The last post on entertaining was all about the lead-up. This post is about the lead-up as well, but a slightly different angle. I want to talk about planning a menu.
There are piles and piles of functional and unimaginative ideas out there. Spaghetti, caesar salad, and garlic bread was a mainstay of our childhood meals, but now we’re grown up and we know about things like charcuterie boards, and we can do better.
I’m a bit obsessed with menu planning. In my kitchen journal I have scores of hypothetical menus for various dinners and themed parties. What would a Mediterranean-themed Super Bowl party look like? Za’atar chicken wings; crisp pita chips with feta-olive dip; white bean hummus with parsnip chips (it is winter, after all); lemon thyme olive oil cake for dessert.
First, decide what kind of meal it’s going to be. Plated dinner? Family-style seated dinner? Small plates to pass around the table? Big boards of elegantly-arranged bites for everyone to graze while congregating around the kitchen counter? Buffet style, with plates on laps sitting around the living room? Picnic?
Second, choose a central theme. Because I’m a nerd, I like planning around a title or phrase, like “Mediterranean mezze Super Bowl party” or “Spring small plates brunch.” Consider the season, the venue (living room? park? formal dining room with seating for 12?), and your guests.
You’ve got your theme? Let’s choose some dishes.
I’m not great at the formal multi-course dinner party concept. I have to admit; I don’t know how a person can pull it off without a staff of helpers. The timing is everything for those dinners, and I can’t see myself enjoying conversation with friends while simultaneously plating four roasted baby quails for the entree. In the interest of sanity, I like to serve family-style dinners.
Let’s start from the beginning, with appetizers. I think that most traditional appetizers are overly fussy. Instead, I’ve been experimenting with setting out a board of carefully-curated, mostly store-bought tidbits that match the tone of the rest of the menu. It might be grissini, oil-cured olives, and thin slices of pecorino pepato for an Italian meal. Or maybe a spread of olives, quick-pickled vegetables, a smear of labneh and some flatbread for a Middle Eastern meal. If you’re totally at a loss, my best suggestion would be to find a specialty store and find a few interesting things that fit whatever you’re going to be cooking.
One last word on appetizers before I move on: Try to avoid heavy or filling foods. Save the big wedges of cheese and thick slices of bread for a cocktail-party cheese board (when there’s no entree to follow). Aim for fresh or briny foods that stimulate the appetite; keep the heavy and creamy elements in moderation.
Main dish and side dishes: Choose a main dish that you love and are comfortable with cooking. Choose a few side dishes that complement and balance the main dish. If your main dish is rich or heavy, serve it with something light or fresh. Think about the colors and textures and flavor, and try to strike a harmonious balance.
I also try to simplify cooking processes; if I’m grilling steaks, I might as well throw the veggies on the grill, also. A nice fresh tomato salad on the side will keep the meal from having smoky-charred overload. If it’s winter and I’m roasting a chicken, I might roast root veggies at the same time. I think I’d do a bracing frisee salad on the side so the richness and sweetness of the root veggies doesn’t become overpowering. Don’t be afraid to simplify. If your main dish takes all day to prepare, it’s okay to serve a very simple side.
Is dessert the best part? Maybe. I’ve been trying to stay away from gigantic sugar-bombs of desserts recently (achieving balance seems to be a theme in this series). I try not to send guests into a sugar coma, if possible. Tying elements of the dessert in with the rest of the meal is so terribly elegant. Chili-chocolate shortbread cookies and coffee after a Mexican meal? Just like the rest of the meal, look at what’s available. If it’s midsummer, a peach bourbon pie or panna cotta with lavender berry compote would be nice. If I were braver with the fryer, every winter meal would end with churros and a spicy chocolate dipping sauce.
For weeknight dinner parties, I’m not sure anything beats fresh chocolate chip cookies. Make the dough a day or two in advance, roll the dough into a log and wrap it well, stick it in the fridge. When dinner is done, slice and bake the cookies.
I always offer coffee and tea for dessert, too. It’s another of those old-fashioned customs that seems to have gone by the wayside, and I desperately want it to return. Lingering over a simple, well-executed dessert with a cup of tea seems like the quintessence of a successful dinner party.
Sometimes when I need menu inspiration, I:
- Browse prix -fixe menus at restaurants that I admire.
- Search through the menus on Bon Appetit.
- Glance through cookbooks — especially if they are cookbooks with a strong theme, like Plenty.
- Check out my local farmer’s market to see what’s in season.
- Fixate on one in-season ingredient and try to work a whole meal around it.