People never invite me round for dinner. They assume I’d be critical of what they serve. I wouldn’t be, of course. Not vocally. Not to their faces.
I mean, I’d be judging them inside my head, just like you’d be judging me if I came into your bank and started mashing your Bloomberg Terminal with my fists and demanding shares in Dixons. But however terrible the food was, I’d keep it to myself, maybe share it with a few close friends, but I certainly wouldn’t go around shouting about it. I wouldn’t write a column describing it.
On the rare occasions I have been invited to dinner, the host inevitably gets me around an hour or two before the other guests so I feel like I have to get involved in the food preparation. Just as inevitable is that the kitchen will look like an Exocet missile has gone through it, with gunky fingerprints covering the Nigella cookbook they’re trying to decipher, like a labrador gazing into a television set. It made me realise who buys those cook book stands with perspex covers. I imagine iPads don’t fare much better, either.
So let me tell you how to entertain at home, so I don’t have to roll my sleeves up. Start off at a fresh market, somewhere like Borough, and find out what’s in season. Speak to the traders and they’ll tell you all about their produce. You’ll be safe in the knowledge it hasn’t sat on a temperature-controlled shelf for three weeks, or been vacuum-wrapped in ten layers of plastic to eke some extra life out of it.
Stock up on quality meat, fish and veg, and this will give you an idea of what to serve. It also means there’s a good chance you’ll be handing over your money to the people who actually grew or reared the stuff, rather than lining the pockets of Tesco PLC. Next, look up recipes that use your core ingredients, filling in the missing ingredients with a quick trip to Whole Foods, a decent grocer or your local deli.
These days most people think of themselves as foodies, so buying from a fresh market means you can impress your guests by telling them the provenance of what they’re eating. I also find it’s much more impressive when you prepare a simple, ingredient-led dinner rather than try to replicate a well known chef’s recipe, which you’re probably going to mess up anyway. Simplicity is key, especially when you’re cooking for more than three or four people.
A simple plate of asparagus with some good British charcuterie to share and some crusty sourdough always wins as a starter. Likewise wild mushrooms on toast or soft polenta. Timing is crucial at dinner parties so I suggest getting as much done as possible the day before, which makes entertaining far less stressful. That way, you can have a few drinks with your guests in a tidy, organised kitchen pre-dinner. Try to get all the chopping, blanching, dessert making and even laying the table out of the way well in advance.
One last tip: I’ve started serving magnums of wine at dinner parties as my guests will demolish a single bottle in no time, and you find yourself up and down like a yo-yo opening fresh bottles every ten minutes. So there you have it: you don’t need a professional to help you throw a great dinner party. Now maybe someone will invite me to one.