I’m just coming off the back of a series of dinner parties and rapidly realising that the more you do, the easier they get. We generally go for six or eight people as it makes for better conversation and a little easier hosting when you inevitably have to head off to the oven occasionally – the party carries on without you.
I’ve spent far too long in my life fretting about exactly what to cook. I absolutely realise that the food is more for me than it is for anyone else. I’m simply not good enough to cook gourmet food and, if I did, I fear I would be so stressed that I couldn’t enjoy it. When I was younger I was far more ambitious…and unsuccessful. I think I thought it was possible to impress by going for exotic ingredients or exciting recipes. Poor guests suffered some stinkers over the years and I wholeheartedly apologise if any are reading now. Nowadays I’m just occasionally unsuccessful but lacking the ambition.
Going to dinner parties has taught me quite a bit about observing it through the eyes of a guest. Being able to hold a conversation with the host is quite important in the hierarchy of Dinner Party needs. The food itself needs to be edible – not too spicy or challenging but otherwise I’ve happily eaten a shared takeaway or a buffet without flinching.
If I am preparing or attending a dinner party here are my top ten tips:
1. Always check dietary preferences or requirements. I have known vegetarians who haven’t declared their allegiance through politeness and I’ve taken it as an indictment on the food quality. I myself will sit stony faced if presented with pineapple but eat every loathsome spoonful. It’s such an easy thing to adjust the ingredients accordingly.
2. Choose the menu based on convenience. This was my mistake – I used to choose things to cook which needed a lot of fiddling at the last minute with precise timing. I’m not saying there is no place for a burst of activity but thinking through the various activities which could collide can avoid some mistakes. Being able to bank a tasty starter which just needs presenting with a nice side salad, or a cold dessert saves lots of time later. In summer it’s easy to think about salads. In winter, soups can work well. This needs to be taken into consideration with
3. Cook as you host. I used to think that I needed to work like a restaurant with courses neatly following off the back of each other. There is a lot to be said for a nicely paced evening where the cooking only starts as the guests arrive. I have a friend who does this brilliantly. You turn up and it appears nothing is on the go. Bit by bit things appear out of the fridge and the open plan kitchen is a wonderful arena to prepare a meal in front of your guests. Of course the mistakes are in full view too – you need to be confident.
4. Take your time. No one like fast food that much. So what if it’s half an hour before the starter is ready?Sometimes it’s great to have a breather before tucking into the dessert. A dinner party isn’t Ready Steady Cook and those extra minutes allow you to avoid mistakes and relax a little more.
5. Avoid the gambles. You just don’t need to risk a soufflé, a chocolate fondant or even cooking six steaks to each individual’s preference. If you are skilled, or if you’ve practised so much that there is no risk, go ahead. The rest of us can take a different path. Having said this I am still surprised at what other people consider a gamble. Apparently you can forget carpaccio (of anything), anything cold that’s normally hot, and even fruit with meat.
6. Take the easy options. Especially for bigger groups there is no shame in playing it safe. It’s very difficult to overcook a chicken curry, a bowl of soup or a chilli.
7. Focus on presentation. Most people are too busy talking to notice the detail of the taste. Most will notice how it looks. A little extra time on garnish, cutting the vegetables and dressing the plate will pay off.
8. Buy in some components. You really won’t get any plaudits for making your own pasta, bread, or even spice mixes. For desserts, personally I think you can buy in meringue and be perfectly acceptable. The stress of making everything from scratch just isn’t worth it other than for your own personal satisfaction.
9. Allow yourself enough time to prepare. We’ve all seen a day disappear so quickly that you are left with a mad hour and a half final preparation and a last minute dash to the supermarket for a forgotten key ingredient. Far better to make things early and then heat through wherever possible.
10. So what? Your pork is pink, the beef is burnt, the ice cream is a frozen brick and the potatoes are like pebbles. NO ONE YOU WANT TO HAVE DINNER WITH WILL HOLD IT AGAINST YOU. Laugh it off and enjoy your evening.