The conversation bit of a proper dinner party fills me with dread: ‘Compare and contrast the Egyptian and Libyan revolutions – start NOW!’ So I displace the anxiety about what to say onto what to cook, fussing and flapping for days on end before the big event.
My Jewish friends came recently, and they observe the meat and milk prohibition. I decided that if I chose the meat and lost the dairy, I was throwing away my key cooking skills - buttering bread, grating cheese on top of everything - in favour of the scary stuff (roasting meat (Raw! Tough!), cooking vegetables (‘Mmmm – they’re so...crisp!’).
But if I kept the dairy, I’d have to do fish. And what with Alan not being partial (er! Bones, picky-pick!) I only know how to cook fish pie and I did that last time...They might think it was the only thing I could cook (true) or that I thought it was so brilliant I just had to do it again (oh no), or worse still that I had forgotten I did it last time (embarrassing, Christ) . But there was no way I could make conversation and fry a fillet or steam a sprat at the same time (SERVE IMMEDIATELY!)...it had to be fish pie again; the only alternative was vegetarian and you know people are disappointed when you do that because they keep saying ‘I love vegetarian food!’
During the week, I tried a number of horrendous practice dishes. First, vegetarian Croque Monsieur, which sounded Parisien and chic for a starter, but was a Croque of Shit for my purposes as it was basically a vast cheese and tomato sandwich, and you don’t want to dump that in front of your guests when you’ve bothered with the candles and put a blouse on.
Next starter idea was a posh mushroom tart. I strode into Waitrose like a big shot and flashed around the porcini dried mushrooms which I soaked, squeezed and cooked very, very, slowly, popped into a homemade parmesan pastry and served to Alan who took one bite and covered it with ketchup, so that was a no vote.
I tried a new fish pie which looked glorious in a pastry crust, but by the time I’d served it, was fit for the slops pot; oh and the famous ‘foaming Hollandaise’ which turned to scrambles in the time it took to forget you were in the middle of cooking a foaming Hollandaise.
I was relying on my sticky toffee pudding – lovely old fashioned comfort food, I thought. But I should have accepted it had taken a turn for the worse when the smoke alarms were going at full throttle. Instead, I stubbornly set the electric carving knife to ‘bone’, and sawed Alan a portion of the black brick, ignoring his panicky ‘just a tiny bit for me!’ After a decent effort though, I agreed his new caps were at risk, and let him off.
My last try was home-made mayonnaise. Nigella said ‘Never rush an emulsion. Silly I know’ (giggle, giggle) ‘but I like to beat the glossy wodge by hand (!) just as my mother did’. ‘Piss off’ I thought, grabbing the electric mixer ‘I bet you’re not doubling as the buffer for your childrens’ indoor roller-blading track at the same time’. I curdled the mayonnaise (rushed it, tut, tut) and had to do it twice.
The day before the dinner party, I had a bowl of mayonnaise and a head buried in the sand. I was sort of bored with the whole thing, so I put my trust in fate; I fanned through a cookery book and jabbed my hand in at random. Whatever recipe I turned up, that was what I had to cook.
Absolved of all responsibility, I had a ball! It was like performing a delightful scientific experiment. While my guests chatted their way through Bahrain and Barclays, I seared tuna, kneaded gnocchi, and bubbled sauces galore. I’m going to do it that way next time.