A dinner party so easy you don’t even need recipes

A little technique is the key to a three-course meal composed of a bright citrus salad, left, comforting cauliflower cheese and a pistachio chocolate bark (not pictured). It's so easy, you don't even need recipes. / David Malosh/The New York Times
A little technique is the key to a three-course meal composed of a bright citrus salad, left, comforting cauliflower cheese and a pistachio chocolate bark (not pictured). It's so easy, you don't even need recipes. / David Malosh/The New York Times

People often tell me they simply can't cook without a recipe. But often you don't really need one: You need a technique, a method.

Though quantities are given, the three dishes in this menu don't require strict adherence to a recipe. All that is needed is confidence and a sense of direction. Then you can adapt and substitute, depending on personal taste and what you have on hand.

Take this citrus salad first course, which spotlights sweet navel oranges, Cara Cara oranges, ruby red grapefruit and mandarins. The concept is utterly simple: Arrange this in-season fruit on a plate, with a pinch of salt and pepper. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil. Voilà.

Customize the salad to suit you. Make it with only sliced oranges, or use a mixture of citrus. I chose daikon radish slices to add crunch, but you may choose a different radish or skip it. I found gorgeous spicy watercress to add to my salad. You might choose radicchio instead or forgo greens altogether and garnish the salad with fresh mint leaves. Whichever variation you come up with, you'll have a bright, beautiful, refreshing salad.

For the main course, cauliflower cheese, a British comfort-food classic, you really don't need a recipe. Again, it's the technique you need, specifically making a white sauce (béchamel). Cook together equal parts butter and flour, then whisk in a couple of cups of milk.

Blanch whole heads of cauliflower or use large florets. Coat the cauliflower in sauce, shower with whatever kind of cheese you like and bake until golden and bubbling. Cheddar is traditional, but I also used provolone, Asiago and feta for added sharpness. The "recipe" is quite forgiving, and because cauliflower cheese can often be a bit bland, I added a sprinkling of cumin seeds and a touch of ground cayenne. Baked cauliflower for dinner on its own is lovely, but it can also be a vegetable accompaniment, say, for roast chicken (which, dare I say, you could even make without a recipe).

You also won't need an exact recipe to make chocolate bark, not a dessert per se, but a little something sweet to nibble after a meal or with coffee. As for the details, dark chocolate is my preference. Use pistachio, almonds or hazelnuts. A little sea salt is nice, or you can use roasted salted nuts. The bark looks so elegant, friends will think you have pastry training.

With these and many other dishes, a little kitchen knowledge goes a long way. When asked for the recipe, simply say it's more about intuition than instruction.

Citrus Salad With Radish and Watercress

This easy, refreshing salad is best made in winter, when citrus fruit is at its best. You may prep all ingredients in advance, but build the salad just before serving.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Total time: 20 minutes

4 navel oranges

1 medium grapefruit (red-fleshed)

1 (6-inch) chunk of daikon radish

1 bunch watercress (or upland cress)

Salt and black pepper

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

With a sharp knife, remove skin and pith from the oranges and grapefruit. Cut the fruit crosswise into 1/4-inch slices, discarding any seeds.

Peel daikon, and slice into thin rounds.

Arrange watercress sprigs, citrus and radish on a platter or individual plates.

Season lightly with salt and pepper, then drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil. Serve immediately.

— By David Tanis

Cauliflower Cheese

Cauliflower cheese is classic British comfort food. In its simplest form, the vegetable is cloaked with white sauce (béchamel) and cheddar, then baked until bubbly. It may be served as a side dish but is often the main course for a frugal lunch or supper.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Total time: 1 hour and 15 minutes

Salt and black pepper

2 (1 1/2-pound) heads cauliflower

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for buttering the pan

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 cups whole milk or half-and-half

Small pinch of grated nutmeg

Small pinch of ground cayenne

1 cup grated sharp Cheddar (3 ounces)

1 cup grated provolone or Asiago cheese (3 ounces)

1 cup crumbled feta (4 ounces)

1/2 teaspoon cumin, caraway or fennel seed

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. With a paring knife, remove the tough core from the bottom of each cauliflower. Working one at a time, lower the cauliflower into boiling water and cook for 5 minutes. Remove and set aside to let cool. (Alternatively, cut cauliflower into large florets, cook for 3 minutes and spread out to cool.)

Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a saucepan over medium-high. Add flour, and let mixture cook for a minute without browning.

Whisk in milk 1/2 cup at a time, simmering between additions, until all milk is used. Whisk well, then simmer over low heat for about 5 minutes. Season with salt, pepper, a little nutmeg and a speck of cayenne. Keep warm.

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 9- by 13-inch baking dish, and place blanched cauliflower side by side. Stir Cheddar into sauce and spoon sauce evenly over cauliflower. Sprinkle with grated provolone and feta. (Alternatively, if using florets, arrange in a single layer in the baking dish.) Sprinkle with cumin seeds, if using.

Bake uncovered for about 40 minutes, until bubbling and browned. Sprinkle with parsley. Serve directly from the baking dish.

— By David Tanis

Pistachio Chocolate Bark

Not so much a dessert as a little something sweet to nibble on, chocolate bark is easy to make and always popular. This one calls for just two ingredients and a little time for something everyone will talk about. Serve on a platter at the center of a dinner party table, or pack some up for everyone to take home.

Yield: 6 servings

Total time: 2 hours 10 minutes

8 ounces dark chocolate baking wafers

1/4 cup chopped roasted, salted pistachios

Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Place the wafers in a bowl, then set bowl over a pan of rapidly boiling water (or use a double boiler).

Allow chocolate to melt completely, stirring frequently, then pour onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Spread to a thickness of about 1/8 inch. Sprinkle the surface with chopped pistachios. Leave in a cool place to harden, about 2 hours. To serve, break bark into rough pieces.

— By David Tanis

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