Great Dishes That Are Way Easier Than They Look

I have thrown more dinner parties in my day than I could possibly count. And the recipes from my arsenal that I keep going back to time and time again are the ones where I can depend on the outcome. They're the ones that give me time to enjoy my guests (and a couple glasses of wine). Most of all, they make me look like a dinner party rock star. So whether it's a soiree for a dozen or an intimate evening for two, aim for recipes that will make you and your guests happy. Here are some suggestions for great dishes that are way easier than they look.

No-knead bread

Ever made homemade bread from scratch? It's a rewarding but incredibly arduous process. For me, the most aggravating part of the process is the kneading. Sure, it's fun for the first few minutes, but soon you have a bready carpal tunnel situation happening that leaves your fingers too sore to operate your TV remote. Enter no-knead bread. This recipe exploded in the mid-2000s when Jim Lahey of New York's Sullivan Street Bakery shared it with the New York Times. With just flour, instant yeast, salt, and a bit of patience (the whole process takes 24 hours, but that's mostly just waiting for the dough to rise), you'll be rewarded with a perfectly crisped crust and a flavorful, slightly chewy interior that's great for sandwiches, toast, and whatever else the kids are using bread for these days. If you've been reluctant to give bread making a try in the past, this is the recipe that will change your mind.

Flourless chocolate cake

A pastry chef in a New York restaurant where I worked once told me that the flourless chocolate cake is the only dish to be named for an ingredient it does not contain. That's probably not true, but I'm not crazy about baking and even I have pulled off a flourless chocolate cake. More than once! If I can do it, you can, too. Whipped egg whites are folded into a mixture of melted chocolate, butter, egg yolks, and sugar. The flourless batter is cooked at low heat and the finished cake is dusted with powdered sugar. I like to also make a fresh raspberry puree to drizzle over each individual slice, but that's up to you.

Crab cakes

Whether you prefer them plated or sandwich-style, crab cakes are a decadent treat that many would only venture to enjoy at their favorite restaurant. But as long as you have access to decent crab (canned is fine, but imitation crab is not), you can confidently reproduce crab cakes for dinner guests or just yourself. Some crab cake recipes include a lot of fillers like red pepper and herbs, but I prefer the super simple recipe from Andrew Zimmern. To make his Baltimore-style crab cakes, lightly toss mayonnaise, egg, Worcestershire sauce, Dijon mustard, hot sauce, crushed saltines, and lump crabmeat. Chill, then lightly form into patties that you pan fry. Serve squeezed with fresh lemon or a classic crab cake accompaniment, remoulade sauce.

Gratin dauphinois

Just the name implies this is something you'd only find in the most chichi of restaurants. A gratin dauphinois is a classic French recipe. Though you may have enjoyed the American scalloped potatoes, gratin dauphinois is a tad more delicate, even richer, and is sure to wow your dinner guests. Make a big one: you will want leftovers.

The key with this dish is to thinly slice your potatoes — a mandoline or sharp knife will be needed, along with a steady hand. But that's the only difficult part of this recipe. After that, simply cook the potato slices in heavy cream seasoned with garlic and nutmeg, then transfer to a baking dish. Sprinkle the gratin with a very fine layer of cheese, like Gruyere. Bake for 45 minutes at 400 degrees until the sauce is bubbly and the top has developed a beautiful brown color. Remove from the oven, and allow to set for at least 15 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Stuffed chicken breasts

I've been making variations on stuffed chicken breast for years. I've used boneless breasts or skin-on breasts that stuff all the yummy filling under the chicken skin. My favorite version of skin-on breasts comes from the Barefoot Contessa, and it couldn't be easier. Simply insert herbed goat cheese and sundried tomato under the skin, rub the whole thing with olive oil and salt and pepper, then roast in a 375 degree oven. Other stuffings that work well with this method are spinach and feta, or even leftover artichoke dip. Try it!

When using boneless breasts, my new go-to recipe is from supermodel and foodie Chrissy Teigen. It involves a couple more steps, but none that require you to be a culinary superstar, even though you'll look like one when it's done. Chrissy stuffs the pounded-out chicken breasts with Boursin cheese and crumbled bacon slices, rolls them up, then wraps them in prosciutto. She then cooks the rolls in a baking dish with lemon juice, chicken stock, and cherry tomatoes at 375 degrees until the chicken has cooked through and a deliciously light sauce has been created. YUM.

Nut-crusted fish

I love that this preparation works with so many different kinds of fish and so many different kinds of nuts. It can be light and healthy if you top the fish with its crust and bake in the oven, or it can be even more flavorful for a special weekend night's meal if you coat and pan-fry the fish.

Inspired by my husband's favorite dinner on our honeymoon, I like to make a recreation of the macadamia-crusted mahi mahi that we enjoyed at Mama's Fish House in Maui — a meal so nice, we had it twice, bookending our trip with visits to the famous restaurant on the beach. I use Alton Brown's recipe to make it, which is fairly straightforward. Blend panko bread crumbs, nuts, salt, and pepper in your food processor. Dip your mahi fillets into flour, then beaten egg, then the nut mixture. Pan fry, then serve drizzled with a combination of soy sauce, brown sugar, and ginger.

Pulled pork

I feel pretty confident putting this out there in the universe: I make some killer pulled pork. The kind where people beg for the recipe. I make it in my crockpot the day before I need it, and the recipe I use is adapted from the little dinky recipe book that came boxed with my crockpot. I've spied other recipes over the years, but seriously, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. I serve it with potato buns, Tyler Florence's BBQ sauce, and a zippy and colorful coleslaw.

Start by rubbing a pork shoulder or pork butt with kosher salt, black pepper, brown sugar, and paprika. Lay it in your crockpot on a bed of quartered onions. Pour in a liquid mixture of apple cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, sugar, dry mustard, garlic powder, red pepper flakes, and cayenne pepper. Cook on low for 10 hours, remove the pork, and shred with two forks, discarding the bones and extra fat. Put the rest of the crockpot contents through a sieve, then combine the remaining liquid with the shredded pork. Party time.

Braised beef short ribs

I promise you, braised beef short ribs are the perfect meal to serve at a dinner party. They can be cooked completely the day before your get-together, and just reheated on the day of. They're a pleasingly economical cut of beef, and they'll make your guests think you really know what you're doing in the kitchen. The bone-in ribs are slow-cooked with bacon, shallots, carrots, celery, wine, herbs, and broth. Once they're falling off the bone — and this part is crucial — remove them from the heat and put the whole pot in the fridge. The fat, which there will be plenty of, will completely rise to the top and form a thick crust. Remove that crust, and reheat the pot for lip-smacking braised short ribs that are divine atop mashed potatoes, whipped polenta, or on a square of your homemade gratin dauphinois.

Berry crumble

I only started regularly making fruit crumbles in my house when my daughter was born, but seriously, if I had known how ridiculously easy they are I would have been making them years sooner. The recipe for crumb topping can readily be your go-to crumb topping for anything you want to make into a crumble, so it's a great recipe to have in your back pocket for leftover bushels of fruit that you want to use up before it turns on you.

For the crumb topping, I mix melted butter, brown sugar, white sugar, white flour, lemon zest, and baking powder. Oats would also be a welcome addition, though some folks would then call that a crisp. I add my crumb topping to a pie dish of sliced mixed berries that are lightly coated with white sugar, flour, lemon juice, and salt. Into a 375 degree oven, and you have berry crumble nirvana. Want even more crumb topping? I like your style. Add a second layer to the bottom of your pie dish, and now you have a brown betty.