Ten years ago, I drove upstate with my friends to go apple picking. We roasted the apples alongside root vegetables and showered it all with fresh dill, and I made a big pot of risotto for everyone. After dinner, we sat on the dock by a lake, drinking red wine out of Solo cups and watching the sun go down.
The unabashed idleness of that evening — of being surrounded by simple, straightforward food and, most importantly, friends — is still the only kind of party I want to attend.
If I’ve learned anything from my years of watching Nigella Lawson on television, it is that one stellar main course and one proper dessert can sometimes feel much more complete, much more elegant, than a procession of dishes that make you regret hosting in the first place.
An easy way of achieving that serenity is to make one big starchy thing, like a pot of risotto, and build your evening around it. This variation, loaded with olive oil-fried chestnuts that taste like meaty nuggets of holiday cheer, is a supreme way to feed your friends on a cold winter night. And it is even better when served with a luscious toppings bar of roasted vegetables and herby, creamy, pickled things.
The roasted vegetables in question — dressed simply with olive oil, salt and pepper — take a cue from Ina Garten: Two large sheet pans, one filled with burnished, crispy mushrooms and the other with mauve and glistening caramelized red onions, can make this humble risotto party feel like a veritable feast.
Chestnuts fried in olive oil taste like soft, meaty nuggets of holiday cheer when stirred into creamy rice.Credit…Ryan Liebe for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Barrett Washburne.
What could be more fun than topping your own bowl of creamy, stock-enriched rice?
Risotto is not as hard as people make it out to be, but it is still risotto — it will require attention. That you need to stir it constantly, however, is a myth. “Stir frequently, but not all the time,” the Italian British food writer Anna Del Conte advises in her recipe for risotto with nettles from her memoir of the same name.
There are no-stir options out there that can be made either in the oven or on the stovetop, but I’ve found that a happy medium lies in stirring every three to five minutes, just so the rice on the bottom doesn’t stick. Everything in moderation, right?
Many have waxed poetic about the relaxation that stirring grants you, and that can be true, but the real draw of making risotto for a party is the message it sends to the people you invite. When you serve someone a dish that takes time and effort, you’re letting them know how fond you are of them. (Look what I’ve done for you!) Some might call this fishing for appreciation; others, a love language.
Dessert after all of that work should be something sliceable, like a tender, buttery pound cake in sheet-cake form. Serve it simply on its own or dusted with powdered sugar. If it’s regality you’re after, top it with raspberry preserves, gently salted whipped cream and a snowy, psychedelic blanket of crushed Barbie-pink freeze-dried berries.
You can set out cheese and crackers if you’d like, or not. It’s your party. But the joy of this unbuttoned affair is that it’s really just dinner.
And though the Solo cups, shining red as the sun goes down, will stay with me forever, it doesn’t hurt to clink real glasses at midnight.
Recipes: Chestnut Risotto | Cream Cheese Pound Cake
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