The ten rules of stress-free entertaining

Eve O'Sullivan
23 February, 2015

Cooked picked the brains of Leiths School of Food and Wine principal Camilla Schneideman to discover the secret of failsafe cooking for family and friends.

We’ll start with the obvious; prepare ahead.

Pick your recipes, plan them, then rethink it again and work out how long each dish will realistically take. But cooking in advance doesn’t have to mean making a predictable stew; tagines and coq au vin can be completed the day before and actually improve in that time as the flavours develop. Duck breasts also work well as an entertaining dish; you can score the skin, crisp in a cold pan beforehand, and then pop them in the oven for 7-8 minutes to serve. You’ll have perfectly pink meat every time, and the lovely aroma will fill your house for when people arrive.

Never cook more than two courses from scratch.

Serve antipasti instead of a starter, or a simple dessert of ice cream and berries then save your energy, time and experimentation for just one course. I wouldn’t generally cook more than one on the night, but if I do, I’ll make something like baked ricotta that can be shoved in the oven, drizzled with pomegranate molasses and served with pitta chips and nice olives.

Taste your food as you cook.

You can be the most fantastic cook in the world, but if your seasoning is wrong – salt, pepper, lemon juice and even sugar – then what you cook just won’t deliver, and that’s the truth. And it’s ok to have salt and pepper on the table. Obviously, try to get it right, but remember that some people have higher tolerances, so giving them the option of adding more salt takes the pressure off you. Don’t let a good dish be ruined by your guests feeling they can’t be rude and ask.

Embrace the basics.

If you watch a few videos on how to chop an onion properly, or how to joint a chicken, you will save yourself huge amounts of time. Investing in learning how to do something properly will pay off; one skill can apply to hundreds of recipes, and understanding a simple concept will change your cooking.

It’s ok to have a few ‘fallback’ recipes.

It’s very easy to become overwhelmed with the amount of recipes out there – practicing a few dishes will make you more experienced and more efficient. And it’s ok to keep going back to the same cookbook or author, too. I have phases of cooking lots of dishes from particular books or types of cuisine; once you get to know a chef or writer’s style or a certain technique, you’ll get better results.

Learn to cook your carbs well.

Most people are rubbish at cooking dried pasta and rice, so something that’s done just right is bound to impress. Always use the absorption method with rice, use good quality basmati, and make sure you add a little bouillon powder for flavour. As for couscous? Don’t be afraid of injecting a lot of flavour into it. Always have fresh herbs to hand. If you always have fresh herbs in the fridge, they can turn something very plain into something special.

Understand the principles of baking.

You’re powerless to fix a problem if you don’t understand the process. Reading up on how gluten works will stop your cakes coming out of the oven like rubber pancakes and understanding the kneading technique will take you a step closer to perfectly risen bread.

Your guests are only human, so don’t overdo it.

I’ve never been so offended as when I’d mastered souffle making, only for a friend to refuse to eat my dessert because he was too full from the previous courses. If you balance your meal well or just serve a smaller starter or dessert then you’ll avoid your own disappointment.

Learn how to make a good salad dressing – it will transform everything.

It was the first thing I learned to do, and it’s the first thing my four-year-old daughter has, too. Dressings are not just for salads, either; try them on vegetables and grilled meat. If you follow the basic ratios of three parts oil to one part vinegar, then experiment with your own flavourings, you won’t go wrong.

Invest in a couple of platters and perfect your rustic presentation.

People love it if you come out of the kitchen with something that looks really generous, and you won’t have to worry about portion size if people serve themselves. If you make an abundant side dish, such as a salad or rice with fresh herbs, you won’t need as much protein, and can even explore the cheaper cuts to keep your costs down.

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