Pushing the boat out .. and other party tales

foodmenuphilippapartyDORSET-based private chef Philippa Davis has been on the radio (Radio Soho) chatting to William Sitwell, editor of Waitrose Food, about her varied life as a private chef.

And If you see a crocodile… “Row, row, row your boat” has got to be a top classic when it comes to kids songs. This was made clear to me when my five year old niece recently gave me all her variations. Favourite renditions would have to include:

“Row, row, row your boat gently down the river
If you see a polar bear don’t forget to quiver.”

“Row, row, row your boat gently to the bay
If you see a pirate ship sail the other way.”

“Row, row, row your boat gently to the shore,
If you see a lion there don’t forget to roar.”

These lines were unfortunately swimming round my head as I went to my job cooking for a party of 50 people celebrating the start of a rather serious and successful female London rowing team.

foodmenuPhilippaparty2I love cooking for parties whether there are two or 150 guests expected (just providing I haven’t been told to cater for two and 150 show up). I know some find it more stressful than pleasurable catering for numbers so I thought I would give a few tips and tricks for preparing for a party.

Firstly – anything you can prepare before the day, do, and if you don’t have a fleet of staff at your disposal, get some friends or family to help, as it’s more fun.

The table – Laying tables can be done up to two days before the event if you turn the glasses up side down. Flower arranging can be done the day before, if you have somewhere cool to keep them, and moved into situ on the morning. Make sure they are either low enough to talk over or will tower like a canopy above the seated guests. You can use anything from jam jars to Milano glass – just try and get some sort of continuity with colours, shapes or style. Decorating a large table can take more time and flowers than you think.

Linen – Think how formal you want it to be and what sort of occasion you are catering for. If it’s for a rather fun-loving and rowdy crowd you probably don’t want to get out your best white linen and spend the evening worrying that someone’s going to decorate it with their red wine.

Napkins – For large numbers, believe me everyone hesitates whether it’s acceptable to use good quality paper instead of cloth. Trust me, no-one will ever go home tutting that the evening was spoilt not being able to dab their mouths with a Weissfee napkin.

Serving dishes – Sort out serving dishes and utensils the day before (carefully dusting down that wedding gift dinner service you only use every seven years).

Drinks – Nothing is worse than a warm glass of white wine (ok that’s a bit of an exaggeration but it’s not nice). Drinks can all be bought in advance and put in the chiller. Remember it can take longer then usual when there are lots and the fridges and freezers are fuller than normal with food etc.

Cocktails – These are a thoughtful and fun way to start the party, I like to put seasonal twists on mine so at the moment it’s all about forced rhubarb or blood oranges.

Water – Make sure you have lots of jugs or bottles at the ready and that they are refilled – no-one will thank you for a hangover due to dehydration. If using jugs, put slices of lemon, lime or cucumber or sprigs of mint in.

Food shopping – In a Stepford Wife (or husband as men these days are in the kitchen more than ever) perfect style world you would of course calmly gather all the ingredients from local shops and markets in your wicker basket. In reality you are probably trying to juggle preparing for the party, taking little Johnny to the dentist and keeping a watch on that piece from 1stdibs that has caught your eye. So if short of time there is no shame in getting the bulk of ingredients in an Ocado delivery.

The menu – If you are a fearless and experienced cook its fine, you can choose to put soufflés for 16 on your menu or make five different flavoured macaroons for petit fours. If not… choose dishes you have made before and that are not too complicated. It’s meant to be a fun occasion for everyone, so it doesn’t make sense to choose something that causes tears and tantrums in the run up. Don’t plan on making too many different dishes. It’s best to do a few really well, rather than prepare a Caesar like feast. Make sure one course is completely finished before guests arrive (I usually do the desserts) so there is less pressure and distraction on you as the host during the event.

Buffets – Although not a word I love, buffets or platters of food popped in the middle of the table are a brilliant way to feed a group and take my word for it everyone from Dukes to captains of industry are doing it. This style of serving food has various advantages in that guests can control their own portion size, its saves time and space on plating up food and passing round food or gathering at the feeding trough can help break at the ice at the beginning.

Remember if you decide on using a buffet table think about the flow of people – centre isles are great as guests can work their way round and not cause a human traffic jam, but if you have to serve from a table in the corner make sure they start at the wall end with the empty plates then work their way into the room, finishing with picking up their cutlery and napkin.

Choosing your menu – Good dishes to prepare for parties are ones that don’t take up too many pots and pans (you don’t want a pile of washing up as guests arrive) or that can be made ahead and cooked or reheated on the day. Curries, pies, cobblers, lasagnes and tagines are all good for this as well as paella, which is this week’s recipe.

foodmenuPhilippaparty3Chicken, Chorizo and Prawn paella
Serves 12

The stock – amazing soups, risottos and paellas start with an amazing stock so it is totally worth investing time and money in it. If you don’t have a paella pan you can make it in one or two large frying pans and transfer it onto platters for serving.

2 tbs olive oil
2 large handfuls of prawn shells or 300g of prawns with their shell on
1 glass of white wine
½ glass of dry sherry or brandy
1 free-range chicken carcase
1 white onion peeled and roughly chopped
1 head of garlic sliced horizontally in half
Bunch of parsley stalks
1 tbs black peppercorns
1tbs fennel seeds

In a large pot fry the prawns shells in the oil until starting to slightly brown then slosh in the wine and brady or sherry. Add the stock ingredients then fill the pot 1 inch from the top with cold water. Bring to a boil then turn down and simmer for about 1 hour ( preferably 2). Drain the stock through a sieve into another saucepan and leave to one side.

foodmenuphilippaparty4The paella

There are of course many variations including a rabbit and snail one, but no-one has ever requested it. My favourite is this chicken, prawn and chorizo.

2 tbs olive oil plus a little extra for the chicken
2 white onions peeled and chopped into approx. 1 cm squares
2 red peppers chopped the same size as the onions
4 cloves of garlic finely chopped
6 bay leaves
300g cooking chorizo chopped into small chunks ( can be the spicy sort if that’s what you like).
10 skinless and boneless chicken breasts cut into 3’s (you can use more or less depending on how hungry the crowd you are feeding are
840g paella rice
700g peeled raw prawns
2 handfuls of cooked peas
3 tbs finely chopped parsley
3 lemons
1 x large pinch of saffron mixed with 50ml just boiled water

Bring the prepared stock to a simmer. In your frying/  paella pan sear all the chicken pieces in a little of the olive oil till browned on each side then remove from the pan and put to one side (you are not cooking them through at this stage).

Then on a medium heat fry the onions, pepper, chorizo, garlic and bay leaves in the olive oil for about 10 minutes until lightly caramelised, stirring regularly. Add the rice and stir well so everything is hot. Carefully pour the stock onto the rice so it comes about 2 cm above the rice, add the chicken and season with salt and pepper.

Let the pan simmer till most of the liquid has been absorbed then test the rice to see if it needs more cooking and liquid. Once the rice is almost there add the prawns and peas. Cook for another couple of minutes so the prawns cook through and the peas are hot.

Once everything is cooked sprinkle over the saffron water and parsley. Squeeze over the juice from one lemon then cut up the other 2 into wedges and place on top of the rice. Serve with garlicky aioli and a fresh crunchy green salad.

Note – You don’t want the paella too sloppy or dry so you will have to judge for yourself how much stock to add in the final stages of cooking.

You can follow Philippa on Twitter and her new Facebook page or visit her website www.philippadavis.com