Whether you are a novice cook or a gourmand, having a few simple, well-thought out menus that you can always rely on is the key to effortless entertaining. These basic recipes become the backbone of my cooking repertoire, and are the ones that, in moments of panic, save me from disaster.
Among them, there is nothing as easy, reliable, and comforting as a roast chicken dinner.
The other day, I invited two couples to join me for dinner. It wasn’t a rare occurrence, as we are all part of the same pod and have been seeing each other regularly during the last few months. But as life has a funny way of adding difficulty, that same day I had meetings away from home and was scheduled to return an hour before my guests arrived.
I didn’t want to change the date or cancel dinner, so I planned a classic, tried-and-true menu: an array of hors d’oeuvres that double as a first course, a dressed-up roast chicken with potatoes and spicy sausages, simply roasted Brussels sprouts with pancetta, and chocolate pots de creme for dessert. Impossible? No. Totally doable. Read on!
To pull off the full menu with limited time, I prepared some components in advance, and the rest just before friends were due to arrive.
The day before, I made the pots de creme to keep in the fridge overnight, which also helps the flavors meld together. I organized the bar (except for the ice), set the table, arranged the flowers, and fluffed up the pillows. The next day, I went to my meetings well assured that, short of a major crisis, it was all going to be just fine.
I returned home, took off my coat, and prepared the cold hors d’oeuvres: Smoked salmon with cream cheese on toast, baby tomatoes dipped in seasoned salt, poached shrimp with spicy cocktail sauce, chunks of parmesan cheese and slices of salami, and cucumber rounds and crisps with dip. I also pulled out some nuts, olives, and cheese crackers, which only involve opening packages to serve.
A good rule of thumb is to serve 4 to 6 hors d’oeuvres for cocktail parties, and just 2 to 3 for dinners at home, but in this case, since they double as a first course, I decided to be a bit more generous! I set everything in separate platters or bowls on a large tray to take to the living room once everyone arrived.
I had organized the bar with the basics: wine, vodka, bourbon, a few mixers, and slices of lemon. This is a home bar, not a cocktail lounge where fancy concoctions are expected! I typically pour the first drink, and then invite guests to make their own. The key is to make the bar accessible; just keep an eye on it and re-stock the ice as needed.
Then, I preheated the oven, and prepared the chicken, potatoes, and sausages in one roasting pan and the Brussels sprouts with pancetta in a separate one. I put everything in at the same time, and stepped away to let the oven do the work, with the satisfaction of knowing it would be done just as guests were finishing their first course and ready for the main event.
In the meantime, I had time to light candles, turn on the music, and get dressed. Table is set, check. Bar organized, check. Candles lit, check. And finally, a well-deserved glass of wine—still with minutes to spare before guests arrived. Cheers!
RECIPE: Chocolate Pots de Crème
Victoria de la Maza is an award-winning cookbook author, columnist, and international TV host. Passionate about great food, she combines American traditions with her European heritage to create classic-with-a-twist recipes and ideas for stylish entertaining at home.