I’ve never considered myself a great host.


Setting up beautiful tablescapes, printing out menus or cards with guests’ names or, most importantly, anticipating their needs before they have them hasn’t been something that came naturally to me in adulthood.


Even before I became a mom, when I entertained — or, more specifically, "had people over" — the table was never set ahead of time, I never remembered to set out snacks, and I was usually still cooking (or just starting) when friends arrived.


But from messy kitchens came some memorable meals, like "the Ravioli-Off" in college, where guests brought fillings and my co-host and I made the pasta dough. We spent all night making and eating ravioli until the entire kitchen was coated in flour.


During those years, my friend Emily started hosting Sunday brunches that showed me how a laid-back and low-key meal gathering could be. She usually had ingredients in the fridge when we rolled in, but we had a hand in everything, from making espresso to setting the table. And then after we finished our eggs Benedict, we’d lounge for hours poring over the New York Times.


We always had a good time, but the gatherings didn’t look like what Martha Stewart or Ina Garten suggested a dinner party could or should be. Much has been made about millennials changing or reinventing dinner parties, rejecting some of the age-old norms of invites, seating arrangements, pre-meal cocktails and individually plated desserts. Or, you know, planning.


Alison Roman is at the forefront of this anti-dinner party dinner party. She’s the New York Times recipe developer known for such virtual hits as "The Stew" and "The Cookie."


Her latest book, "Nothing Fancy," is an homage to this no-fuss food party.


"Using your time and resources to feed people you care about is the ultimate expression of love," she writes. Showing that affection with food doesn’t require a big kitchen or a tablecloth with matching napkins or even a plan, really. Embrace the chaos and be flexible, and everything will turn out just fine.


To kick off 2020, another year in which I hope to cook for even more friends and be even less stressed about it, here are 10 tips I’ve learned about hosting a low-key dinner party.


1. Clean the kitchen and put away dishes the night before if you can, but at the very least, sweep. A clean floor makes the whole house look cleaner.


2. On the other hand, don’t apologize about your house, your kitchen or your menu. Getting real with your friends that you don’t lead a perfect life is part of opening your home to them, piles of dirty laundry and all. That’s a level of vulnerability in a friendship that makes it stronger.


3. Go easy on yourself when it comes to the food. Cook what you would make anyway or find a new recipe that isn’t too far outside of your comfort zone. A big pot of pasta or a slab of pizza is exactly what a fellow mom with two picky eaters wants to see on the table. Baked salmon with roasted broccoli, meatballs and hummus, a whole chicken. Prep anything you can ahead of time, if possible, such as "the Dip," Roman’s favorite party starter.


4. Get specific about what people can bring. If you know the guest really wants to bring something, suggest a couple of options, one really specific and another general. Sometimes people can’t get the exact kind of parsley you need for a garnish but they are happy to hit the convenience store for wine.


5. Try to see dietary preferences with joy, not as burdens. If your guests eat a little differently than you because of, say, an allergy or picky kids, look at it as an opportunity to meet them where they are. A lactose-free friend invited me to a weeknight dinner at her house, and I offered to bring dessert. Without her allergy, I wouldn’t have sought out a chickpea blondie dessert that I’m now happy to have as part of my baking repertoire.


6. Ask for help when your guests arrive: setting the table, slicing cheese or bread, tearing greens, taking plates or bowls of food to the table. It gives them something to do to ease into the rhythm of your space.


7. Leave room for downtime at the beginning or at the end. It’s a rare treat to play a board game, listen to records or work on a puzzle with friends.


8. Sometimes, takeout is just fine. I have a family member who comes to visit for dinner a few times a year, and we always order takeout because we just have too much catching up to do and she has stronger preferences about what she’s in the mood to eat.


9. Don’t overdo it, but also don’t forget a snack. It’s hard to host even a low-key dinner party if you’re hungry and dinner’s not ready yet.


10. Pick your battles. Sometimes, that extra side dish just doesn’t come together in time or none of the kids can seem to sit still long enough to eat. Other times, you book a get-together with friends and you end up having to order a pizza. It’s the act of setting aside time to be with your people that makes these gatherings special. A willingness to laugh at your own mistakes and imperfections can go a long way, even after the party is over.


Labne With Sizzled Scallions and Chile (Almost Ranch)


Among some of my friends, this has become known as "the Dip," and now I literally cannot attend any social gathering or host any dinner party without someone requesting "the Dip." When you make it, you’ll know why. It’s my very high-brow version of ranch dressing, and that’s all the intel you need. But if you’d like to know more, there is a scalliony chile oil that gets sizzled with cilantro stems (or chives) and swirled into a thick, lemony labne. From there, I’m sure you can assume that the combination of tangy dairy, coupled with that herby chile oil, already sounds incredible, and maybe you are on your way to making this right now. If you can find green garlic, which tends to be hyper-seasonal and mostly found only at farmers markets, use them (or even ramps!) in place of the scallions. Serve with small boiled potatoes, vegetables, pita chips, potato chips and really anything you think will taste good dipped in a salty, slightly spicy, creamy dip!


— Alison Roman


1/3 cup olive oil


4 scallions, white and green parts thinly sliced


1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes


2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro (leaves and tender stems)


Flakey sea salt


Freshly ground pepper


2 cups labne or full fat Greek yogurt or sour cream


2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice


Heat the olive oil, scallions, crushed red pepper flakes and cilantro in a small pot over medium-low heat. Cook, swirling occasionally, until the scallions and red pepper flakes start to visually and audibly sizzle and turn the oil a bright orange. Remove from heat and let cool enough to taste without burning your mouth, then season with salt and pepper.


Combine labne and lemon juice in a medium bowl and season with salt and pepper. Spoon into a bowl and swirl in the sizzled scallion mixture. Top with extra cilantro, if you like. Makes 2 cups.


— From "Nothing Fancy: Unfussy Food for Having People Over" by Alison Roman (Clarkson Potter, $32.50)


Moroccan-spiced Chicken With Carrots and Olives


When you bake this dish, resist the urge to open the oven. The result is remarkably like what comes out of a tagine, a traditional Moroccan cooking vessel. This is a great way to use up preserved lemons, if you have them.


— Mark Bittman


1 1/2 pounds carrots, peeled if you like


1 large onion, halved and sliced


3/4 cup pitted green olives


1 tablespoon ground cumin


1 teaspoon ground cinnamon


1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric


Salt and pepper


8 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (about 1 1/2 pounds)


2 lemons, halved


1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish


Heat the oven to 425 degrees and position a rack near the top. Cut the carrots diagonally into 1-inch pieces. Put them in a 9-by-13–inch baking pan and scatter the onion and olives on top.


Combine the cumin, cinnamon and turmeric in a small bowl with a generous sprinkle of salt and pepper; toss to combine. Sprinkle half the spice mixture over the vegetables. Put the chicken on top of the vegetables and rub all over with the remaining spices; turn them skin side up. Tuck the lemons here and there. Pour 3 cups water into the pan.


Transfer the pan to the oven and bake until the chicken skin is browned and crisp and the meat is no longer pink at the bone, 30 to 40 minutes. Garnish with the cilantro, and serve hot directly from the pan with a big spoon to get all the juices. Serves 4.


— From "Dinner for Everyone: 100 Iconic Dishes Made 3 Ways — Easy, Vegan, or Perfect for Company: A Cookbook" by Mark Bittman (Clarkson Potter, $40)


Brown Butter Sweet Potato Gnocchi With Sage, Spinach and Hazelnuts


Making gnocchi at home is the easiest thing ever, and homemade is so much better than store-bought. The toasted hazelnuts with the brown butter, savory fried sage and slightly spiced sweet potato gnocchi is pure perfection. And don’t worry — I added some spinach so you get your greens. This dish is comfort food that’s actually pretty good for you.


— Molly Krebs


2 medium sweet potatoes


2 to 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour


1 teaspoon salt, plus more as needed


1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon


1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg


2/3 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese


1 large egg, whisked


5 tablespoons unsalted butter


10 to 12 fresh sage leaves


4 cups baby spinach


1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more as needed


1/3 cup unsalted, dry-roasted hazelnuts, coarsely chopped


Black pepper, as needed


Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a small baking sheet with foil. Pierce the sweet potatoes with a fork several times and place them on the prepared baking sheet. Bake for about 1 hour, or until the potatoes are soft and tender. Slice the potatoes in half and let them cool, then mash the flesh and discard the skins.


In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. Add the mashed sweet potatoes, ricotta cheese, and egg and mix until a dough forms. You may need to use your hands for this step.


Transfer the dough to a generously floured work surface and cut it into 4 equal pieces. Roll each piece of dough into a long rope, about 3/4 to 1 inch thick, and cut each rope into bite-size pieces. Set the gnocchi aside. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat while you brown the butter.


Melt the butter in a medium pot over medium heat. Once the butter begins to bubble, 1 to 2 minutes, add the sage leaves and fry for 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until crispy, lowering the heat if the butter starts to get too brown. If the butter hasn’t developed brown bits after frying the sage, continue to whisk constantly until the butter develops a nutty aroma and brown bits on the bottom, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat. Pour all of the brown butter into a small bowl except for 1 tablespoon.


Heat the reserved 1 tablespoon brown butter in the same pot over medium heat. Add the spinach and saute for about 1 minute, until the spinach is wilted. Season with a pinch of salt and black pepper. Set aside.


Add the gnocchi to the boiling water — you may need to do this in batches, depending on the size of your pot — and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until they float to the top. Drain the gnocchi and immediately add them to the pot with the spinach, and pour in the remaining brown butter. Toss to coat, then add the Parmesan cheese and hazelnuts. Stir to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with the fried sage leaves and extra Parmesan cheese on top. Serves 2 to 3.


— From "Eat More Plants" by Molly Krebs (Page Street Publishing, $21.99)


Mahshi Cinnamon-Scented Tunisian Meatballs


Every Friday in the early afternoon before Shabbat arrived, my father and I would visit my grandmother, and she would serve us a traditional Tunisian lunch that consisted of couscous with soup and mahshi. I looked forward to those lunches as her mahshi meatballs were so juicy and flavorful. I miss my grandmother, I miss those Friday afternoons, and every time I make these, I send a blessing to her soul. These meatballs are traditionally served alongside couscous, and some like to squeeze fresh lemon juice on top.


— Yaniv Cohen


1 pound ground turkey or beef


1 large onion, finely chopped


1 bunch cilantro, chopped (leaves only)


1/2 bunch parsley, chopped (leaves only)


4 eggs, divided


1 teaspoon ground cinnamon


1/2 teaspoon turmeric


1 teaspoon salt


Freshly ground black pepper, to taste


2 large slices day-old challah or crusty bread, soaked in water for 10 minutes


1 teaspoon harissa or tomato paste


1 cup extra-virgin olive oil, or more as needed


1 cup all-purpose flour


Place the ground turkey in a large bowl and add the onion. Squeeze the cilantro and parsley leaves to remove some of the liquid, and add to the bowl. Add 2 eggs, the cinnamon, turmeric, salt and pepper. Squeeze the excess water out of the bread and add to the mix. Work the mixture with your hands until thoroughly combined and set aside.


In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining 2 eggs and the harissa and set aside. In a skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. If the oil doesn’t reach half the height of the meatballs, add more.


Create flat, oval-shaped meatballs with the turkey mixture. Place the flour on a plate or in a shallow bowl. Dip each meatball first in the flour, covering them fully. Then dip each into the egg and harissa mix and fry over medium-low heat for about 15 minutes, flipping halfway through.


Before serving, place the cooked meatballs on paper towels to absorb any excess oil. Makes 20 meatballs.


— From "My Spiced Kitchen: A Middle Eastern Cookbook" by Yaniv Cohen (Page Street Publishing, $21.99)


Asian-Glazed Sheet-Pan Salmon and Broccoli


It doesn’t get easier during the week (or any night, for the matter) than a sheet-pan dinner, aka all of your dinner components roasted together on a single baking sheet. To take this otherwise simple meal to the next level, we toss together a quick-yet-delicious marinade for the salmon with deeply flavored Asian ingredients — soy sauce, hoisin, sesame oil, garlic and ginger — plus lots of fresh mint and cilantro. You’ll have tender, flaky salmon and crispy broccoli in no time at all—and cleanup is a breeze, especially if you line the pan. If you like your broccoli extra crispy, start roasting the broccoli 5 minutes before adding the salmon.


— Maria Lichty


4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 1/3 cup soy sauce


1/4 cup hoisin sauce


1/4 cup honey


1/4 cup chopped fresh mint


3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro


Grated zest and juice of 1/2 orange (about 2 tablespoons juice)


3 garlic cloves, minced


2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil


1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes


4 (6-ounce) boneless salmon fillets, 1 1/2 inches thick


1 large head broccoli, cut into bite-size florets


1/4 teaspoon kosher salt


1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


2 scallions (white and green parts), thinly sliced


In a medium bowl, whisk together 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, the soy sauce, hoisin, honey, mint, cilantro, orange zest and juice, garlic, ginger, sesame oil and pepper flakes. Reserve 1/3 cup of the marinade and set aside.


Place the remaining marinade in a zip-top freezer bag with the salmon fillets and seal, making sure the salmon is covered with the marinade. Marinate in the fridge for 30 minutes.


Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper.


Remove the salmon from the marinade and arrange the fillets on the baking sheet. Arrange the broccoli florets around the salmon, drizzle them with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Bake the salmon and broccoli for 15 minutes, until the broccoli is tender and the salmon is flaky (timing may vary depending on the thickness of your fillets), brushing or drizzling the salmon with the reserved marinade after 7 minutes of cooking. Garnish with the sliced scallions and serve immediately. Serves 4.


— From "Two Peas & Their Pod Cookbook: Favorite Everyday Recipes from Our Family Kitchen" by Maria Lichty (Grand Central Publishing, $32)


Clafoutis


This French cake bakes up around a layer of fruit, and almost any fruit will do, but cherries and plums are traditional. It’s ideal for a dinner party because it’s a hard-to-mess-up dessert that you can serve warm or at room temperature.


— Addie Broyles


5 tablespoons of butter


4 eggs


2/3 cups of sugar


1 teaspoon vanilla extract


3/4 cups of flour


3/4 cups of heavy cream


3/4 cups of whole milk


1 pound of cherries


Heat the oven to 400 degrees and grease a 9-inch round cake pan with 2 tablespoons of the butter.


Melt the remaining 3 tablespoons butter in a small saucepan over low heat. In a large bowl, combine the eggs, sugar and vanilla. Then add in the flour, cream, milk and melted butter.


Pour the batter into the baking dish, top with the cherries, and bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool and sprinkle with powdered sugar if desired. Serves 4.


— From "Super Easy Sweets: 69 Really Simple Dessert Recipes: A Baking Book" by Natacha Arnoult (Clarkson Potter, $15.99)


Chickpea Blondies


These blondies are gluten-free, vegan and dairy-free, making them a sweet treat for anyone with dietary restrictions. You can use a different kind of nut or seed butter and toss in some chocolate chips, nuts or dried fruit, if desired. Adding an egg to the batter will make it more cakelike, but not vegan.


— Addie Broyles


1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, rinsed and drained


1/2 cup all natural peanut butter (or almond butter)


1/3 cup pure maple syrup or agave nectar


2 teaspoons vanilla


1/2 teaspoon salt


1/4 teaspoon baking powder


1/4 teaspoon baking soda


Coarse sea salt, for sprinkling


Heat oven to 350 degrees and spray 8-inch-by-8-inch pan with cooking spray.


Add all the ingredients to a food processor and pulse until batter is smooth. In a food processor, add all ingredients and process until batter is smooth. Add 1/3 cup of mix-ins, if using, and pulse once or twice to mix.


Use a rubber spatula sprayed with cooking spray to spread batter evenly in prepared pan, sprinkling any extra mix-ins on top, if desired.


Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean. The bars will continue to cook after you remove them, and they dry out easily, so err on the side of underdone.


Cool pan for 20 minutes on wire rack. Sprinkle with sea salt then cut into squares. Store in fridge for up to 5 days. Makes 16 bars.


— Adapted from a recipe by AmbitiousKitchen.com