Article by Stephanie Grant, Pictures by Ali Lamoureux
Even before I could throw dinner parties, I loved them. As a little girl, I would cuddle up with my mom’s tattered copy of the Joy of Cooking, which had an entire section on entertaining—from folding napkins to setting the table. That book sparked an excitement for hosting that hasn’t waned. And after hosting a few dinner parties over the years, I’ve learned a few tips to mitigate any potential stress you might encounter while planning your own.
Planning the Guest List
When planning a dinner party, I usually start with the guest list and how many people I can accommodate in my space. From there, I considered chemistry; because the best pairing for any dinner is great conversation. And to ensure the night is full of laughter, I put on my matchmaker hat to ensure the arrangement of the group is just right.
Planning the Menu
Perhaps my favorite part of planning a dinner party is putting together the menu. I always take food restrictions into account, including planning for any kids who might attend. Usually, adults will happily eat scallops, but a toddler might not. From there, I think about seasonal dishes. In fall, I love making braised or roasted foods like short ribs or chicken. While spring and summer is a perfect time to showcase fresh produce or my grilling abilities. Because fall is on my brain, I chose pesto roasted chicken, herby mashed potatoes, Brussel sprouts, and tri-colored carrots topped with a gremolata.
For big gatherings, a spreadsheet is your friend. I usually create a tab for my menu, grocery items, cook scheduling, and the serving dishes and pots/pans I’ll need. I also take the time to think about the table—candles, flowers, tablecloth, runner, etc. Be sure to read through any recipes you plan to use because sometimes surprises lurk in the details.
A dinner party isn’t complete without beer. I love a beer that’s versatile and able to go with everything I plan to serve for dinner. Enter Tripel, a golden ale brewed with a 2-row barley blend and hopped with Nugget and Hallertau. The result is complex, yet dry finish with aromas of passion fruit and honey. Tripel is delightful on its own, but even better when paired with food. Tripel pairs excellently with herbs, which are found in the pesto chicken, mashed potatoes, and gremolata. While the carbonation cuts through any fat, refreshing your palate for another bite.
Executing the Plan
Queue Eye of the Tiger; it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work. The day before the party, prepare your kitchen and dining table. That includes clearing the sink and dishwasher, putting out any serving dishes, and making anything that can be cooked or prepared in advance. One game changer for me has been adding my cooking schedule to the calendar on my phone, so I can stay on task. From there, it’s all about executing the plan. And trust me, your plan is your best friend. It keeps you from forgetting anything and helps you know if you’re on schedule or not. I highly recommend cleaning as you go and setting up your mise en place for each dish you plan to make.
My favorite part of this menu is its versatility. If you have a favorite chicken or brussels sprout recipe, use it. The steps below are moreso a guide to know what to cook and prepare first—think of them as steps for the dance rather than a recipe. The amounts you need for the mashed potatoes, carrots, and brussels will depend on how many people you plan to have over, and the amount of leftovers you want (and you’ll want leftovers).
I started by making compound butter, since it needs at least three hours to chill in the fridge. Using a fork, combine softened butter with thyme, parsley, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and garlic. Take the mixture and add it to a piece of parchment paper and roll into a log. Place in the fridge to chill and harden.
Next, let’s tackle the chicken, since it requires the most prep and cook time. Start by preheating the oven to 450°F (or whatever your favorite recipe calls for). I like to spatchcock my chicken because it cooks quickly, and it’s easier to season. Start by removing any bits from the chicken’s cavity. With a sharp knife or kitchen scissors, cut out the backbone. I also cut through the breastbone to separate the chicken into two halves, which is unnecessary but makes the chicken easier to work with.
Then, either make or purchase store-bought pesto. I used Samin Nosrat’s recipe, which requires a pestle and mortar—a blender or food processor is also fine.
Season the chicken, covering the skin and flesh with salt and pepper. Then, spread the pesto underneath the skin, from the breast to the legs.
Lay the chicken on a wire rack set in a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet. Roast chicken until the breast reaches 150°F using an instant-read thermometer, about 45 minutes.
While the chicken roasts, prepare the vegetables. Place a large pot of water on to boil. Peel and dice the potatoes. Once the water boils, add salt and the potatoes.
Peel the carrots using a vegetable peeler and add to a baking sheet with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Trim and halve brussels sprouts and add to a separate baking sheet with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Toss into the oven to roast for about 20-25 minutes.
Next, make the gremolata by finely chopping parsley, thyme, and oregano. Using a microplane, grate in one clove of garlic and the zest of one half of a lemon. Put aside in a bowl.
Once the chicken is done, remove from the oven and allow to rest. By this time, the potatoes should be tender. Drain the potatoes and put into their serving bowl. Mash with compound butter, milk, and sour cream. Check on the vegetables. Remove from the oven once tender. Place carrots and brussels in a serving dish. Add gremolata to carrots. Then, wave your hands from side to side because dinner is done!
You’re almost at the finish line! The food is done. The table is set. And even better, the kitchen doesn’t look like a disaster. This is the perfect time to freshen up, because after cooking all day, you can feel pretty grubby. Then, put on your favorite party playlist, and pop a wax melt into my candle warmer. And from there, all that’s left is welcoming your guests.
Since implementing these steps into my process, I’ve been able to rest before guests arrive, which includes cracking open a Tripel while resting my feet.