|Published in The New Yorker January 26, 2004
With a kitchen finally intact (if not completely without problems) I’ve taken it upon myself to do some serious catching up on two years past of a miserable lack of entertaining. The Ikea table, which I insisted on purchasing a year ago because it seats twelve people has remained mostly un-sat at. The last time I pulled both sides of the table leaves was in April- when I was filling in my tax return. Never have I gone so long without friends, food and wine around the table.
That said, it appears that throwing dinner parties, is much like learning a foreign language- if you fail to study for two years then you find yourself a bit in out of your own depth. The lessons you thought you had retained come back to haunt you- or kick you in the ass; as they say over here. For me, my lesson unlearned is trying out something new on the twelve eagerly anticipating and slightly tipsy guinea pigs sat at your dining table. Trying something new, or worse without a recipe, when you have people for dinner is like ordering off a menu in French, without your translations book. Fifty percent of the time you’ll hit a winner and the other fifty you wont. But either way you’ll spend much of the night knocking back wine with the Jaws theme tune on repeat in your head. Nervous anticipation at what will emerge from the kitchen is not ideal when you have twelve other diners at the table.
Last weekend, Don was out for the night so I used this as an excuse to have eight girls over for dinner and a gossip. I thought I was keeping things simple by making a vegetarian lasagna. I roasted squash, steamed and drained spinach, roasted thin slices aubergine and courgette, made a fresh cherry tomato sauce, caramelised onions, slow roasted tomatoes with thyme and had I not run out of time I would have made my own pasta. All the elements were delicious and the lasagna- cooked in an enormous dish came out of the oven deliciously bubbling over the sides with layers of beautiful colours and to me it was utterly disappointing. It wasn’t hot enough in the middle and the individual goodness of each ingredient was overpowered by its neighbour. Plates were cleaned but my only relief was knowing that my desserts were going to be perfect- banoffee pie (an old school favourite) and chocolate nemesis from the River Cafe Cookbook- you can never go wrong with a flourless chocolate cake.
In lieu of that here are my tips for avoiding dinner party disasters:
1/ Cook what you know. If this isn’t an option then don’t panic, just keep your wine glass topped up.
2/ Use good quality in-season ingredients and let them speak for themselves. Alternatively, outsource- just not to Betty Crocker.
3/ Keep things simple- the best dinner party dishes are the one’s that don’t need lots of dashes to the kitchen- a sweaty brow and stained apron may get you the compliments you’re after but you won’t feel good. If you like being sweaty in an apron then good for you.
4/ Delegate your guests to bring the starter and/or dessert. It’s one or two less things that you will have to worry about but will ultimately be remembered for; so choose your guests strategically.
5/ Start the evening with sparkling wine or champagne- I think this is a great way to create the atmosphere of decadence even if you’re only serving shepherds pie.
6/ Have nibbles out- that way if you find yourself with an undercooked turkey in the oven you have time to tear your hair out in the kitchen without your guests passing out of hunger. Alternatively, If you really screwed up, avoid the nibbles, let people get drunk and they’ll never know
7/ People like to hover in the kitchen, so rather than shooing them out try putting them to work.
8/ Forward planning- don’t try to serve three courses that need the oven or stove. Have at least one that can be assembled in advance.
9/ Cook in a nice dress and heels with a gin & tonic to hand and at least you’ll feel like Nigella.