Dinner Party Menu Planning
Now that we can see light at the end of the lockdown tunnel, thoughts are turning to social events and bringing people together again.
For me, that will always mean around a dinner table. I have given hundreds of dinner parties over the years, and I've come to love the planning stage. In my experience, the planning is the time of exciting fantasies about what you might cook, who you could invite and how your table will look. It's the most creative stage, full of possibilities. It’s a Covid-safe activity that can give you the boost you might want to get you through the next few months.
Have you noticed how often people roll their eyes and sigh in mock exasperation whenever they say the words "dinner party?" For English people in particular, it seems to have become synonymous with social unease, moments of stress and panic in the kitchen, and generalised anxiety about whether you're getting it "right" (whatever that is). I think that's a pity.
There should be few more pleasant experiences than sharing food among friends. It's been said thousands of times, but I'll point it out again, that the word "companion" contains the Latin word for bread. It means the person you share your food with. What has gone wrong, then, in English-speaking cultures, that we associate this most basic of joys with stress? I'd suggest it is because so few of us eat as families on a day-to-day basis.
Table companionship is strange to us, full of half-remembered manners and expectations picked up from aspirational TV programmes. When we cater for guests, we're no longer sure what we should be doing, so end up trying to do too much.
Now, let me be clear here: I don't belong to that school of thought that says cooking should always be as easy as possible. If you have the time, interest and skills to make your own bread and cure your own salmon, then why not do it? Surely your guests deserve the best of you.
On the other hand, if the thought of making curry from whole spices or setting your own panna cotta causes you stress, you're not giving your guests the best of you at all. Buy in ready-made dishes, prepared sauces and whatever else helps you feel more relaxed. Concentrate on what it is that you are talented at, be that decorating a table, or choosing great music, or animating a conversation, or pouring the wine.
The first principle of good menu-planning is: identify what you can do brilliantly.
Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash
There is no law, come down from God on high or hand-written on royal vellum, that says we must serve dinners in three distinct courses. That's a convention that came in around the end of the nineteenth century. It has its origins in imperial Russia and particularly influenced the great French chefs who worked in Edwardian England.
Three courses became standard in middle class households, but we have known four and five courses to be common in the past. I suspect we settled on three during the privations of the Second World War and never quite got over it. Before service russe (as we call separate courses) came in, we served a number of dishes together: hot and cold, sweet and savoury, all together on the table at once. Guests helped themselves to whatever combination appealed to them at the time.
Each group of dishes was known as a remove, and a dinner could comprise of two or more removes. This was known as service française, or French service. The huge variety of modern restaurants, and our enjoyment of travel, have shown us that sharing small dishes, like Spanish tapas, Greek meze or Italian cicchetti, can be part of the fun of a dinner. Similarly, have discovered in north African cuisines that an effective dinner can be created from one large main dish with a number of small, tasty accompaniments.
The second principle of menu-planning is, then: decide how you want to serve the food.
Service in separate courses can add an air of formality to a special occasion, or show off a particularly splendid main course. Sharing plates are great for informal, chatty dinners, but the sheer variety you need to make for a successful tapas or meze spread could finish up more work than you expect. A big pot of something delicious makes everyone feel part of the family, so long as everyone can eat what you’ve made.
We'll look at each of these service styles in the coming weeks, so we can consider advantages and drawbacks each has for the kinds of event you might want to put on in the period I’m already calling Viral Thanksgiving. In the meantime, dig out your favourite food books, let your fantasies run wild and get creative.
Writing as The Aperitif Guy, Paul Fogarty maintains a popular food & drinks blog, which can be found at blog.theaperitifguy.co.uk