I’ve been single for over 11 years now. It’s taught me a lot about life, love, friendship, running a home on my own, having to remove the cat’s offerings of dead mice and birds on the kitchen floor myself … and travelling, dining out and entertaining on my own. Life isn’t always what we think we would ideally choose, in fact it rarely is; life is what we make of it. Eleven years on, I’ve made mine into something I’m so much happier with. And the blog has been part of that. Of course, the change is part of getting older too. Things do look different from a higher rung of life’s ladder.
I bought Janet Street-Porter’s book, Life’s Too F***ing Short, a couple of years ago. It summed up how I feel about life now. I’m not always in tune with Ms Street-Porter but she does often talk much sense – and in a straightforward, frequently blunt, manner. Her book summed up much of what I was thinking. It helped me find my voice again. People are surprised to discover that I was once a feisty National Union of Journalists’ shop steward back in my twenties; managers were said to quake in their chairs at the sound of my feet along the corridor. Yes really! The voice quietened through the years of marriage and motherhood; my lovely children didn’t need me to be a feisty shop steward to them! But the voice has slowly been finding strength and confidence again over the last few years. However, no longer do I feel a need to be strident in my passion for things; I’ve learnt the difference between ‘reacting’ to things and ‘responding’ – even though I don’t always manage to exercise the restraint of the ‘responding’ version. And just like Ms Street-Porter, I do believe that ‘life’s too f***ing short’ to put up with nonsense or waste time on appearances for the sake of it. Patience please, we really are doing a slow segue into the entertaining …
In my twenties and thirties it was not unknown for me to spend two days – yes, two days! – slaving over the proverbial hot stove to prepare a meal for a dinner party. People like Robert Carrier (yes, it goes back that far), Julia Child, Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and Katie Stewart were my culinary gods. Even when children came, I didn’t let up. I should be fair and say my ex was a good cook too, but we never cooked together and I did do most of the entertaining meals. Into my forties I started to slow down. Really, seeing your friends just didn’t have to be this hard. Really, eating well didn’t have to mean hours in the kitchen. Eating well is as much about knowledge of what to buy and how to put meals together well as the actual cooking. Some of my best meals have been put together from buying wonderful foods with no cooking involved: a fabulous heart of Neufchâtel cheese in Normandy, left to soften into a gooey delight and spread on a crusty French baguette straight from the boulangerie; slices of Serrano ham cut straight onto a plate that need no accompaniment; a warm, sun-blushed apricot from a Provençal market stall, full of flavour in a way we never find in UK; a scoop of ice cream from a Roman gelateria eaten in a shady piazza.
The last 11 years have seen me looking to make things easier when entertaining. Yet conversely my standards have risen. I know more about good food now. And good food and great ingredients are more easily obtained than they were in my twenties. It may be hard for you young things to imagine, but you couldn’t make things like ratatouille all year round because ingredients like sweet peppers, courgettes and aubergines weren’t available all year – only in season. I don’t entertain as much as I used to; in fact, a dinner party is a rare event these days. But even if it’s just family – and really, once should never say just family as they are the most important people of all – I like to make a special meal; I enjoy, I positively adore time in the kitchen putting a lovely meal together for people I love. And parts of it are just that: put together. These days, a ‘starter’ is most likely to be a collection of bought things – good meats, excellent olives, wonderful bread, French cornichons, finest Scottish smoked salmon – put on a large tray and carried through to my sitting room with a bottle of fizz for everyone to nibble and drink before the main event. This is what I did for my recent mulled wine meal, when six friends plus my son came round.
If you would like a proper, sit-down starter, make something that can be made in advance, some kind of salad or a soup to be warmed up. At the most in terms of preparation, something like Grilled Figs with Goats’ Cheese, Honey & Walnuts that has minimal last-minute cooking. Homemade Labneh is incredibly easy to make but looks fantastic served with some fresh bread and maybe some sliced tomatoes on the side. Chestnut Soup with Croutons & Bacon is a luxurious option for soup.
As for the main event, I certainly don’t want to be cooking stressful last-minute dishes while my guests entertain themselves and I’m only likely to emerge hot and flustered from the kitchen. I much prefer to make something like a Boeuf Bourguignon that can be prepared well in advance and reheated just before serving; or perhaps a dish like Greek-Style Chicken with Lemon & Olives that can be mostly prepared in advance and the last bit of the cooking done a little before mealtime.
Some fish dishes can be prepared ahead of time too and kept in the fridge until the last minute when they need just a quarter of an hour or so in the oven. Something like Salmon with Roasted Red Pepper & Hazelnut Salsa is gorgeous and you can make the salsa ahead of time and cook the salmon last minute. Or why not make a lovely fish pie early in the day, as a friend did for a supper party I went to the other night, and just pop it in the oven when your friends arrive. Make things easy for yourself. You are supposed to enjoy the occasion too!
My kitchen is very small, leading straight through an archway from the dining room. I’m not keen to have to negotiate enthusiastic helpers in the small space, however well they mean. But don’t be afraid to ask for any help you want; certainly ask someone else to take care of the wine – opening new bottles, topping everyone up. If people offer to help clear the table, create a space for everything to be put in one place and you can sort later. Remember there’s nothing to prove; only enjoyment to be created – a happy atmosphere of good food and good company and good wine.
I’m with the French on cheese before dessert; Mary Berry too. She caused quite a stir a few months ago by saying this was her preferred order of courses for her meals; she always serves cheese before pudding. The English have traditionally served cheese last. Maybe this is a hangover from all that awful, old-fashioned stuff of men passing the port with the cheese and sending the women off to another room! (That’s why posh English people say ‘drawing room’ as the women had to ‘withdraw’ there and leave the men to that slab of delicious Stilton and fine glass of vintage port!) But sometimes I just lay cheese and dessert all out on the table and let people eat things in the order they prefer. I rarely do a hot dessert for entertaining so there’s no problem of timing. I think cheese comes better in, say, three or four good-sized slabs of cheese rather than lots of little bits. I’ll try to match cheese with theme – French, Italian, etc. – where possible, mixing some stronger ones with milder ones. Another English tradition is serving biscuits with cheese but I’m more French with this too. I much prefer bread, as in a good baguette, but actually most of all I prefer the cheese on its own! The French often serve slices of cheese on plates with a knife and fork to eat it. If you’re savouring the wonders of a well ripened piece of Brie de Meaux, for example, why would you want to eat anything else with it. Enjoy it on its own.
In my enthusiastic youth I usually made two or even three desserts when entertaining – even for quite small groups. I loved making desserts. My tastes have mellowed though; through healthier eating and awareness, I don’t have as sweet a tooth as I once had and now actually don’t like things I used to love, finding them too sweet. I absolutely cannot eat milk chocolate, only dark; I shy away from Sticky Toffee Pudding. I’m the one who chooses the Tarte Tatin. Nor do I like very creamy things – I mean mounds of whipped cream, not creamy ice cream! Aaaah ice cream. Now there’s a fine dessert for the single host: easily prepared days ahead and pulled out of the freezer quarter of an hour or so before wanted to soften. You can make some biscuits to serve with it if you like, but you can more easily buy excellent biscuits – langues de chat, biscotti, cantuccini or, a favourite of mine, a box of mini macarons from Paul or some other French bakery. Favourites ice creams of mine, and quite special for entertaining, are Citron Green Tea Ice Cream, Cinnamon Ice Cream with Caramelised Apple and Rich Vanilla Ice Cream with Summer Fruit Compote.
If you fancy some baking, why not try these fabulous Caprese Muffins with Mascarpone Ice Cream?
Or perhaps these wonderful Vanilla Panna Cotta with Baked Plums?
I may not entertain as much as I once did, and I certainly don’t want to spend literally days preparing a meal when I do, but some careful planning and cooking things as much ahead as you can ensures that on the day you’re calm and organised and all ready to have as good a time as you hope your guests will. Yes, it’s still fun to impress a little, like with that panna cotta above, but the main thing is pleasure. Happy entertaining!