Simplified menu construction for parties

Ever been to a dinner gathering where some friends cook and you can choose what you want from a menu that they’ve created? I seriously love this kind of party. Back in the day, a friend of mine prepared and served up made-to-order sushi for guests at a New Years Eve party. Along with great drinks and a wonderful atmosphere, the occasion was made extra special by those little printed menus and his simple but beautiful food presentations. Giving guests an option seems to keep everyone happy.

That is, of course, unless your menu is overly complicated. It may sound appealing to provide your guests with a list of all of your favorites to accommodate as many preferences as possible, but if you include too many wildly different options you’ll end up going crazy with all the preparation and planning. But, there’s a solution to keeping it simple while maintaining the happy variety of a menu.

Plan out entree and appetizer ideas that could share a base recipe, providing the central ingredients used for all the menu options. Cooking a large quantity of the base recipe gives you a platform from which you will build variations and menu choices. Here are some examples:

The following dishes use roasted tomatoes and garlic

  • Penne with Parmesan Sauteed Zucchini and Roasted Tomato Sauce (vegetarian)
  • Crispy Baked Trout Topped with Yogurt and Dill on a Bed of Arugula with Roasted Tomatoes

These recipes are listed at the end of this post.

The following dishes use oven braised chicken

  • Linguine with chicken and mushrooms in a tomato cream sauce
  • Chipotle chicken tacos with tomato-lime salsa and sour cream
  • Braised chicken and and Monterrey Jack cheese stuffed enchiladas topped with red and green chile sauces

These three recipes will appear in an upcoming SimpliFried post.

Look to your favorite restaurant menus for inspiration when writing your own. Be descriptive, so your menu can build anticipation in your guests when they read a detailed explanation of the care that goes into your cooking.

My first example above benefits by accommodating a vegetarian option, so I thought I’d use it to show how these recipes come together. What’s more, the base recipe can provide a theme for your gathering.

Roasted Tomatoes and Garlic

(makes roughly 4 portions for use in either dish)

  • 6 large tomatoes
  • 6 large garlic cloves still in their peel
  • 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper

Preheat oven to 325ºF and prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.

Remove stem from tomatoes, then cut them in half across their equator. Scoop out and discard seeds and pulp. Arrange tomatoes on baking sheet cut side up. Scatter garlic cloves on baking sheet as well. Evenly drizzle olive oil on tomatoes, then add salt and pepper.

Bake for one hour, or until tomatoes are browned, wilted, and are starting to fall apart. Cool and reserve for further applications.

Penne with Parmesan Sauteed Zucchini and Roasted Tomato Sauce (vegetarian)

(serves four)

  • 1 lb box penne pasta
  • 3 large zucchini, cut into 1/2 inch coins (roughly 1.5 lbs)
  • 1.5 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 Tbs Italian seasoning blend
  • 3 cups roasted tomatoes
  • 6 cloves roasted garlic
  • 2 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper

In a large pot, bring some salted water to a boil and add the penne. Cook for nine minutes, or until al dente.

Meanwhile, combine Parmesan cheese with Italian seasoning blend in a bowl and mix well.

Bring a pan up to temperature over medium heat. Add the zucchini in one layer (working in batches), then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add a big pinch of the cheese mixture to the tops of each piece of zucchini. Cook for five minutes, then flip each piece of zucchini so the cheese mixture is touching the pan. Cook for another two to three minutes, then use a plastic spatula to remove zucchini from pan. The cheese mixture should adhere and become crispy. Slice each piece in half and reserve.

Strain pasta and reserve a half cup of the cooking water.

Add the roasted garlic, roasted tomatoes, and reserved pasta water to the pot used for cooking the penne and bring to a simmer over medium low heat. Using a stick blender, puree into a slightly chunky sauce. Turn off heat, adjust seasoning, then add the red wine vinegar.

Divide pasta between the plates, add the sauce, zucchini, and any remaining cheese mixture.

Crispy Baked Trout Topped with Yogurt and Dill on a Bed of Arugula and Roasted Tomatoes

(serves four)

  • 1 lb trout filet cut into 1/4 lb portions
  • 3 Tbl extra virgin olive oil
  • the juice from half a lemon
  • 3 roasted garlic cloves
  • 10 cups arugula
  • 2 cups roasted tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh dill, chopped fine
  • 3/4 cup unflavored Greek yogurt
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper

Preheat oven to 500ºF and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.

Evenly arrange trout portions on baking sheet, leaving a two inch gap between each. Liberally rub 1 Tbl of the oil into each trout portion, then season with salt and pepper. Bake for roughly 11 minutes, turning once, or until the fish flakes easily. The surface should be bubbling and crisp. Let cool uncovered for four minutes.

In a large mixing bowl mash the roasted garlic into a paste using a fork. Then whisk this with the lemon juice and remaining 2 Tbl olive oil and a dash of salt. Add the arugula, roasted tomatoes, and dill. Toss to combine.

Divide the arugula mixture between the plates then add the trout. Top each portion with a generous dollop of the Greek yogurt and garnish with more dill.

One comment posted

  1. Posted by Shalin - 04/15/2011

    delicious – will have to keep this in mind for the future… :)

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