I cannot help but think the writeup immediately above was written based on US economics.
The top writeup is something entirely different: written by someone whose friends can't cook
. And yes, I agree. if you can't cook a decent meal, then don't try. It will only end up embarrassing you and your guests.
So here is my simple guide to entertaining at home. It is aimed, of course, at cheapskates like myself, who can't afford to take friends to a restaurant, but who, equally, like to cook.
Bear in mind that here in London a meal at a fairly average pizza restaurant can easily reach $75 per head. More if people have three courses and a few beers. My local fine dining restaurant has a price guide of $120 per head before wine.
In some parts of the world -- London included, taking friends to a restaurant for a casual meal is the province of the very wealthy.
This is emphatically not aimed at people stuck in a 1980s timewarp who think holding a dinner party means cooking a Michelin-star quality meal and have all the knives, forks and napkins to match.
The first, the main. and the primary rule is to keep it simple. You want to make your guests feel comfortable and you want to have a good time. You can't do that if you are ensuring that the soufflés are rising at the precise moment your guests are sitting down to eat. The second rule is that if you at all in doubt about cooking a particular dish, then don't. If there's nothing you feel comfortable cooking, then you can still entertain at home. Just buy in a take-away. Indian, Chinese, pizze, fish and chips: anything, so long as you know it's going to be good. Sharing food together is one of the oldest rituals of all time. And it's more about the sharing than the food. Or it should be.
So from long experience -- as both guest and host -- of dinner parties, supper parties, lunch parties and what have you, here is my recipe for a relaxed time with friends over food.
Make the meal fit your budget. It may seem strange, but if your friends are a great deal wealthier than you, they will completely understand why you do not serve vintage champagne
and in fact are likely to be upset if you end up going into debt through excessive spending on expensive food and wine. Equally, if they have considerably less money than you, it might be best to go easy on the champagne and caviar as such extravagance is likely to make your guests feel uncomfortable. If your friends have roughly the same amount of money as you, then they know exactly what you are going through and understand your reasons for making whatever choices you made. Do what you want to do. Do what you can afford to do. The point is not to impress, but to make sure everyone feels relaxed and ready to have a good time. If that means bangers and mash
and home-brewed beer, then that is just fine. If it means champagne and caviar, then that, too is just fine.
What not to serve
For better or worse, a lot of people are concerned about their weight and dietary intake. Find out ahead of time if any of your guests has any dietary preference: vegetarian / vegan / lactose intolerant / gluten intolerant or anything like that, and make sure you take that into account when doing the planning. Equally, you need to know if there are religious conventions to understand. It is impolite in the extreme to ask a person from a Jewish family to eat pork. It is no less rude to put a plate of beef in front of a Hindu or any kind of meat before a strict Sikh.
There are plenty of websites out there which give guidelines on the type of foods that different sects and creeds are allowed to eat, and more websites which give guidance on how rigorously those rules should be applied. If in doubt, ask your guests what they can and cannot eat.
Unless there are vegetarians coming, lamb is usually safe, while more exotic meats such as ostrich and crocodile can get around many religious limitations. Fish is always good, but you have to be a confident cook to get it right and smaller fish often require last-minute attention.
Hosting your guests in comfort
Once you know the dietary preferences of your guests, the next step to think about a menu. In an ideal world, you will find something that you feel comfortable cooking, that everyone can eat, and most should enjoy. If the world is not ideal, then you may have to offer options. Unfortunately, the more options you offer, the more work and planning you will be involved with, and the less relaxed you are likely to be for your guests.
It is a convention -- and a good one -- to offer something light before the main meal. In restaurants, this is a formal starter. Whether formal or informal, the purpose of this part of the meal is to help people to relax and to built their appetite. It is not to fill them up, so small quantities are good. At home, it is easier and more relaxed to offer light nibbles that people can use to whet their appetites before sitting down to the more formal part of the occasion. I don't just mean peanuts and crisps - though you can do that if you want. I mean something that is light on fat and salt, but is good to eat and starts to get the food juices flowing.
Ideally, use relatively strong flavours and minimal sugar at this stage of the meal. Sour and piquant tend to whet the appetite better than creamy or sweet. Offering bite-size pieces allows people to control their own food and calorie intake. If people do not want to eat much, they can take one or two of the nibbles, saving their stomachs for later in the evening. If they are hungry, then they can take the edge off their appetite by eating a lot.
Just as an aside, if you have limited plates, forks, etc, then serving starters in this way relieves pressure to wash those items before the main course.
Keeping yourself sane
When planning the main course, you need to think how it is going to work. First, you don't really want to pressure people into sitting down at a particular moment. Second, as host, you want to be relaxed when everyone else sits down.
Third, there will be different things cooking. There will be different types of vegetable, there might be meat, there might be sauces, there might be potatoes or rice. They all require different cooking times, but the aim has to be to get all of them to the point where they are not only edible, but delicious, at the same time as each other and also at the same time as your guests are ready to eat them.
Restaurants and those who entertain regularly end up doing this automatically, but for beginners, this is probably the most difficult to get right.
The secret is to arrange for as many of these dishes to have a wide window of serving time. If you cook sea bass
, then there is a window of a minute, maybe two, when the fish is perfectly cooked. Outside that window, it quickly loses its delicious flavour and texture. A roast leg of lamb, on the other hand, has a 10 - 20 minute window of perfection and a much longer window when it is still delicious to eat.
Even a perfect steak
has a reasonably wide window of serving time. If you take it off the heat when it is slightly less well done than desired, it can be left to rest in a warm place for up to 10 minutes with few ill-effects.
Rice, potatoes, polenta
and most types of bread all have reasonably wide serving windows, so they are unlikely to lead to last-minute panics.
Vegetables, if steamed or boiled, have to be right. The window on boiled broccoli is probably less than two minutes; and only slightly longer if you steam it. You can aim to get the vegetables right, but it is often easier to offer raw vegetables, or a smart salad
. These can be prepared ahead of time, so are not at all time-critical. If you want to offer something hot, then roasted winter vegetables have a wide window of serving time. Or slice and then gently cook leeks before mixing them into a béchemal
to provide a tangy sauce that also has a wide serving window.
Wide serving windows mean more flexibility and fewer panics. Which makes for a more relaxed time so you can concentrate on your guests.
Serving is an issue at our dinner parties. Usually AspieMum and myself are involved in last-minute preparations. We aim to put the various dishes on the table in serving dishes and then simply encourage the guests to help themselves. The bonus here is that people can take as much or as little as they want, and if there is something they are not too keen on, then they don't have to take any, and are not forced to refuse repeated offers of ' would you like some brussels sprouts?"
If you feel the need to plate it all up and serve the full plates to the guests, then that is a great choice, but it will involve extra work and hence stress.
After eating the main, your guests may well be full, or they might need a break. Often, if we are doing lunch, then we'll break at this point and give ourselves time to get away from the table and let the meal settle before offering more food. For an evening meal, we'll probably remain sitting at the table, but if things are going well, then we might just sit around talking and drinking for an hour or even more, before offering anything else. At this stage, everyone has had their appetite satisfied, and it's all about what people want to do.
I'll go with Shaogo
on this one, It's OK to do a bought, or frozen dessert. Hell, it's OK to buy in a pack of Bernard Matthews Turkey Twizzlers
and bung it in the oven, if that's what you want to do. But I kind of think people kind of expect proper cooking until the dessert. After that, pretty much anything goes.
To drink or not to drinkWine
is always a tricky issue. If you know something about it, then you know what to do. But here's a secret. Unless you are very wealthy, you should never need to spend more than about £10 / $20 on a bottle of wine. Above that price, you are paying for a fancy label with the 'right
' name on it, or rarity value. Above £30 / $50 you are paying for something that only wine snobs enjoy. Expensive red wines quite often taste less pleasant than £7 bottles. There are people who have trained themselves to enjoy the unusual flavours of very expensive bottles of wine. Let them enjoy their expensive pleasures and leave the cheaper, decent quality stuff for the rest of us. In general, if you look for wines from anywhere in the Southern hemisphere, read the label on the back and it says it goes with the kind of food you want to serve, and it's the right price, then it will be just fine. If it has a classy-looking label, even better. Get enough of it that you allow a bottle or so per person and all will be well. If you really want to push the boat out, then get two different styles. A light one for aperitifs and starters; a more full-bodied one for the main course.
In general it is usually best to serve the wine you have bought yourself, even if your guests bring some. On the other hand, if you know that the guest knows about wine and has brought something good. In which case, it is probably best to open it at some point during the meal.
My rule of thumb is that if in doubt about opening another bottle, always do it. My second rule of thumb is that I always ask before topping up a glass, and after someone has refused once, I put an (open) bottle down on the table and invite them to help themselves, emphasising that there is always more where that came from. Sometimes people don't want to feel pressured into drinking more than a certain amount, so as host, you have to make sure they feel comfortable about either drinking more, or not drinking at all.
and some other religions ban alcohol. Some followers abide by that rule; some don't. A good host will act in a way that each guest feels comfortable about making their own choices.
As Shaogo suggests, I have a bottle of XO cognac
. I've had the same bottle for about 15 years. I always offer it, but I don't think a single one of my guests has taken me up on that offer for about 10 years. Personally, I think cognac is not a necessary part of a good evening. That, however, will depend on your friends. if you know your friends appreciate a good grappa
or a fine tasting single-malt whisky
, or an XO brandy, then it is only polite to have some of the stuff in when they come around.
More to the point, I think, is ensuring that people eat and drink exactly how much they want to eat and drink, and not much more or less. Make sure there is water on the table along with the wine. If someone asks for a cup of tea when you were offering wine or beer, then go with the flow. Make them comfortable. It might be that other people would prefer tea or coffee.
I was going to serve mushrooms, but they ran out. Would you have liked some?
Remember, there is no polite answer to this question. Serve what you have planned to serve and let the guests worry about how much they enjoy it.
Earlier I said I'd make some suggestions for meals that make entertaining at home less stressful. Here they are
For starters there are plenty of options. We have found thet smoked salmon on blini
works well. Make a platefull of blini ahead of time, and when you want to offer people something to eat, warm them under a grill. When they are hot, put a dollop of sour cream
and some smoked salmon on each and then a little fresh dill
. Sprinkle the serving plate with fresh ground black pepper and lemon juice and offer them around.
Another option is to make dough balls and have a number of types of olive oil
for people to dip the still-warm bread into. Make some dough, maybe with herbs and and let people take as many or as few as they want . You can buy good oils infused with basil or ginger or pepper or just use simple, extra-virgin olive oil
Another is a simple Italian antipasti
. Slices of cured ham; fresh parmigiano
, artichokes, olives and maybe some crackers or fresh bread. Trouble with this one is that it's so good, people want to eat too much of it.
Note that none of these requires much work or preparation. You can make them up in a few minutes and offer them round to people informally.
If you want people to sit down for the starter, then a soup is a good idea, as it can be prepared ahead of time and only needs to be heated before serving. Soups are also wonderfully warming in winter and can be made delicate and refreshing and cold in summer. Just a tip on soup: you need bread with soup. And sorry, but here I am going to go all snobby on you. It has to be good bread. not factory-made white sliced, but bread baked in an oven using yeast to make it rise.
For main courses, a roast is by far the best option, as it requires very little tending during the cooking and has a fairly wide serving window. Roast chicken
is a standard in all kinds of cultures and few people will turn their noses up at a well-roasted bird.
My stand-by is a roast leg of lamb
. I tend to cook it in the barbeque (a kettle-style BBQ) for a couple of hours (depending on the size), as that gives the best flavour and ends up being tender and juicy. There's usually plenty for 6 - 8 people and people who like it pink can have the meat from the middle; those who like it brown can have the more well-done portions from the edges.
Alternatives for non-meat eaters include a roasted tuna
fish. A large chunk of fresh tuna can be roasted for about 30 minutes and it comes out pink and almost raw in the middle and well-cooked on the outside. It is perfectly delicious. For those who have never tried raw- or nearly-raw fish, it provides an easy way to access that style of food. Only thing with tuna is that you must get rid of all the black bits of blood and stuff before you cook it. And never, never over-cook tuna. It goes dry and horrible, compared to the soft, delicate flavour and texture of the almost-raw fish.Ostrich
is a new meat. Although it is a bird, the meat has more the texture and colour of beef, but it is almost fat-free. That means it needs careful cooking to avoid making it too dry, but it is something unusual that your guests may not have tried. And it is permitted by most religions.
A great vegetable that goes well roasted meats and other middle-eastern-style cooking is to put some sliced vegetables :carrots, onions, parsnips and suchlike onto a baking tray, sprinkle with oil and a little salt and oven roast for 30 minutes or so. Once cooked, mix them up with a bowl of cous-cous. Eaten with roast lamb and sour cream, it is a perfect match and always goes down well.
Roasting potatoes is also an ideal way to serve them. Slice them into wedges, spinkle with oil and a small amount of salt and leave them in a hot oven for 30 minutes or so. They come out soft, golden and very tasty. I have to repeat that roasting allows the oven to get on with the cooking while you, as host, talk to your guests, serve them drinks and make them feel welcome.
As noted above, small white fish
and dinner parties don't really mix, as there are often bones that need to be taken out, and the fish needs really accurate timing. Roast tuna aside, another exception to this rule is a whole salmon
. I often do this in a BBQ, but it is easy to do in an oven or if you have a fish poacher, as poached fish. The serving window is up to about 10 minutes on a whole salmon, and it is easy to serve portions which are almost boneless.
One of the worst things about a dinner party is when you arrive, and the hosts are slaving away in the kitchen preparing some fancy meal that takes so much time and effort, they do not have time for their guests. And often, such pressure leads to stress and tension that can be hard to break. Try really hard to avoid anything that requires a lot of last-minute attention to detail.
If not a roast, then stews and casseroles
are great for informal gatherings. The great thing about a casserole is that it has a huge serving window -- you can often leave it keeping warm for a couple of hours and it still tastes delicious.
Good alternatives to casseroles include all-in-one meals such as lasagne
or a fisherman's pie
or shepherd's pie
. Home-cooked pizze
can also work, though they tend to require a fair amount of last-minute attention. The good thing about cooking pizze is that people can choose their own toppings and even make their own pizza. Only good for places with enough oven space to cook six or eight pizze simultaneoulsy. Unless people are prepared to share.
So cooking at home for guests is something to be enjoyed and embraced. Accept your guests' offers of help in the kitchen. Get them to serve themselves and join in. Don't try to pretend you are running a Michelin starred-restaurant. Have fun
. That's what entertaining at home should be about: enjoying yourselves and enjoying the company of your guests. Don't let it get too stressful, or become a measure of your worth as a person. Above all, enjoy yourself and allow your guests to enjoy themselves.