Whenever I read anything about dinner parties, as in advice for planning, preparing and hosting one, there always seems to be an emphasis on keeping everything stress-free, easy and smooth. Which is sound advice. After all, you don’t want to be still juggling with sodium alginate, making spherical pops of carrot and ginger caviar as your guests walk through the door. You don’t want to be suddenly tackling ten feet high flames, just because you thought that a demonstration of your flambé skills would be impressive. And you definitely don’t want people to come wandering into the kitchen, because you went missing for a period of 45 minutes; only for them to find you weeping gently on the floor, with a tray of shrunken, flaccid soufflés sat in your lap.
Yes, if there ever was an acronym to use when it comes to hosting dinner parties, it would have to be K.I.S.S. Or ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid'.
However, saying that, given the pressure those two magic words seem to conjure up in people’s minds, I think a better course of action is to simply make things fun and focus purely on having a good time. A wise man once gave me this gem to dining success at a wine and food pairing event, which went along the lines of: “This is all nonsense this pairing business. Whenever friends or family invite you over for a meal, do you ever think for a second about what food is going to be served, and what wine to take with you? Have you ever called ahead to find out what is on the menu? No, normally you just pick a bottle from the off-licence, rock up, unplug the cork, enjoy the food and enjoy the company.”
I really liked that message and I think all dinner parties should be based upon that very sentiment. As a host and cook, if you can enjoy yourself, your guests will enjoy themselves and then everything will be OK. If things go wrong, they go wrong, it won’t be the end of the world. Even if you are hosting a fairly formal dinner party, where bosses attend or there is a bit of match-making going on, at least you’ll be giving them something to talk about on the way home. But who has those sort of dinner parties anyway? They only exist in Richard Curtis films.
So whenever I hold a dinner party, I always try to go for the K.I.S.S approach, to help steady the ship and then add in an element of devil may care afterwards. In fact, if I were to hold one soon, the menu would look a little bit like this:
Essex asparagus with brown shrimp and burnt butter
Sea Bream en papillote, with new potatoes, spring vegetables and sorrel
Elderflower panna cotta with gooseberry compote
Now, I know what you are thinking - “Hmm, nice looking menu Dan, all light and seasonal…..but where is the danger? Where is this sense of fun coming from?”
Well, the secret would be to buy in some cheap old plates, for serving up the main event of fish baked in paper. Not only is this classic technique fuss-free and straightforward, you can present all the food still contained within the baking parchment if you like. Saying that, the technique of wrapping in paper and folding over can be tricky, so to make sure that there is no leakage, it is not a bad idea to use a layer of foil too.
Anyway, after polishing off the fillets of tender bream and veg, all doused in a buttery wine sauce; once left with crumpled foil and paper on their crockery, your guests are more than likely to comment on your smug efficiency with saving on the washing up.
“OK, what do you want us to do with your clean plates then?” they might just say.
And with that, you pick your plate up, toss it into the corner of the room and as it shatters, pronounce that you are not doing any washing up, and see if the others follow. If they do, hey, you’ve already set up one hell of a memorable dinner party right there haven’t you.
One thing we shouldn’t forget of course, is to factor in a sensible budget when planning a menu. The one above, which is largely pescetarian and vegetarian, should come in at £10 a head. For a more thorough breakdown though and after looking at recent prices in the supermarkets, the costs for each course would be as follows:
Starter - £19.91
Mains - £44.49
Dessert - £10.53
That actually comes to £74.93 or £9.37 a head, which leaves more than enough for buying in some wine. And a generous host always supplies the booze. Not that you should discourage people bringing gifts, oh no. But still, say that we go for a decent bottle per person; with perhaps a cheeky offering of something fizzy to kick things off, I’ve figured out that the final bill would come in at around the £200 mark.
With perhaps a little bit more for the plates.