When you live with 13 people, it gets a little hard to coordinate family-style dinners. You may have stopped reading after “13 people.” Trust me, I understand. But it somehow works — and so can making a family style dinner big enough to feed the Von Trapp family on a budget.
Gathering with others for a meal is a deeply rooted tradition in our society and within my own experiences at school. For many reasons, which vary from table to table and group to group, a family-style dinner is one of the beloved and pure customs that bind us together. Ever heard of blue zones? Those are the few and ostensibly thriving locations in the world whose populations live to the age of 150, because they eat almost all of their meals together (don’t fact check that).
As graduation quickly and menacingly approaches (If you haven’t guessed from the tone of that statement, I’m nervous about it. But so is everyone, right?), the pressure is on to make the most of the time spent with friends, who will soon be fragmented by the reality of adult life (read: jobs, for many). With time, and likely discretionary income, running out, how does one take full advantage of this short period?
My answer to this inquiry, as with most things, is food of course. Though making a reservation for a large party at a great restaurant on a bustling Friday night can be enjoyable, it’s not as memorable as spending some extra quality time with friends cooking a meal together. And though that seems daunting (again, refer back to my current living situation), it can actually be a lot easier and cheaper than you may think.
Behold: the meal guide of all meal guides. Below, I’ve listed a few easy recipes inspired by a spur-of-the-moment family dinner I made with a few friends and some of my own hybrid recipes. So, if you’re either intrigued because you’d (A) rather be reading this than thinking about how another school year has raced by and graduation is imminent, or (B) you’re genuinely interested in this proposed guide to uniting with friends around a meal, then read on.
First, the pizza:
This one’s a no-brainer. Pizza is easy to make (if you buy the dough, but don’t tell anyone you bought it) and feeds a large group. Depending on the number of people partaking, two balls of dough should suffice for about 10 — and you can buy them at Trader Joe’s for under two dollars.
Full disclosure, this is maybe less of a recipe and more of a suggestion. Once you roll out the dough on a floured surface and transfer it to a greased (and I mean greased) parchment paper lined baking sheet, it’s basically a free-for-all.
While a simple marinara sauce (oil, garlic, and canned tomato sauce brought to a simmer) or the jarred variety can be used for a traditional pie, I’ve found that plenty of olive oil or a thin layer of heavy cream provide a good base for cheese and veggies. For the cheese, I like to use a mozzarella (fresh or shredded will work) and parmesan blend. After spreading a thin layer of sauce over your rolled out dough, sprinkle generously with cheese and top with your preferred variety of ingredients (I would suggest mushrooms, bacon and spinach).
Herbs — a hearty blend of oregano, fresh or dried basil, red chili flakes and salt and pepper — will elevate the pizza to restaurant-level. Pizza is typically a crowd pleaser and, unless you find yourself arguing with your friends over what toppings to use, they’re pretty fun to make. The dough package should contain baking instructions — otherwise, bake at 10-15 minutes (until the crust is slightly brown and the cheese is bubbling and golden on top) at about 500º.
Next, is the Sage and Brown Butter Pasta:
(Recipe adapted from The New York Times)
Pasta and butter are as cheap as cheap gets. They also happen to be delicious when combined using the following method. Before starting that tasty pizza, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook a package (or two) of your desired noodles (I prefer rigatoni) just until almost al dente (not cooked all the way, so the pasta is still firm). While the pasta is boiling and the pizza is baking, begin to brown that butter. Throw in the sage and cook until the sage has shrunk and the butter is a deep golden brown.
Drain the pasta, reserving some of the pasta water to add to the sauce. Add the pasta to the butter and sage, increasing the heat to medium before adding the pasta water and stirring to combine. Add parmesan, salt and pepper, and that’s it! For a dairy-free version (we all have those friends), olive oil can be substituted. Heat the oil in a large skillet, add minced garlic and sage and the cooked pasta. Top with a squeeze of lemon and the parmesan.
Now, on to my favorite part — the garlic bread:
By now you may be thinking that this dinner is pretty carb-heavy, and you’re not wrong. Bread, and other flour-based products are incredibly cheap and easy to prepare in large quantities for a big group of people. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
The preparation is simple. Heat butter and olive oil in the microwave until the butter has melted. Stir in about 1-1½ tablespoons of minced garlic (depending on the size of your loaf), salt and pepper, oregano and dried or fresh chopped parsley. Slice a baguette in half, spread the mixture over evenly and top with parmesan cheese. Bring the oven temperature down to 400º and bake until the cheese is bubbling and the edges of the bread turn golden brown (about 10 minutes).
And to break up the copious varieties of carbs in this meal, here’s a simple salad:
In a bowl, massage (yeah, I said massage) a large container of pre-washed baby kale with olive oil and lemon juice. Let rest for a few minutes before adding salt, pepper and parmesan cheese, tossing to combine.