How To Survive The Silly Season: Entertaining Tips To Save Your Sanity
Let Nicole Stock be the voice of reason with these entertaining how-tos to see you through the Christmas rush
Entertaining implies, to me, linen napkins and matched wines. And actually, Exhaustion, with a capital E. It’s just semantics, but while Entertaining seems fussy, its less ostentatious cousin, Having People Over, seems like a lot of fun. So much fun that I often think: Why stop at six friends when you could invite 10 or 12 or 18? Did I mention my cookbook was called Cooking for Optimists?
It’s an apt title, particularly at this time of year. What’s not optimistic about our giddy decision to have all the friends we haven’t seen all year over for dinner in the few short weeks where we’re also juggling recitals and corporate go-karting and client demands for everything to be done for some arbitrary end of year date?
Cooking for Optimists is the result of a decade of thinking, writing and cooking. The book celebrates cooking — all of its meditative, frustrating, rewarding, exhilarating, soul-destroying complexities. There isn’t any hyperactive fist-pumping about the magic of a slightly tweaked pasta recipe, but there is genuine, inspiring enthusiasm for the perfection of the crunch of pastry, or the wobble of a just-set ganache tart.
I wanted a cookbook that didn’t just effortlessly conjure up a dinner party, but had a healthy dose of pragmatism (and humour) about cooking. Cooking for Optimists was written for the enjoyment of having people over, to spellbind with simple, unpretentious deliciousness, but in a way that won’t make you tear your hair out. As you plan your big Christmas do, let me be a lone voice of sanity in canape land.
YOU WILL NOT HAVE TIME
You think you will (it’s only a couple of friends, it’s so easy to stack little meatball sliders…). I always think I will. But you won’t. Optimism is admirable, but at a party it will only leave you thinly stretched, exhausted and snappy.
CLOSE THAT CANAPE BOOK
When you have hordes (and even two others can sometimes feel like hordes), you can’t simultaneously be deep-frying. It’s as simple as that. Nor stack towers or poach things a la minute. And yet these canape picture books innocently suggest you do just that: deep fry miniscule fritters at the last moment! Poach quail eggs and top with still-warm hollandaise! Layer up impeccable edible turrets of multiple components! Craziness.
But I also get it. Who hasn’t been swayed by the Pinterest perfection of miniature grilled cheese sandwiches or salmon gravlax in a hand-rolled wafer cone? Steal yourself against these miniature mirages and be firm. Instead, buy good bread and make a dip.
BUT DO HAVE SNACKS
With the best intentions for punctuality often lost in giddy, chat-filled, wine-soused inattention, dinner can easily edge closer to 9.30pm than the possibly planned 7.30pm. No worries, as long as you have something to nibble on.
I don’t go in for plated entrees but I’ll always have something to stave off hunger. It might just be a bowl of olives, some almonds, or surprisingly popular, a platter of carrot sticks, cucumber and lightly steamed beans to dip into garlic mayonnaise or hummus. I think people like the idea of absentminded munching on vegetable sticks; it starts the evening on a virtuous note so there is no "just a sliver for me, thanks" nonsense come dessert time.
A good dinner party does not ride on whether your steak is cooked perfectly; the food is really the least significant part of a good night. A great evening can be made from cask wine and burnt sausages and a dismal one from terrine and parfait. This isn’t to say don’t bother with the food, as good food is a wonderful thing, but if a dish is ruined, it does not follow that the evening will also be.
Sometimes I make horrendously awful, inedible, terribly bad food. (Am I selling this cookbook yet?) No one seeks to do this, of course, but sometimes the idea and the execution don’t marry up the way we hope, sometimes our own forgetfulness — missing out an ingredient, or leaving something in the oven for far too long can ruin something that could have been quite good.
If you can pacify your cookery rage, remind yourself that most cooking disasters make for good stories, as long as you can find the humour in it rather than an apologetic self-flagellation.
I actually think you can often make pretty great food from not-so-amazing ingredients. Look, we’d all like to have decades-aged balsamic vinegar and hand dug, new season potatoes, but the potatoes in the pantry have likely sprouted faintly terrifying tendrils and I’ll have balked at the price of the really good vinegar.
Of course, it’s difficult to make an exceptional fresh salad with ho-hum vegetables, but you can often resurrect tired greens and tubers in a stew, so don’t be bullied by the food police. Life sometimes leaves you with bendy celery, so make sofrito.
The best sort of cook is prudent and waltzes a forever-changing dance between time available, ingredients obtainable, effort and economy. Maybe sometimes this will mean making canapes and souffle. At others it is the deft transformation of a couple of tins into lunch.
Your earnest vegetable layered things will be left in the dust by a sausage roll.
Kind people — who I assume you are friends with — will ask if there is anything they can do. It is always easier to give them a simple task than to smugly have absolutely everything ready, or alternatively, be so harried that you don’t have time to think of something that they could pitch in with.
Things like slicing up a loaf of bread, washing salad leaves or destemming strawberries are good ideas. If you do ask someone to help, be specific. If you want the tomatoes in wedges not slices, make sure you say this. And even if their attempt isn’t perfect, don’t micromanage and redo it: suck it up and use the slices — it’s just dinner.
TAKE A COMPLIMENT
All this involves is saying thank you. You don’t need to bat this away or volley a return compliment straight back. Say thank you. Don’t apologise, don’t bring up what went wrong with the dish, or how you would improve it. Don’t deflect the complement to the recipe and none on the cook. Just say thank you and smile.
• Cooking For Optimists, $36, is available at Cookingforoptimists.com
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