by Deb Bennett
In my mind, there is a 1-to-10 scale of eating patterns. Beans on toast in front of the TV would rank at one, followed in rather random order by weekly take-aways, the thrown together leftovers, whipped up favourites (bolognaise in our house) and defrosted casseroles.
But the dinner party sits at number 10 – the pinnacle of proper. Today we’re going to talk about how to host the perfect dinner party.
If, like me, you grew up watching American sitcoms as a kid, you probably think of a dinner party as a very grown up thing to do. On the small screen they were often the setting for impressing the boss, winning that big contract or trying to befriend the neighbours after a hilariously comic misunderstanding.
The set of the sitcom was transformed – occasionally a never-before-seen dining room would make an appearance – there was good crockery and cutlery, many courses and much merriment. And of course, the wife (always the wife) looked amazing in her designer couture and sparking jewels.
If such scenes of perfection have deterred you from ever attempting anything as grand as a real dinner party, I would encourage you to think again. With just a little planning and a bit of help, you can enjoy a pleasant evening with company you have chosen, get sozzled after dessert and not have to worry about driving home.
The first thing to do is think about who you want to invite. For a dinner party to work well, I suggest six is the optimum number of guests (which makes eight if you include your your partner).
When inviting people, remember to ask if they have any dietary requirements. This will avoid those awkward moments when you serve up the Tahitian fish salad you prepared overnight to someone with a seafood allergy.
Because my house is generally in a state of CHAOS (can’t have anyone over syndrome), I find it best to spend the weekend before the dinner party indulging in a bit of industrial cleaning. That way you can keep on top of things through the week and don’t spend the whole day of the dinner party mopping and scrubbing.
It’s also a good idea to make sure tablecloths are clean and not screwed into a ball at the back of the linen cupboard, and check that you have enough wine and beer glasses for everyone.
Have some idea of the menu about a week ahead so you know you have enough big bowls, plates and so on for serving
Then to the menu.
This is where you can ensure that on the day of the dinner party you are not slaving over a hot stove and panicking that NOTHING WILL BE READY! on time. One trick I use is to pre-prepare most of the dinner beforehand and freeze it, so the day is spent reheating rather than actually cooking.
My personal favourites include anything that can be plonked on the table for guests to help themselves.
A big pot of home-made vegetable soup and fresh rolls makes a light and tasty entrée.
- You can cook most curries ages beforehand and freeze them; curries actually taste better if they are not eaten as soon as they’re prepared.
- You can cover most food groups and dietary requirements with a curry.
I usually aim for about four main dishes – butter chicken, beef madras, a fish curry and a dry vegetable curry. It might also be a good idea to offer what I call a ‘kids’-curry’ – not too spicy – for those with a more delicate stomach. This is all served with a big bowl of rice and naan bread.
This is a dinner to meander over. It leaves time for lots of talking and catching up, and lots of second and third helpings.
If you have never tried cooking curries before, perhaps a dinner party is not the time to start. Some other favourites for dinner parties include spaghetti and meatballs, lasagne, osso bucco or barbecued lamb with Greek salad and baked potatoes. The simple rule is: go with what you know.
This rule also applies to the dessert. If you are not great at whipping up a crème brulee drizzled with smashed raspberry jam, don’t. Most people have a speciality, whether it be the good old pav or an apple pie. Pies are especially good because, again, they can be pre-prepared, but there is nothing wrong with serving your guests a desert bought at one of the speciality bakehouses.
Then on to coffee and a cheese platter and it’s time to say good night.
Some important rules to remember:
- Don’t rush through courses in your haste to sit down and enjoy yourself. Take your time and savour the night, make all the effort worth it.
- Always have a jug of chilled water on the table.
- Ensure you have ice in the freezer for guests who drink spirits.
- Assume that when guests bring wine, they want to drink it. Don’t stash their imported Merlot the wine rack and offer them Chateau Cardboard.
- Make sure no one feels left out of conversations. Be aware that if you have invited a couple of really close friends you might start chatting about topics that can inadvertently exclude others.
- Eat, drink and be merry!