Festive Dinner Parties
We are advised this year to avoid large social gatherings and only mix with other people if it is “really important” to us. It’s hard to measure the importance of meeting someone, especially within families, but what we can be sure of is that big parties, even in Downing Street, are definitely out. This might be the time to consider inviting a small number of special friends or family to a festive dinner party.
There is something beautiful, almost sacred, about gathering loved ones around a table. However, among all the other pressures of Christmas, we can easily lose sight of the essentials – the people – and focus on creating the perfect dinner party. Here are a few hints and tips to help you relax and enjoy time with those you love.
1. Plan for Ease
Even the most confident cook can be tripped up by a previously untried recipe. Choose dishes you’ve done well before. Slow-cooked main courses are fantastic – you can put them on early in the day and forget all about them until you’re ready to serve. I like to serve a cold starter on these occasions, especially if it comes from a packet. A plate of cold smoked salmon with buttered brown bread and a wedge of lemon is the easiest thing in the world to get ready, but it still has an aura of luxury and sophistication. Serve it with a glass of your favourite fizz to set the party mood right from the start. If you want to serve something a little less predictable, look out for smoked venison in the specialist delis and high-end supermarkets. Italian bresaola (cured beef) is delicious with a simple garnish of fresh rocket, lemon juice, olive oil and black pepper. A cold dessert, too, made well ahead of time, leaves you free to linger at table and keep up with the conversation.
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The more you do ahead of time, the more time you have to enjoy the evening. Soups can be made the day before. Quiches, tartes and tartelettes can be done in the morning. Pâtés, if you want to make your own, will keep for up to a week in the fridge. Most vegetables can be peeled, chopped, blanched and frozen weeks ahead, ready to give a final flourish on the night. At a time of year when we value tradition, why not dig out your grannie’s sherry trifle recipe? It’ll delight your guests, be a lovely talking-point and tastes best when it’s had a day or two to rest in the fridge before you add that final layer of whipped cream. If you’re confident to make your own ice cream, this is the perfect occasion: it has to be made ahead of time, so is already ‘in the bag’ days before the dinner.
3. Set the Mood
Give your Christmas decorations a quick ‘zhuzh’ while you’re tidying up. Maybe add some fresh pieces of holly, ivy or other greenery. Dark holly looks great when laid directly down the centre of the table, interspersed with a few gold tealight holders or candlesticks. If you have an artificial tree, put a few drips of pine oil in a heater somewhere in its vicinity. You can think about other evocative scents, too, like frankincense, spices or orange. How about putting a candle lantern or hurricane lamp at your front door to welcome guests even before they knock?
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Make sure your menu reflects the season, too. It’s probably best not to serve yet another turkey dish, but you can slip culinary stocking-fillers into your menu for moments of delight. Pigs in blankets with the G&T? Christmas pudding flavoured ice cream? Orange and cranberry cake? Yes, please, to all of these! I have a friend who would always serve a cottage pie on Boxing Day. At a time when we’re eating the best of everything, it was lovely to have something simple (although he did serve it with vast quantities of Champagne). Is this the time to carve up your festive ham, then, and show off the quality of your home-made parsley sauce?
It’s good to have a little music in the background, but not if it overpowers the conversation. Have a look on your favourite steaming app for instrumental or acoustic Christmas music. Your brain is programmed to tune into human voices, so avoid pop songs and choral pieces if you want to enjoy the conversations. You could get the younger members of the family to create a bespoke playlist of family favourites, thus relieving you of another potentially onerous responsibility.
4. Aperitifs are your saviour!
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Have a drink and some nibbles ready when people arrive. This allows guests to settle, chat, use the toilet and relax before you need to serve food. Give yourself up to an hour for the aperitif. The nibbles will tame hunger without spoiling anyone’s appetite. This is your time to relax, too: your dinner is prepared and not requiring attention, your family (whoever you include in that term) is gathered about you. If you need to nip into the kitchen between drinks, to turn the heat on under a pan of soup or lift your cheeseboard out of the fridge, nobody will feel neglected.
Fizz is an easy and obvious thing, to serve before dinner, but think also about other drinks. If someone in your family enjoys making cocktails, give them the task of choosing and making a suitably festive offering: spicy Negroni always goes down well; Martinis are cool and sophisticated but strong; Bucks Fizz, French 75 and Mimosas are all fresh and celebratory, or you can follow the Queen’s lead and make a Zaza with gin and Dubonnet.
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Some of the drinks we might think of as old-fashioned can surprise and delight a younger crowd. How about a chilled dry sherry with slices of Serrano ham? Sweet red vermouth, served neat with ice and a slice of orange, is rich with spice and will balance even the saltiest nibbles. Everyone thinks of port as a Christmas drink for after dinner, but why not turn this on its head by serving a glass as your aperitif? Tawny styles are delicious when lightly chilled, and white port can even be mixed with tonic water for a light, refreshing alternative to gin.
The nibbles you serve with this drink can be as simple as salted crisps and nuts or as complicated as you feel able. Sliced, cured meats go well with most aperitif drinks. Olives and other marinated vegetables are perfect, and they require no more work than opening a jar or tin. If you want to have a go at something more ambitious, mini quiches might be your thing, or Angels on Horseback – oysters wrapped in streaky bacon and grilled at the last minute.
5. Absent Friends
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Once again, we’re celebrating Christmas without seeing some of our loved ones, and many of us will have lost someone this year. Have a think about how you will include them in your celebration. Using a recipe given to you by someone not present gives you the opportunity to bring them into the conversation. A prominent photograph might trigger reminiscences. Heirloom glassware, favourite dishes, a Christmas-present tie can all serve to represent the people we wish we could have with us.
Do not be afraid of tears. Your dinner party guests will be your closest friends and family. If you or they are moved to sadness by the occasion (and drink might bring such feelings nearer the surface than usual), it is a moment to share, to show love, to be together as family for each other. In close relationships, tears and laughter are always leading each other in an emotional dance. Embrace it.
However you celebrate this Christmas, and whoever you celebrate with, I wish you and those you love happiness, good health and peace.
This article also appears in my blog: blog.theaperitifguy.co.uk. Paul Fogarty, writing as The Aperitif Guy maintains a popular blog about fine food, drinking and hospitality. He is an accomplished speaker, trainer and consultant, specialising in food and cocktail culture and history, and food & wine matching.