It’s party season and whether you’re planning a big family event or just having a few friends around, CASA’s Maria Broadbent has some helpful hints on how to be the perfect host
Many of us may still be planning to hold a gathering or perhaps a small family and close friends party at some point over the Christmas period (Covid guidelines permitting). Hopefully, none of us will need to deny nor explain it 12 months later!
My entire business is based around being a host. I often find when clients are planning a function here that, for many, this is a rare or even one-off event. There is so much more to entertaining than just the menu, or indeed who to invite. I thought I would share with you some tips on how to be the perfect host and still enjoy the party/dinner party yourself.
So, this is how I go about planning a dinner party, a private hire or an outside catering event, whether this is at Christmas or you have some milestone to celebrate in 2022. The principles are the same whatever size of gathering and whether it is cheese, nibbles and a quiz or indeed a proper party.
WHAT SORT OF PARTY
1 How do you want your party and therefore guests to feel? (Fun, classy, festive, chilled etc?)
2 Where are you holding the party? This may dictate the answer to question 3.
3 How many guests do you wish to invite, bearing in mind current Covid guidelines? Do you need to rethink question 2 as people will not generally wish to be crammed into a small space. If it is a 2022 milestone event you may wish to consider a marquee, a village hall or a restaurant.
4 When are you holding the party? (Day, date and time.)
5 Who is helping before, during and after? (This may impact on question 4)
6 What is your budget?
7 Do your guests have any special dietary needs – especially severe allergies?
Once you have clear answers to 1-7 above it will be much easier to plan the catering element of your party.
In the era of gazillions of emails, if you have time then a postal invitation is a delight to receive. Whichever form of communication you use these are the key elements to consider:
Firstly, what time you wish your guests to arrive. If you do not want them to arrive early, then saying 7pm for 7.30pm helps as it gives them a window of acceptable arrival time. Unless you (and any close neighbours) are an all-night party animal, I highly recommend putting a finishing time on the invitation, too. You can be sophisticated and say ‘Carriages at 11pm’ for example or simply write until 11pm.
Dress code is also helpful and will save lots of calls a day or two before when everyone panics about what they are going to wear. Another frequent question is ‘Shall I bring something? A dessert or wine for example’. I would again state your position on this – personally, if people offer to bring something I would want to co-ordinate it as you don’t want six potato salads! Finally, address, telephone number – maybe an insert with parking information and when and how you would like them to send their RSVP.
Other things to remember:
Somewhere to put coats and maybe umbrellas if wet – you don’t want wet coats on a bed. If you have a no shoes policy, then consider this, too.
Music – plan your playlist or get a trusted guest to do this for you. A word of advice , do not give free reign to all guests to play music as this can cause all sorts of issues.
Check you have plenty of loo roll, clean hand towels (may be tissues with the Covid situation and a bin).
Let your guests know where to park, you don’t want them being fined or upsetting your neighbours.
It is courteous to tell neighbours if you are not inviting them even for a small gathering because of parking and music.
Have a plant pot with some sand in and an outside light for any smokers.
Have plenty of water for people to help themselves to – jugs or recycled wine or squash bottles work for this. As it is winter time, you can put bottles outside to keep cold.
Ensure you have plenty of ice – if making a chilled punch, freeze ice in a Tupperware as this will stay frozen for much longer and therefore keep you punch chilled without diluting it.
Rubbish removal – stock up on bin liners and have allocated tubs for recycling and label these clearly. It will make any tip run less stressful.
Candles look lovely but need to be kept away from where they can be knocked or where people’s hair or clothes might catch them. There are some good battery-operated ones around. Do not put metal tealights directly onto plastic and wooden surfaces as they can get very hot.
Seating, this will depend on the style of food and vice versa. For the current situation a sit down meal is the safest, rather than lots of mingling – but hopefully in 2022 we will once more be able to become social butterflies.
Unsurprisingly this is my favourite bit. I imagine that many do not share my enthusiasm for this part of the occasion – but I am here to help.
The rules of menu planning:
Do not try to impress – plan within your confident culinary skill set.
Do not attempt a dish you have not cooked before – do a test run!
Consider hob, oven, fridge, and freezer space.
Plan your timings.
Consider the balance between courses. Do they complement each other, is there too much repetition?
Have you taken dietary needs into consideration – personally I would adapt the whole menu to suit everyone and then add in an extra to complete. For example, if you have one vegetarian and the other five people eat meat, then I would create a vegetarian meal and then have a meat dish as an extra.
Do not make all courses hot, your guests will never see you.
Prepare as much ahead as you can. (Leave time to prepare yourself before your guests arrive.)
Cook something you enjoy cooking and eating – at least one diner will be happy!
If your guests are with you for more than one meal or day even, they will appreciate some simpler meals, too.
Always consider having a welcome drink ready, this saves charging around trying to get guests different options from the outset. I always try to ensure the alcoholic and non-alcoholic are similarly presented – for example, Champagne, elderflower presse and sparkling water all look lovely in a champagne flute – add some frozen pomegranate seeds for artistic festive effect.
Suggested welcome drinks:
Alcoholic – Champagne, Cava, Prosecco, Kir Royale, Sangria, Pimms, Aperol Spritz, Elderflower with Prosecco.
Non-alcoholic – Elderflower presse, fruit punch, non-alcoholic Cava.
Having a few bottled beers, including non-alcoholic, is also a good idea.
Canapés and/or pre-dinner nibbles are a great way to kick off a party. Do bear in mind that overly substantial nibbles may mean your guests will not manage the full meal you have lovingly prepared to follow.
Pre-dinner light nibbles: Olives, crostini, blinis with smoked salmon, savoury palmiers (lots of different recipes available online).
Canapé and nibbles only event:
Bruschetta, honey and mustard cocktail sausages, some retro vol-au-vents, eggs mimosa, sausage rolls, bread sticks, crudites and dips, Hasselback new potatoes, mini crustless quiches (made in a muffin tin) – basically food that can be picked up by hand or with a cocktail stick. Try to use items that hold together for the sake of your carpet.
A cold starter is certainly more sociable, but you could make something that can simply be popped into the oven.
Completely cold starters:
Prawn and smoked salmon Marie Rose (don’t use avocado if prepping ahead), blue cheese, walnut and pear salad, insalata Caprese (tomato, mozzarella and basil salad).
Mostly cold starters:
Paté or terrine with toasted ciabatta (sliced and reheated to serve), beetroot salad topped with baked goat’s cheese and dressing, baked camembert with crusty bread and marinated figs.
Easy hot starters:
Stuffed portobello mushrooms, Melanzane Parmigiana (aubergine and Parmesan ‘lasagne’).
This should, at this time of year, be hot – but it can be a one pot wonder with some accompaniments to share.
One pot wonders:
Tagines, beef bourguignon, curry, stroganoff, lasagne.
Single serve mains:
Chicken breast stuffed with camembert wrapped in Parma ham, confit of duck breast (can be bought ready cooked), lamb shanks in red wine.
This recipe is straight forward, but you do need a palette knife and fairly heavy flat-bottom griddle or frying pan.
7g fast action dried yeast
300ml warmed milk
2 large eggs – separated
150ml sour cream (full fat)
1 teaspoon salt
115g strong white flour
115g buckwheat flour
Sift the flours, yeast and salt into a bowl. Mix together the egg yolks, sour cream and warmed milk – keep egg whites for later.
Stir the flour mixture to make a thick batter. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave in a warm place for an hour or even overnight. When you return to the batter it should have grown and be bubbly.
Whisk the egg whites in a clean dry bowl and then once stiff, gently fold them into the batter using a metal spoon.
Heat a little oil in the pan/on the griddle and pour on a tablespoon of batter at a time. When you can see bubbles on the top side – slip the palette knife under the pancake and flip it over. You can store these in an airtight tub for a few days – I use layers of baking paper in between to stop them sticking.
To serve, spread or pipe sour cream and top with either caviar, smoked salmon (hot or cold smoked), for vegetarians it is possible to purchase seaweed pearls (IKEA do them).
BABY HASSELBACK POTATOES
800g small new potatoes, even in size as possible
40g unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon of dried herbes de Provence
Sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper
Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade.
Wash the potatoes and one at a time sit them in the curved part of a wooden spoon (the purpose of this is the lip of the spoon will stop you knife slicing completely through the potato). Cut across the width, not the length, of the potato at 3mm intervals. It should resemble a toast rack – if that imagery helps!
Put the butter and oil into the roasting tray and gently melt in the oven, take out and toss the potatoes into the melted butter, sprinkle with the herbs and cook for 45 minutes-1 hour until golden and tender. If your oven is a little uneven in it’s cooking, take out halfway through and move around a little.
To serve – as they are or with a blob of sour cream, crème fraiche or add a little grated cheddar just before serving and pop back in the oven to warm up.
For vegans – omit the butter and use all olive oil and a tomato sauce or non-dairy ‘cream’.
EASY WELCOME FIZZ
Kir Royale or Elderflower Fizz
Use 25ml crème de cassis or 25ml of elderflower liqueur and top up with sparkling wine.
Maria Broadbent is owner of Mediterranean restaurant CASA in Risbygate Street, Bury St Edmunds
Call 01284 701313