Summer entertaining can be both a joy and curse. The long, languid days and fine weather (recent episodes notwithstanding) are perfect for kicking back on the deck with good friends, great food and fine wine; but perversely it’s also the most torturous time to be toiling in a sweaty kitchen. For the most part I hold to the adage that the best party is at someone else’s house, but sooner or later social obligation comes calling, and it’s your turn to play host. Yet summer entertaining need not be a chore if you stick to the three Ps – plan, prepare and pace yourself.
I’m no expert at the balancing act that is the dinner party invite list, but usually apply a total inversion of the selection process used for Big Brother house-mates i.e. mentally stable, intelligent, not inbred and unlikely to copulate in your linen closet. That’s my bottom line for people I’ll let through the door full stop actually.
Once you’ve decided how many people you want to feed and inebriate, you can start planning the menu. Don’t overestimate the size of your oven, kitchen or dining table. Whilst you might be able to grin and bear the first two (I can’t), lack of room and chairs for your guests is never less appreciated than on a sultry summer’s eve.
Choosing what to cook for a dinner party can be a source of anxiety to even the most seasoned cook. I have learned from tense experience never to début a new recipe in public. It’s like performing a play unrehearsed, and causes way too much stress when things go wrong – especially in terms of cooking times, which can very substantially from oven to oven. Also, sometimes what looks great in print can fall rather flat in practice. Far better to make something you know you can pull off and that you will look forward to eating. In my case this often translates to a favourite pasta dish, such as spaghetti alla vongole, puttanesca, or ragu ala Bolognese, with a simple but tastefully dressed salad, and some very good bread. I always buy in bread for dinner parties. Even though I’m no slouch when it comes bread making, I see no point in making more work for myself, especially when such efforts will go largely unnoticed as the wine and conversation flows.
I don’t do multiple courses. It drags things out forever (as much as I love my friends, I want them to go home eventually), keeps you in the kitchen even longer and leads to a cleanup of apocalyptic proportions. Not for me. I serve dinner and dessert. No entrée, no amuse bouche. Nada.
I have learned to avoid showing off when playing host, either through the complexity of the meal (no, Mole Poblano is not a good idea) or the use salubrious star players. Oh sure your guests will just love crayfish, wagyu, or fresh truffles, but they’ll also be happy with well- executed modesty, such as a Thai Jungle curry made with free range chicken and garden-fresh vegetables. Curries represent some of the most affordable and well-pitched dishes to serve up to a braying crowd in summer. These dishes evolved in sweltering climates and make the most of very little. But they still turn heads.
It’s not that I advocate meanness; I just don’t see the point in culinary ostentation on such a grand scale. It’s pointless and can come across as vulgar. Kind of like driving one of those ridiculous Porsche SUVs really. Besides, even a half-baked dum-dum can make a great meal with luxury foods, it takes a real cook to work magic on cheap cuts and brassicas.
Similarly, unless you are hosting a cadre of wine critiques (don’t), there is nothing to be gained from serving anything too pricey. Apparent from the odd wine bore, most people will neither notice nor car. In summer, just focus on easy drinking, well-priced whites that suit your main, and a soft-hearted red (pinot noir is great in summer) that won’t swamp the palate.
By the time dessert rolls around, most of your guests will be hot, stuffed and at least slightly sozzled. Rather than fussing over Crème brûlée, panna cotta or roulade, which may not be fully appreciated, I like to bring forth a mountain of perfect summer fruit- especially strawberries, peaches and cherries – with some good quality vanilla ice cream. Easy to prepare, easy to eat and most importantly easy to clean up.
The whole point of having friends around is to enjoy their company (or return social favours if truth be known), not to suffer in a hot kitchen. So whatever you choose to serve, keep it simple, tasty, affordable and quick. And why bother if you’re not having fun?
Try this stunning recipe from Kapiti on for size!
Grilled spiny rock lobster thermidor with Kapiti Ramara
500 – 600g lobster
200ml Béchamel sauce
1/2 tsp hot English mustard
1/2 tsp anchovy essence
Dash of Worcestershire sauce
2 egg yolks
1 tsp of freshly chopped tarragon
Stir together, Béchamel sauce with a little Ramara, hot English mustard, anchovy essence and Worcestershire sauce. Once cooled mix in 2 egg yolks and 1 tsp of freshly chopped tarragon. Cook your whole lobster in plenty of boiling water for 6 minutes, cool, and then cut in half long ways.
Remove the tail meat from the shell and cut each side into 6 pieces, retain the two half shells. Place the cooked meat into a bowl with some of the sauce so it is well covered. Place mixture back into the shells and top with a little Ramara. Place in an ovenproof dish on the BBQ and close the lid. This will take about 6 minutes, serve immediately.
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