It might seem like Mr Manning and I spend our lives eating out, but sometimes we enjoy a good old dinner party.
We don’t get the chance to have them that often, because of the sheer levels of preparation they involve, but we managed to rustle up a three course feast for some good friends of ours so I thought I’d share the delights with you guys.
You see, dinner parties aren’t just about the cooking, or even just about the food. It’s about the menu choice, the atmosphere, the wine, the company. People can’t choose their own dish, it’s all on you as a host to choose something that everyone will enjoy. It’s that, and all the other elements, that make dinner parties such fun, but also quite a tough task.
So, first things first, what to cook! Obviously, the Mannings are meat lovers, but is everybody? And is steak just to simple for a showstopping menu? Faced with the inside information that one of our guests didn’t like lamb or duck, Mr M (he’s the chef extraordinaire) decided on a potentially-risky Tom Kerridge starter and equally-daring main course, with me bringing up the rear with a sumptuous but surprisingly successful baked cheesecake.
But, back to the first courses. Both recipes were taken from Tom Kerridge’s Proper Pub Food cookbook, based on the series that literally left us with our mouths watering after each episode.
Starter was chicken liver. Not just plain old chicken liver, but served with a French bean salad in a shallot and white wine reduction. The livers are served caramelised, without being allowed to stew, while the bean salad has a piquant dressing of mustard, capers and parsley on it. It’s all served on a toasted sourdough, giving a robust texture that contrasts with the creamy livers, all cut through by the acidic white wine reduction. Lip smackingly good!
For main course he chose a personal favourite of ours – venison – though a risky choice for someone not overwhelmingly keen on game.
I won’t go through each step of each dish, but to cut a long story short, he started cooking at 11am and was still at it at 7pm. The sauce for the venison took six hours of reduction, and boy was it worth it.
In a winter dish perfect for dark, cold nights, imagine the sweetness of butternut squash purée, as smooth as smooth can be, contrasted with the rich, pink venison, and the bitter, tangy red wine and dark chocolate jus.
All this accompanied by butternut squash roasted then fried with frankfurter – yes frankfurter. And peppered Brussels sprouts, fried with black pepper and Szechuan pepper, with nutmeg grated on top.
Yes, it was good. So good that the guest we were most concerned about threw her napkin down in delight and declared it fabulous!
So what have I done in the middle of all this? Obviously there was my rather rich cheesecake, that as good as it was, could possibly for this menu have been substituted for something a little lighter and more palate cleansing, but you live and learn. Needless to say, it was a delumptious ending to a rather sumptuous feast.
And of course there’s the table and the ambience you create. There’s something lovely about setting the table properly and acting like grownups for an evening (even if you’re not one, which we certainly aren’t!). In my view, it’s not necessarily about crystal and expensive tableware, but it is about simplicity. You can’t go wrong with nice glassware, clean crockery and some nice placemats. And then it’s simple, crack open a good bottle of wine, put some music on, and enjoy some nice food, good conversation and great company with your friends. That is, of course, what it’s all about.
After all, if food be the music of love, eat on!