FOOD & DRINK: A SINGULAR SUCCESS

Late leaving work, the roads jammed, no help at home and the guests due in two hour? For our series on party planning Michael Bateman solicits expert advice
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The Independent Culture
YOUR GUESTS arrive for dinner an hour early. Or an hour late. Very real problems for the host and hostess, but they are magnified by 10 when you're a Single Hostess (or Host) Entertaining Friends (SHEF for short).

The SHEF may well be at work during the day, and not have sufficient time to get the meal ready. There's no one to help take the strain, lay the table, do emergency shopping when something's been forgotten, or even greet the guests.

For the SHEF the fine-tuning is essential. Even the phone ringing at a critical moment can spell disaster. For the SHEF everyday molehills can be mountains. Not to mention the obstacle course of getting home after 6.30 pm and struggling to provide for guests who are coming at 8pm.

If you are not to spend more time in the kitchen than with your guests, wouldn't it be best to buy the lot at M&S and strobe it in the microwave?

But there are amazing SHEFs who manage to prepare a meal, lay the table, get themselves ready, and still have time to enjoy their own dinner. Hilaire Walden is such a one.

She lives on her own with a Jack Russell terrier (she is divorced) and takes it all in her stride, in spite of certain disadvantages of living in a remote hamlet beyond Sixpenny Handley, a village on the Wiltshire- Dorset border, where the nearest supermarket is some 13 miles distant.

On the other hand, she does have a special advantage in having written three books for the publisher Piatkus in their series on Quick After-Work Cooking and is writing a fourth, Quick After-Work Dinner Parties.

In this capacity she has built up a fail-safe strategy of entertaining. The SHEF who keeps a cool head need have nothing to fear, as long as they are not over-ambitious, she affirms..

"I went to a delicious dinner the other week," confides Hilaire. "The hostess cooked salmon in filo pastry with buerre blanc for 10. It was wonderful, but it is very difficult to pull off and all you really manage to do is put yourself under extreme pressure."

Attempts to impress the guests wildly are out of place; your aim should be a comfortable social even-ing. Loyd Grossman might audition you for Masterchef, but you'd be so busy in the kitchen you'd never get to share his fascinating insights into TV. (Actually, he's introducing a range of pasta sauces designed for people like himself who never have time to cook. A lesson there, surely?)

SHEFs should put out of their minds anything they've seen on Masterchef, or indeed any multi-stage chef's recipes with over 20 ingredients, most of them them unobtainable in Sixpenny Handley. Forget anything that needs lengthy attention, like a risotto, or split-second timing, such as a souffle, or a butttery sauce that can split. By the same token, the SHEF will ignore recipes which use lots of pots and pans. In fact, it's a good idea to start by matching courses to your equipment, your stove and grill. It should go without saying that this is not the occasion to experiment; anxiety apart, valuable time will be lost as you frequently consult your recipe source.

Simplicity must be the keynote, and Hilaire suggests the first stage is to build the shape of the meal around a simple main course.

Chicken breasts offer dozens of options. They can be stuffed under the skin with a soft cheese (ricotta, mascarpone or goat's cheese) and mixed with olivey tapenade (or anchoiade or sun-dried tomato paste or black olive paste) and herbs and baked in the oven; or wrapped in spinach leaves and then parma ham and baked or poached on top of the oven; they can be marinated over-night or all day, or even for half an hour in oil and lemon and herbs, and finished very quickly.

A favourite dish is marinated chicken breasts baked en papillote. The breasts can be marinated the night before and left in the fridge, or done in the morning before you leave for work. In the evening, remove them from the fridge and let them return to room temperature.

Seal each breast in baking paper or foil, lay on a baking sheet, and bang them into a pre-heated oven for 20- 25 minutes while you get on with something else. If the chicken breasts finish cooking be-fore the guests are ready, they needn't spoil if left in the oven with the heat off and the door ajar. "I don't un-wrap them elaborately at table so guests can go ooh and aah, I think that's affected."

Grilled lamb cutlets or beef steak are other easy options, a choice to minimise time at the stove. Today Hilaire has decided on lamb - lamb is very adaptable.

Planning your shopping is essential. Good bread, good cheese and seasonal fruit are the important planks on which an easy meal should be built. It is not a time to set yourself the challenge of cooking difficult vegetables. Modest portions of steamed green beans and baby carrots that keep warm in the steamer with the heat off are both tasty and colourful. Don't attempt perfect courgettes or broccoli, they sulk (and go watery) if they are made to wait.

With the veg Hilaire usually offers new potatoes. They virtually announce themselves when they are done and, lifted out of the water into a warm bowl, retain their heat when covered with a folded tea towel. In her experience pasta is not appropriate for a SHEF's dinner since it requires precise timing if it's not to spoil. The same goes for rice.

So three of her four rings are being used (who's counting?). One each for the potatoes, the carrots, the beans? No. She uses a free-standing electric steamer with two tiers, cooking the veg in the top, the potatoes in the bottom. This leaves the stove top free to cook a peperonata with the lamb: quickly fried peppers, tomatoes and onions. You can keep them warm with the lid on when they're done and reheat them later.

The first course will be as soup. Soup, soup, bootiful soup is the friend of every hard-pressed SHEF. It can be prepared the night before, left to cool, and then warmed through and pureed in a blender just before serving; it's open to infinite variations of flavour and texture, with a last minute garnish of herbs to finish it.

For the no-cook SHEF it's even easier to do a salady first course, "My favourite is raw fennel, thinly sliced, tossed in a lemony dressing, with gorgonzola or ricotto."

Dessert. In spite of the French housewife's reputation as a cook, the French SHEF will be the last to make extra work for herself, says Hilaire, and is likely to buy in a first course from a traiteur or pastry from a patisserie for dessert.

"Unfortunately, you can't buy pastries of that quality here," she says. "I may make a tart the night before. Or ice cream. Or I might just serve fresh fruit after the cheese."

Today she is serving a gratin of fruit salad, utilising the hot grill on which has cooked the lamb cutlets (she leaves it on a low heat after grilling to keep it hot). She mixes summer fruits or chopped-up stoned fruits - peaches, nectarines, plums - covers them with mascapone cheese, sprinkles them with brown sugar, and turns the grill to its highest. The sugar caramelises, and it's done. "Everyone is relaxed now, they they've had some wine, they're talking away, so they don't notice if you slip away for five minutes in the kitchen."

She makes it sound so easy but, following her strategy, culinary disasters simply don't occur. She is not, however, immune to those of other sorts.

Waiting one day for a guest to arrive she decided to adjust the central heating. "I tried to let out some of the air in the radiator and turned the valve too far. Hot water shot out in a jet. For 15 minutes I tried to stem the water. The kitchen and hall were flooded. I was drenched with hot water. My hair was dripping. My feet were wet. Then the doorbell rang. My friend calmly walked in, paddled through the hall to the kitchen and turned off the water pump."

COUNTDOWN

Two days before dinner: Decide menu. Go shopping. Adjust menu if ingredients not available or not very good. Bullet-hard avocados are never going to be ready in time.

The night before: Cook the potato soup (the watercress is added at the last minute). Lay the table.

On the day: Before leaving for work, put the lamb chops to marinate in the fridge.

Arriving home, 6pm: Prepare potatoes, peppers, onions, fruit. Sort out cheese, bread, wine, water. Have a bath. Dress.

7.40 pm: Put on potatoes and veg to steam, and the peperonata to cook.

8pm: Guests arrive. Serve dry Oloroso sherry or wine (she doesn't offer heavy alternatives). Asks one of the guests to open the wine.

As the dinner progresses: Put on grill. Start warming the soup. Serve soup and put the cutlets to grill. Serve cutlets, peperonata, and vegetables. Serve the cheese. Grill the gratin of summer fruits and serve. Serve tisanes and coffees as required. Sorry, no whiskies, brandies or liqueurs.

About 11.30pm: Juniper, Hilaire's dog, feels that conversation is flagging and moves to the bottom of the stairs to indicate that it is bedtime. Good heavens, is that the time? Well, it's been a lovely evening.

WATERCRESS SOUP

For a creamier soup, milk can be substituted for half the stock; or 2 egg yolks blended with 2-3 spoonfuls creme fraiche or cream can be stirred into the soup after pureeing, heated gently and stirred until thickened. I like to stir a dollop of soft cheese into each bowl of soup; a small nub of butter, or a swirl of cream or thick plain yoghurt can be added if preferred.

Serves 4

25g/1oz unsalted butter

2 onions, chopped

225g/12lb old potatoes, chopped

875ml/1/12 pints vegetable or chicken stock, or water

2 bunches watercress, about 225g/12lb

salt and freshly ground black pepper

croutons (little squares of fried bread, optional)

chopped chives (optional)

Heat the butter in a saucepan, add the onions and potatoes and stir for about two minutes to coat well with butter. Add the stock or water, and bring to the boil. Then simmer, uncovered, for about 15 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces of potato, until tender. Meanwhile, remove the tough stalks from the watercress.; stir the sprigs into the soup and simmer for one minute.

Very briefly puree the soup in a food processor or blender, then pour back into the pan and reheat. Season, and adjust the thickness if necessary by adding a little boiling stock or water. Serve garnished with croutons and chopped chives, if liked.

LAMB WITH QUICK PEPERONATA

Peperonata, also spelled peberonata, is sometimes referred to as the Italian version of French ratatouille, but peperonata does not contain courgettes or aubergines, just tomatoes, onions and peppers. In the traditional recipe, the vegetables are cooked slowly until they are softened and meld together, but here they are cooked quickly so they retain their shape. You can replace some of the red and/or yellow peppers with green if you like. Also goes well with grilled beef steaks or pork chops or steaks.

Serves 4

1 tablespoon olive oil, plus extra for brushing

1 small onion, quite finely chopped

1 clove garlic, chopped

1 red pepper

1 yellow pepper

1 well-flavoured tomato

a pinch of chopped rosemary

115ml/4fl oz vegetable stock

1 teaspoon sun-dried tomato paste

4 lamb steaks, each weighing 175-225g/6-8oz

salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the grill. Heat the oil in a frying pan, add the onion and garlic and cook until they are soft and transparent; do not allow them to colour.

Meanwhile, chop the peppers and seed and chop the tomatoes.

Add the peppers to the pan containing the onion and cook for about one minute. Stir in the tomato and rosemary. After a few seconds add the stock and tomato paste. Boil until the peppers have softened but still retain some bite.

While the peperonata is cooking, season one side of each lamb steak with pepper and brush with olive oil. Grill the lamb for about four minutes, depending on thickness, until brown and cooked to your liking. Season the second side of each steak and brush with oil when turning the lamb over.

Season the peperonata and serve with the lamb.

GLAZED MASCARPONE ON SUMMER BERRIES

With its luscious topping of crisp-crusted, velvety mascarpone cheese over fragrant, fresh raspberries, this dessert makes a fitting end to a special meal. Sun-ripened strawberries or plump blackberries can be used instead of, or with, raspberries.

Serves 4

250g/9oz fresh raspberries

200g/7oz mascarpone cheese

about 75g/3oz caster sugar

Preheat the grill to very hot.

Put the raspberries in a heatproof dish and spoon the mascarpone cheese over the top. Sprinkle with the sugar and grill for two to three minutes until the sugar has caramelised.

! Soup from 'The Quick After-Work French Cookbook' (Piatkus, pounds 12.99); the other two recipes from 'The Quick After-Work Italian Cookbook' (published next month by Piatkus, pounds 12 99).

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