EASY ITALIAN NIGHT DINNER PARTY PLAN PLUS MY GO TO VINAIGRETTE RECIPE

YES. YOU CAN HAVE PEOPLE OVER FOR DINNER.

(And it will  be fast, easy & delicious!)

These days, we tend to meet up with friends at a favorite restaurant rather than go to the trouble of having them over. Most of us just don’t have the energy to do all of the running around and planning we think it takes to have people over, especially during the holidays when we are already sooooo busy. The reality is you don’t have to spend days in the kitchen preparing for a dinner party. Of course, you CAN go to a lot of trouble  if that makes you happy. But you absolutely do not have to. Trust me. Most people love having other people cook for them. Here's what I often do for an impromptu party to save time, save money, and so I can spend more time with my guests.

Don’t hesitate to make this into a party with an agenda. It is perfect for a school or fund-raising committee meeting, office team planning session, new hire welcome, small group or church group meeting, or a wonderful 'welcome to the neighborhood party' for new neighbors. It’s so easy you can even execute this party on a Friday night after working all day.

STEP BY STEP

  1. Set the date. Call, email, text, or send out a casual invitation or personal note to invite your guests.
  2. If you’re not inviting the children, be sure and mention that you are sending your own brood to your sister’s house for the evening.
  3. Clean the house the day before so all you have to do is a quick sweep before guests arrive. If you are decorating, go ahead and place candles, vases, etc. the day before, too.
  4. Make sure you have plenty of paper goods: toilet paper, paper towels, tissue, etc.
  5. Shop the day before so party day is easy.
  6. Make a playlist of old school favs: Sinatra, Dean Martin, and other Italian crooners.
  7. Make dessert ahead of time, too, so you just have to scoop or plate it.
  8. Chill any white wine you are serving two hours before guests arrive.
  9. Greet guests with a glass of something sparkling and small bite: crostini, a cheese board, olives, or breadsticks are all simple and delicious.

MENU: Make it easy on yourself. Skip a few steps by incorporating frozen lasagna. I'm a big fan of Stouffer's and they've recently launched their Kitchen Cupboard Commitment which means the ingredients you'll find in Stouffer's are like the ones you'd find in your own kitchen! I like that.

Add a quick salad with a fast homemade dressing  and you’ll pull this dinner party together in record time. When you grate a good quality (meaning real) Parmesan cheese over the top of your frozen lasagna and sprinkle it with fresh herbs at the end,  nobody will ever know (or care) that you didn’t make it from scratch. Add a loaf of warm garlic bread and a few bottles of wine and you've got an Italian night dinner that anyone will love. 

MAKE IT SPECIAL: If I am serving family style, I might remove the frozen lasagna from its pan and place it into one of my baking dishes so it looks nice on the table. Simply sit the frozen lasagna pan in an inch or so of hot water and it will come lose from the container. Lightly brush your oven proof dish with olive oil and place the frozen lasagna in it. After about 30 minutes of baking, I remove it from the oven and cut slits into the top of the lasagna. Pour a cup or so of red wine over the top. At the end of baking, I finish with some grated Parmesan cheese and fresh herbs, if I have them. Can you believe the photo below is frozen lasagna? I took that photo with my iPhone.

While buying a salad in a bag is fast, I rarely use them. It is just as easy to grab several kinds of lettuce along with a few other seasonal items, chop them with a large knife and toss into a large bowl. Make up your salad dressing and dress the salad just before serving.

Here's a quick vinaigrette recipe you will love. It will become your new 'go-to' dressing. Watch me make it LIVE during a recent Facebook LIVE stream I did with Stouffer's where we talked about entertaining tips and the Stouffer's brand history. Since 1024, they have believed (Like I do) that the meals you love most are made with love from quality ingredients and a great tasting meal can make any place feel like home. You know- those memories just take you back!

EASY VINAIGRETTE DRESSING

When making a homemade dressing, always use a 3-1 ratio of oil to acid. Yield: Makes 1 cup

 INGREDIENTS

1 small shallot, minced and rinsed

1/2 teaspoon lemon juice

1/4 cup white wine vinegar (Or Champagne vinegar or Sherry Vinegar)

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley and chives, minced

3/4 cup extra virgin Olive oil 

DIRECTIONS:

Mince the shallot. Rinse under cool water to remove the strong smell. Add to bowl. Add the lemon juice and vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Add the herbs and whisk together. Stream in the EVOO, whisking constantly to emulsify and combine. Check seasoning. Add a bit more salt, if desired.

Will keep in the fridge for 2 weeks.

Note: If you find yourself without a whisk, you may simply shake this dressing up in a Mason jar with a lid.

DESSERT can be as easy as vanilla gelato with Frangelico or chilled Limoncello poured over the top. I love to crumble Amaretti cookies over the top or add a piece of biscotti. My Lemon Ricotta Pound Cake is another easy option you can make ahead. If you make the crostini recipe,  you'll have enough homemade ricotta for this recipe, too.

OTHER RECIPES: CHARRED TOMATO CROSITNI and LEMON RICOTTA POUND CAKE

GREET your  guests with a glass of something. That can be as easy as glass of white wine or Prosecco (Italian sparkling wine) or an Aperol and Soda cocktail finished with a squeeze of an orange and garnished with an orange wheel. Set out a few small plates with olives, nuts, or cherries. Or make crostini, bruschetta, or a store-bought antipasti assortment.

PARTY TIP:  Enlist help of your early arriving guests to help you make the dressing, set the table, or finish the salad. They'll love pitching in to help rather than feel as if they've arrived too early and are in the way.

DECORATING: Don’t bother with decorating if you don't have a lot of time- just light some candles. If you do have time, get an assortment of small herbs associated with Italian cooking like rosemary, oregano, or basil. If they are live, wrap the container with burlap and tie with a small ribbon. If they are cut, put them in small Mason jars with a bit of water and line them up down the center of the table. You can find fresh herbs- both live and cut- at most grocery stores these days so you won't need an extra trip to the florist.

You're all set for Italian night-- just modify this plan to fit your next gathering. You'll spend more time making memories and a lot less time worrying about the details! xox


HERE'S THE DISCLAIMER:  I wrote this party plan in 2009 and have used it or have suggested it many times since then. I even told Food Network magazine this was one of my favorite easy party plans in a 2012 interview. In other words, this has been a go-to for me for many years. This past summer, I was invited to Solon, Ohio to visit the Stouffer's facility for the relaunch of Stouffer's lasagna. It is Mrs. Stouffer's original recipe: all natural, made from scratch; even the pasta and the tomato sauce are made from scratch. Since that visit, I've joined with Stouffer's to help them bring you easy recipes and fun ideas for get-togethers at home. I wanted to disclose that they pay me but even if they did not, I'd still recommend Stouffer's lasagna. I've been a fan for more than 30 years. For more info on Stouffer's products, visit Stouffers.com

RECIPE: JENNIE BENEDICT'S FAMOUS BENEDICTINE SPREAD

According to Derby lore and my good friend Traci Badenhausen, you cannot NOT have Benedictine on your menu for Derby parties in Kentucky. She's provided the original recipe from Louisville caterer and cookbook author Jennie Benedict, who made it famous years ago. It is so famous, it has its own Wikipedia page and a Pinterest board! Her first cookbook, Blue Ribbon Cooking, was published in 1902 and while it did not originally have the recipe for Benedictine, it now does, according to Wikipedia. Used for cucumber tea sandwiches or as a spread for other sandwiches, you can use it for a veggie dip, too.

While you can barely see it, there's Benedictine Spread in those little tea sandwiches. It's often used for dip as well.

While you can barely see it, there's Benedictine Spread in those little tea sandwiches. It's often used for dip as well.

JENNIE BENEDICT'S FAMOUS BENEDICTINE SPREAD

INGREDIENTS
1 cucumber
1 onion

8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 teaspoon salt
A few grains of cayenne pepper
2 drops green food coloring (optional, but a local favorite)

 

DIRECTIONS:
Peel and grate the cucumber, then wrap it in a clean dish towel and squeeze the juice into a dish. Discard the pulp. Peel and grate the onion, then wrap it in a clean dish towel and squeeze the juice into a dish. Discard the pulp. (Use a juicer if you prefer)

Combine three tablespoons of the cucumber juice, one tablespoon of the onion juice, cream cheese, salt, pepper and food coloring in a bowl. Mix with a fork until well blended. Serve as a dip or as a sandwich filling.

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SALAD IN A JAR: LAYERED SPINACH AND STRAWBERRY SALAD WITH POPPYSEED DRESSING

This is one of my all-time favorite party recipes...  Serving guests a salad in a Jar is so easy, so versatile and it can be used for so many different occasions. In fact, it is also perfect for lunch on the go or for the kids. Layer your favorite ingredients in a jar and chill. When you are ready to serve, simply shake it up. That's it!

If you are going to prep the day before your event, you probably should add the dressing just before serving so everything doesn't get soggy and just put it right on top. But you can prep up to four hours before with the dressing in the bottom and you'll be fine... but keep the jars chilled on ice, in the fridge, or in a cooler. And it is a perfect solution for picnics, too!

So pretty, so functional and so delicious! Layered salad in a jar makes serving and eating salad at a party so much easier! No grappling with tongs or trying to balance everything to add dressing.

So pretty, so functional and so delicious! Layered salad in a jar makes serving and eating salad at a party so much easier! No grappling with tongs or trying to balance everything to add dressing.

LAYERED SPINACH AND STRAWBERRY SALAD IN A JAR WITH HOMEMADE POPPYSEED DRESSING

Makes 6

INGREDIENTS

1- 9 ounce package of fresh baby spinach leaves, wash and remove the stems

1- 16 ounce container fresh strawberries, washed, dried, hulled, and sliced

1- 15 ounce can Mandarin orange slices, drained

2 cups walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped

1- 6 ounce container Belle Chevre Belle and the Bee Breakfast goat cheese (or if you cannot find it, make your own by swirling honey into goat cheese to make it creamy and slightly sweet)

Poppyseed Dressing recipe  (or your favorite dressing

DIRECTIONS:

Start by spooning about 2-3 tablespoons of dressing into the bottom of the jar. Use enough so you can see the layer of dressing. Next, add about 1 1/2 cups of the spinach leaves. Layer the strawberry slices around the outside of the jar and work your way in so they look pretty. Do the same with the orange slices. Next, add the walnuts and top with a thin layer of the goat cheese. You want to be able to see each layer- the colorful layers is what is so pretty about this salad. Secure the lid and chill until serving time.


HOMEMADE POPPYSEED DRESSING

One of my summer favorites, this is also a delicious dip or dressing for fresh fruit.

INGREDIENTS

1 1/2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

1/2 teaspoon honey

1/4 teaspoon lemon juice

1/8 teaspoon Kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon sugar

1/8 cup sweet white onion, like a Vidalia, chopped

1/2 cup plain yogurt (some people prefer mayo instead)

2 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil

3/4 teaspoon poppyseeds

a bit of water to thin, if desired

DIRECTIONS:

Add everything but the oil and the poppyseeds into a blender or food processor and blend until very smooth and there is no trace of the onion. Reduce to the lowest speed and stream in the vegetable oil. Turn off the blender and add the poppyseeds. If you find it too thick (which I love for fruit) you can thin with a bit of water for salad dressing.  I use an immersion blender for this recipe. It's fast and easy to clean up.

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