The Great Boden Diaries’ Sasha Wilkins reveals her can’t-fail guide to hosting the perfect autumn meal at home for friends (plus reveals her exclusive recipe for a delicious main…)
Last week I had the loveliest evening with five girlfriends around the big dining table in my London flat. We ate, we drank, we laughed and, most importantly, I was sitting at that table for the majority of the meal instead of hovering red-faced over a stove in the kitchen. It’s easy to think you need to impress supper guests but, in my experience, what people really want is to be fed something delicious in a timely fashion, surrounded by friends and family.
Leave the napkin origami and pointless garnishes to restaurants and concentrate on making sure everyone leaves happy and full. It’s natural to worry when you have friends over for supper but beyond checking that you have enough plates, cutlery and chairs, the bathroom is clean and there are no trip obstacles on the way to the table (small children, sausage dogs, Lego, skateboards have all been known to snare the unwary at my home), the last thing you want to be doing is panicking about the meal itself. So here are my top tips for throwing a fun night for you and your guests:
I always recommend laying the table in advance, even the night before. That way, if you do fall behind in your cooking (and I often do) then at least you won’t be rushing around looking for clean napkins or wondering what on earth you did with the tea lights as the guests arrive.
Go for dahlias
At this time of year I like to decorate the table with dahlias. Not only are they are one of my favourite flowers and in season but they aren’t expensive and look wonderful trimmed and plonked in a vase – I often use an old Kilner jar instead of granny’s cut glass. If you have time follow my lead: strip the flowers down to the individual stalks and arrange them in a variety of glass vessels. (I collect tiny jam jars and the leftover glass jars from scent diffusers and keep them on a shelf just for this purpose.)
All in the cooking
I’m a big fan of one-pot cooking: things that can go in the oven and never be touched again until it’s time to eat. I know four courses seems a lot, but the secret is to serve manageable portions of everything so that no-one feels stuffed by the time they get to the cheese. (It’s tempting to ladle out whacking great portions of the soup, but I find it’s better to leave people wanting more at the start of a meal, rather than feeling over-provisioned.)
The starter: Cauliflower cheese soup
For an autumnal menu I like to serve soup for three reasons: lots of perfect ingredients are in season now, it can be made in advance and reheated easily, and it doesn’t require complicated timings or treatments. Cauliflower cheese soup is a great spin on an English classic, and the smooth creaminess and cheesy hit is very comforting. Serve with hunks of granary bread, warmed in the oven as the main course cooks.
The main: Baked Squash with mushrooms and spinach
For the main course I have yet to find anyone, man, woman or child who does not love these little baked squash, which I think most people look at in the greengrocers but have no idea what they might do with them (see below for my handy and easy recipe). It’s a very pretty dish, yet takes remarkably little effort, and is filling enough to be served as a main course with a green vegetable on the side.
The dessert: Apple cake with streusel topping
I’m a huge advocate of the pudding cake: again simple to make in advance, and can be served both hot or cold. This time I am suggesting apples, but rhubarb, blackberries or even pears are all excellent substitutions. Custard is particularly good, but if serving warm, I like a good dollop of crème fraîche as its natural acidity is a good counter-balance to the sweetness of the cake.
The cheese: Brie de Meaux with Kentish cobnuts, wet walnuts and Victoria plums
Then I serve the cheese, in the English fashion, after the pudding. That way we can all sit back, cracking nuts and chatting as the evening unwinds. Kentish cobnuts and wet walnuts (gathered straight from the tree and not allowed to dry out) are a special treat, and are well worth seeking out from your local independent greengrocer.
Other handy tips
Do make sure you put white wine in the fridge in advance – even if it’s only as you rush in the door from work. Unwrap the cheese onto the plate you will serve it on when you get it home so that it has time to breathe and spread.
Sasha’s recipe for baked striped squash
Ingredients for four people:
2 small round striped squashes
1 tbsp olive oil
One garlic clove, crushed and chopped
250g mushrooms – chopped small
100ml single cream
Salt and pepper to taste
2 sprigs of thyme, leaves removed from the stems
1. Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees C.
2. Split each squash in half horizontally. You will probably also need to level off the stem so that the top half can sit flat in the baking tray.
3. Brush each cut surface with oil so that they do not dry out in the oven, and place them cut side up in an ovenproof dish.
4. Set a frying pan over a medium heat, and melt the butter until it fizzes. Tip in the mushrooms and garlic, along with the thyme leaves and a good pinch of salt and some black pepper. Cook slowly until the mushrooms are soft, then add the cream and bring to a simmer. The cream should thicken slightly but not be runny. This should take about five minutes. The cream will thicken further on baking.
5. Scoop the mushroom and cream mixture into the squash halves, cover tightly with foil and bake for about one hour to cook, depending on the size.
6. Serve with steamed spinach, kale, or cavolo nero.
Taken from Friends, Food, Family: Recipes & Secrets from LibertyLondonGirl, published by Quadrille