Winter is a time when humans, like other animals, tend to nest (sweaters and comfy slippers and reading a good book under golden lighting or your watching your favorite Netflix show). But just because you’re hunkering down, doesn't mean you have to do it alone. A dinner party is a great way to see friends during the winter months, with the added advantage of bringing some warmth and light into your home on days when it gets dark at five.
If a whole dinner party just sounds like a headache, we hear you. It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in making sure your home is just right and the food is perfect and everyone’s dietary needs are met. What started as a nice idea to break up the monotony of grey winter days can quickly turn into a stress-factory that manufactures anxiety at double-speed.
So instead of going that route, we’d like to propose the low-key dinner party.
Instead of perfectly pressed napkins, grab whatever’s clean. Instead of five courses, do a one-pot meal. Instead of fussy drinks, make a one-bottle cocktail and have friends bring their favorite wine. (Bonus: You’ll also likely have some bottles left over for later…) The focus of the low-key winter dinner party should be having a cozy, maybe slightly tipsy evening with friends — not a perfect display of your 1950s housewife skills.
With all that in mind, here’s a template to get you started.
Things You Can (And Should) Ask Your Guests To Bring
Okay, so, before we truly dive into each part of the perfect low key winter dinner party, we want to offer the most low-key option: Asking your guests to bring the majority of the meal. There’s no shame in this!! Everyone is going to ask you “What can I bring?” so you might as well have an answer on hand. If you’re really pressed for time — or you honestly just don’t feel like planning and cooking much — here’s what you can tell them: wine, something for a cheese plate (think cheeses, meats, pickles, nuts, dried fruits), or something sweet for after.
There. Other than the main dish, your entire dinner party is taken care of. Wasn’t that easy?
Now, here’s the slightly more complicated (but still very low-key) option.
For a fancy dinner party, you’d have different drinks for each stage: cocktails, wine, and something for after dinner. But that sounds… kind of like a headache? So the simplest option is just to ask your friends to bring wine and drink that throughout the evening. Plus, it takes a bunch of stuff off your shopping and planning list, which is very much on brand with the low-key dinner party.
If you want to keep that dinner party vibe, without the stress factor, we’ve got you covered.
First, let’s start with pre-dinner cocktails from Maggie Hoffman’s excellent book One-Bottle Cocktail. If you like to host, this drinks book should be added to your library, stat. The whole concept is cocktails that require just one bottle of alcohol — no bitters or vermouths or other random thing that you’re honestly not quite sure what it is — and ingredients you can get at the grocery store.
Maggie created a whole list in the back of the book that points out where the winter-friendly cocktails are in the book, so start there when you’re looking for your pre-dinner drinks. We recommend checking out the Walkabout on page 22 for a vodka-based, citrusy drink; the Spike the Kiddie Table on page 110 for rum-spiked sparkling cider; or the Wooden Nickel on page 164 if you like your bourbon with a little honey and tangerine.
Now, on to wine for dinner. While you might want to be picky about white or red, based on what you’re cooking, we say don’t do it. Instead, request that your guests bring a bottle of their current favorite and choose from those! (But for what it’s worth, heavier reds like Malbecs from Argentina and Chiantis from Italy are especially nice on chilly nights.)
Then, for the digestif (which is a fancy way of saying “the drink after dinner”), check out the Buttermilk Flip on page 157 of the One-Bottle Cocktail for a bourbon-based, milky coffee drink.
Or, you know, just make some regular coffee and tea. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that!
For guests who aren’t drinking, you can always offer mocktails with the same ingredients as the cocktails above, but with some soda water added. (Except maybe not for the Buttermilk Flip — that’d probably be weird.) That way, they get to enjoy a fun, tasty drinks too.
Now that we’re all well-lubricated, let’s talk dinner. You may have dreamed at one point of serving elaborate dinner parties, course after course, while your guests ooh-ed and aah-ed. But then, life happened. Who has the time to plan and shop for and cook all of those dishes at exactly the right time these days?
Lucky for you, there are a lot of amazing cookbooks out there these days that focus on cooking delicious, impressive foods with minimal trips to the grocery store — and there’s no need for French cooking skills, either. And while we love a good online recipe as much as the next busy human, there’s really something to be said for cookbooks that you love. After all, like many things on the internet, how do you know you can trust the author of that recipe? Whereas with a book, you know a lot of work has gone into planning, research, and testing the recipes.
So. To get you started, grab Dining In, by Alison Roman.
In the intro, she says:
“Over time, in and out of restaurant and editorial kitchens, I’ve cultivated my own personal cooking style, which is hard to classify. I wouldn’t call it lazy — I prefer the term lo-fi — but to give you some insight into my life as a home cook, I don’t own a blender, and up until a few months ago, I didn’t even own a food processor.”
Sounds perfect, right?
While Alison’s recipes are already low-key, we recommend going for a classic one-pot dish that will leave your guests feeling full, drowsy, and full of compliments for the chef: a stew. The Pork and Red Chile Stew with Tomatillos on page 233 fulfills all of those requirements. Plus, you can make it ahead of time (it might even benefit from sitting for a little bit), which makes it even more attractive.
If you or your guests are vegetarians, try Baked Pasta with Artichokes, Greens, and Too Much Cheese, page 159, which Alison unapologetically calls “spinach artichoke dip in pasta form.” Need we say more?
If your guests have any space left after those main courses, offer them the Chocolate-Tahini Tart with Crunchy Salt on page 269. This is a perfect low-key dinner party dessert because, 1. it can be made the day before and 2. it packs a punch. The tart is dense and sweet and each of your guests will only need a tiny slice to feel satisfied.
Winter blues are real, but surrounding yourself with people you like and delicious food that doesn’t break the bank or your sanity is a great way to combat them. So what are you waiting for? It’s dinner time.
by Emma McGowan