Simple menu is best for dinner parties

Prepare dishes ahead, and the cook won't be too frazzled to enjoy the evening

Go Entertain


Two dinner parties I recently hosted turned out to be as different as night and day. Evaluating them from the cook's point of view, I would describe myself as cool and calm for the first and a total wreck for the second. I teach cooking and write about food for a living, so what went wrong? It was the menu I chose for the second dinner. There were too many last-minute dishes for too many people.

The first dinner for a small group started with a seasonal salad of mixed greens showered with julienned red and yellow peppers and a sprinkling of crispy prosciutto. The main course was a robust chicken ragout with porcini mushrooms and tomatoes served over buttered fettuccine. A rhubarb pie, brought by one of the guests, made a delectable finale.

The second menu for a larger gathering began with bowls of tomato fennel soup. It was followed by plates mounded with mashed potatoes encased by sauteed sole fillets and blanched haricots verts. I didn't have to worry about dessert since a guest brought a cake to celebrate his wife's birthday.

What made the first meal so easy was the all-in-one entree that was prepared two days ahead. On Thursday before our Saturday dinner, I browned chicken thighs and legs, carrots and onions, added some rosemary and hot red pepper flakes, then simmered everything in chicken stock and wine along with tomatoes and porcini mushrooms. When done, the braising liquids turned into a hearty, slightly spicy sauce and the chicken was so tender it fell off the bone. The night of that dinner, I needed only to pull the ragout from the fridge and reheat it while the pasta was quickly cooked.

Although it received rave reviews from the diners, the fish dinner was a small nightmare to execute. I had tasted the dish at a local restaurant and wanted to reproduce it at home. But some meals, like this one, are best left to professional kitchens. While I was trying to pan-fry sole fillets for seven people, I also had to cook the haricots verts and finish the mashed potatoes. Everything required split-second timing. I felt like a whirling dervish, and by the time I walked into the dining room with the finished plates, my kitchen looked like a disaster zone.

The lesson I already knew but was reminded of was this: When entertaining, keeping food simple and making it ahead are a golden combination. I won't forget that again.


Seasonal salad of mixed greens, peppers and prosciutto; chicken ragout with porcini mushrooms and tomatoes served over fettuccine; rhubarb pie

Chicken Ragout with Porcini and Tomatoes

Serves 6

3/4 ounces dried porcini mushrooms

1/4 cup flour, plus more if needed

6 chicken thighs and 6 chicken legs (about 3 3/4 to 4 pounds total), trimmed of excess fat and skin

kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

5 or more tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 1/2 cups chopped onion

3/4 cup baby carrots, cut on the diagonal in 1/2 -inch thick slices

2 large garlic cloves, chopped

1 tablespoon dried, crushed rosemary (see note)

1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

2 cups reduced-sodium chicken stock plus up to 1 cup more, if needed

1 cup dry white wine

1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained

1 1/4 pounds cooked fettuccine tossed in 2 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley

Place porcini mushrooms in a small bowl and cover with 1 cup hot water. Soak until mushrooms are softened, 15 to 20 minutes. Line a strainer with a double thickness of paper towels and drain mushrooms, reserving liquid. Rinse mushrooms, pat dry, then coarsely chop.

Spread flour on a dinner plate. Pat chicken pieces dry with paper towels. Salt and pepper chicken generously, then dredge each piece in flour. Use more flour if necessary. Set aside.

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in large, heavy deep-sided skillet or pot over medium heat. When hot, add onion and carrots and cook, stirring, until softened and starting to brown, about 6 minutes. Add garlic and cook and stir 1 minute more. Remove vegetables from pan and set aside. Cool pan slightly, then wipe it out with paper towels so that no vegetables remain.

Add 3 more tablespoons oil, or enough to well cover bottom of the same pan. Place it over medium high heat. When oil is hot, add enough chicken pieces to fit comfortably in single layer. Cook, turning, until browned on all sides, about 5 minutes. Remove to a plate and continue until all chicken has been cooked, adding more oil if needed.

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