I don’t know what it is about the day of a dinner party, but it’s like there’s some sort of time warp where hours just get sucked away from you. You’re happily cooking away, thinking you’ve got hours left—when you glance at the clock and realize, “Oh bleep, my friends are going to be here in 20 minutes and I still need to pick out a cute outfit, I haven’t set the table, the kitchen looks like a war zone, and the wine’s not out!”
So, I’ve learned the secret is to get everything done the day before—I’ll set the table, get the drinks ready, and take out all of the serving bowls I’m planning on using (I go so far as to label each one with a Post-it, but I’m a little OCD when it comes to party planning!).
I also make sure I serve a meal that’s 90% make-ahead, so I’m not slaving away in the kitchen when my friends arrive at the door. Here’s one of my favorite go-to menus—it’s simple, the vast majority of it can be made ahead of time, and your guests will rave about your incredible hostess skills when they leave that night!
Note: This menu will serve six to eight people, depending on how hungry your friends are!
Prosciutto with Melon
Before your guests arrive: Chop the melon into bite-sized cubes (or use a melon baller) and wrap each one with a slice of prosciutto. A small melon should get you approximately 36 cubes—I plan on at least three per person, but one melon will feed more than enough.
You do need to make these the day of, as the prosciutto will go soggy otherwise, but they’ll be fine if you keep them in the fridge for an hour or two. Put them on a pretty platter, wrap with some Saran wrap, and you literally can grab it out of the fridge as guests arrive.
Spaghetti & Meatballs, served with Garlic Bread
2 tbsp olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 cup white wine or sparkling wine
3 tbsp tomato paste
3 28 oz cans of crushed tomatoes
2 tsp salt
2 tsp pepper
1 tsp red pepper flakes (or more if you’re feeling spicy!)
Up to three days before: Heat the oil over medium heat in a large pot. Add the onion and sauté for a couple of minutes, then add the garlic and continue to cook for five minutes, stirring every now and then so the onion and garlic don’t burn. Add the white wine or sparkling wine, and scrape any bits from the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon. Then add the tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes, give the sauce a good stir, and reduce the heat to low so it can simmer slowly for 45 minutes.
1 lb ground beef
1 lb ground pork
1 lb ground turkey
1 medium onion, very finely chopped or grated using a box grater
1 handful of chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 handful of chopped fresh basil
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano Reggiano
1/2 cup Panko bread crumbs
2 large eggs
2 generous squirts of ketchup
4 garlic cloves, minced
Few pinches of crushed red pepper flakes
1 1/2 tsp of salt
1 1/2 teaspoon of pepper
Up to three days before: While your spaghetti sauce is simmering away, you can now give your meatballs some love. Start by preheating your oven to 400 degrees. In a large bowl, combine the onion, parsley, Pecorino Romano, bread crumbs, egg, ketchup, garlic, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper. Add the beef, pork, and turkey, and use your hands to combine the meat with the rest of the ingredients. (If you’re squeamish you can use a fork, but your hands really are the best tool—they’ll incorporate all of the ingredients without overworking the meat.)
Take small handfuls of the meat mixture and roll into whatever size meatballs you choose. Place your meatballs on a baking sheet, lined with parchment or nonstick foil, and bake for 25-30 minutes. (If you have a cookie rack lying around, place it on top of the baking sheet and put the meatballs on top to cook—the fat will drain away better.)
Once the meatballs are cooked through, carefully transfer them into the spaghetti sauce, turn off the heat, and set aside to cool. Store in your fridge until party time.
On the night of your party: Pop the meatballs and sauce into a 350 degree preheated oven and heat for 30-40 minutes. Cook two pounds of spaghetti in a large pot, drain, and serve in a huge bowl with the meatballs and sauce poured on top. I like to place a chunk of Pecorino with a small handheld grater on the table, so everyone can help themselves to as much cheese as they please!
2 Ciabatta loaves (or any deliciously crusty bread you can find)
2 sticks of butter, room temperature
12 cloves of garlic, finely minced
The day before: Cut the bread in half lengthwise. Mix together the butter and minced garlic, then spread on the bread in an even layer. Put each loaf back together, then wrap in foil and keep refrigerated until an hour or so before you’re ready to eat. You can then leave the garlic bread on your countertop and let it get to room temperature.
On the night of your party: Your oven will be already be at 350 degrees from reheating the meatballs, so pop in the garlic bread for 15 minutes. Remove your meatballs and set aside, turn your oven to broil, and keep a close eye on the garlic bread as the top turns golden brown and crunchy.
2 bags pre-washed arugula
4 Belgian endives, chopped into bite-sized pieces
1 head of radicchio, sliced into thin slices
Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano Reggiano (use whatever one you use in the meatballs)
Juice of one lemon
1/2 cup of olive oil
Good pinch of salt
A couple of grinds of pepper
On the afternoon of your party: Shake together the dressing ahead of time in a small container. Separately, keep the arugula, endive, and radicchio in the salad bowl you’re using that night, with a damp paper towel on top to keep everything crisp. You’ll want to store the various components of the salad separately in the fridge until you’re ready to serve.
Just before you tell everyone that dinner is ready: Toss the salad together with a few tablespoons of dressing, then finish by shaving some shards of Pecorino Romano cheese on top using a vegetable peeler.
Vanilla Ice Cream Served with Peaches tossed in a Raspberry Puree
1 bag frozen raspberries, defrosted
1 tbsp sugar
8 perfectly ripe peaches
Vanilla bean ice cream (enough for two healthy scoops per person)
A day or two before: Blend the defrosted raspberries and sugar in a food processor or blender until pureed. Pour through a sieve into an empty bowl, using the back of a spoon to help push the liquid through (this gets rid of the seeds). Store in the fridge until the night of your party.
Before your guests arrive: Chop the peaches into bite-sized pieces and toss in the raspberry puree. Store in your fridge until you’re ready for dessert.
After dinner: Place two scoops of ice cream into each bowl and top with a big spoonful of the peach and raspberry mixture. Serve immediately.
Photos courtesy of Niki Lowry.