Dinner parties. So 1970s. They reek of vol-au-vents, Margo Leadbetters and awkward silences. The very mention of the D-P words and I am consumed by visions of an Abigail’s Party nightmare. No. Not for me the invitation to 7:30-for-8 soggy canapés and lukewarm cocktails.

However, a feast is a different matter all together. A feast I can get behind. Friends around a table piled high with sharing plates of fresh, seasonal loveliness prepared apparently without effort. Unlike the dreaded D-P with its subtext of one-upmanship and competitive cooking made worse by the onslaught of MasterChef, Come Dine With Me and the like (don’t even get me started on what tellie has done to cooking…), yes unlike that horror, a feast is a convivial, messy, tuck-in-and-help-yourself evening of decadence and, with luck, revelry.

A feast has personality. And if it’s you in the kitchen, that means your personality – simple, crowd-pleasing dishes that reflect what you like to cook. My issue with D-Ps is that, if you want to win at them, and let’s face it that’s what they are all too often about, the only criteria for personality are fiddliness, frippery and (bonus points) foam. They breed food that demands reverence because of the fancy ingredients or the time spent creating it. And reverence never helps conversation flow effortlessly. Plus, unless you are Heston Blumenthal this is unlikely to be the natural cooking personality of most home cooks. Attempting to recreate this fussiness results in menus that are ungrounded, beige and soulless and you, most likely, fraught from the stress trying to emulate something you have no passion for.

Which is another thing that’s wrong with D-Ps. Done ‘correctly’, the number of elements in a D-P requires the host-chef to be in the kitchen most of the evening or at the very least exhausted by the time the guests arrive. Souffles, beef wellingtons and Ile flottante won’t cook themselves; they require constant attention until they are served, leaving you sweating in the kitchen fretful over whether it will turn out ok. But your guests haven’t come for a show (if they have, you need better friends). You are not under pressure to perform cooking miracles. It’s not a stage. It’s your kitchen – a place of homeliness, joy and inclusion. Food for friends should reflect that.

So feasts, in my view, are the way forward.

supper club table setting

The latest G&G supper club was, I like to think, a good example of a successful feast. It was a lovely early Autumn menu using simple ingredients which looked beautiful on platters and could largely be made ahead of time. And, since I’m often asked about how to create stress-free dinner party menus, almost as if it’s a fantastically naive thing to imagine could exist, like believing in fairies, I thought I’d offer up this menu as my perfect fret-free feast for friends.

Seared beef, celeriac remoulade, pickled blackberries

Steam-baked Hake with Courgette and cobnut salad and sorrel sauce

Plum, pistachio and orange blossom pavlova

It might sound swanky, but I promise you, it’s a doddle. And that’s the art of a good feast – looks special but isn’t fiddlesome to make. The recipes in full are below (with slightly fuzzy pictures taken in the heat of the moment – normal service will resume next week), but I do love a list – calming- so here is the list of what I did when in the run up to the supper club:

Two days before:

  • Pickle blackberries
  • Make sorrel sauce
  • Make meringue base (keep cling filmed in a dry cool place but not the fridge)
  • Make plum topping

The day before:

  • Sear beef
  • Chop apples and celeriac
  • Make mayonnaise for remoulade
  • Wrap fish

The day of the feast:

  • Mix remoulade
  • Make courgette salad
  • Whip cream

On the Night:

  • Assemble starter and serve
  • Pop fish in to cook (as starter is served)
  • Serve main course
  • Assemble dessert and serve
  • Drink good wine and enjoy the night

Follow this guide and you will have an effortless and beautiful feast to share with friends. No brow mopping, no timers, no dashing to the kitchen during a course. Promise.

Seared beef, celeriac remoulade, pickled blackberries

beef celeriac remoulade

 

Serves 6

  • 300g beef fillet steak (tail end of fillet is fine)
  • 1 celeriac
  • 2 large eating apples
  • 3 egg yolks
  • Up to 200ml flavourless oil
  • Lemon juice, to taste
  • ½ tsp Dijon mustard
  • Salt and pepper
  • Handful blackberries
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 100g cider vinegar

Rub a little oil over the beef and season well. In a smoking hot pan, sear the beef on all sides for no more than 30 seconds. Set aside to rest until needed.

For the blackberries, dissolve the sugar in the vinegar over a low heat. Remove from the hob and allow to cool before adding the blackberries. Keep them in a jar in the fridge of up to a week.

For the remoulade, peel the celeriac and chop into very fine matchsticks. Do the same with the apple but leave the skin on. Toss in a little lemon juice to prevent browning or submerge in water with a little lemon to preserve overnight.

Next, pop the egg yolks in a large bowl. Drizzle in the flavourless oil in a continuous stream, whisking all the time. The more oil you add the thicker the mayo will become. When it’s just spoonable you’re ready. Season with salt, pepper, lemon juice and mustard then mix into the celeriac and apple. Check the seasoning one more time.

To assemble the dish, pile some remoulade on a large plate, thinly slice the beef and place on top of the celeriac. Finish with a scattering of drained blackberries, a turn of pepper and a few rocket leaves if you have them to hand.

 

Steam-baked Hake with Courgette and cobnut salad and sorrel sauce

courgette cobnut salad

 I saw something similar to this done at Petersham Nurseries and it looks beautiful but if you don’t have courgette leaves you can use parchment paper instead.

For the sauce:

  • 10 large sorrel leaves
  • 1 lemon, juice only
  • A dash of olive oil
  • Salt

For the salad:

  • 6 medium courgettes
  • Around 100ml olive oil
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • Handful chopped parsley
  • 1 clove garlic
  • Salt and pepper
  • Handful shelled cobnuts (or hazelnuts)

For the hake:

  • 6 pieces hake fillet (around 150-170g per person)
  • 3 spring onions
  • 6 lemon slices
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • Salt
  • 6 large courgette leaves (or parchment paper)

For the sauce, simply whizz the leaves, lemon juice and olive oil in a blender until smooth. A hand held stick blender is good for this too. Check the seasoning and adjust – it should be really, really lemony. Refrigerate until needed.

Next, the salad. Use a speed peeler to peel fat ribbons of courgettes into a large bowl. If the middle of your courgettes are very seedy then don’t include them. Crush the garlic into the bowl as well and toss the whole lot in the oil, lemon, parsley and salt. Leave for at least 30 minutes before serving so the flavours can mingle and the courgettes marinade. Just before serving, scatter over the hazelnuts.

For the fish, if you have courgette leaves dunk them in boiling water for a few seconds to make them more pliable and pat them dry. If you’ve gone for paper, cut it into squares big enough to securely wrap the fish inside leaving no gaps.

Finely slice the spring onions and garlic. Lift each hake fillet onto a courgette leaf (or sheet of paper) and place a small amount of garlic and onion on top of the fish together with a slice of lemon and a little salt. Wrap the fish up in the leaf/paper – nice and tight without any gaps. If you need 2 courgette leaves then go for it. Pop your 6 parcels on a baking tray and, when ready to cook, bake at 210oC for 15 minutes. Encourage guests to unwrap the parcels on their plates, for when they do a steamy loveliness of onions, garlic and lemon aromas will billow forth. You can’t eat the courgette leaves, or the paper for that matter, but it’s nice theatre.

To serve, bundle the courgette salad onto a platter, pile the fish parcels next to it and serve the sauce in a jug on the side. It’s also lovely with a few nasturtium leaves if you have them to hand.

Plum, pistachio and orange blossom pavlova

plum pistachio pavlova

The meringue for this is based on the Pavlova Queen’s (Nigella Lawson) basic pavlova recipe. It’s crispy, chewy and loose – everything you want in a pavlova meringue. The topping is all me.

  • 4 large egg whites (160g in total)
  • pinch salt
  • 250g caster sugar
  • 2 tsp cornflour
  • 1 tsp white wine vinegar
  • 50g chopped pistachios
  • 12 plums (around 500g)
  • 125g caster sugar
  • 1/3 tsp orange blossom syrup
  • 1 tbsp orange blossom honey
  • 500g double cream

For the base, pre-heat the oven to 180oC. Put the egg white and salt into the bowl of a freestanding mixer with the paddle attachment fitted and whisk to stiff, but not dry, peaks.

Add the sugar a spoon at a time, whisking back to peak peakness before adding the next load. Once all the sugar is added, continue to whisk for a couple of minutes to help the sugar dissolve (un-dissolved sugar will make them weep). Remove the bowl, sprinkle in the cornflour , pistachios and vinegar and gentle fold in.

Spoon the mixture onto a baking tray lined with silicone and spread about to create a large circular nest around 20cm in diameter. Bake for 30 minutes then turn the oven off, leave the meringue in for another 30 minutes then remove to cool.

For the filling, in a large shallow pan, dissolve the sugar in 200ml water over a low heat then, once completely dissolved, bring to the boil for 2-3 minutes. Meanwhile, halve and stone the plums. Turn the syrup down to a simmer, add the plums and cook for 5-8 minutes until the plums are soft. You want just one layer of plums and all semi-submerged in the syrup so do this in batches if you don’t have a big enough pan.

Once just soft, lift the plums out into a bowl and turn the heat up on the juice again. Boil hard until thick and syrupy then add the honey and orange blossom syrup. Remove from the heat, cool, then pour over the plums.

To assemble, whip the cream to very soft peaks (nothing worse than over-whipped cream!) and pile it into the middle of the meringue base. Spoon over the plums, drizzling the syrup around and about – no room for neatness here – and finish with a scattering of pistachios. Serve to adoring crowds.