The ideal dinner party menu

Carmel Somers: Make it a relaxed affair for both you and your guests

Rack of lamb with braised lemon and mint peas. Photograph:  Emma Jervis

Rack of lamb with braised lemon and mint peas. Photograph: Emma Jervis

 

Dinner party, dinner or supper?

Which one should we use when inviting friends? We don’t want to give the wrong impression, put our guests and more importantly ourselves under pressure and regret the idea as the doorbell rings.

Dinner party: two words that strikes fear into the most competent of cooks and guest alike. Tablecloths, fish knives and the prospect of three days in the kitchen. A A Gill referred to them as “the work of the devil, the dark side of honest supper twisting the feeding of family and friends to malevolence by snobbery, etiquette, envy and pomp”.

Dinner: A relaxed affair for both host and guest. “I am cooking dinner, do come join us.”

Supper: No pressure. Down-playing dinner! Dining at the kitchen table, one can expect anything from a bowl of soup and the hope of a comforting dessert. 

I am rarely invited to dinner parties (dinner or supper) these days. Being a chef people assume I will be the guest from hell. Maybe that is why when I invite people around, they often remark on what a relaxed affair it is and how simple it all seems. For me having a dinner party is about sharing and connecting with family and friends and not spending the night in the kitchen.

This summer I did get invited to dinner by a very dear friend, the retired restaurateur and host extraordinaire Dan Mullane of the renowned Mustard Seed. I was so excited when I read his text, which said “supper at 7?”

I spent the week looking forward to the evening, dreaming of being waited on, effortless conversation and at least three courses of amazing food. If ever there is someone who can show us how to entertain without stress it’s Dan and his partner Tui. I know these guys have been entertaining and caring for people for years and really what else could we expect? But I must point out they did nothing special except they were organised, relaxed and cooked uncomplicated dishes with good local produce. They had some simple nibbles to serve with drinks, starter and dessert were prepared in advance leaving only the main course which needed little last-minute attention. Just six of us were at the table (which makes for easy open conversation) and dining early on light dishes which lends itself to the perfect evening.

Be it supper or dinner or even a dinner party that you are planning, invite people you love to be with and cook simple dishes that will allow you to be present in every way.

Salted melon and air dried ham. Photograph: Emma Jervis
Salted melon and air dried ham. Photograph: Emma Jervis

Salted melon and air dried ham

 Yes, this is old fashioned but when you have good ripe melons this starter never fails to impress. It will take a little forward planning as melons need to be purchased at least a week in advance. Don’t be tempted to cut into them until you can get the aroma of melon from them and the underside is soft, sometimes this can take up to two weeks.

Serves four

2tbsp olive oil
4tbsp cider vinegar
1tsp salt
1 large orange flesh melon
12 slices air dried ham or coppa
Black pepper

Blend well together the oil, vinegar and salt and allow to stand while you prepare the melon and ham.

Halve the melon, remove the seeds and slice it, removing the skin as you go. Toss it in the dressing and allow to sit for 10 minutes

Arrange the melon on a dish with the ham and drizzle any remaining dressing over the surface followed with lots of black pepper.

Rack of lamb with braised lemon and mint peas. Photograph: Emma Jervis
Rack of lamb with braised lemon and mint peas. Photograph: Emma Jervis

Rack of lamb with spiced braised peas

Serves four

For the peas
4tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
Salt
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 small dried chilli, split open
500g frozen peas (or fresh if you can find them)
150ml white wine
2tsp dulse flakes
Zest and juice of 1 lemon

For the lamb
Olive oil
2 racks of lamb (with 6 chops on each)
Salt
3tbsp honey
1tbsp cider vinegar
1tbsp mustard
1 garlic clove, crushed
250ml vegetable or meat stock
Chopped fresh mint if available

Preheat the oven to 200 Celsius.

Prepare the peas by heating a medium saucepan over a low leat and add the oil and chopped onion with some salt and cook for 5 minutes, then add the garlic, lemon zest and chilli, cooking for another couple of minutes. Now add the peas, mix well and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the wine, dulse and lemon juice and cook for another minute to cook off the alcohol. Cover with a lid and allow to simmer for 10 minutes or until the peas are soft and sweet.

In the meantime, heat a heavy based oven-proof pan and oil and season the racks well with salt. Add the seasoned racks to the pan and brown very well all over until deep golden.

Heat the honey, vinegar, mustard and garlic in a small saucepan until they have melted together.

Drizzle the lamb with the dressing and cook in the preheated oven for 15-20 minutes (depending on your preference) and allow to rest for 10 minutes in a warm place while you make the sauce.

Replace the pan you cooked the lamb in on to a medium heat and add the stock. Bring to the boil and allow to simmer until well reduced and tasting slightly intense. Now add any juices from the resting lamb and heat through.

Place the braised peas on a large serving platter followed by the carved lamb and pour over the sauce and scatter with chopped mint if available.

Nougat Glace with raspberry sauce. Photograph: Emma Jervis
Nougat Glace with raspberry sauce. Photograph: Emma Jervis

Nougat glace with raspberry sauce

This dessert has made it on to my menu every summer and became the most asked for recipe over the years. An ideal dessert with very little effort and without the need for an ice cream machine.

Serves four to six

For the nougat
45g whole almonds
45g hazelnuts
1 vanilla bean, split
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
60g butter at room temperature
100g sugar
125g sour cherries, or dried cranberries
500ml double cream, whipped

For the raspberry sauce
250g bag of frozen raspberries
2tbsp icing sugar
Squeeze of lemon

Lightly roast the nuts, and when cool enough to handle, rub off the loose skins and roughly chop them.

Place the vanilla seed, eggs, butter and sugar in a saucepan and cook gently until the eggs begin to set and look scrambled, stirring with a whisk at all times.

Remove to a bowl to cool down before adding in the nuts and cream.

Line a terrine dish or a loaf tin with parchment paper and pour in the mixture and spread out until even.

Place in the freezer for an hour, remove and cover with a lid. Return to the freezer until needed, or for at least 4 to 6 hours depending on the setting on your freezer.

To make the sauce, defrost the berries, add to a liquidiser along with the sugar and the lemon. Whizz until smooth. Taste and add another drop of lemon if needed. Now pass through a fine sieve to remove the pips.

To serve, remove the nougat from the freezer 15 minutes before serving, turn out on a board and slice. Place the sauce in a bowl and serve.

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