The dinner party is back. Whether it’s the impact of the recession, the indomitable rise of Come Dine With Me or our simple love of cooking, who knows – but a night of food, wine, friends and fine conversation is firmly back on the UK menu.
But for many people, throwing a dinner party can be more hassle than it’s worth. In fact, one poll even found that more than half of people find throwing a dinner party a more stressful task than going to work!
Well we can’t have that. Here are five tips for hosting the perfect dinner party.
A little planning goes a long way. Not everyone is super-organised and you don’t have to be, but there’s an awful lot you can do in advance to make sure your dinner party goes smooth and fuss-free.
Get some atmospheric candles and a few cheap cushions out of the loft – get the room ready in good time. Have your outfit hung up and ready to go. Test the lighting and make sure you’ve got it set at just the right level.
Go for cold starters or light nibbles that you can get ready hours before your guests arrive. Prepare the main in advance, ready to cook in the oven, meaning you’re not dashing in and out of the kitchen every five minutes.
Work within your means. Never cooked Heston’s Snail Porridge before? Then don’t bother. Stick to what you’re good at and what you know, because food cooked well tastes well.
Same goes for decorations. You don’t have to head to Harrods and come away with the latest kit – use what you’ve got at home or head to Ikea and buy a job lot of candles to add some atmosphere to the room.
After all, your guests won’t be impressed by fancy meals they’ve never heard of. They’re there for some fine fare, drink and chat – so no need to go crazy.
There is only one event more troublesome than the dinner party when it comes to sorting the seating plan: the wedding. As many will attest, organising the seating at a wedding deserves a feature (or three-volume book series) all of its own. But dinner parties don’t have to be too trying.
Having a rough sketch of where you’d like people to sit is a good idea – keep it fluid enough though so you can alter plans should someone be unable to make it. Don’t be afraid to mix it up, either. If you have a couple of friends who have never met but you reckon will get on really well, why not seat them next to each other and see if the sparks fly?
Make sure there’s some music on, even if it’s mood or background music. Later, when the pots are in the dishwasher and you and your guests are cracking open that next bottle of wine, you could have Spotify or YouTube open on a laptop and invite your friends to get up and choose their own tunes.
Don’t let a dinner party turn you into someone you’re not. Relax and have fun. If you put in even a modest bit of prep, then there’s no reason to have a stressful evening spent scatting about the house.
Getting a group of close friends together around a table of an evening is a rare event these days, given our busy lives. So sit back and enjoy the evening for what it is: food, conversation and humour with people you love.
Tackling common dinner party mistakes
Throwing a dinner party for your nearest and dearest is supposed to be fun, but more often than not it can end up being a stressful affair with you spending hours prepping in the kitchen, running round like a headless chicken and not being able to spend any time with your guests. And then being faced with a mountain of washing up when everyone has left.
If this sounds all too familiar then follow our guide to common dinner party mistakes, and how to solve them, to ensure that your next gathering goes without a hitch.
It happens all the time. You sent out your invites weeks ago and someone said they couldn’t come but now their plans have changed and they are angling to be included; ruining your seating plan and meaning you have to share your food between 8 rather than 7.
To avoid having to serve everyone meagre portions, we recommend that you always over-cater by around two portions so that if any last minute guests do arrive you can just say ‘the more the merrier’. Having some extras will also come in use if any of your guests have a big appetite and if anything goes uneaten, at least you won’t have to cook the following night!
You only left the kitchen for a few minutes but now there’s a strange smell in the air and the smoke alarm is bleeping away which means something must be burning.
The first thing to do is stay calm. Burnt food often looks much worse than it actually is and sometimes the problem can be easily solved.
If the food is in a pan, remove it from the heat immediately and plunge the bottom of the pan into cold water to prevent any further cooking. DON’T be tempted to stir it as this means you can’t simply remove any burnt bits without it contaminating the rest. Transfer any bits which aren’t affected into a new pan, add a bit of liquid and continue cooking. Depending on what you are making, add some tomato puree, Worcester sauce or herbs and spices to disguise any lingering burnt flavour.
If it’s something in the oven that’s burned, it can be trickier to rescue. The only solution may be to adapt your menu slightly. A burnt joint won’t taste great on its own but if you use the meat in a curry or a stir fry the strong flavours will mask the burnt taste.
Deciding what to cook for a dinner party can be the most stressful job. It can be tempting to show off your culinary skills with an elaborate five courses but realistically it’s unlikely to go off as planned and even if it does, you’ll probably spend all night in the kitchen rather than enjoying yourself with your guests.
Many people make the mistake of thinking a dinner party is about the food but it’s actually about the company, so cook something simple but delicious, preferably which can be cooked in advance, and spend as much time at the table as possible.
Lasagnes, casseroles and curries always go down well and are simple and quick to make.
But remember the golden dinner party rule; never cook something you haven’t tried before.
Knowing how much booze to provide at a dinner party is a minefield. You don’t necessarily want everyone to get sloshed, but there’s nothing worse than sitting their embarrassed while all your guests have empty glasses.
A good guideline is one bottle of wine between every two people, but we’d recommend keeping a few spares in the kitchen just in case.
And don’t forget to provide some non-alcoholic options for any non-drinkers or designated drivers.
It seems everyone has a food that they simply won’t touch, whether it’s because of an allergy or simply because they don’t like it. But how can you possibly know what all of your guests’ food fads are?
The simple answer is, you can’t and shouldn’t even try. If people have an allergy, they are normally used to telling people and will volunteer the information when they accept your invitation, allowing you to cater to their needs, but everyone else will simply have to eat what you serve. Otherwise you’ll end up cooking ten different meals!
One way to dodge this potential minefield is to serve all the food ‘family style’ and let people serve themselves from bowls or platters in the middle of the table. This way people can just get what they want and won’t be left shuffling anything around their plate.
It’s also advisable to stick to foods which most people recognise and like rather than trying to tempt your guests with anything too exotic.
Top five cooking shows
Cooking is no longer confined to the kitchen. It’s also taking over the living room as night after night we gorge on cookery shows designed to whet our appetites for home-cooked food.
Whether it’s Nigella tempting you with her chocolate treats or Gordon swearing at you through the TV screen, everyone has their favourite cooking show. Here’s our guide to some must-watch series:
The X Factor of cooking shows, MasterChef sees amateur cooks trying to impress food industry veterans John Torode and Gregg Wallace with their skills in the kitchen. The earlier episodes are great for giggling at people’s culinary flops but the competition really heats up as the final gets nearer and the chefs start turning-out restaurant quality food. And it’s not just the competitors who are worth watching, the combination of tough-to-please John and dessert-lover Gregg is a match in TV heaven.
When can you watch it?
Right now! The latest series of MasterChef is currently on air, with episodes airing several times a week on BBC1. It’s the semi finals next week so tune in.
Great British Bake-Off
We’d like to marry Paul Hollywood and have Mary Berry as our mum, but it’s not just the firm but fair judges who made the latest series of GBBO a ratings smash hit. The element of competition is gripping and over the 11 episodes we celebrated when our favourite bakers managed a ‘good crumb’ and commiserated with them as they were criticised for ‘soggy bottoms’. The best bit is that you can see competitors developing over the series, allowing us to dream that one day we may be named ‘star baker’.
When can you watch it?
GBBO normally airs from August but no dates have been announced yet so keep your eyes peeled. If you need a baking fix in the meantime, the final episode of Paul Hollywood’s Bread airs on Monday at 8.30pm on BBC2.
Saturday Kitchen Live
There are few better ways to start the weekend than tuning into Saturday Kitchen Live while you eat your breakfast. Each week host James Martin is joined in the kitchen by different celeb chefs cooking up their favourite seasonal recipes, which you can have a go at making yourself over the weekend. But that’s not all, there’s also celeb interviews, clips from the BBC’s food show archive and popular segments such as the omelette challenge, which sees the guest chefs racing to see who can cook an omelette in the fastest time and Heaven or Hell, where the celeb guest has to eat either their food heaven or hell.
When can you watch it?
As you’d expect, Saturday Kitchen Live airs on Saturday mornings from 10am on BBC1.
The Little Paris Kitchen
Rachel Khoo is part of a growing group of young chefs making cooking cool and we certainly thought about giving up the day job and high-tailing it to France when her series The Little Paris Kitchen hit our screens. Rachel whipped up French classics such as Crème Brulee and beef bourguignon with a modern twist in her tiny Parisian apartment, showing that Corden Bleu doesn’t have to be difficult.
When can you watch it?
Little Paris Kitchen aired last year and there’s no word on a second series, but we live in hope that Rachel will be back on TV screens soon. In the meantime, why not check out her book for more great French recipes?
Anything with Jamie Oliver…
You can’t have a blog on cookery shows without mentioning Jamie Oliver. Love him or loathe him, there’s no denying that the cheeky chappie from Essex has helped revamp cooking shows in recent years. Whether he’s cooking up a storm for his pals in The Naked Chef, campaigning for healthier school dinners or teaching us how to whip up a meal in 15 minutes, Jamie is a regular fixture on our TV screens. We love that rather than trying to wow us with his culinary skills, his shows feature delicious but simple recipes we can replicate at home, with ingredients which are easy to source.
When can you watch it?
Jamie isn’t ever off our screens for too long so we expect he’ll have a new project in the pipeline soon. In the meantime, he cooks regularly on his FoodTube channel.
Top 5 kitchen accessories everyone should own
Inspired by the likes of Jamie Oliver, Gizzi Erskine and Mary Berry we are increasingly becoming a nation of cooking enthusiasts.
A recent report from the retail experts at Conlumino showed that we spent over £1 billion on cooking utensils and gadgets between 2007 and 2011 alone as we stocked up on the tools needed to whip up gourmet dinners and delicious cakes in our own kitchens.
However, don’t panic if you haven’t got an array of gadgets and gizmos to rival the MasterChef kitchen, it is possible to cook almost anything with just a few basics. Here’s our guide to the top 5 items it’s worth having in your kitchen cupboards or drawers;
A good knife
Celebrity chefs always seem to whizz through their chopping in seconds and are left with a neat pile of perfect onions or peppers, all uniform in size. And while this is obviously in part down to years of culinary training and practice, their knives also play a role.
It’s almost impossible to chop neatly with a blunt knife so invest in a good quality one and look after it by sharpening regularly. Sabatier make professional standard knives at affordable prices.
A meat thermometer
People are often nervous about undercooking meat, meaning they often give into the temptation to stick a perfectly cooked joint in the oven for ‘ten more minutes’. However, this extra cooking time can be the difference between a perfectly pink piece of beef and something resembling a piece of cardboard.
With a meat thermometer you can check that your meat is not under or overcooked without having to slice into it. This Faberware model has guide temperatures for a wide variety of meats and will let you know when your meal is ready to come out of the oven.
A hand blender
If you enjoy making soups and sauces then a hand blender is a must. No more transferring hot liquid into a food processor – you can simply blend it in the pan you cooked it in.
Most hand blenders cover a range of functions, including mixing, mincing, whipping, chopping, grinding, pureeing and liquidising meaning even if soups aren’t your thing you’ll be surprised how often you use it.
A cook’s measure
We get our recipes from all manner of sources these days, meaning we work in all manner of measurements including grams, ounces, tablespoons and cups.
A cook’s measure helps you quickly and accurately measure out dry ingredients without the need for scales and normally features both metric and imperial measures so you don’t have to blow your brain doing the conversion in your head.
A cast iron dish
Cast iron dishes don’t come cheap but they are worth their (rather heavy!) weight in gold. They can be used on the hob or in the oven and are the perfect dish for anything that requires slowcooking from curries and chillies to casseroles and stews as they can be left in the oven for hours while you get on with something else.
But it’s not just slowcooking they excel at, because they are non-stick they are great for browning and crisping without having to use too much oil.
And, once you’ve bought one, they are so sturdy they’ll hopefully last a lifetime. We recommend Sabatier casserole dishes, which are available in a range of sizes and colours, with prices starting at £70.