Help me find simple recipes for discussion evenings
November 18, 2009 10:43 AM   Subscribe

On a regular basis, I'm going to be having informal discussion evenings in my home, with two to four people at each one. They (and I) need to eat dinner, but the focus of the evening isn't the food. I'm looking for food ideas that meet a number of criteria, and trying to figure out more variety.

I'll be providing the main dish (we potluck for some things, but not these discussions), and want to keep costs fairly low. People may well bring supplemental food (cheese and crackers, salad, desert, etc.) but will often be coming directly from work (so limited in what things they can easily bring along.)

These discussion evenings are basically religious education discussions, which I will be leading, so I want the food to be something that needs very little attention (and that will be ready to eat within 10 minutes of people arriving and settling down, so we don't need to disrupt the flow of the discussion.) People are usually on time, but traffic or other events can sometimes mean people run 10-15 minutes late, so dishes should be able to accommodate that.

Stuff that's worked so far:
- Soup + bread + interesting cheese
- Homemade pizza (if I get home early enough to let the dough come up to room temp.)
- Hot weather food plates (hummus, vegetables, baba ganoush, salads, etc.)
- Chicken wild rice stew (made in advance, reheated)

- Work full time, and would get home about 1-2 hours before the other folks show up. (School librarian: my day starts early.)
- However, work is a long day for me, and I'm not up for more than about 10-15 minute of food prep once I get home. (I need a break, plus usually need to do a little last minute tidying/moving of furniture, etc.)
- Live by myself (with a cat), and normally eat my main meal of the day at work (we have a great cafeteria): my meal habits are geared around that.
- I enjoy cooking, bake my own bread most of the time, etc. but prefer to do it in long batches on the weekend. (That said, long food preps like stew that can be reheated later in the week are great).
- Reasonable cooking skills, but nothing fancy.
- I do most of my food shopping at Trader Joe's and the local co-op or farmer's market, but also have a mainstream grocery (Rainbow and Cub) nearby.

My kitchen (in a 400 square foot house: space is limited):
- Gas stove/oven
- Smallish fridge/freezer (i.e. not tons of extra storage space after storing my own food that needs this space.)
- No microwave (and nowhere to put one that's accessible or safe for me to use.)
- Willing to consider a crockpot if I can figure out enough things I'd use it for.
- Avoid one-use-only tools, but do have a reasonable range of kitchen pots and pans, mixing bowls, storage, etc.
- Leftovers should be things I can either get through myself in a reasonable amount of time, or that can be easily frozen.

Other food notes
- Strong preference for avoiding highly processed foods. Recipes that involve 'add a can of cream of whatever soup', or 'pour in X amount of processed food' are things I want to avoid.
- I'd like to have a range of seasonally appropriate foods, though this isn't totally mandatory.
- I'd like to avoid protein heavy meals ("take 6 chicken breasts and X..."), I prefer sustainably raised animal protein when I buy it, and regularly feeding multiple people lots of that would be a big dent in my food budget.
- I don't do well with peppers; very mild chili would be fine, but not heavily spicy foods that rely on them.
- We are not currently dealing with significant food limits (allergies, sensitivities, vegetarians, diabetic, gluten free, etc.) but it's quite possible that'll be true some time in the future, and I'd like to have options that adjust for it.

My hopes:
What I really hope is that somewhere out there, there's a blog or six talking about exactly this, with lots of great recipes and ideas. Cookbooks that do the same would be great too. But I'll also cheerfully take links to specific recipes, or even ideas of what to look for. I've done a number of searches, but don't seem to be finding good ways to focus the specific stuff I want.

Thank you!
posted by modernhypatia to Food & Drink (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I can't really think of how to aim a google search to find a blog/etc., but here are some specific ideas that you could get a recipe for if it sounded good to you:

Lasagna, baked ziti, stuffed manicotti/shells, or really any baked pasta/tomato/cheese dish done up on the weekend.

One of my favorites is potato gnocci (vacuum pouch on the dried-pasta shelf), panfried (teflon plus nominal butter), with onions, garlic, herbs, and whatever vegetables are handy. One of my favorites is brussel sprouts and fennel sausage; another constant is "whatever's in the freezer" (corn, peas, etc). It's sauceless pasta, in some sense. The prep time is chopping (anoter reason for "whatever's in the freezer) plus about 15 minutes of saute.

Big pot of lentils. There are so many ways to make lentils delicious, I'm sure you can find one with a list of ingredients that appeals to you, but this is a varient on "tasty soup" night.

Seasonally, tomatoes or bell peppers stuffed with rice or bread-stuffing or couscous. Can be stuffed on the weekend and baked the night of.

Maybe a recipe search for baked main dishes would turn up things you could prep ahead of time?
posted by aimedwander at 11:02 AM on November 18, 2009

Ok - this sort of fails the protein heavy criteria, but it is really really good and really really easy and if you get someone else to bring bread and chees, could be done for less that 20.00.

French Dips
3-4 pd chuck roast
1 can french onion soup
1 can beef broth
1 can beer
3-4 tablespoons of Dales' sauce - usually found near steak sauce or marinades. has white label in dark jar
1/2 t onion powder
1/2 t garlic powder
rolls- your choice - i usually use bolillo rolls, but a loaf of crusty french bread cut in portion is great too.
cheese of your choice

put roast and everything but roll and cheese (duh) in crock pot and cook on low for atleast 7 hours. i leave mine all day. Remove meat and shred. Return to pot. Toast rolls and load with meat and cheese of your choice. Can serve au jus for dipping if you like. Grainy mustard good also.

ugh - i read that the first time as you already had a crockpot, not that you would consider getting one. sorry. i am leaving what i typed for you to decide whether it works or not. This could be done in a oven on low the day before. Because of all the jus, it reheats really well. I probably would not shred the meat until the day i serve though.

fan of the crock pot here- great for soups, stews, beans, roasts.
posted by domino at 11:32 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think that a crock pot would be great! I am kind of gung ho lately because I'm new to crock pots, but I work all day and find it super easy to prepare everything the night before, turn it on low in the morning, and come home 10 hours later to a decent meal.

Things that have worked out great:
French onion soup
Potato Leek soup
Chicken and Rice and chickpeas with ginger (used brown rice, it was kind of mushy but I'd make this again)
Mulligatawny soup
Mariniere sauce chicken
Beef stew
Pot roast

One thing I like about the slow cooker is that you can buy meat in bulk, freeze it, and the quality isn't affected like it would be if you are say, roasting chicken or doing a stir fry. It's also great for the really cheap cuts of meat without heating your whole house up cooking country ribs for a few hours.

I can see doing a nice gnocci but that might get expensive for big groups; try home making it over the weekend. Here is a nice recipe.
posted by shownomercy at 11:39 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

A crock pot/slow cooker would be great for this. If you're too busy the night before you can prepare stuff ahead of time and freeze it, then thaw overnight and throw into the crock pot that morning. The cooking time is flexible so you can serve it whenever you're ready. I make casseroles all the time in mine, but was also surprised at how wonderfully beans or lentils cook in there. We actually eat less meat now I have a crock pot, it cooks vegetable protein so well. Soup also works as does chilli or curry or similar things you'd boil slowly on the stove top. Any recipe or dish that can be cooked slowly in the oven can be crockpotted, generally you'd put in less liquid because the crockpot has no evaporation (maybe a third less, better to put in too much and strain it off then let things burn and it doesn't take too long to get the feel for what works). Apparently you can roast a whole chicken in there too but we weren't thrilled with the results (too dry), however casseroles that contain chicken drumsticks are great. It's incredibly versatile.

My favourite recipe is gravy beef (you only need 50-100 g per person), a tin of beans (any kind, four bean mix works well, so do kidney beans), some vegetables (I like leeks, bok choy, capsicum, a tomato for added liquid, but you can use pretty much anything) then a dollop of steak sauce or chutney (or tinned tomatoes or tomato paste or soy sauce or whatever you like) for flavouring. If you're not adding wet vegetables like tomato then a bit of stock also helps. Then when I get home I put in some cornflour and water to thicken it then serve with rice or potatoes whenever I'm ready.

I'm not a good or enthusiastic cook. However my food output has improved markedly since we got a slow cooker. Plus the cooker itself wasn't at all expensive (NZ$30). There are enough different types of food that can be made in there that I use it regularly without getting boring. We did buy a crock pot cookbook but it kind of sucked, adapting existing casserole or soup recipes was much more successful. It doesn't need to be the only solution for your question, but I do think it would go a long way to helping you out.
posted by shelleycat at 12:29 PM on November 18, 2009

Lentils are cheap and taste good in a variety of preparations that tend to keep well (i.e., prep ahead of time and reheat as needed). This thread might be useful.

This soup is incredibly flexible in terms of vegetables you can use (and can be made vegetarian if you sub veggie broth for the chicken broth). It freezes well and keeps for a week in the fridge--I usually make a pot of the soup on a Sunday, freeze half, and keep the other half in the refrigerator for the week. I omit the pasta.
posted by Meg_Murry at 12:45 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Chickpea and Potato Curry. Yes that says curry, but it's not spicy (and you can omit the cayenne if you want). Chop everything the night before, then just start a pot of rice when you get home, and combine.

Fried rice. Takes 15 minutes to make, if you've got cooked rice on hand. I like that fried rice uses meat more as a seasoning, and it sounds like that will work for you. Use a small thin sliced porkchop, cubed, and a bag of frozen vegies, eggs, soy sauce and sesame oil.

Baked falafel. Serve with sliced cucumber, tomato, pitas and tzatziki or tahini sauce. You can also add variety and recycle the same idea with baked black bean fritters.
posted by fontophilic at 12:59 PM on November 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

If you get a crockpot you could make navy beans with ham and serve with cornbread. Before you leave for work, put the rinsed, sorted dry beans in the crockpot with some ham or ham hocks or even smoked turkey, cover and ignore til time to eat. Cornbread from a mix takes only a couple of minutes to assemble, the rest is hands off cooking time. Black beans with onion and garlic (again with the crockpot!) and serve with rice for moros y cristianos, serve with sauteed plantain for extra points. Try cooked, drained pasta mixed with chopped tomatoes (fresh or canned), fresh basil, fresh mozzarrela, parmesan, olive oil and lemon juice or balsamic vinegar, can be made ahead of time and served at room temperature. Yum! I love cooking!
posted by Allee Katze at 1:16 PM on November 18, 2009

The fallback dinner with guests in our house is omelettes. Sear some red pepper bits, add some chives,'re done. Add some crescent rolls from a can and you're set.
posted by notsnot at 1:24 PM on November 18, 2009

Seconding panfried gnocchi! Seriously so tasty. You could make a simple carbonara sauce and toss the panfried gnocchi in it right before serving. Or just a splash of olive oil, balsamic and some cheese.

I've tried this with white beans and it can achieve a similar effect.

Also: tacos.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 2:40 PM on November 18, 2009

Thanks for all the current suggestions!

Again, I'm particularly interested in dishes that are:

- *not* meat heavy (yes, they're yummy, but they're not what I'm looking for here for both cost and where my personal meal scheduling tends to go since I usually eat my meat-heavy meal at lunch.)

- do not require lots of last minute attention. I make pasta a lot for myself (and welsh rabbit, and such), but I don't want to be needing to divide my attention between making sure the pasta doesn't overcook, and answering someone's question as they come in. (Ditto sauces, last minute stir frying, etc.)

The latter - about half the time, it's general social stuff, and no big deal to multitask. The other half, something significant come up for them since we last talked, and they're bubbling over with a desire to get into it. In those cases, I don't want to have to dash over and deal with the pasta when they're in mid-sentence, and I also don't want to delay getting food together until everyone's here (since that means we don't start the actual discussion for a good 15+ minutes.)
posted by modernhypatia at 2:47 PM on November 18, 2009

Cooking for people I'm not directly related to stresses me out, so I love this question.

The coffee shop by my office sells tasty-looking sandwiches on ciabatta that seem to hold up well in the refrigerator. You could get a loaf of ciabatta, make one big sandwich (roasted vegetables, slices of feta, maybe some vinaigrette?), then slice it into portions.

You could also do something like this swiss chard and sweet potato gratin, which looks like a filling casserole but doesn't call for any Campbell's cream of mushroom soup. You might also have good luck skimming through Smitten Kitchen's recipes for filling, non-meat-based dishes. She seems to do a lot of casseroles, stews, and salads that keep well.
posted by Meg_Murry at 5:20 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Crock pot. Long, slow, moist cooking yields tender meat, using affordable cuts of beef, chicken thighs, kielbasa, beans, veggies. Curried chicken thighs, beef or chicken stews in a zillion variations, bean soups, chili. Stews make it easy to cook using small amounts of meat and lots of veggies. Add cornbread or rice, maybe a salad. You can often get crockpots at Goodwill.
posted by theora55 at 5:54 PM on November 18, 2009

This Minestrone is really good. (I leave out the spinach.) It can be made ahead of time, in fact I think it tastes better the next day. It's my go-to meal when I'm just too tired to cook. It's also great because you can add things to it easily. I usually add a cup of uncooked instant rice, and sometimes leftover roast chicken. I've also added canned, leftover, and frozen vegetables. There is no meat in it, but it is very satisfying. Add some of your homemade bread and you'll have a hit.

I have found that Real Simple has a lot of really great, easy recipies.
posted by TooFewShoes at 6:47 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Tomatoes, corn, ranch style black beans, chicken and rice soup (or stock and rice), combine all in a pan, heat and serve with "hint of lime or guacomole or jalepeno" tortilla chips.

Some like to add chicken breast.
posted by kgreerRN at 5:03 AM on November 19, 2009

*Edited to add*
I like to add a chile or pepper just for flavor, or sub the tomatoes for Rotel with chile/lime
posted by kgreerRN at 5:05 AM on November 19, 2009

I've just been cooking dinner and I realised the recipe I'm using would possibly be good for your discussion evenings. It's a self crusting quiche, although it really turns out more like a frittata or something than a proper quiche. You can always tell people it's a New Zealand style quiche if they ask. I like this because it's hearty, unpretentious food, reheats well, easy to make, and very forgiving as to what goes in it. Recipe:

1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon butter
3 eggs
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1/2 cup self raising flour (or add half teaspoon baking powder to half cup plain flour)
2 cooked diced potatoes
1 cup drained cooked asparagus or spinach or mushrooms or broccoli (or whatever you want actually)
1 cup grated tasty cheese

Cook the chopped onion and garlic in the butter until soft. Cool. Stir in the eggs, salt and mild then beat until mixed. Pour this into a large bowl containing the flour and stir until just mixed (don't over mix). Add the potatoes and other vegetables and cheese.

Pour into a greased or oiled 20-23 cm dish (7-9 inch; we use a pyrex pie dish). Bake at 220 deg C (430 deg F) for 20-30 minutes until the middle is set and the top lightly browned. Let it rest for five minutes before serving.

We add a mixture of raw vegetables instead of the cooked ones they suggest and generally more veggies and less potatoes. Today I also added chopped cooked chicken, generally we buy one ham steak and chop that up to go in. It tastes fine without meat. You can use different cheese if you like but don't leave it out, tastes pretty bland without. The preparation time is about half chopping and peeling vegetable and about half mixing up the ingredients. Again it's pretty forgiving so don't worry too much about mixing it all perfectly, I never do.

I'm not sure how well this freezes but it keeps very nicely in the fridge for a couple of days and reheats in the oven. Or you could probably make it that day as it needs to rest anyway. Oh and it tastes OK cold too.
posted by shelleycat at 11:14 PM on November 22, 2009

« Older Combining two clips into one (side-by-side not...   |   Looking for a retirement song. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.