Feb. 21, 2014 at 6:40 PM ET
Believe it or not, it's possible to relax and enjoy your own dinner party — and no, that doesn't have to mean downing an entire bottle of wine before the guests arrive. The winning strategy is to have everything ready ahead of time, so you can kick back and socialize just like one of the guests. How do you manage that? Prepare dishes that don't need to be served piping-hot, and that taste fantastic at room temperature. Every dish here, besides being quick and easy to make, works perfectly when it's cooked several hours ahead of time, or even the day before. And yes, these dishes are great for buffet-style dinner parties too. As the flavors meld and deepen, they'll only get more delicious.
Pasta with Cherry Tomato Sauce
This fresh and fast crowd-pleaser could hardly be simpler to make — you don’t even have to split the little tomatoes. The result is a colorful, bright-tasting pasta that can star as the main course or play a supporting role on a buffet. Serve with extra Parmesan on the side for each guest to sprinkle on top.
Get the recipe: Pasta with Cherry Tomato Sauce
Broiled Moroccan-Spiced Chicken Tenders with Lemon-Yogurt Sauce
To make this dish even easier, buy chicken “tenders,” those little tenderloins at the back of the breast. They're a little more expensive than boneless, skinless breasts, but they're also more tender. The spicing on the chicken is cooled by the tangy yogurt dip. If you like, place a basket of halved pita loaves nearby so guests can stuff a little chicken into the pockets and top it with the sauce.
Get the recipe: Broiled Moroccan-Spiced Chicken Tenders with Lemon-Yogurt Sauce
Soba Noodles with Cucumber, Roasted Eggplant and Ginger Dipping Sauce
Soba noodles, made with buckwheat, cook quickly and are excellent when served hot, cold or anywhere in between. But what they won’t tolerate is overcooking. Watch them carefully and don’t let them turn to mush. If you can’t find them in the Asian section of your supermarket, you can substitute thin whole-wheat pasta for a very different but still delicious noodle dish.
Flatbread Pizza with Sliced Plums, Goat Cheese, Sage, Honey and Sea Salt
Look for the large, square flatbreads (lavash works well) to make this appealingly savory-sweet pizza. You can use whatever fruit is in season — halved cherries, quartered figs, sliced apricots — but purple plums are especially gorgeous as they start to soften and leak colorful juice onto the flatbreads.
Spicy Shrimp and Green Onions with Rice Noodles
You can buy “rice sticks,” the extra-thin, threadlike rice noodles, in the Asian section of most supermarkets — but if you prefer, use the wide rice noodles that look more like typical egg noodles. Either variety makes a perfect, subtly flavorful base for the racier flavors of the shrimp.
Get the recipe: Spicy Shrimp and Green Onions with Rice Noodles
When you add diced tomatoes and onion, and dress it with a little olive oil and lemon juice, succotash transforms into a salad that's perfect at room temperature. Depending on the time of year, you can use fresh beans and corn, but even if you use frozen kernels you can't go wrong.
Get the recipe: Succotash Salad
Pickled Beet and Apple Salad
Sweet, tart and creamy, this shockingly pink salad is easy to love — even for kids, who might try it just out of curiosity and end up falling for the crunchy apples and tangy beets. Any leftovers are delicious on a ham or roast beef sandwich the next day.
Get the recipe: Pickled Beet and Apple Salad
Bruschetta with White Beans and Diced Ham
Lots of garlic and lemon turn this white bean dip into a hearty topping for toasted bread. Diced ham, quickly seared in a little butter, adds a meaty flavor and visual appeal. Be sure not to cut the bread too thin and don’t toast it too crisply; this bruschetta tastes better a little chewy.
Get the recipe: Bruschetta with White Beans and Diced Ham
Potato Salad with Green Beans and Pesto
Pesto made with walnuts instead of pine nuts has a richer flavor, ideal for providing backbone to this colorful, fresh-tasting potato salad. To make this salad faster, use 3/4 of a cup of commercially prepared pesto.
Get the recipe: Potato Salad with Green Beans and Pesto