The last thing you need at this time of year is sweat and tears in the kitchen. Mark Hix cooks up a treat for friends.

Well, the year is almost at an end and I've been invited to just three dinner parties in people's houses, one of whom was a highly respected food critic. Poor me, I just don't get invited out for dinner very much - I think people are terrified that I'm going to criticise their grub. And that's not what dinner parties are about. Having a good dinner with friends is all about getting a nice bunch of people together, having a good laugh and drinking some good wine. It's the food that gets people jittery and causes panic attacks. But dinner parties aren't for showing off your culinary skills - unless, of course, you've got something to prove.

Simplicity is the key, and so is thinking about how you can spend as much time with your dinner guests as possible. Not making too much mess and smoke in the kitchen is also critical.

The problem that most people run into is trying to get the meal all finished off, and hot, at the last minute. But even the best of chefs can't always manage that - and that's why we have many elements of a dish prepped, blanched, sealed or just ready to go. If we did everything at the last minute in restaurants, even with a brigade of chefs, we'd have a lot of irate customers.

It's not really about short cuts and cheats; but more about careful organisation and preparation. Here's a classic wintry dinner party menu that won't cost too much heat and friction in the kitchen.

Scallops with bacon and Jerusalem artichokes

Serves 8

If you can get your hands on large, dived scallops then they will be perfect for this dish as you can serve a single scallop per person. Most fishmongers should be able to get their hands on large king scallops. If not, serve three small ones per person. My mate Darren f Brown (who can be found at Shellseekers at Borough Market) dives for scallops along the Dorset and Devon coast, which is by far the most sustainable source of fishing for them (dredgers will disagree, as dredging represents their livelihood, but towing a heavy-weighted trawler net behind the boats causes damage to the sea bed and could be detrimental to the dredgers' future fishing).

8 large scallops in the half shell, cleaned
A little olive oil for frying
300g Jerusalem artichokes, peeled
3 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
100g thick sliced streaky bacon or pancetta
100g butter
1tbsp chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Some seaweed if available, plunged into boiling water for 2 minutes, then refreshed in cold water

Cook the artichokes in boiling salted water for 10-12 minutes or until tender, then drain and blend to a coarse purée in a food processor or liquidiser. Transfer to a pan, add a knob of butter and season to taste.

This can be done well in advance (even the day before) and just kept in the fridge.

Gently cook the shallots, garlic and bacon in a little of the butter for 2-3 minutes until soft, then remove from the heat and leave to cool. This again can be done in advance and simply re-heated when ready to serve with the rest of the butter and parsley.

Remove the scallops from the shell and season. Heat a little olive oil in a heavy-based frying pan until almost smoking and quickly fry the scallops for 10-15 seconds on each side until nicely coloured. Then place them on a small baking tray.

Now I'm really letting you into the tricks of the trade: while your guests are sitting down, you simply pop these in a hot oven which has been pre-heated to 220C/gas mark 7, for 5-7 minutes. While they are cooking you just heat up the Jerusalem artichoke and warm the bacon and shallot mixture, then add to the latter the rest of the butter and parsley and lightly season.

Your scallops can even be sealed in advance and put in the fridge then brought out, say, 20 minutes before you are ready to eat.

To serve, arrange some seaweed on plates, warm the scallop shells for a couple of minutes or so in the oven, then place on the seaweed. Put a spoonful of the warmed Jerusalem artichoke purée in each shell with a scallop on top and the bacon mixture spooned over the scallops. Now that sounds easy, doesn't it?

Roast stuffed chicken

Serves 4-6

This recipe was traditionally made with a capon (a castrated cock) but producing these birds in the UK is now frowned upon, so use a large chicken instead. Ask your butcher to bone out the chicken completely, as it can be a tricky job if you haven't done it before. You will need to order caul fat (or crepinette) as it is rarely used these days. You'll probably need to order it in advance from a specialist butcher.

1 x 1 1/2kg large chicken, boned (save the bones for the stock)
500g minced chicken leg meat (skinned)
100g fresh white breadcrumbs
100g butter
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
1tsp fresh thyme, leaves removed and chopped
A good knob of butter
One fresh or preserved black truffle, finely chopped (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
100g caul fat

For the sauce

A good knob of butter
1 medium onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
1 leek, roughly chopped and washed
Bones from the chicken, chopped into small pieces
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 bay leaf
1 tsp tomato purée
A few sprigs of thyme
2 tbsp plain flour
120 ml red wine
2 litres chicken stock

The sauce can be made the day, or even a couple of days, beforehand and just kept in the fridge. To make the sauce, heat a little vegetable oil in a thick-bottomed frying pan and brown the vegetables and chicken bones, stirring occasionally. Dust with flour and stir well, slowly add the red wine and chicken stock then the thyme, bay leaf, garlic and tomato purée. Bring to the boil, skim and simmer gently for one hour, topping up with some water if necessary. Strain the sauce through a fine meshed sieve, then reduce by boiling rapidly until it has thickened to a gravy-like consistency.

For the stuffing, melt the butter in a pan and gently cook the onions and thyme for a few minutes without colouring. Mix the minced chicken, breadcrumbs, truffle and onion mixture, then season.

Lay the boned chicken flat on a work surface and arrange the stuffing down the centre. Roll the chicken up, overlapping the edges slightly. Lay the caul fat out and roll the stuffed chicken in it a couple of times, trimming any straggly bits. Tie the wrapped chicken with string about four or five times at 6cm spaces. Now wrap the whole thing in clingfilm as tightly as you f can. Place it in a large saucepan, cover with cold water, bring to the boil and simmer for five minutes. Remove from the heat, drain off the hot water and leave to cool. This bit can be done a day or so before your dinner party so that the hard work is out of the way.

Pre-heat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6.

Heat a roasting tray or frying pan, large enough for the chicken, in the oven. Remove the clingfilm and season, add a tablespoon of vegetable oil to the tray and roast the chicken for 30-35 minutes, turning and basting occasionally. You can roast this about 10-15 minutes before you serve your starters so that it has a good 10 minutes to rest before carving.

To serve, heat the sauce and cut the chicken into 1cm thick slices and serve two pieces per portion; you could serve just one thicker slice if you wish. Serve with a little sauce on the plate and offer some extra in a sauceboat.

Creamed Swiss chard

Serves 8

A few weeks ago, I was glad to receive a bunch of freshly picked Swiss chard and Italian black cabbage from the allotment of my neighbours, Judith and Gerard. The long stalky Swiss chard doesn't get used much here and you rarely see it in greengrocers' shops.

1 1/2kg Swiss chard, washed
400ml double cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cut the stalks away from the leaves and cut them into rough batons about 5cm long x 1cm. Cut the leaves down into rough 4-5cm squares. Bring a pan of salted water to the boil and cook the batons for 4-5 minutes, or until tender, and then remove with a slotted spoon and leave to cool. Cook the leaves for 4-5 minutes or until tender then drain and refresh under cold water (this helps to keep their colour) and squeeze out the excess water and mix with the stalks.

Meanwhile, simmer the cream until it has reduced by two-thirds and thickened, and leave to cool. You can mix all the chard and cream together and season it in advance and just re-heat in a saucepan, or in the microwave in your serving dish, when you need to serve it - that way you can get all your pans washed and put back in the cupboard.

Roast onions

Serves 8

These are great wintry vegetables; I often serve them with a roast when I'm short of veg, and everyone has onions in their cupboard, don't they? You can use a mixture of red and white onions, as I have, or just one or the other.

4 large onions (or 2 white and 2 red), cut into 6 wedges with the skin on
3-4tbsp olive oil
A few sprigs of thyme
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 5. Lay the onions in a roasting tray with the cut side up, season, drizzle with olive oil and scatter the thyme over. Cover with foil and bake for 1 hour, adding more olive oil if necessary. Remove the foil and bake for another 30 minutes. These can be baked in advance and heated through while you're on your starters.

Hazelnut and chocolate cake with Mascarpone

Serves 8

For those of you who suffer from wheat allergies, this is a great flourless cake option; Jo, my PA, has been nagging me for months to create a flour-free recipe, so here you go, Jo.

280g ground hazelnuts
90g good quality dark chocolate, chopped
60g cocoa powder
280g unsalted butter, softened
225g caster sugar
4 eggs, beaten
250-300g mascarpone

Pre-heat the oven to 175C/gas mark 4.

Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pan of simmering water, being careful not to get any water in the chocolate, otherwise it will solidify. Then stir in the cocoa powder. Cream the butter and the sugar together with a wooden spoon or in a mixing machine or food processor until light and fluffy. Gradually add the eggs. Then fold in the ground hazelnuts and the chocolate until well mixed. Pour the mixture into a 20cm x 6-7cm deep cake tin with a removable bottom or line the tin with lightly buttered greaseproof paper. Bake for about one hour; check by inserting a skewer or knife and it should come out clean.

Serve warm or at room temperature with a spoonful of mascarpone.

'British Regional Food' by Mark Hix is published by Quadrille, price £25. To order it at a special price, including free p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

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