Because Shabbat comes every week, it often feels like as soon as the dishes from this week's dinner are over, I am starting to plan the next one. Over the years, I have come up with a few strategies to keep the planning and prep simple and organized, so I can enjoy it almost as much as the dinner itself.
Know Who You Are Cooking For
Before crafting a menu, I check in with guests about their dietary needs. We keep a kosher home, so we are already set for both kosher and non kosher guests. But when it comes to other restrictions, I like to avoid the last-minute "Oops, I forgot to tell you I am a raw foodist" surprises at the table. I do not necessarily make an all-vegan or gluten-free meal just because one guest has that specific need, but I do make sure there are enough options on the table to satisfy everyone.
Get in the Shabbat Spirit by Mixing up Your Menu
Dinner parties are great fun, but can be exhausting for the host — especially if you host every Friday night. To keep things fresh, I clip new-to-me recipes from blogs, magazines, and cookbooks and keep them in a "What to make for Shabbat" file. As I begin to plan my menu, I flip through the file — it always renews my excitement to host!
Of course, conventional wisdom says you should never serve a dish at a dinner party that you haven't cooked before. I say, you only live once. Besides, unless you have invited the Queen of England (or Ina Garten!) to Shabbat dinner, it is likely a low-pressure situation. So take a risk and try out something new. You might even end up with a new classic on your hands. Just make sure to round out the rest of your menu with some time-tested favorites in case it flops.
Make a List (Actually, Two)
After my menu is curated, I make two lists. The first, of course, is a shopping list. I group ingredients by where I will source them: fruits and vegetables from the farmers market go in one line, pantry staples from the supermarket go in another, and things to order ahead — for me that means ordering chicken or meat from the kosher, sustainable meat company, Grow & Behold — in a third.
The second list plans out when I will prepare which dishes. I typically make casseroles, braises, or roasts — which tend to get even more flavorful after a night in the fridge — a night or two ahead. Same goes for salad dressings, which are amenable to resting overnight. I try to bake desserts the morning before Shabbat. I also prep any vegetables I will need later that day, so cooking comes together quickly.
As I finish making things, I put a little check by the dish so I can get a quick mental image of how much cooking I have left.
Get the "Real" Cooking Done Before Friday Night
Cooking with heat is forbidden once Shabbat starts. Chopping vegetables for a salad or fruit plate is fine, but anything that needs to fry on the stovetop or bake in the oven should be finished before the holiday begins. (Rewarming food is permitted with a hot plate if it is turned on before sundown.)
This restriction sometimes leads to a last-minute dash to the finish line! Will the chicken roast in time? Will the soup finish simmering? It's kind of like you're living out an episode of Chopped in your kitchen. But there is wisdom to the rule, even if you don't observe Shabbat in the traditional sense. Once the holiday starts, things slow down dramatically. All of a sudden, the food is done, the candles are lit, and the mood is serene and peaceful — and instead of standing at the stove, you are free to drink a glass of wine with your guests. Shouldn't all dinner parties be this relaxed?
Put Your Guests to Work
No matter how prepared I am, Shabbat dinner always seems to sneak up on me, which means the last hour or so is a scramble. I like to set aside a few discreet tasks — filling water pitchers, folding and setting out napkins, opening wine bottles, filling bowls with pickles or olives — for guests. That way, early arrivers feel useful, and I am freed up to take care of any last-minute chopping and stirring.