There’s nothing like a dinner party to make a new apartment truly feel like home. And though it’s been two months since I up and left the bustling city of Los Angeles for the quiet adventure of Drogheda, Ireland, it was only last Saturday that I finally hosted friends for a home-cooked meal.

I will admit that I geeked out a bit on the preparations: out came the cloth napkins and napkin rings, matching dishware and candles. I cleaned the apartment top to bottom. I even created a playlist on my iPod specifically for the dinner (major nerd, I know!). But when it came to the meal, I made food that could be cooked in advanced so I could enjoy my friends’ company versus being stuck in the kitchen all night.

For starters, we had two different crostini: one with goat cheese with caramelized balsamic onions and the other with a garlic and roasted red pepper spread with fresh basil. Both were very easy to make ahead of time; I caramelized the onions  and whipped up the red pepper spread in a mini food processor with jarred roasted red peppers, garlic cloves, walnuts, smoked paprika, cayenne pepper and breadcrumbs a day ahead of the party. An hour before my friends arrived, I simply toasted the baguette slices in the oven and assembled the crostini (if you do the onions a day ahead just make sure to remove them from the refrigerator a few hours before assembly – they work better at room temperature). Considering there wasn’t a trace of the crostini (42 slices in all!) by the end of the evening, I’d say they were a hit.

For the main course, I made a big batch of chicken cacciatore, a classic Italian comfort dish of chicken, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and herbs. I made this the morning of the party, and reheated right before dinner. With it I served toasted gnocchi, which was the only item I had to cook while my friends were here. Instead of boiling the fresh gnocchi (purchased at Tesco!), I put a bit of olive oil in a large sauté pan and seared them on each side to a golden brown. I prefer the crispy/chewy texture of sautéed gnocchi over the softer, dumpling-like feel that results from boiling them.

After a few drunken rounds of “guess the celebrity” (you stick a paper on your forehead with the name of a celebrity; everyone else has to give you clues until you guess which celeb is on your forehead, totally unfair for me since I am clueless about Irish rugby players and the like!), I served the dessert of salted butterscotch budino. This is an ultra-rich Italian pudding made with an obscene amount of cream, milk and butter but it’s worth every calorie. The combination of sea salt, butterscotch and cream is, in a word, heaven.

As I sat at the dining room table, laughing and gazing (drunkenly) at my friends, I could feel my new place becoming a real home. There will undoubtedly be more stumbling blocks and frustrations ahead in my time here in Ireland, but with this recent gathering of friends I feel the transition is complete. Now if I could only understand their accents and crazy lingo, I’ll be all right…

Chicken Cacciatore
(Serves 6-8)

4 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup plain white flour
2 teaspoons salt, and more to taste
2 teaspoons pepper, and more to taste
8 chicken breasts
2 small white onions, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 yellow bell pepper, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup chicken stock
3, 15-ounce cans diced tomatoes (in their juice)
2 teaspoons dry oregano
2 teaspoons anchovy paste
1/3 cup creme fraiche
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil

Heat olive oil in a large pot. Using a paper towel, pat the chicken breasts until dry. Sprinkle salt and pepper on chicken breasts, then dredge in the flour. Working in batches, sear the chicken in the olive oil until browned on each side (about 3-4 minutes per side). Place on a plate and set aside. To the same pot, add the onions and peppers and cook for 5 minutes. Then add the garlic and cook for another 2-3 minutes or until onions are transcluscent. Add the wine, stock, tomatos, oregano, anchovy paste and chicken and bring to a boil over high heat. After it boils, reduce heat to medium and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the creme fraiche and basil leaves. Serve with pasta, potatoes or whatever side dish you like!