Cooking ahead for really nice dinner parties
February 18, 2014 12:24 PM   Subscribe

My wife and I really like cooking elaborate multi-course meals for guests. We are advanced home cooks, and greatly enjoy being in the kitchen. However, our kitchen is not lavish, and of course time is limited. What are your go-to recipes that can be prepared in advance (ideally, the weekend before and frozen) and then finished or reheated for a really excellent dinner party? Examples inside.

We tend to cook Italian dishes, with some French and some American menus. At a recent get together, we had an Italian mushroom soup, home-made pasta with a zucchini-based sauce, a vegetable course of artichokes, a simple chicken piccata, a salad course, and a cheese course. Dessert was a mint meringue for no particular reason.

The mushroom soup was prepared halfway the prior weekend, frozen, and finished on the night of the event. The pasta was made the weekend before and frozen, as was the sauce. The artichokes, chicken, salad, and meringue were prepared the day of. (Since meringue has to set, we made it early in the day, which was a plus.) We also baked some bread that night, and the dough had been prepared a day or two before. We take no credit for the cheese.

If you're like us, and like to spend vast amounts of time in the kitchen, what do you prepare in advance to maximize time with guests when hosting an elaborate dinner party? This would include items that freeze well, items that keep well in the fridge, and dry ingredients that can be pre-prepared. I'd also be interested in hearing about beverages (like this great Chef Steps bitter orange juice) and sauces that you prepare in advance.

To be clear, I'm not looking for sort of everyday dishes (chili, stew, etc.) that can be premade and thawed for dinner (though we do that all the time at our place). I'm looking in particular for "showpiece" cooking by advanced home cooks for nice dinner parties.

For what it's worth, we have a vacuum sealer, sous vide, dehydrator, and all standard cooking gear.

Bonus question: Douglas Baldwin suggests that meats that have been cooked sous vide to the point of pasteurization and kept vacuum sealed could be kept for weeks at 38F (search for "weeks" on linked page). Does anyone have any experience with pasteurized sous vide meats kept that long in the fridge?
posted by Admiral Haddock to Food & Drink (19 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
Cassoulet. Can be kept in the fridge in jars or frozen.
posted by TheGoodBlood at 12:27 PM on February 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

My go-to dinner party dish is Cook's Illustrated mushroom lasagna. It's time-consuming and impressive and I always make it at least a day ahead and then bake it on the day, but you could also make it further ahead and then freeze and thaw and then bake.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:33 PM on February 18, 2014


It's relatively easy to put together, and it cooks slowly while you chit-chat with your guests. Serve with a green salad and fresh bread. If you want to go crazy, start with Gazpacho, which will sit and meld in the fridge beautifully.

Russian/Bavarian Cream. My mother made hers raspberry flavored and put it in a gorgeous copper mold. She served it with pirouettes. The cookies and the cream can be done ahead of time and can be served with berries on the side. It's so light and lovely, especially in the summer.

Cioppino, yes, it's seafood so you need to buy it that day, but once you put it all in the pot, it's a cinch. It tastes fantastic and again, because it simmers on the stove, it gives you a chance to hang with your guests while heat and time do the work.

Serve with Sourdough Bread and another green salad.

For cold winter nights, Marcella Hazan's Lasagna Bolognese. Want to talk about WORK? But OH MY, is it worth it! Lasagna is another one of those things that loves to sit in the fridge and collect itself. The sauce can sit, you can do the pasta ahead of time and it's one of those things that is so freaking great!

I served it with roasted fennel drizzled in olive oil and parmesian cheese. (And a green salad, why change now?)

If making sheets of puff pastry sounds like fun, there's always Beef Wellington.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:50 PM on February 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

Creme brulee is relatively easy to make, looks and sounds impressive, and can be made in advance. Make your custards a day or two before, then top with drizzled sugar and caramelize them with the blowtorch right before serving. Delicious and impressive!

Cheesecake freezes remarkably well and can be easily made super fancy and delicious.

If you want to go the extra mile with either of those, you can mix up homemade berry sauces, caramel sauces, whipped creams, ice cream (if you have a machine), all of which also generally with freeze and defrost well.

Fancy French stews like Beef Bourguignon or Coq au Vin can be made the day before and heated the day of. They tend to get even better the more they age. I made Beef Bourguignon at my parent's for Christmas, froze it, drove it across the state, and heated it at my house. It was really, really tasty. I made the Coq au Vin in a slow cooker the day before, kept in in the fridge overnight, and ate it reheated the next day.

Dishes like lasagna or baked ziti can be fairly simple or fairly impressive depending on what ingredients you use, and they both freeze and reheat really well.
posted by PearlRose at 1:00 PM on February 18, 2014

Mole can be/should be made ahead, and refrigerates or freezes well. Some moles, like Mole Negro, take hours to make, and making the ahead gives the flavors time to marry and deepen. If you cook beans and any meats ahead (or sous-vide your meat!) and then you can just assemble day-of.

The layers of layer cakes can also be made ahead and frozen-- many recipes suggest freezing cake layers to make it easier to assemble the final cake. You can just stack and frost the frozen layers and the morning of the party, and have a gorgeous showstopper dessert for the end of your meal. Sweetapolita has a number of very beautiful cakes on her blog, and all the recipes I've made have been excellent.
posted by Kpele at 1:02 PM on February 18, 2014

You are unlikely to be able to get those storage results with sous vide without developing off flavors unless you have a commercial vacuum sealer due to oxidation. A home kitchen vacuum sealer isn't going to pull the level of vacuum that I'd want for long term storage. Additionally, I wouldn't even attempt weeks of storage without heavily researching the pasteurization times for botulinum, which are much higher than those for aerobic bacteria. I see Baldwin at least partially covers that by saying don't go over 38 F.

A lot of it depends on what level of quality you're willing to tolerate out of your food. I have some Baldwin books on sous vide, and in general I find his recipes ham-fisted and lacking finesse. They read to me like awful 50s cookbooks with the addition of sous vide. FWIW, I also own Modernist Cuisine at Home, and Myrhvold/Billet won't hold produce like fish or meats for more than 3-4 days.

My general magic trick for serving multiple courses is to pick a few that I can leave unattended. At Christmas, this meant a prime rib cooking for 4 hours at 170 in the convection oven, a ham in the sous vide bath, and that left me free to do more intensive prep elsewhere.
posted by bfranklin at 1:04 PM on February 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is easiest for me when it's a summer meal, and most things can be eaten chilled or frozen. Chilled soup, the fanciest of salades, sorbet...

Deviled eggs can be premade and kept in the fridge if you store the yolk mixture separately. Roll the yolk mixture into one big ball and wrap it all around in plastic wrap, to keep it from drying out. You just have to apportion it into the egg whites the day-of.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 1:19 PM on February 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

As far as beverages, have you thought about making your own liqueurs? A bitter aperitif (in the style of Aperol or Cynar) would go great before your Italian menu. Or limoncello poured over gelato as a dessert...

My next project is this "blasphemously easy" orgeat from Craft Cocktails at Home.

I've also made my own quinine syrup for tonic water using this recipe and it was terrific; the only really challenging ingredient to find is cinchona bark (which I picked up at Kalustyan's, who will also do mail order).

Most liqueurs are started 2-3 weeks ahead of when you want to drink them and after you've poured the ingredients into a bottle they usually just have to sit in a closet until the party.
posted by bcwinters at 1:23 PM on February 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

It might be too easy to be a satisfying accomplishment for you, but Chicken Marbella can be put together in about 15 minutes the night before but is still "really excellent." If you want to tweak it, search and you will find many variations.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:31 PM on February 18, 2014

Older generations were really good at this, because they wanted to look good when guests arrived.

Starters could be cold soups (as mentioned above) - gazpacho is good, so is vichyssoise, and cold green pea soup with champagne. Think of serving these soups in an elegant manner - in fancy glass bowls or coups for instance.

Other good starters are patês and mousses, either made of seafood or meats, these can be a whole science to make, and keep well either frozen or in the fridge.

Or you could make the starter simple: a couple of good slices of Norwegian or Scottish smoked salmon on bread with a dill cream.

With an Italian meal, a great starter is ham and melon or ham and figs. Not complicated, just a simple overture to a rich main course.

At one elderly lady's house, I had osso buco and risotto, where she had made the osso buco in advance and reheated it, while the risotto with saffran was made while we were having our drinks. The osso bocu was really good - it improves with the time. For desert she had home-made ice-cream.

For real "food-sports" I suggest the Borscht according to Carême you can find in Larousse Gastronomique. I wouldn't make it a week before and freeze, though it could be done, but it would work fine if you made it the day before and chill except for the garnishes which you need to do the same day. It's great fun, and you learn a lot about the methods of Grande Cuisine. (If you insist on making it a long time in advance, you will need to freeze the meats in some of the soup, even though the recipe calls for a separation of meats and soup. Finish the whole recipe, put the meats in a container, add clear soup to cover and freeze. Freeze the rest of the soup separately. Same with chilling - cover the meats with some soup, which will jell).

Another pre-made food I've had a lot at older family-members and friends is pies of many sorts. Pie can be very sophisticated, and served with a green salad and a good sauce they are delicious. In summer, they can be served cold, as well. This reminds me of jellies - my grannies cookbook is full of fish and meat jellies. I don't remember having them, but she claimed it was a big thing for summer meals in the fifties and early sixties. With sour cream and herb sauces. They look good on pictures, but may be an acquired taste. (The borscht jelly mentioned above is delicious, but I only ever have a spoonful of it because the soup is so good, the pot is emptied).

My mother would slow-bake brined meats in a rye-dough casing which preserved the juices. Also mostly for serving cold next day (or she would cook in the morning, then lay the table, bathe and dress and look as if we had servants doing everything).

Jellies are good for desserts too, when they are home made, as are different types of ice creams and sorbets.
posted by mumimor at 2:02 PM on February 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I came in to suggest Marcella Hazan's Lasagna Bolognese, which Ruthless Bunny has already touted. I've made the béchamel sauce a day ahead without noticing any loss of flavor.

Also excellent are Marcella's recipes for crespelle (crepes). Once you get the hang of it, the pancakes are easy and fun, though time consuming. You can layer them in waxed paper and freeze them beforehand, if you want. The two fillings I've done are the Bolognese beef sauce and another with spinach and ham. You'll find the lasagna and crespelle recipes in "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking."

Finally, in "Marcella's Italian Kitchen" she has the beautiful and delicious Pasta Roses -- each a wide noodle rolled up with ham and fontina and then baked. You can look at the recipe here and of course you have to see pictures.
posted by wryly at 2:22 PM on February 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

French Onion Soup... the onions can be prepared way ahead of time and stored in the fridge.
Salad Dressings... we often make larger batches of certain salad dressings and use them over the course of a week. We use small mason jars to mix/shake the dressing anyway and those are perfect for storing them
A lot of stews/casseroles taste best a few days in anyhow so if I want to serve something like Olla Podrida I'll make it 1 or 2 days ahead anyhow.


I like to do multi-course meals as well and I've slowly learned to be extremely well prepared for two main reasons: One, because it means my guests don't have to wait way too long between courses and, two, it allows me to relax and enjoy the food with them instead of running around in a panic trying to get everything sorted out.

There's 2 parts to my strategy:

Part 1: do all sous chef stuff in the morning. I go over every recipe involved and do all the cutting, measuring and prepping of sub-components. By noon my kitchen surfaces and the fridge are loaded up with lots of big and small plastic wrapped bowls, plates and cups. Everything is ready to go, all spices are lined up. I never do any measuring during the actual cooking/preparation of the courses. There are very few things you can't easily prep ahead of time. You can even prep stuff like potatoes and apples by cutting them into a bowl of water to prevent them from browning. At this point I've gone over each recipe and I know for sure if I forgot anything and there's enough time left to go shopping for it.

Part 2: the kitchen plan. This may sound over the top but I swear it's saved my ass many times and it's made life infinitely easier. Make a spreadsheet and print it out. I use Google Drive for it. Have a column for time and a column for each recipe. Mark serving time in each recipe's column at the desired time, then work backwards from there and enter all activities you need to do based on the recipes including stuff like allocating 5 minutes for preheating the oven to a specific temperature. At this point you'll see if there's any timing conflicts like 2 dishes in the oven at the same time but with different temperatures. Fiddle with the timelines of the recipes until it all fits together and you don't need 7 arms and 5 extra dimensions to do everything simultaneously.
Print it out and tape it to a wall or cabinet in the kitchen at eye height so you don't have to go searching for it. Now you don't have to worry about anything and it's just about going down the spreadsheet and executing each step.

Doing all this has made it possible for me to not age by several years each time I cook. I can relax, do my thing, chat with the guests and even risk getting inebriated along the way without ruining the dinner.
Mind you this is not about establishing and enforcing some sort of rigid schedule and taking the fun out of cooking but merely about reducing stress and preventing mishaps and disasters because you forgot the one key step out of the two dozen you're trying to do.
If anything prepping like this has actually increased my enjoyment of cooking for people.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 3:31 PM on February 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

You might consider getting an induction burner and doing some cooking near the guests. I did that when working with a small kitchen and doing fancy entertaining - one person could be working on something in the kitchen and the other could be cooking with the induction burner while entertaining the guests.

The Serious Eats One Stir Risotto is one of my bang-for-the-effort dishes for entertaining.
posted by Candleman at 4:57 PM on February 18, 2014

Many cuisines lend themselves well to early preparation. Many Indian dishes - dal, eggplant, curries, etc., are best when prepped ahead or fully cooked and reheated. Then you're just focusing on a few last minute additions like hot naan and rice in the rice cooker. It might not be as typically fancy as your Italian feasts, but I find that very well prepared Indian food is a revelation, especially with delicious sides and pickles.
posted by barnone at 8:42 AM on February 19, 2014

My go-to for this is Individual Beef Wellingtons. You can make then the day before and refridgerate under cling film. Do not glaze until you are about to put them in the oven.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:38 AM on February 21, 2014

For dinner I like to do a pork roast stuffed with dried fruit (fig, apricot and raisin is a nice mix). You can do all the stuffing before the event and just roast it the evening of the party.

If you find yourself replacing the oven, look for one with convection roast. Convection bake isn't as nice for meats, but convection roast is fantastic - very fast and the meat browns/crisps correctly. Convection roast is lovely for fast, impressive results. I was a doubter on convection roast, but I've grown to love it.
posted by 26.2 at 12:50 PM on February 23, 2014

One of the most enjoyable dinner parties our supper club (four couples, inlcuding two professional chefs) shared recently was when I made Momofuku's Bo Ssam and everyone assembled their own wraps at the table.
posted by tizzie at 6:47 PM on February 23, 2014

My go-to dessert: something from The Perfect Scoop, which includes sauces, toppings and mix-ins as well as the ice-cream recipes.
posted by harriet vane at 7:16 PM on March 3, 2014

Hey, I'm late to the party, but I'd like to recommend poached pears. You can make them days in advance (in fact, it's better if you do; they can sit in their poaching liquid for several days and soak up more flavor). I poach mine in sweetened, spiced red wine - I use clove, cinnamon, ginger, a vanilla bean and star anise, but you can experiment with other sweeteners, spice and liquids. They are elegant and delicious and look like you fussed for hours, but they're dead easy to make and nearly impossible to screw up. Serve them with ice cream, whipped cream, a drizzle of dark chocolate sauce, and/or a dessert cookie like oatmeal lace or tuiles.
posted by caryatid at 4:10 PM on March 24, 2014

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