Festive Dinner Parties
There is something beautiful, almost sacred, about gathering loved ones around a table. However, among all the other pressures of Christmas, we can easily lose sight of the essentials – the people – and focus on creating the perfect dinner party. Here are a few hints and tips to help you relax and enjoy time with those you love.
1 Plan for Ease
The more you do ahead of time, the more time you have to enjoy the evening. Soups can be made the day before. Quiches, tartes and tartelettes can be done in the morning. Pâtés, if you want to make your own, will keep for up to a week in the fridge. Most vegetables can be peeled, chopped, blanched and frozen weeks ahead, ready to give a final flourish on the night. At a time of year when we value tradition, why not dig out your grannie’s sherry trifle recipe? It’ll delight your guests, be a lovely talking-point and tastes best when it’s had a day or two to rest in the fridge before you add that final layer of whipped cream. If you’re confident to make your own ice cream, this is the perfect occasion: it has to be made ahead of time, so is already ‘in the bag’ days before the dinner.
3 Set the Mood
Make sure your menu reflects the season, too. It’s probably best not to serve yet another turkey dish, but you can slip culinary stocking-fillers into your menu for moments of delight. Pigs in blankets with the G&T? Christmas pudding flavoured ice cream? Orange and cranberry cake? Yes, please, to all of these! I have a friend who would always serve a cottage pie on Boxing Day. At a time when we’re eating the best of everything, it was lovely to have something simple (although he did serve it with vast quantities of Champagne). Is this the time to carve up your festive ham, then, and show off the quality of your home-made parsley sauce?
It’s good to have a little music in the background, but not if it overpowers the conversation. Have a look on your favourite steaming app for instrumental or acoustic Christmas music. Your brain is programmed to tune into human voices, so avoid pop songs and choral pieces if you want to enjoy the conversations. You could get the younger members of the family to create a bespoke playlist of family favourites, thus relieving you of another potentially onerous responsibility.
4 Aperitifs are your saviour!
Fizz is an easy and obvious thing, to serve before dinner, but think also about other drinks. If someone in your family enjoys making cocktails, give them the task of choosing and making a suitably festive offering: spicy Negroni always goes down well; Martinis are cool and sophisticated but strong; Bucks Fizz, French 75 and Mimosas are all fresh and celebratory, or you can follow the Queen’s lead and make a Zaza with gin and Dubonnet.
Some of the drinks we might think of as old-fashioned can surprise and delight a younger crowd. How about a chilled dry sherry with slices of Serrano ham? Sweet red vermouth, served neat with ice and a slice of orange, is rich with spice and will balance even the saltiest nibbles. Everyone thinks of port as a Christmas drink for after dinner, but why not turn this on its head by serving a glass as your aperitif? Tawny styles are delicious when lightly chilled, and white port can even be mixed with tonic water for a light, refreshing alternative to gin.
The nibbles you serve with this drink can be as simple as salted crisps and nuts or as complicated as you feel able. Sliced, cured meats go well with most aperitif drinks. Olives and other marinated vegetables are perfect, and they require no more work than opening a jar or tin. If you want to have a go at something more ambitious, mini quiches might be your thing, or Angels on Horseback – oysters wrapped in streaky bacon and grilled on the last minute.
5 Absent Friends
Do not be afraid of tears. Your dinner party guests will be your closest friends and family. If you or they are moved to sadness by the conversation (and drink might bring such feelings nearer the surface than usual), it is a moment to share, to show love, to be together as family for each other. In close relationships, tears and laughter are always leading each other in an emotional dance. Embrace it.
However you celebrate this Christmas, and whoever you celebrate with, I wish you and those you love happiness, good health and peace.
This article also appears in The Yorkshire Times, Lancashire Times, Cumbria Times and North East Post.