I got very stuck writing this one. Chef life leaves little room for exercising the mind and as I’ve slacked off my usual reading and writing habits, my brain is turning to mush. Weirdly, as I develop skills which would help immensely in catering, the frequency that I throw dinner parties has also dropped dramatically. On the plus side, saving me a fortune, but I do really miss them. The pleasure is in the preparation: a flavourful and often overly ambitious menu, a well laid table, the chef’s excuse to drink early, the delegating of tasks with an air of forced calm. I think it is a skill which ripens with age; I’m truly excited to be in my forties with an expanded collection of treasured pans and beautifully patterned dishes, laid out on a tarnished wooden table that is groaning with the results of my ‘stress-free’ efforts. To put this anticipation in perspective, at any present receiving opportunity over the last two years I have asked for pans, knives, tablecloths, recipe books, you name it.
Despite growing up surrounded by numerous dinner parties, it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I had much responsibility in the kitchen. In second year our inner domestic goddesses emerged from a growing sense of maturity, paired with an utterly fantastic Redland maisonette with a double hob kitchen and a ginormous living/dining room. As always I got carried away dreaming up tasteful menus and layouts, unfortunately I am restrained by a student/graduate budget and living conditions. Nevertheless, we still found it immensely fun shopping in the party isle of the supermarket for bits and bobs to compliment our range of ikea and plastic furnishings. We’d spend weeks dreaming up the menu and seating chart, go on a group trip to Asda or Sainsburys to purchase the goods, bring down all our desks and lay the table the night before, plan out the cooking timings, and have an on mass chopping session in the morning. Baking, decorating and cooking tasks were distributed, with everyone swapping in and out of stirring duties so they could get ready (I was usually still in my dressing gown when guests started to arrive).
To some it may not seem like any measure of fun, more like intense panic and inevitable embarrassment. As my housemates are patiently/painfully aware, the crunch time of the cooking process can be stressful- nearly always something goes wrong, even if it is totally unpredictable like the first time we’ve ever had to deal with a tripped fuse, 10 minutes away from finishing our first massive roast on 8 electric hobs and 2 ovens. On a separate occasion, I was so frustrated by my watery paella that I couldn’t even be persuaded to join the dining party and sulked in my room despite my housemates many compliments and efforts to coax me down… But there are many ways that you can prevent kitchen failure such as: selecting a simple main dish which can be presented on the table in it’s cooking pot or other large vessel (avoiding plating up), reading a few recipes and working them through in your head before buying ingredients (I often conflate a couple, especially if found randomly on google), going vegetarian if you can’t afford good meat, and also buying seasonal veggies from veg shops or stalls wherever possible. On top of all the benefits to the planet, they taste way better.
The style of the dinner party usually boils down to the chef that I’m obsessed with at that time. Rich food and lots of washing up were signs of a Diana Henry recipe, scattered herbs, pomegranate seeds and endless bottles of spices point the finger at Ottolenghi- my current (along with everyone else) hero. This means meze, plonked straight on the table for everyone to stare at while the photoshoot commences, the contrasting colours and bejewelling garnishes photograph well. Recently I had free rein over planning the menu for my grandparents diamond wedding anniversary, how can one go wrong with bottomless champagne and an unconstrained budget? All the recipes came from Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem and, since I had the opportunity to cook with good quality ingredients I did a slow roasted, heavily marinaded lamb shawarma as the centre piece, complimented by tried and tested meze. A beautiful tabbouleh, baked aubergines with feta and onions, stuffed onions, a sweet and creamy butternut squash dip, hummus and homemade pitta breads. The wonderful benefits of meze are that it can be prepped, staggered, and is best served at room temperature. Timeless enjoyment of good food. And if all else fails, then hummus solves everything.