Of course I made it myself: the ultimate dinner party menu

Your guide to cooking a mouth-watering four-course dinner with ease

“Of course I made it myself.

“And I can still look this relaxed.”

This is what we are all aiming for when we invite our friends around. The secret to carrying this off is to plan ahead and have at least one if not two courses prepared in advance and to keep the other course simple.

When planning ahead there are a few key points to remember: choose dishes that work well together; think of the balance of colours and flavours; avoid repeating an ingredient and buy in season as much as possible, as you are guaranteed better flavour. Also, avoid dishes that need to be in the oven at the same time or, worse still, a hob full of pans. So a bit of forward planning even before you hit the shops or market and you will be happy to see you friends arrive for dinner.


The main course below will take a little last-minute work but it will be worth it and you and your guests will be very impressed.

The only thing the risotto and beef dishes will need as an accompaniment is a green salad with a simple dressing of olive oil and salt flakes dressed at the last minute.

Red cabbage salad with blue cheese, pears and poppy seeds

This salad can be fully prepared in advance and dished up. There are no worries about anything wilting, and if you don’t do it too far in advance the pears will be good. If you do have to do in advance, you can toss them in some lemon juice to stop them from browning.

500g red cabbage
2 ripe pears
150 - 200g blue cheese
2 tbsp cider vinegar
350g crème fraiche
1 - 2 tbsp wholegrain mustard
1 tbsp poppy seeds

1. Discard the outer leaves of the cabbage if they are looking rough and shred the rest finely.
2. Cut the pears into thin slices removing the core as you go.
3. Cut the cheese into bite-size chunks.
4. Make the dressing by mixing the vinegar, creme fraiche, and mustard well together. Season to your taste remembering it needs a sharpness.
5. Now you can mix it all together, in a pretty bowl making sure you coat all the cabbage and pears well and sprinkle the poppy seeds on top. Or you can take individual plates or a serving dish and arrange the cabbage in the centre, pears around the outside with the cheese crumbed on top. Then dot the dressing all over and sprinkle the poppy seeds on top.

Wild mushroom risotto
Making risotto is a slow process (19½ minutes – one of my students once timed me but I did have everything ready to go). Don't be tempted to rush it by turning up the heat. Take your time, enjoy the process and you will have a lovely creamy result.

If you can get a dry vermouth to have in your kitchen press you will find many uses for it as you can use it instead of white wine in many recipes. Over the years, I have stopped adding butter to my risottos as I was finding the risotto too rich especially when using mushrooms as my main ingredient.

I have made this without any cheese for vegans by replacing the cheese with nutritional yeast, which works amazingly well with mushrooms. When serving the risotto to accompany the beef dish, you can finish the cooking and hold it in its saucepan with a tight fitting lid while you eat the starter and cook the beef.

50g dried ceps
250g boiling water
1 medium onion, finely chopped
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
750ml chicken/vegetable stock
300g arborio rice
100ml vermouth or dry white wine
40g to 50g Parmesan or Desmond cheese, add to taste

1. Heat a heavy based saucepan and add the oil, then the onion, season very well with salt and pepper and cook gently for at least 5 minutes with a lid on until the onion is soft.
2. Soak the dried mushrooms in the boiling water and leave to stand for a while until they soften. Heat the stock in a separate saucepan until it is boiling, then lower the heat and allow it to simmer.
3. Meanwhile, stir the rice into the onion and coat the grains well in the oil, continuing to cook over a moderate heat for a couple of minutes without allowing it to colour.
4. Next chop the soaked mushrooms and add to the rice and mix well.
5. Add two ladlefuls of stock to the rice, stirring all the time so none of the rice sticks to the bottom.
6. In the meantime, pour the soaking water through a fine sieve making sure you hold back any grit. Next add this liquid to the rice and continue to stir until totally absorbed.
7. Lower the heat and continue to cook, adding a few ladlefuls of stock each time the rice almost dries out. (When you have added just over half the stock, you can finish the cooking here, turn out on a tray to cool fully and finish off just before your guests arrive.)
8. When you have added half of the stock, add in the vermouth and continue with the stock until the rice is cooked and you have a nice consistency. You need to start tasting after about 15 minutes to check the doneness of the rice. If you run out of stock you can use some boiling water.
9. When the rice is cooked, stir in the grated cheese keeping some to sprinkle on the top along with some flavoursome olive oil.
10. If you have stopped the cooking half way and now want to finish it off, reheat the stock and in the meantime take a ladleful of it and add it into another saucepan. Add in the risotto stirring it as you go and continue as above.

Fillet of beef with Marsala
For me this is the ultimate beef dish – simple, full of flavour and all the ingredients except the beef could already be in your kitchen. I serve this dish along with the mushroom risotto as the final meal for our five-day students and it never fails to surprise how little cooking a fillet needs. So buy your beef from a butcher who hangs his meat well and you will be in for a real treat.

60g butter
1 tbsp olive oil
4 fillets beef – 175g to 250g each
Salt and pepper
8 tbsp Marsala
8 tbsp red wine
2 cloves garlic – chopped
1 tbsp fennel seeds
1 tbsp tomato puree diluted in 2 tbsp of water
½ tsp dried chilli flakes or to your taste
4 tbsp grated Parmesan
3 tbsp chopped parsley

1. In a heavy based frying pan melt the butter and olive oil. In the meantime, lightly oil the steaks and season really well on both sides. When the oil and butter are sizzling sear the steaks on both sides then transfer to a warm plate.
2. In the same hot pan add the Marsala and red wine, boil for about 30 seconds, while mixing it well.
3. Add the garlic, fennel seeds, tomato puree and chilli. Turn the heat down to medium and cook, stirring constantly, for about one minute until the sauce is thick and syrupy.
4. Return the steaks to the pan and turn them quickly once or twice in the sauce to continue cooking and for the meat to take on the flavour. Turn off the heat.
5. In a bowl, mix the parsley, cheese and some pepper together and top each fillet with this mixture.
6. Spoon up the juices in the pan and pour them over the meat and the cheese topping, repeating a couple of times. Remove the meat to a warm plate and allow to rest for two to three minutes before serving.
7. Serve the steaks on warm plates spooning the sauce between them.

Chocolate pots
This will make enough for six people as it is very rich and it will also give you a treat for later in the week.

300ml cream
200g plain chocolate
1 egg
1 tablespoon brandy

1. Place the cream in a pan and bring to the boil.
2. In the meantime, break the chocolate into squares and put into a food processor. Add the boiling cream and process until smooth.
3. Add the egg and the brandy and mix well. Pour into six ramekins, cups or glasses and leave in the fridge to set.
4. Remove from the fridge before you sit down to eat to allow them to come to room temperature. Top with a little lightly whipped cream.