This is part two of four part series with Julia Henderson, who shares with us tips of the trade from 28 years in the diplomatic service. If you missed Part 1 - How to create sense of occasion with your Table Setting, and Two Recipes to serve with drinks - click here to catch up and learn more about Julia and her background.
This week I look at welcoming guests and preparations that you can make ahead of time as well as suggesting two recipes that can be served as first courses.
It goes without saying that when you invite people around, you want them to feel relaxed and comfortable and to enjoy themselves. Thinking a little in advance about your guests’ particular requirements, the capacity of your home (in particular the kitchen), and your own skills and abilities can ensure that the occasion is successful and that everyone has a good time.
When inviting people, always ask in advance if they have any dietary requirements so that you’re not rushing around at the last moment preparing a mushroom omelette for your gluten-free, vegetarian guest. If you’re not sure about the dietary requirements of, for example, a Jewish or Muslim guest, research this or ask the guest concerned.
If catering for a large group, prepare a tray of drinks ten minutes before people are due to arrive so that you are not rushing around pouring drinks and trying to welcome people at the same time. A glass of bubbly (it does not need to be expensive) offered on arrival makes any event feel special.
When hosting a drinks party for a large number of people, it is easiest to keep the selection of drinks to a minimum – something sparkly perhaps, white wine, red wine, beer, juice (freshly squeezed orange juice prepared in advance is always nice when oranges are in season), a pre-prepared cordial, sparkling and flat water. Canapés should not be bigger than two mouthfuls if guests are holding a glass in one hand and expected to eat using the other hand. And don’t forget to have paper napkins available for finger food.
It has become popular to serve bowls of food at parties. If you are doing this, make sure there are enough surfaces around for people to place their drinks while they eat (as well as somewhere to sit for older guests).
If guests are late (or don’t turn up), never mind. Enjoy the guests who have arrived – they are the ones who count. And don’t delay the service of food to the guests who have arrived in order to wait for a guest or two who may not have arrived within a reasonable time (unless the guest is the guest of honour or someone very important!) - the latecomers can fit in.
Think about your oven and hob space. What will need cooking when and where?
All preparation is easier if your knives are sharp. Ideally you should have separate chopping boards for uncooked meat, cooked meat, poultry, fish, vegetables and a board for only onions and garlic.
Prepare as much as possible in advance. Your freezer is your ally – there is so much that can be prepared up to a month in advance and frozen.
Ahead of time compile a timetable of when dishes have to be cooked and the time that you intend to serve each item.
When preparing a recipe in a saucepan, it is always a good idea to use a larger saucepan than you think you will need. This provides you with plenty of space to stir and add ingredients and ensure that everything is cooked through evenly.
Garnishes can help to make your dishes look really appetizing. Think about them in advance – parsley, chives, sprigs of rosemary or thyme, lemon, edible flowers etc. They can be placed on small plates or in bowls on your counter top ready to add to the food at the last moment.
HAVE WE MISSED ANY TIPS? HOW DO YOU WELCOME PEOPLE? DO YOU HAVE ANY HORROR STORIES? SHARE YOUR STORIES AND TIPS WITH US IN THE COMMENTS BELOW.
If plating hot food for your guests for a sit-down lunch or dinner, heat the plates in the oven in advance. (Will you have space in the oven for this? What else is cooking at the same time?) Try not to put too much food on the plate as it can be off-putting to be served an overloaded plate.
Guests are often happy to help themselves to food as they can manage their own portions or not take something that they don’t like. The downside of guests serving themselves is that hot food can become lukewarm by the time everyone has food. Plates can be heated in advance but, if guests need to pick them up to serve themselves, they should not be too hot to handle. When serving food buffet-style for a large number of guests, spreading the dishes all around the dining or serving table enables guests to serve themselves more quickly than when all the serving dishes are congregated in one part of the table.
If placing hot serving dishes on a wooden dining table, a rubber soft-backed table protector covered with a table cloth is an alternative to table mats to protect the table from heat marks.
HOW FAR IN ADVANCE DO YOU PREPARE? WHAT ARE YOUR TIPS? SHARE WITH US IN THE COMMENT SECTION AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS ARTICLE:
CHORBA SOUP FROM ALGERIA
Hospitality in the Arab world is generous and warmly given. Often a sheep or lamb is killed to celebrate special occasions or to welcome guests. On three-day trip we made to Na’ama in western Algeria, close to the Moroccan border, lamb was a component of every meal – even the breakfast pancakes tasted as if they had been fried in lamb fat. Cooked on a spit and served whole, sometimes with a garnish of lettuce in its mouth, guests were invited to pull the cooked meat from the lamb and eat with their hands. The meat from the cheekbone was the sweetest.
This delicious chorba soup is quite a substantial dish, ideal for the winter or when inviting friends around for a casual meal, perhaps to watch a game, when it can be served with lots of crusty bread. If offering it as a first-course, I suggest that it is followed by a light fish, chicken or vegetarian dish and a light dessert.
- 1 kg boned and diced lamb
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 onion finely chopped
- 1 tin chopped tomatoes
- 1 tin chick peas
- 1 tablespoon tomato purée
- 1 tablespoon chopped coriander
- 1 tablespoon chopped celery leaves
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 tablespoon fresh mint
- ½ cup of bulgur or cracked wheat
- Heat a tablespoon of olive oil and fry the onion until golden and soft. Transfer the onion to a large saucepan.
- Add the other tablespoon of oil and fry the lamb in several batches until brown. Transfer to the saucepan.
- Add the tomatoes, chick peas in their juice, tomato purée, coriander, celery leaves and salt and pepper to the lamb and onions.
- Cover the mixture with water and bring the soup to the boil. Put the lid on the saucepan. Simmer for an hour until the lamb is tender.
- Add the wheat and mint. Cook for a further 15min.
- Garnish with a little chopped coriander and serve with a wedge of lemon.
(If the soup seems a little thick, you can add a bit more water and reheat.)
PARMA HAM, FIG, PARMESAN AND ROCKET SALAD
Originally found in the Middle East and western Asia, figs are now grown widely throughout the temperate world and are just about to come into season in South Africa. This salad is an easy first course or can be served as part of a buffet.
- 100g Parma ham
- 3 fresh figs
- 60g Parmesan cheese
- 100g rocket
For the dressing:
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- Tear each slice of Parma ham into two pieces.
- Cut each fig into 8 quarters.
- Using the slicing side of the grater, slice the Parmesan thinly.
- Mix the rocket, figs, Parmesan and Parma ham in a bowl.
- Put the vinegar, oil and salt and pepper into a small plastic bowl or a screw-top jar. Put on the lid and shake.
- Pour the dressing over the salad and mix with your hands.