One of the hardest things about having friends over for a meal is coming up with a selection of dishes which will form a menu, food that eats well together. Finding a combination of dishes that are appropriate for the occasion, that will please all guests, that won’t cost an arm and a leg, won’t take days to prepare and will leave everyone replete and satisfied, not stuffed to the gills, is a tough call, even for experienced cooks. It’s easy enough to find one dish you feel like cooking and sometimes it forms the heart of the menu, but other times hanging on to that one dish can cause all manner of problems and you just have to file it away for another time. My advice is, if the menu isn’t coming together, abandon what you have selected and start again.
On Saturday night I had 30 people for dinner, a semi-formal occasion with platters of nibbles, then a buffet which I partially served. I desperately wanted to serve crab cakes, mainly because I love them and wanted to eat them, and I fancied salmon and avocado in rice paper wraps but every time I looked at the menu these two dishes stood out. I just couldn’t get the menu to gel until it hit me (should have been obvious!) that they were the only Asian-flavourings on the menu, and the only seafood items, and strongly flavoured. In the end I had to let them go, and married up the flavours of the other dishes with a more cohesive Mediterranean theme. The decision was made just 24 hours before the party but I was glad I made it!
I generally choose the main course first, although there are no rules, as sometimes the first course can be so special that it becomes the star. Preplanning certainly takes the pressure off an organized meal, and I usually make lists of jobs, serving dishes, and cooking times and oven temperatures for the dishes.
Summer entertaining is easier as more cold food can be served, but even in winter, three hot courses are not necessary. When planning a three-course meal, I choose one dish that can be completely prepared in advance, and I generally opt for dessert because it is easy to find recipes that can be made ahead, so that once the main course is served, I know it’s all plain sailing and I can relax and enjoy the occasion.
Here’s a delicious and easy dish to serve as a starter for a winter meal – Mushroom crostini with mustard and thyme. You could serve a little rocket (arugula) salad alongside. I’d follow it with a roast beef and seasonal vegetables, and maybe a fruit crumble to finish. Fresh, seasonal, scrumptious homecooking! So invite your friends over, light the candles, choose music you’ll all enjoy and tuck into a winter feast!