Dinner Parties for Introverts

Merrily Jackson on the art of hosting a teeny-tiny dinner party. Photo by Corie English

Hey, you. Psssst. You over there in the corner, avoiding eye contact. Yes, you, Mr. or Ms. Introvert. You of the still waters, running deep. You, the Quiet Beatle. Just FYI, we extroverts are on to you. We know how you eschew crowds. How your idea of perfidy is a big, noisy party. How you would happily spend a weekend—nay, a solid week—in your own rarified company. We even know you sometimes masquerade as one of us, and it burdens you mightily. But you, even you, occasionally crave conversation and companionship inside the sanctuary that is your home. Nothing big, mind you. A quiet little dinner with one or two friends, say. Perhaps your extrovert spouse has cajoled you into inviting another couple over for dinner. My introverted darling, this column is for you.   

Two’s Company, and so is Three or Four
Maybe it’s because I am from a large family that I’m drawn to the idea of the big, rowdy dinner party, of squeezing as many as will fit around my table, of three conversations going at once. Only recently have I come around to the quiet charm of the teeny-tiny dinner party. By teeny-tiny I mean one couple, or a singleton or two.

For many—introverts and extroverts alike—this is the preferred way to entertain. In such an intimate gathering, you can’t hide behind small talk. If you invite friends who share your same oddball tastes in conversational topics (for we are all oddballs about a thing or two), it’s astonishing how the time can fly.

Fewer Guests Means More Options
The teeny-tiny dinner gives you the chance to bust out Grandma’s Quimper Faience, of which you have only four place settings. It liberates you from your dining room. You can set up a snug little table in front of the fireplace or on the screened-in porch, or eat at the kitchen island. The tiny dinner is the best setting for a visit with a cherished someone you haven’t seen in forever. It’s also a marvelous way to celebrate the birthday or anniversary of close friends, to show them how special they are to you. When feeding so few, you can go all out on ingredients—Saffron-Poached Lobster (email for this and any other recipes mentioned herein) and Chateau d’Yquem for all! Or not.

Fancy, Labor-Intensive Cocktails, Anyone?
The key to a fun, casual party is how it starts. Even if you’ve got last-minute cooking to do, give guests an effusive greeting and—the very moment they arrive—a lovely cocktail and everyone will be happy. For bigger groups, I stay away from serving drinks that chain you to the bar all night with your cocktail shaker. But having a tiny guest list enables you to make a scrumptious, one-at-a-time cocktail like a Pom Pom, which demands fresh ginger and mint and six other ingredients and will feel to your guests like a mother’s hug.

Try Crazy New Things
I had a tiny dinner party—just two guests—and I had a last-minute thought to make an appetizer of boiled broccoli. It sounds cuckoo, but it’s so delicious. (I had just read Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal on the underappreciated virtues of boiled vegetables.) You heavily salt a pot of water, bring it to a vigorous boil, throw in a couple of broccoli crowns and boil the sh*t out of them, until they lose their vibrant color and get so soft you have to remove them with a slotted spoon. Toss the hot broccoli in a bowl with a little butter and freshly squeezed lemon juice and serve immediately in small dishes—I used tea cups. Even people who don’t like broccoli will like this broccoli, and it was a fun way to start our little dinner. We gobbled it up standing around the stove, sipping our drinks. This also makes a fabulous, no-carb snack.

Again with the Instant Pot? Yes, Really
The Instant Pot, which I prattled on at length about several columns ago, is a useful tool for sumptuously feeding only a few.

My friend and former co-worker Terri Dady told me about a recipe she serendipitously invented one night after work. “I had a package of boneless, skinless chicken thighs that I found in my freezer and some orange juice and some Brussels sprouts” she said. “I threw them all together in my Instant Pot, tossed in some Lawry’s Seasoning Salt, and pressure-cooked them for 30 minutes, and it was really good!”

I tried this myself, and she was right. Except I used Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces, instead of Brussels sprouts. This tasty dish would be a simple entrée for a tiny, casual dinner. I’ve fine-tuned the recipe a bit. Email me and I’ll send it to you along with a couple of proven Instant Pot favorites perfect for three or four.

Ina Never Disappoints
In her book Cooking for Jeffrey, Ina Garten gives us her truly excellent Skillet-Roasted Lemon Chicken recipe, which serves three and only three. You’ll need to ask your butcher to remove the backbone of a four-pound chicken and butterfly it—they will cheerfully do this at Fareway Market. Do not attempt this recipe if you don’t have a 12-inch cast-iron skillet. This chicken would be sublime with roasted asparagus and my friend Bernie’s Smashed Potato recipe.

More Kitchen Table Dinners
I think I’m the only person left in the metro who doesn’t have a kitchen island; I have something you might remember called a kitchen table. When I have just a couple of people over, this is where we dine, and it is very, very cozy. I like to pan-fry individual Angus beef filets in my grill pan (four minutes each side over very high heat), and serve them with A-1 Sauce, Creamy Lemon Rice, and roasted asparagus. These same sides also work well with a pork tenderloin, marinated then roasted. One pork tenderloin is the perfect size to feed three or four.

Several years ago, I went on a mad spree of making, for small, casual gatherings, a Ruth Reichl recipe called Sort of Thai Noodles. It’s a stir-fry dish, a delectable main course with three kinds of protein, fun to make with one or two people assisting. The last minute of making it, when everything comes together, is so action-packed you almost have to have someone reading the recipe to you while you cook. An Asian cucumber ribbon salad is the perfect starter for this dinner. Yes, darling, of course I have the recipe. Email me. You introverts love email.

The Perfect End to Your Teeny-Tiny Dinner Party

Nigella Lawson’s One-Step, No-Churn Coffee Ice Cream
This one recipe is worth the price of Lawson’s cookbook, Nigelissima. You take four ingredients, whip them into a cloud, then freeze them. They turn into ice cream while you go on with your day.  Makes one pint

  • 1¼ cups heavy cream
  • 2/3 cup sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 tablespoons instant espresso powder
  • 2 tablespoons espresso liqueur

Whisk all the ingredients together until soft peaks form, and you have a gorgeous, caffe-latte-colored airy mixture, and then fill a one-pint airtight container, and freeze for 8 hours or overnight. Serve straight from the freezer. Note: I used an immersion blender to whisk the ingredients and it worked beautifully.

Email me with your entertaining questions, dilemmas, or triumphs.