I really love to have people over to eat, but I can never fully get my act together or choose my menus smartly enough so that I’m not stuck in the kitchen for most of the night. This is probably one reason potlucks were invented, to ease the burden of the hapless host. Another solution: Put your friends to work in your kitchen!
I mean that in the best way, of course. I don’t expect you to hand them a knife and, say, “Chop” or “Clean these dishes” (although if this works for you and your friends, can I be your friend, too?). No, I want you to let your friends get in on the action of customizing their meal. Not only does this lift some of the responsibility off you, but it also accommodates different diets and tastes. Plus, it’s fun, convivial and serves as an icebreaker or group activity that won’t have anyone feeling left out.
Here are a few ideas from our archives that you can use as the basis for your next DIY dinner (or breakfast, lunch or brunch) party:
Tacos. This is one of the easiest DIY routes, because there’s no cooking that has to happen after everyone assembles their meal. For vegetarians, you can’t do much better than these Tacos With Spicy, Smoky Lentils. For meat eaters, think about pulled pork in the form of Pernil Asado or shredded chicken, which can even use a store-bought rotisserie bird. When it comes to toppings, aim for a mix of different flavors and textures. Try to include something creamy (sour cream), something crunchy (jicama spears, pickled onions), something saucy (salsa — green, red or both), something spicy (also salsa, pickled jalapeños), something cheesy (queso fresco, any shredded variety you like) and something fresh (cilantro, lettuce). And there are no tortilla police here: Grab corn or flour, or both. Whatever your preference.
Pizza. This might be the first thing you thought of when I said DIY dinner party. The words “pizza” and “party” just go together. It’s definitely a great way to go, but it can be a bit more logistically challenging, especially if you’re only able to bake one pizza at a time. So be sure to have plenty of other nibbles to keep people sated, or come up with a creative way to make the wait work. As long as the crowd is game, rather than each person only eating their own pizza, try a little Iron Chef-style competition. Give each guest a chance to craft a pie, and then let the group sample and crown a winner. Try our recipe for the Easiest Pizza You’ll Ever Make, which lives up to the name. You probably don’t need my help coming up with toppings, but I’m always a fan of including some less expected cheeses (brie, Gorgonzola, pepper Jack) along with the usual suspects (mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, goat). Collect some meat (pepperoni, prosciutto, sausage), veg (onions, mushrooms, peppers), greens (arugula, basil) and exciting additions (hot honey, banana peppers). Done.
Omelets. The omelet station was one of the most popular spots at my college dining hall. Go to any hotel breakfast buffet, and you’re probably going to witness the same phenomenon. This strategy works best with a smallish crowd, unless you want to be stuck in front of the stovetop for a really long time. But if you can get two skillets going at once and/or recruit a willing cooking partner, by all means bring it on. Start with a basic recipe — this Omelet With Corn and Smoked Mozzarella is a good one to riff on — and tweak from there. Put out an array of diced vegetables, herbs, cheeses and meats. A green salad will round out the meal and give your guests something to nosh on while the eggs are cooking (a basket of muffins is always popular, too).
Chili. This one requires a bit more work up front but still allows for plenty of customization. I like the idea of Food section contributor Cathy Barrow’s Everybody’s Chili Verde, because the chili alone is vegan and gluten-free. The accompanying meatballs can be added by anyone who wants them. Put out an array of other toppings, including cilantro, sliced scallions, sour cream, pickled or sliced jalapeños and hot sauce. Something crunchy would be welcome, too, including tortilla chips or even Fritos. Crusty bread for dipping would work, as well.
Waffles. You can start churning out waffles even before your friends arrive (keep them warm on a wire rack in a low temperature oven). These Whole-Grain Buckwheat Waffles get the seal of approval from Ellie Krieger, which means they’re on the healthful side, which means you can have fun with what you put on them. I’m thinking fresh fruit, fruit compote, maple syrup, lightly sweetened whipped cream, chocolate chips, finely chopped nuts, granola and chocolate or caramel sauce if you’re feeling extra indulgent.
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