FOR THE GOOD OF THE PARTY

When Caroline Waldegrave gives a dinner, she keeps

politicians to a minimum. A mix of guests is best

and trouble-free food is what matters most, she tells

Michael Bateman in our series on entertaining styles

AS THE Conservative Party conference ends in Blackpool, the wife of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, William Waldegrave, shares her thoughts on preparing an easy dinner for 12. (For 12? Easy? Are you mad?)

But it's no big deal for Caroline Waldegrave. A year ago, she bought Leith's School of Food and Wine (where she had been joint principal), and this year, with her partner Christopher Bland, she bought Leith's, the Michelin-starred restaurant in Notting Hill Gate, west London. How the food shapes up there remains to be seen, but she certainly has improved the decor.

Given all this, you'd expect Caroline Walde-grave to know a thing or two about organising a meal - though it doesn't necessarily follow. Perhaps she just plans the meal and tells the cook to get on with it, I suggest, or drafts in students from the school. In the Waldegrave home, there's bound to be a support system smoothing the way - a nanny, for a start, distracting her four children and leaving her free to concentrate on the chopping board.

She waits until I've finished. No. William and she are working people, not the aristocracy. She's a working woman all right, with the school, the restaurant, writing cookery books, four children, the husband and the politics, not to mention commuting between two homes. The second is in her husband's constituency in the West Country, and near to her brother- in-law Lord Waldegrave, famous for... (you thought I was going to say famous for a public row with his wife, Mary, but come on, these are the food pages)... famous for his Chevron Mature Cheddar, which won a gold medal in its class and the Best Cheddar Prize at the British Cheese Awards last month.

When she organises a dinner, Caroline insists, her husband is her only help. "There is no cook, no assistance, not even a nanny. We're trying to save the pennies." (In order to blow them on dinner for 12?)

And I suppose the Minister lays the table? Yes. "He organises the dining room and lays the table with candles (we always eat by candlelight), glasses, cutlery. He's extremely fussy. He even places the knives and forks two centi-metres from the edge of the table to make it easier to pick them up. It looks lovely. If we ever retired and opened a restaurant he would be very good at front of house."

They don't do a dinner at all unless he's going to be back in time to help, she says. She is chief cook, he chief bottle-washer. "William is very good at washing-up," says Mrs Waldegrave. "He's very well trained."

Even so, are we really to believe the apparently elaborate meal she has devised here for 12 can conceivably be done without breaking into a sweat? Prove it, Mrs Waldegrave.

Guide's honour. Shopping apart (a one-shop visit to any good supermarket), it will take no more than two hours' preparation the night before. On the day, 20 minutes at around 7pm. Then 10 minutes for the first course while the guests sit down at around 9pm. A 15-minute absence to cook the main course is the only serious effort all evening, and that's no grief. The dessert has already been made. And that only leaves the coffees, decaffs and tisanes.

We'll see. But first, who is she going to invite? A lot of, um, interesting politicians, perhaps? Certainly. The Pattens, John and Louise, and when he's in town Hong Kong Governor Chris; Tristan Garel-Jones; Richard and Caroline Ryder; Alastair and Cecilia Goodlad. Non-politicians, too, from novelist Patrick O'Brien to Chairman of the BBC governors Duke Hussey (he's William's brother-in-law).

But she only asks one political couple at a time. Any more and they start talking shop. "When we were first married we used to have regular dinners for The Blue Chip Club, a group of Tory MPs talking politics. I used to leave them to it and nip off to play tennis."

The secret of a good dinner party is mix and match, she says. If in doubt she looks up a dinner book she has kept for nearly 20 years (since she married), showing who has been invited and what they ate. There will be some of William's friends, some of hers, some mutual, and usually some family (William has five sisters).

Caroline Waldegrave's notions of entertaining have been built on a rock- like foundation. Not only has she been running the country's most famous cookery school, she has penned more than a dozen books, including Leith's Cookery Bible, which has sold no fewer than 100,000 copies.

Her first book was written in 1986 and signalled a Pauline conversion in her own thinking about food. The Coronary Prevention Group wanted to sponsor a cookery book that responded to the unhealthy eating patterns blamed for the high rate of heart disease in the UK. Cut back fats, eat more fibre, etc. They first approached Prue Leith. "I don't think Prue believes good eating and Calvinism go together. She referred them to me. I knew nothing about the subject, but I went to see them and was quickly convinced by their arguments." Her first book, The Healthy Gourmet, was the result.

She soon became a mouthpiece for the cause, co-opted to the Health Education Authority, roped into every healthy-food event (down to tasting low-calorie salad dressings). She was elected chairman of the Guild of Food Writers, and ran a successful campaign (with Claudia Roden) to provide healthier food in hospitals.

The question must be asked. Does she lay her healthy message on guests? Not at all. Healthy food doesn't mean bran, grated raw carrots and brown rice. "You needn't be a crank to be healthy," she says. "What could be jollier than a meal of smoked salmon followed by roast grouse, followed by strawberries, washed down with Champagne?"

Most of her dinner parties begin with a souffle. Novice cooks need not be anxious, she says. You can make the first stage a week in advance, freeze the mixture in suitable dishes, and bake it straight from the deep- freeze, allowing time-and-a-half: ie, if the instructions say bake in a preheated oven for 15 minutes, then bake it for 2212 minutes.

Recipes for the dishes on the menu tonight, one of her favourites, appear in her new book, Leith's Easy Dinners, co-written with Puff Fair-clough and Janey Orr (Bloomsbury, pounds 18 99).

COUNTDOWN

D (for dinner) Day Minus Two: One-stop-shop in a good supermarket (where you should be able to get everything on the menu, including pigeon breasts). A way of short-cut shopping in the London area is to make out a list in bed and fax it the next morning to Food Ferry, 0171-498 0827, who'll deliver by the evening. ("It's not cheap but it's very good quality.")

D Day Minus One (evening): Put the children to bed, retire to the kitchen and complete the first stage of each of the three recipes below.

D Day: Home by 5 pm. Feed children.

7 pm: Take pre-cooked souffles out of the fridge. Place all 12 in an oven dish. Put sauce in a saucepan. Answer phone. Get out wok, put oil in it. Get out large frying pan, put oil in it. Answer door to person selling ironing-board covers. Peel and core pineapple and add to fruit salad. Strain over the caramel sauce and return to the fridge.

7.20pm: Retire to bathe and change. Husband lays the table and arranges the dining room; brings drink to bath-side.

8pm: Sort out drinks, including plenty of water and juices.

8.30pm: First guests arrive - on time. Cham-pagne. Nibbles.

9.10pm: Apologetic late guests. Put souffles in preheated oven. In the 10 minutes they take to cook, gently direct guests into dining room.

9.30 or so: Hostess retires to fry the pigeon breasts (only five minutes - they should be slightly pink) in two frying pans and stir-fry the salad of cracked wheat in the wok.

Later: Serve fruit salad. Afterwards, serve coffee and tisanes at the table. Not much in way of spirits offered or requested. People don't drink themselves silly these days.

11pm to midnight: Most people on way home.

GOAT'S CHEESE SOUFFLS WITH WALNUT AND PARSLEY SAUCE

Serves 6

290ml/12 pint milk

a slice of onion

45g/112 oz butter

45g/112 oz plain flour

110g/4oz soft goat's cheese, grated

a pinch of chopped thyme

3 eggs, separated

salt and freshly ground white pepper

The night before: Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4.

Heat the milk slowly with the onion in a saucepan. Remove from the heat and leave to infuse for 15 minutes, then strain.

Melt the butter and use a little of it to brush six ramekins or individual souffle dishes.

Stir the flour into the remaining butter in a saucepan. Cook, stirring for 45 seconds. Take off the heat and gradually blend in the milk, whisking until smooth.

Return to the heat and stir until the sauce boils and thickens. Remove from the heat, add the cheese, thyme and egg yolks and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Whisk the egg whites until stiff but not dry and mix a spoonful into the mixture, to loosen. Fold in the remaining egg white.

Spoon into the ramekins or souffle dishes until they are two-thirds full.

Place ramekins in a roasting tin and pour in enough boiling water to come half way up the sides. Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes or until set. Remove and allow to sink and cool, Then store in the fridge until needed.

Make the walnut and parsley sauce.

WALNUT AND PARSLEY SAUCE

30g/1oz walnuts

1 bunch of parsley, roughly chopped

1 clove of garlic, peeled

290ml/12 pint single cream

30g/loz Parmesan cheese, freshly grated

salt and freshly ground pepper

Put the walnuts, parsley and garlic into a food processor and process until finely chopped. Add the cream and Parmesan cheese and process again briefly. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

On the night: Set the oven temperature at 200C/435F/gas mark 7 and take the souffles out of the fridge. Run a knife around the souffles to loosen them. Turn them out into a shallow oven-proof dish. Warm the walnut and parsley sauce over a low heat and pour around the souffles. Put into the oven for 10 minutes or until the tops are puffed up and golden. Give the souffles a shake. If they wobble, bake for five minutes more. Serve immediately.

WARM PIGEON BREAST AND CRACKED WHEAT SALAD

Serves 6

12 pigeon breasts, skinned

170g/6oz cracked wheat or bulgar

3 tablespoons sesame oil

12 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped

25cm/1in piece of fresh root ginger, peeled and grated

110g/4oz shiitake mushrooms, sliced

110g/4oz Parma ham, sliced

140g/5oz plum jam

5 spring onions, sliced on the diagonal

55g/2oz sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained and sliced

salt and freshly ground black pepper

lemon juice

30g/1oz pine nuts, toasted

12 cucumber, deseeded and finely chopped

2 tablespoons oil

For the marinade:

2 tablespoons Chinese five-spice powder

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

To garnish:

2 tablespoons snipped chives

The night before: Mix together the marinade ingredients and coat the pigeon breasts on both sides. Put into a shallow dish, cover and leave to marinate for at least 30 minutes or overnight in the refrigerator.

Put the cracked wheat or bulgar into a bowl and cover with cold water. Leave to stand for 15 minutes. Drain thoroughly, squeeze out any remaining water and spread out to dry on absorbent paper.

On the night: Heat the sesame oil in a wok or large frying pan, add the chilli, ginger, mushrooms and Parma ham and stir-fry over a high heat for two to three minutes. Add the jam, spring onions and sun-dried tomatoes and bring to the boil. Add the cracked wheat and season to taste with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Heat thoroughly and stir in the pine nuts and cucumber. Keep warm.

Heat the oil in a frying pan, add the pigeon breasts in batches and fry for three minutes. Turn and cook for two further minutes until browned but pink inside.

To serve, place two pigeon breasts on each of six individual plates and spoon a portion of the cracked wheat salad beside each serving. Sprinkle with chives.

CITRUS FRUIT COMPOTE WITH SPICED CARAMEL

Serves 6

3 large oranges

1 pink grapefruit

6 kumquats

1 small pineapple

For the spiced caramel:

225g/8oz granulated sugar

290ml/12 pint water

2 bay leaves

2 star anise

1 cinnamon stick

1 tablespoon coriander seeds, crushed

1 strip of lemon zest

2.5cm/1in piece of fresh root ginger, peeled and roughly chopped

The night before: To make the spiced caramel, put the sugar and half the water into a heavy-bottomed saucepan and dissolve the sugar slowly, without boiling. When the sugar has dissolved, turn up the heat and boil until the melted sugar is a dark caramel colour.

Remove from the heat immediately and pour in the remaining water, taking care as mixture can spit. Add remaining caramel ingredients to the pan and leave to cool, preferably overnight.

Peel oranges and grapefruit, removing all pith, and segment. Slice kumquats very thinly.

On the night: Peel and core the pineapple and cut it into chunks. Put all the fruit into a serving bowl, then strain over the spiced caramel. Chill well before serving. !

CAROLINE WALDEGRAVE'S DINNER-PARTY MENU

MINIATURE PUFF PASTRY SHELLS (CAN BE BOUGHT) FILLED WITH PIPED MASCARPONE TOPPED WITH SALMON EGGS

GOAT'S CHEESE SOUFFLS WITH WALNUT AND PARSLEY SAUCE

WARM PIGEON BREAST AND CRACKED WHEAT SALAD

CITRUS FRUIT COMPOTE WITH SPICED CARAMEL

TO DRINK: Before dinner: Champagne; with first course: Brouilly (a fruity Beaujolais); with main course and dessert (and even first course): Alsace Gewurztraminer

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