Dinner at the Dork's
September 27, 2011 9:47 AM   Subscribe

Need menu ideas for casual-but-special food that can easily be eaten off paper plates held on laps.

Once or twice in the next few months we will be hosting three other couples at our apartment for a meal, and we are really not set up to do a sit-down dinner for eight. I don’t have enough dishes or flatware and I’d need to buy a card table and chairs in order to have enough table seating. However, all the couples will be taking turns hosting, and I suspect that we will be having the sit-down company dinner when we go to their homes.

It would be silly (and futile) to try and recreate the “dinner party” experience in our small, offbeat/eclectic apartment, but I would like to make sure my guests enjoy themselves and don’t feel like we half-assed our turn to host.

We’re planning to arrange seating around the living room and serve the meal buffet-style. I need some ideas for making the dinner nice and a little bit special even though it won’t be a sit-down meal. I especially need food ideas which:

Can easily be eaten one-handed off a paper plate (so no foods that require two hands to keep under control like sandwiches with drippy filling, corn on the cob, etc.)

Are not your basic “I need to feed a crowd on the cheap” budget party recipe (so no vats of sloppy joe or shredded chicken)

Will be finished cooking (if a hot dish) and ready to serve when the guests arrive

Are not “tricky” to make… I’m a decent cook but my skills are not what I would consider advanced

Appliances I own: oven with a four-burner range; microwave; crockpot; rice cooker; electric skillet. We do not have an outdoor grill.

I could also use some tips on creating a nice, welcoming ambience in our space. It’s not going to be a party atmosphere, just a pleasant meal and conversation with new friends. The other couples involved range from early 50’s to mid 60’s, if that makes any sort of difference, and seem like your average middle-to-upper-middle class folks.
posted by Serene Empress Dork to Food & Drink (25 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Tiny crab cakes (or other cakey kinds of things, check for rissoto ones perhaps?); prime rib sliders (smallish sandwhiches, sever with horseradish sauce; fine at room temp); chicken satay; tiny quiche.
posted by dpx.mfx at 9:51 AM on September 27, 2011

Stuffed pitas, burritos, or even tacos wrapped in foil (turned back at the NOM HERE FIRST end). Designed to be eaten one-handed, subject only to the limits of your imagination, relatively easy to make, and thanks to the recent food truck explosion recipes and suggestions are easy to find.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 9:51 AM on September 27, 2011

Could you do something like meze? A collection of little dishes, some served cold, to be eaten with bread. (At least this is how I choose to interpret it at our house, when we basically eat it picnic-style.)

You could have some hummus, cucumber/tomato/onion salad, olives, etc. for cold dishes, and then meatballs or something for meat if desired, and then THE GREATEST THING EVER:

Take a big chunk of feta. Whack it into bits. Dump it in a baking dish you won't mind serving it in. Chop a bunch of tomatoes and garlic, dump that on top of the feta. Throw some oregano on it. Drizzle large quantities of olive oil over the whole thing. Bake in a pre-heated 350ish oven for half an hour or so - it's very forgiving. You can heat it just to hot or until the feta starts to get more bubbly, whichever. Scoop up bits of it with bread. It is so delicious.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 9:58 AM on September 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

Empanadas! Can be served with cool napkins (paper or cloth), stay warm and don't need fussing with, and go well with a nice South American red wine. Latin music of your choice could also work for ambiance.
posted by pantarei70 at 9:59 AM on September 27, 2011

I've had really good luck with slices of quiche. It's super easy to make and it's pretty self contained for eating.

One time at an impromptu dinner party, I threw in some leftover duck. People were impressed!
posted by chatongriffes at 10:05 AM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Tater tot hotdish might require a double stack of paper plates, but it is easy and dorky.
Some recipes
posted by drzz at 10:06 AM on September 27, 2011

You could go with some really intricate calzoni or amazing gourmet pizzas.
posted by TooFewShoes at 10:11 AM on September 27, 2011

I was also going to suggest empanadas. They can be made of meat, cheese and stuff (mushrooms, ham, peppers, etc), spinach, and so many other things. They don't have to be hot when served, just warm enough to still have yummy insides.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 10:13 AM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I really suggest real dishes. See if you can borrow a neighbor's or head down to your local Salvation Army. If not, I really suggest you spring for the super expensive but durable paper plates.

Not eating off paper plates will go a long way of upgrading from cheap to nice. Paper plates are awkward, especially if you don't have a table to sit at.

If you have one and your TV isn't covered (such as in enclosed entertainment center) try to find a way to cover it.

Use lower wattage bulbs or fewer lights to give it a cozy feel.

Have enough flat surfaces to put drinks on and coasters available. It'll be even more awkward if they have to juggle their drinks along with their plates.
posted by royalsong at 10:19 AM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

So you have some kind of large-ish low table (like a coffee table) that could go in the middle of the room within easy access of everyone? If so I second the suggestion for a selection of meze, or, if you'd rather go Spanish, tapas. Elegant and delicious, and many can be made hours in advance.

If you don't have a coffee table that you could put all the dishes of tapas on you could always plate up a selection for each person.
posted by schmoo at 10:24 AM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sushi? Curry + naan ? Samosas or some sort of fried/wrapped bite-sized food (dumplings, spring rolls)?
posted by aielen at 10:27 AM on September 27, 2011

Your requirement sounds similar to any number of stylish "mingling" events that I've attended, though not usually in someone's house. My thoughts based on that...

- Does it have to be paper plates? A proper plate isn't any harder to eat off with one hand, and does make for more of a sense of occasion.

- If people are able to sit down, and put their drinks down, that'll make a big difference. The worst thing is when you find yourself trying to juggle holding a plate, holding a glass, and actually eating!

- The virtue of a buffet is you can offer a good variety of nice things in bite size peices. Apart from the things people have mentioned lots of foods in Chinese and Indian cuisine are made up of bite-size pieces that can be easily eaten one handed with a fork. Indian food was actually originally intended to be eaten one-handed with no cutlery, e.g. scooping up curry with a piece of naan, or eating a samosa with your hands.)
posted by philipy at 10:32 AM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Meze is a great idea, and you can buy a lot of it ready-made: hummus, stuffed grape leaves, a nice sausage (I just tried loukaniko for the first time, my new favorite thing ever!), good bread (flat or baguettes or whatever). You could make a few fancy things like figs stuffed with cheese (maybe that's a little more tapas-y than meze-y, but who cares!) or borek/spanikopita or kibbeh.

I don't know if that's dorky enough?

Also I agree that it is worth your while to get dishes. Eight or twelve salad plates don't take up much room and don't cost much more than good paper plates (if room is a real issue you can even buy them at the thrift store and then give them back when you're done).
posted by mskyle at 10:41 AM on September 27, 2011

In case it wasn't clear from what I just wrote... pretty much any dish can be made suitable for what you need as long as it is made in a small version or cut into into small pieces in advance. e.g. You can do pies, as long as they are small pies, potatoes if they are in the form of new potatoes or a potato salad, duck if it's in slices, and so on. So maybe think what you'd ideally like to serve if you weren't constrained for space, and then work out how to adapt that to fit the situation.
posted by philipy at 10:44 AM on September 27, 2011

One of the most fun and memorable dinner parties I've ever been a part of was sans-furniture. It was a fondue dinner hosted on the living room floor. The hosts spread a big blanket on the floor and we all sat down there cross-legged or slightly reclining. We had a cheese fondue course (melted cheese with apples, bread, and veggies for dipping) followed by a bourguignonne (oil) fondue where we each cooked our own tiny bits of meat (marinated steak and chicken). The fondue pots were placed on a large-ish wooden cutting board in the center so as not to damage the floor in case of drips. Wine flowed freely and conversation flowed even more so. It was wonderful. We've also had a similar party on the floor with Swedish raclette (everyone grilled their own cheese, ham, sausages, bread, and veg).
posted by cuddles.mcsnuggy at 10:52 AM on September 27, 2011

This is the main way that I entertain: tapas or mezze or finger foods. It works extremely well! Instead of a structured beginning-middle-dessert meal, people get to graze all evening. I generally serve dishes from our coffee table and occasional table; when we're serving something more substantial or having a big crowd, I set up a buffet and bar in the other room and add a few smaller dishes in the main gathering/seating area.

Some successful dishes I've served include

- a good substantial mezze, as described above. Some good ideas for that big platter: hummus or bean dip, baba ghanoush, cubes of feta, olives, stuffed grape leaves, warm wedges of pita.

- pizza or --- slightly fancier but no harder! --- galettes on a yeasted dough. (Deborah Madison's roasted squash galette has become a household favorite. We even served it at our wedding!) I often make them in advance (but NOT the egg wash), flash-freeze them on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, then wrap tightly and freeze. When you're ready to bake, pull it out and put on a baking sheet, still with the parchment under it. Let the dough thaw and soften a bit, brush with egg wash (try not to skip it; it takes just a minute and makes the dish look very polished and fancy), and bake it up. Two tips for serving as finger food: you can make mini-galettes or mini-pizzas, or you can make them into loooooong rectangles instead of circles. Cut into a zigzag, a rectangle produces plenty of easy-to-handle wedges but looks like fancy pastry, not take-out.

- frittata a la anything at all. You can serve it warm or cold, and you can make it on the stovetop or bake it in a well-oiled glass or stoneware dish. For finger foods or tapas, I make a frittata nice and thick, cut it into wedges or squares, and serve it piled on a plate. If you top the frittata with [sesame seeds/pinenuts/slivered almonds/shredded parmesan] and pop it under the broiler, you add flavor and crunch and give it a slightly prettier appearance.

- Quiche is great, and like frittata can be served hot or cold. When we're serving tapas-style, I like to pre-cut some smaller slices as well as some larger slices and leave a knife so guests can take just as much as they like. (I like to try everything but a full slice of quiche fills me up!)

- small twice-baked potatoes, which you can stuff with your favorite ingredients: cheese, vegetables, sausage. A household favorite: caramelized onions, sauteed mushrooms, and either spinach or broccoli, lightly cooked and well-drained. I add some milk and egg to bind the potato together. These can be made well in advance and baked slowly before your guests arrive; I like to pop them under the broiler for a few minutes to crisp up the top.

- I like to make a big platter of crudites, and being thoughtful here can really class up the table. Some ideas: cucumber slices or spears, tomatoes (halved grape tomatoes work well here), carrots, blanched broccoli or green beans, blanched asparagus spears, snap peas, jicama.

- I do a lot of "tiny somethings stuffed with something": good soft dried figs stuffed with goat cheese and broiled; dates stuffed with goat cheese; tiny peppers stuffed with hummus; endive stuffed with chopped-vegetable salad; tiny pita stuffed with hummus and baba ghanoush.

- Fondue or raclette actually takes advantage of your lay-out! We have fondue every Christmas and I make a pretty elaborate spread of vegetables to dip into it: roasted potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, carrots; blanched (and well-dried) broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, snap peas, asparagus; fresh grapes or chunks of apple and pear; dried cherries or cranberries to pop atop a cheese-covered chunk of bread; light bread and dark bread. Though the roasted vegetables are best fresh from the oven, I have made them ahead and even travelled with them and they were delicious reheated. The fondue can be made and held over the lit pot for a nice long while. You can offer a simple light dessert as a separate course, maybe sorbet topped with macerated fruit.

- The problem with sandwiches is their size. If you make or buy tiny loaves of bread, a smorgasbord works well because people can easily handle a small sandwich one-handed.

- For that matter, I get a lot of mileage from make-your-own-______ buffets, especially when serving to a crowd with diverse dietary needs. I've served sandwich buffets, a baked potato bar (WOW, what a smash that was!), salad buffets (greens offered with an assortment of raw or chilled cooked vegetables, fruits, cheese, protein like bacon or chopped chicken, and a few dressings, with a big batch of hot garlic bread on the side), fondue, tacos or burritos (which can be classed up with home-fried shells or homemade flour tortillas, which are surprisingly not-hard and astonishingly delicious), and one salad night when I served green salad, homemade potato salad, tomato salad, and chicken salad along with rolls.

I echo the suggestion that real plates, even mismatched ones from the thrift shop, will help a lot, but if you're getting paper plates, I suggest small ones. They have proportionally more edge, so they are a bit more rigid, and if you're serving tapas-style, people won't need big plates. Also, people will want to put down their plates even if it's just for a moment (to get a drink, to step outside for a cigarette or phone call, to go to the bathroom, whatever), and the larger the plates and the group, the harder that is to work out.

On the other hand, paper is fine! We're planning a tomato-soup-and-grilled-cheese party, and we're definitely using paper bowls. (Heck, we miiiiiiiight even own enough bowls, but this one time I am indulging myself by not washing out three dozen crusty soup bowls after the party.) If you end up using paper, I suggest getting the heavy pressboard plates, not flimsy fluted paper.

Smaller plates also mean you might be able to rummage around and find enough in your cabinets: salad plates, dessert plates, saucers, whatever.

It would be silly (and futile) to try and recreate the “dinner party” experience in our small, offbeat/eclectic apartment, but I would like to make sure my guests enjoy themselves and don’t feel like we half-assed our turn to host.

Perhaps most importantly, smaller plates mean you are NOT trying to mimic the sit-down dinners your friends have been throwing, but are throwing your own kind of party! I have plenty of big dinner plates, but I never bring 'em out for a tapas party; we use salad size or saucer size, and everyone seems to enjoy filling and refilling their plates. (I also make sure I put out extras, in case someone loses track of theirs or wants to start fresh.)

I need some ideas for making the dinner nice and a little bit special even though it won’t be a sit-down meal.

First of all, shake off the idea that this is somehow not-quite-as-nice. It's a great way to entertain! It's a nice change to sit, relaxed and cozy, rather than being static around a table. If you have a coffee table or some occasional tables upon which to serve, guests will find themselves leaning in toward each other, passing dishes, and engaging in a different way than they do at a table.

My biggest tip for living-room entertaining: try to make everything easy to get at. Keep bar tools and fixin's (bottle opener, ice bucket, lemon wedges, whatever they're likely to need with what you're offering) handy to the drinks. Be sure you have plenty of napkins (again, cloth classes up a party but paper is fine, especially if guests might get saucy or sticky) placed somewhere obvious; ditto forks. It's good to have extra plates and glasses so people can start fresh.

In food prep, I think a tiny bit of attention to detail makes a big impression, like the frittata topping or the egg wash I describe above. It takes just a few seconds but it makes a difference! Some little touches you might try:

- Make lemon wedges a little prettier by trimming off the center stem and seeds. Just an extra whack with a knife cleans it up nicely.

- Well before your dinner, wash a bunch of parsley and roll it in a towel to dry. Now whack it up with a big chef's knife (or in a food processor, whatever). Roll it in a paper towel and squeeeeeeze. Gently shake it from the paper towel into a paper-towel-lined jar or Tupperware. Now you have diced parsley that will keep in the fridge for days and which you can sprinkle into or over dishes in a few seconds. Parsley looks good (especially on pale dishes like hummus or goat cheese), but it also adds lovely fresh flavor. I never make hummus or baba ghanoush without adding a BIG HANDFUL of parsley.

- Also well before your dinner party, take a packet of nuts (slivered almonds, crumbled walnuts, crumbled pecans, pumpkin seeds, whatever you like) and toast them in a dry frying pan over medium-low heat. Just toss them occasionally and toast until they start to darken slightly and smell nutty. Don't be tempted to turn up the heat or they'll burn when you turn your back. Keep them in a jar or Tupperware and toss them over something that needs some embellishment: a plain salad, a plain vegetable, a simple dip, a log of goat cheese.

Maybe you don't need lemon wedges or parsley or nuts --- but the idea still applies: these thoughtful, uncomplicated little touches add up.
posted by Elsa at 11:49 AM on September 27, 2011 [7 favorites]

By eating one-handed, that just means one hand to stabilize a plate, and one to hold a fork, yes, not that you're actually looking for finger-foods?
I'd go with a good pasta recipe, slightly undersauced - keep all the vegetables or shrimps or whatever add-ins to sub-bite-sized pieces (1/2" cube), some moderate-sized "short pasta" like rotini or bow ties, keep the sauce thick (not drippy) or very light (garlic+oil), and preferably non-staining (alfredo, carbonara, etc). If you're thinking fancier than rotinis, consider small ravioli or tortellini, but make sure they're small enough that people won't feel the need to cut them into two bites.

The thing that might make this a better dinner would be to do it in courses - one of the things that annoys me most about table-less eating is when you get a big plate, with salad, pasta, and garlic bread, and fruit salad, and you go sit down, but your lap's not level, and everything oozes around so there's salad dressing in the pasta, and pasta sauce soaking the garlic bread, and a faint garlicky taste to the fruit. So, bring out the salad, provide bowls or small plates, everyone eats. You produce the pasta dish from where it's been baking, and everyone gets a plate, and eats. You produce a trifle and small bowls, and everyone gets dessert.
posted by aimedwander at 12:05 PM on September 27, 2011

It's not haute cuisine, but the one time I took a covered dish to an office party it was hands-down the hit of event...not one crumb left. My Mom (I was young at the time and still lived at home) made mini-stuffed cabbages. Now, granted, her stuffed cabbage is awesome to begin with and isn't like the tomato-sauce covered version you often see at restaurants/delis (in fact, she doesn't use any tomato sauce). She makes a hamburger and rice mixture with some spices (onion powder, garlic powder, salt, pepper) and in this case rolled tiny portions in to small sections of cabbage leaves. Stuck a toothpick in each little one prior to serving, and voila. Not messy, very tasty, and different than the usual party tidbits.
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:24 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Definitely try to get some extra plates. It's not like you're hosting 20 people for a one-time shindig; it's 6 people for a regular meal. CB2 has super cute plates and they're not terribly expensive. But I'd advise you to check out the local goodwill or thrift store. I've found some amazing sets of plates for $2-5! Or you can make the mismatched component a deliberate choice - gather a number of different wine glasses, water glasses, plates, serving utensils. Get a bouquet of flowers and divide them up into tiny little milk-glass vases that you can always find at the thrift store. You can even get a few extra chairs and a cute vintage folding table. Think about going for a look like this.

Check out the books called "Flea Market Style" and Decorate, and scan through some blogs with those keywords - you'll get some great ideas.
- serve drinks in jelly jars with very cute striped paper straws
- collect things of similar color/style -- a bunch of mismatched blue glasses, for example. Or plates in a certain color scheme.
posted by barnone at 9:49 PM on September 27, 2011

This looks nice (in Italian).
posted by leigh1 at 1:50 AM on September 28, 2011

These are some really great answers, thanks! I've marked a few that I think I may want to try for the first dinner as best answers, but they are all very good.

I was not convinced on the real plates until barnone's answer, when I realized that mismatched plates as a "style" would actually go really well with my decor, and hopefully will allow me to get away with mismatched silverware as well (even cheap flatware from Walmart is kind of pricy... I think the cheapest one I saw was $18 for four place settings, and I'd need two sets.) The bonus is that this will give me a reason to go thrift shopping again, which I haven't done in awhile. So yay!

I like the empanadas idea, or something Latinish. I have a recipe for a tres leches cake that I've been wanting an excuse to make.

And thanks for the reminders that everyone will need a place to set their drink. I had not thought of that, but looking around my living room I see I'm going to need to drag in the occasional table from the other room and maybe pick up a TV tray of some sort.

Again, great answers everyone. Thanks for the ideas.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 6:40 AM on September 28, 2011

I realized that mismatched plates as a "style" would actually go really well with my decor

Oh, definitely! It's not a makeshift solution; it's a style. barnone makes the excellent suggestion to choose a unifying element, but it doesn't have to be color; you could pick plates that are different colors but the same size and shape, or they could be completely different but have a unifying pattern (for example, all floral-patterned or all abstract-patterned), or all square, or whatever appeals to you on the day you start to collect them at the thrift shop.

I really love this look, and it helps me keep track of my glass and plate at an eat-on-your-lap dinner. (By the way, an eat-on-your-lap dinner is the only kind of dinner I've been invited to or hosted in recent years, except at my mother's house. You are not alone!) I'm even thinking about buying some remnants from the fabric store and making a dozen mismatched napkins to replace my matchy-matchy cloth napkins. Embrace the eclectic style!

You got so many great ideas here; I know I'll be revisiting this thread for menu inspiration. Empanadas make great lap-meals, and most recipes can be made ahead and frozen, so you just pop them in a preheated oven to bake and add a salad or a vegetable. If you want an easy way to gussy up an empanada dinner, you can buy or make a few kinds of salsa and make some guacamole.

barnone mentions buying a supermarket bouquet and splitting it up, which is a great tip. I want to add two ideas to that: 1) You might not need vases. Look around your cabinets: I use pitchers, glasses, antique Ball jars, even tiny sugar bowls and creamers for tiny little bud vases. 2) if you buy a multi-colored bouquet, you can glam up the smaller bunches by splitting them by color into several smaller monochromatic arrangements.

Example: The Fella recently came home from the store with a bunch of lavender and pink flowers with one big yellow chrysanthemum in them. We don't really have anywhere in our living room to put one big bouquet, so I rearranged them: a pitcher full of lavender flowers, a smaller and shorter vase of pink flowers, and that one big chrysanthemum, barely trimmed down, standing tall in a pretty glass bottle. You get a lot of bang for your buck when you do this instead of sticking one assortment into a vase and putting it in the center of the table.

You sound like a really fun, enthusiastic, and welcoming host. Have fun --- I'm sure your guests will!
posted by Elsa at 10:51 AM on September 28, 2011

Here's a post about free printables for parties - you don't have to do the whole name-tag thing, but you could use them for labelling dishes, or decorating around the room. And Elsa is right about splitting up a bouquet by color. Other tips on stylizing grocery store bouquets. A few more ideas. Something like this is perfect for a fall evening! Here's a slideshow on 5-minute centerpieces. How cute are these flowers in vintage tea tins? They're dirt cheap and so cute.

If you look around Real Simple and look waaaaay past the "everything is just perfect and so clean" aesthetic, you'll find lots of good tips and get your own ideas. They have great collections of easy dips, entertaining ideas and more.

Tons of great mix & match plates!

Mismatched plates
are lovely especially when you can unify them somehow with pattern or with color. These are new but you get the idea.
Mismatched table
In a field!

Do you sew? If so, make some 5-minute cocktail napkins out of vintage sheeting.
posted by barnone at 1:16 PM on September 28, 2011

Last thing, I promise - get comfy and get over to Oh Happy Day especially the party section. She is a party planner with a bent towards vintage, diy, old-school style, with a modern twist. She gives tons of good examples and often links to other great blogs. Go through her archives and see what you can find in terms of decorating ideas for inexpensive, re-used, thrifted components!

Finally, are you on Pinterest? Dishes, burlap, crates, make a crate table on wheels or on its side! Tons of decorating ideas and DIY plans and recipes.

Last two things about a great dinner party: background music (tons of threads here on that) and good lighting, preferably from lots of sources, and not just glaring light from top down.

You're going to have an awesome party, and a series of dinner parties at different houses sounds great. I"d love to start a cookbook supper club, where everyone brings a meal or two from a certain cookbook. The next time around, you'd choose another cookbook.
posted by barnone at 1:38 PM on September 28, 2011

Those links are fabulous, barnone. Thanks!

I stopped by the thrift store on the way home from work and found a bunch of dishes... weren't quite as cheap as I'd hoped (2-3 dollars per plate!) but they're more fun than what I'd have bought new, that's for sure. And I found a bunch of assorted flatware for ten cents apiece, and a sparkly candle and some other stuff. It was a productive trip.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 7:44 PM on September 28, 2011

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