These are the rules I would follow if I followed rules
for entertaining. Or maybe these are the rules I would have followed if it had ever occured to me to think about this before. Anyway they're all taken from my experience as well as preferences, and none of them are absolute: for each well thought out rule there are dozens of equally well thought out exception
s. Reading back what I'd written, it also occurs to me that some look like they contradict each other. Still, it's a place to start, and even Martha Stewart
had to start somewhere, no?
This is, without a doubt, the single most important rule in life, never mind in cooking. But while in life you can sometimes coast and get by, in cooking an elaborate meal, if you haven't planned, you're going down. Absolutely everything needs consideration:
- Allergies: ask your guests in advance if they have any, or if they have any other dietary restrictions such as Kosher, Halal, vegan or whatever.
- Capacity: How many people can you seat? Maybe you should think of having a buffet style dinner.
- Facilitites: How big is your fridge? How about your oven? Can you fit a turkey big enough to feed all your guests in either, etc.? Do you have enough oven rings for that pasta, soup, sauce and custard all at once?
- Time: How long are you giving yourself to prepare the meal? A Saturday night dinner will offer more leisure than a Sunday lunch, which will still be more leisurely to cook than a weekday meal. If time is short, consider pre-cooking some dishes (pies, soups, ice cream) or choosing quick options such as fish or Asian food.
- Tools: Don't plan a meringue of you have no kitchen aid, or a creamed soup with no blender or food processor. Think of the results you can accomplish with what you have in your kitchen, because you don't want to add to the stress of entertaining by trying to strain our spaghetti through a pot lid and having burnt fingers.
- Shopping: Prepare a detailed and careful shopping list by going through the recipes and noting down each ingredient, then adding up how many onions, eggs etc. you will need to pull off the whole menu. Leave yourself at least one extra day to shop for anything you were not able to get the first time around.
It can get a lot more anal than this, and sometimes it needs to. When cooking a multi-course Medieval dinner for 16 people, I made myself a blow-by-blow planner with timings, tools needed, space taken in the kitchen, ingredients that should be to hand etc. It took me longer to plan the thing out than to make it, but without the plan nothing at all could have been accomplished.
Know what you cook, cook what you know
The first time your new in-laws or old boss are coming for dinner is not the time to take risks!
- Choose recipes you have prepared successfully before, or do a practice run a week in advance (any longer and you'll forget what went well and what should be changed). This is also not the time to get adventurously creative, so get a few solid, reliable, non-trendy or -faddy cookbooks and let the authors help you out.
- Choose something you like. This way you will be able to tell if it came out right with the help of the most reliable of food critics - your own tongue. If you know what you are aiming to achieve, which you should do if you're making a personal favourite (even if you've only ever had it in a restaurant before), then your goal is that much clearer and your chances of getting there that much better.
- Don't be overambitious. It's far better to cook a simple but delicious meal than to achieve mediocre results with some Gordon Ramsay approved piece of foolishness that takes three days and the sacrifice of your firstborn to pull off.
Prepare the setting
If you're out to impress, you want to be more swanky restaurant than mamma's kitchen:
- Steaming pots of hearty fare for all to share are right out. Serve individual portions. Assemble and finish the dish in the kitchen; ask a partner or designated helper to deliver them to table with you, so it can be done without awkward delays.
- Use nice dishes, preferably matching ones; you can always borrow some from your mom/neighbour.
- Always cover the table. If a clean tablecloth and cloth napkins are not available, the minimum is place mats with paper napkins.
- Make sure the room/s you are entertaining in are clean, tidy and preferably aired and sweet smelling. Nothing puts one off one's food like grime does, and though it may seem counterintuitive, heavy cooking smells are not the best welcome for your guests, either.
- Always serve drinks. Wine is of course the classic, but for non-drinkers fresh fruit juices, lemonade, iced tea or sherbets will do. Or even some chilled mineral water with a few slices of lemon and sprigs of mint thrown in.
Choose minimalist dishes
A stew or pot roast may be a wonderfully rich dish that requires the highest skills and the most exacting knowledge of herbs and spices; but the separate ingredients in a slow cooked, baked or casseroled dish tend to get lost in the whole. A dish designed to impress needs a single standout feature, be it a complex sauce, a spectacular piece of meat, a costly and/or rare ingredient etc.
- For starters, I would recommend minimalist salads with striking components such as exotic fruit or good quality cheese. Almost any combination of the above can be served on a bed of fresh leaves with a bit of balsamic dressing. Simple and yum.
- Unless you're cooking for a bunch of feeble vegetablists, the best thing you can have for a main course is some sort of choice cut of meat or fish. Fillets of salmon, whole seabass, chicken and duck supremes, good steaks and chops; all these things were designed by God to be eaten, which is how come they are all serving sized. I bet you've wondered about that, huh?
- Desserts are best when unfussy. A simple creme brulee will beat any multi-layered, over-processed, garish cake any day of the week. Stick to single flavour classics (chocolate, vanilla, butterscotch, coffee) and, if you feel a dish is too rich and needs an additional flavour to cut through, garnish with fresh seasonal fruit.
Always, always cook things you will enjoy eating, but try to also choose things that you will also enjoy cooking. Don't waste money on anything you don't like or are unsure about just because it looks expensive or impressive. It's true that some people are shallow enough to be impressed only by a certain label Champagne or to need to know the exact regional provenance of a cheese before they can pronounce it edible. By all means work one such trendy and overpriced item into your menu, but don't try to turn your house into some Soho eatery that's so far up its own arse it can talk through its bellybutton.
Food is the most fundamental of all pleasures, more than sex, more than adrenaline or love or beauty. There is nothing better than a good meal to get people talking, to get them to know each other and start becoming intimate. I recommend frequent and lavish dinner parties for the rapid expansion of one's social circle, with the added bonus of weeding out the whiners, the pickers and the vegetarians before they can impose upon you under false pretenses.
As a bit of an afterthought, here are a few of my own recipes that I've successfully cooked for company before. The number of stars next to a link denotes the level of difficulty, from * to ***.