When I first started cooking, I resented the idea of making food ahead for a dinner party. I wanted my food to be fresh! Cooked in the moment! Assembled minutes before the guests arrive!
It’s only recently, though, that I’ve started to see the virtue in prepping the food ahead. One: if you’re making a soup or a stew or a chili, that’ll only taste better after spending a night in the fridge. And two: you’ll be way less harried when your guests arrive. So here’s how to prep a dinner party a day ahead (with two dinner party examples).
The first dinner party, for my friends Ryan, Andrew, Ricky and Travis, was centered around a White Lasagna that my friend Morgan shared right here on this very blog (click “White Lasagna” for the recipe).
The day before the dinner party, I assembled the lasagna:
I covered it in aluminum foil and placed it in the refrigerator and I was done.
I also made a salted caramel sauce for my planned dessert (a brownie sundae) and refrigerated that too.
A few hours before the dinner party, I prepped the mustard breadcrumbs that go on top of the white lasagna and I prepared the brownie batter (from Martha Stewart’s baking book), poured it into a baking pan (lined with parchment) and covered with foil and refrigerated. Just before the guests arrived I cleaned and chopped radicchio and arugula for a salad (with Parmesan, lemon juice, and olive oil).
Into the oven the lasagna went, the guests sat down to salad and wine, and when the lasagna came out…
…in went the brownies. By the time we finished the entree, we had warm brownies ready to be topped with vanilla ice cream and salted caramel sauce:
And all of that was done ahead: no stressful in-the-moment worrying. If only you could do the dishes ahead, I’d be set!
For the other dinner party, which I cooked for Craig’s parents and uncle this past Thursday, I started the night before by seasoning two chickens that I’d first spatchcocked:
That means, I cut the backbones out, flattened them on a cookie sheet, and seasoned them with a mixture of coriander seeds, fennel seeds, cumin seeds, and black peppercorns (about 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon of each) that I toasted in a dry skillet until fragrant and then blitzed in a coffee grinder. I also seasoned with lots of salt, covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated.
This tactic—seasoning meat the night before you cook it—is one championed by Judy Rodgers in “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook” and it does wonders for whatever meat you’re cooking. The salt and spices seep their way into the protein so that by the time you cook it and serve it, every bite is flavorful.
Again: another reason to start a day ahead.
The morning of the dinner party, I started by baking my favorite flourless chocolate cake which I allowed to cool before taking out of the cake pan; then, in the early afternoon, I made Ottolenghi’s cous cous (minus the butternut squash) and a salsa verde in my mortar and pestle. And right before everyone arrived, I sliced fennel for the fennel salad in that same Ottolenghi post.
Once everyone got here, I popped the chicken into a 425 oven and prepped the salads. The air filled up with chickeny goodness and 50 minutes later, I checked the chicken temp and it was done (165 between leg and thigh). Here’s the finished entree:
And for dessert, I served that flourless chocolate cake much the same way I served the warm brownies: with ice cream and that same salted caramel sauce.
True, I didn’t cook everything ahead at either of these dinner parties, but getting a leg up certainly made me more relaxed and, more importantly, the food more delicious.
So learn from someone who’s seen the light: start your dinner party a day or two ahead and discover the joys of being an unharried host or hostess.