Planning a dinner party is supposed to be fun, but for many home cooks preparing a feast for a group of people can be a daunting task. In this blog, we breakdown how to prepare a menu, a array of easy canapés and desserts you can try and even a few food-styling tips for beginners.
Deciding what to cook is the first step. Even if you cook regularly for yourself or your family, hosting a dinner party is another matter and you may be asking “what should I cook when I have guests over?” There’s no right or wrong answer. If you love a dish, there’s a good chance others will too. Sharing food with friends should be as simple as that.
Start with the main course, your centrepiece, your hero dish, then work out from there, adding sides, salads, snacks, or starters to assemble a menu you love. Even the simplest make ahead food for house guests such as curries, tagines, and stews you’ve stashed in the freezer, can be elevated with a freshly made flatbread, sauce, salsa or raita, or side of cooked grains or rice.
A good menu is balanced between tastes (salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami), textures (crunchy and raw, cooked, and creamy, etc). It should be neither too rich, nor too light. Take care not to repeat ingredients across courses. Often, all that’s missing is a salad. In winter, add crunch and zing with a fennel, blood orange, watercress, and black olive salad.
Shopping and cooking seasonally helps you narrow down the otherwise infinite options; it’s more economical; and it sparks joy too. Respond to the weather too. On a hot day, your guests will relish shots of chilled gazpacho, or plump cherries served over ice. On a frosty day, they’ll crave a hot soup, slow-cooked dish, or a proper pudding with custard. Seasonal produce calendars are readily available online, and many cookbooks are organised by months or seasons. Be guided by what your greengrocer, butcher, and fishmonger have in abundant supply.
By choosing make-ahead dishes you can prepare a day or two before. Braises, stews, and slow-cooked dishes can take a little sitting about, and indeed, some even taste better the next day. Beef with caramelised baby onions and rosemary can be left to bubble away while you do other jobs. “One pot wonders” are a lifesaver. There are a few tips and tricks you can pick up from professional kitchens, such as how to blanch vegetables, i.e., to partially cook them in advance. You can prepare the ingredients for a stylish side or starter of chilled soba noodle salad with edamame beans using the blanching technique.
Seared tuna with a pickled vegetable salad is an excellent example of a dish that looks great but won’t leave you overburdened. The julienne vegetables can be prepared the day before, leaving you to simply sear the tuna when the time comes.
Certain dishes don’t scale up well, but a splendid whole frittata or chic individual oeufs en cocotte would be wonderful. Or why not cook a quantity of poached eggs in advance, then reheat to order? One per person atop a bacon and frisée salad is delicious.
Potatoes are of course a delicious and economical addition to a meal. Mashed potatoes and roast potatoes can be part prepared three hours ahead, then finished to order. Roast potatoes just need that extra half hour in the oven. Plain potatoes, mashed in advance, can be finished with milk and butter, or given a twist with mustard, horseradish, herbs, saffron or lemon and olive oil.
When it comes to making ahead food for house guests staying a while, look for recipes you can easily double, or even triple in quantity. If you can make it in advance (even freeze), all the better. The same technique you use for ragù, can be adapted into shepherd’s pie, cottage pie, or smoky chilli with black beans. Don’t be afraid to go for comfort food, Macaroni cheese pleases guests of all ages; you can always ring the changes by adding bacon and leeks or sage and butternut squash. Fish pie or gratin dauphinois bubbling away will warm the soul.
If you want to learn how to get better at baking, remember to start simple. Meringues and pavlovas are great make-ahead puddings for when you plan a dinner party menu. Make the meringues, then assemble with cream and fruit last minute. Panna Cottas, crème brûlée , and chocolate mousse can be chilled until it’s time for pudding.
Tarts always impress. Once you’ve mastered making pastry, you can use the method to make lemon tart, treacle tart, chocolate tart, pear and almond tart and more.
Soup is a host’s best friend. Chilled or piping hot, they’re easy to make in advance, to plate, and to serve to a large group. Classics include French onion, gazpacho, vichyssoise , and lobster bisque. You can also experiment with flavours, for example butternut squash, coconut and lemongrass, or silky cauliflower with truffle oil.
Incorporate some dishes that require zero cooking. Luxurious beef carpaccio is simplicity itself. Tapas-style arrays of cheese and cold cuts, olives and pickled vegetables are ready straight from the deli counter. Salad leaves can be washed, their dressings prepped. Store salad leaves wrapped in a damp tea towel in the refrigerator; add the dressing when it’s time to eat.
Will it be individually plated, mezze-style, a buffet, or set in the centre of the table, family-style? Some cuts of meat and fish lend themselves well to plating. Chicken breast, fish fillets, scallops, steaks, noisettes and chops are quick and easy to plate, and require no messy carving.
Guests love to dig in. When feeding a crowd, choose mezze-style plates, and abundant bowls of salads, mixed grains, and roasted vegetables. Middle Eastern dishes make excellent sharing platters for a dinner party. Your menu could include a vibrant avocado fattoush with za’atar crisps, moutabal aubergine dip, minced lamb kofta with tabbouleh and flatbreads, or a tagine with rice. Shop-bought filo pastry is useful for making vegetarian pies, such as a Bengali-inspired aubergine and panch phoran pie.
One of the most stylish and generous share plate ideas is a platter of chilled or grilled shellfish. It’s easier than you might think to learn how to source and prepare shellfish such as langoustines, prawns, and oysters. Learn how to source and shuck oysters, and you’ll be very popular; all you have to do is whip up some simple dressings of shallot and red wine, cucumber and ginger, or spicy Bloody Mary. Potted shrimps, with toast or melted over a crumpet, can be bought in or prepared in advance.
Still looking for inspiration? Go online and see what your favourite chefs or restaurants are cooking this week. Professional chefs follow the seasons assiduously and have years of experience writing menus. Might one of their snacks, starters or share plate ideas work for your guests? You may be able to find a similar recipe online.
Get everything in place before you start cooking. Weighing out ingredients in advance is one thing you can do to make cooking smoother, cleaner, and less stressful.
Make an exhaustive time plan, the day before if possible. No job is too small to be included from picking herbs, to removing the butter from the refrigerator, to preheating the oven.
No professional cook would start cooking before sharpening their knives. Learning how to sharpen knives with a sharpener or whetstone is a skill every home cook should acquire. Store knives in a block, on a wall-mounted magnetic strip, or in drawers with a knife insert. Storing them loose in drawers is unsafe and it could damage the blades.
Do a headcount. Tot up if you have enough pot, plates, glasses, cutlery, even chairs if you’re feeding a crowd. Work out if you have enough shelves in the oven and rings on the hob for your chosen menu. If not, adjust the time plan or, worst case, the entire menu.
We eat with our eyes. Learning how to plate your food like a pro will take it to the next level.
Presentation starts at mise en place. Factor it into your time plan; allowing yourself enough time to plate up before the food goes cold. Never sacrifice the quality of your food for the sake of it looking pretty.
Research your dish. Google Images, Pinterest and Instagram are a bottomless source of inspiration.
The golden rules of plating are as follows:
For professional-looking desserts, learn how to ‘rocher’, i.e., scoop a smooth, neat oval of mousse or ice cream. Practice makes perfect. Tip: for best results, use a deep spoon (you can even buy special rocher spoons.
Micro Herbs and edible flowers are a simple way to pretty up a plate. You can find specialist suppliers online and some supermarkets now stock them too
When plating desserts, the ratio of ingredients is crucial. It has to eat well as well as look beautiful. You can have a lot of fun with desserts, adding texture and colour to elevate them. Immaculate knife skills, especially when working with fruit, will give a more professional result. Take care to blot away any excess juices of fruit for a cleaner finish.
Be more Chanel. “Before you leave the house,” said Coco Chanel, allegedly, “look in the mirror and remove one accessory.” The French designer’s wise dictum has culinary applications. Ask if there is one ingredient or one garnish too many? Less is more.
Build a collection of crockery over time in different colours, textures, and patterns. Mismatched crockery can look great. For a professional look, white looks pin sharp. Handsome copper pans or cast iron Le Creuset or Staub pots look magnificent at the table, straight from the oven when you’re sharing food with friends.
There’s no single right answer to the question of how to plan a dinner party menu. Fashions change. While there is a time and a place for a formal dinner party, the trend is towards a more unbuttoned approach. When you’re looking for dinner party set up ideas, look to gurus such as Skye McAlpine (a Leiths alumna and author of A Table For Friends: The Art of Cooking for Two or Twenty); original domestic goddess Nigella Lawson; New York’s Laila Gohar (AKA @lailacooks, a contributor to How To Spend It); and Alison Roman, author of Nothing Fancy.
Formal table settings, all polished crystal, silver candlesticks and name cards have been superseded somewhat by the Instagram-worthy ‘tablescape’. In truth, both have a place. When decorating tables with flowers and candles, pay attention to sight lines. Guests should be able to see each other across the table. Mix candles of different sizes - pillar candles, tapered candles, and tea lights. Save scented ones for hallways and bathrooms, not the table as they interfere with the fragrance of the food.
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Cooking and entertaining at home is supposed to be fun. It’s time one should approach with joy, not with dread. It’s only natural to feel nervous but with our guidance, it should be possible for you to have as much fun as your guests.