Unless you are a very organized and accomplished cook, a dinner party is not the time to try out complicated dishes.  They often involve more shopping, more money, more time and there’s a lot more risk that something will go wrong.  Instead pick a dish you’ve made before, and even better, something you can make ahead. That’s why I’m picturing an enameled cast iron pot, this one from Le Crueset. (My husband  notes that this kind of pot is expensive and sounds a little uppity.  I countered by reminding him I got them for cost when I was actually working at a kitchen store; I think it’s a draw.) The only reason I recommend the enameled ones–and there are many brands–is that plain cast iron can’t be left with liquid for a long time while this type of pot can and, as opposed to pottery or glass, can be heated on a stovetop burner–even straight from the frig–put in the oven and brought to the table. It’s perfect for the dishes that make dinner parties simpler: stew, chili, pot roast, braised chicken.  Make it the day before, reheat in the oven along with a loaf of bread and a big part of the meal is ready to serve.

Another way to simplify your meal is to limit the menu. I must admit I have little patience with picky eaters and I won’t take the risk of serving my food to someone with health-threatening allergies, but I will try to accommodate others within limits. If a guest is a vegetarian, I plan a meatless menu. (I’ve done it for vegetarian relatives and I can tell you Italian dishes are wonderful because of their way with vegetables, pasta and rice.) If you have a picky eater, make sure one dish is something they’ll eat.  If you’re making a salad with bacon and pine nuts, consider putting those two on the side until you’re sure everyone eats them–rather than making two salads.  Never cook two separate meals, find a middle ground.

But making things simple is only half the plan.  You also need to make things special and we’ll talk about that tomorrow.