Matt Preston’s five best tips for hosting a winter dinner party

After many months of self-isolation and not being able to see friends and family, what better way to reconnect than a classic dinner party (in states that allow it, of course)?. And who better to help you plan the finest feast than food critic and former Masterchef judge Matt Preston?

The AU Review spoke with Matt who enlightened us with all the guidance that we needed to sharpen those quintessential dinner party skills and curate a culinary bash to remember.

Planning

No matter who you’re inviting, what you’re serving and how you’re decorating, planning and organising ahead of time is the best way to ensure a successful dinner party.

When it comes to showcasing your culinary skills, the number one thing is to have a few trusted recipes in your back pocket. Matt suggests that you stick with something simple and go with a reliable recipe.

As home delivery meal kits have become more prevalent during this time, Matt has partnered with Marley Spoon and Tanqueray and curated a Winter Dinner Party Box to make the dinner planning process easier.

“Make sure you read the recipe before you start and actually follow it. Trusting the source of the recipe is also valuable and, unless you’re a good cook, don’t substitute anything. Quite frankly if I came around to yours and you served me toast, followed by the Marley spoon mousse, I’d be a happy camper.”

Winter is ideal for roasting and braising. Matt recommends a roast chicken served with potatoes and an old fashioned bread sauce, or a slow-roasted leg of lamb.

As dessert goes, a rich chocolate dessert or a spicy fruit dish is usually best served. A few desserts that Matt proposes are a chocolate mousse, chocolate or citrus self-saucing pudding, slow-roasted apples or his delectable poached pear recipe.

“It sounds cliche but it’s so easy to throw in some spices such as cinnamon, pepper, all spice and make a sweetened wine syrup and poach a pear in that. The pears can be served with custard, cream or ice-cream. Another thing I love to do is take a slice of brie or camembert and put it with the hot pear and the syrup. The cheese acts like a cream which adds a savoury course edge to it.”

Pre-prepare your Menu

Although a progressive three course meal sounds appealing, you don’t want to be left continuously cooking when your guests arrive. Matt explains that pre-preparing a whole lot of food will make it easier so that you can maximise the time you spend with your friends. Whether that’s roasting, slow cooking or braising for your main, schedule enough time beforehand.

“Braising is a beautiful thing. Browning off the meat, adding the liquid and putting it in the oven. Come back 40 minutes to 1- 4 hours and dinner is ready. It’s all in one pot and you can add in potatoes or dumplings, sweet potatoes to give you that carby hit – it’s super easy.”

The ‘Welcome’ is the most important

Making your guests feel welcomed in your home is crucial. Generally offering them a drink upon arrival makes them feel taken care of. To lighten the load, Matt suggests pre-making both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.

“I like the option of being able to say alcoholic or non-alcoholic drinks that both sound equally delicious. I love the idea of a measured jug of drinks because it’s a special drink that you’ve made for people, rather than listing a variety of drinks that may overwhelm your guests. Giving people the solution is often an easier way and most people usually go there. Champagne, sparkling wine or a cocktail is your primary choice.”

Whilst the aforementioned Marley Spoon Dinner box provides you with a drink of gin and tonic, Matt suggests other varieties such as the gin and ‘sonic’ which is gin with 70% soda and 30% tonic. You can also create other versions such as a gimlet (gin and lime juice) and gin with cucumber or elderflower. “Cucumber skin is a vastly underrated ingredient – you often want to peel the cucumber and freeze the skin and use the frozen skin as ice cubes.”

For non-alcoholic drinks, ensure that you use ingredients that make them feel like they’re not missing out. This might mean working harder on the garnish and making it different to the alcoholic drink as you don’t want people picking up the wrong glass by mistake. “I’m a big fan of kombucha that provides that acidity and tang. You’ve got a whole range now of adult soft drinks and ice tea with herbs. Ideally pairing it with fruit juice or spritz and soda will lighten it up.”

Table setting

It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got the perfect meal and drinks to serve your guests, creating the perfect winter ambience will elevate your dinner party a step further. Matt explains that adding soft lighting along with light-scented candles or an open fire (if you’ve got one) will set a magical tone to the experience. “If you’ve got a fireplace use the open fire – it just changes the whole atmosphere. The lighting is key and music is crucial.”

Whether it’s gentle techno to classical music, adding some tunes will provide a moving soundtrack and create some background noise. As the dining table is the most intimate space, it should be your main centrepiece where people feel invited. “I love sitting around the table, I think that’s really important. It creates intimacy and conversation.”

If you’ve got some expensive silverware that’s hidden somewhere in the house, now is the time to dust it off and utilise it. “There’s a reason why people clean their silver and put a number of glasses on the table, not only because it has a sense of opulence, but because of how the light dances off those surfaces. It’s purely magical and also that soft light and makes you look 10 years younger.”

Have a fall back (in the case of disaster)

There’s nothing worse when your thoroughly planned dinner party turns into a disaster. What if there’s no conversation? When this happens, Matt explains that it is essential to have a plan B.

Avoid this situation by being the anchor between you and your guests. Try and find some common ground and create connections between the guests.

“Having icebreakers, games and activities can lighten the environment for people who don’t really know each other. Mix up the table dynamic by splitting up partners and allow them to mingle with someone else. If you’ve got 6 or 8 people, I like splitting up partners. I also like having odd numbers. I think it’s important to not be locked in some weird couple world nightmare. Invite a mixture of couples and single people. Mix up the table so you get to talk with different people. Fundamentally, as a host your job is to try and foster links between your guests. That’s the most crucial thing”.

For more information about The Tanqueray x Marley Spoon Winter Dinner Party box head on over to the Marley Spoon Website.

Danica Jones

Writer for the AU Review, a lover of books, poetry, good food, travel and adventure. Follow her personal instagram @x3danicajones or her poetry instagram @danicajoneswrites

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