Top Tips for Having a Dinner Party

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On Selected Knives

Top Tips for Having a Dinner Party

Blanche Vaughan – Food writer and Chef

Does having a dinner party fill you with horror? Or do you rise to the occasion? Whichever it may be, here are a few ideas to inspire you to embrace home entertaining, avoid last minute disasters and make your party go with a swing.

Keep it simple

‘Good ingredients, simply prepared’ should be your maxim. Leave the complicated cooking to restaurants and embrace simplicity at home. This doesn’t limit you to cheese on toast - although most guests will be so happy to have a night off cooking, they probably wouldn’t mind. Choose something you feel comfortable making, preferably a meal or at least a recipe you’ve tried out before. Whatever you do, don’t pick the night of your dinner party to experiment with your new ‘molecular gastronomy’ cookbook…

Get ahead

Regardless if you have a spacious, open-plan kitchen or a galley in the basement, it’s never fun to be trapped by a hot stove when your guests arrive. Try and get as much of the work done ahead as possible – your friends haven’t come to watch you run around in your apron in a sweat.

If you’re thinking of serving three courses, you’d be absolutely mad not to have made at least two in advance, preferably the day before. Keep the starter simple: a soup, some cold cuts and cornichons or a plate of smoked eel with beetroot and horseradish can be prepared ahead to take the last minute pressure off. Save the risottos and soufflés for quiet kitchen suppers.

‘One pot’ recipes served with a green salad or meat roasted in the same pan as the vegetables you will eat it with are perfect – no last minute juggling with timings and fewer dishes mean less washing up.

If you roast a chicken or a joint of beef, remember that it always benefits from resting. It can be cooked and resting in a warm place for at least half an hour before you carve it. The free oven space can be used to warm your plates and serving dishes instead.

Puddings can be great candidates for day-before preparation. I like to make a tiramisu, which tastes better after sitting for a day, or a fruit tart. Otherwise just buy a good ready made one and no one will ever know - remember though, if someone asks for the recipe, it’s your cue to go to ‘get something from the kitchen’ and they’ll have forgotten by the time you get back.

You’re ready to go

Lay the table and assemble all the serving dishes and plates you’ll be using, put out a tray with glasses and drinks and some nuts, olives or slices of salami to keep everyone’s hunger at bay before dinner begins. Table linen isn’t a must but it does look rather smart. Scatter a few candles around and turn down the lights. You could even push the boat out and buy a bunch of flowers.

For any last minute dishes, there are three words to remember: mise-en-place – which mean putting in place or setting it up – anything you’ll need to finish the dishes – herbs to chop, cheese to grate, icing sugar to sprinkle - get them all out on the prep board, measured and ready.

With all these things under control, you’ll have time to change and freshen up before the doorbell rings, free to pour drinks and chat. Last minute finishing touches can be made to the dishes after you’ve welcomed your guests.

It’s about the atmosphere as much as the food

So be relaxed, turn on some music and soften the lighting. Or, if you like to get people involved, ask them to help you do this when they arrive. No one minds lighting candles and opening a bottle of wine for you, but they might be less keen if you ask them to dispatch the lobster you’re about to cook, while you battle with a split mayonnaise.

Guests

The famous French gourmand, Brillat Savarin, wrote amusingly about entertaining some hundred years ago and his words still echo with reason; “let (the guests) be so chosen that their professions will be varied, their tastes analogous, and that there be such points of contact that odious formality of introductions will be not needed”. Think of your guests as ingredients – preferably ones that work well together.

The only thing you can’t do in advance is the clearing up…

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