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That’s entertainment

Categories: Reflections and opinions

Sybil Kapoor on why simplicity is key if you want to enjoy cooking for others

There is something about entertaining that can derail the best healthy eating regimes. Why do we feel obliged to serve rich, complicated dishes to our friends? I will spend hours anxiously wondering what to cook my guests. My husband, bemused by my indecision, helpfully suggests: “Can’t you find something in one of your own cookbooks?”

He’s right. As I flick through their pages, I see countless tempting dishes. In truth, I’m worried that our friends will think that my cooking is too simple. I love fresh-tasting, unprocessed food and the majority of my recipes are designed for everyday eating. I know from my experiences as a chef that when people eat out they expect something exceptional, even when they go out to visit friends. Cooking food simply but very well is not seen as a skill in Britain—look at MasterChef or The Great British Bake Off. Badly made but complicated dishes constructed from myriad ingredients are often viewed as better than well-made plain dishes.

Surely my friends will want a cheffy-menu. Should I bone and marinate racks of lamb in shallots, thyme and olive oil, make and reduce a lamb stock, then enrich it with butter and finish it with finely diced black olives? Should I serve it with rosti potatoes and minted spinach? What pretty starter could I make to go with the lamb that won’t take too much time? Perhaps some smoked salmon pate with melba toast and cornichons?

And then there is the pudding: maybe a buttery pear and cardamom tart tatin, served with home-made pear and calvados ice cream? I love all these dishes—they’re recipes I’ve written and cooked for countless parties over the years—but these days, I feel it is important to enjoy my friends’ company rather than stress out in the kitchen.

Plain, fresh ingredients
The question is, what dishes best suit such an approach? I want recipes that are easy to make and can, for the most part, be prepared in advance. I want plain, fresh ingredients that make you feel good after you’ve eaten. In other words, flavoursome simple recipes that are light on dairy fats, salts and sugars. And, if that’s not enough, I want to create dishes that make my guests feel special.

Taking a deep breath and a clean sheet of paper, I start to play with ideas. First I start with the concept of feeling special—I need to capture a sense of spring through colour, ingredient and smell. At this time of year, I would be looking for green, white, primrose yellow and rose pink—all served on white plates, since that is all I have.

Then, I’ll consider what is in season. Perhaps a succulent roast chicken with a leafy green salad and chips? I could mix sorrel leaves and garlic flowers into the salad for extra zing. I’ll cut my chips thin to evoke a dreamy Parisian day. If you have a deep fat fryer, the latter are very quick to make at the last minute, provided the chips have been blanched in oil earlier in the day.

Or maybe I should serve sea trout that has been wrapped in foil and baked in the oven. It could be served with lemon, mayonnaise and Jersey royal potatoes.

Prepared in advance
If the first fragrant gariguette strawberries have arrived—little more is needed for pudding, other than organic cream, a sprinkling of sugar and perhaps some chewy, home-made ricciarelli. Otherwise, few can resist a forced rhubarb jelly with elderflower liqueur syllabub, or perhaps a classic rhubarb fool or tart. All are easy to make and can be prepared in advance.

Finally, the starter. To evoke a sense of spring I could serve bright green blanched leeks, dressed in a mustard tarragon vinaigrette and served with halved quail’s eggs. It would be delicious with the sea trout, but it might be too much salad if I opt for the roast chicken. The latter would taste wonderful if preceded by a delicately spiced Thai coconut, vegetable and noodle soup, finished with coriander leaves. Making such dishes certainly makes me feel happy—hopefully they will also leave my guests feeling full of the joys of spring.