Dinner parties are meant to be fun. It sounds like an obvious point, but too many people seem to forget it and end up crying halfway through the evening over a spilt sauce. I have thrown countless dinner parties and once threw 26 alphabet themed baroque feasts in a single year, so I feel like I’ve learnt a thing or two along the way when it comes to entertaining a crowd.
When it comes to the food, it seems miserly not to make some sort of effort. A friend recently told me that he was invited to a dinner party where all the guests were given a choice of supermarket ready meals, which the host then proceeded to heat up. I don’t care how bad a week you’ve had or how bad a cook you are, this kind of behaviour just doesn’t cut the mustard, if only because it is wholly unwelcoming. If you ask people for dinner, it is only polite to cook for them.
You’ve asked your friends to trek all the way to your gaff for the evening - which, if you’re a Londoner like me, I’m guessing isn’t in Zone 1 - so it’s important to make them feel it was worth the journey. This doesn’t mean you need to recreate Babette’s Feast, but it’s important to make sure that what you cook is of an edible standard and that there’s plenty of it.
You don’t need to spend this month’s rent on lobster and foie gras to have a successful dinner party. In fact, cooking for a crowd can be a much more economical choice than forking out on dinner in a restaurant. It is also invariably the more relaxed choice. You can listen to the music you like, gossip about other people you know without finding they’re sitting at the table behind you and you can take your own sweet time without having to worry about rushing your after dinner Armagnac because your two-hour time slot is nearly up.
I have a reputation for over-catering, but I still maintain that it’s better to err on the side of generosity when it comes to portion sizes – especially since free flowing booze (and if it’s a good dinner party this should be par for the course) tends to increase appetite. Besides, in my experience, it’s always a mistake to underestimate your guests’ propensity for sheer and unadulterated greed.
I recently cooked dinner for 8 people, with a menu that just nudged at posh without being flashy. If I can do this with limited fuss (except for not being allowed to get drunk with everyone else) while 8 months pregnant, I promise it will be a total cinch for you.
I made a simple seasonal starter of balsamic baked beetroot, smoked pancetta, fresh basil and asparagus spears with smoked roasted garlic dressing, which came in at £22.81 (or £2.85 a head). The main course was roasted lamb chump (sometimes called rump) and lamb shoulder bon bons with wild garlic salsa verde, cauliflower puree, potato fondants, carrots and purple sprouting broccoli. The main course came in at just shy of £60 (£7.50 a head). My pudding of lemon and rhubarb posset with pistachio crumb cost less than £14 in total (or under £1.75 a head) and had the added bonus of being do-ahead, so there was no last minute whisking or baking. All this left me with a total food bill of under £100 for a three course meal, but I decided to splash out on extras in the form of crab in chicory boat canapés (which cost about a fiver) and a generous cheeseboard (I spent just over £20 including crackers and grapes).
Although all good guests will know to bring a bottle, it’s essential that booze supplies never run dry. You can keep some cheap stuff in reserve for when everyone’s too wine-addled to notice, but a little forethought in terms of food and wine pairing is always appreciated.
I chose to serve Chapel Down Brut NV Vintage Reserve (currently £15.59 from Ocado) with the crab canapés, a choice of crisp white minerally Sancerre (£13) or a light and fruity Fleurie (£11) with the starter, Pinot Noir (£14) with the lamb main and Klein Constantia Vin de Constance with pudding (expensive at £30, but well worth it), but Jurançon would be a delicious alternative for the more price conscious (around £10 – 12) amongst you.
Now it’s your turn. Staying in is the new going out after all, so invite your mates over and get cooking. And remember, if your posset hasn’t set or you’ve overcooked your side vegetables, it really isn’t the end of the world. Whatever you do, try not to bang on about it all night. By all means own up to your mistakes, but do it with a breezy shrug of your shoulders and a smile. There are few things drearier as a guest, than having to constantly reassure a flapping host that the main course was the stuff of legends or that never has a pudding tasted more delicious. Always bear this in mind as a host and leave your ego in the kitchen. If you must have a meltdown, do it quickly behind a closed door and leave your poor guests out of it. As long as you’ve popped enough corks between courses, they’ll be happy as Larry. Besides, if they complain, you can make a mental note never to invite the ungrateful b******s over again.