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What do you cook when you don't know everyone's palate?

What is/are your fallback, tried-and-true, everyone-loves-it menu item(s)? When we entertain, we usually have a good idea of palates, but there is the occasion when someone says they just don't care what we serve or when I can't find out their dislikes.

Here's my generic please 'em menu:

strawberry salad (on fresh spinach with almonds)
chicken dish (usually baked, like a piccata)
meatless pasta (e.g., mushrooms, tomatoes, olive oil, spinach)
some kind of steamed veggie
bread
dessert can be anything from sorbet to a cake

Curious about your choices, since I'm looking for more creative alternatives to my main dishes.

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  1. 1. Roast capon is (other than turkey for Thanksgiving) my preferred poultry for company. Capon is much better designed for roasting than a large roasting chicken. Alternative would be grilled Cornell chicken (breasts and thighs, with skin and on the bone). Because everyone (other than me, it seems) eats boneless chicken parts all the time, I don't want to serve food that people are already getting at their homes for their ordinary meals.

    2. For pork, a good city ham (like Burger's Smokehouse spiral-sliced city ham). Virtually no one cooks a nice ham anymore, and folks devour hams with glee. I myself would prefer a lovely old-fashioned fresh ham, but the quality today is not as good, and pork shoulder is not to everyone's taste, sadly.

    3. For beef, grilled skirt steak is simple and wonderful.

    4. Racks of lamb (like from Costco or Trader Joe's) also go over well. Already prepped and easy to make. I myself love to grill lamb leg meat. Lamb actually goes faster (way faster) than chicken at my Easter buffets (supporting my thesis that people gravitate to old-fashioned foods they don't make themselves).

    5. Rice and bean dishes, like Hoppin John.

    6. Salads: if green, I offer a variety of dressings (homemade and storebought). My trademark Karlslaw is devoured by all sorts of unlikely folks (ranch or light sour cream-based dressing).

    7. Dessert: a seasonal fruit cobbler is hard to beat.

    1. * Make your own Pizzas
      * Baked Halibut with Charmoula On top
      * Veggie Lasagna
      * Chicken Enchiladas

      Sides:

      * Sauted Green Beans
      * Potatoes Anna
      * Mexican Rice and Black Bean Puree

      Desserts:

      * Apple Pie
      * Cherry Bars
      * Chocolate Torte

      1. Hotsmoked salmon with dill mustard sauce
        Stir-friend Asian veggies with chicken and oyster sauce
        Roast chicken - only for small groups, I'm not doing more than one
        Lasagna - seems everyone does this

        Orzo salad loaded with veggies, feta, olives
        Tossed green salad

        Pie - usually key lime and/or apple
        Brownies, ice cream optional

        1. Once I had 11 people over, encompassing kids, vegetarians, no-red meat, red-meat preferred, seafood preferred, etc., so I devised the following menu.

          Buid-your-own tacos: 3 separate saute pans of shrimp, beef, and chicken were set next to bowls of sliced spiced tempeh, grated cheese, guac, sour cream, lettuce, beans, rice, tomatoes, corn, 3 different salsas, cilantro, green onions, 4 different bottles of hot sauces, 3 different tortillas.

          Once I had everything prepped and staged, cooking the meats simultaneously on 3 different burners at the last minute was all I had to do.

          Dessert was build-your-own ice cream sundaes with brownies, fruit, 3 different ice creams and all the fixin's, including M&Ms.

          Kids and parents were all estactic about customizing their own meals.

          1. I think the build-your-own idea is marvelous for this type of situation. I've wanted to have a build-your-own pizza party where everyone brings a topping, but never thought to do it for times when I would be cooking.

            Trying to think of more build-your-owns...tacos and desserts (mentioned) are great. I'm thinking burritos as well...

            2 Replies
            1. re: yumtothetum

              The biggest problem w/ pizzas is that I can only cook 3 at a time (I have 3 pizza stones). For 12 people, the rotation can be quite long, and people have to eat in shifts when sharing is not an option between veg/beef/seafood eaters. Arrrrgh!

              1. re: Claudette

                I'm glad you brought this up. An alternative, to allow for more baking space, is subbing the rounds out with French bread.

            2. Seems like the people I cook for are more likely to be picky about how they get their protein (no red meat/chicken & fish only/fish only/vegetarian) than about not liking things, which makes things easier. Some dishes that have worked for groups:

              Lasagne with ground chicken or turkey, seasonal veggies and a bechamel sauce (feels more special than red sauce), plus green salad.

              Non-meat black bean chili with lots of optional additions: grated cheese, sliced jalapenos, crumbled chorizo, diced tomato, cilantro, sour cream, etc.

              Platter of sliced meats and fish, plus lots of vegetable sides: ratatouille, a hearty salad (bean, quinoa, farro -- something like that), a green salad.

              For dessert, cobblers are great or fruit, cookies and ice cream

              1. I have two standbys

                1 - a fajita bar, with steak, veggies, beans, chicken strips, all kinds of garnishes and cheese, for people to make their own. Vegetarians can have beans, cheese and vegetables, people who don't like spicy can omit the salsa and hot peppers. Flan for dessert, crudites with dips for starters.

                2 - If I know I'm not dealing with vegetarians, my favorite company meal is a simple starter like garlic toasts or bruschetta, followed by roasted cornish hens stuffed with couscous, a big spinach salad, green beans with hollandaise on the side, and assorted cookies for dessert.

                1. Here is my never fail standby:
                  - Pork tenderloin marinated in garlic, olive oil, and rosemary
                  - Baby spinach salad with rasberry vinagarette, granny smith apples marinated in fresh orange and lemon juice, blue cheese, and homemade candied pecans (with brown sugar, butter, and cinnamon - I can make them up to a few days in advance)
                  - pasta with a sauce of fresh tomatos, basil, garlic
                  - italian bread
                  - mini chocolate cakes for dessert (I have this great pan that makes cakes like individual bundy cakes) - served hot with a sauce of frozen blackberries, drambuie, and blackberry jam and topped with hot chocolate sauce

                  I've tried so many other menu s but this is no fail and always works. It's not too complicated and pleases most finicky eaters (i.e. my family). I've done huge, complicated expensive brunches and had guests turn up their nose at the spread (apparantly baked salmon is too exotic).

                  Also, it is such an easy menu, much of it can be made in advance which is great if you have a few glasses of wine and completely forget how to cook... I'm often guilty of that!

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: AmblerGirl

                    <<it is such an easy menu, much of it can be made in advance which is great if you have a few glasses of wine and completely forget how to cook... I'm often guilty of that>> You sold me! Taking note! :-)

                    1. re: AmblerGirl

                      I love this menu, but I frequently have guests who do not eat pork for religious reasons.

                      1. re: sheiladeedee

                        I'm sure you could replace the pork with roast chicken or marinated grilled chicken breasts. That is still pretty simple.

                        1. re: AmblerGirl

                          Yes, actually I think I would use turkey thighs, boned but with the skin on, roll them up and tie them and roast them with the garlic and rosemary and olive oil. Serve them sliced.