We have had occasion, this month, to host two very different dinner parties. One was a birthday for a friend of ours and her teenage daughter, and the other for new-ish friends into whose home we have been warmly welcomed. The birthday celebration was mid-week and relatively impromptu, while the other was a little longer in the planning and coincided with the Easter long weekend. I thought I’d share with you how these two, rather different dinners were put together – from the planning to the table setting.
First off, most of our entertaining is with food that doesn’t take us away from our guests. What is the fun in having people to share a meal with you if you’re banished to the kitchen because the what you’re cooking demands all your attention?
Simple does, however, require some planning and advance preparation. One of the easiest meals to produce with the minimum of fuss is a roast: a lot can be done beforehand and, depending on what you’re roasting, it’s looking after itself when (and for a while after) your guests arrive. We always do our roasts on the Weber which has two benefits – you can roast your vegetables under the meat which also has the most wonderful smoky flavour.
Tom and I are a great team in which there is good division of labour: he looks after the fire, and the nyama (the Nguni word for meat) and the vegetables that are cooked in the juices that run out of the meat as it cooks. The menu is also usually a joint effort and its planning takes into consideration our guests and the time we have at our disposal. Entertaining during the week and with little notice can be a challenge. It’s not a 10-minute trip to the local supermarket or butcher to get something that’s not in the pantry cupboard, nor is there a premium food store from which one can select items to make up a gourmet meal in the blink of an eye. Then, I admit that I an my own worst enemy: I work until late-ish, so time is at a premium and then, to make matters worse, I’m not good at taking short cuts. So, acknowledging that I make the rod for my own back, I cope by doing careful planning which starts a couple of days (or more) before the event, itself.
The birthday dinner
As her birthday was on a week night with school and work the following day, this was a simple, two course meal with a Brut Methode Cap Classique from Lords, a local winery, as an aperitif. We did a topside of beef on the Weber with fresh, creamed spinach from the garden. Of course, there was gravy made by deglazing the pan in which the roasted potatoes and butternut and had been cooked. Potentially the most complicated part of the meal (partly because I’m not a great fan of desserts) was the berry crisp: a relatively healthy dessert made with frozen mixed berries and topped with a butter and oat crisp, and which was baked for an hour or so in the oven. The great thing about this dessert that it must rest for an hour or so, which makes it good to do in advance (I did it as soon as I came out of the office, and it went into the oven while everything else was being prepared). Serve it with cream or Greek yoghurt.
So, in addition to South Africa’s answer to a good Champagne, this simple meal was special because I set a table that was different, and which included items that are special to us, and have their own stories to tell.
Long Weekend Get-together
Since moving to the village, we have been fortunate to meet new and interesting people. Not all live permanently in the village, so getting together can be tricky, and we were delighted to discover that over the Easter weekend, our respective calendars were included the same free evening. Wanting to reciprocate their hospitality, we decided to stick to our tried and trusted recipe and have a roast – leg of pork – on the Weber, with the usual suspects happily cooked underneath it. This time we had wine braised leeks (leeks are to be the subject of another post…) and the traditional apple sauce and gravy with the roast.Because it was a holiday weekend, we decided that we needed three courses, and in South Africa, it is traditional to eat pickled fish over Easter. The thing about pickled fish is that you cannot make it today, to eat tomorrow – it must pickle – so I made it the weekend before. People think it’s difficult to make, partly because it’s often deep fried before being placed into the pickling sauce. I don’t do this: I don’t like deep fried anything, so the fish is baked (a tip from a Cape Town local) and then the warm sauce is poured over it. Allow this to cool and then store in the fridge. Because of the vinegar and sugar content, pickled fish can be kept comfortably (in glass rather than metal or plastic) for as long as three months. If you have the fridge space and you like pickled fish, make a big batch!
The dessert was also something typically South African: pureed brandied peaches whipped into Greek yoghurt and topped with cream. Both the dessert and the starter were plated, which, along with a pretty table, added to the sense of occasion.
So, two quite different dinners that were variations on single menu:
To begin – MCC or pickled fish
The main bit – Roast beef or pork with seasonal vegetables and the traditional accompaniments
To end – Mixed berry crisp or Brandied peach whip
And the best part: because quite a bit was done before people arrived, we spent virtually all our time actually with our guests!