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With the Right Menu, You Can Throw a Dinner Party on a Weeknight

This summer, my friends are scattered far and wide on weekends. They're (finally) out of the house, visiting family out of state and otherwise making the most of any time they're able to spend outdoors. So, after a couple of failed attempts at finding a weekend evening that works for all, I'm taking a different tack: the weeknight dinner party. Hosting guests on a weeknight is a true flex-the ultimate way to let your closest associates know you've got it together (or at least have the ability to pretend for a few hours). Plus, it's a shorter commitment than the weekend hang.

For a weeknight dinner party to work, however, the menu has to be simple-something you can pull off between the time you clock out of work at 5 p.m. and sit down with your guests at 7:30. But, it also wants to be a skosh more turned-up than the beans on toast you cook for yourself most nights. And, in our modern era, it should be easily transported outside should the need or desire arise to not eat indoors.

To work out the logistics, I turned to Epi contributor and cookbook author Rebekah Peppler, whose recent title, A Tablé, reads like a handbook for casually chic get-togethers. "Weeknight dinner parties are my personal favorite," she told me. "I'm a huge advocate for an early start, earlyish end-weeknight or otherwise."

The key to getting any party started is a drink, but since it's a weeknight, we're keeping it light. Peppler's recipe for amaro-based scorpion bowls is low-alcohol and includes options for making a single drink or several servings all at once. Traditionally, a scorpion bowl is a communal cocktail with several straws-not the most health-minded practice, even on the best of days. This is an everyone-gets-a-glass situation.

For the single serving, it's as easy as combining equal parts of two bottles of booze together (sweet vermouth plus any amaro you like-Cynar works well, since it's bitter and flavorful, slightly savory and not too sweet). Pour them both over ice, add a lemon twist and a few dashes of Angostura bitters, and finish with a splash of seltzer.

If you have a punch bowl or a pitcher, you can combine a big batch of the vermouth and amaro, fill the vessel with ice, then set out cups and chilled seltzer so that your guests can spritz their drink to their liking. To cut down on last-minute prep, Peppler says you can "combine the amaro, vermouth, and bitters in the morning or afternoon and keep it chilled." When you're ready to serve, pinch in the lemon peels and set out the seltzer.

Want a cocktail snack to go with? 'Tis the season of perfect produce. Pick up some slightly firm peaches, plums, or nectarines. Slice the fruit into wedges, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with flaky salt. Done.

For an elegant-but-easy dinner solution, clams are a great choice. Peppler steams the shellfish in a combo of bright white wine and salty, savory sherry (Manzanilla or fino both work). Green olives boost the brininess of the seafood while garlic and ground chiles add sweetness and a touch of heat.

The clams cook in just about 15 minutes, and the process is easy enough to do while your guests assemble their drinks. But you will want to do a little prep before everyone gets there: Soak your clams for at least 20 minutes in cool water. If they're farmed clams, they probably won't release much grit; if they're wild, they may release a lot. Either way, after the 20 minutes are up, lift the clams out of the bowl and transfer them to another clean bowl. (Don't pour them out or you'll end up dumping the sand back on top.) If there is a lot of grit in the bowl, soak them in fresh, cool water for another 20. If not, give them a quick rinse, scrub the shells to make sure they're also free of grit or mud, and tap any open clams to make sure they close back up. Then stash them in a bowl in the fridge covered with nothing but a slightly damp kitchen towel until you're ready to cook.

While the clams are soaking, chop up a little garlic, and measure out the wine, sherry, olives, and anything else you want to prep ahead. The recipe calls for piment d'Espelette, a chile powder that hails from the Basque region, but you could use Aleppo-style pepper or even hot paprika in its place. Slice up some crusty bread, drizzle it with olive oil, and get it into the toaster. You'll want plenty of bread for soaking up all the shellfish broth (IMHO the main reason to steam any bivalves).

Getting the ingredients ready for clam-steaming should only take a few minutes, so you'll have time to do some appetizer prep. This minimalist salad from chef and cookbook author Danielle Alvarez starts with crisp, juicy iceberg lettuce, gets doused in a simple, herbal vinaigrette, and then topped with creamy, tangy feta cheese.

Prep the dressing first: In a jar, combine sliced shallots with white wine vinegar, and leave them to sit for 15 minutes so that the shallots have time to soften. Then add olive oil and lots of oregano and shake to combine.

While the shallots soak, slice up one or two heads of iceberg, depending on the number of guests. If you're ready to eat, spread the thin wedges of lettuce out on a platter. (Ready early? Stash them in the fridge.) To finish, drizzle the dressing and crumble feta all over, and top with some herbs-the recipe calls for dill and chives, but you can use any tender herbs you love or have on hand.

Frankly, I could eat a bowl of freshly whipped cream for dessert and be perfectly happy. But, at a dinner party you may want a little more than that. Pick up some berries-any berries, but know that strawberries will require a little more prep (hulling and slicing). If you opt for blackberries, raspberries, or blueberries, they're good to go. Toss whatever you choose with a little sugar and a smidge of salt and leave them to get juicy.

Meanwhile, whip some cream with more sugar and a little vanilla. Again, you could do this just before serving, but you could also do it up to two hours in advance. (Just keep it chilled until ready to serve.) Former Epi food editor Anna Stockwell is a big proponent of group-effort whipped cream: She passes a big bowl of cream and flavorings around the room and lets each guest whisk by hand until their arms tire, at which point they pass it on to the next person, like a delicious variation of the game telephone. Which way you go depends on what kind of host you like to be.

To serve, stir a few of the juicy berries into the cream, or just dollop alternating layers of each into glasses and pass them on. If you'd like something crunchy, put out a few store-bought cookies like shortbread or almond biscotti on the side. And pour another round of that opening cocktail. It's not even 9 p.m. yet, there's still plenty of time before everyone has to head home.


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