It’s the fifth one we’ve ever held, the fourth to merit its own article. Later than normal, and an entirely different group of guests. This, dear readers, is our annual dinner party for this year.
When working in the industry, I found the number of food enthusiasts among my former colleagues to be distinctly, and disappointingly, low. Now having worked in the financial game for coming up to a year, I have discovered I work with, to put it very bluntly, a load of gluttons. So the challenge? Cook a five-course exhibition dinner for their enjoyment. Accepted, of course.
Diverting from my usual guest list, I was a little freer with regard to ingredients and dishes – fish and seafood were both still problems with some of my friends, but it was nothing that bigger portions of the other dishes couldn’t fix.
This year, we served the following:
Tomato Summer Pudding
served with a Parmesan-dusted salad
served with buttered baguette
Shot of Basil & Cucumber Gazpachio
Venison à la Royale
served with Roasted Parsnips and Potato Croquettes
Black Forest Pavlova
Preparation was an arduous two-day process, this year, expecting to serve between eight and ten people (lessening to seven in the end for various reasons). Luckily most of the dishes could be seen to beforehand; indeed two of them required it. We started with the Basil & Cucumber Gazpachio, which would serve our palate cleanser, or intermezzo for this year. Based off of an idea I came across when reviewing the London restaurant Osteria 60, of which the chef team is headed by Ivan Simeoli, I decided as it was to be the middle dish in the menu, it would not be given a huge song and dance like one would give a sorbet in this case, for instance. Instead, it would be served in shot glasses (see pictured) and, if possible, taken in one swallow. Simply made by liquidising a whole cucumber and a whole yellow pepper with a bit of garlic, a lot of basil and a good helping of Gordon’s gin, and just chilled overnight.
It was not the only thing taking up room in my fridge on Day One; the starters – the Tomato Summer Puddings (see pictured) – were also on the guest list. For the dessert enthusiasts among the readership here, you will know the traditional Summer Pudding to be summer berries, usually but not limited to redcurrants and blackcurrants encased with their juices in a mould made of stale white bread. The late Jennifer Paterson of the Two Fat Ladies brought the savoury tomato version to my attention in watching an episode of the aforementioned TV show, though I manipulated it further by adding yellow peppers to the mixture for the sake of some colour.
Day Two started with my favourite dish of the lot – the Shellfish Chowder (see pictured), which was also a major hit with my guests. It was half-based on a mussels dish of Tom Kerridge’s, and half-based on a Clam Chowder recipe by Clarissa Dickson Wright. It is an American chowder, in that it includes potatoes – people are often mistaken to think that chowder was an American creation, when it was we, the English, who took it over when we made for Plymouth Rock. Potatoes aside, it’s all about the squid, prawns, mussels and bacon that give this soup the flavour. Just pan-fry it all with onions and garlic in butter, fill with water and a little milk. May not sound like much, but, as if by magic, you have a very tasty and filling dish at the end.
Following that began the very strenuous task of making Potato Croquettes (see pictured) from scratch – not something I would recommend to a person of frayed nerve and short temper. The first half of the job is all very well – boiling and mashing some potatoes – this, anyone can do. It’s the continuous dipping in flour, beaten egg and breadcrumbs; the mess it makes on top of everything else, that’s the proverbial pain the neck. These were to go with the meat course, Venison à la Royale, very loosely based on the dish Red Deer à la Royale created by Queen Victoria’s own chef Charles Elmé Francatelli. We used a good 1.5kg haunch of venison from the local butcher, roasted with sage and parnsips, and a few of these croquettes which, after all the work went into them, thankfully turned out very well.
Dessert was perhaps the simplest thing – the Black Forest Pavlovas (see pictured). In my professional capacity as someone with a dab hand with sweets and desserts, I can always recommend buying in your meringues – they are one of the most insufferable things to try to make and get right, because if they fail, the whole dish fails with it. Little meringue nests such as the ones I used to make the puddings for this dinner party are more than sufficient. I was also fortunate enough to have jarred cherries in syrup, which I drained and whisked into the cream for extra sweetness. This dish, really, could be given to the children should you have any to hand, especially the cherry decorating and/or the dusting of the grated chocolate.
As ever, for the sake of my own ego and vanity, if nothing else, I did ask my guests to score the meal, and out of a possibly 60, I scored 52. Not too shabby at all, I think.