Menu planning - a summer series (2)

A few weeks ago, I started to look at how to plan a good dinner for friends. I drew attention to the fact that serving food as a sequence of single dishes is a relatively recent phenomenon. I want to look this time at the alternative to that: service française - laying everything out together. It's what you do for one-course feats, table-suppers, tapas, meze, smorgasbords and sharing dinners.

This type of dinner is becoming more popular again as hosts and friends alike hanker after less formality in their entertainments. There's something particularly sociable in passing serving dishes around the table, dibbing in as something interesting passes, and discussing with the diners 'over there' what they have worth trying at their end. For the cook, this type of service has the advantage of all the work being finished: you can sit down with everyone else and relax, knowing there's nothing that'll call you away from the table - short of a wine refill - until it's time for pudding, coffee and taxis.

Be aware that your guests are going to want to try everything on the table, so you're you're going to have to make enough of each dish to go round. On the other hand, you don't want to over-face people, so think about the number of dishes to serve. You might want to show of the fantastic recipes in your latest cookbook, but an over-full stomach can ruin an evening. Choose four to six, perhaps, that go really well together, and have your guests looking forward to your next invitation. Another way to work is to pick just one main dish - a slow-cooked ragù, for instance, or a curried dish - then serve a selection of tasty accompaniments around it. Nobody minds taking just a tablespoon of something that's obviously a side dish if there are several others beside it. Salads and pickles can all be prepared well in advance, as can marinated veg, cured meats, smoked dishes and breads. Don't plan to serve half a dozen cooked dishes that will all require last minute attention - that sort of think is best for service russe - serving dishes in courses.

I'm often challenged that I cook principally for meat-eaters and disregard the needs of vegetarians. It's a fair criticism. I am deeply rooted in the classic French tradition of cookery and the four-course sequence of dishes. That's a tradition built upon the desire to show off an expensive piece of meat at the centre of the meal. Not only am I less confident in my meat-free cookery, I don't believe it's shown off to its best advantage by service russe. For plant-based and vegetarian dining, it works much better to lay all your dishes on the table together and encourage your guests to sample, dip, mix and match in whatever combination piques their curiosity. If, like me, you struggle to serve vegetarian food well, the problem is more likely to be the style of dinner than the vegetarian food. Instead of making small quantities of 'vegetarian alternatives in your meat dinners, try ditching the meat altogether and inviting meat-eaters and vegetarians alike to feast on the best fruit and vegetables you can buy, all laid out together in a single feast for the eyes, taste buds and nose.

Whether you serve all vegetable dishes of a mixture of meat and meat free, you're going to need to choose dishes that sit well together, but show enough variety to keep your guests interested. In order to achieve unity, I'd suggest picking a theme, be that a national cuisine, a favourite chef or writer or celebration day from the calendar. It's clear that a carefully made, spiced christophene dish from Jamaica is unlikely to sit as well with Japanese pickles as it does with Solomon gundy and dumplings. For variety, the only limit is your imagination. Pay attention to every sense, and make sure your dishes display a variety of colours and textures, as much as tastes and flavours. Think about the variety of taste experiences in the mouth - sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Think about less easily-defined flavours, like earthy, smoky, umami and spicy. The marvelous Lesley Waters, in her book on spices, "Cooler than Chillies," divides recipes according to the part of the plant each spice comes from - roots & tubers like ginger or turmeric, berries like allspice and pepper, pods like vanilla, and so on. She suggests that a simple way to achieve both unity and variety in a dinner is to pick one dish from each section. I've yet to find a better way to show off vegetable cooking.

I should mention wines in this blog. One of the reason for service russe becoming popular in Britain last century was that it allowed wealthy hosts to show off the extent of their wine cellar, as they could manage what diners drank with each dish. That's obviously not the case with service française, where your guests are deciding for themselves which of the proffered dishes to eat, with what and in what order. This style of dining is not the right time to practise wine-matching. Find yourself a good, medium- to full-bodied white and a youngish, fresh red. Chill them both a little and put two bottles of each on the table, so your guests to help themselves as they deem fit. It'll be one more reason for you to relax. If only the clear-up was as easy!

Next time: a distillery visit


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