Strained before serving?

By Victoria Prever, November 12, 2012

It seemed like a good idea at the time. You invite friends for dinner. Then as the date draws near, the stress and doubts begin.

Even the most seasoned professionals can find entertaining mildly traumatic: "However much I mean to give a proper dinner party, it always turns into an informal gathering, with some chaos, and plates stacked up all over the kitchen," says food writer Joanna Weinberg, whose first book, Relish focused on entertaining.

A selection of professional caterers and food writers have given us their top tips and fast fixes. Follow these and you'll be able to pull off a professional-looking dinner party without so much as breaking a sweat - or even a fingernail.

Even if you don't really want to know, it's worth checking what your guests can and cannot eat. The last thing you want is your efforts to be greeted with horror.

Fabienne Viner-Luzzato, author of Home-Cooking by Fabienne, says: "There is nothing worse than spending hours in the kitchen, only to find one of your guests has a profound disgust to what you've cooked".

Once you've established what you need to steer clear of, you can do some menu planning. Viner-
Luzzato advises consulting the specialists: "Ask your fishmonger what's in season and if you are cooking meat, order it in good time - if you want to roast a joint of beef, a good butcher will choose the best piece and dry the beef a few days before you cook it." Think about which fruit and vegetables are in season - they'll taste better and be cheaper.

All the professionals agree that it is a bad idea to attempt to cook something you've never tried before. It may be tempting to dazzle with Heston's recipe for Nitro-poached green tea and lime mousse or a Gordon Ramsey croustade of apple and coconut, but it is so much more likely a recipe for disaster.

Balance is key. A filo parcel followed by salmon en croûte and a fruit tart for pud would leave even Simple Simon feeling lardy. It is also not a good idea to hop between continents. Sushi followed by pasta is plain wrong. You also want to make sure that your entire menu will not be jostling for oven space at exactly the same moment, nor taking up every square inch on the hob.

Food writer Denise Phillips advises that a theme makes choosing food that bit easier and will make the evening look slick. Go Middle Eastern and you can serve a meze starter of dips like hummus and baba ghanoush with warmed flatbreads, followed by herby, spiced roasted chicken or lamb and a few salads. Finish it off with pistachio meringues, rosewater-scented fruit salad and glasses of mint tea. Phillips sometimes even themes her table and music.

Make it easier on yourself by mixing some bought bits with home-made and cooking much of your menu ahead. Food writer and caterer Silvia Nacamulli says: "Choose a menu that can easily be prepared in advance, or at least most of it. I like to prepare a main course which just needs warming up, lots of small vegetable dishes served mostly at room temperature, leaving only a first course which I prepare last minute, either fully or partly. Most of my dinner parties are with friends who come for a chat, good food and good wine and the best chats happen in the kitchen, so it's perfect."

Joanna Weinberg advocates not bothering with a starter if you have more than four guests. She serves a platter of bresaola (cured beef), cornichons, caper berries and home made flatbreads which, she says "always impress".

Some simple canapes and other mezze-style snacks with a glass of champagne will go down a treat. Spiced nuts, baked olives and dips are all tasty and quick to prepare but are sure to impress. Denise Phillips suggests serving toasted pitta strips in tall glasses: "They look really smart and are great on their own or with dips" (see recipe, opposite).

A simple main course makes life easier. In the winter, slow-cooked meat dishes are ideal. They go into the oven hours before you need them, pretty well look after themselves and fill the house with mouth-watering smells with which to greet your guests.

Weinberg says she prefers to cook one large dish to feed the whole party - "a roast fish, a paella, a stew or a curry. It's less formal, which I like, but it's also about making the whole occasion feel more home-made.
Restaurant -style plating always ends in a last-minute panic, and anyway, isn't that what restaurants are for?"

She also dispenses with hot vegetable side dishes altogether in favour of interesting salad, especially now farmers' markets offer such a great range of interesting leaves. "I'm particularly mad about lemony sorrel in salads at the moments and dressing made from extra virgin rapeseed oil, cider vinegar and grainy mustard, makes a refreshing change from olive oil."

Salad leaves can be tarted up with home-made croutons. Simply toss 2cm square cubes of ciabatta or sourdough bread - crusts removed – in olive oil and parmesan (or a spoonful of red pesto or olive paste) and toast on a baking sheet in a hot oven until golden and crunchy.

Home-made ice cream or simple parfaits have the wow factor and are not hard to make (recipe on previous page). Weinman says she always serves a simple but unusual ice cream like basil or blackcurrant, alongside a tart. To take the last minute hassle out of it, she makes the tart in three stages. "I line the tin with pastry the night before and chill it overnight. I bake it blind in the morning and fill and bake it while I'm preparing dinner so it has that oven-fresh warmth".

Phillips advocates freezing home-made soufflés. "Put the raw soufflé mixture into ramekins and freeze them," she says. "On the night, cook them from frozen, ensuring your oven trays are nice and hot and that you give them an extra five or 10 minutes' cooking time, depending on how large they are."

And the most important thing is not to panic. You are not running a restaurant for strangers. As Sylvia Nacamulli, says: "your guests are coming to spend a pleasantly relaxed evening, which is not all about the food. It should be fun for you too."

Last updated: 2:24pm, November 12 2012