You want to impress, right? You want the whole process to be stress-free and for you and your guests to enjoy themselves.
I have had a number of disasters with cooking for the in-laws and I thought it might be interesting to talk about what I have learnt, the basic steps to make things easier and less stressful for you, and tastier for everyone else. Here is my guide to cooking for a number of people…
Find out dietary and drink preferences. If you don’t know the people you are cooking for very well choosing a menu can be particularly difficult. But there are some basics: what are they allergic to? Are they vegetarian? Do they have any dislikes? Once you have gathered all this information it’s a good idea to note it down for next time, as you are bound to forget their dislike for green peppers… As for drinks, are they teetotal? red or white wine drinker? vodka or gin? it’s always a good idea to make sure you have their favourite tipple.
Don’t try to do too much. A three-course meal can be a lot of work, especially if you are new to the kitchen like me. I think the best way to avoid doing too much is to chose one course to do from scratch, choose one to do partially from scratch, and the last to buy in ready made. For example I like cooking mains from scratch, as they seem like the biggest part of the meal to me, I then partially make the starter fresh soup from the supermarket with home-baked bread and buy an apple pie and some ice-cream.
Create one statement accompaniment. The strategy of not doing too much means that there is room for one stand out part of the meal. Maybe you want to make cocktails, or make your own ice-cream, a statement piece is one thing that seems above and beyond. By making one statement piece, you can slacken off on some of the more time consuming parts. For example I can buy fresh soup, but by buying bread mix I can have fresh home made bread. I buy a packet of bread mix, add water, knead, leave to rise, and then when your guests arrive pop it in the oven. It will make your home smell delicious. Home baked bread is the one thing that has got me the most credit with my in-laws, and it is almost the simplest thing to do!
Prep ahead of time. When we have family over i always try to have everything prepared into ice-cream boxes in the fridge, one has the chicken in a marinade, another with chopped veggies etc and I’ll have a bowl with the correct quantity of rice in it. This way all the little tasks are done, while things are simmering or in the oven you can talk to your guests, not preparing ingredients for the next stage.
Make things you have made before. This is one that takes a little more effort and practise, and is pretty difficult if you don’t cook often (as I didn’t up until a couple of months ago). If you haven’t made something before you don’t know if 20 minutes will be too long in your oven or not long enough. I once had to serve the worlds mushiest noodles, because the sauce just wouldn’t thicken. The second time I made the meal, I knew that the sauce would take almost twice as long to thicken than in the recipe stated, and I put the noodles on much later.
Time cooking your meat properly. Timing is one thing I am in general not good at, I will look at the clock when I start cooking, and then forget what the time was! This can lead to one of two things: undercooked meat, or over cooked meat. I tend to err on the side of caution so my chicken becomes dry and tasteless, while I feel this is better than the food poisoning alternative, I’d rather have my meat moist and cooked through. Timing will give you the best idea of when to check your meat is cooked.
Most of these points are all common sense, but it’s amazing how easy they are to forget in the stress of planning a meal. I have ruined so many meals by trying to do too much at once, but the last couple of times I have been cooking for people I have tried to follow the above steps, and I had so much more fun! Remember the experience can be stressful but mainly it should be enjoyable!