everyone’s appetites for more.
For a light dessert, fill some store-bought tartlet shells with ricotta cheese that you already whipped with some honey, top with a couple of mixed berries, and serve.
Entertaining doesn’t have to be an anxiety-inducing chore. Follow these guidelines, and not only will your guests enjoy themselves, but I bet you will, too.
Amy S. White is a teacher, food writer, and line cook in eastern Connecticut. While she wishes she could invite all of her readers to brunch at her place, this column will have to suffice. For more about Amy, go to amyswhite.com.
Photographed by Allegro Anderson