Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Cooking for Guests

Just this morning someone asked me about cooking with/for a carnivorous partner, and the Mofo prompt is 'Barack Obama is coming to dinner - what do you make??' So I guess I'm thinking about the broader theme of cooking for guests, most of whom will be omnivores. I personally don't think it's all that difficult - they really will survive an evening without animal flesh, so our job is to represent with something super tasty. Some ideas!

Cook what you know:
I have a tendency to go really American when I cook for guests. Living in England, what's familiar to me might be cool and exotic to someone else. I remember making homemade salsa for a party once, nothing terribly unique, and it was such a hit. What are your family recipes? What are you really confident making? Whether it's just a killer potato salad or something special like tamales, don't discount your own experience in favour of something random off Pinterest. 

Cook ahead:
If at all possible, make something you can do ahead of time. It's a bummer if your host is stuck in the kitchen, all stressed out. If you do need to make something while your guests are there, do your prep work ahead of time, so onions chopped, potatoes peeled, etc. There's an exception to this rule though: maybe it's the holidays, and the time spent in the kitchen cooking with family is something you all enjoy. My family enjoys cooking together. Alternatively, if you're hiding from family, I guess that's ok too. 

Go casual, go cozy:
Others may disagree with me here, but I want my guests to feel at ease, and for me that means comforting food, served family style. A warming, flavourful main with a side or two, all on the table rather than in courses. I love to make chilli, curries, jambalaya - a big aromatic pot of welcome. I think the strong flavours are especially good for omnivores, who may not be keen on, like, a macro bowl with tofu and seaweed. Homemade pizza is another good option, especially as it can be easily customised for children. 

Have dessert:
I know I said that I usually don't bother with courses, but dessert makes an occasion, right? Pie, cake, cobbler - all can be done well ahead of time. One of my favourite things to serve is simple seasonal fruit: figs and sharon fruit always seem special to me, but just about anything will do. A nice ambrosia is a little different as well (depending on where you are I suppose!) - I like one with just citrus and coconut that I adapted from The Glory of Southern Cooking. And here's a trick for getting over-polite guests to accept a bite of dessert: rather that say, 'so, who wants some pie/figs/ambrosia?' (at which point it seems like all English people are conditioned to respond 'oh, I couldn't possibly, don't put yourself out!), just bring it to the table so that you can serve all casual-like, if they really do want some. Super breezy, like, la la la, no effort here. I think it's also a good idea to keep some good commercial vegan ice cream in the freezer during the holidays - for a scoop alongside something else, or on its own. Who doesn't like ice cream?

Set the table:
Casual doesn't mean sloppy, does it? A pretty table shows you care. A pretty table makes your guests feel looked after.
I swear, a pretty table makes the food taste better. Have water on the table, have wine. 

Don't apologise:
An oldie, but a goodie, care of Julia Child. Don't apologise. Don't apologise for slight errors or omissions in your recipe, don't insult your own efforts, DON'T apologise for making something they may not eat every day. Unless the error requires an EpiPen, I don't think it requires an apology. 

For the record, I'd probably make chilli, cornbread and cobbler like I always do for that surreal, hypothetical visit. President Obama seems like a pretty chill guy. 

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