Month: July 2014

8 Easy hints and tips for dinner party success – the food!

Following up from my last blog of tips and tricks for dinner party success comes the most important part. The food!

More often than not this is the part that brings the most stress to the host’s planning. What to cook. How will it look. Will there be enough. Will everyone like it. Or will I have blue soup a la Bridget Jones?

Fear not though, I have compiled a simple list of eight tricks and tips that will have you trotting out the good china and stemware in no time!

1. Cook what you know

Now this may seem like it defeats the purpose of a dinner party when you bring out a new recipe and claim ‘ oh this? it’s just something I whipped up’. Yes we may all long for those moments but if you are a newbie to the dinner party scene, it’s best to start simple and build your way up. A chef doesn’t suddenly know how to make a twice cooked cheese souffle. They learn how to make a roux, a bechamel, how eggs work and then, then they learn the souffle.

In the world of “here’s one I prepared earlier’ it is easy to become disillusioned with cooking at home and making food you love. The best tip I learnt from my first head chef was to ‘cook what you know’. I used to do a lot of cooking competitions as an apprentice and they were about as stressful as a dinner party can get.

My head chef was adamant though that I chose menu items I knew from the restaurant or family favourites and he would help me take them to the competition level with either a bit more sophisticated plating (more time in a competition vs restaurant service) or more sophisticated ingredients if it was a family recipe. This meant going into the competition I knew what I was doing, how long it would take and having practiced, what may go wrong and how to fix it. Now you are not going for medal with a dinner party but you still don’t want to spend time making food for it to be a bit average because it took a wrong turn.

imok_confused.jpg

2. Keep it simple but take it up a notch

Simple doesn’t have to be boring. Sometimes the most complicated looking foods are actually a series of quite simple steps put together elegantly. Many a time I  have looked at a recipe book and thought, ‘how on earth do you make that?’ to be pleasantly surprised when I have read the methods and thought “I can do that, and that and that’, it’s just a case of doing many small steps for an elegant meal.

My advice? Hunt down recipes that are foods you make yourself but done a little differently. Sometimes there will be a garnish or method that changes one aspect to go from eh, to wow!

Consider using egg rings to plate risottos and create a neat circle on the plate, experiment with cutting ingredients a little differently to look a little special, instead of mince for a Shepard’s pie consider diced lamb for a little something something. It doesn’t have to be a big effort to make an impression.

Even something as simple as making your own ice cream to go with an apple pie will elevate it up a notch. Also consider making individual portions of an item for more elegant plating. There are so many lovely ramekins, pots and cups just waiting to hold casseroles, puddings and pies for a dinner party twist.

IMOK_panna cotta finished

3. Plan ahead

Planning ahead is a chef must do. Every day there is a list with a rewrite and scribbles and plans. A function on Saturday? On Monday we will chat about what needs to be ordered, what needs to be done a few days before, the day before and on the day. Think we do it all in the hours beforehand? Think again! There are many items that can be prepared in advance without compromising flavours. Curries, casseroles and stews are sometimes better the day before, vegetables can be topped and tailed, meat can be cut, potatoes peeled, pastry made ready to roll, ice-cream churned all in the days before the guests even arrive.

imok_signature-dish.jpg

4. Check portion sizes

Serves Four. Serves Two. Serves Six. All a good guide but who are these serving sizes for? Children, people on a diet, hungry guests? There is nothing worse that thinking you have enough food for everyone and realising that plates are a little sparse. Weighing your protein and sides and allocating a decent amount per person can go a long way to esnuring each guest have a decent amount of food on their plate. I have gone into detail with this Undercover Chef Tip Post about Weighing the Sides

IMOK_weigh the sides

5. Keep it easy on the day

I am aware the reason most people don’t like to host is the feeling you will be in the kitchen more than out with the guests. So how to tackle this problem? Choose dishes that can either be

– plated in advance i.e antipasto platters, salads without dressings

– kept warm in the oven i.e roasts, pies, lasagnas, some puddings

– don’t take long to assemble i.e bruschetta mix can be made ready to spoon onto crusty bread when guests arrive, fish can be pan fried whilst it’s vegetable casserole accompaniment is warming in the oven, a steak bbq whilst the plates of salad are ready in the fridge

The idea is to have as much ready as possible before your guests arrive to ensure you get to enjoy the night as much as they do

If you are wanting to use something like a pork or eye fillet consider pre sealing it so all it needs is a flash in the oven to be plate ready in no time.

Have water already boiling but sitting at a simmer so if you need to cook pasta it is ready to go. –

The more you can have planned ahead the more confident you will feel on the day

IMOK_me and finished lamb

6. How do it look when plated?

I am horribly guilty of this one. I have made a meal, had the idea in my head then gone…hmm…that looks really sad. Nothing is worse than this feeling especially when you have hungry guests waiting.

Again, chefs don’t always go with the first version in their head. Sometimes a colour is off, it needs a different shape, a different burst of flavour or something to make it pop.

How to fix this? Do a test run of sorts. Take your raw ingredients as best you can and try assembling them on the plate to see how it will work. Are the colours exciting or will you need a green herb garnish or some well placed salad leaves? Does the dessert need a puddle of sauce or would a spoon of whipped cream be better? Do the berries need to be cut smaller or are larger pieces ok?

Again, it all comes down to planning and what works for you. Sometimes you will find the dishes you thought would work to serve with don’t really. So you can either borrow new ones, buy some or change up how you present the meal. If you can tackle these questions in advance it can save a lot of heart ache later.

pinacolada icecream

7. Decide if each course will be plated or shared

Share style meals have become more and more popular as hosts have realised that it can take a lot of the stress out of a first time dinner party by creating share style meals that can be put down along a beautifully set table and the guests help themselves.

Of course, plated dining can be an experience in itself but if you are not confident just yet plating up individual meals for 4 or more people start simple and work your way towards this if you choose.

There are so many lovely serving platters and bowls on the market that can be served at the table without detracting from the dinner party vibe. Don’t be afraid to mix and match serving platters for a quirky feel. Match everything if you love it but don’t do a dinner party style for the sake of it, go with what works for you when you have the time to do it and it will feel joyous and fun for everyone.

antipasto

8. Have fun

Having a dinner party is about sharing meals and sharing a space around a table with friends and family. Host a dinner party and have fun and enjoy yourself. It’s not a reality tv competition, everyone is there to enjoy your food and company and enjoy themselves so join in the vibe.

family cooking collage

Love these tips and want to put them into action with a little more help? Send me your ideas and feedback to [email protected] and we can create a fun and easy packages to have you hosting dinner parties in no time.

 

 

 

Undercover Chef Tip – Weigh the Sides for Success

Ever have friends over and you start to serve up the sides and realise that everyone’s plates looks, well a little sparse? How do you avoid this dinner party faux paux?

Whilst most recipes give serving size guides, check what they define as a portion size to make sure that you have the same idea in mind. Reading labels of foods makes you realise what exactly a serving size is considered as. You may think a cup of something is sufficient, wheres a recipe or label considers half a cup or two cups to be more appropriate.

By designating a weight to serving sizes you can know for sure you will have enough. Obvious food items such a pre cut piece of chicken or a piece of steak make counting a breeze but what if you are slicing the chicken breast, cutting up the carrots or bundling the beans? Weighing the sides and even the proteins can ensure you know exactly how much you have and how much everyone should be able to eat.

Of course there is no accounting for hunger or lack of but if you aim for a decent size it should even itself out and if you are the one serving the meal up you will know for sure you can give everyone a decent size.

So what is a decent size? As a guide most restaurant portions of a moderate size are:

– vegetables as a side: Approx 70-80g per person

-vegetables on their own (no carbs): 150-200g per person

– carbohydrate: Approx 100g per person

– protein: 150 – 200g before cooking

From here you can choose if you are just serving one course you can certainly add little more and remember, if there are two or more courses you can make the sizes a bit smaller so you guests are not stuffed at the end, just enjoyable content. Happy cooking!

Hints and tips for dinner party success

Have you ever read a lovely cookbook or foodie magazine and thought, “If Only”. If only I could make that food for friends, if only I could create a lovely table setting, if only if only. Well, what if having a dinner party is easier than you think?

About three weeks ago it was my 30th birthday. A couple factors weighed into deciding what exactly to do for my birthday

1) I am a chef

2) I love to entertain at home

3) I am half Italian

4) I have a courtyard and a brother who also loves to entertain thus access to tables, chairs and a gazebo

I think we all know where this is heading! The decision to entertain at home was a pretty sure thing especially as the guest list was numbering around 25. Now I know some of you reading this would be going into cardiac arrest at the thought of entertaining 25 people…at home! But it can be easy. Well sort of.

Dinner parties do strike the fear of failure into people’s hearts but it doesn’t need to be so. With planning and attention you can make having a large dinner party a breeze. It will be work in regards to planning aspects but at the end you get to kick back and enjoy yourself without having to be kicked out at a certain time. Plus your bed is just a few footsteps away. Magic.

Now to make sure you have a successful party there are some things to consider:

1) Do you have enough room?

There was for me – if not consider renting a hall or other space in your area

2) Is it all weather appropriate? Being a winter party warmth was a priority. K-mart was having a sale on small fleece blankets so I scooped up about 10 for $3 each to keep legs and shoulders warm as gazebos don’t really have the space to have a gas heater under and we weren’t going to eat around a fire so this was a second best thing idea and it actually worked – everyone was cozy. What I didn’t anticipate was the chance of rain. It did spit during set up which created a crazy scramble for shifting the covers and it did eventually rain hard which saw everyone run onto my balcony which was accommodating for sitting and chatting but not eating. Next time I would need to consider splashing out for a marquee just in case or finding an actual venue. So consider the following weather solutions – hand held fans for a summers day (make it a kitsch Spanish theme and it won’t seem out of place!) or pedestal fans placed inconspicuously around, an open fire (there are many great fire pits available from bunnings for a decent price) or gas heaters for winter or just blankets if need be. If it rains will your guests still be dry and comfortable? If there is a lot of sunshine will they get burnt easily or be shaded?

3) Do you need to rent/buy your set-up?

If you have to rent/buy all your tables, chairs, crockery, glasses and cutlery etc are you wanting to spend the $$$ on this? If so, no drama but it is something to consider in your budget. There are many great hire places that can do package deals and even deliver for a small percentage on top.

As aforementioned I could use my brothers tables, chairs and gazebo. The plates, cutlery and glasses I actually owned. Yes…a table setting for 25 people..how? I collect mismatched plates for blog props (check) and cool water glasses on sale (check) and have inherited a couple of cutlery setting between my own, my partners and my families (check check) so that just left table cloths, napkins and decorations to purchase. Easy

4) Are you comfortable cooking?

If you are not a confident cook consider a caterer to help with more complicated aspects or wrangling someone who knows someone who can help.You can make the nibbles or dessert whilst they take care of the main part leaving you to sit and enjoy yourself. Catering may seem like an indulgent choice but if you just need some aspects taken care of, not the whole meal, it can be money well spent. Or if you know someone like me who has an undercover chef package, I can be there on the day helping you along making you feel more confident in your kitchen 🙂 This has been the creation point for this service as I know what it is like to want to have a celebration but not just leave the work to someone else all the time. By having a cehf in your kitchen you can have some tips and assistance without the stress of going alone. Even I had my head chef from work (connections I know!) on hand on her weekend off to help me and join in the celebration at the same time. Otherwise, if you’re really unsure,  share style take-away such as your favourite Indian, Chinese or Thai can be a simple solution for share meals and you just focus on creating a lovely table setting and drinks.

5) Do you have a dishwasher?

I don’t. I did cook a lot of the food the day before but still, 25 people have a lot of plates, platters and some saucepans. I was lucky that a few friends pitched in and got the washing up down between us for a bit before dessert, but had they not the mountain would have been a bit ordinary. Something to consider with larger dinner parties. Hiring glasses and plates or using quality disposable options (there are many nice eco-friendly options available) can take care of the clean up mountain if you choose

6) Do you know how you would like to set the table?

A great party of having a dinner party at home is being able to theme the party and match your table accordingly. My birthday was an Italian feast so I googled, and searched Pinterest for ideas and inspiration. I was going to go the full blown cheesy Italian red checked tablecloths etc etc but I decided to tone it down a touch but still bring a sense of trattoria and tradition to the table setting. Never underestimate your ability to get creative with inexpensive items. My tablecloth? $10 from k-mart but I covered it with a roll of brown paper down the middle as a runner giving it a rustic feel but also toning down the white non-linen table cloth feel. Placemats? I didn’t really want to buy 25 red placemats for this dinner party so solution? Red wrapping paper cut into  placemat sized squares to sit under the plates. I had used tinned tomatoes and white beans in some of the menu so I bought Italian branded ones and kept the tins to hold my grissini sticks on the table. A little rustic touch that recycled my packaging from my ingredients. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to make a big impact. A little creativity can go a long way especially if you have magazines and pinterest at your fingertips. Just don’t get lost for hours like I do! 😉

The real secret to dinner party success? The age old adage of K.I.S.S – keep it simply simple (I know it’s keep it simple stupid but I think that’s a bit mean!) Start off with some basic ideas and menu items and build your way to a party for 25 in no time!

Love some more ideas or someone to lend a hand? Drop me a line at [email protected] to have a chat. Feel free to share some of your dinner party success stories here. Happy dining!

Undercover Chef Tip – You say potato, i say keep it fresh

Do you ever wonder how restaurants have the time to make mashed potatoes, fries, wedges, frittata’s and all forms of potatoey goodness in one day? Well here’s a little secret. We get the potatoes ready ahead of time. Peeling and cutting them and storing them in water allows potatoes to retain their clean white colour. This time saving tip means you can have your potatoes peeled and cut in the quiet times so all you need do is grab them from the bucket and them chop or slice them for a recipe in the busy times. The same idea can be applied to a dinner party. Guests coming over on Sunday? Peel and cut up your potatoes on Friday or Saturday so come Sunday all you need do is drain them, cut them how you like and cook away. Simple!

Baked apple goodness for a winter night

I love vintage tea towels. Especially when they have old school recipes on them that remind you of foods you used to eat when you were young. This was the case with one of my favourites, a cooking with apples tea towel. Bright friendly colours keep you company as you wipe up your dishes but also gave me inspiration for dessert at my friends this week.

As a child dessert wasn’t a bit thing at the end of a meal. Sure there was coffee and biscuits but actual desserts weren’t a big feature so when my mum made her fabulous baked apples everyone was always around the dinner table, the oft used excuses to disappear into teenage bedrooms forgotten. Well for my siblings anyways. Being eight year younger I was always happy to hang around the dinner table with Mum, not having reached the joy of teens years just yet. But I digress. My Dad wasn’t too much of a sweet tooth preferring a slice of cheese and fresh apples after dinner but loved Mum’s baked apples,  so we knew that Dad was in Mum’s good books when they appeared after dinner.  Such a simple dessert but coupled with ice-cream it was such an easy after dinner treat.

Lo and behold my fabulous vintage tea towel featured a similar recipe transporting me back to my childhood. Their recipe also featured glace cherries and brandy made into a sauce with the buttery goodness left behind, a step which I left out because a) I don’t really like glace cherries and b) I thought the caramelised buttery sauce was nice enough without a splash of brandy which I don’t actually have on hand anyways!

So I know I haven’t really revealed the full temptation of a baked apple as yet. Just the title doesn’t really give away the treat it is, so I will explain the very simple method and try and entice you even more. Quite simply, you just core out the apple’s whole, score the skin so it doesn’t burst open and make a mess and then stuff the cavity of the apple with a combination of softened butter, brown sugar and cinnamon. Imagine then baking these stuffed apples for about half an hour in which time the butter and sugar caramelise to a butterscotch sauce at the bottom of the pan and the apple flesh cooks down to a soft, sweet filling. No we are talking hey? Now put that delicious apple into a bowl, top with vanilla ice-cream and enjoy! You can thank me later, don’t worry.

Ingredients (serves four)

4 granny smith apples (these bake really well but if you have a favourite apple by all means use them!)

3 tbsp softened butter

2 tbsp brown sugar

pinch cinnamon

Method

  1. Core out the apples and score the skin
  2. Mix the butter, sugar and cinnamon in a bowl until combined and softened
  3. Spoon and push the butter mix into the cored cavity of the apples
  4. Either place the apples in individual ramekins and on a tray to bake or onto a paper lined tray with the edges folded up to catch the butter sauce
  5. Bake at 180 degrees for about 30 min or until the apples have softened
  6. Remove from oven and serve with vanilla ice-cream. If you have baked them on a tray, put into serving dishes and carefully pour over the remaining sauce sauce from the oven tray.

When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie!

Dean Martin, I am sorry for using your song as a blog title. Well, not really to be honest because I tragically love that song to death and can often be heard singing it at home. To myself. Shamelessly.

But really, who doesn’t love pizza? When friends are coming over it can be easy to become frantic and wonder what to cook that is easy and sociable at the same time. My solution? Home made pizza. With the abundance of decent pizza bases make your own at home can be a fun experience as you create a topping bar and each guest makes their own pizza ensuring they are happy with the topping and there is a sense of fun to the experience instead of just dialing a number and waiting for a delivery of usually sub average take away pizza.

The great thing about pizza is that the toppings are limited to what you have on hand or really enjoy. Of course, nothing beats tradition such as pepperoni, four cheeses, prosciutto and rocket or margarita but when you are cooking at home I will look the other way when you break the rules, don’t worry.! 😉  I like to keep it simple with my toppings with prosciutto, rocket and Parmesan being my simple go to. My partner is a fan of the everything possible school of pizza toppings but again, this is where compromise is a beautiful thing in that we both get to have pizza our way by making our own.

Home made pizza bases are very simple to make. You can even freeze the excess dough before proving it  to have a quick mid week meal without fuss. Just roll the dough into individual sized balls, wrap well in cling film and freeze for about a fortnight or so before use.

So crack out the mixing bowl and roll up your sleeves to knead as you create you own pizza bases and have a great night in!

Home made pizza base

Ingredients

600g  of flour

1 teasp salt

1 sachet of dried yeast

1 teasp caster sugar

60ml olive oil

375ml lukewarm water

Method

1. Combine salt and flour in mixing bowl

2. Empty yeast sachet into warm water with sugar and mix. Allow to sit for about 5 mins or until mix is foamy and yeast is activated

3. Add olive oil to yeast mix and create well in middle of flour

4. Pour in liquid mix and using a knife cut the flour into the mix until well combined

5. Place rough dough onto floured bench and knead for about ten minutes until the dough is smooth and firm. Alternatively if you have a mixer with a dough hook, place inside and knead on low speed for ten minutes

6. Remove from bowl and place in large clean bowl with oiled sides. Place in warm area and cover with cling film

7. Allow to rise and prove for about 30min – 1 hour until doubled in size

8. Knock back and knead again, separate mix into appropriate size to cover your tray. Usually about 100g of mix will cover a 20cm round tray thinly which is how I like my bases

9. Top with your favourite ingredients and bake at about 180-200 degrees for 10-15 minutes until the base is golden

10. Cut up and enjoy!

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Undercover Chef Tip – Keeping it warm

Nothing is worse than creating a nice meal and have it go cold because the weather outside is a bit chilly. So how do you keep your food as warm whilst you eat? Warming plates under a low grill before you put your food on allows the food to stay warm whilst you eat without having to microwave it again whilst you are plating up the food for everyone. Just make sure you check your plates are safe to be heated and make sure you don’t blast it under a high grill, just allow them to warm gently under a low grill and take care to handle with them with a cloth. Plate up your food and relax because it will stay warm and taste delicious!

Undercover Chef Tip – How to stop it becoming a sticky situation

Undercover Chef Tip - Sticky ingredients

 

Honey, treacle, golden syrup, glucose….all a bit of a pain to measure out for a recipe without making a sticky mess or losing half of it to the sides of your cups. So how do you make sure you have all your measured ingredients into the mix without fuss? Running the cup or spoon under hot water or spraying it with some cooking oil will allow it to be measured and pour with ease. This way your ingredients will flow easily and you will end with the mix in the bowl not in the cup! Wonderful 🙂

Undercover Chef Tip – Cutting the Cheese

Cheese boards are a lovely way to end a meal, especially with a great glass of wine and some crackers. So how do you cut soft cheese neatly and cleanly for a board when it is nice and ripe and oozy? Our good friend dental floss (unscented as minty cheese isn’t a new trend) can create a clean cut through the cheese without creating a mess. Hold it taught as you would if flossing and then run it straight through and down to section into neat pieces. Assemble on your board and enjoy!

If you like pina-coladas and getting caught in the rain…

Don’t worry, this isn’t a personals ad or even a rendition of that song, it’s my tongue in cheek intro to the very in vogue fruit of the moment, the Pineapple. From kitchen to decor, this versatile fruit has a lot going for it.

The cool chill in the air doesn’t exactly conjure images of tropical paradises but there is one fruit that can give you a little slice of beach life and that is our spiky friend the pineapple. Pineapples are a great dessert treat but many are put off my having to tackle the less than appealing hard spiky skin. My advice is to clean up the pineapple as soon as it comes home in your market bags to ensure that when you are after a quick snack it is ready to go and doesn’t become neglected.

Pineapples are also able to be dried easy and their sweetness is intensified for a surprisingly different garnish and dried fruit snack.

My favourite way to enjoy pineapple in winter is to pan roast them with a little butter and sugar as a compliment to ice-cream or even as the offsider to a panna cotta. Of course, a little blended into a pina-colada cocktail never hurts either! The combination of coconut and pineapple is a tropical party combo just waiting to cheer up your winter blues. I have two recipes below, one for a really easy egg free pina-colada ice-cream and the second with a coconut panna cotta and roast pineapple. Take your pick and enjoy them whilst dreaming of sunnier days with your toes in the sand. Enjoy!

Pina-Colada Ice-Cream

Ingredients

700g sour cream

250g icing sugar

440g crushed pineapple (drained)

250ml coconut cream

100ml coconut liquor or essence

150g shredded coconut toasted

Method

  1. Whisk sour cream, coconut cream and icing sugar until well combined
  2. Fold through pineapple and essence/liquor
  3. Lightly fold through 100g of the toasted coconut
  4. Place in bowl and freeze, taking out every hour or two and giving a stir to aerate
  5. After stirring twice, place in loaf tin lined with glad wrap or a brownie tray and freeze until firm
  6. To serve, cut into slices and roll edges in remaining coconut and plate with some fresh diced pineapple and mint or fruit of your choice

NB: If you have an ice-cream churner, follow method as above but fold through the pineapple and shredded coconut at the end before freezing to avoid damage to churning arm

Coconut Panna-cotta with Roasted Pineapple

Now, I have to admit, I went a little retro on this one with my choice of moulds. I have some old school jelly moulds rolling around in the cupboard but they work a treat. They have a seal to stop them from leaking when putting them in the fridge to set and a removable bottom to help poke them out if they are a little shy. As is often said, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! and these little babies certainly do the trick to behold my slightly retro version of the panna cotta.

Ingredients

Pannacotta

300ml coconut cream

200ml cream

1 cup icing sugar

5 gold gelatine leaves (see packet for quantities if not sure) soaked in ice water to soften

 Roast pineapple

1 pineapple cut into rounds

20g butter

1 tbsp sugar

Method

For pannacotta

  1. Place cream and coconut cream in a saucepan with sugar. Bring to a gentle simmer
  2. Remove from heat and add soaked gelatine, whisk well
  3. Pour into moulds and allow to cool slightly before refrigerating for at least four hours or overnight
  4. For pineapple, warm a frying pan on a gentle heat, add butter and sugar and allow to caramelise, add pineapple to pan and colour on both sides, leave in pan and remove from heat and allow to cool
  5. Serve cooled pineapple under pannacotta and top with dried pineapple and mint leaves

NB: I used a sunbeam food dryer for my pineapple. I just sliced in finely and dried over night. You can use an oven but it needs to be a very low heat and overnight.

An easy way to prepare the pineapple is to cut into the rounds and use an apple corer to remove the hard centre whilst keeping the circular shape