#19: Dinner + Wine Party 101 | HOW TO MAKE IT EASY ON YOURSELF 💆
Want to have that look of feeling like the cultured host/hostess with the most(ess), with minimal fuss? Read on some 101s for recipe and wine pair choices.
Whether it’s to have a boozy brunch at a fraction of the cost, a summer barbecue in Spring or to avoid the madness of the Christmas rush, the dinner party or being the host has so many advantages. Yes, we did get a bit sick of them a few years ago or God forbid, when they went remote on Zoom. But for an extroverted introvert like me, they hold the perfect balance.
If you want to be ruthless, you can call when your guests need to vacate or what they should bring with them. You can call the shots on what everyone’s drinking, what activities you get up to, what everyone eats. Feeding a troupe with the finest of ingredients can be a pinch of the price compared to eating out, even if you still end up out for a bop after and covering the Maccy’s hangover breakfast the next day.
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Like all fine things in life, there are catches. And when it comes to hosting people, ambitions can run very high to come crashing down with a traumatic bang. “Never again” is often sighed after a nightmare of cooking for 20 where guests have been instructed to bring absolutely nothing with them, or when they forgot they’re going to have to poach eggs and make Hollandaise sauce to order after three mimosas. Reader, I’ve been that person. But I’ve given group catering another go, and can go as far as to call it entertaining now. A few tips and tricks from wine to recipes that have helped me, if I may.
Tip 1: Stay in your lane.
There’s a lot said about goals in your personal life needing to be moving out of the comfort zone, into the stretch zone. But it’s very easy to jump forward 5 steps, and end up in a blind panic zone.
Cooking for friends and loved ones should be a time of celebration, intimacy, joy. Not getting in a flap or realising that halfway through reading a recipe that you have absolutely no instinct for a step, or it takes an hour to do. If an experience hasn’t hit home to relate to this, may I introduce Exhibit A, and shouldn’t be a spoiler:
If you want to try out a recipe for a group, make a small batch at least once, or take something you’ve worked on before. If you’re sourcing recipes or in the ideation phase, a few tips:
Anything from Nigella, Delia, Nigel Slater or BBC Good Food are typically good, replicable, reliable and easy to follow. And encourage that you don’t have to make EVERYTHING from scratch. Hurrah!
If you’re feeling a little more risqué or adventurous, give it a try first would be my best advice to you. Ottolenghi deserves an alter to be prayed upon, but depending on the book, you’re playing with Russian roulette if it’s your first time trying it out.
Tip 2: Time plan
So many people don’t think of the actual cooking, and you don’t want to be running in and out of the kitchen for long periods while your guests are there, unless you’re a sadist of sorts. There’s a few common traps that people fall into here:
Picking things that are more effort. This can take a huge amount of time out, and particularly if each dish has a lot going on. Keep shucking oysters, charred steak with triple cooked chips and a chocolate fondant for a restaurant, and pick something that you can get ready or finish off in a flash.
Ditto for veggie dishes, or menus. Not to misadvocate animal welfare, but it’s not spoken enough how much of a royal pain in the arse some plant based recipes are to make. Particularly the more colourful and instagrammable which require heaps and heaps of chopping that can put even the most dedicated cook off. If there is a showstopper dish that needs a lot or refined chopping, drop the other things around it and make it more simple.
Making everything in sequential order. You don’t want to fall into the trap of starting a main course after the starter has been served, otherwise no one is going to eat for another two hours. Ideally, desserts should be predone or ready to bung in the oven, starters are a quick thing to squizz up and mains are bubbling and 90% ready as you’re getting your guests to arrive.
The need to make EVERYTHING from scratch, or substitute on things you really need specialist equipment for. Focus on what you want to do well, and take some shortcuts by buying from good quality suppliers to fill in for where time is better invested. You’re cooking for friends, not the Michelin guide - so why try and make pitas for the first time from scratch?
The only true way that I prescribe to prevent such maladies is a boring work of order that is hammered into all home economics and culinary arts student. By no means rocket science, but the torture of thinking this out and when you need to start in the kitchen and gets you into the professional kitchen mindset of prepping first, and assembly at service.
This is only an exercise for you, so it doesn’t have to be fancy. Pop down what you’re going to do to prep and when people get there with a match up to the recipe, and a generous estimate of time for each step or where you need to be. You’ve an idea of when you need to get cracking in the kitchen and also prevented forgetting to add in a cardamom pod or a teaspoon of baking powder in some crucial steps.
Tip 3: Remember, it’s a process.
Cooking like a sport, language or creative outlet takes time. And the better you get at it isn’t always linear - but you will learn what you could improve for next time swiftly, or start to diagnose at least where you’re sticky points are.
Whether you like to wing it with ingredients or processes that you have done before, or stick directly to a recipe, if one step goes wrong - it’s not the end of the world. And you never know - Newton’s apple, Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, your younger sibling etcetera - sometimes mistakes are the best thing that could have happened. Two Substack articles that really resonated with me on this topic are ones I’ve shared below by far more experienced cooks, but inspirational to keep chugging.
Tip 4: Apply the same rules to wine choices
Don’t overthink it.
Don’t overcomplicate it.
Don’t try and run a 7 course menu with matching wines if you’ve never cooked for more than 4.
Speak to your off license, or favourite Substacker on wine (ahem) for tips on what pairs well with what.
Enjoy how it goes, and reflect for the next time!
But I know you came here for wine.
And of course, I’m very happy to offer my services for that. A few tips on what can be a good mix for something a little off piste, without breaking the bank or creating too much of a split down the middle on thoughts:
Fizz: A Cremant de Limoux is a great alternative to Champagne that’s a little bit fruiter, made the same way and a hella lot cheaper. It should be under £15 a bottle, like this one from Waitrose.
Red: Aglianico in the South is said to be what Nebbiolo is to the North of Italy, which makes the amazingly complex Barolo. Aglianico is still building a name for itself over here, but gives a beautiful fruity and complex red that’s full in body, but still a smooth operator. Grab from Svinando, which are importing Italian wines at a fraction of what you’d pay in an offy - this one’s only £12!
White: A Chenin Blanc is a good shout if you’ve got a divide between Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay drinkers, as it’s somewhat in the middle. A fresh South African one has never failed to win over a crowd, and an old vine one (implying better quality) is only £13 from the Great Wine Company.
As always, if this helps a pal, spread the word - or drop me a comment below if you want to get a little more custom advice which I am happy to dish out!