A formal dinner party is the ultimate challenge

A formal dinner party is the ultimate challenge. It is by far the most stressful way of entertaining but with careful planning it can appear almost effortless! Salvation lies in learning the secrets of virtually effortless entertaining. Your guests will be dazzled and you will still be able to relax and enjoy your own party. 

Start with pen and paper and make lots of lists – the guest list, shopping list, wine list. Consider drawing up a schedule of work – this may sound a bit like a military operation, but it’s so worth it and will avoid any last minute panic attacks before your guests arrive – its all in the planning.

If you are entertaining single-handedly, I reckon six to eight people is the optimum number for a dinner party. Once the numbers go to twelve or fourteen, it is almost essential to have help with the serving and cleaning, otherwise the food will be cold and service too slow. Doesn’t necessarily have to be professional help – a local teenager may be thrilled to earn some pocket money and learn some extra skills. The size of your dining room and table will dictate the numbers you invite. If the numbers go above your seating capacity, decide to do a buffet or fork supper.

If you are entertaining with your partner or a friend, agree responsibilities ahead of time. Decide who will light the fire, take coats, offer drinks…. Knowing who is supposed to serve the coffee avoids glaring across the table or kicking under it! If you are entertaining single-handedly, ask a good friend if they would mind arriving early to help with the drinks. 

Choose the menu carefully so that as much as possible can be prepared ahead and gently reheated. If you shop carefully you can buy lots of delicious charcuterie, smoked fish, farmhouse cheese, crusty bread and crackers. A selection of these can provide the bulk of the meal. Don’t forget Pannetone, Panforte de Siena, Medjool dates, figgy pudding, membrillo…. All delectable storecupboard standbys for Christmas.

Once you have decided on the menu, its time to think about creating ambience. 

Flickery candles create a magical atmosphere in a way that no other lighting can. A tall candleabra on a long table looks elegant, but even cheap and cheerful tea lights arranged in a line, circle or diamond draw gasps of admiration. Resist the temptation to have scented candles – most are overpoweringly fragrant.

Strings of fairy lights now come in a range of shapes and colours – flowers, chillies, stars, bulbs – and you can drape them around tables, chairs, walls, trees and plants.

To me, flowers are the simplest way to add colour, scent and glamour to an evening. There is so much to choose from, and the right flower can instantly change the mood of a room. Be creative about what you use as vases. For a formal dinner party, silver, brass or even tin candelabra set the scene. Wind around fronds of ivy and tinsel and maybe some chillies or glittery baubles.

Do a table plan, you know your guests and can judge best who will enjoy each other.

Place names can be formal or fun and funky, depending on the mood of the evening.

Spend money on the aperitifs. Something bubbly always gets the evening going – Champagne, sparkling wine or Prosecco are divine. For a really special occasion, you might want to splash out and hire a portable bar, complete with bar tenders, to create a range of cocktails especially for you. Prepare a few delicious nibbles, passing around some finger food helps guests to relax and feel comfortable. If the nibbles are reasonably substantial they can double up as a first course.

For a New Year’s Eve Party you may want to wrap a tiny present for each guest, could be something silly and fun and don’t forget the crackers and sparklers and party hats, no its not too late and is a surefire way to create party atmosphere to ring in the New Year.

Happy Christmas and New Year to all our readers.

Celeriac and Hazelnut Soup

Celeriac, relatively new in our shops; is in fact a root celery which looks a bit like a muddy turnip. Peel it thickly and use for soups or in salads, or just as a vegetable.
A deliciously light soup for a dinner party. Serve in expresso cups for a drinks party.
Serves 6

15 ozs (425 g) celeriac, cut into ¼ inch (5 mm) dice
4 ozs (110 g) onions, cut into ¼ inch (5 mm) dice
5 ozs (140 g) potatoes, cut into ¼ inch (5 mm) dice
1½-2 ozs (45-55 g) butter
2 pints (1.1L) home made chicken stock, vegetable stock or water
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4-8 fl ozs (100-225 ml) creamy milk (optional)

2 tablespoons hazelnuts, skinned, toasted and chopped
A few tablespoons whipped cream
Sprigs of chervil or flat parsley

Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan; when it foams, add the potatoes and onions and toss them in the butter until evenly coated. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover with a paper lid (to keep in the steam) and the saucepan lid, and sweat over a gentle heat for about 10 minutes, until the vegetables are soft but not coloured. Discard the paper lid. Add the celeriac and chicken stock and cook until the celeriac is soft, about 8-10 minutes. Liquidise the soup; add a little more stock or creamy milk to thin to the required consistency. Taste and correct seasoning.

To prepare the hazelnuts: Put the hazelnuts into an oven, 200C/400F/regulo 6, on a baking sheet for about 10-15 minutes or until the skins loosen. Remove the skins by rubbing the nuts in the corner of a tea towel. If they are not sufficiently toasted, return them to the oven until they become golden brown. Chop and keep aside to garnish.

Serve the soup piping hot with a little blob of whipped cream on top. Sprinkle with the chopped hazelnuts and a sprig of chervil or flat parsley.

Roast Rack of Lamb with Rosemary and Membrillo Aoili and Rustic Roast Potatoes

I love this recipe, my good friend the Australian cook, Maggie Beer from the Barossa Valley, made this Membrillo Aoili when she stayed at the Cookery School a few years ago.
Serves 8

4 racks lamb or 1 leg of spring lamb
3 sprigs rosemary and 1-2 cloves garlic – optional
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Rosemary and Membrillo Aoili
2 egg yolks, preferably free range and organic
1/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch of English mustard or 1/4 teaspoon French mustard
1 dessertspoon white wine vinegar

225ml (8fl oz) oil (sunflower, arachide or olive oil or a mixture) - We use 175ml (6fl oz) sunflower oil and 50ml (2fl oz) olive oil, alternatively use 7:1 sunflower oil to olive oil

1 clove garlic, crushed
2 teaspoons rosemary, finely chopped
40-50g (1 1/2-2oz) Membrillo (quince paste) (available from delis and many good cheese shops)

Sprigs of rosemary

Rustic Roast Potatoes 

First make the Aoili, save 3 tablespoons of olive oil.

Put the freshly chopped rosemary into a little saucepan with 3 tablespoons of oil, warm gently for 2 or 3 minutes, careful not to burn. Keep aside.

Put the egg yolks into a bowl with the mustard, salt and the white wine vinegar (save the egg whites to make meringues) add the crushed garlic. Put the oil into a measure. Take a whisk in one hand and the oil in the other and drip the oil onto the egg yolks, drop by drop whisking at the same time. Within a minute you will notice that the mixture is beginning to thicken. When this happens you can add the oil a little faster, but don't get too cheeky or it will suddenly curdle because the egg yolks can only absorb the oil at a certain pace. Taste and add a little more seasoning and vinegar if necessary.

If the Mayonnaise curdles it will suddenly become quite thin, and if left sitting the oil will start to float to the top of the sauce. If this happens you can quite easily rectify the situation by putting another egg yolk or 1-2 tablespoons of boiling water into a clean bowl, then whisk in the curdled Mayonnaise, a half teaspoon at a time until it emulsifies again.

Chop the membrillo and warm gently in a little saucepan until it melts, cool and add to the mayonnaise with the rosemary and oil. Taste and correct seasoning.

Preheat the oven to 220C/425F/gas mark 7. Score the skin of the lamb, you may like to insert a few tiny sprigs of rosemary and slivers of garlic here and there on the skin side. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Roast for 25-30 minutes, depending on the age of the lamb and the degree of doneness required.

Allow to rest for 5-10 minutes. Carve, allow 2-3 cutlets per person, depending on size. Garnish with a sprig of rosemary and serve with Rosemary and Membrillo Aioli and Rustic Roast Potatoes.

Guard of Honour

A Guard of Honour looks mightily impressive for a dinner party. It is made up simply of two enlinked racks of lamb. Tie in one or two places to secure while cooking. Add 5-10 minutes extra cooking time.
Ardsallagh Goat Cheese Salad with Rocket, Figs and Pomegranates

Serves 8

1 fresh pomegranate
4 small fresh Ardsallagh cheese or a similar fresh goat cheese
8-12 fresh figs or plump dried figs (try to find the Turkish ones on a raffia string)
Enough rocket leaves for eight helpings and perhaps a few leaves of raddichio
32 fresh walnut halves

4 fl ozs (125ml) extra virgin olive oil
3 tablesp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ -1 teasp. honey
salt and freshly ground pepper

Cut the pomegranate in half around the equator, break each side open, flick out the glistening jewel-like seeds into a bowl, avoiding the bitter yellowy pith. Alternatively, if you are in a hurry, put the cut side down on the palm of your hand over a bowl and bash the skin side firmly with the back of a wooden spoon – this works really well but it tends to be a bit messy, so be sure to protect your clothes with an apron as pomegranate juice really stains.

Next make the dressing – just whisk the oil, freshly squeezed lemon juice and honey together in a bowl. Season well with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Toast the walnut halves in a dry pan over a medium heat until they smell sweet and nutty. 

Just before serving, toss the rocket leaves and radicchio in a deep bowl with a little dressing. Divide between eight large white plates. Cut each cheese into 3 pieces. 

Cut the figs into quarters from the top, keeping each one still attached at the base. Press gently to open out. Divide the cheese between the plates, three pieces on each, place a fig in the centre. Sprinkle with pomegranate seeds and freshly roasted walnuts. Drizzle with a little extra dressing and serve immediately with crusty bread.
Note: plump dried figs are best cut into slices and scattered over the salad.

A dozen Oysters and a pint of Murphys or Guinness

If you come from Cork Murphys is the sacred drop – Guinness is not quite the same but we have to admit it makes a good substitute.
What could be easier or more delicious than a dozen freshly shucked oysters with Irish wheaten bread and a pint of gorgeous creamy stout.

Serves 1 but also great for numbers.

1 dozen native Irish oysters
600ml (1 pint) of Murphy or Guinness
seaweed or sea salt
Wheaten bread

It’s wise to protect your hand with a folded tea towel when opening oysters. Wrap the tea towel round your hand, then set the deep shell on it with the wide end on the inside. Grip the oyster firmly in your protected hand while you insert the tip of the knife into the hinge and twist to lever the two shells apart; you’ll need to exert quite a lot of pressure, so it’s foolhardy not to protect your hand well. Then slide the blade of the knife under the top shell to detach the oyster from the shell. Discard the top shell, then loosen the oyster from the deep shell, flip over to reveal the plump side, don’t lose the precious briny juice. 

Arrange on a plate on a bed of seaweed or sea salt. 

Serve with a segment of lemon, some wheaten bread and a pint of the black stuff!

Haddock with Dijon Mustard Sauce

Virtually any round fish may be used in this recipe eg. hake, ling, grey sea mullet, pollock etc.
Serves 6

55g (2oz)butter
225g (8oz) onions, chopped
900g (2lb) fresh haddock fillets
Salt and freshly ground pepper
600ml (1 pint) milk
50ml (2fl oz) cream
25g (1oz) flour
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons grainy mustard
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
800g (1 3/4lb) mashed potato 

Melt the butter and sweat the onions in a covered saucepan until golden brown. Skin the haddock and cut into portions. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Put into a wide sauté pan, cover with milk and cream, bring to the boil and simmer gently for 4-6 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish. Remove the fish carefully to a serving dish. Add the flour to the onions, stir and cook for 2 minutes. Add in the hot milk and bring back to the boil, then simmer for 3-4 minutes. Add the mustard and chopped parsley, taste and correct the seasoning, then pour over the fish and serve.

For a retro version mashed potato may be piped around the dish. Allow to cool, refrigerate and reheat later in a moderate oven, 180ºC/350F/gas mark 4, for 20 minutes approximately. 

Bumbles Ginger Roulade

I spent a fun-filled weekend at Strathgarry House in Scotland doing a cooking class with Bumble and her sisters. Bumble demonstrated this recipe which we’ve been delighting our guests with ever since.
Serves: 8-10

75g (3oz) butter
225g (8oz) golden syrup or treacle
50g (2oz) castor sugar (soft dark if you like)
Less 150ml (1/4 pint) hot water
110g (4oz) plain white flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 egg, preferably free-range and organic
300ml (1/2) pint softly whipped cream
50g (2oz) chopped crystallized ginger (optional)

Icing sugar

Large Swiss roll 25.5cm (10inch) x 38cm (15inch) tin lined with silicone paper

Preheat the oven to180C/350F/gas mark 4. Barely melt the butter, golden syrup or treacle and sugar with the water. Mix flour and baking powder and spice together in a bowl. When the liquids have melted and cooled, add the flour, spice and egg yolk. Lastly whisk the egg white until they reach a stiff peak and fold gently into the other ingredients. Pour into the lined Swiss roll tin and bake in the preheated oven for 12-15 minutes (12 minutes works in our ovens). Remove from the oven, cover with a damp cloth and leave to cool. Turn out onto a sheet of silicone paper which has been dredged with icing sugar. Fill with softly whipped cream and crystallized ginger and roll up. Transfer to a serving plate, decorate with a few rosettes of whipped cream and crystallized ginger.

Bumbles Top Tip: Bumble discovered quite by accident that the ginger roulade freezes really well. You can pull it out when required and cut into thick slices and put into a gratin dish, sprinkle with Demerara sugar and heat through in a very hot oven for 8-10 minutes – apparently it’s delicious.
Foolproof Food

Ballycotton Prawns whole in their shells with Watercress and Dill Mayo

Not cheap, but always a wow. If you can buy them already cooked from your fishmonger – great, they are very simple to cook – homemade mayo is a must to embellish beautiful fresh prawns.
Serves 8

40-48 large very fresh prawns
3.6 litres (6 pints) water
3 tablespoons salt

4-8 tablespoons homemade Dill Mayo 
Large white plates

Wild watercress leaves
4 segments lemon

First cook the prawns
Bring the water to the boil and add the salt (may sound a lot, but this is the secret of real flavour when cooking prawns or shrimps). Put the prawns into the boiling salted water and as soon as the water returns to a rolling boil, test a prawn to see if it is cooked. It should be firm and white, not opaque or mushy. If cooked, remove prawns immediately. Very large ones may take 1/2 to 1 minute more. Allow to cool in a single layer on a tray. Uncurl the tails. 
Note: Do not be tempted to cook too many prawns together, otherwise they may overcook before the water even comes back to the boil, cook them in 2 or 3 batches.
Put 5 or 6 cooked whole prawns on each plate. Spoon a tablespoon or two of homemade Mayonnaise into a little bowl or oyster shell on the side of the plate. Pop a segment of lemon on the plate. Garnish with some fresh wild watercress. Serve with fresh crusty brown soda bread and Irish butter.

Dill Mayonnaise

1 large egg yolk, preferably free range
2 tablespoons French mustard
1 tablespoon. white sugar
1/4 pint (150ml) ground nut or sunflower oil
1 tablespoon. white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon. dill, finely chopped
Salt and white pepper

Whisk the egg yolk with the mustard and sugar, drip in the oil drop by drop whisking all the time, then add the vinegar and fresh dill.

Hot Tips 

Showcasing Quality Irish Seafood in the UK Market

The Irish seafood sector received strong recognition at the 2005 Great Taste Awards, the UK’s most prestigious gourmet food awards, thirteen companies scored a total of 23 gold, silver and bronze awards. Under the BIM banner a group of Irish Seafood companies showcased a range of speciality products including mussels, smoked salmon, mackerel and other value added product, under their Quality Seafood (QS) symbol which was introduced to the UK market. www.bim.ie/qsp . 

Irish Seedsavers Association Ltd.
Starting in February the association will be running courses and workshops right through the year on a wonderful variety of topics, from Creating an Orchard, Dry Stone Walling, Organic Gardening and much more – at Capparoe, Scarriff, Co Clare, for details tel. 061-921866, fax 061-921327 info@irishseedsavers.ie    local accommodation available.

The Green Box is Ireland’s first ecotourism destination.
It is based in Leitrim and includes all of that country and Fermangh plus adjoining parts of Sligo, Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan, but does not include the large urban centres in the area. The Green Box has a network of members many of who are in the food industry – specialist food producers, restaurants, country markets, cookery schools, some of whom will benefit from a capital development programme supported by the EU’s Interreg IIIA Ireland/Northern Ireland Programme. Ecotourism can be defined as ‘travel that is small in scale, low impact, culturally sensitive, community and conservation orientated, primarily nature based, educational and capable of broadening peoples minds and enlivening their souls while providing a unique experience, firmly grounded in sustainable principles 

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


Past Letters

  • Recipes