Some years ago I wrote a book about entertaining called Cooking to Impress Without Stress. I wrote it (as is the case with most of my books) for myself, as a template to seamlessly enjoying the process of having people over to eat at home.
It was a book that I needed, as back then people would usually turn up as per my invitation, only to find me in the garden, the house looking somewhat of a bombsite and with no sign of any kind of meal in preparation.
They would stand there wondering if they had the night wrong, and I would often end up rushing around pulling a rabbit out of a hat so we could have a decent meal.
I think to some extent my attitude was driven my a desire for that little adrenaline kick you get out of cooking under pressure. But then I decided adrenaline was highly overrated. I was over it.
The word entertaining is defined as ‘providing amusement or enjoyment’. There’s nothing in there about stenciling the drive, bringing out the best china, fretting about whether there are enough beans or showing off fancy cooking tricks.
To the contrary, entertaining (such a formal word) is all about having fun, and does not require any level of showing off or having to spend a whole bunch of money. People are at their happiest when they are relaxed, not when they feel intimidated by a stage of fancy scene setting, complex tortured food or the hosts arguing in the kitchen.
So I wrote a book (sorry it’s now out of print) about how to entertain without stress, and to this day its mantra stands me in good stead.
All this came to mind when I was thinking about the menu in this episode of my TV series Annabel Langbein The Free Range Cook: Simple Pleasures. The menu is one of my favourite in the entire series, mostly because it's got complete wow factor when you bring it to the table (especially the Molten Chocolate Pots dessert!), but it's just so easy and almost all of it can be done in advance.
The Prawn, Haloumi and Zucchini Skewers can be threaded earlier in the day and left in the fridge until they're cooked just before your guests arrive (watch a video of me preparing them here). The Flash-Roasted Pesto Salmon can be arranged on the oven tray in advance and just popped in the oven for 6-8 minutes after you've finished your starter. And even the Molten Chocolate Pots dessert can be prepared in advance and left to sit in its ramekins until needed.
Here are a few of my top tips for effortless entertaining:
- Set the scene by lighting candles, arranging some fresh flowers and setting a welcoming table. Even if you haven’t cooked a thing, your guests will feel welcome when they arrive. On a beautifully set table even the simplest food feels special.
- Create a yummy smell through the house before people arrive by roasting some almonds or other nuts, or cooking something with garlic or bacon – these sorts of aromas make the house smell comfortable and inviting.
- Don’t forget to take some time out of the kitchen before people arrive, otherwise you will be sick to death of food before you have even started.
- Knowing your own cooking style is key to having a good time. Do you like to cook in front of people at the last minute and be in the kitchen with everyone there? Do you like your guests to help? Or do you like everything prepared as much as possible ahead of time? Knowing this will very much decide the kind of food you will serve – risottos, stir fries and pan-cooked dinners are best suited to last-minute cooks, while roasts, oven bakes and salads can be ready to go and just require a little last minute compilation.
- No matter what you serve, be sure to accept compliments graciously and offer no apologies. Even if the fish is overcooked, the alternative is that they could all be eating takeout!
- My mother always used to remind me not to fall into the gravy – in other words, "too many chardonnays ruin the cook!"
To see behind-the-scenes photos of me milking goats at my neighbours' farm click here. And to view bonus recipes for a delicious Vegetarian Hangover Cure and refreshing Limoncello drink see the recipe section of my website.