Best somewhat fancy, moderately hard dinner party recipes?
October 13, 2021 12:44 PM   Subscribe

Googling this, I get a lot of "Top 10 easy..." or "Best all-out fancy..." but not much in-between. I'm a moderately skilled cook and don't mind putting in the time to prepare a special meal, but my technical skills are fairly basic. I enjoy the food I cook, but would like to up my game a bit if cooking for guests. Particularly stressful are recipes that require precise cook times - (ex. fried squid). Recipes where spice-level can be controlled by the guest (at least somewhat) are preferred. Thanks!
posted by coffeecat to Food & Drink (26 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
To me, seared duck breast is almost shockingly easy for the result you get and doesn't require a range hood to avoid rousing the whole neighborhood with your smoke alarm like steak does. People tend to associate it with "fanciness" since it's more commonly a restaurant than a home dish.
posted by praemunire at 12:59 PM on October 13 [2 favorites]

Dishes involving braised or roasted meats are good for dinner parties, because you prep your meats earlier, then let them cook while prepare the sides. One of the most popular things I ever made for a dinner party was chicken adobo, which is very simple to cook but is full of lots of different flavors.

I've also had success with tacos - there's a lot of prep work involved in making all the toppings but none of it is particularly difficult. Then you just warm up the tortillas when people get there and let them assemble their own. If I were doing a taco party, I'd make Serious Eats' carnitas (and maybe Rick Bayless' vegetarian squash), plus quick-pickled red onions, and have diced onions, avocados, pico de gallo, and cheese for toppings, plus maybe refried beans and cabbage slaw on the side. A lot to prep but most of it can be done ahead of time, so the timing issue isn't in play.
posted by lunasol at 1:00 PM on October 13 [8 favorites]

Seconding the Serious Eats' Carnitas. They're so good, and most of the work is done ahead of time. Beware though, a 3-lb pork butt was almost completely devoured by 4 hungry people, so you may need to double the recipe!
posted by hydra77 at 1:05 PM on October 13 [1 favorite]

Beef wellington, Gordon Ramsay's favorite? :)
posted by kschang at 1:07 PM on October 13 [5 favorites]

My favorite is braised boneless beef ribs, with romesco sauce, over baked polenta.

I do the ribs in a Dutch oven on the stove top, with onion, carrot and celery, followed by some tomato paste, and then deglazed with red wine, and a bit of water added. Just simmer for a while.

That whole beef deliciousness can be served on top of polenta, or carb of your choice (mashed potatoes, etc.) with the romesco sauce. It's very good.

Really nice served with a light lettuce salad to begin with, as it's all very rich. Maybe fruit at the end, or a nice fruit parfait. Or a strawberry fool or something.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 1:19 PM on October 13 [2 favorites]

If you want to fancy up your regular meat and veg meals get a sous vide circulator and open up a whole new way of cooking food. Their great.
I also love a bison oso buca as a fancyish meal that isn't precise but is delicious
posted by Uncle at 1:20 PM on October 13 [1 favorite]

Galettes are a real treat if you're moderately comfortable working with dough. They're also supremely unhealthy (lots of butter) so ideal to split with guests! Fillings can be fairly simple, and it's easy to make vegetarian. I've gotten good galette recipes from Smitten Kitchen over the years (zucchini ricotta was my entry point). The galette is easy to prep ahead, bakes in the oven for ~45 minutes and makes the place smell amazing, and pairs well with a simple side salad.
posted by saramour at 1:23 PM on October 13 [8 favorites]

Hell yes, galettes is a fantastic idea! My friend who came up here said she had never tasted a crust like that in her life. I made mine in the food processor with butter and ice water, it's totatally doable in 1 minute. MeMail me if you want further instruction about galette or pie dough, been making it since I was 13 years old.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 1:33 PM on October 13 [4 favorites]

I made this Bo Ssam recipe for some friends and it was a huge hit. Pretty easy and foolproof to make. The spices are mostly from the various sauces and toppings that the guests can put on themselves.

It takes a while for the pork to cook but you don't really have to do anything with it. You can make all the sauces and other stuff while you're waiting for it to cook.
posted by bondcliff at 1:53 PM on October 13 [10 favorites]

Not a specific recipe, but you might love the cookbook From Simple to Spectacular by Mark Bittman & Jean-Georges Vongerichten. They take recipes and cook through different versions of them, from super easy to multi-day affairs.
posted by BlahLaLa at 2:02 PM on October 13 [4 favorites]

Galettes are definitely a great fit here -- I like doing one with onions and cheese which has a nicely medieval feel. To go along with the carnitas, another good Kenji recipe that fits this niche is this one for roasted potatoes -- not hard, but certainly a level above the "normal" version.

I also like to make this spaghetti cacio e pepe, which is definitely a dinner party recipe (LOTS of fat and LOTS of tossing) that is delicious.
posted by goingonit at 2:07 PM on October 13 [1 favorite]

Oh another thing - don't be afraid to make comfort-food type things. One of my all-time favorite dinner party memories was from an Italian-American friend who made us her family's marinara with pasta and Italian sausage, salad, and garlic bread. Not fancy but so good and convivial (I got the marinara recipe from her but it's never been as good). I also had a midwinter dinner party once where I served chili and corn bread and that went over very well too. The key is making something your friends will enjoy, and that won't be so stressful for you that you can't enjoy yourself with your guests.
posted by lunasol at 4:08 PM on October 13 [2 favorites]

I love to make the Cook's Illustrated mushroom lasagna for guests. It is a fair bit of work, but not highly skilled work - just a lot of steps. I can make it up to the point that it is ready to go in the oven the day before and then *wash all the dishes*. People are hugely impressed by it, most people like it, and it is low effort on the day of your party when you have other things going on.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:25 PM on October 13 [5 favorites]

I've become a bit of a demon with a deep fryer. Which sounds terrible, but there are things you just can't cook without one. Onion bhajis (ingredients: onions, gram flour, spices). Amazing triple-cooked fries (potato, sweet potato). Chicken pakoras (ingredients: chicken, gram flour, spices). Churros. Tempura. Your very own secret family fried chicken recipe (from grandpa Google). Take things out when they look done, mostly. Or use a meat probe for chicken so that it comes out perfect.

Returning to Indian food, learning how to make a good British Indian Restaurant curry, with a base sauce you can make in bulk and freeze, is not difficult, and you can make restaurant-quality food (as found in every British town) that can have a wide range of spiciness. Curries don't really demand timekeeping skills. Rice does, of course.
posted by pipeski at 4:28 PM on October 13 [1 favorite]

Melissa Clark's recipe for Parmesan Roast Chicken with Lemon has only a handful of ingredients but really packs the flavor. My only tip on this recipe is to halve the amount of salt, although YMMV.
posted by panther of the pyrenees at 4:52 PM on October 13 [1 favorite]

I make a lot of Moroccan food for dinner parties. That tends to have unusual, interesting spices without much in the way of hot chiles, and the combinations always feel special.

But the absolute biggest crowd-pleaser for me has been steamed dumplings. These are fussy and time-consuming to prep, even when you use premade wrappers, because you have to form each dumpling individually. Also, they're easiest to cook in bulk if you own bamboo steamer baskets, which means acquiring a special tool. But steaming dumplings for a few extra minutes doesn't hurt anything, and in my experience people are delighted to make a meal of them. I most often use the recipe out of Maangchi's Real Korean Cooking, but every dumpling recipe and substitution I've tried has been great.
posted by yarntheory at 5:03 PM on October 13 [4 favorites]

Nothing in Julia Child's boeuf bourguignon recipe is actually hard. There are many components so it's time consuming, but don't let the sequence in Julie & Julia scare you off. It's totally doable if you manage your time well. (Pro tips: you can brown-braise the onions and sauté the mushrooms while the meat cooks; double the onions and mushrooms because there are never enough; wear supportive shoes in the kitchen so your feet don't kill you). Vegetarian guests? Melissa Clark has a mushroom bourguignon recipe for you.

For Christmas I've taken to doing a standing rib roast on the grill over indirect heat because (A) it's delicious, and (2) it frees up the oven for other stuff. Again, not hard once you do the part where you trim the bones off, salt it all, and then tie the bones back on. You can do this in the oven if you don't have a grill, but that extra aroma from charcoal is such a bonus. Sadly I don't really have a vegetarian option for this, though. (Pro tip: there really won't be enough liquid for Yorkshire Pudding if you do the method described here, in the oven or on the grill, so if you want "drippings" and/or sauce then follow the instructions to cook oxtails or something similar for that purpose).
posted by fedward at 5:04 PM on October 13 [2 favorites]

IME dumplings freeze quite well, so you could do them in lots of flavors over a few weeks and really push out the dumpling boat, with some salad and sauces.

I usually use the fact in the other direction. Rich leftovers after a party often make good dumpling fillings, and then that's really easy treat dinners later when we aren't freshly full of party food.
posted by clew at 5:27 PM on October 13 [2 favorites]

Crown roast of pork, or whole leg of lamb.

Something involving a whole fish of reasonable size would be interesting. Sounds like it might be hard but Chinese recipes for a steamed whole fish look pretty easy. Usually served in or with a broth.

Also, roast turkey, same as Thanksgiving, is just as tasty the rest of the year.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:31 PM on October 13 [1 favorite]

Also this roast chicken is not fancy but it is hard to mess up. We'll do asparagus when it's in season, but now we're getting into roasted root vegetable season so we'd probably do that and maybe some spinach sautéed with sliced garlic? (Start the garlic in cold olive oil, a trick I learned from the NYT's Tejal Rao, [syndicated here]).
posted by fedward at 7:09 PM on October 13 [2 favorites]

If by spice you mean capsaicin, I don't like it so none of my suggestions feature it. Everything I'm suggesting makes good leftovers, too.

Havij Polo - Saffron rice and carrots isn't a difficult dish if you have decent knife skills for cutting stuff into matchstick sizes as well as basic cooking skills. It's a decent amount of work, though, and time consuming with all that precise cutting; I'm sure there's some YouTube videos on workable strategies for matchstick cutting carrots though. You will want to practice the crispy rice strategy, Tahdig, several times beforehand to get a good feel for how it would go with your particular cooking set up--and that site has several recipe variations to do so with, so you don't have to get bored doing the same recipe over and over. The reason for the practice is that once you flip over that pot of rice onto the platter, that's it, it's donzo, what you got is what you got and you can't do it just a bit longer if it's not crispy. I don't know if that particular timeframe of plus or minus five minutes is in your stress range, but it's not like, you instantly ruin the dish--it'll either not be crispy or there'll be some parts too cooked to eat but the rest will be fine. But, you won't have a good feel for the optimal time you should set with your particulars until you've done it a couple times.

Blue Apron's beef broccoli with persimmon rice is also a big favorite of mine and easier than the previous, and right now you can probably get ahold of persimmons. You'll have to scale up for a dinner party; for situations like that, I roast the broccoli on a sheet pan instead of cooking it in the pan.

Baked Salmon stuffed with mascarpone spinach is another favorite of mine, but I tend to just use all cream cheese and panko bread crumbs. Getting the cream cheese to room temp beforehand is very useful and do make sure to squeeze all the water out of the spinach before chopping it up. I also just pour an electric kettle of boiling water over spinach in a strainer to wilt it instead of going through the tedium of boiling a pot of water. (heat leftovers through oven not microwave to keep the crumbs crispy) Upside: comparatively quick to prepare and cook. Downside: if your party is big buying that much salmon can be expensive.

Martha Stewart's Perfect Mac and Cheese is amazing and also makes decent leftovers unlike mac and cheese that comes from a box (again, best heated through oven and not microwave if one wants to keep that top crispy). I tend to use whole wheat penne pasta with mine, as well as panko bread crumbs. This one has a timing portion when you're doing the roux so be aware of that and prepare to get ready onto the next step for when before you start it. But if you end up burning the roux, no worries, you can start over if you had to without putting yourself too far behind since that's at the beginning. Roasted brussel sprouts or broccoli would make an excellent counterpoint side.
posted by foxfirefey at 7:21 PM on October 13 [1 favorite]

Coconut milk mussels - In the bottom of a stock pot, saute cook chopped onion and garlic. Add lemongrass and/or finely chopped chilis if you want. Throw in a million scrubbed mussels, plus white wine and lots of coconut milk. Cook til the broth is hot and the mussels open. Salt the broth to taste, then spoon it over the mussels in bowls with lots of crusty bread to sop up the broth. It's not difficult but it feels so fancy! The first time I had this, it was cooked for me by an actress who wasn't famous then but she is now, so it's probably lucky, too!
posted by nouvelle-personne at 12:06 AM on October 14 [1 favorite]

+ 1 for Morroccan cuisine. Very easy to make, and delicious. It's easy to make both an omnivore and a vegetarian version of a stew for couscous, for instance.
Now the cold season is coming here on the northern hemisphere, it's time for stews like osso buco and oxtail stew. To be served with rice or polenta or just some good sour dough bread, and maybe a fresh dessert of orange slices sprinkled with a mix of sugar and cinnamon.
posted by mumimor at 4:03 AM on October 14 [1 favorite]

I came in to recommend beef wellington too! Or use pork tenderloins if the beef is too spendy. You can make your own puff pastry if you want to up the complication factor, although I would not! This lamb shank and orzo recipe is also a lovely and delicious dish. Generally speaking, I loooove Cook's Illustrated for this, I find their recipes (sometimes much!) more involved than things I'd otherwise make, but their instructions are also much more thorough than many recipes and I'm almost always happy with the results - it's a shame to go to a bunch of trouble cooking something only to realize it's not so good and the *recipe* is most likely to blame.
posted by zibra at 5:59 AM on October 14 [1 favorite]

Wellingtons cooked the old school way is definitely hard with a decent risk of over cooking the puff pastry or under cooking the meat. Now if you use sous vide techniques to cook the meat ahead of time and then refrigerate overnight, then assemble and cook the puff you will get pretty good fool proof results.

The suggestion of Bo Ssam is a good one as the ratio of deliciousness to effort is ridiculously tilted in your favor. The only challenge is takes a lot of unattended time to accomplish.

Kenji's How to make creamy vegetable soup without a recipe offers many avenues for you to use the best in season produce to produce delicious food in a straightforward fashion. He offers simple suggestions of garnishes that can turn this into elegant dishes.
posted by mmascolino at 7:46 AM on October 14 [2 favorites]

I came to also recommend Momofuko’s Bo Ssam-stunningly delicious-or Marcella Hazan’s Bolognese.

Both are a day long project though not technically incredibly difficult, and are some of the best things I’ve ever eaten.
posted by purenitrous at 7:51 PM on October 14

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