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Making dinner, especially when you're cooking for a crowd, is as much a balancing act as it is simple and straightforward cooking. It’s the balancing of oven space and of dietary requirements; of food and wine; of cutlery and cookware and the creative alternatives you devise when you run out of those.
When there is so much to think about, I take comfort in a few staple side dishes. And while there might not seem to be much glory to be had in a tray of crispy potatoes, or a dish overflowing with dark, leafy greens with dressing, it is these kind of details that have an uncanny way of making a meal feel complete. A table set with colorful dishes, even if they are quite simple, will always feel welcoming.
So, when cooking for dinner parties, I plan my menu. I ponder extensively over whether I should roast a chicken or bake a fish; whether dessert should be pudding or tart; and then I always add a salad, potatoes in some shape or form, and what I call "a chunkier side" to the mix.
Fresh and light, a salad brightens everything up. Make it a little more fancy, with pecorino shavings, toasted nuts, and fine slices of blood orange, or keep it simple with an olive oil, salt, and lemon dressing.
- Green: fresh, green leaves in a mix of size, shapes, and textures (a handful of baby spinach, some watercress, arugula, and a few torn leaves of Romaine). I serve it year-round, with everything from roast chicken to fish.
- Fennel salad: shavings of fresh fennel with a drizzle of olive oil and salt (also very nice with lemon and pine nuts, or pomegranate and a crumbling of strong cheese). Fennel salad, somehow, is a summery dish, so it pairs with fish and lunches in the garden.
- Bitter leaves: chicory with a salty anchovy dressing and roasted hazelnuts. The ruby red leaves make for a nice counterbalance to rich meats and have a lovely, autumnal look.
Potatoes are cheap, cheerful, and everyone enjoys eating them. (That's a fact.) How I choose to cook them depends on what else is on the menu, but mostly on how much oven space I have to work with once the main and the dessert have been accounted for.
If I’m cooking for a large crowd, I will opt for something like pommes dauphinoise that can be prepared well in advance so that I can relax on the night of the dinner. If I’m pressed for oven space, I’ll make some kind of variation on potato salad where the potatoes are cooked on the stove.
- Rosemary roasted potatoes: chop potatoes into small pieces, toss with olive oil, salt, and herbs, and leave to cook until delightfully crispy. This timeless classic is exceptionally good all year round.
- Pommes dauphinoise: a little more fancy and a little more labor-intensive than simple roast potatoes, as there is some fine slicing involved. The copious amounts of cream and butter involved make this particularly well-suited to cozy winter nights and a perfectly seared steak.
- New potato salad: for picnics, barbecues, late summer evenings, and days when you have not space left in the oven for roasting trays. This recipe, with fine slices of lemon, heaps of parsley, olive oil, and salty samphire is a favorite of mine. But you can really make it any way you like.
The chunkier side
More often than not, if I’m cooking, I skip an appetizer course. Instead, I offer some snacks with the drinks, and then a good main course followed by dessert. This is mostly because I find it disrupting to have to clear and wash plates just after you sit down to table.
The chunkier sides are dishes that could almost count as starters: They add a little depth to the meal and often double as an alternative to the main course for guests with particular dietary requirements (vegetarians, say). I lay them out on the table as everyone sits, and we eat them alongside the rest of dinner.
- Tomato and mozzarella salad: With fresh basil and a generous dousing of olive oil, this dish is best for summer.
- Burrata (or mozzarella or soft goat cheese) with a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds: This has a more wintry feel to it, but is just as easy to toss together.
- Red onion tarte tatin: If I'm cooking for large numbers, I bake a couple of these and lay them out on the table for everyone to nibble on at will. It's delicious served hot straight from the oven, or you can make it earlier in the day and serve at room temperature.
In the summer months, I might make a baby tomato and balsamic or courgette and mint tarte tatin. I have also been known to bake all three, then serve them with a plate of mozzarella, a new potato salad, and a big bowl of crisp red chicory.
And somehow, you have yourself a dinner of sides.