How many courses are appropriate for my first dinner party? I'm scared of taking on too much, but I still want to look like I tried.
How about two dead-easy ones and two that take at least a minimum of work. Set out some good mixed nuts or thin baguette slices topped with a soft cheese like fresh ricotta and a drizzle of interesting honey so your guests can nibble when they arrive.
Then serve a soup that you'll need only to ladle into bowls and garnish if you're feeling fancy. Think easy but elegant for the main - roast chicken, rice and a vegetable if you're confident in your cooking, say, or a soulful pasta dish like bucatini all'amatriciana and a green salad if that's more your speed. Then set out top-quality ice cream (the incremental cost between crap and incredible is tiny) and a plate of amaretti, and maybe port or Italian bitters if you want your guests to be triply impressed.
The bottom line, though: It's your first dinner party. You could set the kitchen on fire and I bet your guests would still be grateful. Just remember to have fun.
Chris Nuttall-Smith is a food writer and restaurant columnist. Have an entertaining dilemma? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.