dinner party menu paralysis
every time i'm having folks over for dinner, i totally freeze up when it comes to putting together the menu. i'll pore over cookbooks for days and not have a clue what to make. wander the aisles of the grocery store, uninspired. it kills me.
tonight i'm having three people who i love dearly over for dinner. they'll forgive me if dinner is horrible. but i want it to not be horrible.
so two things:
1. what on earth should i make for dinner? i was thinking about something involving lamb - maybe a tenderloin?
2. how can i keep from being eaten alive by menu stress?
On 2., I admit I'm not the best on this, but I'm trying to get better. I now try to have as many things as possible be make ahead to decrease the stress. To get ideas for putting together menus, I look at cookbooks that have menu suggestions (How To Cook Everything is great for this). Even if my main dish is not from the cookbook, I can usually find something similar and get ideas. There are also proposed menus on Epicurious.com.
my solution is to pick a theme and run with it. if you want to do lamb, why not do a greek/middle-eastern kinda hybrid thing? you can do kabobs (do some with just veggies in case of vegetarians or people who may not like lamb), cous cous, greek salad for the main. then also set out a platter of hummus, baba ganoush, stuffed grape leaves, roasted peppers, stuffed olives, artichoke hearts, etc w/ some halved pita in a basket. it'll look great, taste great, and it's EASY.
Addressing question #2:
Ideas for how to not run into this problem...
1) I like to just ask the butcher or fishmonger what's best that day. Then if I'm not familiar with the protein I've been handed, I ask him what he would recommend doing with it. I've never been steered wrong by the WholeFoods meat and fish workers. This only works well if you have a good chunk of time to commit to dinner, since you can't plan as much in advance.
2) With good friends, I usually ask for a "secret ingredient," not necessarily something I actually have to hide in every course, but something they would really like to see featured. That often inspires me to do something completely different.
3) Make a mental (or actual) short list of your repertoire -- things you make that you know are great and that you are comfortable making, and try to always have at least one item you serve come from that list, so that you know if all else fails, the veggie or the dessert or the whatever it is will be great. That just takes some pressure off of the other choices a little bit :)
4) When you see recipes you think would be good, either watching on tv, reading the newspaper or magazine or chowhound :), have a place where you put those ideas, like a to-do list of recipes. I always have a few things in the back of my head I've been aching to try and if it turns out I'm having company, that's my big chance to make things from my list.
I like to make a stuffed lamb tenderloin. My favorite is a goat cheese and crawfish, but have also done goat cheese and sun dried tomato and/or leeks. Serve with some roasted veggies (asparagus, cauliflower, or brussle sprouts) and good mashed potatoes. My guests have always been pleased and it is all pretty easy to throw together.
If you want to do something lamb that cooks quickly, pick up lamb loin chops. Try to get thick-cut ones (if you have a Costco or Sam's that you belong to, they are the perfect places to buy). They should be an inch and a half to two inches thick. Season with salt and pepper. Cook 5-6 minutes per side in a searing hot pan. This will give you medium-rare chops. Serve with a yogurt-mint sauce and couscous.
Pork tenderloin is also a GREAT idea for dinner guests (if they eat pork, of course!). It's easy to prepare and cook and always tastes really good.
I usually test out recipes before having guests over. That way I know if it's going to be a flop or good. If I like them, I set them aside in a small folder for when I have company. Your dinner-party recipes should be things that you can make ahead of time, or last minute with little hassle...unless your guests like to help and are willing. I have a few recipes that are my "go to" recipes for guests. Probably 6-7 recipes that I choose from when having company.
The best advice I can give you is try not to stress out. Make it a fun thing for yourself! Keep your options limited so you don't get overwhelmed.
Couscous is a great idea - easy but add-ins can make it more impressive. E.g.: I made a couscous salad last night w/ pine nuts, tomatoes, mint/basil, lemon vinaigrette - delicious and hubbie was quite impressed.
Turkey tenderloin takes a bit longer to cook but might work for you as well.
Or maybe something on the grill? Even chicken with a nice and flavorful marinade with some veggie skewers. Maybe if it's a more casual meal you won't feel as pressured.
Maybe you're giving yourself too many options, and it gets confusing. Yes, there are a zillion things you could make, and all of them could work out well! Perhaps try narrowing the choices down - plan to cook out of one cookbook that you like a lot, or decide to plan your meal around a couple of seasonal items. Your lamb would be great with fava beans or asparagus, for example. Do a simple salad or a roast red pepper soup; serve the lamb with herbed rice. Strawberry shortcake with whipped cream for dessert.
I can tell you from experience that the worst thing you can do is wander the aisles looking for inspiration! Lol - too much sensory information, way too many choices. Have your list and pretty much stick to it. You'll be fine!