Our resident foodie and blog Contributor Jo Starr’s culinary skills are restaurant standard and we are talking Michelin star level! So we asked her for some top tips for how we can up our dinner party game.
‘I’ve always loved hosting friends although I hope my standards have improved slightly since my university dinner party days of mac & cheese and boxed wine!
When I started working, I lived in a tiny flat in Wapping – space was very limited so I used the ironing board (covered with a table cloth) as a buffet table whenever I had people over! I am very lucky now to have a lovely kitchen so here is my approach to entertaining that will hopefully wow your guests:
Get The Party Started
Have a drink ready for your guests arrival. A small touch but its so welcoming to be greeted with a drink and it really sets the tone for the evening. Cocktails are fun but can be high maintenance so I usually keep it simple – bubbles always signal the start of a party and you can spruce up a glass of prosecco with a raspberry or lychee.
Give your guests something to nibble on before dinner – this has a couple of benefits – firstly they won’t be distracted and hungrily wondering when the food is coming out – so it helps everyone relax and gets the conversation flowing. Secondly its good for soaking up some of those welcome bubbles!
If you want to go low maintenance, olives are perfect and if we are about upping our game then ditch the crisps (even if they are kettle chips) and instead go for popcorn – it’s fun, light and glam and there are some great flavours, I think Joe & Seph’s mature cheddar cheese is ideal with a glass of fizz. Or cook your own popcorn and toss it with some salt, grated parmesan and a pinch of paprika! If you have time I love Mimi Thorisson’s recipe for gougeres (basically cheesy profiteroles) they are a bit fiddly to do but make them in advance (I have been known to freeze them, it doesn’t seem to do any harm) and warm the slightly when people arrive. A stack of these is the ultimate welcome!
The biggest problem with canapes is that there always see to be some last minute prep work so I only ever choose things that I can do in advance and hand around as soon as people arrive. Teriyaki Beef & Lettuce Cups (I serve the beef cold) and Oat Biscuits with Herbs & Goats Cheese are some of my favourites.
If you have offered a couple of nibbles you can skip starters altogether (unless you’re trying to win Come Dine With Me) although my go-to recipes tend to revolve around seafood – keep it light, nothing beats a prawn salad with a Thai dressing.
Go Big Or Go Home
My motto is you can never have too much food and I love piling things in the middle of the table for everyone to help themselves. It also means people can avoid anything they can’t eat (I have low tolerance for picky eaters in my house!). Make the dishes elegant by topping a salad with pomegranate seeds or crumbling feta and herbs over a beautiful bowl of potatoes to elevate them.
I love this recipe for Slow Cooked Lamb with Chilli Jam and Ottolenghi’s Roasted Pork Belly – they will never let you down and both are perfect with this healthier version of Dauphinoise Potatoes.
My recent realisation is that not everything has to be piping hot. One of the most stressful things about hosting is getting everything together at the same time. I now tend to serve the potatoes at room temperature, or a sweet potato salad topped with sliced figs and balsamic dressing when it has been out of the oven for a couple of hours. If you can get a beautiful salad and some robust potatoes or couscous done in advance then you can focus one one hot element.
I have a couple of go-to pudding recipes: Nigella’s Clementine Cake and Donna Hay’s Chocolate Torte, my favourite thing being that you can freeze both of these. These are simple to make and you can be creative with the presentation. To go with, some fresh raspberries then whip some double cream with the same quantity of mascarpone, a couple of tablespoons of icing sugar and vanilla.
For a girly supper I’d make both and cut them into little cubes on a big white platter for everyone to help themselves as a sort of dessert canape, so people can wander and mingle too rather than staying seated. No-one will be hungry by the time you get to pudding so serving little bites like this gives your guests a sweet hit without being too heavy.
One For The Road
I love having a little treat up my sleeve to wrap things up – a glass of limoncello, some dessert wine or even a sweet sherry – it is the perfect way to round off an elegant evening plus is signals the end of the party! Hosting can be exhausting and you’ve still got the washing up to do! As my friend James said at the end of one of my dinner parties “when the hostess falls asleep at the table, it’s time to go home!”