Dinner help
July 27, 2007 9:07 AM   Subscribe

Please help a novice make a good dinner for a good friend.

An old friend is visiting and I would like to make a 3 course dinner for them. (appetizer or side dish, main course, dessert) The problem is I never cook, and know next to nothing about how to cook. But I still would like to make something impressive and memorable.

What memorable things would you make - help walk me through your killer dinner idea.

My friend is not vegetarian, but likes vegetables, (and I know they usually like things like spinach, cheese, mushrooms, garlic, and pesto (whatever that is))

I was thinking maybe a vegetable lasagna, maybe with some or all of those ingredients. I don't know how hard that is to make though. For the other two courses, well, I dunno...

Thanks folks.
posted by fucker to Food & Drink (34 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
IANAchef, but something to start you off: Pesto is a delicious sauce-type thing that has a basil-y, nutty taste to it. It's really good (in my opinions) in pasta or with crusty bread. Not that you have to have pesto with your meal, I just thought I would share that. Because I love pesto.
posted by Zephyrial at 9:17 AM on July 27, 2007

Veg lasagne might be a little fiddly if you don't cook regularly, but has the advantage that you can make it well in advance and reheat it on the day. In fact, it's better that way. And those newfangled noodles you don't have to boil first make life a lot, lot easier. A meal is always nicer when you spend time with your friend, not stuck in the kitchen!

I like this recipe, though I'd skip the salting-and-pressing step, with modern aubergines it's not necessary. I'm sure people will be able to suggest loads of alternatives!

Good easy starter is pea and lettuce soup. Boil up a cup of peas and two handfuls of torn lettuce in enough stock to cover, add some lemon juice and grind in black pepper, and whizz up with a hand blender. If you're into garnishes a dollop of creme fraiche and some lemon zest will do. Is also nice cold (if you adjust the seasoning, cold food needs more salt to pop), and can also be made in advance and just dished up when needed.

There's no shame in buying a posh cake or selection of sweets at a good local bakery for dessert, if you've made the other courses yourself, and it's a good way to show off local knowledge as well as save yourself time. Choose a great wine, have some bowls of good olives for nibbles, and you're done. Easy-as.

Luv yr username :) and good luck with your cooking.
posted by methylsalicylate at 9:22 AM on July 27, 2007

I think pasta is easier than lasagna and in my experience better. Think of things that taste great and are simple like: shrimps, garlic, romano or parmesan cheese. Some simple pasta with a garlicky cream sauce & shrimps & broccoli for example is something you're much less likely to fuck up than lasagna. And then a simple salad with fresh vegetables. Or buy a good crusty bread and then look up online how to roast garlic and you can spread roasted garlic on bread & offer good slices tomatoes next to your pasta.
I would think about simple yet sublime things in other words.
posted by creasy boy at 9:24 AM on July 27, 2007

i second creasy boy's suggestion to a tee - a good shrimp scampi pasta never fails, is easy, comforting and delicious. fresh salad with seasonal ingredients. thick garlic bread.

also, easy to cook whilst your guests are there so you can still socialise.

the best homecooked meals are much more about spending time with good friends, than slaving away trying to impress!
posted by wayward vagabond at 9:33 AM on July 27, 2007

Second buying a cake or tart for dessert. Tiramisu is a delicious and swanky italian dessert that is available at higher-end supermarkets.

And I have a super-easy, really glam-looking and tasting main dish that only uses ONE PAN. Seared Salmon with Tarragon-Shallot Cream Sauce over Wilted Spinach.

It sounds hard, but it's actually super duper simple. Use a non-stick pan and its almost impossible to fuck up. Aside from chopping the shallot (a small onion-looking thing - ask your grocer if you can't find it - they'll have it), it's basically just putting things into the pan in the order specified.

Use good, fresh salmon - if you have a choice, I'd stay away from oilier, usually darker-fleshed varieties like sockeye; the cream sauce is heavy enough.

Maybe start with a cinchy salad like insalata caprese - again, more something you assemble rather than cook.
posted by CaptApollo at 9:36 AM on July 27, 2007

Hmmmm....since you don't normally cook, how about starting with a good antipasti and moving on to the veggie pasta from there? Pick up a good assortment of important cheeses, salami, some ham, and olives. Provolone, fresh asiago, boccancini - those small balls of fresh mozzarella, plain or marinated - would be good cheese choices. Lay those out on a platter with a few slices of good baguette or some seeded breadsticks.

Pesto would be a lovely addition to some fresh pasta, as Zephyrial recommends. I would sautee a zucchini, two small yellow squash, half a red bell pepper, diced, and half a diced, small yellow onion with a clove or two of crushed garlic in olive oil over medium heat, until browned and softened a bit, but not mushy - about 5 to 8 minutes. Add salt and pepper and perhaps a tablespoon of chopped fresh parsley. Remove from heat and toss with your fresh pasta - linguine would be good, as it's a little thicker and will stand up nicely to your mix of veggies. Taste and adjust your salt and pepper. Then add your pesto, starting with about a quarter cup. Taste again. Keep adding your pesto in small amounts and tasting until you get the flavor you like. Squeeze with a bit of lemon to brighten it up. Add a little extra olive oil for a looser, creamier consistency, if you want.

Serve with a sliced baguette warmed in the oven, with olive oil for dipping or butter for spreading, and a salad - there some good quality pre-packaged organic mixed greens out there now - dressed simply with a little olive oil, lemon juice, a touch of red wine vinegar, salt and pepper, and chopped beefsteak tomato, and a bit of shaved paremesan cheese over the top. Oh, if you can find pre-packaged "herb mix" - greens mixed with bits of parsley, dill, and tarragon - sooo much the better.

Good luck. This is a really sweet thing to do.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 9:38 AM on July 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

I also think pasta is a good and safe route. You can start it off with a salad too. Something simple and tasty - greens with walnuts and goat cheese and a vinaigrette for example. Add heirloom tomatoes if you wish.

Also, sticking with the Italian theme, get a half pound or so of thinly sliced prosciutto at a deli. Cut up a juicy melon and serve them together as an appetizer. Buy a chianti and drink it throughout the meal.

There's nothing wrong with buying a freshly made dessert but you could also make your own. A cake isn't hard to bake especially if you use a mix.

Making chocolate chip cookies from scratch (not from a mix) is also something I used to do frequently (which means its hard to mess it up; take out the cookies earlier the better) and makes for a nice treat. Make the mix early then put them in the oven after dinner.

Also, get some ground coffee beforehand and then use a french press to serve after dinner.
posted by vacapinta at 9:39 AM on July 27, 2007

Appetizer: Cheese and crackers or hunks of baguette. Try an aged white cheddar, gruyere or other hard cheese with a soft one like a brie or camebert. Buy nice crackers or a baguette. Unwrap the cheeses and place on platter or nice cutting board with a knife. But the bread/crackers in a bowl/serving dish next to the cheeses.

Main Course: Pasta with tomotoes and shrimp. Boil water, cook spaghetti (or other long skinny pasta, bucatini is my fave). Chop up one onion and a few cloves of garlic. Get a saute pan hot add some olive oil, let it warm up, add the onion and garlic and turn the heat down to med-low. Take some fresh tomatoes (3-4 depending on size) (preferrably from your garden or farmer's market) and quarter them. Scoop out (and discard) the seeds and jelly bits and then cut into 1" pieces. Once the onions start to look translucent, add the tomatoes. Cook for one minute and then add uncooked (fresh or defrosted) peeled shrimp. Cook until shrimp are opaque. Add some chopped basil (1/2 cup of leaves) Season with salt and pepper to taste. Toss the cooked pasta in with the tomatoes and stir. Grate some parmesan or romano cheese over (1/4-1/2 cup) and serve immediately.

Dessert: Lemon sorbet with local fresh berries.
posted by sulaine at 9:42 AM on July 27, 2007

Oh, you can buy decent pesto in jars at a good deli or specialty food shop. Or you can omit it and simply go the veggie route. Lots of good suggestions all around, IMHO.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 9:43 AM on July 27, 2007

Also, I would serve a green salad with the pasta. It can be very simple, just greens and dressing or you can add some fancy bits like toasted nuts and sliced strawberries or pears.
posted by sulaine at 9:44 AM on July 27, 2007

i'll offer a main course: One of my favorite things to make, that is unique, and yet pretty easy is pineapple-cream cheese chicken.

All you need is boneless, skinless chicken breasts, a can or 2 of pineapple rings, and some Kraft pineapple cream cheese. (Regular cream cheese is ok if you can't find the pineapple kind. Kraft makes several flavors for use on bagels.)

1- Flatten out the chicken breasts with a tenderizing mallet between 2 sheets of wax paper. This makes them thinner and more tender, and they cook quicker.
2- Put the chicken in a shallow casserole dish and pour the canned pineapple rings, juice and all, into the dish. Add some light seasoning: I like Johnny's seasoning salt, but any brand is ok.
3- Cover and bake at 350 degrees for about 30-40 minutes. Depending on how thin the chicken is, it should be close to done. Cut it to check if you need to.
4- Put a dollop of cream cheese on each breast, leave the dish uncovered, and cook it another 10-15 minutes.
5- Place the breasts on a serving dish, and put a pineapple ring on the cream cheese on each chicken breast. Spoon the extra pineapple juice over the chicken.

Every time I have served this, it has gone over great, plus it can be left in the oven on Warm until ready to serve. Timing everything in a meal to come out right can be tricky, so this dish gives some flexibility.
posted by The Deej at 9:45 AM on July 27, 2007

The problem is I never cook, and know next to nothing about how to cook.

Perhaps take them to dinner or buy one of those ready made meals?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:48 AM on July 27, 2007

General advice: Recipes always seem harder in print than actually doing them. And the second time, you hardly need the recipe - its just sort of instinctive.

What I'm trying to say if that any of this sounds daunting, try it once by yourself - make yourself a nice meal. None of these suggestions are expensive.

Then when you do it for your friend it will be the second time, it will be a hundred times easier, and will allow you to just relax.
posted by vacapinta at 9:52 AM on July 27, 2007

Yeah, take them out for dinner. That way, you're sure they'll be eating something they like (ie they won't order pesto if they actually hate it), and you get to spend quality time with your friend instead of stressing in the kitchen.

But that's just me, and I'm awful in the kitchen.
posted by cgg at 9:58 AM on July 27, 2007

If you want a semi-impressive veggie starter, that requires no cooking skills, yet looks cooked and impressive, a friend makes a baked brie thing using nothing more than a package of pillsbury crescent rolls, a medium sized wheel of brie and a small jar of gourmet jam. Open up the crescent rolls but don't separate them, spoon a few tablespoons of jam in the middle (nearly any kind will work, but more complex jam flavours work better), throw the brie wheel on top and fold the crescent dough over it. Then just bake as per the crescent roll instructions, and serve warm with crackers.

It takes about 2 minutes to make, and everyone is always super impressed with it, despite the complete lack of any cooking skills involved. Plus, it's a social appie, since people are sharing off a central platter rather than each having their own.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:01 AM on July 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you do the pesto thing that many have suggested -- and it's a good suggestion for a first-time cook -- please, for the love of all that is holy, do NOT buy ready-made pesto in a jar. The jarred stuff is crap and tastes like sawdust.

Luckily, making your own is super easy:

Get a couple-three bunches of basil (locally grown if possible). Throw all the leaves into a food processor or blender with a few cloves of garlic, a handful of grated Parmesan or Romano, and add olive oil (extra virgin, please) while blending until you get a thick paste (think peanut butter, but not sticky).

If you want to guild the lilly a bit, add about a half cup of pine nuts that you've toasted in a skillet over low heat.
posted by jacobian at 10:03 AM on July 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

One thing my family's been doing for dessert (it's not even that formal, it's more of just a sweet thing afterwards) instead of baking or buying something already prepared has been cutting up a bunch of cheese that we haven't tried before and some ice-cold melon and apple and basically picking at it with some crackers or bread while we continue our dinnertime gabbing.
posted by mdonley at 10:06 AM on July 27, 2007

Let's keep things super-simple. I particularly like this recipe:

Baked Vegetables with Feta Cheese

This is like veggie lasagna but without all the work. It only requires a little bit of chopping, and following the directions on a box of rice. You will need a pan for the rice and a baking dish with a lid for the veggies. (Or you could avoid the rice altogether, and serve bread instead.) It's very simple, the veggies come out perfect, and it's a full meal. If you chop the veggies beforehand, you won't need to do much on the day your friend is coming over.

I would serve that with a baguette, butter, and maybe some cheese (cheddar or brie would work).

For dessert, you could make clafoutis:


It's basically a pie, very similar tasting to a crepe. You just mix everything together in a large bowl with a whisk or a fork, put 2 cups of any fruit in a cake pan and pour the mixture over it, and then it goes into the oven. I made it with peaches last weekend and it turned out great. You can make it ahead of time, and it tastes good whether it's warm or cold.
posted by heatherann at 10:10 AM on July 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Make pastitsio!

It's delish, it's like lasagna but easier to make, and your friend will be impressed that you know what a bechamel is (even if you don't, really -- it's the cheese sauce on top). For apps, serve a nice green salad, easily assembled at your local market, the same place from which you wil be purchasing dessert. Pair the entree with a pinot noir or a merlot.

I make this dish about once a month, and I usually double or triple the recipe and then freeze a couple of (disposable aluminum) pans for quick meals when I don't feel like cooking. Like lasagna, pastitsio is better the next day (though it isn't as pretty).

It's pretty hard to screw up, too. Just use quality feta cheese (don't buy the pre-crumbled stuff, it's too dry. Use brine-packed feta instead, you'll find 8-oz packages of it in most grocers' dairy cases), don't overcook the lamb (the first step is just browning it, it'll cook through when you bake the assembled dish), and drain the pasta thoroughly so it doesn't make your dish too watery.

The link above is the actual recipe I use (though I use 1.5 lbs of lamb per casserole, cuz I like lamb, and I use less salt and more cinammon and black pepper). Just taste the tomato sauce as you go. Also, look for canned tomatoes that are not packed with citric acid as a preservative: tomatoes actually improve with canning because the aluminum tempers the acidity and makes them sweeter. Citric acid keeps that from happening and gives them a more flavorful "bite", which is fine in a marinara, but not in this dish, which is less about the tomatoes and more about the lamb, eggplant and feta.

The equipment you need is very basic: a 4-quart pot, a 2-quart pot, a pasta pot, a couple of spoons, and a casserole dish. I only own one 4-quart pot, so after I cook the lamb and the eggplant and tomato sauce, I pour it off into a mixing bowl, clean the pot, and boil the pasta in that.

Bon appetit!
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:10 AM on July 27, 2007

Whatever recipes you go with, and there are some great suggestions above, do a test run of everything the weekend before. You'll be able to spot trouble areas, and figure out any confusing parts of a recipe. Print out a copy of each recipe, and write down notes to yourself as you go. On another piece of paper, write down all the ingredients from all the recipes to make a check list.
The day of the dinner, chop up all your veggies and meat a few hours before you plan to start cooking. Seal everything in plastic and stick it in the fridge. (Include seasonings like chopped herbs, garlic, and even salt and pepper) Refer to your checklist to make sure you didn't miss anything. When you're ready to cook, pull everything out of the fridge and line them up on your counter. This way you won't have to waste time chopping while you're cooking, and you'll be less likely to forget an ingredient.

When in doubt, add more butter.
posted by Eddie Mars at 10:14 AM on July 27, 2007

What I'm trying to say if that any of this sounds daunting, try it once by yourself - make yourself a nice meal. None of these suggestions are expensive.

Then when you do it for your friend it will be the second time, it will be a hundred times easier, and will allow you to just relax.

Heed vacapinta's advice.

Whatever recipes you decide on, I suggest making the meal a few times in advance. The time to try a recipe and make sure it works is days before your guest arrives. The night of the dinner, you should not be looking at a printed recipe while juggling a boiling pot of pasta, working a saute pan, stirring salad dressing, and checking dessert in the oven. Do what you can in advance so that you'll just be doing the least amount of cooking and assembly. Chop the vegetables, make the salad dressing, assemble the dessert, and get your ingredients in order. If you're doing pasta, start heating the water at a low setting when your guest arrives -- just crank it up once you start to cook.
If you're stressing over a dinner, then you're in a poor state to be a good host. Remember, your friend came to see you not watch you cook.
posted by junesix at 10:17 AM on July 27, 2007

Oh man.. I need to preview more.
posted by junesix at 10:18 AM on July 27, 2007

Soup: Carrot ginger soup. 2 or 3 carrots per person. Peel, chop into 1 inch pieces, add to a pot w/ one small chopped red onion, one small peeled chopped potato and one 1 inch chunk of peeled fresh ginger. Cover w/ canned chicken stock and water (1 can of stock and the balance water is fine) and simmer till the carrots are very soft (you can mush them w/ a fork), maybe 20 minutes. Let it cool in the pot for a few minutes then pour the whole thing into the blender and puree. You may need to add some water if it's too thick. Serve w/ a dollop of sour cream, and some bread on the side.

Pasta: Puttanesca sauce. Heat olive oil in a pan over med heat (be liberal w/ the oil), add a few cloves of chopped garlic, cook for 30 sec, add a small hand full of capers, a handful of pitted calimata olives, a handful of parsley and if you like them a tin of anchovies in olive oil, cook for another minute, add a box of Pomi chopped tomatoes. Add some pepper, go easy on the salt as there are a lot of salty ingredients in there already. Cook for 10-15 minutes. Serve over pasta, something like pene is typical, but any shape will do. I like to have my salad after the pasta.

Desert: Mint chocolate chip ice cream w/ whipped cream and a cup of mint tea.

If you don't cook often, whatever you do, definitely practice once before and get everything (clean & chop veggies, open every box, can etc.) before you even turn on the stove. This greatly reduces kitchen stress. I like to have everything ready to go in mugs or small bowls.
posted by JulianDay at 10:18 AM on July 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

I had steamed asparagus drizzled with olive oil and kosher salt last night. That was damn easy and very yummy.

I've had tremendous success with this chocolate dessert. It is made ahead of time and you can garnish it at service with whatever you have on hand (e.g. chocolate syrup, chocolate chips, whip cream or some liquor or all of the above).
posted by mmascolino at 10:40 AM on July 27, 2007

At some grocery stores, you can find chocolate mousse mixes by the Jello. They are little sacks of powder that you mix with milk. It's a little fancier than pudding and it's not hard at all to make. (Directions: put milk and powder in a bowl and mix until thick.)

I think you need to have an electric mixer/beater to make it, otherwise it won't get stiff enough.

You could put it in a little bowl, top it with whipped cream and call it a pot de creme.
posted by TheClonusHorror at 11:06 AM on July 27, 2007

Something I have done a few times recently was fondue. It's a unique experience, and takes zero cooking skills. You can NOT mess it up. If you can follow directions and cut things with a knife, you can do it. It's also very sociable, and your guest can pick exactly what they want. You can also do all three courses this way. Cheese fondue for appetizer, broth fondue for main course, chocolate for dessert.

The only tricky one is the cheese. There are recipes online, but as a non-cook I would recommend a prepared cheese made just for fondue, or a regular nacho cheese.


Appetizer: cheese dip. Serve with cubed bread (a few different kinds), and cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, any other veggie that goes good with cheese. Just wash and cut up the veggies, no need to cook.

Main course: Make your sauce with a quart of vegetable stock, a cup of burgundy, a splash of Worcestershire sauce, half a teaspoon each of cayenne pepper and mustard powder, and a tablespoon of minced garlic. Add some chopped green onions and some sliced mushrooms. Add a teaspoon of seasoning salt as well. Let that simmer in the fondue pot. Before they arrive (I did it the night before, to avoid last minute rushing.): Make some thinnish slices of chicken breast, tenderized sirloin, red potatoes, whole baby carrots, whole mushrooms, and some peeled shrimp. Arrange these on a nice serving platter in an attractive pattern, sprinkle some parsley all over it, and set it out. Your guests can spear what they want with the fondue fork, and cook it in the broth themselves. It only takes a couple minutes for each slice to cook. Guests generally have at least 2 forks. One item is cooking while they eat the other. Potatoes and mushrooms can be put in the broth and spooned out with a slotted spoon. You may have to refill the broth a couple times. Set out some sauce cups with sweet & sour sauce, A-1, coctail sauce, peanut sauce, etc. for the guests to spoon onto the cooked meats.

Dessert is the easiest, but is extremely delicious and addictive. Just get some sweetened chocolate chips (milk or dark, whatever you want) and add some heavy cream while you warm it up. Bring out a platter with marshmallows, sliced bananas, strawberries, and cubed angel food cake. Sprinkle the dessert tray with powdered sugar to make it look nice.

Yes, you have to wash the pot between courses, or buy more than one (which is what I did.) But there are many advantages to fondue: You have prepared everything ahead, so there is no rush to time your cooking. Everyone cooks what they want, so they can pick and choose. Everyone is eating hot, fresh food. It's fun. It encourages conversation, because you are eating pretty slowly, and there is no fear of your food getting cold as you spin your latest yarn. You can be creative in your presentation of the platters of food rather than worrying about "being a good cook." Bringing out a platter of sliced food, artfully arranged, will elicit oooohs and ahhhhhs. You will look like an expert.

This works best for 2 to 6 people at the table, but I did it for about 12 people once. It was a little chaotic, but it worked. I think if I did over 4 I would use 2 pots.

Safety note: of course you don't cross-contaminate the raw and cooked meat. After cooking, it gets put on the plate and eaten with a fork. The fondue fork is used to spear the next slice and cook it.
posted by The Deej at 11:20 AM on July 27, 2007

Two easy salad ideas:

Get some official Cardini Caesar salad dressing from the supermarket. Pour some in a mixing bowl (as much as you'll need to coat your lettuce) and add a generous squirt of anchovy paste and Worcestershire sauce. Mix thoroughly. Tear up romaine lettuce into a salad bowl (enough to serve however many guests you'll have), then pour in your dresssing mix. Add a generous amount of parmesean cheese, and toss until the lettuce is completely coated.

- - - -

Slice up tomatoes onto individual salad plates. Sprinkle shredded mozerella cheese (you can buy it in pouches at the grocery store) over the slices. Pour enough olive oil over the plate to coat the 'maters. Then sprinkle some basil on top.
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:16 PM on July 27, 2007

Well, pasta is the easiest thing for the novice. Problem is, it's boring. You could make the best plate of spaghetti imaginable and it would still be a plate of spaghetti.

I like to make Indian food in situations like this. It's not that much harder - the veggie dishes are fairly simple, really. I say that being a non-cook. My mom taught me to make pasta and chili.

All you need is a good grocery store with fresh bulk spices of all types, so you can go get a little baggie of cardamom seeds or whatever. Also a spice grinder ($7 Mr. Coffee coffee grinder works like a champ).

I'd go with some sort of dal (lentil soup), maybe a shrimp dish, with rice, and rice pudding for dessert. Maybe a green salad. There are recipes for nan (bread), but that's harder, and you can get away with plain flour tortillas and nobody will care (since they know you're not a big cooking person). Bonus: it's hard to mess these dishes up very bad (or I've been very very lucky - not likely) Simple, different, and tasty! Makes the whole house smell awesome, too.
posted by ctmf at 1:14 PM on July 27, 2007

No matter how many different appetizers I make for people they always request Knorr's Cold Spinach Dip. It is fabulous with either fresh veggies, chips or a good crusty bread. And it is incredibly easy to make.

Definitely go for lasagna. It doesn't have to be very fancy to be delicious. Personally I hate that no boil lasagna, so boil your noodles the same way you boil any pasta paying attention to the directions on the box. Sautee some spinach, mushrooms, garlic and really whatever other veggies you feel like. While cooking the veggies sprinkle in Oregano, Thyme and Basil to taste. (In my experience it is hard to overdo those spices, but probably at least a tablespoon of each.) Grab a Deep rectangular oven pan and start making layers starting with noodles first.

You should include three layers, the veggies, some sort of marinara sauce of your choice, and a layer of cheeses (feta, mozzarella and Parmesan are a great combo for lasagna.) Making the first and last layer lasagna noodles will make for easier and less messy cutting and transport but honestly, it will taste great no matter what. Sprinkle the top layer with some more Parmesan if you like.

Cover with foil so that the oven doesn't make your pasta crusty. Heat at 325 to 350 or so just long enough to melt the cheese and heat it all up really good. (Everything should have been cooked before hand, the marinara and cheese should be the only cold ingredients.)

That's it!

For dessert you want to go for something light if you serve pasta, otherwise it is unlikely people will still be willing to eat more food. I suggest fresh fruit and a melted chocolate dip. If you have a electric mixer you can beat a can of coconut cream until it is fluffy then refrigerate and it makes a fabulous light fruit dip.
posted by trishthedish at 1:21 PM on July 27, 2007

ps. Go big on the presentation. It makes a difference. Not to malign you unfairly, but I notice this with my friends. Set the table with place mats, actually serve the food (either make plates like a restaurant or put the serving dishes on the table, not "It's on the stove, help yourself".)

A rule I learned late in life, but thinking back, my mother and grandmother followed and neglected to mention to me, was the no packaging rule. Everything on the table goes in a dish. Salad dressing in a bowl with a spoon, not the bottle from the store. Salt and pepper in shakers, not the way it came from the store.

It's amazing how much that simple two minutes of mostly cosmetic effort makes a dinner seem nicer and more home-like. Sure, they're your friends, and won't really care that much if you don't, but it's a special meal, right? Go the whole way.
posted by ctmf at 1:26 PM on July 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you decide to make pasta, there are a couple of tips for beginners.

Salt the water: you should be able to taste the salt.

After you drain the pasta, it will stick together if you don't mix in some sauce, butter, or oil right away. So be ready. If it's lasagna noodles, you can put them in a bowl of cool water to stop the cooking and keep them from sticking.

And I'm going to repeat the suggestion to try your choices ahead of time. The second time preparing a dish is much easier, faster, and less iffy.
posted by wryly at 2:12 PM on July 27, 2007

I'm going to second everyone who said be sure to do a trial run before making the meal for your friend. I have learned this the hard way--NOT fun.

There are a lot of great recipes in this thread that I want to try!

Mr. hurdy gurdy suggests that you look through some Jamie Oliver or Nigella Lawson cookbooks to see if there's anything in there that appeals to you. Both Oliver and Lawson's cookbooks tend to have a lot of recipes for food that looks impressive but is actually quite straightforward to make.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 6:39 PM on July 27, 2007

The problem is I never cook, and know next to nothing about how to cook.

Honestly, I would recommend taking them out. Pastitsio recipes aren't going to be much help if you don't know what pesto is and as was said, your friend wants to see you, not see you cook.

Runner up would be buying as much of the dinner as possible: the charcuterie and cheese plate for starters idea is great, and a fancy dessert (unless you want to pile some fresh berries on a plate with vanilla ice cream, that's simple), but I would even go buy a prepared lasagne or a roast chicken from a good food store and make only the salad from scratch.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:35 AM on July 28, 2007

Thanks a bunch. Helpful stuff all around. I have a couple of weeks to prepare and this thread and all your tips, instructions, and suggestions will be useful to me in my decisions.
posted by fucker at 8:22 PM on July 29, 2007

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