Tuesday, 26 February 2013

A Few Tips For Hosting A Stress Free Dinner Party

It's been all about the Oscars for the past few days; best dressed, worst gaffs (I don't think Jennifer Lawrence's fall was that bad), the winners and those who were snubbed.  I don't have Sky so was unable to watch the show as it happened but caught up with Breakfast Television the next morning, drinking my coffee while the A listers were partying at Vanity Fair - after all these years of travelling and living abroad, time zones still fascinate me - and I'm not the only one, my grandma still asks "what time is it there?" whenever we speak on the phone.

 The topic I've noticed most on all the chat shows is dinner parties; what should you make, who should you invite, and how expensive they can be.  I absolutely love dinners parties; it's a great way to get your favourite people together in a comfortable setting and I think it's far cheaper than going out.  I recently had a few girls over from my old job to have dinner.  We usually try out a new restaurant every few months but this time I offered to host.  

 I'm no expert by any means but here are a few things I've learnt along the way to keep things relatively stress free...

1. Plan ahead 
Firstly, find out if your guests are allergic to anything or have an aversion to any foods.  Nothing worse than sweating over a steak pie to find out your guest is vegetarian!  Also, have a look at what you already have in your cupboards and plan around that if you can.  This will help with the cost and use up some of those ingredients you might otherwise have sitting around for awhile.  I had some dates that we didn't use over Christmas, which inspired my canapes and some tuna that worked great for my starter.  I also had some chicken breasts in the freezer to act as a main course.  I just needed to top up with a few extra ingredients to complete my menu.  Plan your menu, write down all of the ingredients needed and shop from a list so you don't forget anything.

2. Keep it simple
It's not fine dining, it's friends getting together to have a good time and eat some food while they're at it.  If you spend the entire evening in the kitchen working on your masterpiece, you'll be missing out on all the latest gossip and as the host, chatting with your guests is important.  Make dishes that you know how to make, can be prepared in advance and require very little prep once your guests arrive.  I had made everything in advance, assembled and cooked my canapes about a half an hour before guests arrived and the starter and main were ready to be put in the oven when needed.  The dessert went wrong (I used gelatine to set it but ended up with bits of gelatine throughout) but because I made it early morning I had plenty of time to start over.

3.  Plan your time wisely
You don't want to be hoovering in your comfy pants when the doorbell rings.  Clean your house the day before (unless your uber amazing and it's always white glove inspection ready) and shop for food then too.  The day of the party can be spent prepping the meal and putting on your face.  If it's getting to crunch time, get dressed in your party outfit and put on an apron to finish up in the kitchen afterwards.

4.  Have drinks at the ready
There's no need for an open bar.  Have a few bottles of wine for the meal (best to buy more than you need) and 2-3 choices for an aperitif.  Or have a "welcome drink" pre-made for when guests arrive - a signature cocktail, a fancy shot - these can be made 15 minutes before guests arrive and set at the door to give to guests as they walk in to enjoy with prepared canapes.  Have dinner ready to go shortly afterwards and guests won't have much time to get into the bar - don't want anyone drinking on an empty stomach, dinner conversation can get awkward otherwise.  Also, have some non- alcoholic choices available, juice, pop or sparkling water.

5. Play list and Table Settings
Plan music choices ahead of time.  Plug your mp3 player into the stereo or switch on the radio but either way have some background music going.  Keep centrepieces simple and set the table in advance.  A few candles or a small bouquet of flowers should be enough, anything too large and guests won't be able to see each other from across the table.  I used a few candles I already had on hand. 

Hoping I drop something from my plate.

As a guest, other than bringing good conversation to the party all you really need to remember is to bring a little something for the host; a bottle of wine or some flowers (the lovely girls from work brought both!) and be on time.  Fifteen minutes behind schedule is ok but don't be two hours late as we once were (I think I'm definitely a better host than guest) otherwise you better have a really good excuse.

Sleeping on the chair in the dining room having realised no scraps were coming their way.

What are your tips for a stress free dinner party?  What's your best/worst dinner party story?  Worse comes to worst, have takeaway menus at the ready - a good curry can solve any dinner dilema!

Here's what I made for the girls.  I haven't costed it but used ingredients that aren't incredibly costly and readily available in my local supermarket. 


Smoked Salmon Blinis - slightly adapted from Good Food Channel
Makes about 30 blinis

For the blinis
75g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
2 eggs
pinch of salt
about 100ml milk
30g butter

For the topping
1/2 cup whipping cream
1/2 cup herb and garlic cream cheese
100g smoked salmon (I used trimmings which are much cheaper than the big perfectly formed pieces, because you only need a little bit for each blini)
coriander, parsley or dill to garnish

In a bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, eggs, salt and enough milk to make a thick batter.   Melt the butter in a large frying pan and drop a little of the batter with a teaspoon to make small pancakes, leaving room between each to spread slightly.  Cook for 1-2 minutes on either side - when the batter starts to bubble it is ready to be flipped.

Whisk the cream until thick and stir together with the cream cheese.  To assemble, place a dollop of the cream mixture on top of each blini and top with a small piece of smoked salmon.  Garnish with coriander, parsley or fresh dill if using.  Blinis can be made ahead of time and assembled just before serving.

Devils on Horseback
makes 20
1/2 cup blue cheese
20 pitted dates
10 strips of streaky bacon, cut in half
20 toothpicks

Remove the pits from the dates, if not already done, by slicing length ways on one side.  Stuff each date with a little of the blue cheese.  Wrap each date with a slice of bacon and secure together with a toothpick.  Line a baking sheet with foil and bake in the oven at 220­°C for about 7-10 minutes on each side.


Sweet Potato and Tuna Fish Cakes - adapted from Love Food Just 100 Calories

175g sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped
160g tin of tuna in brine, drained
4 spring onions, trimmed and chopped
1 tbsp grated lemon rind
1 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
lemon wedge to garnish
salad to serve
sweet chilli sauce to serve

Boil the sweet potatoes for 10-12 minutes or until easily pierced with a fork, then drain and mash.  Flake the tuna and add the potatoes, spring onions, coriander, lemon rind and pepper and stir together.  Using slightly dampened hands, shape the mixture into 4 rounds and lightly flatten.  Place fish cakes on a plate, cover loosely and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.  Preheat oven to 200°, place fish cakes on a non stick baking sheet and cook for 20 minutes or until pipping hot.  Serve on a bed of lettuce with a lemon wedge to garnish and sweet chilli sauce on the side.


served with Roasted Mediterranean Vegetables
2 courgettes, chopped
1 each of red, green and yellow peppers, deseeded and chopped
2 red onions, quartered
2 handfuls of mushrooms, sliced in half
2 handfuls of plum or baby tomatoes, left whole
1 garlic bulb, separated but left in the skin
olive oil
salt and pepper

Arrange all of the vegetables in a roasting pan, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Cook for about 40 minutes at 200°C or until edges of vegetables become light brown and crispy.


Mini Millionaire Cheesecakes
makes 4

100g digestive biscuits, crushed
25g butter, melted
1/2 cup Carnation Caramel
100g plain cream cheese
1 cup whipping cream
1/2 cup Nutella, softened

In a bowl, mix together the crushed biscuits and melted butter.  Press into the bottom of small, individual, glass dishes (a small juice glass or larger shot glass will do) and place in the refrigerator to set.  In a large bowl, whisk the cream and use half to stir together with the softened Nutella.  Use the rest of the cream to blend together with the caramel and cream cheese.  Layer the caramel mixture on top of the biscuit base and top with the chocolate cream.  Leave to set in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.

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