Reinvention of the Dinner Party

Posted by Avalon Bourne

I was born during the wrong era. I should be living in a time of elegance and sophistication where my lifeís work would be acting the part of a gracious hostess. Dinner parties have lost their glamour; simple entertaining has lost its glamour or else become so stigmatized with stress and a consumption of time that the idea of preparing a multi dish and multi course meal without caterers or already prepared food is looked upon as a truly daunting venture. Not so. Truly there is nothing that brings us together so well as the bonding over amazing food, made all the more so if created in our very own kitchens. Of course there will be difficulties or let us say challenges, stress and perhaps even disastrous mistakes but in these days of our modern society when delayed gratification seems as outdated baking your own bread, there is something supremely satisfying in the joy given and received in feeding oneís near and dear with food created from our own hands.

As with most things, it is best to start with a list; menu, ingredients, guests, preparation time. I find the planning of the menu to be almost as enjoyable as the cooking of the meal. Here too is where concepts of time and work load become apparent. Obviously it is important to choose a menu that you can actually pull off and one that you are excited to make. For me a roast or some sort of one dish bake works the best. You just shove it in the oven and forget about it for a while giving you ample time for other preparations. It is also important to ensure that not all of your dishes require tending to within the exact same time frame. For example donít make two dishes that require constant stirring and attention and then need to be served immediately. Another important point to remember is the compatibility of your dishes; for instance, I would never serve potatoes and rice together and I like to have at the very least two varying colours on the plate. One last thing I would like to stress before moving on to menus is that not every dish requires a sauce; if all your dishes are sauced up then you wind up with just too much going on and all the flavours will be lost.

I am a meat eater. Thus, when I entertain I tend to stick to roasts of some sort (beef, pork, chicken) with a starch and two vegetables. This sounds very stuffy and English but it is a set structured menu that allows for numerous possibilities. A simple Roast Chicken can be flung in the oven with some lemon, garlic, shallots and a selection or root vegetables to roast alongside it and suck in all those glorious juices and flavours. This frees up my hands and time and perhaps rather more adventurous side dishes such as Sauteed Greens with Garlic and Asparagus with Feta and Gremolata. As well as a simply luscious stuffing made with cubed baguette simmered in chicken stock with onion and sage. I tend to make my stuffing outside of poultry and then add some of the drippings to give it a richer flavour. I also like to make a simple Roast encrusted with Mustard and Rosemary. With this I serve mashed potatoes with a sweet potato thrown in to cut the starchiness. Green beans tossed with just a hint of lemon and a scattering of almonds also go wonderfully and while the beef is sitting I like to Roast Parsnips with a touch of honey and garlic. Parsnips are woefully underrated.

Now for shopping I freely admit that I am a bit of a grocery store snob. I am known to have meltdowns in the aisles of certain establishments over their inherently and inferior and lack thereof of stock. If possible in both terms of finance and time I do try to shop in the European fashion; butcher, baker and candlestickmaker so to speak. Of course I realize that for the most part I am attempting to fulfill my champagne tastes on my beer budget and that most people would rather for the convenience of a one stop shop but in terms in quality I really must recommend going at least to produce stands and a butcher. I try to do my shopping the day before the event. This ensures freshness but also gives you optimum time the day of for preparation. This also gives you a chance to really get a start on preparing dishes if need be. I like to make my dessert the day before if I can just to get it out of the way.

So we have our plan of attack, our menu, our ingredients and now it is the moment of truth. It is easy to panic. It is easy to start asking yourself incessantly why you have invited seven people over for Thanksgiving supper with over five dishes not to mention accompaniments and a pumpkin crumble made from actual pumpkin which you have never done before. This is the moment you break into that fancy bottle of red you picked out especially for the evening and tell everyone to bring booze. Now to tackle the food; I try to get the roast into the oven a little ahead of time as meat always needs time to rest after cooking. This also gives you time to make your gravy whilst the side dishes are still cooking and really if your gravy is hot it doesnít matter so much if the rest isnít. Now if your guests come a bit early get them in the kitchen doing the grunt work; i.e. peeling vegetables, grating cheese, stirring continuously, maybe giving a hand with the dishes, after all this is supposed to be a fun evening with the people you love. And really do try to get the dessert made either the day before or earlier in the day just to get it out of the way. For side dishes use common sense in tackling the harder more time-consuming ones first and it is quite helpful to have all your ingredients gathered on the counter and your chopping done beforehand. The best parties are always in the kitchen so enlist your guests to help and relax with that glass of wine.

A supper party need not be difficult, in fact it can require very little effort and people will assume you slaved away for hours and be amazed and very impressed. A dinner party is really what you choose to make of it. Should you choose to make Beef Wellington with Potatoes Dauphinois and complicated stuffed vegetables and an elaborate croque-en-bouche then perhaps the evening will end in resentment and tears; however, if you enlist help (call it a cooking party), keep things simple, (hearty spaghetti Bolagnaise with a simply luscious Caprese salad and garlic bread can be perfect) serve some top end ice cream for dessert, and of course keep the wine flowing then you can certainly pull off a truly glamourous, delicious evening.