The enchanting world of photographer and artist Erin Gleeson exists somewhere between this reality and that of a fairytale tea party. In The Forest Feast (Stewart Tabori and Chang, 2014), Gleeson’s most recent project aptly named after her wildly popular blog, she invites readers to take a tumble down the rabbit hole into a new world and enjoy food and entertaining her way—simply, beautifully and deliciously.
Since she is unequivocally gifted in the art of effortlessness, we asked Gleeson to spill the beans on how to manage a hostess’s worst nightmare—throwing together an impromptu dinner party in under an hour. She gleefully agreed, and in the following guide, she details a last-minute gathering requiring minimal effort, and serving up maximum fun. Gleeson even includes a menu of her signature illustrated recipes found in The Forest Feast.
Erin Gleeson’s Tips for Preparing a Dinner Party in Under an Hour
First off, pour yourself a glass of wine, and remember that this is fun! It’s a nice gift to your friends. And if you’re not done getting ready when guests arrive, remember people are always happy to help.
Before guests arrive:
- If you don’t have time to set the table, arrange stacks of plates and a stack of napkins either in the center of the table or on a buffet table, and put all the silverware in glasses (one for forks, one for knives, etc..)
- Set out a candle or two on the table—this will make things feel festive and like a “real” occasion without much effort. If you don’t have fresh flowers, put a small plant on the table with the candles.
- Set out appetizers—see a few simple suggestions below.
What to make:
For dinner, serve everything family style, or as a buffet. If I’m limited on time, I try to choose dishes that require minimal cooking.
Put beer and wine out on the buffet table if you have time, but really, these can stay in the fridge. People will be happy to help themselves if you tell them where things are. Have the first guest to arrive open bottles of wine and light candles on the table.
- Cheese plate with crackers, pickles, olives, fresh fruit, dried fruit, nuts
- Fresh radishes with butter and sea salt. You don’t even have to put the butter and salt on—just have them in little dishes on the side.
Nectarine Tomato Salad. Just chop and toss nectarines, tomatoes, mint, basil, pecans, feta, olive oil and salt. Prioritize the other dishes first. This is an easy dish for a guest to help chop and prepare while chatting over a glass of wine with appetizers as people roll in.
Cauliflower Cheese Steaks. Cut heads of cauliflower into big steak-like slices and spread out on a cookie sheet to roast for 15 min at 375F on each side, or until golden. Sprinkle each big slice with grated cheese and scallions, and put back in the oven to melt the cheese. Serve hot, with salt and pepper. Get started on this dish first, as you can always keep it warm in the oven when you’re done making it.
Roasted Vegetable Gnocchi. Gnocchi is one of my go-to quick dinners because the little dumplings boil in only 3 minutes and feel a little more unique than pasta, which gives it a special-occasion feel. When they come out, toss them with olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic powder, red pepper flakes and fresh arugula. Boil a big pot of water early on, then turn it off and cover it. That way the water will boil quickly when you’re ready to make the gnocchi later. Open your gnocchi packages and have them on the counter ready to go. Boil the gnocchi at the last minute, if possible.
Get a nice rustic loaf of French bread or baguette and serve it on a cutting board on the table with butter. You can also make an olive oil dipping sauce for the bread by simply putting olive oil, salt and dried herbs in a little serving bowl.
DIY Ice Cream Sandwiches. Buy a couple types of cookies and a couple types of ice cream and let guests build their own ice cream sandwiches at the table after dinner. Serve an after-dinner wine or liqueur if you have one.