To some people the concept of ‘easy entertaining’ is a contradiction in terms. Just the thought of inviting people over throws them into a complete tizz.
But to me, it really is easy. I don’t think you’re born with an entertaining gene; it’s just practice really does make perfect – and I sure have been practising. My husband Ross and I frequently invite people to share meals with us; two or three times a week there are a few extra around the table, often for my favourite entertaining option – the big roast.
Rather than just telling you how easy it is, I’d like to share my helpful tips, hints and thoughts on entertaining.
My first tip is never mention the words ‘dinner party’. Put these two together and you’re inviting a series of crash-and-burn disasters to unfold, as there’s a huge uplifting of expectation, not only by my dining companions but also by myself.
‘Dinner party’ has friends thinking posh shoes, multiple courses served on the wedding-present china, silver service and trips to the hairdresser; while I start thinking seating plans, wine matches and not only silver service but also silver cleaning.
However, if I casually invite friends over, mentioning I’m trying out a few new recipes and would love them to join us, all presumptive expectancy disappears.
Cook one fabulous thing. My current favourites are fruit pies laced with cinnamon, and spicy crumbles. Go easy on yourself – no real friend is going to head home muttering you didn’t make your own pastry or ice-cream.
I love gorgeous nibbles and my tip here is to invest in a tiny little thermostatically controlled deep-fryer for fancy tasty titbits to serve with welcoming drinks. I whiz up baby wontons, crumbed prawns, trendy vege crisps and little spicy poppadoms. All these and more can be pre-prepared and store-bought – so very easy and impressive; sweet chilli sauce with a bit of lime juice is the dipping sauce of choice.
I often cook Italian for entertaining, as all those courses equate to ease of serving. Make the salad a separate course and offer chunky bread. You don’t have to grow the wheat and grind the flour – a supermarket ciabatta loaf is perfect. Just warm it in the oven and serve with lovely local fresh olive oil.
My current favoured next course is stuffed large pasta shells. The pasta is readily available at good supermarkets and simple to prepare: soften pasta in boiling water, allowing three per person, drain and cool. Stuff with a mixture of cheeses and spinach or artichoke. Open any jar of tomato pasta sauce, pour over the shells, add a sprinkle of parmesan, and cook in the oven for 15 minutes or until golden brown. Simple fresh fruit and a bit of cheese for dessert – or a fruit pie with thick yoghurt – and you’re done.
Set the table the night before. Cutlery wrapped in a napkin, café-style, is fine, but don’t forget water glasses. Really simple flowers in small juice bottles or little baby-food jars along the centre of the table look amazingly cool.
Opt for softer, flattering lighting with lamps or candles and dimmer switches. Have a good playlist sorted out before the event and music on as the guests arrive.
Don’t worry about old notions of not trying out new recipes on guests – it’s nonsense. If I stuck to that we’d still be eating that apricot chicken thing from the 70s (mind you, that was quite a goodie…).
What else can go wrong? Of course, there is burning the dinner. If that happens, present the slightly chargrilled offering and say, “This just proves my point you can’t always trust that Jamie Oliver. I don’t think his cooking timing is that crash-hot.”
The reality is these are your friends and loved ones coming to break bread together. The concept is as old as the hills – ever since that first caveman threw a hunk of woolly mammoth on the fire and asked the other cave dwellers to join him in the feast.
It’s the host’s job to be welcoming and make everyone feel comfortable and relaxed. If you’re in a flap, they’re in a flap, and you don’t want the guests to feel they’re an inconvenience.
Cooking for friends is like a generous gift offered to the people you care about most. And the best rule to avoid culinary stress and tension is to be yourself.
Words by: Jo Seagar
Photos: Getty Images