You stand in your kitchen, in all its glory, and you are ready to tackle something fabulous.
What to make?
Let's not talk about recipes, just yet. Let's talk about some principles first. Like menu planning.
What should you look for in putting together a meal that pleases you, and if you have guests will please them too? First, a happy dinner should have variety. You want a variety of colors, textures, shapes, heartiness, etc. Think about your favorite restaurant. You might see a dinner of grilled chicken breast, steamed broccolini, rice pilaf and maybe some good rolls. Think about the colors, flavors and shapes of those things. Lasagna, a Caesar salad and garlic bread. It is fine to let there be a thread of commonality among the items, like that lasagna dinner: garlic is a feature of each dish but it translates differently in each one.
Let me admit right now that when I am cooking a regular just-us dinner, I frequently will look down at my plate and discover I broke this rule all to pieces. One recent one was grilled chicken breast, mashed potatoes and cauliflower. All white food. Meh. Or the sliced pork loin, brussels sprouts and baby new potatoes. The colors were nice, but everything was round. Even though I broke the rule, we didn't die so I guess it's OK. Everything tasted fine, it was just not an exciting meal to see.
Even though ignoring the rule will not make people think that you are a horrid person who likes to choke puppies or something, please do consider having a good variety of creamy and crunchy and color and heavy and light and all that jazz.
I also suggest that you give some thought to planned-overs. As opposed to leftovers. If you are making Chicken Tetrazzini, for example, why not throw a little extra chicken in the pot (or reserve some of the one chicken if you are cooking for a small group/one) and reserve some chicken stock. That could be chicken noodle soup tomorrow in only about 15 minutes of your time and 30 minutes on the stove. If you're making a pork roast, buy a bigger one and use the extra for Posole or pork fried rice or whatever. You really will, I promise, save money and eat healthier by cooking this way.
Soups are an especially good planned-over, and I strongly encourage you to buy some freezer containers if you are going to be making soups like beef barley, vegetable soup, Posole, chicken and rice, minestrone, etc. There is no way to make a little bit of soup, in my experience, and it's so nice to have leftovers frozen that you can just take out in the morning and have hot, homemade soup for dinner that night. Bean soups freeze especially well. Cream soups like broccoli and cheese or cream of mushroom do not freeze that well, but you can put together everything except the milk and cheese part, and have a jump start.
Last item for this post: timing.
Timing your cooking so that everything comes to the table at the same time is one of the more difficult aspects to master, I think. So here is the secret key to how to throw a dinner party and not kill yourself, but still have everything on the table together. Only make ONE dish that needs to be really watched at the time. If everything else can be doing its own thing in the oven or on the stove top with only periodic checking, you can pay full attention to one dish and not wear yourself out.
That menu could be something like the lasagna dinner we mentioned. Lasagna is assembled well ahead of time, even days before. The bread can be readied 3 months ahead of time, wrapped in foil and frozen until it's time to go in the oven. So you can be baking your lasagna and later the bread, all the while impressing your guests with your mad Caesar salad skills.
This very thing is what makes something like a traditional Thanksgiving dinner from scratch such a challenge. While the pies, the stuffing, cranberry sauce, etc., can be made ahead of time, the mashed potatoes, gravy, turkey, rolls, vegetables... they're all cooking at the same time. You have to be familiar enough with cooking all of those things, and creative enough to fit all that food on the one stove, before you would want to tackle a feast like that single-handedly.
So let's plan, shop for and cook a dinner together. What shall we make? Let's suppose that we're going to have six friends over for a casual dinner. We'll make a dinner featuring fresh, seasonal foods and a nice dessert.
Appetizer: Spinach Artichoke Dip with Pita Chips
Baked Salmon Fillet with Dill and Capers
Roasted Fingerling Potatoes
Steamed Broccoli in Lemon Butter Sauce
Baby Greens with Pears and Feta
Dessert: Apple Crisp with Whipped Cream
I won't advise you on choosing the wine. I bet you have your own ideas on that. :-) I can tell you that Moscato with the Apple Crisp is just yummy.
OK. Let's go shopping! That's for the next post.