Entertaining: Make-Ahead Tips for Dinner Parties

It's still home cooking month around here, and, to us, nothing embodies that phrase more than a small dinner party. You cook. You enjoy your home. And, best of all, you show a little love to your friends. That said, it can be stressful trying to get the food ready without constantly running back and forth to the kitchen. We have some suggestions on what to do in advance, so you can enjoy the party...

To experienced dinner party-throwers, we're probably not telling you anything you don't know. But for those of you to whom "multi-course" sounds like "destined for failure," take heart. These are a few things we do frequently:

Braise. Let's start with the most complicated part of the evening: the main course. We recently made short ribs for a dinner party, and while the prep work took a little time, we put them in our dutch oven early in the afternoon, then let them simmer for hours. Braises are forgiving, they require zero oversight, they can be made ahead of time (even the day before, warmed up on the stovetop), can be served right out of the pot, look bountiful, and make the house smell amazing. Have we said enough? Oh, you can also use your slow-cooker, which is equally easy. Try this Braised Summer Pork Shank or Slow-Cooker Lemon Garlic Chicken.

You can make pasta ahead of time. Sort of. Pasta is such an easy, pleasing side dish, and boiling water is about the only thing we like to have on our stovetop once people arrive. Have the water simmering, on low, so that you just have to crank it up to a quick boil when you're ready to cook. And if you pour some olive oil over the cooked pasta, it will stay loose and slick. We throw in lemon juice, lemon zest, parsley, and garlic, then cover the serving bowl with a dinner plate and it stays hot for at least 20 minutes.

Have the salad ready-to-go. We don't love the look of salads sitting on a table when people arrive, although you certainly could set them out (just dress them right before you eat). But you can have everything chopped and accessible. Forego individual plates and serve it tossed in a big, family-style bowl. Or, skip the salad altogether--especially if you have a vegetable side dish--and go straight to the main meal.

Pickle or marinate vegetables. If you aren't having salad, consider doing a room temperature or slightly chilled vegetable side dish. Coleslaw if the meal is casual, roasted (the day before) asparagus that you toss with a vinaigrette, pickled cabbage or beets. It's different, provides another texture and flavor on the plate, and all you have to do is pull it out of the refrigerator.

Dessert does not need to be hot. Right now is the perfect time of year to do a fruit pie or crostata, which we think taste even better at room temperature. Make it the day before or earlier in the day, if it's a weekend. You can always warm it up for 15 minutes in the oven if you want, but we don't think it's necessary.

Buy store-bought appetizers. We love homemade hors d'oeuvres (see a template for our favorite appetizer here), but we try to follow this rule: If we're having cocktails only, we make some finger food. If it's a full-blown dinner party, we stick to cheese, nuts, and olives. Everyone loves that spread! Read some of our cheesemonger Nora's posts and buy something new.

Here are some more dinner party tips from our archives:
Dinner Party Planning: Scheduling Backwards
Dinner Party Timing: Five Tips for Cooking a Full Meal
Entertaining: Q&A with Jessie Saunders, Author of The Two of Us and Friends
Entertaining Tip: Our Answer to "What Can I Bring?"

(Image: Sara Kate)