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How Do You Decide What To Cook?

My friend's birthday is this Saturday and I'm cooking her dinner. The problem is I have no idea what to cook - no idea what kind of food, what ingredients, nothing. I am at a total loss. So that got me wondering - how to you Chowhounders decide what to make when you're cooking for a guest?

Please feel free to include inspirational recipes. I could use the help! :)

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  1. Four questions that I can think of that might jump start your thinking:
    1) What food does your friend like to eat? What do they order/cook?
    2) What dishes are you comfortable making or what dishes that you make do people compliment? Or do you want to experiment?
    3)How much time do you want to spend in your meal (that day, in total)?
    4) What is the weather like where you are? And what is in season?

    1 Reply
    1. re: viperlush

      Very good criteria from viperlush, but I would also include another:

      What's on sale?

      If something is on sale for dirt cheap somewhere, then that is usually in my list of deciding factors.

    2. For guests I usually pick a book off my shelf that has recipes that work well. I ask myself what have we been eating lately? Too much beef? Time for pork, or fish, etc. Sometimes I really want to share a recipe that turned out well.

      What kind of food do you feel confident about? What would be a good challenge if you feel up to it?

      1. Definitely, I go with what's on sale in the meat department. For fruits and veggies, I go with what's on sale or seasonal (since those tend to go hand in hand, but right now, we have very good local strawberries, and they're cheap!)

        If I'm making a multi-course dinner for something like a friend's bday, I look for recipes that can do a lot of prep work beforehand.

        1. This time of year I check the weather forecast first - here in PA it can be 50 or 80 degrees in October and that will seriously effect what I want to eat/cook. Then I think about what is seasonal - we can still get fresh tomatoes but squash and greens are coming on strong. For a "gift" meal I then think about what the person likes to eat , their most favorite things, and determine which ones fit with the answers above and also are someting I can handle preparation wise.
          I usually find either the entree or a significant side and then build around that. Again, for a guest meal I will try to add some extras - cheese and fruit course, polenta croutons for the salad instead of bread, etc

          1. When cooking for a friend(s) questions are:
            1.Are you allergic to any foods?
            2. Are there kinds of foods that you love....seafood, fish, pork, beef, chicken, etc.?
            3. Are there kinds of foods you do not care for (same choices)?
            4. Do you like spicy foods ( I do, so this is important for me)?

            With the answers in mind, I cook whatever I want to. I don't obsess too much, perhaps pick one cookbook or source and go from there. I have a few go-to guest meals that I tend to use a lot...easy to make, taste good, not too expensive and most of it prepared ahead, unless the guest likes to watch me cook.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Sinicle

              I agree with you Sinicle.
              Very important to ask before you jump into a recipe. I would just add on more, religious reasons could effect what your friend will or will not eat too don't forget that. So be direct and just ask it will save a headache later on.

            2. I also decide on how much I want done in advanced and how much I want to do after guests arrive. If they're a small group of good friends and don't mind hanging out while I cook, I could do something with risotto but if I want something prepared and ready to go, I might go w/ something braised. A big part of it is seasonal. I love fall cooking because you can start getting into the root vegetables. I also go by how healthful the people like to eat, mostly meat or mostly vegetables, etc.

              1 Reply
              1. re: chowser

                Thanks everyone. I found inspiration in this month's Gourmet and will be making chicken breasts with gorgonzola, nutty brown rice, roasted string beans with shallots and a spinach, citrus and pear salad. And, of course, birthday cake.

              2. whether shopping for guests or a every night dinner I get my inspiration from what I see at the market. I might also go beyond the everyday when shopping for guests meals for a little wow factor. Also when shopping for a dinner party I like to think about what I can prepare ahead or what needs less attention so I can spend more time with my friends.

                1. Sometimes I have a dish I just want to make and doing it for company just means I don't have to eat the whole thing myself. My last dinner, yesterday, was a pork loin roast bone-in. I had an herb/lemon zest/garlic paste left over from a rack of lamb and I wanted to try it on something else.