This blog’s annual culinary exhibition returns once again for the seventh time. In a more understated fashion this year…
Last year’s dinner party, a five-course French extravaganza, proved to me my limits as a host and chef. Essentially making forty-five meals to distribute around a table of nine, many of which had to be attended to while my guests were in the house. I spent the best part of an hour with them, collectively in the end.
That’s when the decision had to be made — this year, we will go for a much simpler menu, with fewer courses and fewer guests. I did wonder about a theme, but in the end I decided to go for a trio of dishes that I just liked the sound of. We do have themes set by for the next couple of years as a result, mind you. The menu was as follows:
Beef spiral with a herby Italian stuffing, served with wilted spinach and basil
Gigot of Lamb Rosemarin
Leg of Lamb cooked with anchovies, garlic, vine-roasted tomatoes and rosemary, served with a potato gratin and hot tomato vinaigrette
served with salted caramel fudge
Remarkably, I was ahead of schedule for much of the day, despite making all three dishes plus the side for the main course all in the hours leading up to my guests’ arrival. No word of a lie – this is perhaps the least stressful menu I have done for a dinner party, which was unusual in and of itself, given I had never tried any one of these recipes before.
I started with the one I imagined would be the most complicated – the Banoffee Pie (see pictured). Since absolutely everything has to be made from scratch, including the crust and the caramel. For the crust, you adopt the cheesecake method, in that you blitz up a load of digestive biscuits and mix with melted butter, moulding the mixture around your cake tin.
The caramel was the more daunting prospect, but even that turned out to be totally easy. Melt butter and sugar together until well-dissolved, then just pour in a tin of condensed milk. Boil for a minute and then tip into your biscuit base. Nothing else to it after that – just chuck it in the fridge to let the caramel set; no need to touch it again until you’re ready to do the cream topping, which can be even just before you plan to serve. Then just whisk up some cream until it’s thick and airy, and spoon on top of the caramel, before decorating with chopped banana pieces. And salted caramel fudge, if you’re feeling adventurous.
That was dessert taken care of; now to move onto the entrée. I love watching old cookery programmes, when the chefs and cooks actually used to make proper meals. One of my favourites is Two Fat Ladies, every episode of which is available on YouTube. In the first episode, Clarissa Dickson Wright made a dish called Gigot of Monkfish Rosemarin, which is a fish-based manipulation of the original Gigot of Lamb. “Gigot” is a French word for “Leg”, by the way. Because a number of my guests are not so hot on fish, I decided to go down the lamb route.
It was deliciously simple to do. You get a good, sharp knife and make incisions on both sides of the joint. Into these incisions, you stuff both an anchovy and half a garlic clove. You do this in a good 15-20 places, and this combination will enhance the flavours of the meat in a big, tasty way. You may think it’s odd to pair lamb with anchovies but we have seen it in restaurants that have scored highly on this blog (such as Brighton’s Bath Arms). Trust me; it works a treat.
Again, there’s little else to be said for this dish. You place fresh rosemary sprigs all around the joint, including under and on top of it, accompanied by vine tomatoes and more garlic cloves, and coat the whole lot in a good lashing of olive oil. Cover the roasting tin until a couple of hours before you intend to serve before cooking. It will take an hour in total, give or take 15 minutes or so, depending on your oven. You will want to let the lamb go cool to make the carving all the easier.
On to the starter — the Beef Braciole. In the earlier incarnations of our 2018 menu, this dish was almost the main course, to be served in a rich tomato sauce with loads and loads of pasta as it should be. But I thought it suited just as well as a starter with a few amendments. It is basically a beef skirt or flank steak, flattened out and coated in a herby, garlicky, cheesy breadcrumb mixture, before being rolled up into a spiral Swiss Roll-style, then cooked through. In this case, for around an hour in total, turning halfway through.
Get some stale bread for the breadcrumbs, and blitz up in the food processor with basil, garlic, loads of fresh-grated parmesan cheese and parsley. Once your beef has been beaten until it is only a fraction of its former thickness, coat in the stuffing and roll into the spiral. Then you will need string to bind it tightly, so that it keeps it shape when you cook. This is probably the most stressful part of this recipe, as it can be a bid fiddly and messy. The beef can go in the oven straight away, if you like – and we recommend you do. It can be heated through, unbound and sliced once your guests are ready for their starter. All you need do to accompany it is chuck some spinach and basil leaves in with a little butter in a saucepan and allow them to wilt. Arrange the greens under the beef slice and serve (pictured above). Simple, colourful and tasty.
We haven’t done much with side dishes with past menus, since we have been doing more courses. But this year there was call for something to go with the lamb, and we followed Clarissa’s recommendation of a Gratin of Potatoes (see pictured) and a hot Tomato Vinaigrette.
The potatoes can be left until quite late on your schedule, an hour or so until you plan to serve. Peel the potatoes and slice into round “coins”, arranging in an enamelware dish. Now, you can layer with a number of choices. Tomatoes, grated cheese, or, as in our case, the leftover breadcrumb stuffing from the beef. We had loads left so it would be wasteful not to use it. Layer the potatoes until you reach the top of the enamelware dish – the top layer should be potatoes and a coating of grated parmesan. Then pour a load of cream all over it, before baking in the oven for as little as 40 minutes – until golden brown on the top.
A simple Tomato Vinaigrette is what finishes off the lamb dish. Combine in a small frying pan some malt vinegar and olive oil – you will want more vinegar than oil. Then add some chopped tomatoes – fresh or tinned, it doesn’t really matter. Just heat all through and stir continuously, before topping the lamb.
For this dinner party, I was truly shocked at how well everything turned out. To continue in this vein will lead to many more successes in future years.
The recipes for this dinner party will be published in due course across December and into the New Year. If you want some simple dish ideas for your own dinners, look at our articles showing off 5 Simple Starters, Mains and Desserts.