How To Throw A Giving Circle Dinner

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

I received a great question from a reader a few days ago:

Dear The Kitchn,

I just got involved with an organization called Dining For Women which hosts monthly dinners at members’ homes to raise money for international projects benefiting women. My first dinner is coming up and I will be cooking for about thirty people. Our beneficiary is Bead for Life, a Ugandan organization that assists women in their bead making businesses.

I have a really limited budget and I need to make dishes that can be made ahead of time and eaten without lots of dishes, the better!) and will work for a 4pm – 8pm time frame. Any suggestions?


This email really moved me, so I put the question out to our Thursday email subscribers and heard back from dozens. Click through for our community’s menu ideas and more on my thoughts about Maria’s email.

What was striking to me about Maria’s question was that in a time when we’re hearing so much from our readers about wanting to save money, and this email is no exception, we are also hearing tremendous stories of people, often the same people, wanting to give back. That’s what a passion for food and cooking does. Even when the bank account gets low, most of us who cook find a deep connection between cooking and feeding. It’s hard not to want to use a love for cooking to nourish others.

Here are some of the suggestions I got from other readers:

From Julie:
I suggest that she get our her crockpot or stewpot and cook up some one-pot, one-bowl wonders. If it’s still cool where she is, she can have some denser, richer dishes such as chicken or pork white chili served over rice. She could try a Moroccan/Middle Eastern stew with a tomato sauce base and filled with garbanzo beans, roast peppers, and some root veggies served over couscous would go a long way while providing a comforting and unique meal. I favor tomato-based dishes in general for a make-ahead meal like this–chicken cacciatore and chicken paprikash are two other favorites. A simple kale, white bean, and sausage stew served with crusty bread would also be nice. The best part about meals like this is they not only can be made ahead of time, but will benefit from it because an overnight rest will allow flavors to combine and deepen. She can then reheat these dishes and keep them in her crockpot or even on the stove over warm heat.

From Ruth:
Here are two African make-ahead dishes for Maria:
Moroccan Eggplant Salad
• Basbousa (Egyptian Farina Cake Soaked in Syrup)
There are numerous recipes for this standard, incredibly easy-to-make, delicious cake on the internet. All it takes is some cream of wheat, a little baking powder, yogurt, sugar and blanched almonds. You can make the soaking syrup with an exotic flavor (like orange flower water), or something as easy-to-find as orange juice. Your guests will love being served a tiny little diamond of this cake garnished with an almond at the end of the meal.

From Lori:
My idea for her menu for thirty would be a white bean and chicken chili with cornbread and a nice salad with a homemade ranch dressing.

From Kellie:
Since it is still a little cool outside (in most areas I should add)… Soup may just work. Serve your guests a hearty soup, like a chowder of some kind (potato would be inexpensive and vegetarian friendly), add some homemade bread (many different varieties, for instance friendship bread or monkey bread), or even a “dessert bread,” serve salad as well and this would make a great inexpensive meal for many. The downside would be needing 30 bowls,… but you can get a variety of mismatched bowls really cheap if I may say, at a thrift store, which adds to the country cabin vibe of the meal. Or if this won’t do and you are really desperate hit up friends and family that will not be attending and have them “donate” their dishes for the evening…. no one has to know.

From Evan Kleiman (of KCRW’s Good Food!):
Chicken Pot Pie is hands down the easiest, most comforting and biggest hit casserole idea ever. If you want to do a veggie version try Martha Stewart’s Tomato Cobbler and use her cheese pie crust for the Chicken Pot Pie too. I first had the Tomato Cobber in Rome at a friends’ women’s group dinner and have been using it ever since. I make the Chicken Pot Pie every time I cook chicken soup.

From Susan:
I’ve found “The Silver Palette’s” Chicken Marbella to be a crowd-pleaser. Here is a menu created by the author, Sheila Lukins.

From Brigitte:
This is a favorite of mine. It tastes good at room temperature and it’s great for vegetarians, too.

Couscous with Vegetables
(makes a very large bowl full)

4 cups cubed butternut squash
1 red onion chopped
2 cloves garlic quartered
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup cooked chick peas (drained from a can)
1/2 cup diced red pepper
1 1/2 cups vegetable stock or water
1 tsp cumin
1 cup couscous
1/2 cup frozen peas (thawed)
1/4 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp dried oregano
3/4 tsp salt
pinch of cayenne
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

In a 13″ x 9″ baking dish toss squash, onion, garlic with oil and roast in 400° oven, turning once for 20 to 30 minutes or until browned on the edges or just tender. Transfer to a large bowl and add chick peas and red pepper. Meanwhile in a saucepan bring stock or water and cumin to a boil, stir in couscous and peas. Remove from heat and cover and let stand for 5 min. Fluff with fork and sprinkle over squash mixture along with dressing. Toss gently and add cilantro just before serving.

From Hannah:
I have one all time favorite staple to any meal: brown rice. Instead of having to worry about it over the stove you can bake it in the oven. I have baked up to 3 cups at a time in 1 casserole dish which can serve up to 5-6 people. I imagine you can borrow a larger casserole dish and make more than 3 cups. Also the brown rice is fairly inexpensive if you have a Costco near you. I think they sell 12 lb bags for about $13.

The recipe, Baked Brown Rice, is from Alton Brown.

Any variation of vegetables, curries and sauces goes superbly with brown rice. Not to mention it’s nutritious!

Heidi Swanson also has a great recipe to spice up normal, day-old brown rice. It doesn’t exactly take 10 minutes, but it’s good and tasty. If anything, you could just make the sauce to go with some oven roasted vegetables. YUM!

I hope this is helpful! Good luck and I hope I have the opportunity to attend such an event at some point in my life.

From Ruth S.:
Why not cook up a delicious curry? My sister-in-law (from Uganda!) and her mother created a fabulous cookbook called Mamajee’s Kitchen, and each dish is so delicious. Of course I’ve had the luxury of eating their cooking, but these recipes are easy to make. I also think chicken and potatoes in a coconut curry would fit her budget. One pot!

This dish, like the other coconut dishes in this book originated in Zanzibar where coconuts are plentiful. This curry is pale yellow in color, and the flavor is mild and subtle. An easy dish to prepare, it can be cooked ahead and reheated to serve. It always makes a great impression.

Zanzibar Chicken and Coconut Curry
serves 8

1 tablespoon oil
2 pieces of cinnamon bark, split
2 whole cardamom, slit
3 whole cloves
a few black peppercorns
1 medium onion, diced
1 cup under-ripe tomatoes, small dice
3 pounds chicken parts, skinned, trimmed and cut into 3-inch pieces
1 tablespoon ginger paste
1 tablespoon garlic paste
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon chilies, coarsely ground
3 medium or large potatoes, peeled into 3 inch pieces
13 ounce coconut milk, canned
1/4 cup lemon juice
4-6 large eggs, hard boiled and peeled
1/4 cup cilantro, coarsely chopped for garnish

In a large, wide heavy bottomed pot, heat oil on medium high and add cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and black peppercorns (this is whole garam masala). Add onion and try until translucent. Add tomatoes. Stir, continuing to cook for 2 minutes. Add chicken, ginger, garlic, turmeric, chilies (to taste) and potatoes. Stir until chicken and potatoes are nearly tender, about 20 minutes.

Add coconut milk to pot. Reduce heat to low, cooking uncovered, while occasionally gently stirring pot. Add lemon juice and swirl again. Gently add eggs to the pot and incorporate the sauce. Turn off heat. Cover pot and let it rest so flavors combine well. Garnish with cilantro.

If you served this with naan (flat bread) and/or basmati rice, a salad, and raitha (cucumber in yogurt – some salt/pepper/cumin), I think the dinner would be very special.

From Lynda:
Why not cook Ugandan recipes? Here are some links that have these types of recipes. I am sure that the cost is lower than traditional American meals.

From Margery:
I didn’t make this up, but think it’s a great one for big groups, and has a warm/comfortable taste with a touch of spring, too:

Farfale pasta
1 container grape tomatoes cut in half (if you mix red with other colored ones it’s really pretty!)
about 8 oz. feta cheese (crumbled or cut into small chunks)
pesto (I use pre-made, which is about 7-8 ounces)

Cook the pasta in a big pot. In a big bowl put the pesto, the feta and the tomatoes. When the pasta is finished, drain and put in the bowl with the other stuff. Mix and serve! It’s great at any temperature.

From Jessica:
I think it would be great if Maria did a very simple, African influenced vegetarian menu. This would be consistent with the values of giving back, and the time frame of an early supper. Also a stew is great for a crowd, and is an easy recipe to double or triple as necessary.

I’d suggest a simple green salad, an African peanut stew with sweet potatoes, and some delicious crusty bread (homemade if possible!) Then it might be nice to end with a banana desert, and some ginger tea. Naturally, there are all sorts of related recipes to be found on the internet, and the Moosewood “West African Groundut Stew” recipe is a particularly good one.

From Mary:
Here’s a great article from the Memphis Flyer called All Together Now by Stacey Greenberg about sharing food in large bowls that might help.

From Maggie:
Cooking for 30 is tricky, make-ahead is definitely the key.

Perhaps an assemble-ahead vegetarian lasagna like this Guaranteed Crowd Pleaser Pesto Lasagna or one with a rich vegetarian red sauce like this Killer Porcini Mushroom Tomato Sauce.

Or maybe a big pot of soup that can be made ahead and reheated? Inexpensive and fresh-tasting.

This Spicy and Quick Chipotle Tortilla Soup is my current favorite, with lots of add-your-own fresh toppings.

A big fresh salad is easy enough.

For dessert, a few of thesegoat cheese cheesecakes would be amazing. They HAVE to be made ahead and chilled.

Good luck!

From Bridgette:
Pork Butt: I think it is my answer for world peace. It is hella cheap (~$2/lb if you go uncut/untrimmed, Whole Foods sells it all trimmed up no bone for $4-5.) I recently fed 25+ with leftovers for a week on 2 butts, which all in set me back about $35, and let’s face it, people would not have been more excited if the meal was catered by Chanterelle. Another great thing about pork butt is its versatility, you can go Caribe themed with sides of black-eyed peas (or black beans) and rice, some crunchy fruity salads – with cabbage and jicama maybe, you can go southern style, you can go Asian/David Chang all depending on what you emphasize in your rub and what you complement the table with it. None of it should cost too much. It also is a big winner for the make ahead factor, as you can stick it in the oven and do next to nothing till you pull it out 7 hours later, and if you want to serve it at room temp, that is fine too. For dessert a rice pudding works well if you didn’t have rice as a side, and if you did, like in a Caribbean themed menu, I might do lemon (Meyer?) squares, or something coconut.

4pm – 8pm is a little late for brunch fare, but especially if it is ladies lunch I think quiches and salads are still acceptable, and all make in advance, you can make them tasty, varied, vegetarian/non veg….mmmm, little cups of chocolate mousse (or pudding?) for dessert.

Moving slightly higher up the food chain toward fancy, slow poached salmon (there do exist non premium cuts that work beautifully if you are loading up your poaching liquid with lots of flavor) set atop a hearty grainy salad (I like farro, but a lemony couscous could be great too) with a green salad and voila. There’s a good recipe I got from the NY Times Magazine years ago for a thing called The Little Black Dress Cake which is totally my go to, as the name is meant to imply, and is great to stretch because it is SO rich and dense, if you make two, which is totally doable, serve a thin slice with a scoop of whipped cream, for 25 women you’ll definitely have a half a cake left over.

What an amazing list of suggestions. Maria, you’ll definitely have to let us know how it goes!

Dining for Women is a “dinner giving circle.” Each local chapter gathers monthly at a member’s home — the host cooks everything as in the case of our reader above, or is the anchor to a potluck — and pools the money they would have spent dining out to a variety of international women’s programs from education and health care to economic development programs like job training and micro-credit. Dining for Women gives one hundred percent of their donations to programs. Find a chapter near you.

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