How to throw a dinner party without being Martha Stewart

Describe your perfect day.

This exercise was the icebreaker one week at the beginning of the small group bible study that Katie and I were in back in college. For some people this might be a tough assignment. But for me, it was easy, and my answer is still the same 4 years later: to spend the day cooking and getting ready for a dinner party with friends.

For a lot of people, the idea of throwing a dinner party is one of the most stressful things--pretty much the opposite of a perfect day! But it can also be so fulfilling to host a gathering where friends can enjoy each other around the table. Food brings people together.

In this post, I'm going to share with you some dinner party hacks from a get-together I threw recently that will hopefully empower even the most anxiety-ridden host, and save some dollars while you're at it! I'll even give you a whole menu of recipes!

Keep It Simple Stupid. This age-old saying definitely applies to stress-free dinner parties. Keep the guest list small, the menu basic, and the booze cheap. Simple does not have to mean boring or bad!

[photobooth fun. just like the college days.]

The Guest List
My friends make fun of me because I tend to "socially construct" get-togethers. I don't just invite every person I know every time, I'm very strategic about it. That might sound mean, but it relieves a lot of anxiety when you don't have to worry about people having a good time or getting along.

I usually aim for around 5 or so guests. There isn't a real science to it--that's just how many fit nicely around my table! I also find it to be a good size for everyone to be together in one conversation. and it's a typical serving size for most recipes, so you don't have to mess with doubling anything ($$$) or running out of food.

For this dinner party in particular, it was myself and four friends from college getting together to catch up. My fellow Happy Eater Amanda was among the mix. :)

[cheese on carbs. doesn't get any better.]

The Menu
Again, keep it simple! Don't have a hundred courses with a zillion complicated recipes. Italian is often a good direction to go--almost everyone likes it, it's fairly simple and it makes a ton! So here's a breakdown of what I served at my dinner party, with full recipes and everything!

It's always nice to have some kind of snacky appetizer while people are arriving and you're wrapping things up in the kitchen. A cheese tray is a simple and solid choice.

I had out a plate of sliced French baguette from the Publix bakery section with two wedges of cheese from the deli section: a Publix-brand brie and a Publix-brand aged sharp cheddar. Simple, cheap (yay generic brands!) and no cooking required! All you have to do is put it all on a plate and set on the table! If you're feeling adventurous, you can grab a pack of sliced salami and proscuitto (also found in the deli) to serve with the cheese.

For the main, I chose to make my dad's baked ziti (recipe below). It's simple and really easy to prepare in advance and pop in the oven when it's time go! oh, and it's also so delicious and makes a ton. wins all around. I started cooking it when I got home from work, assembled the baking dish, and stuck it in the oven to heat through when people started to arrive.

Along with the pasta, I had Amanda bring a Caesar salad (recipe below). Another reason to go Italian--a Caesar salad is much more simple than having to dice and chop lots of veggies because the lettuce and dressing are the stars of the show.

Lastly, I had a loaf of sliced White Mountain Bread from the Publix bakery and wrapped it in foil to heat up and serve with the pasta.

 [ice cream sammies. easiest, most impressive dessert!]

For dessert, one of my guests requested ice cream cookie sandwiches. Sounds intimidating right? Not the way I do it :) I had break-n-bake chocolate chip cookies that I had baked and stuck in the freezer the day before. When it was time for dessert, I pulled them out along with a pint of vanilla ice cream and spoons, and everyone assembled their own! Fun and delicious and impressive and yet nothing from scratch! You could even buy cookies in the bakery and skip the baking step all together! No shame.

The Booze
Yet another way that Italian wins is that wine is cheaper and easier than cocktails! Most likely at least one of your guests will ask if they can bring something, and wine is a great thing to request so you're not shouldering the cost of a few bottles on your own. We ended up with two bottles of red (including my fave, a $10 Mouton Cadet Bordeaux from Publix) and a bottle of white. We had a special treat because one of our guests brought his homemade limoncello--perfect for Italian!

Okay. So I've given you some time- and money-saving tips for throwing a simple, easy-going dinner party. Now it's your turn! I hope you feel empowered to go out and host your own. It's all about spending quality time with people you enjoy, so just breathe and break out another bottle of wine and everything will be great.

Let me know how it goes!


My Dad's Baked Ziti
1 jar of your fave spaghetti sauce (somewhere are 32oz)
1 box of ziti noodles
1 green pepper, chopped
1 lb of Italian sausage (I like using ground better than links)
2 cups shredded mozzarella

Cook noodles to al dente.

Meanwhile, brown sausage in skillet. Remove from pan, and saute green pepper.

Heat sauce in saucepan until bubbling. Add cooked sausage and green pepper and heat through.

Grab a 13x9 dish. Put down a ladle of sauce and spread around the bottom of dish to keep noodles from sticking. Add half the noodles and spread evenly. Spoon half the sauce over top. Add the second half of the noodles. Spoon the rest of the sauce over top, then top with cheese. (You can stop here and stick in the fridge until you're ready to pop it in the oven!)

Bake uncovered at 350 until bubbly and heated through.

Amanda's Caesar Salad

Romaine lettuce, chopped
Your fave croutons
Diced avocado (her secret ingredient!)
Parmesan cheese
Your fave Caesar dressing (Amanda loves Brianna's)

TGIFriday: How to say things, food edition

Happy Friday, Eaters!

Today we thought we'd help you out with this informative BuzzFeed with 22 food words you might be pronouncing wrong. We'd never want you to look bad by saying "ex-press-oh" or "kwin-oh-ah" so check it out and see how many you already know!

Two of my faves:

Bon appetit and bon weekend!


Cooking hack: Passion Tea Lemonade

I came down with a delightful case of tonsillitis this week, and when the doc said I need to hydrate, all I wanted was Starbucks' Passion Tea Lemonade 24-7. I did the math and decided that plan would completely wreck my Starbucks budget for the month, so I did what any good Happy Eater would do: DIY PTL.

It's actually stupid easy.

I boiled one tea kettle worth of hot water.

Put 6 Tazo Passion Tea bags in a pitcher.

Add some honey (for some reason, I count to 12? This is not technically a measurement, but it seems good to me.)

Pour the water in and let it steep for a long while -- maybe 5-8 minutes? The nice thing about the Passion tea is it never gets bitter, just delicious. So don't feel guilty if you forget about it while you pick up the hairbrush bristles your labradoodle scattered all around your bedroom as a "welcome home from work" gesture. Er-- I guess that was just me.

Add ice and set the pitcher in the fridge to cool off.

When you're ready for a glass, pour half lemonade and half passion tea in your glass and enjoy.

Homemade Passion Tea Lemonade. Good for the tonsils, good for by the pool, good for the wallet.

Happy drinking, eaters.

Huge Mistake: Cast Iron Skillet

I scraped out the remainder of my Blackberry Cobbler, scrubbed the skillet clean and threw it in the dishwasher. I pulled it out the next day and realized:

Apparently, those instructions on my skillet that said soap and dishwasher can "damage the finish" actually means "do not, under any circumstance, use soap OR the dishwasher." My pan was so rusty, I thought I was going to have to throw it away and take the trash out before Vasily got home so I wouldn't have to explain to him that I'd bought a one-time-use skillet.

Instead of throwing the skillet away, I thought I could try to take Laura's advice via The Kichn.

Turns out, all you have to do to get from this to this

is scrub the rusty ol thing with a little warm soapy water,
dry thoroughly,
lightly grease with vegetable oil on a paper towel.
Heat your oven to 325,
put the newly clean, greased pan upside down in the oven for 1 hour.
Read a crazy-good book while you wait.
When the timer goes off, finish your page and turn the oven off, open the door to the oven.
Let it cool down, then take it out of the oven,

And we're all back in business!

Am I the only one who has done this? What have you learned the hard way?

Smoked trout spread

Ok, so this isn't a dip. But it's not really a spread, either. To me, spread implies a certain (gross) consistency that this just isn't. But I'm going with the word spread because I'm not sure what else to call it. But I eat it on bread... And sometimes just out of the bowl, by itself. When no one's looking.

Smoked trout...goodness.

This is one of those meals I like to make in the morning ahead of time for lunch or save for a night when I have no time or energy to spend in the kitchen. It's so easy, so quick and so incredibly delicious. And it's just out of the box enough to impress your friends.
I first had this delicious little dish at one of my favorite neighborhood spots in Brooklyn, Strong Place. It was served as an appetizer, but it quickly became my favorite thing on the menu and usually my dinner when we went there. The combination of the charred sourdough, the sweet, tart apples and the smoky, salty fish is to die for.

This recipe is either a meal for two or a snack for four to six. It goes a lil something like this:

Smoked Trout Spread
2 smoked trout filets (I used the brand Duck Trap, which can usually be found next to the smoked salmon at most grocery stores)
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 1/2 TBSP crème fraiche (look for it in where you'd find your fancy cheeses. Most stores carry this, but you might have to venture to a specialty shop or farmer's market for it)
Pepper to taste
Chives, to garnish
1 Granny smith apple, thinly sliced
4-6 slices grilled sourdough bread

Separate the fish from the skin (it peels right off) and place in a bowl- I use a fork to kind of mince the smoked trout. Once the fish is in tiny little pieces, add your lemon juice, crème fraiche (add another tablespoon if you want it extra creamy) and pepper and mix well. Garnish with chives.

Spread the trout mixture on the grilled sourdough and top with sliced apples. Enjoy!

Until next time,

Cooking hack: brownies edition

It's safe to say that my friends and coworkers would identify me as a baker. I love baking and find stress relief in it, and I even love the precision of it (the part that right-brained people hate!).

On weekends especially, you'll often find me trying my hand at some new and challenging recipe (like these French cruellers).

Whenever there is a potluck at work or a dinner party with friends, I'm automatically signed up to bring a dessert.

I've made dozens of cupcakes for parties and showers and the like.

When it comes to giving wedding gifts, I almost always go for a pretty cake stand or handy baking sheets.

But I have a confession to make. It's a dark secret. More specifically, it's a dark chocolate secret. and it's this:

These are hands-down the very best ever most perfectly delicious brownies I have ever had. and it's time for the world to know about it.

I know what you're thinking: "oh so you must doctor it up with your own fancy things, right?" Wrong. I wouldn't dream of messing with Ms. Crocker's perfection-in-a-box. I've tried my hand at dozens of from-scratch brownie recipes, and this box by far trumps them all.

This is the brownie for all people. Whether you like your brownies cake-y or fudge-y, whether you are into dark chocolate or not, these perfectly balanced brownies will make you roll your eyes at the ridiculous deliciousness of them.

Stop judging me! This is good news, y'all! I'm telling you that you no longer have to slave over melting chocolate and butter together, and you can stop searching for the perfect flour ratio. You can find this brownie mix at practically any grocery store and all you add are water, oil and 2 eggs. It's so cheap and takes no time at all!

I'm telling you, wooing your friends has never been easier. If you don't believe me, grab a box and try it for yourself. No matter your brownie proclivity, these will satisfy even the most picky palate.

Happy eating!


TGIFriday: Things to cook in August

It's August you guys! Can you believe that?!

I was trolling BuzzFeed this week and came across a glorious post on 31 things to cook in August, based on the yummy things that are in season as fall approaches.

I pinned the heck outta those recipes, here are some of my favorites to try soon!

Which ones catch your eye? Take advantage of the weekend and try them out for yourself

Happy eating!

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