Declaring a theme for dinner is one of the best gifts you can give yourself as the home cook—you go from daydreaming and wondering how dinner will come together to immediately having a focus, and all the planning just falls into place. And somehow, the theme itself turns dinner into a sort of party—as known very well by virtually everyone I know, who works a regular “Taco Night” into their meal rotations.
But it can be the answer to entertaining too. My favorite example is when my friend Meg Kaplan had my family over for dinner a few summers ago. We were visiting Minnesota, where she and her family live, but they had just had a baby—hardly in a position to be cooking for guests. To our delight, she invited us for “Chicago Dogs“—hot dogs dressed up with a specific combo of vegetables and condiments—and simply piling on our own toppings that night, and tasting a familiar food in this totally new way, was so festive. And it was just hot dogs! This was pure genius. I loved it so much I set up a Chicago Dog bar at my son’s birthday party last July (for the grownups. Kids could care less about new and interesting ways to eat hot dogs).
Recently, we had friends and their kids over for another theme we keep revisiting: Argentina night. Several cuts of steak (typically a sirloin and a skirt) and some chorizo on the grill, chimichurri sauce (see my recipe, below), and oven-roasted fries with garlic and parsley (plain for the kids)—those are all inspired by a trip to Buenos Aires we once took. The rest—some simple boiled spinach (I use frozen!) drizzled generously with extra-virgin olive oil, and a green salad with avocado and a garlicky buttermilk dressing—is borrowed from Pampa, a restaurant I loved in New York City. And it is a hit with everyone, big and small, regardless of whether you go full-throttle and end with some dulce de leche ice cream or just some chocolate pudding, as I did this last time. (My 4-year-old had asked me earlier that week, “Mom, is chocolate pudding in real life?” and so I had to oblige my poor deprived child by making a batch together.)