Rod McCormick, of McBaile caterers in Bristol, shares his top tips for entertaining at home
Q. We’re hosting a dinner party. How should we approach our menu?
As caterers we’ve certainly noticed a trend towards a more relaxed form of entertaining over the last few years but there is definitely still a place to pull out all the stops and wow your guests with something refined and innovative for those special occasions.
Try to balance flavours and colours throughout the courses, perhaps using a theme or consistent flavour profile. Picking a culinary theme can also help you decide on the table dressing or music. A less traditional approach is to get your guests involved and ask them to bring a prop or wear a piece of clothing from that region for a good icebreaker, especially if some of your guests don’t know each other.
If it’s a more casual affair, slow-cooked dishes like casseroles, soups and stews are a great option, especially if (like me) you’ve little time to spend in the kitchen. Invest in a slow cooker or crock pot and use braising cuts (such as shoulder, belly, brisket, etc) and you’ll save time, money and get a depth of flavour that will warm you to the very core. Combine that with a style of pudding that can be prepared in advance and a sharing platter starter and entertaining will start to feel surprisingly easy.
One word of warning though, have a think about what your guests like to eat too before you jump head first into untested or exploratory recipes. Deep-fried Cambodian crickets and braised chicken feet might sound like a fun culinary adventure to you but might seem more like a trial by ordeal for your less adventurous guests!
Q. Eek! We’ve got a coeliac and a veggie coming! What’s the best way to look after guests with special dietary requirements?
It’s always a good idea to ask people as you invite them or to include it on the RSVP (if you are going more formal). It can be pretty embarrassing for you and your guest if they can’t eat what you’re serving. There is an amazing array of recipes out there now to cater for different exclusions and some great suppliers of specialty ingredients, so there really is no excuse for serving up a stuffed mushroom or an omelette as your default dish! Look to the East for cuisines that are set up specifically for vegetarians and you’ll be amazed at what you can do. There are so many great independent suppliers in Bristol, too, such as the Sweetmart in Easton or Wai Yee Hong in Eastville for endless ideas. All the big supermarkets now have a specific section full of foods for those with dietary requirements, making acquiring those all-important ingredients a lot easier than you might think.
Q. We want to prepare some easy, low-maintenance nibbles for when the guests arrive. What do you suggest?
Keeping it simple is a great way to give yourself extra time while keeping your guests entertained. Home-roasted chilli and maple nuts, balsamic and herb marinated olives and a selection of good home-baked bread (or from a good local baker of you want to cheat!) served with homemade dips are a couple of examples of foods that people always love and are easy to prepare in advance.If you have a blender, making your own hummus or guacamole is a simple and gratifying process that with little effort will impress guests no end. Scooping shop-bought dips into your own dishes will not pass as ‘homemade’ unfortunately: your guests will be able to tell the difference!
Q. Ok, menu sorted. What about the drinks?
Get the basics sorted first and then you should be able to handle most requests pretty easily from there. Firstly, make sure you have plenty of clean glasses: a selection of wine, water and tumblers should cover most eventualities. Next is plenty of ice, lemons and limes. I once knew someone who kept sliced lemons and limes in the freezer as an all-in-one ice cube so there was always a cold garnish to a gin and tonic when needed! Get any drinks that need chilling into the fridge or a bucket of ice well ahead of time. No-one likes a warm beer and most white wines want a bit of a chill – around 10°C is optimum for whites. Get in a couple of non-alcoholic options, too, so that those abstaining don’t feel like second-class citizens stood in the corner with just a glass of warm orange juice from a carton that’s been sat in the cupboard for the last six months…
Q. How should we be styling our table?
Simple and elegant is always stylish whatever the season, especially if you plan on an extravagant food offering. If you can incorporate a good dash of colour at this time of year it brightens everyone’s day and daffodils/snowdrops will make a great seasonal addition to the table. Good-quality, chunky and earthy linen adds a great sense of texture to the table and complements the vibrant yellow of daffodils really well. Combine this with vintage hurricane lamps or glass tea-light lanterns for an atmospheric touch.
Q. When it comes to serving the food, what should we be aware of?
1. Warm food – warm plates; cold food – cold plates. Simple, but it makes a massive difference! If you’re short on oven space and have a big enough microwave then nuke the plates for 30-60 seconds to warm them through (although not if they’re metal or have metallic detailing).
2. Remember a sense of space… There is a charm and sense of fulfilment in seeing a table laden with dishes piled high and overflowing with tasty food. If you are serving family-style, in the middle of the table or as a buffet, then this is an important concept to remember, especially with single-ingredient dishes. However, when presenting a dish with multiple components, then don’t overcrowd the plate – as a rule of thumb try not to fill more than third of the plate area with food.
3. Contrasts/textures: the reason so many restaurants serve food on white or relatively plain plates is so that, rather than being distracted by the patterns on the plate, your eyes can instead be drawn to and linger over the beauty of the food on it. With a blank background you can then make the most of featuring those beautiful colours and textures that you planned when designing your menu.
Q. Pudding or cheese? Or both?
There is definitely room for both of these if you plan what you serve and how much. My philosophy is always that your guests should go away from a meal wanting a little bit more. This keeps their focus on the flavours, textures and fragrances of the food rather than on their engorged stomachs groaning at them at the end of the night! The next question will be which you serve first. The French would argue that cheese should be first but the English generally prefer pudding first. For my money, cheese goes great with a good glass of aged port, sat by the fire, so cheese last please! And don’t forget to bring the cheese up to room temperature before serving.
Q. At what stage should we request a bit of professional help?
Depending on the occasion you may just want to be hands off in the kitchen and let someone else do the work, so that you can focus on spending time with your guests. To get the results you want it is sometimes best to call in experts who can get the job done in a fraction of the time, with a fraction of the stress and allow you to relax a bit more. If you are catering for many more than eight to 10 people with multi-course or complex dishes, I’d recommend getting some help in, whether that’s an expert or just a friend to assist. From a professional point of view for a dinner party we wouldn’t normally have our private chefs cook for more than six to eight people before bringing in an assistant. Many more than that and you can’t really maintain such a focus on quality, presentation and style. Like the old saying goes, quality over quantity.
Q. What’s the most important thing to remember when catering – whether it’s for 10 or 100?
Preparation is the absolute key. Without it you’ll be a gibbering wreck and up to your neck in dirty dishes by the time your guests arrive. Take the time to write a menu plan, shopping list and a kitchen preparation schedule so you know that you’ll have time to get everything done. Remember to factor in things like the oven getting up to temperature, wine chilling, peeling of vegetables, etc as these all take time. Work out what food preparation you can do in advance so that when it comes to the night you have as many components peeled, rolled, blanched and ready as possible so that you don’t spend all night in the kitchen sweating while your guests are having a great time without you. In the industry we call this food preparation mis en place (broadly translated from French to mean “to put in place”) and it is the cornerstone upon which every great restaurant, caterer or food producer builds their reputation. Ignore it at your peril!