Throw a Cool Dinner Party Even If You Can't Cook

The art of an elegant but easy dinner party — the kind where everyone thinks you were just born the hostess with the mostess — lies in the sourcing. Shop smart before you hit the kitchen, and little is required of you on the spot.

By Sarah Copeland
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Woman at farmer's market

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You need some baguettes

It helps to start with a good baguette — or three, to be exact: one for toasts or crostini and two more for slicing as guests walk through the door, giving off that everything is in fact reliably fresh  vibe — without dirtying your dress. 

Slice the first baguette thinly on the bias, brush with butter and olive oil, then toast in the toaster or oven. Top it with anything you’d want to eat on toast: creamy ricotta, pea shoots and fresh cracked pepper, or thick schmears of butter and thinly sliced watermelon radishes. The simpler but flashier-looking the topping, the better (think fresh market radish sprouts, Easter egg radishes, and any other no-prep show stoppers). 

Cheese and accoutrement

Next, the cheeses: one unctuous, creamy wash-rind on a cheese platter gives you street cred. The others can be in the realm of Parmesan or aged gouda (if you can find a deep orange Mimolette, even better) — crystalline and subtly sweet with the perfect amount of saltiness. Fill the empty spaces with crackers, olives, salted almonds, fresh green beans and cucumbers. Pistachios, toasted almonds, dates or dried figs all work — anything you’d want to nibble on without having to put down your drink. Pitchers of water with lemon lend an unfussy elegant ease — and cue the bottle of chilled rosé for the win. 

So far, you’ve barely ruffled your apron and you’re halfway there. Boxed baby greens — young and hearty kales and mustard greens, for example — will get you another quarter of the way. Turn them into a surprising salad with thinly sliced fennel or radish, plus chopped market beets in a large wooden bowl. Lavishly drizzle in your best olive oil, fresh lemon juice, and Maldon salt (always, always Maldon salt), and, if you have a soft, crumbly cheese at the ready, throw a bit of that in, too.

Meanwhile, spend your efforts on one easy, sure-to-please dessert like flourless chocolate cake or blender chocolate pot du creme. Either can be made in a flash with good dark chocolate (or even chocolate chips, which melt fast), carrying you through the finish line in 40 minutes or less. Sprinkle the top with, yes, more Maldon salt and freshly whipped cream for the finish. You will never, ever regret whipping cream from scratch (but, do stop the whisk just shy of stiff peaks, especially if you want to whip your cream in advance).   

In less than two hours, you’ve used little more than your toaster, a sharp knife, a whisk and a few gorgeous serving platters — yet guests will leave happy and satisfied and in awe that you never once broke a sweat. If you’ve done things right, you won’t spend a minute regretting your offer to host and start finding excuses to do it again soon. 

Don't spend your time:

  • Running to specialty stores: Farmer’s markets are a great one-stop shop for fresh greens and herbs, bread and cheese as well as accoutrements like handmade pickles or pies.
  • Making cooked hors d’oeuvres. Small, single-bite foods are for weddings and office cocktail parties. Leave those to the caterers. 
  • Washing and tearing or cutting heads of greens. Opt for high-quality, pre-washed hearty baby green mixes or baby kale — ideally from the farmer’s market.
  • Marinating or cooking. If you want to serve meat, try a make-head slow roasted pork shoulder or rump roast and slather on a potent herbaceous chimichurri sauce at the end.

Do spend your time:

  • Hitting the farmer’s market for easy, dazzling wins (think: pea shoots, watermelon radishes and hand-made pickles) to top toast and adorn grazing platters and cheese boards.
  • Swinging by the best bakery for impeccably fresh baguette.
  • Toasting and sea-salting nuts (an immediate five-minute upgrade that counts).
  • Making one reliable, crowd-pleasing dessert. It doesn’t need to be beautiful, iced, tiered or time-consuming — but it should be decadent. 
  • Whipping your own cream (which turns anything from banana bread to a bowl full of berries into dessert).

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