A Guide to the Easy-as-Pie Dinner Party

dinner party
Photo via Adobe Stock

So what if you’re on a budget, in your first job and not used to entertaining? Here’s how to pull off a dinner party—without the stress.

Written by Marjorie Calvert

A busy life might have you thinking that pulling off a real dinner party is impossible. Plus, you are 23 and have no idea how to do some dazzling farm-to-table spread on your own. After work. In a shoebox-sized kitchen. We are here to tell you it can be done—with some planning, and a little help from your friends (in this case, carry-out markets and Pinterest). By preparing in advance, you can win the entertaining game. Below are some simple ways you can amaze your guests—without that Martha Stewart wannabe angst.

Apps

Simple hors d’oeuvres like cheese and crackers or a charcuterie board are ingenuous ways to deliver the apps course. Publix offers a prepared cheese and meat platter by Boar’s Head in the deli department that is packaged and ready to be presented on your wooden serving board. Just add dried fruits and pair it with your favorite red wine or craft beer.

Other quick appetizers are cheese balls. A party favorite is the ranch dressing cheese ball that takes seconds to make, or you can make it the night before and store it in the refrigerator. Just take two packages of cream cheese (8 ounces each) at room temperature and combine it with one package (1 ounce) Ranch dressing mix, roll mixture into a ball and wrap in plastic if storing in the refrigerator. Serve this with your favorite cracker.

Peel and eat shrimp with cocktail sauce is also a great finger food that you can find at any grocery store (or frozen at Costco, another mecca for appetizers).

Entrees

The main course is always the most anticipated, so this must be your showstopper.

If you have a tried-and-true recipe of your own, be sure to use it. You will be more confident with something you have made 50 times (not the ramen, though) than striking out in completely unknown territory, or with a complicated recipe. Pinterest offers great ideas for simple foods that can be planned in advance and then activated on the night of your party.

Once you finalize your menu, gather all your ingredients a few days before your party (that means shopping!) so that you will have everything you need and won’t have to run to the store the day of.

Celebrity chef and queen of dinner parties Ina Garten has some great recipes that can be prepared and served in less than 30 minutes. Her recipe for roasted salmon with green herbs takes only 22 minutes to prep and bake and serves six; just double if you have more guests!

Great marinades for chicken or beef can also be a time saver that can be prepared the night before and ready to pop in the oven on the night of your party.

Don’t underestimate the power of your slow cooker, either. It might take a long time to cook the dish, but it does save you time in the end. A crock pot roast beef can take as little as 20 minutes of prep time, and you will have a side dish if you add potatoes and carrots. The total cooking time can be up to 6 hours, but it is a great hands-off recipe, so you can prepare other things (recipe below).

If you already have a recipe in mind, take note that buying vegetables that have already been chopped is a great time saver. These can be found in the produce section of your local grocery store.

And let’s not forget the power of the Great Local Market. Joseph’s, Fresh Market, Whole Foods, Howard’s and on and on. There is no shame in slipping in a main or one or two side dishes on that dinner party menu, if that makes life easier. Some of our favorites? The sesame noodles from Fresh Market, the Mediterranean kale salad from Carmine’s, the eggplant Parm from Joseph’s.

ROASTED SALMON WITH GREEN HERBS

Based on “The Barefoot Contessa” on the Food Network

Prep time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 22 minutes

Serves 6

Ingredients:

  • 1 (2 – 2 1/2 pound) skinless salmon fillet
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup minced scallions, white and green parts (4 scallions)
  • 2 tablespoons squeezed lemon juice, 6 lemon slices
  • 1/2 cup minced fresh dill
  • 1/2 cup minced fresh parsley
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • Lemon wedges for serving

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat the oven to 425ºF. Place salmon fillet in glass, ceramic or stainless-steel roasting dish and season generously with salt and pepper. Whisk together olive oil and lemon juice and drizzle mixture evenly over salmon. Let stand at room temperature for 15 minutes.

In small bowl, stir together scallions, dill and parsley. Scatter herb mixture over salmon fillet, turning it so both sides are generously coated. Add lemon slices. Pour wine around fillet.

Roast salmon for 10 to 12 minutes, until almost cooked in center at thickest part. The center will be firm with just a line of uncooked salmon in the very center. (Peek by inserting tip of small knife.) Cover dish tightly with aluminum foil and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Cut salmon crosswise into serving pieces; serve hot with lemon wedges.

Side dishes

We can’t forget the side dishes, which are arguably the most fun part of most dinners.

  • Mashed potatoes can be made ahead of time. Just boil, peel, mash and stir in the milk and salt. These can be stored up to two days ahead in the refrigerator. When you are ready to serve, just reheat and add butter. Your guests will never know they weren’t made fresh.
  • Brussels sprouts can be sautéed for a quick and easy option. All you need is a heavy bottomed pan, olive oil and salt. Cook for 10 minutes over medium-high heat.
  • Roasted broccoli is also a flavorful side dish that takes just 25 minutes in a 450-degree oven. Just toss broccoli florets with olive oil, garlic cloves, salt and pepper, place on a baking sheet and place in the oven.

CROCK-POT ROAST BEEF

Via Delish

Ingredients:

  • 1 3-pound bone-in roast beef
  • 6 russet potatoes, cut into large chunks
  • 1 large onion
  • 1 large bell pepper
  • 6 carrots, peeled and cut into
  • 2-inch pieces
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme
  • 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary
  • Lemons & cherry tomatoes (optional)
  • 3 cups low-sodium beef broth
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire

DIRECTIONS:

In large slow cooker, place roast beef. Surround roast with potatoes, pepper, onions, carrots and herbs. Pour over beef broth and Worcestershire. Cook and cover on high five hours, or on low, eight hours. Remove from slow cooker and let rest, then slice and serve with vegetables. Add lemon & tomatoes for garnish.

Beverages

Keep your guests hydrated with a multitude of beverages. A great way to not end up playing bartender all night is to have pitcher drinks such as sangria, a snappy fruit-based wine punch that should be made 24 hours in advance.

A separate bar area or cart is a great way to have drinks available so guests can self-serve. Be sure to include white and red wine, craft beers, water, sodas and an ice bucket. You can also place pitchers of water on the table.

SANGRIA

via The Spruce Eats

Ingredients:

  • 1 bottle of red wine
  • 1 lemon cut into wedges
  • 1 orange cut into wedges
  • 1 lime cut into wedges
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • Splash of orange juice or lemonade
  • 1 cup raspberries or strawberries, frozen or thawed
  • 1 small can diced pineapples with juice
  • 4 cups ginger ale

DIRECTIONS:

Pour wine into large pitcher and squeeze juice wedges from the lemon, orange and lime into wine. Toss in fruit wedges and pineapple, then add sugar, orange juice and gin. Chill overnight.

Add ginger ale, berries and ice just before serving. If you would like to serve right away, use chilled red wine and serve over lots of ice. However, remember that the best sangrias are chilled around 24 hours in the fridge, allowing the flavors to really marinate into each other.

Desserts

Everyone loves desserts, but this is when you can go with store-bought and focus on the presentation, not preparation.

A fun option is a cannoli dip platter available at Doris Italian Market in Boca Raton. This platter comes in a DIY divided tray with cannoli chips, cannoli filling and sprinkles in the middle. Doris also carries a wide variety of desserts including pasticciotti pastries, pignoli cookies and Italian cheesecake, as well as a variety of cakes and pies. Just be sure to take these out of the store containers and place them on your own serving trays.

Setting the table

Now that you have settled on the menu, setting the table comes into play. This can be done—and should be done—a day or two in advance.

• A simple white tablecloth and matching napkins is perfect; a vintage tablecloth can add character to the table. Just use what you have.

• Place dinner plates in the middle of each setting, and then fold your napkins on the dinner plate or use a napkin ring.

• Utensils should be set in the order they are to be used. Forks go on the left (salad fork on the outside, then dinner fork), and knives and spoons go on the right (the knife is closest to the plate, with the cutting blade pointing toward the plate). Dessert spoons and forks are placed above the plate. Do not place any utensils on the table that you don’t need for the meal.

• Water glasses should be placed to the right of the plate, with wine glasses next to the water glass.

• A great way to personalize your table is to create a centerpiece that incorporates items found from your own yard. Cut palm fronds at different lengths and place in clear vases in the center of your table for a low-cost alternative to flowers. Candles (always unscented) are also a great way to add ambience.

With a little planning in advance, having a dinner party doesn’t have to be stressful. Keep things simple, use shortcuts and remember: These are your friends, and they will have a good time if you are having a good time.

This story is from the April 2020 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.

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