It’s that time of year. The weather is beautiful, the fresh produce is abundant and tasty and I don’t know about you – but that wants me to get in the kitchen and utilize it by hosting meals for my favorite people.
It’s no secret that I love cooking. It’s also no secret that I love hosting. An ideal way for me to spend an evening is creating a meal for the people I love, because it helps me flex my kitchen muscles (literally, sometimes, in the case of kneading bread dough), test out new recipes and gadgets, and then gather around the table with my favorite humans.
Sometimes, people are surprised to hear that I love hosting which, in turn, surprises me – what’s not to love? Okay, I’m slightly kidding, because I do understand that for some, the idea of cooking for a crowd is daunting. But with plenty of dinner parties for 10+, Easter dinner for 12, and countless girls nights under my belt, I think I’ve gotten it down to a pretty good science now. And so, if I can urge you to do one thing this summer – cook dinner for a group of friends! To help you with that, I thought up my best tips, learned from a few years of experience, and then threw in a fantastic (and easy, I promise) seasonal pasta salad recipe at the bottom.
Tip One: If Nervous, Stick to the Classics
Just because my favorite thing to do is test out a brand new recipe on my unwitting friends (sorry, guys, but I also haven’t heard any complaints) doesn’t mean that’s the way you have to go about your menu. In fact, if you’ve never done this before, it shouldn’t be the way you tackle your first dinner.
The first few times I ever cooked for people (out of a communal dorm room kitchen, trying not to consider just how dirty the oven was - #memories), I stuck to my tried and true, could-do-it-blindfolded recipes. You know, the stuff I knew I knew how to cook. Having that innate level of comfort with the dish I was preparing helped me relax and enjoy the evening, because I wasn’t afraid of screwing up the food. And I also knew it was going to be delicious. So there’s that.
Tip Two: Create a List. Create Multiple Lists.
The first, and most important list you should create, is your ingredient list. That’s your grocery list, and you should stick to it. Don’t pull up a recipe at the store on your phone and go from there – because that will lead to “Oh, I definitely have vegetable oil in the cupboard at home, I won’t get more” when you most definitely DO NOT. And then you’ll be left wondering if you can use peanut oil or sesame oil or olive oil and wishing you’d just paid the $4.99 for a backup bottle. (This is purely a hypothetical situation.) (No, it’s not.)
Okay, so. Grab that cookbook or pull up the recipe on your computer. Write down every single ingredient that you need, even the ones that you think you already have in your kitchen. For those, take the list into your kitchen, double-check, and then cross them off the list. Then get grocery shopping. It’s foolproof.
A second list you may need, depending on how big your gathering or ambitious your menu, is a timing list for your prep. It sounds a little insane, but hear me out on this – for major dinners, organization is key. I hosted Easter for 12 this year, out of a galley kitchen in a North End apartment. There are two things I have to thank for my success: my guests’ willingness to sit in a cozy manner, and the organization list I made ahead of time.
This bad boy had EVERYTHING. I broke it down across multiple days (necessary), and listed out my tasks for each day. Friday was cleaning. Saturday was grocery shopping, making the cake, and preparing the table settings. Sunday was cooking the roast, setting the tables, and making last minute adjustments. Because my roast was so labor-intensive, I actually scheduled out blocks of time on Sunday, (including “11 a.m. – shower”), but I also really love lists.
My point is that you can’t be too organized when it’s a big crowd.
Tip Three: Be Ready Before That Super Early Friend Shows
One of the first things my dad ever taught me in the kitchen was the concept of mise en place, which is a French term that means “everything in its place.” In kitchen lingo, this refers to the act of getting all of the ingredients prepared, measured, and ready to be put into your dish.
I aim to do this before all of my guests have arrived. Vegetables diced and in a neat little pile, spices measured out ahead of time, any liquids ready to be poured in their exact amounts, meats seasoned – you get the drill. I am not always successful with this goal, but the times I have been super organized, it’s really paid off. I’m able to enjoy the part where I’m cooking with people in my apartment a lot more when I’m not listening to my friend’s story but also silently wondering if I added a teaspoon or a tablespoon of salt to our meal.
Tip Four: Chill.
Uncork the wine. Take a sip. Laugh at someone’s terrible joke. Enjoy the flowers your friends brought as a thank you. CHILL.
What’s the worst-case scenario? You laugh, throw in the towel on your paella, and order pizza. Honestly, that’s a pretty good scenario.
If I haven’t scared you off yet, here’s something you should absolutely make the next time you host – a seasonal veggie pasta salad that screams summer and is so good, you and your friends will be all, “wow, that bowl of pasta salad is huge” and then eat it all rapidly.
Seasonal Veggie Pasta Salad
Adapted from Half Baked Harvest (the dope vinaigrette is all hers)
1 lb pasta (I used orecchiette)
1 zucchini, cut into sticks
1 yellow squash, cut into sticks
1 red bell pepper
1 jar artichoke hearts, drained
Cooked corn, about 2 cups
1 cup feta cheese
1 cup walnuts, chopped
2 cups arugula
Salt and pepper
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 clove minced garlic
Juice and zest of one lemon
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
1 tablespoon dried oregano
Red pepper flakes, to taste
Salt and Pepper
1. Sautee your zucchini and squash in 3 tablespoons of olive oil, with a pinch of salt. You want them to retain some of their crunch, so don’t overcook – 3-4 minutes over medium heat should do it.
2. Slice the red pepper, and mix it in a bowl with the zucchini, squash and artichoke. Add the walnuts and corn and toss.
3. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook your pasta.
4. While the pasta is cooking, mix the dressing in a separate bowl. Combine with the veggies.
5. Allow the pasta to slightly cool and then mix with the veggies. Add the feta and arugula, mix it all together.