I know it’s cool to be low-key, but that’s just not my bag. Especially when I’m cooking for friends: With exactly zero encouragement, I turn regular plans into an occasion. I invite four people over and make enough food for 10. I keep too much wine in my fridge and a crate of taper candles in the closet, just in case. You weren’t expecting flowers and cocktails at this chill weeknight hang? Strap in, I’m just getting started. My guiding principle is to go big, and I never regret it.
If you’re interested in joining the Maximum Effort Community (it’s really fun; we’d love to have you), summer is the perfect time to start. Long days and warm nights put people in the mood to party, so you don’t need an excuse to invite pals over and pull out all the stops. Plus, the inherent drama of hot grills, luxe produce, and big frozen desserts work in your favor, as the best ways to cook and eat for the season are already plenty extra. So alert the group chat that dinner’s at yours and use these tips as inspiration: We’re leaning all the way in.
Splurge where it matters
If you’re going to splurge on an ingredient or two, make them the stars of your side dishes, where a little goes a long way. A few juicy farmers market heirloom tomatoes for a centerpiece-worthy tomato spread, or a single package of speciality store jamón for this Jamón and Nectarines With Blue Cheese is enough to trick out a salad, making your table feel ever slightly more festive.
After shelling out the big bucks, be sure to treat your spendy products right: Take a box or sturdy tote to the farmers market to carry your delicate tomatoes home without risk of squishing or bruising, and give your ham at least 30 minutes to come to room temperature before serving to maximize its flavor.
Lean into family-style spreads
Are you of the mind that more is more? You might be a Spread Person. I’m talking about meals with lots of little components—the picture of abundance—from which everyone around the table can make their own plate. Spreads combine the ease of family-style service with the flexibility of tackling different parts throughout the day (in other words, no mad dash right before you sit down to eat).
Try a build-your-own hand roll setup with rice and tuna salad, a baked potato bar, or a bright and flavorful meze. Just remember the cardinal rule of spread dinners: Unless you have a lazy Susan, set out multiple bowls or plates of each element along the table so everyone gets equal access.
Try this recipe: Grilled Tahini Eggplant as your centerpiece
Prepare a grill for medium-high heat. Arrange 3 Italian eggplants, sliced into ¼"–½"-thick rounds, in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil and ²⁄3 cup tahini over and season generously with kosher salt. Turn slices in mixture on baking sheet, rubbing to coat. Arrange on grate and grill until tender and charred in spots, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer eggplants to a plate. Serve alongside warm pita, tender herbs, and a slew of quick-assembly dips, spreads and skewers. And don’t be shy with the creamy/cheesy bits and pickles—these are always the first to go!
Go big for the main course
Sizing up is always worth it, especially when cooking for a group. In the warmer months my go-to XL main is a grilled whole side of salmon, which is hefty and impressive but a breeze to prepare thanks to skin that crisps as it cooks, forming a (very tasty) nonstick barrier between the fish and the grate. Could you use individual filets instead for a preportioned situation? Absolutely. But you won’t get nearly the same reaction when you bring them to the table, which I think is half the fun.
Don’t skimp on dessert
Pull a classic, “What, this old thing?” with a jaw-dropping dessert. The secret is to do most of the work in advance; without any time pressure or watchful eyes, you can get as ornate as you want before unveiling your masterpiece. I love baked Alaska for this reason. I’ll load up the layers the day before, flip the dome onto a platter, cover it with meringue before my guests arrive, and store in the freezer until dinner is almost over. Then I’ll grab my handy kitchen torch (you could broil it, but we’re being extra, remember?) and flame the damn thing into a burnished toasted-marshmallow-scented stunner.
This story originally appeared on Bon Appetit US.