If there is one thing that’s guaranteed to put the fear of God in me, it’s the prospect of “having friends over”. I am incapable of cooking for more than four people, and guilty of bulk-buying, bulk-cooking and bulk-burning everything to a crisp. Over the years, there have been several examples of this happening – incidents that I’d really like to forget, so, nowadays, in my household, we have An Understanding: my husband does the cooking, while I fanny about on the sidelines, pimping a shop-bought pudding or taking charge of plating up the chips ‘n’ dips (a very important job, I might add).
It’s a strategy that works, although it’s a strategy that means I never get much say in what we are going to eat, and, contrary to what impression I might have made here, I do actually like cooking. I’ve recently realised that the secret to stress-free entertaining is more about not doing than doing things, and giving myself an easier life. So, if you are a dinner-party stress-head like me, here are a few do's and don'ts:
1 DON'T TRY TO DO EVERYTHING
If you can’t multitask and find that first hour getting the food out, talking to guests and serving them drinks at the same time very stressful, then lay on a punch and leave out the bottles so that guests can top it up when needed. A current favourite is Nigella’s Poinsettia bowl, recipe here.
2 DON'T WORRY ABOUT HAVING THE RIGHT THINGS
Friends don’t care if your cutlery doesn’t match or they have to drink prosecco from wine glasses, plus I find two adults will happily share a chair, butt-cheek-to-butt-cheek, the whole night without complaining, provided they are topped up with fizz.
3 DO CLEAR THE TABLE
As a guest, I hate the claustrophobia you get whenever a host has inadvertently overloaded the table with fussy bits and pieces: coasters, chopstick rests, condiment holders, plate warmers, table runners, table confetti, finger bowls, candles, vases or any other superfluous decorative object, for that matter. We don’t have a big kitchen table, so I have three things in my firing line: napkins (kitchen roll is fine), side plates (rarely use them) and charger plates, aka those fancy plates you place under dinner plates but don’t eat from. Mine have now been despatched to the charity shop, because I’ve decided I don’t need anything more to wash up.
4 don't bother WITH STARTERS
If you’re a dinner-party worrier like me, starters are just another course to worry about. Chips ‘n’ dips (especially *my* chips ‘n’ dips) are fine; baked cheese, too. I also like to tart up a pot of shop-bought hummus: decant it into a little bowl, make a little swirl in the centre with a spoon, drizzle olive oil into the middle of it, and then sprinkle on sundried tomatoes, coriander and toasted pine nuts. I would pass this off as my own invention, but that’d be cheating, as it’s an idea stolen from my good friend, chef John Gregory-Smith, here.
5 do invest in a big platter
The whole point of a dinner party is that everyone eats as much as they want and no one leaves hungry. Avoid individual servings and anything too finicky, think twice about cooking something you haven’t tried before and choose dishes that can be slow-cooked on a low-heat in the oven. Serve everything in big platters for guests to help themselves and make big vats of stuff – stew, chilli, etc – so there is absolutely no possibility of that dreadful notion of “family hold-back”.
6 don't bother with COOKing CARBS
If you’re worried about having too much to do, simplify your carbs – bread is fine if that’s all you have time for. These days, I just buy some kind of fancy artisan French stick and pop in the oven for a few minutes to warm through before serving. I never bother with rice or potatoes.
7 don't do WHITE PLATES
One of the main things I’ve learnt from writing about food and lifestyle over the years is the importance of presentation, and how the simplest food will always look and taste amazing if it’s presented on the right serveware. Gone are the days of white plates – thank God, as they hold no prisoners, foodwise. Instead, collect homespun dinnerware in blues, greys, browns and creams, with interesting glazes and matte finishes. Mismatched crockery is better than matching, and it’s about buying slowly and building up a collection of one-off pieces you’ll love. You can still pick up some lovely retro pieces in charity shops and car-boot sales. Right now, I am in love with the artisanal, informal feel of the Denby Pottery Company, a truly British brand that, in recent years, has upped its design game.
You could also ditch the plates altogether. In my house, we eat from bowls all the time, so why revert to plates when we have friends over? I much prefer the informality of shallow bowls and pasta bowls.
8 don't make it FORMAL BUT do KEEP THE THEATRE
I believe in a well-stocked bar, because when the cuppeth overfloweth people forgive a lot – even bone-dry chicken and soggy mash. In the same vein, l also believe in not being stingy with the salt. Some people don’t put seasoning out and then treat it as if it’s a major offence to their culinary skills if people ask for it, but I am in the life’s-too-short camp.
Serve drinks “courses”: aperitifs, dessert wine, and after-dinner digestifs, in addition to the usual vino collapso, as it adds some theatre to the meal. Decanting wine into ceramic pitchers makes things feel a bit more special. Small bistro-style tumblers look less formal than wine glasses.
9 DON'T STOP PRETENDING
There’s no shame in a shop-bought pud, and I am very good at not instantly confessing that something is from the supermarket and relying on my guests to be too polite to ask. If you haven’t had time to buy anything, always have good coffee and chocs to hand.
10 AND, FINALLY, DO STOP GUESTS FROM LEAVING EARLY
I am a big believer in chaining guests to the table and not letting them sit back down on the sofa after they’ve eaten, because that spells curtains for the evening. To make them stay a bit longer, I will often enforce some silly-slash-rude game on them, depending on the mood/levels of lubrication. I’ll leave the choice of game up to you, but I’ve had many a funny night playing Who’s The Dude, which is like charades but uses a blow-up doll, and which, at this juncture, I’ll take as a cue to sign off. Happy (stress-free) entertaining.