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Help Me Punch Up My Foolproof Dinner Party Menu

Having a few friends over for dinner this weekend and am pretty pressed for time, so I want to rely on familiar dishes I can turn out in my sleep. Problem is that I'm so bored of these, they might put me to sleep instead.

Can any of you offer up some easy ways to spice up this menu?

With Drinks:

fresh ricotta and bread
roasted red peppers
roasted broccoli

Dinner:

Chicken braised with tomatoes and olives
Braised swiss chard
Polenta

Perhaps someone can suggest some equally easy, but more exciting starters? I was actually hoping to do something with salt cod, but couldn't find anything simple enough.

Suggestions for the polenta and veg appreciated too. And fyi -- everything is pretty simply spiced -- olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper, so if you have exciting flavoring ideas, bring them on.

Thanks!

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  1. You could try a brandade recipe for the salt cod, it is delicious made with some riced potato and lots of good olive oil. It's pretty simple to do, and you have plenty of time for the soaking required. Cook the potatoes in milk with bay, thyme, garlic and salt before ricing. So good!
    For the braised chicken I would add some preserved lemon and chilies.

    1. Instead of the ricotta on bread, try Marcella's "quick mostarda"-- mascarpone mixed with fruit preserves and mustard.

      1. The roasted broccoli could use a spicy dip.
        I serve this one a lot with cut up veggies. It's one of my "keepers"

        Creamy Curried Dip
        1 cup sour cream
        1/3 cup mango chutney (hot), finely chopped, including sauce. Recommend Major Greys
        2 Tblsp minced fresh cilantro
        1 tsp. curry powder, madras
        ½ tsp. salt
        1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper

        Stir together all ingredients. Chill, covered, until ready to serve. Makes little over 1 cup.

        1. I'd be inclined to make a more toothsome veggie OR starch- something to break up the textural "softness" of the dinner menu....

          Maybe green beans almondine? Sauteed spinach with raisins and pinenuts?

          Orzo with fresh parsley and walnuts?

          For the starter, you might want to consider taramosalata (whipped Greek dip made with fish roe) as an option if working with salt cod seems labor-intensive.

          Or, you could add a salad into the mix.

          1. As a simple appetizer this past weekend, I peeled and deveined shrimp, put a sliver of jalapeno pepper where I deveined the shrimp, wrapped in bacon (prosciutto would be good, too), secured w/ toothpick, then sprinkled brown sugar over it. Broil 4-5 minutes per side. They disappeared quickly (though anything with bacon tends to). If I were to do anything differently, I would have left a little jalapeno seed to give it more heat.

            1. Lose the ricotta and bread (way too heavy) and substitute classic gougeres. You can make them ahead and briefly reheat or just server at room temperature.

              1. Along the same lines of adding some texture to the main course, and allowing you to prep in advance, what about a firm polenta with something in it? I think this recipe, although you could adapt the seasonings - http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/rec...

                1. I would suggest a crisp salad with romaine lettuce or crunchy vegetable with the appetizer..say fresh crunchy peppers and jicama rather than roasted peppers.

                  Now my favorite dessert is vanilla ice cream with hot blueberry compote. For the compote heat thawed plump frozen blueberries (Costco), a little sugar (1/3 cup per two cups blueberries), lemon juice if desired and cornstarch to thicken. Garnish with a few cookies if you like.

                  1. you could fancy up the red peppers by doing some red and some yellow and by either roasting or chargrilling some segments of onions. I normally slice the peppers and onions and alternate them going around a plate with more in the middle. They are then dressed (an hour plus) in advance in a vinagrette with evoo, lemon juice and garlic, toss over some chopped parsley just before serving. Or ditch the parsley and put some rocket in the middle of the plate for something more salad like. Or do the peppers and onions and use them for bruschetta.
                    Or, for more Spanish than Italian, slice the roast peppers and put them on tomato bread with an anchovy between each slice of pepper. (I love anchovies though so know this won't be for everyone!).
                    Instead for the ricotta and bread you could halve some (small) tomatoes and remove the seeds then fill the shells with the ricotta. (I do this and fill with goats cheese that has been mixed with fresh chives)

                    1. app- a selection of a few cheeses with crackers or thin toast and a plate of plump grapes or sliced apples/pears
                      veg- hericot vert (for presentation I like to tie them into bundles with scallion greens) drizzled with balsamic reduciton
                      polenta- soft with goat cheese stirred in just before serving

                      1. potato and cod croquettes with homemade tarter sauce
                        braised fennel with whole garlic, instead of swiss chard or in addition to
                        drizzle honey on the ricotta, or switch the ricotta for blue cheese and drizzle with honey
                        mozzarella, grape tomato and basil skewers, drizzled with balsamic vinegar
                        add sun-dried tomatoes to to the grilled veg apps
                        Grill slices of onions with the grilled veg

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: pescatarian

                          love the skewers, don't know why this version hadn't occurred to me, I do a feta cube, mini tom, chunk of cucumber, piece of red onion (and a pitted kalamata olive if I can be bothered to pit them myself as the bought ones are pretty grim)

                          1. re: ali patts

                            the greek version sounds good too - I love the simplicity of either!

                        2. In keeping with the italian theme...how about some fig and cheese crostini.

                          - get a loaf of ciabatta bread (or french stick), cut it into 1/2" slices
                          - drizzle slices with some extra virgin, throw slices on a cookie sheet and pop into a 400 F. oven for about 6 minutes
                          - while still warm drizzle rub with a garlic clove
                          - cut some fresh figs in half (or quarters if using french stick) , place a fig piece on each slice.
                          -put some goat cheese, or some gorgonzola on each slice and top with a piece of prosciutto.
                          - when company arrives pop into the oven until the cheese starts to melt.
                          - sprinkle with a little good balsamic vinegar and serve (if you want to add a little colour, garnsh with some thinly sliced fresh basil).
                          -

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: Finnegan

                            These sound divine. I know this is a funny question for chowhound - but I've only had figs in a restaurant. I've never cooked with them at home. Is there anything I need to know about buying at the grocery store? Do I just cut them up or do I need to so any special prep? I would like to take these as a app to an oscar party on Sunday. Also, are you just draping a thin slice of proscuitto over the top? HOw hot is the oven when you warm them? Thanks for your help.

                            1. re: Finnegan

                              You have fresh figs in Ontario in February?