Donal Skehan: 'A modern take on the dinner party'

Does anyone really ‘entertain’ anymore? It feels like a phrase from a bygone era, a world of white tablecloths and silverware.

For me, it conjures up visions of 1950s housewuves feverishly attempting to follow Fanny Cradock’s instructions on how to truss a chicken while laying the perfect tablescape, ultimately ending up in an anxiety-induced heap.

Entertaining also implies that you have to go to more effort than you typically would to get food to the table with friends. At its core, that’s what it’s all really about, sitting down to a full table with something you’re excited to eat with people you want to spend time with. Maybe there are one or two old-fashioned traditions that can be added to the mix, like having a signature cocktail you can make in your sleep (mine’s a whiskey sour) or playing old records on a vintage player you picked up at some flea market (hipsters, this is your time to shine).

Whatever your version of modern entertaining may be, cooking for a crowd (ie more than your immediate family) should be a pleasure rather than a chore and only you can decide if that will be the case. I speak from experience on this matter. Through my twenties, as my wife can not-so-happily attest to, I would have kitchen meltdowns just before the doorbell rang over an overly complicated, overachieving menu that included recipes I was excited to try but hadn’t perfected. As Sofie lit candles and put on mood music, I would be swearing into a pot or attempting to coax some complex dessert out of a cake tin.

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Nowadays, it’s a much more relaxed affair: one big pot brought to the table, some nicely dressed green leaves, maybe some roast veggies, a punchy sauce if needed – and then enjoy that glass of wine…

One Big Pot Chicken Tagine

Cook time 60 mins plus soaking and marinating 

Serves 4

Now, this is a recipe that will have your house smelling heavenly for hungry guests! A simplified take on a chicken tagine, filled with little plump jewels in the form of apricots and raisins.

Ingredients

8-10 free-range chicken thighs, boned, skinned and sliced into bite-size pieces

2 tsp paprika

½ tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp ground turmeric

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground ginger

100g dried apricots, sliced

50g raisins

500ml hot chicken stock

1 tbsp rapeseed oil

2 large onions, finely sliced

6 garlic cloves, finely chopped

Pinch of saffron, soaked in a splash of hot water

2 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes

1 tbsp tomato purée

1 tbsp honey

Sea salt and black pepper

For the couscous:

250g couscous

A few fresh mint sprigs, chopped

Juice and grated zest of 1 lemon

To serve:

50g flaked almonds, toasted

Handful of fresh coriander, chopped

Method

1. In a bowl, toss the chicken with the spices, cover with cling film and chill for at least 1 hour, or overnight. Meanwhile, soak the apricots and raisins in a little of the hot stock and set aside for 1 hour.

2. Heat the oil in a large, deep-sided frying pan over a high heat. Add the chicken in 2 batches and brown all over. Remove from the pan using a slotted spoon and set aside on a plate lined with kitchen paper. You should be left with a rich, golden oil in the pan, but add extra oil if required.

3. Fry the onions over a medium heat for 4-6 minutes until soft, stirring through the garlic for the last minute. Add the saffron along with its water, and the tomatoes, tomato purée, honey, fruit and its soaking liquid. Pour in the remaining chicken stock and bring to a simmer. Cook for 10 minutes, then season with sea salt and ground black pepper.

4. Return the chicken pieces to the pan and carefully stir through. Simmer, partly covered, for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is cooked and the sauce is thickened.

5. Put the couscous in a heatproof bowl and cover with 250ml boiling water. Cover the bowl with cling film or a clean tea towel and leave for about 5 minutes until all the water has been absorbed and the couscous appears plump. Use a fork to fluff up the couscous, then mix in the mint, lemon juice and most of the zest. Season with sea salt and black pepper.

6. Serve the chicken tagine on top of a generous helping of couscous, with toasted flaked almonds, chopped fresh coriander and the remaining lemon zest scattered over.

Honey & Balsamic Halloumi Platter with Toasted Nuts

Halloumi

 

Cook time 10 mins

Serves 4

A simple little starter that can be prepared in minutes.

Ingredients

4 tbsp olive oil

2 x 250g halloumi cheese, thickly sliced

4 tbsp balsamic vinegar

3 tbsp honey

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

25g pine nuts, toasted

Small handful of parsley, chopped

Method

1. Place a non-stick frying pan over a medium heat. In the oil, fry the halloumi for 1-2 minutes on each side until golden brown, frying in batches if the pan isn’t big enough to fit them all in at once. Return all the halloumi back to the pan if you do so.

2. Add the balsamic vinegar and the honey to the pan, allowing them to coat the cheese and become sticky. Season to taste.

3. Serve straight away to the table, sprinkled with the pine nuts and parsley, alongside the harissa hummus and pittas.

Harissa Hummus & Toasted Spiced Seeds with Stacks of Pitta 

Hummus

 

Cook time 10 mins

Serves 4

Using a good-quality pitta bread will make all the difference here, so don’t skimp on that end. Toasting your seeds will bring out their flavour.

Ingredients

For the hummus:

1 x 400g tin of chickpeas

1 garlic clove

1 tbsp harissa

Juice of ½ lemon

2 tbsp tahini

½ tsp ground cumin

50ml water

Sea salt

To serve:

4 pittas

2 tsp cumin seeds

2 tsp fennel seeds

100ml olive oil

25g sunflower seeds, toasted

Small handful of parsley, roughly chopped

Method

1. Blend together all the ingredients for the hummus in a food processor until smooth. Scrape down the sides to ensure everything is blended, and blitz again briefly. Add a little extra water if you’d like a thinner consistency. Season well.

2. Heat a flame to high and toast the pittas briefly to char each side.

3. Heat a large pan over a medium heat. Add the cumin and fennel seeds and toast until fragrant. Pour in the oil and swirl to flavour it with the spices.

4. Brush a little oil over the pittas. Add the hummus to a serving bowl. Make a well in the centre and add the remaining oil. Sprinkle with sunflower seeds and parsley. Serve with pittas.

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