Catch Up With Friends: Menu for a Casual Dinner Party with Fresh Comfort Food

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

I love to entertain, but I’ll be frank: I’m on a pretty strict budget. And because I try to buy sustainably-raised meat, even supposedly “cheap” cuts like pork shoulder or short ribs are too expensive to be more than an occasional treat, so more often than not, my dinner party menus are mostly vegetarian, fairly healthy and quite budget-friendly. This menu features freshened-up versions of classic comfort food and is perfect for a casual gathering to catch up with a few friends before the bustle of summer begins.

The Menu

(Image credit: Sara Kate Gillingham)

The Scene

The weather is warming up, the days are longer, but the rush of summer weddings, family trips and parties hasn’t yet begun. It’s the perfect time to invite over a few friends you’ve been meaning to catch up with and sit down to a home-cooked meal. Nothing too fancy, just a menu of updated classics, like a a creamy casserole made with chickpeas instead of pasta, a smoky bacon vinaigrette used to dress grilled asparagus instead of the usual spinach, and a no-fuss lemon-blueberry yogurt cake for dessert.
(Image credit: Anjali Prasertong)

Keeping It Budget-Friendly

Sticking to a budget often means being flexible once you are at the supermarket, or when pondering the ingredients you already have on hand. Some suggestions for substitutions or changes to keep costs down on this menu:
  • Use lemons instead of limes in the rosemary limeade
  • Freeze the remaining bacon if you won’t be using it right away
  • Use raisins or dried cranberries instead of currants in the broccoli salad
  • Use frozen blueberries for the cake
  • Skip the lemon curd topping and serve the cake with regular whipped cream or plain. Or make the topping by mixing lemon curd with creme fraiche, sour cream, or mascarpone, if you happen to have them on hand instead of whipping cream.

Making It Happen

Being stuck in the kitchen is no fun once guests arrive, so most of this menu can be made ahead of time, giving you maximum time to relax and chat with your guests. 

The night before, make the rosemary limeade syrup and refrigerate it. The next morning, strain the syrup and keep it chilled until the party. Bake the cake and make the lemon cream in the morning. Assemble the chickpea casserole and refrigerate it.

A couple hours before the party, make the broccoli salad and refrigerate it to let the flavors come together. About 30 minutes before the party, fry the bacon and make the vinaigrette. Preheat the oven and pop the casserole in about 15 minutes before guests are due to arrive. It bakes for 45 minutes and rests for an additional ten, so this will give you a good 40 minutes of drinking and socializing time with your guests before dinner; adjust accordingly if you would rather serve dinner earlier or later in the evening.

Mix the rosemary limeade syrup with sparkling water just before your guests arrive and set out a bowl or two of nuts for nibbling. You can serve the limeade as-is to teetotaling guests, or add a shot of gin if anyone is looking for something stronger.

When you take the casserole out of the oven, heat up a grill pan on the stove. (Alternatively, you can use a cast-iron skillet; sear the asparagus until cooked through and a little blackened in spots.) Grill the asparagus and dress with the bacon vinaigrette. The chickpea casserole will have cooled sufficiently at this point, so along with the broccoli salad, dinner is served!

After dinner, make a pot of coffee or tea and pass around slices of cake dolloped with lemon cream. It’s a relaxing end to a relaxing evening — with a no-fuss menu, no worries about breaking the bank, and plenty of time to catch up with friends, this is exactly what a dinner party should be.

What are your favorite budget-friendly meals to serve to guests?

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