Cooking For A Crowd
Recipes for Quantity Cooking

The Ten Commandments of Dinner Parties

Know your guests. If the dinner party is an informal affair with friends, this shouldn't be a problem. If it is business related and more formal, try to find out any extreme likes and dislikes and if any of the guests are vegetarian, have specific dietary requirements or any allergies, e.g., nuts, shellfish, wheat.

Keep it simple. Even if it's formal, you don't have to bust a gut over the food. Never bite off more than you can chew by trying to cook a complicated dish that you haven't served before - it's best to be familiar with any potential pitfalls or difficult ingredients. And try to choose dishes that don't need constant supervision.

Plan ahead. If you want to use special or unusual ingredients, make sure they'll be available when you need them - nothing's worse than needing that unusual herb or spice and finding it sold out on the day of the party. If necessary, order in advance from fishmongers, game dealers, butchers and greengrocers.

Prepare as much as you can in advance. After all, you're the host and should spend as much time with your guests as possible. If you seem flustered or always rushing about, people will feel uncomfortable. You can do a lot before the guests arrive: cold starters can be plated, salads mixed (but not dressed until the last minute), meat browned off in advance and laid out on a baking tray ready for a final roasting, desserts made up and refrigerated, sauces prepared and so on. And be sure to lay the table before people start to arrive.

Choose courses that go well together. Plan courses that complement each other, and don't repeat ingredients throughout the courses. For example, don't serve mini shortcrust tartlettes followed by a main course of Beef Wellington wrapped in puff pastry, rounded off with some type of sweet pastry tart for dessert. And try to use seasonal ingredients. What seems lovely and fresh on a warm summer's day will be inappropriate on a cold winter's evening.

Be generous but don't overwhelm. Your guests will feel awkward if there's too much food on their plates. If the dinner party is an informal gathering with friends, you may choose to serve family style - that is, from serving bowls or plates, letting people help themselves. If you're plating restaurant-style, think of composition and amounts. You may want to plate the main ingredient, say meat or fish, then pass the vegetables around separately. Finally, make more sauce than you think you'll need - most people like more sauce than recipes allow for.

Think about color and texture. Each course should look appetizing and appealing. Don't overdo it with too much color just for the sake of it. On the other hand, don't make dishes that look bland and colorless. Use relevant garnishes like herbs or lemon slices where appropriate.

Strive for balance. Don't get carried away with exotic ingredients that might overwhelm the basic taste of the food. If it's fresh and good quality, don't drown it in intense flavors and mask the taste. If the menu includes a spicy, highly seasoned dish, don't serve a subtle and delicate food as the next course. If your dessert is heavy and very rich, try to offer a lighter alternative for guests who are too full - even if it is a store-bought sorbet.

Don't forget the cheese board. Three or four different cheeses should suffice for a cheese board. Offer a good selection of styles and textures, along with a bit of fresh fruit that's easy to eat, such as grapes, cherries, strawberries or figs. Assemble in advance, cover with cling film and leave in a cool - but not cold - place so the cheese is the right temperature and consistency when served. Keep the biscuits in the box until the last minute so they don't go stale. You must also decide when to serve the cheese: before or after the pudding? The English style is to serve it after the sweet, the French serve it prior to dessert. The French style seems to make more sense, as you can continue drinking the red wine served with the main course before switching to a sweet white for dessert. For more on cheese boards, click here.

Choose wines that go with the food. If you're not sure, ask a wine merchant, telling them what you're serving and asking for a recommendation that suits the food and your budget. For more information on wines, read Alice King's wine course. Finally, be sure to offer water with the meal - both still and sparkling.

Written by Terry Farris

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