The perfect recipes for a (cheap) dinner party with friends!

Image Credit: Niamh Richardson - Caponata with focaccia

Niamh Richardson’s tried and tested recipes for the perfect dinner party, which happens to be budget-friendly. Gather your friends, it’s dinner party time!

Quick! Send out the invites! Gather your nearest and dearest! It’s dinner party season! 

I think we can all agree on the dinner party’s superiority above all others in the party category. Sitting squished around a table in your college apartment with mix-matched cutlery, great food, and even better company is the only antidote to the shortening days, approaching exams, and worsening weather. It’s doctor’s orders. 

If that wasn’t convincing enough, dining out in this climate (financial as opposed to meteorological) isn’t easy on a student budget, but eating lukewarm pizza slices from Bambino’s with numb fingers on a cold bench doesn’t have to be our only option. Put those Pinterest boards to action, ignite your tealights, and invite the plus ones.

“Sitting squished around a table in your college apartment with mix-matched cutlery, great food, and even better company is the only antidote to the shortening days.”

The cheap part of this dinner party is in parentheses not because it is optional, but because it is irrelevant. This dinner party doesn’t need to be branded and nor does the menu, it simply consists of great dishes that just happen to be easy on the pocket. In fact, this three-course meal for six comes in comfortably under the price of a single pizza at the aforementioned pizza joint. Voilà (or eccolo in italiano). 

Welcome to the perfect (cheap) dinner party.

Everything but the food!

Alcohol! I am very much of the opinion that you are absolutely entitled to send invitations out with an accompanying “€5 towards the food would be a great help”, but being Irish I do understand people might find this difficult. So instead, you can opt for “BYOP” (bring your own Prosecco)! This takes the burden of supplying booze off you and helps even out the overall cost of the party.

Candles! My go-to is Sostrene Grene, for all of those little bits. I’m currently loving their slim candles and I managed to get holders for them too, all for a whopping €6.

Foliage and flowers! Take your little pair of scissors out for a walk and collect what looks pretty and abundant, don’t take the last remaining rose! You didn’t hear about the rosemary bushes near the UCD hockey pitch from me…

Friends and invitees! This is your night, invite who you want to. The best dinner parties have a mix of people and they don’t necessarily all have to be friends, or even know each other! Meeting and mingling with new people is part of the fun. 

Place settings! You have the power, and you better use it. Mix the group up, don’t put two best friends at the bottom of the table alone if you want whole-table engagement. Sostrene Grene sells nice art supplies and high-quality paper, so cut out some squares make place settings, and create the dynamic! No pressure.

The food!

(Focaccia, che bella!)

This time in parentheses because focaccia is optional but never irrelevant. Of the three dishes in this article, this is the cheapest, but most time-consuming. It requires a few hours of popping your head in and out of the kitchen if you can afford that. If not, no sweat, the other two dishes will suffice! This recipe is from the legendary Carla Tomasi, whom I was lucky enough to take a class with at her home in Ostia. In case you are the only person in UCD who hasn’t yet heard me mentioning it relentlessly, I WAS IN ROME LAST YEAR FOR MY ERASMUS. Anyways Carla Tomasi, legendary cook, hectic Instagrammer, fantastic focaccia maker, thank you.

Note: this recipe can easily be halved; however I see no harm in making two focacce and freezing any leftovers for a rainy day, there will be many!


200 grams plain/00 grade flour

200 grams strong bread flour

1 sachet of fast-action dry yeast

1 level teaspoon of fine salt

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

280 grams of warm water


Another note: Start around four hours before you want it out of the oven.

Put the flour, yeast, and salt in a suitably sized mixing bowl (avoid metal as this will chill the dough and result in a disappointing rise). Drizzle over the olive oil and pour almost all of the water in, adding the rest only if needed to bring the dough together. Combine all of these with a wooden spoon and once all of the flour has been incorporated, pat it into a shaggy ball (the dough will feel sticky and lumpy). Cover the dough in the bowl with a cloth, and leave to rest for at least 15 minutes or up to an hour.

After resting, the gluten will have relaxed and the dough will feel soft and pliable. Pour a little olive oil on a work surface (once again avoid anything cold, notably metal or marble) and plop the dough down on it. Gently flatten it out and pull the dough from one edge to the centre and give it a quarter turn. Do this six to eight times. Leave the ball of dough on the work surface and put the bowl, upturned, over it to let it rise for another 15 minutes.

Repeat the above process twice more so that the dough has been worked on three separate times.

Time to prove! Leave the dough on the work surface, covered by the bowl, for around 45 minutes. It should double in size.

Divide the dough in two and place each on a shallow baking tray. This is so it bakes rather than steams! 

In the winter months, I would suggest adding a layer of greased parchment paper between your dough and the cold metal tin to protect it. Leave to rest for around 30 minutes, or until you can spread it out without it defensively bouncing back.

Preheat your oven to 190°C (or 200°C if you are not using a fan oven).

Spread the dough out with your fingertips into the shape you want and then leave it out uncovered for a final (I promise) rise, this time for 40 minutes.

Optional step: Thinly slice some red onion and place it in a bowl with thyme or oregano and flaky sea salt.  After leaving the onion to marinate for a while, adorn the top of the dough with this and a few dollops of ricotta, it will be worth it when it comes out of the oven!

Gently dimple the proudly puffed-up dough with your fingertips and drizzle it with some more olive oil.

Place it in the hot oven for 20 to 30 minutes, rotating once if necessary. Once it is out, sprinkle some extra flakes of sea salt on top and enjoy (immensely)!

Caponata, inspired by Amber Guinness, solidified with Felicity Cloake’s recipe in The Guardian

I was first introduced to this dish late into my time in Rome, as I was working in the Latteria Studio with some wonderful women on Amber Guinness’ upcoming book. Amber traces her way down Italy with her recipes and, luckily for us, ends up in Sicily, where this dish originates from. It’s hard to describe exactly what caponata is. A bold, somewhat stew of Mediterranean vegetables and Sicilian agrodolce flavours. A piece of buffalo mozzarella and a slice or two of (focaccia) or ciabatta works deliciously with it. Extra points for making this a day or two before and letting the flavours become friends, just remember to let it come back to room temperature, or even slightly heat it up in the microwave before serving. This dish truly has become a staple for me, and I hope it soon will for you too!


2 medium-sized aubergines (around 450 grams untrimmed), diced into 2cm cubes

Lots (and lots) of extra virgin olive oil, this dish should glisten

Dried oregano

1 medium red onion, chunkily chopped

3 celery sticks, chunkily chopped to around 2cm pieces

A sprinkle of chili flakes, optional

400g of passata

A handful of capers, around 2 tablespoons

A handful of green olives, chopped to a size slightly larger than the capers, quarters perhaps

Caster sugar, to taste

White wine vinegar, to taste

2 decent handfuls of toasted almonds (toast in the pan for a few minutes until they are fragrant), roughly chopped

A handful of fresh basil leaves


Preheat your oven to 180°C.

Place the diced aubergine on a roasting tray and heavily drizzle some olive oil over them. Sprinkle some salt and oregano over and shake the tray so that the cubes are nicely coated. Roast in the hot oven for about 20 minutes, or until they are tender and colouring.

Generously cover the base of a large pot, on medium heat, with olive oil and add the chopped onion, celery, and a sprinkle of chilli flakes (if you are using them). Cook until the onions become translucent.

Next, add in the passata and fill its container halfway with water, give it a good swirl around, and add the tomatoey water to the pot. Add the olives and capers, and leave to simmer for around 15 minutes. 

At this stage your aubergine should be cooked, so add them to the simmering pot along with a decent pinch of salt and sugar, and a heavy-handed dash of vinegar. Turn the heat right down, cover, and leave for 30 minutes.

While the caponata is cooking, roughly chop your toasted almonds into chunks, similar to the size of the capers.

After 30 minutes, take the pot off the heat. Add your chopped almonds and basil leaves, and stir. Taste, and add more sugar and/or vinegar if needed.

Leave to cool down to room temperature and serve with (focaccia) or ciabatta and a chunk of mozzarella.

Claudia Roden’s Orange and Almond Cake

I have had and made many cakes in my time on this earth, yet I consistently come back to this one. The reason for that is that it’s absolutely delicious and insanely simple to make - and of course, cheap. As you skim over the recipe it might sound slightly absurd but trust me, it is divine, and it also makes a great breakfast! The ground almonds transform the cake texture to something closer to a pudding, yet still with a definite crumb. And the oranges, peel and all, really, truly do work.


4 mandarins/clementines, around 350 grams, the more fragrant and orange, the better!

250 grams of ground almonds

250 grams caster sugar

6 eggs

1 teaspoon baking powder

70 grams of roughly chopped dark chocolate, optional


Preheat your oven to 170°C.

Put the four oranges in a saucepan and fill it up with water so the oranges are almost submerged. Bring this to a boil, cover, and leave to simmer for 90 minutes. Drain the oranges and leave to cool until you can handle them.

Cut open the oranges to remove any pips. Using a stick blender, blend the whole oranges (peel and all!) in a bowl until you have a relatively smooth pulp.

Add the rest of the ingredients to the bowl and mix to combine.

Transfer the aromatic batter to a buttered cake tin and bake in the preheated oven for 60-70 minutes.  

Basta così…

So there you have it! A perfect, tried and tested, dinner party plan and menu. There is nothing stopping you, it’s time to bring dinner parties back into fashion, and it starts with you! I wait with anticipation for the invites to flood in but until then, buon appetito.