By Justine Santaniello
Throwing your very first dinner party can be intimidating - particularly if any invitees are talented cooks- but a meal in three courses is an excellent and manageable place to begin. (You can graduate to five later.)
Course 1: Cranberry and Bleu Cheese Spinach Salad
Get a big salad bowl and salad tongs. Buy two bags of fresh spinach leaves and toss with roasted honey walnuts, crumbled bleu cheese and dried cranberries. You can buy the walnuts pre-roasted or roast them yourself by tossing honey and sugar-coated raw nuts onto a foiled cookie sheet covered in cooking spray and roasting in a 350F oven for 8 minutes.
For the dressing, pour a store-bought balsamic vinaigrette into a fancy salad dressing bottle server. They're inexpensive and if you mash up a few fresh strawberries and combine into the vessel, you'll have a strawberry balsamic that's to die for.
Course 2: Roasted Balsamic Vegetable and Fennel Sausage Pizza with Fig
Yes, I said pizza - but it's a fancy grown up pizza.
Here's what you'll need: a pre-made pizza crust, a pound of ground sweet Italian sausage (the kind with lots of fennel), a red onion, a head of garlic, a bag of frozen broccoli florets, olive oil, grated parmesan and a bottle of fig-flavored balsamic vinegar (you may have to get this at a specialty shop or online; it's not very pricey and is so worth it).
Line a large baking dish with foil. Pre-heat the oven to 425F. Dump in the whole bag of broccoli. Cut up and add the red onion (thin, crescent-moon shapes are perfect). Mince and add two garlic cloves. Crumble in half-inch rounds of sausage and then drizzle everything generously with both the fig balsamic and the olive oil. Give it a toss with a slotted spoon and roast uncovered for about 30 minutes, or until the sausage is browned through and the tips of the onion and broccoli start to brown. You can make this a full day ahead - it keeps beautifully.
When you're ready to top the pizza, drizzle a bit of olive oil directly onto the crust, top generously with the roasted mixture (it can be hot or cold) and sprinkle on a few tablespoons of grated parmesan. Then, follow the baking instructions for the pizza crust and you're done! Be sure to purchase a pizza cutter too - it's easier and looks fancier than a plain old knife.
Oh, and did you notice how we've used the balsamic flavoring again? That's another great way to make a dinner party seem well thought-out - by turning one or two flavor profiles into a theme. Speaking of a theme, that brings me to dessert.
Course 3: Angel Food Cake with Balsamic Strawberries and Whipped Cream
Now that you've stuffed your guests, dessert should be light but still a little indulgent.
The night before, dump a large bag of frozen strawberries into a bowl. Add roughly a cup of balsamic vinegar and a half-cup of granulated sugar. Let this sit to thaw and marinate overnight. Right before the party, spray an entire can of whipped cream into a serving dish and add a spoon. Slice up a store-bought angel food cake into individual portions and set out on a platter with a serving fork.
When it's time for dessert, transfer the elements directly to the dinner table and assemble each person's portion right in front of them. All you have to do is plunk a piece of cake into a bowl, top with strawberries and cream and ladle a little extra strawberry "syrup" on top. Top with a sprig of fresh mint if you want to be extra fancy.
Beverages: For this meal, I'd recommend a chilled bottle of dry white wine (like a Sauvignon Blanc) with frozen strawberries as "ice cubes". Serve in your prettiest stemware.
Final Tip: Enjoy Yourself! Your guests are coming to spend time with you, not merely to eat a meal. By making many of the elements ahead and keeping the courses manageable, you'll be able to mingle and accept compliments on your beautiful and delicious spread.
Justine Santaniello, Multimedia lifestyle contributor, shares her tips and top product suggestions - otherwise known as her 'Just Haves' - regularly on The Wendy Williams Show, Good Day New York, Wake Up With Al, Yahoo!, FOX Business, PIX Morning News, Home and Family and more. As the founder and creative director of JustHaves.com, Justine is fast becoming a go-to media and consumer resource for anything and everything lifestyle related. Permission granted for use on DrLaura.com.