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Please help me with my small dinner party menu

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Sigh. I used to entertain all the time, but life has gotten more hectic and I'm out of practice. We're having a colleague of my husband's over for dinner on Friday and I find I'm slightly intimidated and can't seem to think of a menu that "matches". I have always been a casual hostess -- my goal is tasty non-pretentious food, which is mostly prepared ahead of time so I can enjoy the guests. Add to this the fact that I have a toddler and a baby and so don't have time to be doing anything too fancy.

I am thinking of doing a pasta, maybe penne amatriciana, then very thin chicken cutlets (battered in parm cheese/parsley/breadcrumps and lightly fried) with maybe a side salad with truffle oil (sidenote: if you happen to have the Balthazar Cookbook and would be willing to share the vinaigrette recipe for the Balthazar Salad, I would be very happy.)

Anyway, my question is, what to serve as an appetizer? We usually do appetizers in the living room before dinner with a glass of wine or aperitivo. Should I do small bruschetta? Or do you think olives, cheese and hard sausage would work? Any other ideas?

How about dessert? I may just buy a pound cake and serve it with lemon curd and raspberries, but would love to hear suggestions.

Thanks in advance for any direction or advice you may have for this rusty entertainer!

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  1. Having a toddler of my own I would suggest going with the olive, cheese, and sausage route---it's simple.

    You could also purchase some nice chocolates---even simpler than the pound cake--no dirty dishes.

    1. Your ideas sound great. As for appetizers, bruschetta is good -- cool and refreshing this time of year. Also good now (in season and all that) is some fresh basil, mozzarella, tomato. You could do some pesto for dipping or olive oil and a good bread for dipping (my friend always puts lemon slices at the bottom of a thin bit of olive oil so when you press in you get some of the acidity of the lemon along with the goodness of the oil). I think you want to keep it light so as not to spoil your dinner menu.

      1. my first thought is -- my GOSH is it summer, where I live it is HOT, I would hate to have that much food and fill up my kitchen with a big steaming pasta pot AND a skillet for the bacon & sauce AND fry the cutlets...

        Maybe something lighter/cooler? Wouldn't it be much easier to do some cooked and chilled eggplant or zuchinni? Caprese? Insalata di riso? Bring on the campari and kick back...

        2 Replies
        1. re: renov8r

          Here is what I do that is very simple and tasty and can be ut on a platter ahead of
          time and then just put on your cocktail table. I slice up summere sausage, get small
          pepperoni slices, slice cheese or keep cheese whole with a knife to cut your own
          and crackers - usually Triscuit or Wheat Thins. I also add a nice bunch of grapes on their stems in the center. That way your company can help themselves and nibble
          along with good conversation and it's not too filling that it would spoil their dinner. Good luck.

          1. re: renov8r

            Second the idea of veggies... I'd marinate, grill and cool veggie slices... Eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms, etc. Or, sprinkle veggies with garlic salt and olive oil, then roast a nice mix (cauli, broc, eggplant, mushrooms, zucchini, squash, tomatoes). I'd serve this with some parmesan fricos (so easy to make, just sprinkle tablespoons of parmesan in circles on a greased pan and bake at 400 or broil til golden and crisp), or make them into little cups and fill with dollops of tapenade or chopped veggies...

          2. The other night I made "zucchini carpaccio" - it was so interesting! And a fabulous presentation.

            Slice a couple zucchini with a mandoline -paper- thin. Arrange nicely on a plate. Before serving, top with:
            lemon vinaigrette (ie lemon whisked w/ good olive oil)
            s&p (don't skimp)
            pine nuts
            mint chiffonade
            shaved cheese (I used a hard aged cheese similar to parm-reg)

            Pretty, cool during the summer, healthy, etc etc. Unusual too!

            2 Replies
            1. re: laurendlewis

              Sounds great!! Did you cook the zucchini at all!

              1. re: sweetnspicy

                Nope, just thinly sliced. It was really different than the normal fare, I thought it was a perfect summer first course.
                Could've used a touch more lemon & salt which I then added to the 2nd plate.

            2. I'd steer clear of bruschetta, just because you already have pasta coming. I like to turn grape or cheery tomatoes stem side down, so they don't roll. On top, place a chiffonade of basil and a piece of fresh mozzarella, then secure with a skewer. Salt on here is very important, and oil and balsamic can be drizzled if you so desire - though if the tomatoes are good and sweet, I don't find anything more necessary. They can be prepared ahead of time and are very easy finger foods.

              1. Ditto the simple olive/cheese appy, with maybe the addition of some spiced or herbed nuts. For dessert, are strawberries still in season where you are? I'm thinking of something cool (like renov8r) like macerated strawberries over a good quality vanilla ice cream with a sprig of mint and maybe a little crispy cookie on the side. Or a granita (which might entail too much attention), perhaps coffee flavored or lemon. Or do the lemon curd and raspberries, but skip the heavy pound cake. Lighten the curd with whipped cream.

                1. I have an idea that you might like. I am a fan of "big salads" and have used this concept many times.

                  24+ hours before, marinate and then leave time to grill (then time to chill if you want) flank steak. Marinated flank steak ends up being so tender and then you slice it into thin slices. (here are several recipes for marinated flank steak at foodtv.com:)
                  http://web.foodnetwork.com/food/web/s...

                  In preparing your salad, mix up all your greens with good stuff like almonds, blue cheese crumbles, dried cranberries, mandarin oranges, artichokes, croûtons,etc. (whatever you like). Before serving, lightly toss with your favorite vinagarette.

                  Cover the salad mixture across your dinner plates, and then lay multiple slices of your flank steak over the greens. I have served this many, many times, and always get compliments. It is a low-stress, one-dish, and cool-in-the-kitchen meal.

                  (ps, I know you are looking for not too much work, but I posted my Grandmamma's Orange Cake earlier today in "home cooking". It is really scrumptious)

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Tehama

                    I think berries with whipped cream makes a perfect desert this time of year. You can layer the berries with the cream in wine glasses if you want to make it pretty. Not super original, but very good.

                  2. My favorite go-to appetizer is Artichoke-Jalepeno Dip
                    I make it a day ahead then pop it in the oven! I have also made extra and kept in he freezer for backup and it has turned out just fine.

                    2 - cans of Artichoke Hearts
                    1/2 cup mayo
                    1/2 cup sour cream
                    1 cup pepper jack cheese shredded
                    pepperoncini or jalepeno's to taste (i usually use about 1/8 cup)
                    parmesan to sprinkle on top

                    Pre-heat oven to 375

                    Chop peppers/artichokes mix with cheese, mayo, sour cream, add some salt and pepper to taste (should be about the consistency of chicken salad) Grease a square baking pan!! Then sprinkle the parmesan over the top!

                    Bake for 45 min or until you shake the pan and it is firm! Serve with sourdough baguette!

                    Or baked Brie!! Is a great dish with granny smith apples!!

                    For dessert I love these Drunken Strawberries!! I've attached the link. I have never made the cookies. I just serve it with the ice cream!! You could also use some raspberries, blackberries or any summer berries!!

                    http://www.terrarestaurant.com/strawb...

                    Good Luck and just Have FUN!!!

                    1. I agree w/ others that you may want to steer your menu more towards summer. The thing about sauteeing is you have to stand at the stove and can't be the hostess.

                      I just had a pool party and tried to do make-ahead things, including Nigella's roasted eggplant wrapped around feta, red chili pepper, mint and lemon, which was fab. Grilled veggies can be made ahead and served room temp. Also, sausage stuffed mushrooms were a hit at my party, and can be prepared the night before and then popped in the oven.
                      If you're doing drinks in the liviing room before dinner, good cheeses, crackers, olives and soprasatta works well.
                      Good luck, and try to prepare ahead so you can enjoy.

                      1. First advice would be that you don't need to stress . . . people come for the company, and there's nothing wrong with "tasty non-pretentious food." Prepared ahead of time is a really good idea . . . remember that in a good restaurant the chefs never sit down and chat with the guests. So they can do lots of things that would be difficult for most of the rest of us, unless you have the kind of kitchen, the kind of guests and the kind of temperament and know-how that allow you to cook and visit at the same time.

                        If you add in a toddler and a baby, I say you get to go the really simple route. There's nothing wrong with olives, cheese and hard sausage. Serve prosecca with them. If you really want to do two courses, think about a cold soup as a first, because you can do it ahead, and there's no timing issue. Prosciutto and melon is another easy trick. And for a really no brainer dessert, vin santo with biscotti.

                        1. Really simple for summer--the ubiquitous melon wrapped w/ prosciutto. For dessert, panna cotta w/ berries which is done in advance, too.

                          1. My new favorite summertime dessert is Strawberry, Citrus and Champagne Granita that is easily done well in advance, is serve cold but with a lovely presentation in martini glasses or stemmed dessert dishes. I have used cava in place of the champagne and I'm sure prosecco would work nicely as well.

                            http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/rec...