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Dinner party menu with attention to strategy

Seeking advice. We'll be 10 for dinner later this month. You could say we're foodies (into food and wine, have a wine cellar) and we have entertained a fair bit (multi-course meals with several wines). When it's more than 4, I start to feel enslaved (you may ask why do we do this to ourselves?); we love having people over; and this is a perfect group.

Based on a poll of our guests, looks like the only meat acceptable to all is chicken. I'm looking for suggestions on fool-proof menu ideas for multiple courses (no shellfish, no pork, no red meat) especially where preparation in advance (or any other tricks short of catering the whole meal) can help make it fun for us as well as our guests and still delicious and memorable.

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  1. I would think the easiest route to go (for a main anyway) would be to do some roast chickens, since most of the work with those is done in advance. I don't have any "go to" recipes, but I know there's a few in this month's COTM. I'm making one this weekend.

    Cornish hens might be nice too.

    1. Oh my goodness, there are so many directions one could go in with your question. I'll be interested to see what others say . . .

      That said, you are right that the success of any dinner party is all about picking the right recipes - otherwise you'll end up in the kitchen all night long.

      I don't know how many courses you are looking to do or what types of food you like but . . . I'll jump in anyway . . .

      1) Soup is your friend - almost any soup can be done well ahead of time and is a nice course. You can make them as heavy or light as you want depending on the overall menu - and they are quick to plate.

      2) Salad course - again it is so easy to make an interesting salad with various vegetables or dried fruits or nuts, etc. Just dress at the last minute and plate.

      3) Long braise for the main - something like a chicken cacciatore (chicken, tomatoes, red bell peppers, onions, garlic, capers/olives, etc, etc - lots of variations). Can be finished before everyone gets there and just kept warm while everyone is enjoying the other courses. Easily served with a starch (even pasta if you don't tell the tried and true Italians - wink) or a broiled vegetable (all cut up and on a sheet pan before people arrive - just broil when the salads go out).

      4) Dessert - so many options for dessert and honestly most desserts are done ahead anyway, so that should be easy.

      Its a start . . . and I'd eat it all.

      Oh - and big platters. I don't like serving soup or salads "family style", so those I plate in the kitchen but the braise, starch, and vegetables could all come out in platters/serving dishes and served family style (which I kind of like anyway). Then if you wanted to go back to a plated dessert you could (just depends how "fancy" you want it all to feel).

      1 Reply
      1. re: thimes

        Excellent ideas. In my opinion, I would serve the salad family style along with the main course. Not everyone enjoys salad before the main course, and it gives your guests the option of when to eat it.

        Another salad tip- have all the components prepared ahead of time and stored in ziplocks. Makes it very easy to assemble a complex looking salad

      2. Here is a very easy chicken dish that I use all the time. It is a very easy dish to bake, takes very little prep, and looks very gourmet. I use bone in skin on breasts. Sometimes I reduce the sauce produced with some white wine and drizzle over top.

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

        1 Reply
        1. re: cleopatra999

          After seeing that recipe recommended loads of times on Chowhound, I made it for company last year and it was very good. And it looks nice on a platter.

          I also like this recipe for Pandora's Chicken. Similar to Chicken Marbella. You can prepare it almost entirely the day before and just cook the day of. I make the sun-dried tomato/artichoke mixture the day before and just reheat. And I use chicken pieces, not just boneless, skinless breasts.

          http://www.pbs.org/food/recipes/pando...

        2. I agree with thimes....an elegant soup, a creative salad, a braised chicken dish, I love chicken with forty cloves of garlic, and an interesting starch like polenta or a farro risotto.

          There are lots of simple do ahead desserts. My family loves those molten chocolate cakes that can be put in the oven as you sit down to eat, very simple this coming from a non-baker ;)

          3 Replies
          1. re: Dirtywextraolives

            Right there with all of you. The only change I would make is doing breaded chicken cutlets you do ahead of time and freeze. They are easily reheated. And another vote for the molten chocolate cakes. I find Nigella Lawson's chocohotopot recipe foolproof. Here's my menu based on that theme:

            Cauliflower puree soup with a bagna cauda drizzle
            Mache and shaved fennel with orange segments and a sherry vinaigrette
            Breaded chicken cutlets done picatta style (with a lemon-white wine and caper sauce) with roasted brussels sprouts
            Nigella's chocohotopots spiced with cinnamon, allspice, and cloves.

            1. re: Dcfoodblog

              The biggest issue I see with molten chocolate cakes is that you'd need 10 individual ramekins or similar small serving dishes to bake them in. Most ramekins come in sets of 4, so you'd need 3 sets just to pull that off.

              If it were me (and I admit, I am very laid back and have never hosted a formal dinner party) I would do something in advance that makes a lot (in one pan) and can either be chilled, or kept at room temperature. Cake, pie, or some kind of pudding-based dessert would be my first choices.

              1. re: Maggiethecat

                Good point. Panna cotta would be perfect for that. I've used coffee mugs, wine glasses, etc etc to hold panna cotta.

          2. For something different, you could do whole roasted cornish hens. Close enough to chicken, but fancier. You can prep them beforehand -- I would stuff them with a nice savory stuffing (bread/cranberries/celery/carrots maybe?), and rub/stuff butter and fresh herbs under the skin. They won't take too long to roast, and look elegant on a plate with some steamed/roasted veggies.

            I would do a creamy soup or bisque for your starter, then cornish hens, then a warm apple tart or warm bread pudding with rum or bourbon sauce for dessert.

            6 Replies
            1. re: boogiebaby

              I just did the hens with a friend for an auction dinner party for 12. We have done this event before but she broke her ankle and couldn't do the chicken piccata as planned because it involved too much standing at the stove so she went with the prepped hens. They took FOREVER to cook and we had a huge commercial double oven. Never again plus they cost much more than budgeted for this event. I would go with the chicken Mirabel or the Pandora chicken and just cut the brown sugar in half. Have had great luck with these in groups of 12- 16.

              1. re: Berheenia

                I had great success with Cornish Hens for a pre-Christmas meal with friends. The cost was less than $4 per 24-oz. hen and after an overnight thaw they baked in 55 minutes, stuffed only with a green onion and quarter lemon. If you split them before baking the presentation isn't quite as elegant but baking time is reduced even more and serving is easier, since half a hen is plenty for most people.

                1. re: MidwesternerTT

                  We wished we had split them too but that would have been 30 pieces to cook. How many did you make?

                2. re: Berheenia

                  I get Cornish Hens in a 2pack from my local middle eastern market for $5.79. That's less than $3 each, which is comparable to a pound of chicken in my area (So. CA). I roast them for about an hour, which isn't too terribly long in my book. YMMV.

                  1. re: boogiebaby

                    Ours came from Whole Foods- very pricy. Don't know of a local source with those prices you enjoy in So Cal but again the cook had a broken ankle so she couldn't shop around.

                  2. re: Berheenia

                    Totally agree with the easiness, elegance and inexpensiveness of cornish hens. I haven't made them in a long time but will soon - this used to be my go to dinner for special occasions when I was in my mid to late 20s for Pete's sakes. Not hard and so, so good!

                3. I recently made this Batali recipe of cheese and herb-stuffed chicken thighs:

                  http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/he...

                  I prepared about a week in advance, wrapped each one tightly in plastic wrap and then into a large zipping bag. Turned out quite well.

                  1. I agree with the soup/salad/main/dessert concept. If you want to go the extra mile, an amuse of 1-2 slices of serrano, 2-3 olives, and a small piece of cheese makes a great impression, and can be plated well in advance. Additionally, it goes very well with bubbly.

                    There are lots of great soup options. Carrot and cauliflower are both soups that can be prepared the day before and will go well with richer white wines. Butternut squash soup goes well with alsatian pinot gris or gewurtz.

                    I like the idea of salad with the main.

                    For the main -- I like the ideas presented, though the tomatoes in the acid will require a rather acidic wine to match. Tuscan reds, or a barbera or valpolicella should work nicely. If you want to expand the wine options, Coq Au Vin is a classic braise that matches very nearly any red wine, depending on what sort of red goes into the sauce.

                    Poached pears are a dessert that can be prepped in advance and will match nicely with many dessert wines. The sweeter the dessert wine is, the less sweet you should make the syrup -- even consider leaving it nearly unsweetened.

                    1. Here's what I would consider doing...

                      Apps...
                      Crudite with salsa, dip and/or hummus
                      Stuffed Endive Leaves - i take goat cheese, chopped celery, roasted garlic, thyme, parsley, lemon zest, crushed unsalted pistachios, a little almond meal, salt and freshly ground pepper, stuff the leaves... shove em in fridge. serve drizzled with lemon white wine vinaigrette.

                      First Course...
                      Soup - Chipotle Roasted Corn Soup with Roasted Corn and Scallions
                      Crusty Bread - homemade or not... with herbed butter (i love making butter because it takes NO time at all, and can absolutely be done ahead, but don't make it if you don't want to)

                      Main and Sides...

                      -Roasted Chicken OR Chicken Marbella

                      -Balsamic Roasted Veggies -- lay sliced onions, zucchini, radicchio, mushrooms, eggplant, tomatoes, anything you want on non-stick sprayed foil. drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, toss a bit, then lay some thyme sprigs on top. cover loosely with another piece of foil and roast for 20 minutes at 350/375, then remove cover foil and roast til browned to desired amount

                      -If you want a side starchier dish, i'd do something very simple like an herbed couscous or wild rice (love Lundberg - really only needs S & P for me), something to soak up the chicken and veggie juices

                      Desserts (all make ahead options)

                      -Cheesecake
                      -Brownies
                      -Rice Pudding in Martini Glasses
                      -Bread Pudding (reheat)
                      -Panna Cotta
                      -White Chocolate Mousse
                      -Tuiles with Gelato

                      Have fun... there are a lot of options for prepare ahead everything, then just throw in the main at the last minute... looks like a heroic feat if that is coming out as the guests arrive... they assume everything else was made a la minute as well.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Emme

                        all these are wonderful suggestions - my addition is merely a twist: think Moroccan (such a marvelous new Moroccan cookbook last year, not to mention Paula Wolfert's tried and true one) - I would make chicken tagine with homemade preserved lemon and cous cous my star and Moroccan dishes the supporting cast: wonderful soups, carrot and beet salads, and repeat the lemon theme in desert with lemon curd tarts.

                        1. re: teezeetoo

                          this is right up my alley too, and many moroccan-style veg and starch dishes are just fine at room temp, freeing up both oven and hostess time.

                          as much as i like a good a cacciatore, it's drippy and a hazard for guests who might be messy eaters. or wearing a white blouse. :)

                          eta: have made versions of bastilla numerous times and it has always been a big hit.

                          http://moroccanfood.about.com/od/main...

                          if it's just a few friends, i don't mind serving meat on the bone, but for larger groups, or slightly more formal parties, i don't. some people are weird about it.

                      2. More qualified CHers have provided good menu ideas so I'll throw out a non-food thought. Is it possible to hire serving help for this party? Assuming you prepare a lovely, multi-course meal, it sure would be nice to have someone to plate and serve, clear plates, load dishwasher, etc. That way you'd be able to enjoy maximum time with your guests.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: tcamp

                          For me anyway, you bring up a big point. I don't do "courses" for that very reason. I don't want to be a 'Jill in the Box' popping up constantly to clear and serve. I also do hors d'oeuvres rather than an appetizer course.

                          1. re: tcamp

                            Very good suggestion!

                          2. K.... You can always do KFC and all the sides!(LOL)
                            Actually I think a cocktail time with three hor'dees then soup if you are in a cold climate, or salad if warm , a vegetable type lasagne, a roasted fish , whole or portions, grilled veggies , and then some cheeses , nuts , dried fruit and a good desert wine.
                            Desert as light or heavy as you like... I would serve biscotti a d cappuccino .

                            1. Chicken Provencale: Use bone-in breasts with skin. Combine salt, pureed garlic, grated lemon rind, rosemary, and lemon juice and push this under the skin then refrigerate for 24 hours. Parboil long Idaho potatoes. Slice lengthwise in wedges and lay in casserole with Greek olives and artichoke hearts and over them pour the marinade. Lay the chicken on top. Sprinkle with bread crumbs ,coarse Kosher salt, and rosemary. Drizzle with olive oil. Bake an hour or until done. Doing this in individual casseroles makes plating very easy.

                              Tandoori Chicken: Cut boneless skinless breasts up, each half in three chunks. Mix a container of plain yogurt with 2 tablespoons of Tandoori Masala (any Indian grocery store) and as much minced garlic and fresh ginger as you like. Marinate the chicken in this 24 hours in the refrigerator. Cover a pan with foil to avoid mess and lay the pieces on it, piling the rest of the yogurt on top of each piece. Bake very quickly in a very hot oven---425 until just done but not dried out. Believe it or not, what this is really good with is big Southern baked sweet potatoes busted open and filled with brown sugar and butter, and creamed spinach with just a breath of garlic in it. Fusion-R-Us.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: Querencia

                                Your Chicken Provencale sounds very interesting - really good.

                                So does the Tandoori Chicken - I've made it before and it was very good - will have to try your sides.

                              2. I recently brined some chicken leg quarters. Next, I did a faux-confit in corn oil with herbs. Then I chilled them. Took them to someone else's house and quickly crisped them in iron skillets.

                                Served with a farro "risotto", roasted butternut squash, and sugar snap peas (blanched in advance, then sauteed), this was a very comforting make-ahead.

                                Just need to add a nibble/appetizer and/or soup, bread, and dessert.

                                1. I think all the suggestions above involving apps and courses are fun and good. I would suggest, being winter and all, that coq au vin is a wonderful option. It's unctuous, delicious, and can be made far in advance. I would probably serve the chicken over a mix of barley and rice. The dish being French, a vichyssoise would be a well-matched main course, simple arugula salad with slivered fennel and bits of good bleu cheese, good oil and vinegar would be light bright sharp counterpoint to the richness of the other courses. Steamed kale tossed with a "vinaigrette" of fresh lemon juice, minced garlic, olive oil and salt is always delicious. Really good crusty bread for all the liquid goodness, and perhaps a fruit tart and/or almond cake with sorbet to finish.