If you want to cook a dinner that’s guaranteed to knock the socks off your guests but don’t want to rely on your old standbys, give this gorgeous, five-dish gourmet meal a whirl. The best part: It’s surprisingly easy to make.
To shine at entertaining, you don’t need professional chef training. If you plan ahead, get organized, allow enough time to shop, prep and set the table, your meal will be exquisite, and having guests will actually be fun.
There are two guiding principles for planning and preparing an important meal: First, choose a menu you’ll be comfortable making. A big dinner is not the time to experiment. Second, serve foods that are familiar enough to appeal to everyone and not awkward to eat (like whole lobster or bouillabaisse).
The following menu includes some of my favorite foods plus a timeline for executing the meal. You can trust this pretty foolproof lineup, but you’re free to make substitutions to suit your personal preferences.
A word of advice if you do make changes: Pick a no-fuss hors d’oeuvre, a first course (soup or salad) that can be made ahead, an entrée with a vegetable and starch or two veggies of different colors, then finish with a yummy dessert that doesn’t require “à la minute” preparations.
FOOLPROOF 5-DISH DINNER
This menu was designed for two, but all the recipes can be doubled or even tripled.
- Flash Fried (or Baked) Chickpeas With Fennel and Aleppo Pepper
- Velvet-Carrot Ginger Soup With Chèvre
- Oven Roasted Salmon With Mustard and Crushed Pistachios Served With Rice
- Pan Roasted Asparagus With Parmesan and Lemon Zest
- Green Fruit Salad in Jasmine Tea Syrup With Green Tea Ice Cream or Biscotti
Rule No. 1: Best Meals Start With Best Ingredients
The best menus start with the freshest ingredients and ones you’re familiar with. So if you’ve never eaten, let alone cooked with kohlrabi, don’t start now. Broccoli or tender young green beans will be far less daunting to you and your guests.
One way to make the meal exceptional is to feature seasonal produce — particularly those items that make you jump for joy when they first reappear in the market after winter, like farm-fresh asparagus in spring and peaches in summer. But note: While fresh ingredients need less doctoring and taste best au naturel, they still need to be chosen with care.
With asparagus, for example, carefully check the tips to make sure they’re still closed and that all the stalks are firm and about the same size, so that when you cook them, they'll be ready at the same time. How thick is a personal preference: I like medium stalks, but mother always thought fatter ones have more taste.
When choosing carrots, select young ones that are small and not cracked. For the soup to burst with carroty flavor, its basic six ingredients should be the best you can find. This is the place to splurge on excellent butter, stock and chèvre (ask your cheesemonger for one that’s “artisanal”).
Where possible, buy locally grown products. Sure, you can buy imported peaches and nectarines in winter, but too often they go from rock hard to mushy without a pit stop at juicy and luscious. On average, food in America takes about two weeks to travel 1,500 miles from farm to table. Local means faster and thus more delicious and nutritious (and a lower carbon footprint), plus it supports typically smaller-scale, organic farmers.
Shortcuts Aren’t Cheating
- You don’t have to make everything from scratch. It’s often a waste of time and money. Buying prepared fillet of sole with crab filling, for instance, can save you both, since it uses small amounts of herbs and other ingredients whose costs would be prohibitive if you bought them individually. And rolling up the fish is an acquired skill, a task better left to the pros.
- Making ahead is a great time- and stress-saver. With my menu, you can prep and cook the soup two days before, make the chickpeas a day ahead, and pre-chop the pistachios for the fish. In general, steer clear of fancy garnishes, which are unnecessarily time-consuming. A few thin slices of lemon over the top will do.
- For the dessert, the honeydew, kiwi and grapes may be cut up two days in advance, but to prevent them from becoming mushy, don’t add the syrup until a few hours before serving (and hold off on the garnish until the last minute so it's fresh and appealing). To make a fancy dessert even fancier, add a scoop or two of premium ice cream — green tea ice cream would be ideal here — or serve the fruit with gorgeous bakery cookies or biscotti.
- Be sure to test all new recipes ahead of time. It will help to work through them once so you can be on auto-chef the evening of your big dinner.
How to Be a Calm, Collected Host
- Prep and cook as much as possible ahead of time. Start by making a shopping list that includes all the food, garnishes and paper goods you need (including flowers and wine, if you want them).
- Follow this with a “road map” or chart of what needs to be done and at what point in the run-up to your meal. If marinating, for how long? How far ahead should you make the soup? What cooking equipment and serving pieces will you need?
- Another benefit of prepping ahead is the advance warning you get should something go wrong — a back-of-the-rack spice lacks taste, a kitchen tool is missing or broken, you’ve forgotten to buy an ingredient. This gives you time to make the save.
- In spring and summer when you’re using more fresh produce, be sure to select foods at the peak of their flavor. For example, the Green Fruit Salad in Jasmine Tea Syrup is a perfect dinner finale, but it only succeeds if the honeydew and kiwi in it are ripe. (You can almost always find decent grapes, but to be safe, always sample one before buying.)
- The melon is definitely the trickiest part of the dish. It’s hard to know when a honeydew is ripe, and even produce managers don’t always know. In general, look for a melon that’s golden colored, not beige. It can even have a few darker freckles, but no green spots. Let your honeydew sit on the counter at home. When fully ripe and ready to cut, it will give off a beautiful floral scent. And never cut up an immature melon since it won’t continue to ripen.
- Finally, when you serve the meal, do everyone a favor, even if something didn’t turn out perfectly: Smile and enjoy it — and remember that your guests will be flattered and delighted to have such an elegant home-cooked meal.
To minimize your stress and maximize your own enjoyment of the dinner party, follow this schedule.
1 to 2 days ahead
- Shop for everything, including flowers and cocktail napkins.
- Prepare carrot soup; refrigerate in a covered dish.
- Cut up the honeydew, kiwis and grapes for fruit salad; refrigerate in separate plastic containers.
- Confirm pans for salmon and asparagus fit in your oven
- Check for sufficient plates, glassware and silverware and make sure they’re clean.
1 day ahead or morning of event
- Cook chickpeas, cool and store in a covered container.
Morning of dinner
- Chop pistachios for salmon.
- Break woody ends off asparagus; refrigerate stalks wrapped in damp paper towels. (For a more elegant-looking asparagus, you can leave the woody ends on and peel them. It takes a little more time but makes the dish look like those served in good restaurants.)
Several hours ahead
- Prepare jasmine syrup, add to the fruit and refrigerate. (Hold off on mint-leaf garnish until just before serving.)
- Set table
- Chill wine, if serving
A couple of hours before
- Place chickpeas in serving bowl.
- Arrange biscotti or cookies on plate, if serving.
45 minutes ahead
- Slowly reheat carrot soup; slice chèvre.
- Cook rice.
- Heat oven; cook asparagus and salmon (They may both be cooked ahead and served at room temperature, if you prefer.)
20 minutes before dessert
- Remove fruit salad from the refrigerator.
(MORE: The Right Wines to Serve With Dessert)
RECIPES FOR THE FOOLPROOF DINNER
These mildly spicy yet totally addictive chickpeas are a great conversation starter. Feel free to try your own variation, like a spicy-sweet version seasoned with chile powder and drizzled with melted unsweetened chocolate or one tossed with curry powder and toasted unsweetened coconut. Another method for making this snack is to toss a 14½-ounce can of chickpeas, rinsed and patted dry, in 2 tablespoons of oil and oven-roast them in a jelly roll pan at 450º F until crunchy and richly browned, 30 to 40 minutes. (Toward the end, watch that they don’t burn.) Put them out while you're finishing in the kitchen and/or as the guests arrive.
Makes 1 cup; serves at least 2
½ teaspoon fennel seeds
1 small shallot, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
Canola oil, for frying
1 cup canned chickpeas, rinsed and patted dry
¼ teaspoon Aleppo pepper (or mix equal parts cayenne and paprika)
Freshly ground black pepper
- Toast the fennel seeds in a dry skillet until golden-brown about 2 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally. Set aside.
- Lightly dust the shallot with flour, tossing to cover. In a small saucepan, pour in enough oil to measure 1-inch deep and heat on medium-high to 350° F. (Without a deep-fat thermometer, test by dropping a 1-inch cube of bread into the oil and if it browns in 60 seconds, you’re good to go. If much faster, let it cool a bit.) Add the shallot and cook over medium-high heat until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon to paper towels and drain.
- Reheat the oil to 350° F. Add the chickpeas and cook until crispy and golden brown (depending on how wide the pan is, it can take from 5 to 12 minutes). Remove with a slotted spoon to a metal or glass bowl. Add the Aleppo pepper, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Toss well and serve.
Velvet Carrot-Ginger Soup With Chèvre
There aren’t many ingredients in this vibrant orange-hued soup, so each should be the best you can find. Buy tender young carrots, high-quality butter or fruity olive oil and a flavorful stock. A few spoonfuls of rice, sauteed with the carrots, thicken the soup into a satiny potion. It’s delicious with or without the chèvre (sliced goat cheese) at the end. Leftovers may be refrigerated for up to five days.
Serves 4; makes 5 cups
4 tablespoons unsalted butter (or olive oil)
1 pound young carrots, peeled and diced
½ cup finely chopped shallots
¼ cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
3 tablespoons uncooked white rice
3+ cups chicken or vegetable stock
Salt and white pepper
3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
1 (3–4 ounce) log fresh goat cheese cut into ½-inch slices
- In a heavy saucepan, heat the butter over medium-high heat. Stir in the carrots, shallots, ginger and rice; cover tightly and sweat over medium-low heat until the carrots are very tender and the rice is completely soft, about 30 minutes.
- Scrape the mixture into the jar of an electric blender, add 3 cups of stock and puree until completely smooth. Pour the soup through a fine strainer and return to the pan. Season to taste with salt and pepper, stir in the chives and reheat until hot, adding more stock as needed. Ladle the soup into heated bowls, add a slice of goat cheese in the center of each and serve. (If you're making the soup ahead, stop after seasoning with salt and pepper and put in fridge.)
Dijon-Pistachio Crusted Salmon
This salmon dish goes from basic to brilliant with a quick brush of Dijon mustard and chopped pistachios sprinkled on top before being quickly oven-roasted.
2 (5- to 6-ounce) pieces salmon fillet with skin on
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon olive oil
½ tablespoon Dijon mustard
¼ cup finely chopped pistachios
Thinly sliced lemon wedges, to garnish
- Preheat oven to 425° F. Season the skinned side of the salmon with salt and pepper.
- In a heavy skillet that’s large enough to hold the fish comfortably, heat the oil on medium-high. Place the fish skinned-side-down in the pan and cook until lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn over, brush with Dijon mustard, sprinkle on the pistachios and transfer to the oven to roast, 7 to 8 minutes.
- Remove and, with the help of a spatula, slide the fish off the skin and serve garnished with lemon slices.
Roasted Asparagus With Parmesan and Lemon Zest
If you haven’t tasted oven-roasted asparagus made in a cast-iron skillet, you’re in for a treat. The beautiful green stalks gain a depth of flavor impossible to achieve by simply boiling or steaming. Topped with chopped Parmigiano-Reggiano, parsley and a little lemon zest, they’re irresistible.
½ pound medium asparagus, woody ends snapped off
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Coarse sea or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons grated fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 tablespoon minced flat-leaf parsley
½ teaspoon grated fresh lemon zest
- Preheat oven to 425° F.
- Heat a 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking, 3½ to 4 minutes. Add the asparagus, oil, about ½ teaspoon salt and black pepper to taste, and shake the pan to coat evenly. Transfer the skillet in the oven and roast until the stalks are bright green and crisp-tender with little char spots, about 10 minutes (longer if you prefer them softer), shaking the pan occasionally with an oven mitt.
- While the skillet is in the oven, combine the cheese with the parsley and lemon zest. When the asparagus is done, sprinkle the mixture over the asparagus, turning to coat evenly, then serve.
Green Fruits in Jasmine Tea Syrup
When honeydew, kiwi and green grapes are marinated in a syrup of sweetened jasmine tea and lime juice, the results are ambrosial. Savor the fruits alone or with a scoop of green tea ice cream. Biscotti would also be a welcome partner.
1 sachet high-quality jasmine tea
¼ cup sugar
Grated zest of ½ lime
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
1 kiwi, peeled and sliced
1 cup honeydew melon, in cut into small balls or cubes
½ cup seedless green grapes, stemmed, washed and cut in half
2 sprigs of fresh mint, for garnish
Optional: green tea ice cream
- In a small glass cup, bring 3 tablespoons of water just to a boil in your microwave oven. Add the teabag and steep for 4 to 5 minutes. Pour into a clean small glass measuring cup, pressing the teabag to extract as much liquid as possible and then discard it.
- To make the syrup: Add the sugar and lime zest, return to the microwave and cook on about 80 percent power until the liquid comes to a boil and the sugar dissolves, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove and stir in the lime juice.
- Combine the kiwi, melon and grapes in a bowl and pour on the syrup. Cover and refrigerate for 3 to 4 hours. Remove at least 20 minutes before serving, toss gently and garnish with mint. Serve alone or with a scoop of green tea ice cream.
Joanna Pruess is an award-winning writer and cookbook author whose passions include food, travel and entertaining.