Main dishes for small gatherings (6 - 8 people)
January 26, 2017 12:03 PM   Subscribe

Having become parents just over a year ago, we have turned into hermits. I want to start inviting friends and acquaintances that I want to turn into friends over for dinner once a month or so. What are some dishes that we could put together that would work well for a small group of adults?

In the past, we have done a make-your-own-pizza thing, but that was a little too much of a time commitment; I'd really like everyone to be eating and chatting at once ant not working on food all throughout the night.

We also did a Bo Ssäm meal with a couple of friends that was GREAT, but I need a few more meals in my arsenal than "GIANT SLAB OF MEAT".

A taco bar would be fun. A huge pot of jambalaya would work as well, although we would probably need a side to fill that out.
posted by JimBJ9 to Food & Drink (33 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
take-out Chinese (lower the difficulty threshold!)
any casserole
any roast, with some simple steamed veggies

get a cookbook you like and flip around for ideas!
posted by acm at 12:07 PM on January 26, 2017

Roasts! Kebobs. Chili and other stews.

My mom always made what are effectively potatoes au gratin (except she called them scalloped potatoes)

Take lots of potatoes (maybe a 5lb bag?), peal them all!
Slice them up into 1/4" rounds.
Take the biggest baking dish you own, start layering the potatoes, a few slices of (mom used american) cheese, and a dusting of flour on each layer. Go until you can't fit anymore potatoes into the pan.
Pour milk about 1/3 to 1/2 up the pan. Add a few pats of butter to the top.
Cover, bake at 350F until the potatoes are tender. (at least 30-45 minutes?)
Uncover, let the remaining milk evaporate off.

The leftovers are fantastic, btw. Pan fry them in a bit of butter or oil. They're good fresh out of the oven but the leftovers? Heaven.

...I suppose I should mention they're not exactly the world's most healthiest side dish.
posted by INFJ at 12:10 PM on January 26, 2017

A really rich beef stew, the kind you make in a slow cooker with like red wine and carrots and pearl onions until the meat is absolutely falling apart. Add crusty bread and bam.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:11 PM on January 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

One-pot meals are your friend. Stuff like lentil curry or chili. Scales easily.

Also, potlucks are cool. Your friends will no doubt be happy to help out. "You can bring the salad." "You can bring a dessert." Done.
posted by adamrice at 12:11 PM on January 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Suckling pig?

"Suckling pig is the easiest animal to roast in the world. Don't believe me? You should."
posted by porpoise at 12:11 PM on January 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Plus one for the taco bar. That's one of our go-tos when we have friends over, and it always works well. Minimal prep time required, and everyone can customize to their own eating preferences.

We also do different crock pot recipes pretty often. Those are nice because all the cooking happens before people arrive.
posted by primethyme at 12:12 PM on January 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

You could also do a fondue party! You don't need a special fondue put - you can do it in a small slow cooker and use bamboo skewers for dipping.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:13 PM on January 26, 2017

I should add that my wife and I are both better-than-average cooks and would prefer things that are a bit fancy or unconventional. Yes, we are those people who like to whip out a really awesome meal for people so that we look cool. Guilty. I'll own it.
posted by JimBJ9 at 12:17 PM on January 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

What about a ramen bar? Similar to a taco bar, but with noodles instead.
posted by soelo at 12:19 PM on January 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Chinese hot pot is fabulous for these sorts of things. Easy set up and super tasty. More fun than a traditional fondue, IMO.

You can make everything from scratch:
Vice/Munchies [Recipe] [Article]
Serious Eats [Article]

But, honestly, most of everything you need is available premade in a grocery that serves Chinese customers: packaged broth concentrates, meats specially sliced for hot pot, meat&fish balls, mushrooms, etc...

For equipment, the burners and pots and so forth aren't super expensive, but western fondue sets work just fine too. Even a standard pot on a hotplate (~$15 from Walmart) works.
posted by bonehead at 12:22 PM on January 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

This article really appealed to me from the recipe for meatballs, to the communal value of hosting these types of get togethers:
posted by blackjack514 at 12:26 PM on January 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

I should add that my wife and I are both better-than-average cooks and would prefer things that are a bit fancy or unconventional.

Aha! Then may I recommend possibly my favorite meal in the whole entire world: Thai green papaya salad and larb (which is a dish of ground meat and various herbs), with sticky rice on the side. Christ on a crutch it's good. And easily scaled up for your purposes.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:31 PM on January 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

This was a big hit for us and a lot can be prepared beforehand. The NYT food section is a reliable source and Melissa Clark rocks.
North African meatballs with couscous
Venetian cauliflower
(I roasted the cauliflower instead of par-boiling.)
posted by lois1950 at 12:33 PM on January 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

Pulled pork sandwiches and anything you want on the side. There is a great beauty in those who can do this and the sides well.
posted by raccoon409 at 12:37 PM on January 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Southern food. Fancying up soul food is totally a thing that impresses the pants off yuppies and also has the benefit of being heartstoppingly delicious. Fried chicken and okra, greens, you can use unconventional bits of pig to flavor your black eyed peas, etc, etc, hush puppies, cobbler for dessert...
posted by phunniemee at 12:47 PM on January 26, 2017

We're in a similar boat. Bo ssam is our #1 heavy hitter, but other dishes that have worked well and have a big ol' wow factor:

Roast chicken with homemade buttermilk biscuits and bread, and the real stunner, homemade goat cheese

Salt-roasted fish, though this gets wicked expensive quickly with quality fish and many people.

Sri Wasano's Rice Salad, and because my husband is an incredible show-off-y jackass, he adds even more ingredients that he thinks will fit to make, no joke, 40 ingredient rice. Along similar party-trick lines, he's made Jollof rice, which is one of my favorite things for him to make.

Also, few Americans can remain unimpressed when face-to-face big-ass trifle. It scales beautifully for entertaining, and needs no work on the day of. You can also adjust to taste, but my traditional showstopper is a trifle made in a glass container that God and Ikea intended to be an enormous fruit bowl, with alternating layers of home made sponge cake, berries (frozen is totally fine), and homemade whipped cream, topped with whole strawberries (again, frozen is totally fine), and drenched at each stage and allowed to sit overnight or longer in Jean-Georges' lemon-thyme syrup.

A big side of meat, and not really dinner, but great for brunch and still super-impressive: homemade lox.
posted by joyceanmachine at 12:49 PM on January 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Cassoulet, Beef Bourguignon, Gumbo....all can be done in advance and are impressive.

With you jambalaya, just add a salad and you've got a complete meal.
posted by jennstra at 1:23 PM on January 26, 2017

There is no better gathering than a shrimp boil.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 1:31 PM on January 26, 2017

I really like this meal; the nice part is, if you make extra tomato/chickpea mixture and cook some of it separately from the chicken, it works well for both omnivorous and vegetarian guests. Your veggie guests will see you made them a main with protein and not just carbs and cry tears of gratitude.
posted by Juliet Banana at 1:32 PM on January 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Chicken Fattee. Serve it on a big platter.
posted by Lotto at 1:40 PM on January 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Individual serving sizes of things are really good at making people feel special and it's easy to fancy them up. Think individual pot pies, packets for fish and other seafood, kabobs, mini skillets of mac & cheese or cornbread. Do a big salad and a shared dessert to keep it feeling communal.

To fancy up stuff:

Pot pies can get cute decorations on the top crust, or you can swap the top crust for (flavored) whipped potatoes or other starches. The fillings are infinite but you can do themey fusion stuff like chana masala pie (seriously so good), chili verde with pork pie, peking duck pie... then do the sides, drinks and desserts to coordinate.

Seafood packets get fancy as soon as you add a crustacean. Mussels and clams steam perfectly, shrimp in the shells makes incredible juices for dipping bread into, oysters are so succulent. If you live near water you can use all sorts of combinations of interesting fish. A small amount of shrimp will flavor a big piece of rockfish without breaking the bank. For the vegetables you can try lightly pickling some of them. Use whole spices to make the packets look cool when you open them. Sauces can be made and served separately so people can choose different ones with the same meal, like a bechamel and a chili vinegar sauce or a bright pesto and a tomato cream sauce.

Kabobs are more a summertime grilling thing but you can make all the kabobs ahead of time so you're all hanging out by the fire instead of in the kitchen. To make them more fun for you to make them you can use all sorts of funky cuts of meat, and also experiment with marinades. Do the vegetable kabobs separately and you can mix and match different flavors. You can make fresh flatbreads that you warm on the grill, or do herby rice pilaf.

If you can find them, mini cast iron skillets are so adorable and weirdly useful. They are so impressive to guests and you can do all sorts of things in them. Do a big pot of slow cooker vegetables like collards or green beans to make it really Southern. Mac & cheese has the classic lobster mac & cheese as the fancy option, but you can swap the lobster out for anything you like. You can do biscuits in skillets, or eggs poached in spicy tomato sauce, or herb butter snails. You make everything ahead of time store in the fridge before baking.

To make a salad fancy you can candy nuts (or bacon!), do main-dish-related combinations of fruits and vegetables, and use locally available unusual greens when they're in season.
posted by Mizu at 1:41 PM on January 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

I should add that my wife and I are both better-than-average cooks and would prefer things that are a bit fancy or unconventional.

Chicken Marbella is somewhat unconventional and appears fancy, but is really simple: mix chicken in oil and vinegar, add some garlic and dried herbs, mix in prunes, olives, capers. Marinate overnight. Add sugar and white wine, and stick in the oven. Doesn't sound like it should work, but does, and is good both hot and at room temperature.

From Sheila Lukins; the recipe is mentioned in her NY Times obit as "a dinnner party classic for a generation of modern cooks."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:45 PM on January 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

One thing that worked when we had dinner party in early baby years was to plan for about an hour or so of communal prep work, during which time we could all chat and drink wine and nibble snacks and get everyone acquainted with each other in a low stakes environment, and if one of us had to rush off to calm a kid who wouldn't go to bed or whatever, it wouldn't be like there would be a glaring awkward empty seat at the table.

And then the thing we made would basically have to 1) cook quickly and 2) all at once (<15 min) instead of small endless batches, so no one would slave over the stove all night. This basically meant lots of fun experimenting with fresh, wacky flavored / shaped pastas as well as with chinese dumplings - do this in the next few weeks for the Year of the Rooster! You can prep a bunch of different fillings - pork! chicken! shrimp! veggie! mostly mushrooms! whatever you want! beforehand and have a dumpling folding party.
posted by sestaaak at 2:16 PM on January 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

When my kids were small, our goto dinner party dish was couscous royale - I didn't use this exact recipe, but it is a fair approximation. The recipe I use is in the Larousse Gastronomique, if you have that. While the stew was cooking, we would make a lot of appetizers, like tabbouleh salad, hummus, tomato salad, deviled eggs, something with beans, little toasts with maybe a olive paste or a chicken liver pate. We would time this so maybe we'd be half through making the appetizers when the guests arrived, and they would be snacking and drinking in the kitchen while we finished the last snacks and the couscous. Then when the main was ready, we'd go into the dining room. I've never been good at desserts, but a good one is thin slices of orange powdered with sugar and cinnamon.
We would just do this again and again, no one expected us to change the menu and everyone loved it. The kids at some point demanded a moratorium on couscous, but today they are starch defenders ;-) My daughter just went to a couscous restaurant in Paris and came back delighted it was "just like yours, mum"
posted by mumimor at 2:41 PM on January 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

Riffing on the taco bar idea, temaki sushi is a fun "pick-your-own" food. Chirashizushi is a less interactive, but just as delicious version. Depending on what you lay out, it can look very impressive.
posted by Diagonalize at 3:02 PM on January 26, 2017

Lots of options for raclette! Does require a special pan but it is communal and fun.
posted by charmedimsure at 4:18 PM on January 26, 2017

Moroccan Lamb Tagine is my go-to dinner party meal. It's one of those 'chuck everything into a pot and let it cook for a few hours' type of dishes, but it is so rich and delicious with butter and honey and raisins. . . I kind of want to go make it right now!

Whip up a quick batch of couscous (takes 5 minutes) and a light green salad and you're good to go.
posted by ananci at 5:29 PM on January 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

We used to do an annual Mardi Gras party and would have:
- red beans and rice
- crawfish Monica
- a really good shrimp and crab gumbo

Please see Chuck Taggart's website for fantastic recipes.
(disclaimer: I am not Chuck but some days I wish I was!)

All of these sound simple but can be so lovely if you are good cooks and know how to season well. Also bonus if you have matching cocktails. Again see Chuck.
posted by lucydriving at 7:44 PM on January 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Tandoori Chicken + Dhal + rice + broccoli. Make your own naan to be impressive.
posted by kjs4 at 8:54 PM on January 26, 2017

For meat eaters this is the easiest and tastiest meal I've ever made:

I usually add extra chorizo, blitz the sauce to make smooth and serve with some roast or jacket potatoes add whatever vegetables you fancy. :)
posted by TheGarden at 6:46 AM on January 27, 2017

We have friends that are just like you and in fact that is where I will be tonight. Thankfully, they have a nice spacious kitchen which allows for socializing while prep and cooking goes forth. Definitely don't overlook the potluck idea as it certainly lessens the burden. About half of us are "serious" cooks and the other half vary interest from zero to a little. We use that to our advantage by having the people with little interest handle things like good cheese, good bread, wine, etc while leaving the more intricate dishes to the people that want to put in the effort.

We've found that having courses (such as the cheeseboard or prepared ahead of time soup) allows for a more easy going night since you aren't rushing to feed hungry people. As for crowd pleasing dishes that we've done: Stews e.g. Carbonade Flamande, baked macaroni and cheese (use really good melting cheeses and incorporate things like sauteed mushrooms to amp up the umami, lasagna bolognese, over roasted vegetables don't take much time at all and are good canvas for you to experiment with different herbs and spices, etc.

Menu planning tends to be communal or at the very least between the host and I about 3 or 4 days ahead of time and that allows us to compensate for who is attending so that we can make sure to include more vegetable things when the vegetarian attends or have an all out Mexican food night when the cilantro hater isn't in attendance.
posted by mmascolino at 7:14 AM on January 27, 2017

I like to do this, too. Not perfect, but my timing has gotten better over the years --- the key is strictly limiting the things that need quick last minute cooking. No sauteed, stir-fried nothing. Maybe steam/microwave a vegetable side, but you want to avoid anything where you have to hover over a stove while your guests are there. This means roasts, casseroles, braises, sauces, stews, and salads, for the most part.

Potentially impressive mains in this vein:
Lasagne with homemade pasta
Sunday gravy
Whole fish baked in salt

Rice (pilaf, spanish rice, green rice)
Roast vegetables

cheese board
dips and crudite

If you guys are good cooks, just pick a cuisine you'd like to explore. As long as your main dish is something you can have in the oven before people get there and is a little forgiving about serving time (big roasts need to rest anyway, and anything braised you can hold in a warm oven for ages) you'll be fine.
posted by Diablevert at 9:27 AM on January 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Eek, I forgot to resolve this. Things for the suggestions everyone! Bon appétit!
posted by JimBJ9 at 5:44 AM on March 8, 2017

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