Entertaining is intimidating for a reason. It’s really difficult to feel like you need to be in two rooms at once, providing your guests with entertainment of some kind, all the while knowing that you have to serve them food that tastes good in a timely manner that didn’t completely stress you out to make. Entertaining is the scariest, though, when you try to tackle things that are far beyond the scope of what you’re (honestly) capable of. That’s why I think that the best trick is to serve something that you’ve already perfected. Your guests will feel much more comfortable if they feel that you’re relaxed, too. Whether you’re cooking brunch for your family at your apartment, dinner for your boyfriend, or potluck with your friends, I think it’s a great feeling to be able to whip up a few things with ease and with confidence. Not everyone is a cook, and not everyone loves to cook, but most everyone has to do it at some point. Having a sense of mastery in the kitchen—even if just for a couple dishes—will give you a great amount of pride.
Here are some dishes that would be great ones to attempt to master. They are versatile, reliable, and crowd-pleasing.
MACARONI AND CHEESE
There was a time that mac and cheese was either country-bumpkin or resigned to kids' menus, but thanks to some fantastic chefs who’ve led a revolution in changing people’s minds about simple comfort food, mac and cheese is now so versatile. This can be as relaxed or as fancy as you need it to be—and if it’s delicious, you’re golden no matter what. Another perk is that it doesn’t require a side dish. It’s just great as is with a bottle of beer or a big glass of wine. I love this recipe.
STRATA OR FRITTATA
Brunch can be really tricky, timing wise, and that’s why I’m a huge fan of those one-dish meals that can be prepped ahead without sacrificing quality or depth of flavor. Enter: no-fail strata that gets popped in the oven after sitting constructed in the fridge overnight. I also love the presentation of a good frittata with seasonal veggies and herbs—and served with a little dollop of crème fraîche and more herbs, it’s instantly elevated and looks really impressive.
FISH IN PARCHMENT
Not only is this an absolute ingenious way to cook a piece of fish, but it is easy-peasy for entertaining while looking like a boss in the process. I know how intimidating it sounds—en papillote—like so many French cooking techniques, but it’s honestly simple. I have a rather debilitating fear of overcooking a piece of fish that may have cost me $15 (halibut—my favorite fish), but this technique helps alleviate that fear. Do all of your prep ahead of time, or have your guests help you so they don’t feel uncomfortable staring at you while you work. Layer the fish over long pieces of sliced veggies, such as peppers, zucchini, or asparagus, with lots of herbs, maybe thyme, rosemary, or dill. Build your little pile on a piece of parchment, top it with olive oil and/or butter, fold it up to seal it, and throw it in the oven until it reaches the desired internal temperature. Then cut a slit into each parchment pocket, and serve on plates with crusty warm bread and a glass of white wine. Done and done. Perfectly cooked every time, and with so much moisture from being steamed with the butter and oil. Here's my take on this with halibut and pesto, and here's Ina Garten's spin.
GOOD SOUP OR CHILI
This is a no-brainer. Something simmering away on the stove makes your entire place smell amazing and feel like the coziest place on earth. I think a hearty vegetable soup or a great chili loaded with beans and spices can be a lovely gesture to offer someone in your home. I love the idea of a friend feeling comfortable enough to serve herself right out of the pot and top it with some freshly grated Parmesan or other cheese and a hunk of bread for dipping. It’s so rustic and homey, and the flavors you can achieve throughout the cooking process are incredible. The process is really soothing too, and by the time your guests arrive, you’re no longer tied up in the kitchen. Here and here are a couple of favorites.
PS: pictured is my simple French farm tablescape