Over the course of the various lockdowns we collectively endured, social media was awash with stories of sourdough starters along with pictures of freshly baked bread, inventive “isolation suppers” and an array of complex culinary creations.
But, while it seemed as though the world and its mother had acquired the skills of a Michelin starred chef, in reality, with no-one to impress but ourselves and our closest family members, experimenting in the kitchen had become a more relaxed affair. So what if it was misshapen, overcooked or a little on the al dente side – wasn’t it only ourselves eating it?
We all rejoiced when social distancing measures were lifted, but our new-found freedom comes with a price; we now have to cook for people again and make sure our houses, which were devoid of visitors for two years, look somewhat inviting.
So as the summer season beckons and with it a rush of communions, christenings, birthday parties and “just-for-the-sake-of-it” get togethers, entertaining at home, while welcome, can seem very daunting.
'Bay trees and bamboo look great in pots and can create a windbreak and privacy barrier if you group a few of them together'
However, having some friends round to the house doesn’t have to involve a gilt-edged invitation or a five course tasting menu. A little bit of a spruce up, with some colourful accessories and a simple but delicious meal, should please even the fussiest guests. And as the weather looks set to improve, what could be nicer than hanging out in the garden?
Sarah Peterson of Dan-Éire Designs, says as the days get warmer, a little forward planning and some carefully chosen accessories will soon make your home or garden seem like the best place to be this summer.
“First, it’s worth getting the practicalities right and decide where the sunniest and breeziest spots are and what provisions you have for shade when it gets too hot,” she says.
“Once you figure out the answers to those questions, you can begin laying out your outdoor space. It’s nice to be able to sit in the sun, but make sure have a parasol that you can move around easily enough for shade. Outdoor furniture is going to be your biggest investment here and I love Kave Home and JYSK for durable, fashionable and timeless outdoor sets.
“And if you love entertaining and barbequing, you can’t go wrong with a decent table and chairs and maybe even an armchair and sofa – if you have the room.
"Marks and Spencer have a lovely collection of melamine tableware and plastic glassware to help spruce up your table with some colour and pattern – it's also so much safer – with no chance of broken plates or glass."
The design expert says light and fire is the next thing to be considered as it can create a party ambience in an instant.
“It’s really important to have different layers of lighting outside to create atmosphere when the sun goes down,” she says. “There are a number of options such as wired-in outdoor wall lights, mains or indeed battery operated and solar. I also love a selection of candles for outside too – but if you have small kids, LED candles are perfect.
“Also, there’s nothing quite like a real fire outside, in the form of a firepit, chimenea or an outdoor bioethanol fire. You’ll pick up a reasonably priced chimenea in the likes of Home Store and More, while Galway company, EcoFuel have a fabulous firepit which would create a talking point or centrepiece for any garden.
“Of course, if you don’t fancy getting messy with firelighters, logs and smoke, there is always a bioethanol fire for a slightly more reserved or refined look to your outdoor space.”
For many people, buying new garden furniture is not on their agenda this summer as they may not have the space or the budget. But you can still create a beautiful space with a few simple garden accessories.
Outdoor rugs are bang on trend and according to Peterson, “offer a layer of texture and colour” to your garden. And if you are not the green fingered type, easy-care potted plants or even artificial shrubbery can work wonders to transform a bland outdoor setting into a lush and inviting place which would be ideal for entertaining.
“Don’t worry if your garden is lacking in planting and greenery in general, as you can create an oasis with a selection of pots and potted plants around the perimeter,” she advises. “Bay trees and bamboo look great in pots and can create a windbreak and privacy barrier if you group a few of them together.
“Grasses offer great texture and movement and come in different colours, shapes and sizes, so it’s worth talking to your local garden centre expert to get the low down on what will work in your space – or you could even go with a selection of artificial trees. Then the final accessories needed to pull your whole garden look together are of course, outdoor cushions, and you’ll also need a couple of throws and blankets for when it gets a little chilly – just remember to take them in when you’re going to bed.
'If you want to stick to salads, I would suggest aromatic chicken salad with satay dressing, which takes no more than 20 minutes to prepare and is full of fresh, spicy flavours'
“As you would with any room in your house, start with a basic colour scheme and accessorise from there. But keep the bigger pieces quite neutral; you can always add in colour with plates, glasses, table mats and cushions – meaning you can change your space really easily from one year to the next.”
Once you have sorted your décor, it's time to think about the food. Celebrity chef Neven Maguire says while there was indeed a resurgence in people cooking at home during the height of the pandemic, when welcoming guests again, it would be wise not to over complicate things.
“It was great to have so much family time during lockdown – a blessing really,” he says. “I haven’t cooked at home as much as I did over the past two years and I don’t think I’m the only one, as I’ve never seen so much interaction and interest in cooking – there has been such an appetite, if you’ll excuse the pun, for learning.
“But while it was great to try out new recipes, I would advise anyone planning a get-together to keep things simple. One of the most watched videos I have ever made is of my chicken korma recipe, so it shows that people love a good, tasty, simple curry.
“It’s a fool proof dish and I think, one which would appeal to both the cook and their guests as it is easy to make and tastes delicious.
“It also keeps for up to a week in the fridge so can be prepared in advance and the ingredients can be doubled if you have a bigger number of people coming.”
Neven, who runs MacNean House, Restaurant and cookery school in Cavan, says fish is also easy to prepare, in huge abundance and great value to boot.
"We live on an island so should make more use of the fish we have in our waters," he says. "We have great quality in Ireland and even if people live rurally, they can order from eatmorefish.ie who will deliver whatever they want, boned and filleted. A nice easy option would be sesame crusted salmon with pickled carrot and cucumber salad.
“A good meat alternative is chargrilled lamb which would be delicious cooked on the barbeque on a nice sunny evening and served with courgette and halloumi salad. Or if you want to stick to salads, I would suggest aromatic chicken salad with satay dressing, which takes no more than 20 minutes to prepare and is full of fresh, spicy flavours which will perk up the taste buds.
“We also have some lovely goats’ cheese in this country, it’s very mild and delicious so would be fabulous crumbled over a salad.
“Then I would finish things off with a simple dessert such as a pavlova or a bowl of raspberries. The pandemic has affected each and every one of us with many people going through a very hard time financially, so that’s another reason to keep things simple, easy and good value – because at the end of the day, we all just want to spend time with those we care about.”
Event organiser, Sarah Wenman agrees and says planning a celebration or get together should be fun and enjoyable, so the best way to remain calm and relaxed is to be prepared.
“Using lists helps you to breakdown your planning and make it more manageable but keep it short,” she says. “There is no point in having a massive long list of things to do as this will just daunt you. Instead break it down into shorter tasks - such as budget, theme, and décor.”
So the experts have spoken – and have instructed us to keep things simple, not to stress about elaborate recipes, decoration or entertainment and just enjoy hanging out with our friends and family.
Sounds good to me – bring on the summer.