My first 'proper' dinner party with family, what should I serve?
October 3, 2009 12:37 PM   Subscribe

My first 'proper' dinner party with family, what should I serve?

After several years in cheap, small, cold basement apartments, I finally am in a proper place with room to have people over---nut just to 'look' and then go out, but to actually sit at a table, eat and schmooze. My dad, stepmom and two siblings are coming over tomorrow for dinner and I want to make something simple, but impressive. We'll probably do it buffet-style with everything set up in the kitchen and people lounging in the living room. He's told me not to go to any effort on his account and to keep it simple, but this is my first time really having people over for anything more than bagels and soda so I do want them to walk away feeling like they've had a nice time here :) Ideas?
posted by JoannaC to Food & Drink (20 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
How about a kickass lasagna? Find a recipe that uses ready-to-cook noodles and it's near impossible to screw up. Accompany with a great salad, some homemade garlic bread and wine and you'll be a hosting superstar. Fresh cut flowers and a candle or two for ambiance would also look great. Enjoy!
posted by meerkatty at 12:51 PM on October 3, 2009

My favorite "easy but impressive" dinner is baked chicken and risotto. You can throw the chicken in the oven, stir the risotto while it's baking and you're done.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:52 PM on October 3, 2009

How about a roast chicken and roasted veggies? Really easy, inexpensive and yummy. Plus, you're not in the kitchen all day and very little prep. Throw it all in the oven and you're good to go.
posted by fresh-rn at 1:09 PM on October 3, 2009

Seconding a chicken. There's very little to roasting a chicken, just buy it (make sure to take out the giblets packet...I know from experience...) put it in the oven, and serve with mashed potatoes, rice, or whatever side dishes you all like.

Carrots can be jazzed up with a butter sauce. Add ginger or brown sugar or something spicy to a couple of tablespoons of butter, and add steamed carrots to it. Steam some green beans, add some almonds, and it seems fancy for a side dish.

I make the simplest gravy by using the pan drippings from the chicken, skim the fat, add a slurry of corn starch and cold water (a tablespoon of each or so), some chicken broth, and it's really good.

If you want people fighting over rolls, get a packet of those Pilsbury crescent rolls. I know folks who turn up their noses at such things, but I have yet to have any left over when I serve them at any dinner.
posted by xingcat at 1:12 PM on October 3, 2009

Salmon en croute. It's pretty damn simple (skin a salmon fillet, toss some mushrooms, onion, dill together over heat and put on top of the salmon, and wrap everything in puff pastry dough and throw in the oven) but for what you do you get something that looks great and tastes phenomenal. It's pretty foolproof, too. It's my go-to-dinner-party dish. Recipes here and here and more online.
posted by suedehead at 1:14 PM on October 3, 2009

If everyone eats meat, a roast with veggies can be tasty and impressive without requiring a lot of prep time. I tend to do a pork loin with potatoes, onions, carrots and apple slices roasted in red wine and spices. Bonus, the roast in the oven makes your home smell fabulous.

If there are non-meat eaters, then I tend to go with risotto and roasted veggies.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 1:19 PM on October 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Cheddar Chicken is easy and tasty.

Steamed vegetables are also quite easy and tasty. Carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, or whatever you prefer.
posted by backwards guitar at 1:24 PM on October 3, 2009

Similar to the chicken suggestion--those marinated pork tenderloins that you see in the meat section are fairly easy for people with less cooking experience.

Fresh-cooked veggies will impress better than canned or frozen--spend a few pennies more and get pre-trimmed fresh green beans or peeled baby carrots. You won't have to do much more than boil them and "dress them up".

And following up on the canned crescent roll notion--look in the freezer section of the store for frozen bread/roll dough. It can be a shortcut to "wow! fresh bread!" without having to do all the work (although for best results, you do need to let them spend a few hours thawing and rising).
posted by gimonca at 1:27 PM on October 3, 2009

Seconding lasagna, which can be made with or without meat. It's great for buffets because it stays hot for a long time out of the oven, plus who can resist the gooey cheesy lusciousness? While it bakes you can make the salad and fuss with last-minute details.
posted by Quietgal at 1:29 PM on October 3, 2009

From Ms. Vegetable:

Don't forget dessert! If you bake, there's NOTHING better than walking into an apartment with freshly baking something - cookies, cake, whatever. If you don't bake, ice cream + toppings is delicious. Or chocolate fondue.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 1:32 PM on October 3, 2009

Seconding lasagna, garlic bread, and salad. Delicious and the recipe can be scaled up to serve however many you'd like with not too much trouble, and most everyone likes it. If you don't already have a recipe, this was a HUGE hit in my family, and my dad requested that I make it for father's day (I told him I'd make whatever he wanted). Make extra sauce (when I make it, I make 1.5 of the recipe for sauce...most of it gets used in the lasagna, but extra can be used for dipping garlic bread, or on top of the lasagna). I also usually use a few more of the ready-to-bake pasta sheets so I buy an extra box - I overlap them by about a cm so there's no pasta gaps.

I've never made garlic bread from scratch, but it is pretty simple. (I just realized that link was punny.)

If you're doing dessert, I'd go for a warm apple crisp (it's autumn!! yum), served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream (or caramel/dulce de leche ice cream) and coffee. Or cookies and warm apple cider (just warm it in a saucepan on the stove and throw a cinnamon stick or two in, let it simmer gently for a few minutes, pour into a mug and top with whipped cream, canned is fine and delish. If you want to get fancy, sprinkle a teeeny bit of ground cinnamon on top of the whipped cream). Both of these desserts are delicious and pretty easy to toss together...just go to a bakery and buy some cookies if you're not a baker! (Obviously I'm a bit of an apple freak this time of year.)
posted by AlisonM at 1:34 PM on October 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you do decide to make a chicken, and you're not squeamish about such things, the guts can be chopped up, cooked, and added to the gravy for superb flavor.
posted by scose at 1:38 PM on October 3, 2009

Oh, also, if you're going to do a garlic bread (way easy, and delicious), here's a great video with instructions.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:39 PM on October 3, 2009

As others have said, lasagna is good, but what about enchiladas? There are a thousand variations (cheese only, veggie, pork, chicken, whatever) so you can suit them to your family's tastes and how much trouble you want to go to. Serve with Spanish rice, beans (refried or not) and then toppings like sour cream, guacamole, chopped tomatoes and chopped lettuce.

You could take the Tex-Mex theme through to dessert and drinks, too, if you want.
posted by darksong at 1:47 PM on October 3, 2009

Since the dinner is tomorrow lasagna might be a lot of work, but it is my go-to dinner party dish, and here's why:

You do all the cooking and put it all together in the pan tonight. Then you either cook it and put it in the fridge overnight, or put it in the fridge overnight and cook it tomorrow.

Either way, though, you can do the dishes tonight! That way, when your guests come tomorrow, your house is all shiny and clean.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:14 PM on October 3, 2009

Since you're doing this tomorrow, the following part of my advice isn't entirely pertinent, but I've found that if I am making something for guests, I need a practice run to make sure that what I'm making tastes good, doesn't require reverse back flips to make it and has ingredients that I can get easily.

That said, here's a recipe for a barley pilaf that has served me well in the past. The carrots and peppers aren't all that important to the recipe, but the lemon zest is really awesome and the texture of the barley is wonderful

This chicken recipe gives good return for not a huge amount of effort. You can completely eliminate the watercress part and just serve the chicken.

In terms of easy dessert, my favorite easy recipe is something called Swedish apple pie.

Take a stick of butter, melt it in the microwave in a bowl. Let it cool to approximately room temperature.

Preheat your oven to 345oF

In the meantime, peel five apples and chop into approximately tablespoon sized pieces - they don't have to be pretty. If you don't have apples, try plums (don't peel) or peaches (also, no need to peel). Sprinkle with about a teaspoon of ground cinnamon and put in a pie plate or a 9x9 glass baking pan or any casserole dish with a similar top surface area.

Put a cup of sugar and a cup of flour in a mixing bowl. Add the butter and an egg. Mix thoroughly.
Take a chunk of the batter between your hands and pat it into a semblance of flatness. Put it on top of the apples in the pie dish. Keep doing this until you've covered all the apples with batter.

Cook until it smells really good and the crust is "golden brown." Cook time is variable based on the volume of fruit being cooked. Can be served warm or cool, but when it comes out of the oven it is molten for a while. Is especially good warm with some vanilla ice cream or for breakfast the next day.

Good luck.
posted by sciencegeek at 4:24 PM on October 3, 2009

Americans tend to forget starter courses at home. You'll seem a more experienced host, with very little extra effort, if you preface your main course with soup & crackers, a salad course & bread, or both. Soup you can make from near scratch with a bag of frozen soup vegetables, some quality canned broth, and some basic seasonings; add good crackers and butter, and you've got a great starter course for a couple of bucks and 5 minutes of your time.

A salad course can be as simple as fresh iceberg wedges, with top quality bleu cheese crumbled into a mild vinagrette, and generous amount of pre-cooked bacon crumbled over all that; add some good croutons, or sliced baguette bread you've warmed at home, if you like. Again, a few dollars and 10 minutes to prepare a memorable salad course for 6 people, that neatly prefaces your main course.

Also, a good way to "stretch" a single roasting chicken, or a small pot roast to feed 6, or even 8, people in a pinch.
posted by paulsc at 6:00 PM on October 3, 2009

Best answer: Since you're doing a buffet style you might opt for something more casual, yet stlll yummy and impressive. You could do a make-your-own fajita or burrito or somthing like that. I've done that with my in-laws. Make the seasoned chicken or beef and put that and all the other fixings in separate containers on the counter and people can put in whatever items they like in a warm tortilla. You could have bowls of rice and beans that could be used as side dishes and/or ingredients in the tortillas. Plus a salad, chips, salsa, and whatever yummy dessert you might have room for!
posted by LilBit at 6:30 PM on October 3, 2009

Unless you're a professional-grade cook, the secret to entertaining memorably at home is to focus on the overall experience. Paulsc is right that you set the tone with hors-d'oeuvre or starters. I like to set out a few bowls of olives, mixed nuts, wasabi peas, and crudités, and maybe some chips and salsa. If you talk for a while over drinks while munching, you don't need a formal starter course when you move to the table. Then you can have a simple main course. I serve salad after the main course, French style, and then move on to a cheese plate with 3 or 4 complementary cheeses and some bread and crackers. Then dessert--homemade or bought--and coffee or herbal tea.

The main course can be extremely simple. One of my sure-fire recipes involves warming 1 tablespoon each of flour and curry in a large saucepan for a few minutes; adding one diced onion, a large can of diced tomatoes, a third of a cup of mango chutney, and about 1.5 lbs. of boneless, skinless chicken thighs; and then bringing the whole thing to a boil. Simmer until the chicken is tender, then add minced parsley and fresh lemon juice. Serve over rice or noodles, or with thick slices of absorbent bread. It takes about 45 minutes start to finish and you can do most of the cooking while you're also setting the table and tidying up.

As a rule of thumb, the more you spend on ingredients, the simpler the cooking can be. But simple cooking is much more memorable if each simple dish is part of a complementary sequence. Pasta tossed with melted butter and sauteed sage, with a little grated parmesan cheese, would not be a satisfactory dish by itself. But precede it with some hors-d'oeuvre, then follow it with a simple tossed salad, a couple cheeses, and a dish of ice cream, and it becomes part of a very satisfactory ensemble.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:42 PM on October 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

The lasanga and salad suggestion is a good one. I'd add the suggestion of home-made hamburgers, to be assembled by your guests, which would work well with your buffet idea. Arrange all the added ingredients (cheese, salads, sauces) etc in bowls before you cook your fresh hamburgers. It was my first meal I made for my parents when I moved out of home.

Don't forget some beer/wine in the fridge for your guests, too.
posted by chronic sublime at 7:50 PM on October 3, 2009

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