One person’s chilled, home-cooked meal with friends is another’s exhausting chore as they tease the lumps from the béchamel sauce and wish they were watching Strictly instead. Melissa Blease offers some advice for dinner party hosts and guests
Whether you prefer to call it a dinner party, a supper or a celebratory feast, eating at home with a bunch of other folk is a lovely way to spend an evening – or at least, it should be…
Before planning your performance, consider your audience. As soon as you’ve made the date, double-check if any of your guests have any specific dietary requirements (intolerances, allergies, etc) and, of course, if there are any vegetarians/vegans in the group; these facts are intrinsic to your menu – which, with a bit of careful planning, is going to be a doddle…
A few days before The Big Eat-In, plan your whole menu from overture to finale, from which you will make your shopping list. Bear in mind that dishes you’ve cooked many times before and/or can be prepared well in advance avoid soaring stress levels at the stove (especially if space is limited) and, like the outfits in your wardrobe, can be adapted to all manner of occasions.
Once you’ve made your main course decision, the accessories suggest themselves. Curry? That’ll be bhajis, pakoras, pappadoms and pickles to start, and ice cream for pudding. Most Medi-themed main courses need no more than a simple antipasti selection to kickstart proceedings, and a small but indulgent dolci to bring the curtain down. If you’ve chosen a classic theme, soup or pâté and sticky toffee pudding or apple crumble are the classic bookends that bolster a heartwarming casserole (oh okay, call it a boeuf bourguignon if you must).
Now is not the time to attempt to serve food in towers, or on plates adorned with artistic smears, foams or gels – when it comes to amateur cheffing in a domestic setting, showing off rarely pays off. But ‘cheating’ is allowed, if not downright encouraged: seeing as your local delicatessen or supermarket are already masters of the art of entertaining, why not invite them (or their nibbles and desserts, at least) to the party?
SET THE SCENE
Make time to declutter ‘public’ spaces (i.e. kick loads of junk under the sofa/bed/cat) and stock up on bathroom necessities (most guests don’t expect to have to bring their own loo roll) well in advance of showtime. Remember that low or candle light hides a multitude of housework sins, and take it from a dinner party pro that flashing fairy lights in the dining room windows have a similarly distracting – sorry, I mean pretty – effect. Set the table before you start cooking, and make sure you have all the crockery, serving dishes and wine glasses you’ll need – remember though, nothing has to match; you’re at home, and home is where the mismatched crockery, weird cutlery and random-sized wine glasses live.
This sounds really obvious, but it’s a biggie: make sure you’ve got all the necessary ingredients you need on hand before you start cooking. And this sounds a bit geeky too, but again, you’ll regret not taking this advice: a ‘to do’ list, including oven temperatures and cooking times for every course, is really helpful. Allow plenty of time to get yourself dolled up (and sip an aperitif, perhaps?) before the doorbell rings – once the show begins, peace will be at a premium.
THE FINAL COUNTDOWN
White wine/fizz chilling in the fridge? Check. Red wine breathing at room temperature? Tick. Candles lit, music on, nibbles/canapés at the ready? Yes, yes and thrice yes.
MUSIC FOR ALL
YouTube, Sonos and Spotify; Alexa, Siri and Cortona: digital music services have changed the tempo of dinner party background music forever – and both hosts and guests need to be au fait with the new guidelines. Of course, not every dinner party is destined to be taken over by an impromptu, ad-hoc jukebox of personal greatest hits, cheesy power ballads and long-since-forgotten (usually for good reason) novelty one-hit wonders, most of them rudely interrupted before the second chorus by a guest desperate to revisit his/her own golden days of chart hits-gone-by… but these days, that’s often the way dinner party soundtracks roll. While ultimately the host is the DJ, everybody at the party needs to remember that one man’s Shaddap You Face is another man’s “I’ll get me coat,” and not everybody at the table thinks Adam Ant’s Prince Charming should be heard 17 times. And if the host starts crying into their wine while misremembering the words to Johnny Cash’s version of Hurt, it’s probably a cue to say goodnight. While we’re on the theme of social intercourse…
“If for whatever reason, a guest gets garrulous or a host turns horrid, just chill out, calm down, and don’t get angry”
A Trump supporter clashes with a Warren fan; a Brexiteer gets into a heated debate with a staunch Remainer; one of the guests ends up channelling Frankie Boyle while another embarks on the longest, dullest anecdote in the world at 7.30 and is still rambling on with it at 10pm; one of the couples have decided that now would be a great time to revisit that bickering match that started yesterday morning – and please, please will somebody tell the social media addict to put their phone down for at least the duration of half a course…
If, for whatever reason, a guest gets garrulous or a host turns horrid, just chill out, calm down, and don’t get angry; we’re all friends, we’re all grown ups, we’re all entitled to make ourselves look silly from time to time… and we’ll all get together again soon. Your personal invitation to the next dinner party at my house is in the post.
TOP TIPS: THE TO DON’T LIST FOR HOSTS
- DON’T invite people for dinner because you feel as though you should or because it’s ‘your turn’ – do it because you want to do it.
- DON’T sprinkle the table with novelty confetti, flower petals or fake gems unless you want novelty confetti, flower petals or fake gems sticking to everything you eat off, wear or pick up for the next week (or actually fancy running the risk of choking one of your guests).
- DON’T serve fizz in those ridiculous glasses that don’t have a base (why do they even exist?). Oh, and don’t serve complicated cocktails that take ages to put together and only moments to turn your guests into queasy zombies for the rest of the evening.
- DON’T attempt fiddly canapés that take hours to prepare when ready made blinis are made to be topped with cream cheese and smoked salmon, crème fraiche with avocado and balsamic vinegar, or olive tapenade from a jar.
- DON’T panic about pudding if pudding’s not your thing – a wedge of good local cheddar, a stack of oatcakes, a jar of farmers’ market chutney, a handful of grapes and a box of top-notch chocs cover all final course basics.
- DON’T serve desserts adorned with a sparklers unless you’re auditioning for Come Dine With Me.
- DON’T publicly suggest that one of your guests has had too much too drink, even if it’s patently obvious to everyone at the table – just subtly stem the wine flow and ask if anybody fancies coffee.
- DON’T stress over the washing up while your guests are still sitting at the table/lounging on the sofa. By all means, clear and stack used plates, glasses and cutlery as you go, but leave the big clean up until the next day – unless, that is, you’ve got a very good friend who actually likes doing the dishes. Talking of which…
Golden Rules for Golden Guests
- DON’T be late, don’t be early – just be on time. Even if you don’t intend to drink it, taking wine is obligatory: at least one bottle for the table per couple, and one for the host (which, if the dinner really does turn into a party, will of course be drunk) is the acceptable minimum.
- DON’T take beer unless you only drink beer, and definitely don’t take a ‘3 for £10’ wine selection from the local convenience store and then chug your way through copious amounts of the host’s treasured supply of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
- DON’T take random contributions, as unbidden ‘extras’ tend to throw the host’s plans off balance and bring chaos to beautifully laid tables – worst offenders include supermarket Tex-Mex dip selections, pre-cooked, fridge-cold cocktail sausages and leftover hummus. An unexpected little gift of flowers and/or chocolates, however, is always welcome.
- DON’T offer to help to prep, cook or serve – you’ll either get in the way or discover all manner of short cuts and private territories that the host didn’t want you to discover, while also running the risk of the host translating your offer as a suggestion that he/she isn’t coping or needs to get a wiggle on.
- Finally, thanking the host – both before you leave and the following day – is de rigueur.