Party season: hosting the perfect dinner

Party season is a wonderful time to spend time with people you love. After all, what better way to bond than over a casual BBQ with friends or to enjoy a summer Sunday dinner, with loved ones?

For some people the idea of hosting a dinner party sends them into a tailspin. For me it's always been a favourite pastime. From pot luck dinners back in university days to seated banquets for 20, I'm one of those people who loves nothing more than inviting friends over, and planning the dishes I will cook for them.

Although, I once had dozen dinner guests chatting in the living room over a glass of wine while, in the hot kitchen, I hurled prawns into a wok. The rice was overcooked, the pork spareribs undercooked, and the cook frazzled. What mad impulse drove me to decide to cook a last-minute Chinese feast is anyone's guess. Never again. 

Some people plan their dinner parties meticulously, from a perfectly-set table and cortege of wine glasses to delicate between-course palate cleansers. Others make a few salads, toss some prawns on the barbie, and point guests to beer chilling in an ice bucket. My dinner parties are generally somewhere in-between, with a focus on food more than ritzy table settings.

Some friends, to whom hosting a dinner party is somewhere up there with a trip to the dentist, tell me it's the prospect of a huge pile of dishes as they prep and cook that leaves them dismayed at the idea cooking for a crowd. Washing and reusing as many pots and dishes as possible as you go makes a big difference.

My wok-cooked folly aside, I've learnt during more than 35 years of hosting dinner parties that the single most important aspect is planning ahead. You don't want guests to be mingling politely in the living room while you're boning quail with the speed of a MasterChef finalist.

Please guests with an enticing cheese board. Find out how to create a fool-proof cheese platter here

An Italian-inspired dinner party with a rich ragù is a popular dinner party choice. The hearty ragù works with all sorts of meats - chicken, beef, rabbit, pork or duck.

I cooked a duck ragù, slow braised on the bone until meltingly tender, for my step-daughter's 21st birthday dinner, which was a big hit with the young diners. Prepared the previous day and allowed to wallow in its rich sauce overnight made last-minute preparations easy: make garlic bread and salads, heat ragù, cook pappardelle and you're set to go.

With the duck ragù, as with many dishes, I tend to prefer to serve dishes at table rather than plating up – you can't get a better centrepiece than, say, a steaming pot of coq au vin, a bowl of new chat potatoes, a medley of vegetables, and let guests help themselves.

Seafood pies a la individual ramekins are another dinner party favourite, either as an entree or main course. These can be prepared during the day, topped with mashed potatoes or puff pastry just prior to cooking, and in the oven they go.

Soups can be made ahead and simply heated – from a sensational asparagus soup topped with sautéed scallops just before serving, from chef Luke Mangan's excellent cookbook At Home and in the Mood – to winter favourites such a thick and flavourful minestrone, and simple summery offerings like gazpacho or chilled cucumber and dill soup with smoked trout.

I've found it's wise to keep entrees simple – there's nothing worse than slaving over a hissing frypan when you'd rather be sipping a wine and chatting with guests. Dishes such as prawns or lobster tail (or both) with crunchy lettuce, citrus mayo and avocado are easy yet so indulgent, as are cheaper options such as leeks vinaigrette.

It stands without saying that curries make a good dinner party choice - that is if your guests are fond of spicy food, as they can be cooked ahead, leaving ample time for preparing accompaniments.

Serve with home-made chappatis or crispy pappadums (or both), saffron rice cooked and happily warming in the rice cooker, and accompaniments such as cucumber raita (cucumber and yoghurt salad), tomato and onion salad and mango chutney.

Indulgent desserts can be made ahead and simply dressed or garnished just before serving. It's difficult to go wrong with a good old Pavlova, or Pavlova roulade, dressed with cream and fresh strawberries, raspberries and blueberries just before serving, or a simple yet delicious citrus tart.

Why not make this cheesecake with raspberry compote in under 20 minutes! Get the recipe here

Velvety individual chocolate mousses can be simply pulled from the fridge, as can equally impressive strawberry mousse, panna cotta, cheesecakes and creamy tiramisu. In cooler weather, fruity crumbles of apple, rhubarb, and pear – whatever combination you fancy – can be pre-prepared and ready to bake.

Dinner party tips

  • Don't plan to cook something you've never made before
  • Beware of treating friends or colleagues like guinea pigs
  • Plan ahead – choose dishes you can make ahead, or something that cooks for a long time in the oven, and avoid dishes that have to be stir-fried, seared or sauteed at the last minute
  • Serve platters bearing dips, cheese, crudités and the like with pre-dinner drinks
  • Make to-do lists several days before the dinner party
  • Check if guests have any food allergies
  • Set the mood with candles and laid-back music, not too loud
  • Consider that most people tend to prefer a dinner party that is a bit more casual and relaxed

What's your winning dish for a dinner party?