dinner party

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

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!

My 4 top tips for creating a signature dish for dinner parties

One of the questions I am frequently asked when people learn I am a chef is “what’s your signature dish?” This question is like a giant spotlight on me as I feel like how can can I choose just one thing that I like to cook? But then I realised there are dishes that I happily trot out when company comes over as they are easy, fuss free and I know I can make them without stress. When I was an apprentice and used to doing cooking competitions the best advice my head chef gave me was to cook food I am familiar with. either from the restaurant or my own personal background. The last thing you need when you are already under pressure is to have to gaze at a recipe for ten minutes to work out what in the world you are doing before you even pick up a knife or boil some water. 

Cooking at home for yourself and cooking for a dinner party can take you from blissed out foodie instragraming your creation to an re-enactment from Bridget Jones’s diary with the blue soup because she had the wrong string to tie her vegetables. No one likes blue soup. Well not me anyway!

Here are some simple steps to creating your own signature dish with ease

1. Cook with ingredients you are familiar with – can’t pronounce quinoa let alone know what it is? Perhaps not the best idea to have it in a dish for a dinner party. Experimenting with food is great but not at the cost of your sanity on party day. Choose foods that you know what to do with and how they taste and enjoy to build your confidence. The more you cook the more confident you will be. Think of familiar flavours as the training wheels of your repertoire. They are there to support you until your confident enough to go it alone. 

2. Keep it simple. The recipe may give a time frame as a guide but realistically things can crop up that delay the process. Phone rings, kids are around, an ingredient is forgotten so you pop to the shops, all sorts of things can happen on party day that can make a 30 minute meal a hour and a half slog. Recipes with special techniques or labour intensive ingredients/processes such as peeling, roasting then slicing can me more hassle than its worth. By all means as you develop your skills a more adventurous dish can be tackled but this is about creating a simple go to meal for those less confident behind a stove. Methods that aren’t a full page long are a good indication of a easy to tackle recipe. Simple doesn’t mean boring and the joy and success of creating these meals can elevate simple to elegant with attention to details and fresh ingredients.

3. Cook something you already enjoy and take it up a notch. Love cooking pasta? Research interesting flavour combinations or presentation styles to take your dish from family to dinner party.  Simple techniques such as twisting pastas such as linguine or fettuccine on a carving fork to create a long neat nest can make your family recipe a shining star of the table. If you’re already familiar with a dish try experimenting with the presentation or substituting some ingredients for an updated version. Love make pies or tarts? Create individual tarts with a sauce and garnish such as raspberry coulis and candied lemons for lemon meringue pie or salted caramel sauce and vanilla ice-cream with a chocolate tart. If the majority of the dish is familiar the fun can be had with the presentation and sides to the dish. 

4.  Try it and Make notes – sometimes you read a recipe and your own personal tastes/aesthetics feel the dish could use a bit more of this and a little less of that, or sometimes you make a dish and feel some things could be changed for more success. Take note of these observations as this is how you make the dish your own. Chefs use flavour combinations or ideas and add their own personal touch. They may like something a little spicier, would use more colour or cut a vegetable differently. They may grill instead of bake, steam instead of poach. These are the elements of you that make the dish your own. Trust your taste and take notes of what worked and didn’t work. Recipes evolved and develop over time. Make it yours. There are many ways to make Caesar dressing. The best way? Your own. If you would rather use a food processor instead of chopping when the chopping isn’t seen such as pasta sauce or casseroles, by all means do it if it cuts down time. Recipes that have been handed down will have personal touches added. Everyone has a way of wearing clothes that is their own, why not create food in a way that is yours?

These aren’t hard and fast rules but they are techniques I have used to create my own version of things. I have shown in this blog where I have changed up a recipe I have found and altered it to suit my personal tastes. A signature dish isn’t just a boring old go to dish, it is something that you enjoy cooking and eating and sharing with friends and family. A signature dish of a restaurant is one that reflects the food style and flavours that are a common thread to all dishes. Have a great bbq marinade? Use it! Have a really great pasta sauce? Use it! Don’t be afraid to use what you know, have fun with and experiment with the presentation to update it. Most of all, just have fun. That’s the best part of it all 🙂

P.s Wish someone could show you how to take it up a notch and create your own signature dish? I can come to you and chat about the foods you enjoy and discuss ways to take it up a notch to have you dinner party ready in no time. I can teach you cooking techniques and methods all in the comfort of your own home with the utensils and space your are familiar with.  Ask me how today – email [email protected] or ph 0423 450 363 to start creating with me