10 tips on… entertaining guests

Contrary to what may happen at a restaurant, guests at home are not likely to tell you if they’re disappointed with your performance as a host.

They’ll just complain behind your back. David Darmanin of Taverna Sugu  http://www.sugu.com.mt lists a series of recommendations to lower any possible cringe factors

1.     Take it easy. There’s a fine line between flattering your guests and getting caught trying too hard. Using a china set for a special occasion shows that you care. Inviting your daughter’s new boyfriend for a Sunday lunch of oysters and scallops au gratin will make her want to disown you. The trick is to prepare simple and familiar foods but with that bit of extra flair. One way of doing this is to replace ‘everyday’ ingredients with ones of superior quality. Fresh and homemade usually does it. If you’re going for a simple timpana for instance – prepare the short crust yourself, use fresh tomatoes for the sauce and use rabbit liver for the ragú.

2.     Experimenting, as the name suggests, is a gamble. It is also insulting. If you feel an urge to experiment with your cooking, do it when you’re alone in sampling the final result.

3.     Preparation. There’s little scope in inviting friends over if you’re too busy slaving in the kitchen while they’re there. Nobody wins if you downgrade your position of host to servant. Apart from making yourself miss out on all the fun and gossip while you toss your fettuccelle in asparagus – your guests will feel guilty for being there. Make sure you do most of the work before your guests arrive and that you plan out your menu accordingly. Discard any a-la-minute preparation and go for stuff you can prepare beforehand.

4.     Cocktails. Always a good idea. Prepare a large iced jug of whatever and hand out a glass full to each guest as soon as they arrive. Few will decline a welcome drink, and the party will have a ‘fun and fancy’ feel right from the start. Here are two cocktail recipes we created at Taverna Sugu and work the magic.

-        Bajtra ta’ Betta. One part Bajtra Liqueur; two parts Bombay Gin; four parts tonic water; fresh lime juice; plenty of ice. Serve in a flute glass. Very girly.

-        Harruba Libre. One part ‘Harruba’ Carob Liqueur; two parts quality vodka; four parts cola; fresh mint leaves; fresh lime juice; plenty of ice.

5.     Appetizers. The 1980s were so funny. Appetizers usually consisted of the (in)famous Bombay mix; cocktail sausages in spicy ketchup sauce; crabmeat with no trace of crab at all; and on special occasions – bacon-wrapped chicken liver which we called angels on horseback. Incidentally, real angels on horseback are made by using oysters and bacon. The actual name for the recipe we used for first Holy Communion parties 30 years ago is actually ‘devils on horseback’. But we digress. Appetizers are not to be discounted as they have an important and practical function. Chances are that not all your invitees will arrive at the same time, and many early-comers may be starving – especially after one of those cocktails. Appetizers will help them subdue the pain. But more importantly, appetizers have the function of stimulating further appetite. Go for salty stuff. This one’s easy: one part sundried tomatoes, finely chopped; four or five parts ricotta; mint leaves. Blend. Sundried tomato dip.

6.     Help yourself. Let true Mediterranean character marry with convenience. No worthy guest will begrudge you for placing starters in the midst of the table for diners to help themselves. Some southern culinary traditions even impose this system. Plating takes time and it’s a nuisance. Besides, the ‘help yourself’ system allows for less wastage, with guests plating the items and amounts they want to eat.

7.     Plated starters. If you want a tone of formality on the dinner table and are adamant on going for plated starters – don’t cook pasta since you will have to disappear for 15 minutes before you dish out your starters, at a time when guests are still orienting themselves. Many other starters can be prepared beforehand. The lampuki season has started. Fillet the fish and dice it small. Marinate in lemon, a little balsamic vinegar, salt, parsley and very finely chopped red onions. Line a small bowl with extra virgin olive oil press in the fish and overturn into a plate. Serve with rucola. Strictly use day-fresh fish for this recipe, and never leave out in warm temperatures for longer than 10 minutes. If uncooked fish scares you, go for a nice salad. Fresh ġbejna Caprese works. Slice a local tomato and a fresh sheep’s milk ġbejna. Tower with a basil leaf and a slice of the cheese between every layer of ġbejna. This recipe is both familiar and original.

8.     Barbeques are fun, but they can prove tricky and are easy to screw up. Unless you own a barbeque that looks like a space-shuttle, you are Australian (or flaunt equivalent expertise on the barbie) or can delegate to someone who is – try to choose the items you put on the grill very carefully. Sadly, it’s not as easy as Bobby Flay makes us think. If you’re cooking for a large group for instance, beefsteak may not be the wisest option when you are confronted with requests to grill at different temperatures. Being asked for three rare rib-eyes, one medium-rare T-Bone, two medium sirloins and a well-done fillet (cringe) on a domestic open-top barbeque may be a challenge even for a seasoned cook. This will surely happen if guests are asked to bring their own meats.

-        Go for cheaper barbeque food and buy the stuff yourself. Tuna goes at half the price of rib-eye at the moment. Marinate in lime juice, chillies and raisins and impose a rare temperature on anyone who wants tuna. Blood-o-phobes can have butterfly-cut chicken breast marinated in limoncello and mint. Avoid thick-cut meats if you’re after cooking stuff through.

-        Marinating allows faster cooking but be careful when buying ready-marinated meats from butchers. Don’t trust any butcher when you can marinate yourself.

-        I love twists on retro recipes. This one in particular: roll melon slices in speck and sear on a hot grill. Serve.

-        Sausage… If you’re cooking for a large group, get your butcher to prepare bespoke sausages for you – some butchers will gladly do the work for minimum orders of 2-3Kg. Sausage options are endless – duck, veal, rabbit, turkey – you name it. Email me for recipes.

9.     Mains. The tricky part. This is where your culinary prowess will be judged, so it’s fair to dish out main courses on individual plates. Again, especially for large groups, avoid a-la-minute preparation like the plague. Stews are not suitable for this season – so why not go for braised white meats. Marinate rabbit pieces in white wine, olive oil, garlic and thyme overnight. Pat dry and brown in olive oil. Place in an ovenproof dish and pour in the marinade. Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius and braise for 45 minutes for one rabbit or one hour for two rabbits.

10.  Partying. Our national tolerance levels to noise are already challenged enough by fireworks and marching bands in summer. Party-pooping neighbours filing police reports are to be expected as they are understandable when you’re making noise at 1 am. The oldest trick in the book is to invite your neighbours over to the party, but the drawback to it is that they could actually turn up. One way of inviting neighbours while showing them that you’re not too keen on them showing their faces is to slip in a written invitation under their door rather than vowing it. This is not a fool-proof system, but it often works.

David Darmanin is chef-owner of traditional Maltese restaurant Taverna Sugu in Vittoriosa.

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