Dinner Party

A Make-Ahead Party Entree That Lets You Actually Enjoy the Party

September 21, 2017

Does anyone abide by the prevailing wisdom that one should never try a brand-new dish when entertaining? Yes, it’s sensible, but as the meal draws near I find myself itching to experiment with my friends as willing (or sometimes unwitting) test subjects.

Admittedly, my experiments don’t always succeed. I can recall more than my fair share of panicked early evenings, crouched over the stovetop trying to revive or salvage a recipe that’s quickly deteriorating before my eyes. It’s unnerving no matter what, but especially so if I don’t have a backup plan.

But those times when a new dish does turn out beautifully, I get to share the discovery with my friends. It’s all the more rewarding because meal’s success wasn’t guaranteed beforehand.

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I’m new to hostessing, and as I explore the waters, I’m learning to navigate the space between worthwhile risks and taking it easy. When I make a meal that’s overly foreign or ambitious—one that features an ingredient I’ve never used before, or involves preparing a vegetable in a brand new way—I’m often too worried about how things will turn out to enjoy myself. When I prepare the same meal I’ve made countless times before, I’m unharried but also disappointed I didn’t branch out.

For the best of both worlds, if I try something new, I make it just one component of the meal, and not the main dish. That way, if I test a dessert that’s a spectacular failure, I can always serve a bowl of fruit and coffee after dinner. Or if I try an appetizer or hors d’oeuvre that’s a flop, there are always plenty of other little nibbles I can throw together instead. No one really cares, and the meal itself isn’t ruined.

When I test new recipes, I try to pick ones that aren’t entirely unfamiliar. I play with new seasonings or ingredients, but avoid recipes that are unlike anything I’ve ever made before. If a dish involves some sort of technical skill that’s new to me, I’ll make it a quiet, Saturday afternoon project. That way if the result is a disaster I can eat it by myself, happy that it tastes better than it looks. For dessert with friends, I’ll make some variation of cake or pie that I’m reasonably certain I can pull off.

Another way I juggle my experiments is to make a main dishes that can be prepared, either in parts or altogether, ahead of time. Making at least some of the components in advance means I get to test and tweak as I go along; if something’s not working out, I have plenty of time to pivot and come up with a Plan B.

Party-ready in no time. Photo by Bobbi Lin

These stuffed zucchini are the perfect entertaining entree—satisfying without too much fuss or flash. The grain filling can be prepared a couple days in advance, which means that you can taste and adjust seasoning long before it’s time to get the zucchini into the oven. Also, you can partially cook the zucchini in advance, too. In fact, you could prepare the whole dish a day or two before dinner, and pop it into the fridge until right before friends show up. You could even prepare the dish (minus the final cooking time), freeze it, and defrost and cook the next time hungry friends or family show up unexpectedly.

Beyond how well it keeps, the meal is an easy crowd-pleaser. It’s got plenty of texture, with tender zucchini boats as a vessel and a chewy, nutty freekeh pilaf inside. The dish has sweet and savory notes, thanks to the addition of currants in the stuffing along with spices and garlic, and is flavorful enough to win over bold food fans, but isn’t spicy in a way that will alarm people with more sensitive palates. Plus, it’s a very, very good vehicle for sauce—I like a drizzle of lemon tahini dressing—which I think is a great quality in any meal.

You could prepare the whole dish a day or two before dinner, and pop it into the fridge until right before friends show up. Photo by Bobbi Lin

But my favorite part of this dish is how adaptable it can be. You can indulge your spirit of adventure as you go along, substituting bulgur, couscous or quinoa for the freekeh, or finely chopped dates or apricots in place of currants. You can top the meal with vegan cheese and broil it for 5-10 minutes instead of baking it for the final fifteen, or you can experiment with a different sort of sauce or gravy. No matter what experiment you choose, you’ll have the time and flexibility to pull it off, not to mention the boost of confidence you need to get creative with your next shared supper (I’m scheming about new ways to approach vegan eggplant parm, myself).

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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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Gena is a registered dietitian, recipe developer, and food blogger. She's the author of three cookbooks, including Power Plates (2017) and Food52 Vegan (2015). She enjoys cooking vegetables, making bread, and challenging herself with vegan baking projects.

1 Comment

soosie September 21, 2017
Violates one of the two lessons learned from my mother: Never try anything out for the first time on company. (Other lesson: There's a reason it's on sale.)