This is such a good question, that I am going to turn it into a mini-series. This week, I'm going to tap into our Italian roots for a meal that is scrumptious, requires a miniscule number of your pots and pans and takes very little time. Your friends will be well-fed and totally impressed - and you will not be up all night doing dishes afterwards. You can select a few of these courses or shoot the moon and make all of them - the workload will still be reasonable.
Couldn't be simpler: Cara's Caprese Salad
Prep time: 10 minutes
Requires: sharp knife and cutting board; your fingers for ripping basil; serving platter & fork
Totally impressive and still simple: Nigella Lawson's Bagna Cauda
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 5 minutes
Requires: sharp knife and cutting board; garlic press or your patience in mincing garlic; 1/2 cup measure; Tablespoon; small fondue pot or small saucepan; serving platter for vegetables
Basically, you are melting together four outstanding ingredients - olive oil, garlic, anchovies and butter - to create a hot bath for dipping raw vegetables in. It's like a salad, only more social. And you get to say it in Italian - ladies love that.
Easiest soup of all time: Chicken gnocchi
Cook time: 15 minutes, tops
Requires: you ripping open a package of gnocchi and opening a container of chicken broth; sharp knife and cutting board; soup pot; ladle
I recommend adding a soup course if you've got people with large appetites coming - soup fills people up for cheap. For *really* cheap you can make broth out of boullion cubes. To save time, you can just buy containers of broth. Gnocchi (small Italian potato dumplings) can be bought in the freezer section of most supermarkets. Other places have them vacuum-packed and stored at room temperature - just ask at the help desk as you walk in the door. All you're going to do is bring your broth to a simmer and drop in the gnocchi. When they float to the top, they're done. In the meantime, you can quickly mince some parsley. Garnish each bowl with parsley and some freshly-grated parmesan cheese.
Baby Roma Tomato & Onion Pizza with Rosemary
This recipe is adapted from The Flavors of Bon Appetit 2006. I made this pizza the other night and woah. So simple, so delicious! Feel free to experiment with your own toppings. I do love these, though, because they were so good I didn't even miss the cheese. And if you know me at all, you know that is huge. Each pizza feeds about four people.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Requires: sharp knife and cutting board; cookie sheet; pizza cutter if you've got one, otherwise a knife is fine
Preheat oven to 450degrees. Sprinkle cookie sheet with cornmeal. Take a container of cherry tomatoes and slice them all in half. Take one large onion and thinly slice it. Tear 2 Tbsp. fresh rosemary leaves from their stalks. Take a bag of store-bought pizza dough and toss/stretch it out to more or less fill the cookie sheet. (Personally, I am not attached to the idea of a perfectly round pizza. An irregular crust looks charmingly artisanal.) Scatter tomatoes, onions and rosemary on the crust (the closer the vegetables get to the edges, the better, as this will help to weigh down the crust). Drizzle with 5-6 Tbsp olive oil. Season generously with salt & pepper. Bake pizzas until crusts are brown at edges and crisp on bottom, about 15 minutes. Transfer to clean and dry cutting board, and cut into wedges.
Prep time: Are you kidding? Mere moments.
Requires: Spoon for scooping ice cream, well-stocked liquor cabinet
Ice cream is great, but it's even better when you get it drunk! Peppermint schnapps, Kahlua, Chambord, Amaretto - any of these are great drizzled on top. Select fruit to match your taste and budget. If you want to get fancy, consider making Cara's Strawberry Topping - easy to make, and only four ingredients: strawberries, sugar, balsamic vinegar and basil.
Fancy and easy to make the night before: Cara's Tiramisu
Prep time: 45 minutes
Requires: Mixing bowls, electric mixer, pyrex dish, measuring cups
This dessert requires no baking, but it does like to be chilled overnight in the fridge. This dish will make a bit of a mess in your kitchen, and will require your patience in whipping cream with an electric mixer. But if you're up to the challenge, the plus side is that there are few things more delicious or impressive or Italian than tiramisu, and all the cooking will be done the night before, so all you'll need to do once your guests arrive is unveil it.