Valentines is a funny day.
Whenever I’ve been in a relationship, it’s usually involved a candle-lit dinner for two in a favourite restaurant, sharing some special vino. Low key and lovely but sometimes a little depressing when you are sitting next to awkward couples struggling to make conversation let alone enjoy themselves.
When I’ve been single, it’s been much more fun.
This year was a highlight, to say the least. We’re talking ten swinging singles (or as we decided non-swinging because technically you need to have a partner to be able to swap one) all in excellent form.
We’re talking my big dining table pulled into the middle of the living room. We’re talking crazy old friends and fabulous new ones as well. We’re talking a visitor all the way from chilly London. We’re talking laughter and stories and witty banter. We’re talking lots of lovely vino. We’re talking delicious, low maintenance food.
It’s been ages since I’d cooked for a crowd. I’d forgotten how much fun it is to have people over. Incredibly rewarding the way your little apartment becomes transformed and alive with candle light and good vibes.
If you haven’t ever tried it, now’s the time.
11 tips for cooking for a crowd
i. plan ahead
If there’s one thing you do, make sure you plan ahead. While it can be fun to wing-it when you’re cooking for one or two, nobody needs the stress that goes along with being ill prepared for a crowd.
ii. choose things that can be served at room temperature
Especially for Summer entertaining, choosing to serve things at room temperature or straight from the fridge means you can have everything plated and ready to go. It also avoids the need to work with hot things after you’ve had a few drinks. If it’s winter and you must to serve something warm, just make sure it isn’t too fussy about its ideal eating temp.
iii. think big
Make the most of having heaps of mouths to feed and choose large pieces of meat or fish. A whole salmon or a glazed leg of ham can look seriously impressive and much easier than having to get the timing right for cooking 10 individual serves.
iv. prepare ahead
Save the steaks and the souffles for another time. Crowd cooking means things that can be prepared in advance leaving you stress-free to mingle with your guests.
v. allow enough time
I find when I cook, things always take longer than anticipated. Best to allow way more time than you think you’ll need. I’ve been there – stuck in the kitchen, still not in my party outfit, trying to get things done while everyone is enjoying themselves – it’s no fun.
It isn’t the end of the world if you disregard point v. Just recruit a few willing sous chefs and you’ll have company and things done in record time.
vii. serve family style
Large platters in the middle of the table not only take the pressure off having to find enough space in the kitchen to line up 10 individual plates, it’s interactive and fun to share. It also means that your mates can load up on things they love and skip out on anything not to their taste without having a guilty pile on their plate at the end of the evening.
viii. designate a wine master
You’ve got enough official duties with the food. Nominating a wine master means you don’t have to worry about what to open next or if everyone’s glasses are kept topped up.
ix. appoint a dj
Another easy job to outsource. With the added bonus that it can be so fascinating what people dig up from your itunes.
x. stock up on bread
While judging the amount of food for a few people is easy, it can be tough getting it right for a crowd. My insurance policy is to have plenty of great sourdough bread on hand. That way you know that no one will leave hungry, and if there are heaps of leftovers you can slice and freeze for later.
xi. set the table first
A final trick I’ve picked up over the years. Make sure you have the table set and looking lovely before the guests arrive, that way no matter how chaotic things actually are in the kitchen, at least the front of house will have an aura of order and calm.
menu: valentines dinner for 10
roast cherry tomatoes
poached veal with tuna sauce
warm kipfler potato salad
shaved fennel salad with snowpeas & mint
best ever (cocoa) brownies with sour cream icecream
roast cherry tomatoes
serves about 10 as a starter
Inspired by St. Nigel (yep still obsessed – I know, I’m pathetic).
I love tomatoes but am often disappointed with store bought love-apples. The solution is to roast them for a while to concentrate their flavour and leave lovely tomatoey juices to mop up with bread.
There are millions of uses for these tomatoes aside from as a starter. Lovely in salads or with some baked ricotta or with some fresh green beans and pan fried white fish…
3 punnets cherry tomatoes
3T extra virgin olive oil
1T balsamic vinegar
Preheat oven to 200C (400F).
Place tomatoes in a dish large enough to hold them snugly in a single layer. Drizzle with oil and a little balsamic. Season well.
Roast for about half and hour or until wrinkled. Serve hot or at room temp.
poached veal with tuna sauce
I’m still a bit wary of poaching things. I hate the thought of all the flavour leaching out into the cooking water. It’s not such a problem here because the sauce is so strongly flavoured. I’ve reduced the poaching liquid down a little and frozen it in anticipation of risotto season.
The beauty is that you have to do this ahead and can even refrigerate the veal in the stock for a few days if need be. The stock does a brilliant job of keeping the meat lovely and moist. Very forgiving if you happen to over cook it – great if you’re a little nervous about cooking large pieces of meat.
If you struggle to find veal, beef fillet or even pork fillets would also work well. Remember to adjust the cooking time.
1.8kg (4lb) piece veal fillet or sirloin, trimmed of any sinew
3 brown onions, roughly chopped
3 carrots, roughly chopped
3 ribs celery, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic
3 bay leaves
1T black peppercorns
for the tuna sauce
425g (1lb) canned tuna in oil, drained
2t salted capers, well rinsed
6T lemon juice
2C whole egg mayonnaise
few sprigs, flat leaf parsley, leaves picked
Place veal and veg in a large pot. Cover with water and bring to a simmer.
Cook at a gentle simmer for about 1 1/2hours or until veal feels tender when poked with a skewer.
Allow to cool in the stock. Refrigerate until needed.
For the sauce, puree tuna, anchovies, capers and lemon juice in a food processor. Add mayo and whizz until well combined. Season but you probably won’t need any salt.
To serve, drain the veal and slice as finely as possible. Layer onto a serving platter with a generous covering of mayo.
Sprinkle over parsley leaves and pop lemon cheeks on the side.
I keep getting asked about my love life, especially after the elBulli adventure. While I’m still looking for love, I thoroughly enjoyed my dinner in the world’s best restaurant. If you missed my write up it’s over at my restaurant review blog newly christened ‘bread shoes‘ (formerly known as eat|shop|drink – long story).