How to throw a party for 20 people

Tasty dishes you can prepare in advance so you can enjoy the day itself

The summer has passed in a blur. Between work, the comings and goings of children with running, pony racing, the flurry around the Leaving Cert, the CAO results and the hunt for college accommodation, I have barely had a moment to touch base with my pals all summer. The time has come for a get-together.

Home entertaining is very different from meeting up with friends in a restaurant and bar. It is much more personal. I can think of nothing nicer than welcoming guests to my home and looking after them.

It also gives one the impetus to straighten out one’s home before the big day – fix the loose loo seat, secure the curtain rail hanging at half-mast, throw away the newspapers, hang a painting. The list goes on.

I used to have bigger parties, squashing 30-50 people into my house. I have gone off the boil on that on. Apart from family gatherings, I try to keep party numbers between eight and 20. It’s too much stress and work otherwise. If you cook cleverly and simply, most normal kitchens (by normal, I mean one oven and a hob) can cater for up to 20. Anything over that I strongly advise that you outsource the food and the accompanying hassle to the professionals (see Marie Claire Digby’s list of caterers, below).

The secret of cooking for a crowd is preparation and thinking through the end service of the dish. For example, try to have one element of the feast, such as your main course, in the oven, and one element, such as rice, on the hob. In fact, I find that cooking a casserole in advance and then heating it up in the oven is a much more gentle way of reheating than on the hob. Keep your side dishes and salads to accompany your main course chilled or at room temperature. Focus on the flavour of your food rather than the quantity of dishes, giving thought to the sprinkling of fairy dust at the end such as crispy fried onions and lots of basil and coriander for a Vietnamese beef Bo Kho, or toasted coconut and creamy Greek yoghurt on a curry or lots of coriander, toasted almonds and pomegranate seeds on a wonderful slow-cooked lamb Harira.

I generally get someone to help me serve and clean up, allowing me to enjoy time with my guests. I did take my eye of the ball earlier this year when I had a party to celebrate my son’s confirmation, I forgot to get a helper and spent the day running around with drinks and trays and fresh napkins. I won’t make that mistake again.

Make sure you have plenty of glasses. I am moving towards a really nice club goblet which works well for wine, beer and cocktails and also fits in the dishwasher. I tend to make big jugs of cocktails to offer guests on arrival, nothing like it to lift the spirits, followed by lots of wine, of course. Have plenty of water available.

Keep things simple for dessert. Try an industrial-sized trifle, tiramisu, lemon polenta cake with berries and crème fraiche or a chocolate brownie with whipped cream. Again, these are things that can be made earlier and can be served with the minimum of upheaval, giving maximum pleasure.

The following is a Mexican-inspired menu with plenty of preparation that can be addressed earlier in the day or the day before, leaving you with a minimal amount of work to do when the gang arrives.

Blood orange Margarita

I have recently been introduced to Monin Blood orange syrup – a delicious addition to Margarita, the following will make a jug of margarita for eight.

30mls Tequila

200 mls blood orange syrup

100 ml fresh lime juice

Mix in a jug and pour into glasses over ice, serve with a wedge of lime.

Lamb Barbacoa with green rice, tomato and avocado salsa and a tangy Mexican slaw

This delicious Mexican inspired slow-cooked lamb is a wonderful “prepare ahead” dish. The lamb itself is quite rich; I serve it with green rice, a tangy Mexican slaw, avocado and tomato salsa and a big dollop of sour cream. You can double this recipe for a bigger crowd.

Feeds 8

1 whole shoulder of lamb on the bone, weighing about 3.6kg


5 ancho chillies or cascabel chillies

1 head of garlic, cloves peeled roughly chopped

1 cinnamon stick

Large pinch of cumin seeds

Pinch of peppercorns

1 teaspoon of dried oregano

40g dark chocolate drops

300ml olive oil

Braising ingredients

50cl red wine

6 large tomatoes, roughly chopped

To finish

70g dark chocolate drops

Apple jelly

Salt and pepper to season

To make the marinade, de-seed the chillies and roast on a warm pan, just for a few seconds to release their flavour. Then transfer the chillies to a small saucepan and cover with water, simmer for 10 minutes until soft. Pour the chillies and the cooking liquid into a food processor along with the other ingredients and blitz until the mixture resembles a smooth paste. Season to taste.

Score the skin of the lamb several times, this will allow the marinade to seep in and encourage the fat to run out during cooking. Rub the marinade all over the lamb, rubbing into the skin. Marinade in a large plastic bag over night.

The next day, pre-heat the oven to 160 degrees. Place the lamb shoulder – skin side up – along with the marinade, red wine, tomatoes and a cup of water in a roasting dish. Cook in the oven for 4 hours, turning once half-way through cooking.

When the lamb is finished cooking, the flesh should be falling off the bone.

Take the lamb from the roasting tin and place on a platter. Pour the cooking juices into a saucepan and add the chocolate and simmer for a minute or two. Check for seasoning – at this point you may need to add a little apple jelly to balance the flavour.

Using a fork, pull the lamb off the bone and return to the roasting tin, pour the sauce over the lamb. Allow to cool.

Before you serve the lamb, reheat in an oven pre-heated to 140 degrees for 30 minutes. Serve on a big platter on top of green rice for everyone to share.

Green rice

400g long grain rice

2 cloves of garlic chopped

1 onion, roughly chopped

1 green chilli, de-seeded and roughly chopped

80g of coriander, use both leaves and stems

120g spinach leaves

1.2 litres chicken stock

100 ml olive oil

Salt and pepper to season

Start off by rinsing the rice under cold water, leave to drain.

Place the garlic, onion, chilli, coriander, spinach and a half the olive oil in a food processor and blitz until you have a bright green puree.

Heat the remainder of the olive oil in a heavy-based saucepan and add the rice. Stir for a few moments until the rice starts to turn golden, then pour the green puree into the rice and cook for a further minute or two. Then add the stock and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to low and cover with a lid. Cook for 15 minutes then turn off the heat, leaving the lid on, and leave to steam for another 15 minutes.

Season to taste.

Tomato and avocado salsa

2 ripe Hass avocados

300g tomatoes

1 red chilli, finely chopped

1 green chilli, finely chopped

1 red onion, finely diced

A handful of coriander leaves

2 limes

2 tablespoons of olive oil

Cut open the avocado, remove the stones and scoop out the flesh on to a chopping board and cut into chunks. Put in a large bowl. Then cut the tomatoes into chunks, add to the avocado, along with finely diced red onion and finely chopped chilli.

Juice the two limes and add to the avocado and tomato salsa along with olive oil, season with salt and pepper.

Mexican slaw

This isn’t an exact science, I have measured the ingredients as a guideline but really you can change it up or down depending on seasonality and personal preference. I grate and slice all my vegetables for this on a mandolin – I find it gives a lighter texture to the end dish.

Slaw ingredients

350g red cabbage, sliced finely

150g white cabbage, sliced finely

100g carrot, grated

5 or 6 radishes, sliced finely

1 red chilli, chopped very finely


2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon of honey

1 clove of garlic, very finely chopped

Juice of two limes

Pinch of cumin

To garnish

Handful of coriander leaves

Mix the dressing ingredients together in a jar, place the lid on the jar and give a good shake to mix.

If I am preparing this before I need it, I do all my slicing and place all the ingredients for the slaw in a bowl of iced water in the fridge. Just before I assemble the salad, I drain off all the water, and the vegetables crisp up beautifully.

Mix the dressing through the salad and put in a serving dish. Sprinkle with coriander leaves to garnish.

Peanut butter brownies

Serves 9

Equipment: 9-inch square tin, lined with baking parchment


250g butter

250g brown sugar

Pinch of Maldon sea salt

175g dark chocolate chips

90g flour

50g cocoa

150g chunky peanut butter

4 large eggs

80g of roughly chopped salted peanuts

To serve

250mls of whipped cream

Pre-heat the over to 150c

Melt the butter in a heavy-based saucepan. When it is melted, take off the heat and stir in the sugar, salt, chocolate chips, flour, cocoa and peanut butter.

In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and combine with the rest of the ingredients.

Pour the mix into the prepared tin and sprinkle chopped peanuts on top. Bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes. There should still be a slight wobble in the centre of the brownie when you remove it from the oven.

Allow to cool for an hour. Then remove from the tin, cut into nine squares – three across and three down.

Serve with a big dollop of whipped cream.


Food photographs and styling Lynda Kenny


FEAST CATERING & EVENTS,, 01-2935994 Ext 1 
Domini and Peaches Kemp's events catering company has access to a number of prestigius venues including Powerscourt Estate, The National Gallery and Dublin Castle. Serving a gala dinner to a cast of hundreds is no bother to them, but they'll also pitch up and make your birthday party or intimate wedding an occasion to remember.

NAOMI'S KITCHEN,, 01-4442841
Everything homemade, from start to finish, is the promise Naomi Byrne makes about her party and event catering food. As well as canapes, buffets, and sut down dinners, you can order a selection of quiches, cold meats and salads for a more casual event. Catering can come complete with staff to set up, serve and clear away, or the order can be dropped off (and you can claim it as your own work). The minimum order is for 20 adults.

BBQ JOE'S,, 086-4014703
Not every party is a formal affair and for something different you can have BBQ Joe's shiny rig pull up and serve your guests barbecue favourites including smoked brisket, pulled pork, lamb shoulder and hot smoked salmon, along with starter and sides. Prices start at a reasonable ¤20 per person.

CATERERS,, 086-8415939
There's a very cosmopolitan flavour to Alison Davis's food, perhaps because she trained at the Silwood School of Cookery in Capetown before returning to Ireland in 2011, and has had private chef jobs in the Hamptons, New York, Provence, London and South Africa. Wedding, corporate and private catering services are offered, with full-service and drop-off options available.

While not a caterer herself, events organiser Maria Reidy has the best in the business on speed dial, and great contacts in the food business from her work with The Butler's Pantry. Hers is a full service events business so she will do everything from liaising with the caterers to transforming your venue. Has been known to work right through the night to get a venue "just-so" and comes highly recommended.
Marie-Claire Digby

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