Dinner Party Ideas & Dilemmas
If eating in is the new eating out – why is it so hard to get it right?
According to recent press reports, not only are we all eating out more as a nation, we are also entertaining at home more than ever. Not content with just watching Nigella, Delia, Rick and Gordon, we now want to take our home-made efforts and present them to friends and family in a semi-formal setting. The popularity of shows like Come Dine With Me has shown that, regardless of our cooking ‘talents’, many of us are convinced we know how to put a menu together.
But what experience and programmes like CDWM also show is the yawning gap between ambition and ability, as person after person fails to see that recipes like soufflé don’t respond well to a ‘crossing your fingers and hoping for the best’ approach.
Let’s face it, in reality the dinner party is just a big accident waiting to happen, with any number of variables coming into play to ruin an otherwise good time.
Firstly, the host: the person who has chosen to throw the party, to invite a particular mix of people, and to cook a particular menu combination. Never lose sight of the most important job for the host, which is to actually get some edible food on the table in a reasonable time frame.
“Close friends can be extremely forgiving about food disasters”
Sounds simple. However, many people quickly forget, amidst all the culinary showing, that putting good food on the table is the actual point of it all! Multiple courses, trios of puddings, wine matching complete with laboured tutorials – remember. you are not a restaurant. Even if you are capable of producing Ramsay-style food it means nothing if your guests are eating it at 11:30pm. And, by that time, even a Pizza Hut takeaway is going to feel Michelin-starred. Conversely, you should also avoid getting too ‘relaxed’ before dinner. A nice glass of wine whilst cooking is a chef’s perk but too much before everyone arrives and your offerings will be decidedly burnt.
Then there’s the guests. Friends coming round? Fine. Friends of friends or new partners. Could be tricky. A lot rests on you being familiar with your guests’ tastes. Close friends can be extremely forgiving about food disasters (dropping the main course, dog finding out how much they love trifle) and likewise you can be a bit more casual (if you’ve forgotten friend ‘A’ doesn’t like mushrooms you won’t have any problems telling them just to push them to the side of the plate).
Less familiar people are not so forgiving. The person who is ‘kind of’ vegetarian but eats chicken and fish (when you’re serving lamb). The ‘I’m allergic/intolerant to dairy/wheat/gluten’. The annoyingly picky person who just moves all the elements of their meal into separate piles. Ask about dietary requirements before they land on your doorstep to avoid any nasty surprises.
“Have the number of a good takeaway up your sleeve”
And then there’s the food – the reason everyone is there in the first place. Now I’m a huge fan of sharing food. The kind of thing where you just bung it in the middle of the table and let everyone help themselves – hearty food like casseroles in the winter and paella in the summer.
But if you want to offer the full three courses then go ahead. Just remember you are expected to occasionally appear at this party you are throwing so don’t give yourself an insurmountable task. Try making a cold starter or pudding that you can do ahead so you’re not slaving in the kitchen all night. Also, make something you’ve tried before, now is not the time for experimenting.
Have some drinks and snacks ready so people are occupied while you get the food on the table. And most of all relax and enjoy it. If you end up weeping into your failed crème brulee you’ve probably taken on a little bit too much.
If all else fails, at least have the number of a good takeaway up your sleeve, and enough wine to keep everyone happy while you are waiting for it to get there. Happy cooking!
Dinner Party Ideas: 5 Dinner Party Types
Knows the aisles at M&S intimately and isn’t scared to ‘adapt’ a few carefully bought items – after all, a sprinkle of fresh herbs on a bought Beef Bourgogninon or a dollop of boozy cream on a chocolate tart will make it their own, won’t it! Knows a little deli where they will bake a nice fish pie or lasagne in your own dish if you take one in.
PROS: you’ll eat on time and it will taste pretty good (mainly because they didn’t make it).
CONS: even if you rumble them you can’t say anything, it would be bad manners and you wouldn’t get asked back.
Food hero: Nigella Lawson
Sees you more as a guinea pig than a guest. Has all the latest kit; water bath, siphon gun to make foams. Plans his menu meticulously and will probably email it to you weeks before the event.
PROS: you will always know what’s going on at the cutting edge of molecular gastronomy.
CONS: You’ll have to listen to a 15-minute explanation of each dish before you eat it.
Food hero: Heston Blumenthal
The Nature Boy
Will be able to tell you the name, age and star sign of the animal you are eating. Has spent the last two days foraging for wild herbs, flowers and fungi to supplement your dinner. Insists on biodynamic wine only (so you can take that Jacobs Creek home with you).
PROS: You’ll know your steak had a happy life before it ended up on your plate with béarnaise sauce.
CONS: You might get mushroom poisoning – best to just hide them under some mash.
Food hero: Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall
“Confidence in complete disproportion to cooking talent”
The Old Pro
Approaches a dinner party with military precision. Has a repertoire of tried-and-tested can’t-fail recipes that have held good since the seventies. Wouldn’t dream of offering less than three canapés on arrival.
PROS: You won’t go hungry, in fact you might need a couple of days off afterwards.
CONS: you might be unfortunate enough to get their ‘signature’ dish involving anchovies and aspic.
Food hero: Delia Smith
Favours the bish-bosh approach. Doesn’t do recipe books or, if they do, they like to ‘adapt’ (i.e. go completely off at a tangent). Has confidence in complete disproportion to their cooking talent. Will insist any mistakes are ‘meant to be like that’.
PROS: can’t fail to be entertaining for all the wrong reasons!
CONS: You might not actually get any food.
Food hero: Jamie Oliver