Don’t be daunted by meal planning, whether it be for yourself, one other, or five others. Remember to keep things simple and don’t feel obligated to put out huge amounts of food. A few well-prepared dishes, balanced in flavor, texture, color, and appearance, will be pleasing for both you and your guests. Here are a few principles to keep in mind.
- Decide on your “main course” first, but don’t get caught in the traditional trap of thinking you need a slab of meat, a quarter of a chicken, or two pork chops. There is no reason why the “main” can’t be a steaming bowl of Farmers’ Market Vegetable Soup, Risotto with Mushrooms, or Panzanella, a bread salad. The meal doesn’t always have to be something substantial. Then whatever your choice, balance it with side dishes, which could be nothing more than Tri-Color Roasted Peppers or a simple Tossed Green Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette and a slice of good-quality crusty bread from a nearby bakery.
- Many of us were raised to think that the dinner plate needs three things on it: a protein, a starch, and a vegetable—three separate islands. Rethink this. Pasta e Fagioli, a hearty bean and pasta soup-stew, combines all these elements in one dish without any meat, while Chicken and Vegetable Curry is a similar one-dish meal but with meat.
- Think about textures, playing them against each other—chewy versus melt-in-your-mouth, crisp against smooth: Creamy Mashed Potatoes without Cream is a nice pairing with crispy Broiled Mustard-Crumbed Cornish Hens, and Open-Faced Dijon Steak Sandwich is perfect with lightly steamed crunchy sugar snap peas (page 164) dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette.
- Blend flavors, making sure they complement rather than compete. Strongly flavored Soy-and-Ginger-Glazed Salmon is appropriately offset with a tamer rice pilaf.
- Beginning as well as more experienced cooks often forget that a diner first feasts with the eyes. Mix together colors as well as shapes and sizes. Here’s a good combination: brown Seared Double Lamb Chops with smaller pieces of steamed green broccoli florets. Or how about lively red Bruschetta with Basil-Marinated Tomatoes as an accompaniment to golden yellow Summer’s Best Corn Chowder?