I am not really a fan of the label Dinner Party; I think it sounds a bit naff. But we do seem to entertain quite a lot and I really enjoy planning a menu for friends and working out the best way to produce fabulous food without spending the whole evening chained to the cooker. My main aim when hosting a dinner is to join in the fun! I find that if I plan to cook something overly complicated and fussy, I will undoubtedly mess it up on the night because I am too eager to get back to the conversation and the company of my guests. Preparation is the key. So I try to choose dishes that I can organise in advance, making sure that just the final touches need to be done when the guests are here. I enjoy spending the day plodding around my kitchen, cultivating some culinary delights at my own pace, nice and relaxed. Safe in the knowledge that all the planning and prepping will result in an almost seamless production of dinner. This also means that I can drink some nice wine and as I relax with a few glasses of red, the dinner wont fall apart!
I think its a nice touch to offer guests some canapés when they arrive and the drinks are being served. It also means they have something tasty to nibble on and so there isnt the pressure to rush straight in to the kitchen to produce the first course. Canapés dont have to be overly elaborate; some slices of toasted baguette topped with pâté and slices of gherkin or cream cheese and sun blush tomatoes, or hummus and a black olive spring to mind. These would take just minutes to assemble before your guests arrive with absolutely no hard work required. But I have a few slightly more sophisticated recipes that I think are worth the extra effort if you have the time.
Firstly, Summer Pea Crostini with Goats Cheese and Mint. These have the most vivid green colour that really sings out deliciousness! They taste so fresh and summery and always impress. Just blend some defrosted frozen peas with a clove of garlic and plenty of seasoning and assemble all the parts on your crunchy little toasts done!
You could also have Smoked Salmon Bread Baskets drizzled with a little dill and horseradish mayonnaise. These are elegant and easy; just roll out a slice of bread as thin as you can. Cut out a circle and brush with oil. Then shape the bread in a muffin tin and bake for 10 minutes to crisp up. These little bread baskets are so clever and could be used as receptacles for countless scrumptious fillings. Let your imagination run wild!
Another favourite of mine is Salmon, Lemon and Dill Brioche. A little care and attention can make these canapés look wonderfully stylish. Use a small circle cutter for the brioche and try to form quenelles with the salmon and cream cheese mixture. If you have time, they are wonderful using fresh salmon, poached and flaked, but a can of salmon is also good and incredibly speedy.
Moving on to the first course. In an ideal world, your starter would be completely made in advance and be just ready to serve. Soups, salads, terrines or pâtés etc all work well using this methodology. I cooked a meal for my Mums birthday this week and I made Spicy Sweet Potato Fish Cakes which I made in advance, fried just before my guests arrived and then kept them warm in a low oven until ready to serve. The sweet potato really works with a hint of chilli and the aromatic coriander running through. Served with some wasabi mayonnaise they were a delight.
An example of a straightforward main course that I made for friends recently would be Roasted Hake with Fennel and Salsa Verde. Simple, yet packed full of flavour with the punchy salsa and the meltingly soft fennel, its an impressive dish to make but comes together with very little effort. Make the Salsa Verde before hand and prep the fennel and red onion. Then when your guests sit down for their starter, put the fennel in the oven to roast. When the starter is finished, place your fish fillets on top of the fennel and roast for a further 8 minutes and then assemble and serve. It could not be easier.
And finally, a make ahead dessert that always makes an impression is my cheats Mango Brûlée. Simply a mixture of Greek Yoghurt and cream which sets on top of some chopped mango, covered with sugar and blow torched to achieve your brûlée. It takes just a few minutes to make and just a few seconds to eat! My kind of dessert.
These are just a few of the things I cook for friends making sure that I have enough time to properly enjoy myself as well. Very simple yet I think, very sophisticated.