What are some good meals to cook for dinner parties/groups of people?
March 9, 2009 6:31 AM   Subscribe

What are some good meals to cook for dinner parties/groups of people? What are some good cooking tips for the same?

What are meals that scale well for groups of 6-10 people? One of the things I'd like to avoid is having to spend too much time on the kitchen once people have turned up. However, at the same time, I'd like food that still has a bit of a wow factor (so while everyone loves, say, lasagne and it scales well and can be done easily, that sort of fails that criterion).

Also, what are good tips for preparing food for such occasions. (For example, the old "cooking vegetables before hand, then sticking in cold water, then reheating them through for a few minutes" trick). I'm thinking that restuarants must have plenty of experience here: how do they cook risotto and pasta? Is it always from scratch?
posted by Hartster to Food & Drink (28 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: How formal a menu are you looking for? Chili seems to fit this profile: scales easily, crowd-pleasing. Throw out a variety of toppings (sour cream, shredded cheese, chunked avocado, crackers, hot sauces, etc) and you've got a feast. Pair with hoe cakes or baked corn bread, serve with your favorite beer.
posted by jquinby at 6:55 AM on March 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think this depends somewhat on whether you've got an isolated, formal dining room, or a kitchen that's open and visible from the gathering area. My house is tiny, with only an eat-in kitchen. I can cook and interact with guests simultaneously.

Not a direct answer, but the first thing I do when planning such meals is look at the weather forecast. Gray and rainy suggests very different sorts of food than hot and muggy, or breezy and cool. Knowing the weather allows me to home in on the sort of meal I'd want to eat.
posted by jon1270 at 6:56 AM on March 9, 2009

What specifically to make is too big a question for me to get into right now. I have no idea what your friends like, what their dietary restrictions are, and how complex a dish you're comfortable preparing. I can, however, offer some general dinner party advice.

Know how long the meal takes to cook. I have made the fatal mistake of starting too early and having the meal finished over an hour before anyone was set to arrive. Food will dry out or get cold or burn or otherwise become horrible in such circumstances.

On a similar note: make sure you've got a cohost. Have someone on hand to greet your guests and grab them drinks in the moments when you need to jump back into the kitchen and check on the dinner.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 7:01 AM on March 9, 2009

I'd suggest any sort of braising. The cooking time is long, usually 2-3 hours, but all of the work is at the beginning and it's pretty much impossible to overcook things this way if you accidently get things finished early. You'll need a dutch oven, but you can get a decent enough one for 50-60 bucks. I find that there is a pretty good wow factor, just because not a lot of people are willing to wait long enough to get the rich flavor and texture. I'm especially partial to Moroccan lamb (here is a tasty recipe, though use less honey). Braised duck is also awesome, and you'll definitely get the wow factor.
posted by Schismatic at 7:19 AM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yeah, it's difficult to say "Cook this!" without knowing the specifics. That said, here are some things that might help:

*If you aren't using your oven for cooking (or if you have a double oven), use it to keep food warm. So you can prepare the entree ahead of time, keep it warm in a low oven and make the sauce a la minute, for example.

*Have your guests be part of the action, if your kitchen is big enough.

*The risotto trick: par cook the rice with the stock, until it's got about 5-10 minutes to go (with practice you'll know when this is). Spread it out on a baking sheet and stick it in the fridge. You can do this at any point up to a day ahead. Just make sure the rice has time to cool off completely. Then, about 10 minutes from when you'll need it, finish it like you usually would (hot stock, stirring, etc.).

*A whole fish might be the better way to go vs. filets, when it comes to dinner parties. Plus, you can do that in the oven, which frees you up for other stuff.

*I did just think of a specific thing to cook: anything in parchment "parcels." You can do all the prep before hand and when the guests arrive you stick the parcels in the oven. There's a lovely wow factor with that, when the guests open the parcels at the table.

*I can't emphasize this enough: know your recipes forwards and backwards. Better yet, have them memorized. Know exactly how long it takes to cook every single thing on your menu.

*Have hors d'ouevre ready to go before your guests arrive. Drinks also. That way, if you have to excuse yourself for a moment, they'll have something to do.

*Warm your plates in the oven, or run them through the dishwasher's heated dry cycle so they're ready to go when you need them. Conversely, if you need cold plates for a salad, stick them in the fridge the night before. This makes a huge difference for your guests.

*Pasta trick: par cook it, shock it (ice water bath) and drain, refrigerate, finish cooking when ready.
posted by cooker girl at 7:21 AM on March 9, 2009

Watch The Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network, if you can, or have a look here. She does lots of dinner party recipes that are made well in advance, and her food is usually simple to make, but with good ingredients.
posted by essexjan at 7:28 AM on March 9, 2009

Anything that goes in the oven in an 8"x13" Pyrex dish is great for large groups. Big enough to feed at least 6 hungry people, and there's at least 40 minutes or an hour between the time you finish making it and the time it's ready to eat. Lasagna is a member of this class, but there are many others as well. Here are some examples (the following are vegetarian, since that's what I know how to cook):

- Chilaquiles, which is essentially Mexican lasagna but people aren't as tired of it
- Roasted vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips, onions, garlic, apples, go wild!)
- Asparagus or green beans with pepper and shaved Parmesan (you can do this on a cookie sheet as well)
- Stuffed peppers or tomatoes
- Oven "fries"
posted by goingonit at 7:31 AM on March 9, 2009

Great question. Entertaining for groups is one of life's great pleasures.

Selecting an appropriate dish is half the battle. The key, I've found, is to pick something simple. This certainly doesn't mean it has to be boring, but think of it this way: due to the volume of food involved, you can't devote a great deal of time to any individual part of the recipe. Whereas cooking something complex for a small number of people involves paying attention to lots of details for short periods of time, increasing the size of the recipe means you have to spend more time on each step and causes greater potential for things to go wrong.

As an example, take stir fry vs. pasta. If you're making a stir fry for lots of people, you have to worry about lots of different ingredients-- the rice has to be cooked right, the peas have to be cooked a certain way, the carrots have to go in first, etc. etc. The problem here is that there are so many tasks, and each one takes more time than you're typically used to due to the increase in volume, so now you've got more things that can go wrong. Pasta, on the other hand, is typically simple-- just a few ingredients, so you can focus on cooking each one to perfection. Note that this doesn't mean you have to cook boring food for a dinner party-- we both know that a simple pasta can be lively and delicious. It just means you have to know your boundaries. This is one reason I'd advocate a baked dish for dinner parties-- the prep is easy and the only contact the food has with heat is specifically controlled, minimizing your chances for burning it.

A few goes-without-sayings-but-why-not: Make sure you've tried out the recipe prior to cooking it for a large group of people, and in case something goes catastrophically wrong make sure you have a back-up (pizza place #, something like that).

I know you're looking at doing food with more excitement, but starting slow is a great way to get good at this. Here's the best way to liven up the prep of a simple dish: get everyone involved. Break the dish down into individual tasks and give each person/couple something to do-- for lasgana you could do: grate cheese, chop onions, blend sauce, cook noodles, assemble. This gets everybody in the kitchen together, gives the group a shared goal/activity, and who doesn't enjoy a meal more when they've had a hand in creating it? Naturally this may not be great for every dinner party, but when done right its extremely fun.

If you want to try something a little more advanced, I'd recommend going the cooking show route-- slice up/prep all your ingredients in advance and store them in tupperware until they're needed. Increases the dish mess, but making that fried rice is going to be way easier when you don't have to worry about chopping the onions and keeping the stir fry moving at the same time. Similarly, marinating your ingredients overnight always intensifies the flavors and gives the dish more texture-- for example, marinating onions and halved cherry tomatoes in balsamic vinegar and olive oil makes a good pasta great.

The reason restaurants function so well on a large scale is twofold: 1) they have lots of people working on a small number of tasks, rather than a few people doing everything; 2) a lot of what they cook is pre-assembled or reheated. Ignoring point 2 for the moment (supposing we're in a scratch joint, say), point 1 is really the key. 1 guy isn't cooking burgers, prepping sauces, and watching the fryer-- they've got 2 guys prepping ingredients, 2 guys working sauces, 1 or 2 at the grill, 1 doing nothing but salads, and so on. They break those delicate tasks down so much that nobody's attention has to be divided away from making sure those scallions are cut exactly 1/4" on the bias. The easiest way to replicate this is, as suggested above, to pre-prep everything. The worst mistakes I've made in dinner parties all occurred while trying to prepare one set of ingredients while heating another. You can even go so far as to mix your spices in advance-- toss all your curry powder, chili powder, tumeric, salt, pepper, etc. together in a tupperware prior to cooking that curry, then toss the whole thing in once the rice is done.

Good luck, and have fun!
posted by baphomet at 7:34 AM on March 9, 2009

Choose something with less chopping. Chopping always takes way longer than you'd expect.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:37 AM on March 9, 2009

My favourite is my refried bean and nacho thing:

(1) Take dried pinto beans, soak them overnight; (2) Boil beans for 20-30mins (less if using a pressure cooker); (3) Fry onions and chopped chilli for a bit, add beans, fry a bit more; (4) add tomato puree, add cumin powder (1-2tbsp), coriander powder (1-2tbsp), tabasco/chile powder, mixed herbs; (5) add some water if required; (6) mash up the beans; (7) pour out mixture into large oven dish, put nacho chips on top, grate cheddar cheese on top, add some jalapenos; (8) put in oven until cheese melts; (9) serve with homemade guacamole, salad and sour cream.

It takes less than an hour to make. A standard sized oven dish would serve 5 or 6, I often make enough for two oven dishes.

The "wow" factor can be increased by having more (preferably homemade) accompaniments like salsa etc.
posted by jonesor at 7:38 AM on March 9, 2009

A grand Mexican fiesta. All out. With all the trimmings.
posted by watercarrier at 8:04 AM on March 9, 2009

Gotta second the Barefoot Contessa—check out her book Barefoot Contessa Parties and you will be a total success. Her recipes will work almost regardless of your skill level and she has tons of good tips about how to save time and seem effortlessly relaxed when throwing a dinner party. If you don't want to splurge on a book for a one-time thing, her books are popular enough that they should be readily available at your library.
posted by bcwinters at 8:12 AM on March 9, 2009

This pulled pork recipe (and the coleslaw) gets rave reviews. You do a dry rub, let the pork shoulder sit overnight, then cook it in a vinegar/water/garlic mixture for about 3-4 hours. The actual work takes maybe 15 minutes total, there are no expensive ingredients, you can scale the recipe up or down, and it's delicious.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:16 AM on March 9, 2009

@Ocherdraco: less chopping? you are kidding!

6-10 people Dinner parties.

Starter: Soup. easy to make can be prepared hours beforehand and just left to sit.
(Wow factor soups I find are soups based on an unusual vegetable that people aren't used to eating in that form, beetroot soup, lettuce soup, or from a fancy ingrediant, Portabello mushroom soup

Main: Casseroles, stews, or slow cooked meat. Say a whole shoulder of the lamb cooked for 3-4 hours. in the oven,
Osso Bucco or Lamb Shanks or Beef Shin etc.. relatively cheap cuts of meat that can be cooked well in advance of serving and the serving time is not particularly critical.

then serve with some say roast vegetables or mashed potatoes or Rice.

Indian Curries with side dishes.. curries can be made in advance of peopel arrival and will sit well for 30 mins or more. make up some Raitas and accompanyments before your guests arrive and you just have to set the table.

other ideas:
French Coq au Vin - slow cooked chicken pieces. scales well, low maintence in the last few stages.
large chicken and leek pie
- or any sort of large meat pie. most of the work is done before hand you just put it in the oven when they arrive.
posted by mary8nne at 8:21 AM on March 9, 2009

Thinking about dinner parties I have had (or rather looking through photos of them because my memory sucks), here are some impressive, non-fussy, scaleable dishes:

Mapo Tofu / Mapo Doufu: It all cooks in a skillet really quickly, you can double the recipe easily, and you can pad it out with lots of white rice. I've never made it from scratch, but the sauce packets you find at the Asian market are great (I worked in a ramen/tea shop that used them) and most people have never eaten it so they're impressed anyway. I add chili-garlic paste (the chunky Chinese kind, not rooster sauce) to kick up the heat, and it's just as good without meat if you've got vegetarians in the crowd.

I know other people have recommended against fried rice, but I've made huge containers of it and just kept them warm in the oven while I finished the rest of the meal off.

If you have a grill, skewered meat can be made and marinaded ahead of time, then cooked really quickly. I recommend bulgogi for the marinade, it's a tangy Korean barbeque sauce that has pineapple juice in it.

These red caramel ribs are impressive, but really easy as they're a braising recipe. Cut the fish sauce in that recipe way, way down unless you eat anchovies for breakfast.

Dear god, don't deep fry anything. Takes forever and the items get soft if they sit.

Carnitas is a braising recipe that takes an incredibly cheap cut of pork and turns it into fork-tender meat that either be shredded or cut into cubes and fried in lard. It's much, much more impressive in any Mexican recipe that the standard "ground beef with chile and cumin," and way cheaper than carne asada. For extra ease, you can make it in a crock pot. I recommend throwing a lot of canned chipotle into whatever recipe you use, by the way.

Is quiche cliche enough to not be impressive anymore? Anyway, I've made so many I don't need a recipe anymore, and people never complain, man. With a quality fresh salad and some steamed veggies on the side I think they can still be elegant, especially if you make them in little individual tart pans. When I used a recipe, I used this one, but I generally add more eggs, and change everything...it's still a good recipe.
posted by Juliet Banana at 8:25 AM on March 9, 2009

Second the *Don't Deep Fry anything!* Rule it is a pain and makes more mess and takes much much more time than you would expect. We did these little mini empanadas once and they were delicious but tok 1-2 hours just to finish them alone!

I would also recommend "Stuff you can serve with a simple Salad"
Say a Rocket, tomato and Buffulo Mozarella salad beforehand but don't dress it till its served. Will stay fresh in the fridge for and hour or so.

Beetroot and Goats cheese salad. (although cooking the beetroots can be a pain)
posted by mary8nne at 8:34 AM on March 9, 2009

I recommend the common grill cookbook for this. We had 8 people for dinner yesterday, and I made maple cured pork loin (marinated overnight, put in oven, ignore); whipped sweet potatoes with apples (best recipe EVER; made that morning); tuscan beans; ceasar salad, brownies for dessert. Everyone loved everything.

There's another pork loin recipe in there that has a cherry compote that's delish. Lots of good seafood, too.

The cookbook is good because the recipes are fairly simple, and have a lot of wow factor. Especially the side dishes. Almost everything can be done well in advance, or is the kind of thing that is finishing in the oven while you're visiting.
posted by dpx.mfx at 8:36 AM on March 9, 2009

I would suggest going to books dedicated to having a good time with a group of people and have composed the menus including cocktails for you such as, Tom Douglas' book, Big Dinners or as suggested upthread, Barefoot Contessa line. I also find that you can get some nice inspiration from catering cookbooks just remember to think about how many protein courses, vegetables, fruit, etc. The thing is, you want to wow without killing yourself or being deprived of seeing your guests.

My usual rule is to "wow" with one dish and the sides just come together. Also, be liberal with libations. If your guests include people who do not imbibe alcohol consider them too. A good party is about considering your guests.

Want to be sure to include the children of friends? Hire a babysitter to be with the kids and relieve the stress of parents. Have child size picnic table and a range of child friendly foods and games for the youngsters. If you have a nice basement or extra room somewhere even better.

Its a party, a good time, a pleasure and a thoughtful process.
posted by jadepearl at 8:50 AM on March 9, 2009

Chicken Marbella fits all of your criteria perfectly. Plus it is delicious.
posted by dfan at 9:03 AM on March 9, 2009

mary8nne: I mean choose a recipe with less chopping if you plan to prepare the whole thing the evening of the meal. I used to do lots of cooking for large groups of people, and I found that it was much easier if the recipes didn't require much chopping of vegetables or slicing of meat. Of course, if you're going to prepare ingredients the night before, by all means, chop away.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:44 AM on March 9, 2009

Refer to my (and others) answer here.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 9:46 AM on March 9, 2009

Some things actually taste better a day or two after they're cooked: soups, stews, and stew-like dishes such as pasta sauces, goulash, chili, curries, etc. You can make the main course the day before the party and just simmer it a little to reheat before serving. This takes a little of the stress off before the guests arrive. Dishes like this also tend to scale well.
posted by Quietgal at 10:03 AM on March 9, 2009

Sometimes I'll make something like Penne in Cream Sauce with Sausage, which is easy in itself, but then I'll keep it warm in one of my chaffing dishes.

Or grilling.....taking something like Shrimp and Chicken Kebabs w/ a Jalapeno Lime Marinade, so it can marinate the day of, and then DH can grill while socializing outside.

And I know you said lasagna doesn't have that wow factor you're looking for, but we love Todd English's lasagna (a little modified), and I love that I could make it weeks in advance if I wanted, freeze, thaw in the fridge a couple days, and then throw it in the oven an hour before it's time to eat.
posted by texas_blissful at 1:23 PM on March 9, 2009

Seconding chicken marbella. First thing that came to mind. The linked recipe is my recipe too (from the Silver Palate cookbook).
posted by semacd at 2:46 PM on March 9, 2009

Also, lasagne doesn't have a wow factor, but I once made a bunch of individual-sized lasagnes with different fillers (i.e. mushrooms/spinach in one, sausage in another, regular plain in another) and let people pick their lasagnes. That was a big hit, and not much more work than just making a big pan of lasagne.
posted by semacd at 2:48 PM on March 9, 2009

Biryani or pilaf.

Make a "curry". Either meat or vegetables. Typically a biryani uses a specific set of spices depending on the region.

Now, you could theoretically eat this curry with rice or bread and be done with it. What makes biryani cool and great for parties is that you bake it.

You cook a pot of rice until its about 75% done. In a roaster (what do you call a tray with a lid?) put the curry on the bottom of the tray and the almost cooked rice on the top (drained of course).

Bake this in the oven at 350 for about 20 minutes or however long it takes to finish the rice. Gently mix the ingredients together and you should have biryani.

Of course, all you have is rice and curry mixed together. To make the yogurt dressing "raitha" you take yogurt, chopped onions, chopped tomatoes, chopped green pepper (jalapeno or green chili), cilantro and a salt to taste.

Obviously the recipe hinges on your ability to make a good curry and your ability to make rice. However, it is a staple dish served in many Indian and Pakistani dinner parties.
posted by abdulf at 4:25 PM on March 9, 2009

You want to make things that are basically in the oven when your guests arrive. Anything slow and low, like pork shoulder or brisket with sides like coleslaw, etc. that you can make in advance. You don't want to be in the process of making anything when guests arrive. It's a real drag and it can be hard to concentrate. For dessert how about a nice bread pudding?
posted by xammerboy at 8:44 PM on March 9, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks a lot: a load of good answers here. This time around we went with a homemade chilli plus lots of sauces and toppings etc. The chilli was supereasy to prepare beforehand, and the homemade guacamole etc satisfied my fancy itch. Cheers AskMe!
posted by Hartster at 3:53 PM on March 16, 2009

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