Make Ahead

3 Springy, Make-Ahead Menus for an Any-Day-of-the-Week Dinner Party

May 16, 2017

Our Test Kitchen recently got an upgrade with a brand-new KitchenAid® Counter-Depth French Door Refrigerator. It’s got loads of features that make preparing great food and hosting friends easier, so we're putting it to use for dinner party planning.

I think it’s safe to say that we’re finally to the part of the year when it’s acceptable to hardly ever close the doors when you’re at home. It makes my days better, to hear and see and smell outside while I'm cooking, or reading, or just sitting still. I’ll only shut them when it gets cold again, later in the year, and even then I’ll pile on sweaters until it’s really ludicrous to continue.

Won't you come over? Our Test Kitchen's KitchenAid fridge is stocked and ready. Photo by James Ransom

Having the doors open on a warmish night really, truly conjures the best welcome for friends stopping in for dinner: Music wafting into the street, the smell of something bubbling away even before you step foot inside, laughter and warm light spilling out. I look forward to doing just that all spring and summer long, hanging out in the kitchen with glasses of wine while I finish cooking. (It's usually not that long though—I'm a prep-ahead-of-time-and-pull-it-out-of-the-fridge kind of gal.)

2 easy make-ahead dinner party tips: Store a chilled dessert already plated in the fridge (like we're doing in our KitchenAid fridge's Under-Shelf Prep Zone) and stick your pre-prepped cheese and meat tray right in there, too (like that Full-Extension Pull-Out Tray you see). Photo by James Ransom

Lately, I've been prescribing to the make-ahead strategy for the whole meal, and that way, I get to hang out with my guests before everything goes down (hence those glasses of wine in the kitchen). And usually, there's a lot less clean-up after the whole ordeal is done. It makes even a Wednesday night party sound like a good idea—so here are 3 make-ahead menus for springy, colorful dinners to get you going.

Menu #1: Spring Market Bounty, Cha-Ching

Here's what's for dinner: All the foods that shriek "spring!"

Make this ahead of time: Cook the lamb and the tomatoes the day before and store in the fridge separately; make the orzo as well (you could cook this the day of if you wanted to serve it warm). Make the salad dressing, thinly shave the fennel, and chop your alliums, storing everything in the fridge. Pulse the chickpea salad and store in an airtight container in the fridge. Make the strawberry cake a day or two ahead of time and chill it.

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What to cook and assemble day of: Slice rye bread and spoon chickpea salad onto each piece, along with lettuce and avocado (or just set out a full bowl and let guests add all this themselves). Set out a cheese plate, too, if you've got a slew of people coming. Put out bottles of dry rosé wine for people to serve themsevles. Combine the lamb and the tomatoes in a pot together and cook until finished. Chop olives, greens, and dill (instead of cilantro) in the meantime, and crumble feta, too. Spread the orzo out on a large platter and serve the lamb over it, topped with the olives and feta. Toss the salad with the dressing. When dinner's done, serve the cake cold with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Menu #2: Green is Gold, Even in Dessert

Here's what's for dinner: Mint and heat and greens and tea.

Make this ahead of time: Whip up the poussets, simple syrup for the limeade, and peanut salad dressing a couple days beforehand. Make the chicken salad the day before. Store everything in the fridge.

What to cook and assemble day of: Squeeze your limes a few hours before people arrive and mix it with the simple syrup in a pitcher. (You'll set it out with the club soda and extra mint, and maybe a little gin, for people to make their own drinks at the dinner table.) Chop the kale, mint, and nuts; toss with the peanut dressing before people arrive—it's cool to let it relax for a bit. Reheat the chicken salad according to Merrill's notes:

If you want to make this ahead of time, or if you end up with leftovers in the fridge, I recommend warming the salad gently before serving (cold rice noodles can get quite stiff). You can either warm the salad for 30 to 45 seconds in the microwave, or put it in a large sauté pan over medium low heat, tossing frequently, until it starts to loosen and warm, about 5 minutes.

Whip some cream to top off the poussets, and pull them out of the fridge right when you want to serve them after dinner.

Menu #3: There Are Probably Kids Involved

Here's what's for dinner: Dressed-up enchiladas—filled with spring produce—and cookies!

Make this ahead of time: Brew your iced tea a few days ahead of time and store it in the fridge. Make (or buy) enchilada sauce, and fill tortillas with the likes of shredded chicken (or pork), greens, mushrooms, and more. Lay them down with sauce in a pretty baking dish and chill until you're ready to bake. Whisk together the slaw dressing. Make the cookie dough the day before and rest it in the fridge (it makes them better, I promise).

What to cook and assemble day of: Slice onions and cabbage for the slaw and toss it with the dressing so the flavors will meld for a while. You can top it off with fresh cilantro or parsley at the table. Bake off the cookies before people arrive—they need time to cool and this way you won't have to attend to them during dinner. Set out the pitcher of iced tea, chips, and salsa as people arrive—and stock lemonade and bourbon (out of reach of tiny hands!) at the bar for adult Arnold Palmers. Assemble your enchiladas according to these guidelines and bake them, then take them straight to the table from the oven.

The KitchenAid® Counter-Depth French Door Refrigerator is a pretty rockin' addition to our kitchen, with its adjustable shelves and under-shelf storage, plus its wood-trimmed tray for pre-prepped cheese and meat boards that we use for entertaining in the office. KitchenAid is our new Test Kitchen partner, so you'll be seeing them around these parts more often.

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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