Shortly after my time on MasterChef came to an end I was approached by the mum of a friend to cook a surprise meal for her daughter’s 21st birthday. I’ve known Charleigh all my life, our mum’s went to college together way back in the day and have been close ever since, so I was in no position to say no. I didn’t really know at this point just how big a commitment this was and exactly how much work was required.
So details were arranged in principal – date, time, number of covers all the while dancing around the cost of this all. I mean I hate dealing with money at the best of times let alone with someone you know, about something like this. All went silent for a couple of weeks until the week of the meal crept up on us and we finally had to set things in stone.
The closer the event drew the more stress I began to feel. I’d never done anything like this before. I think I realised I was in over my head and starting to lose the plot when I called Bev, Charleigh’s Mum, whilst in Tesco’s and said I was “sourcing the ingredients”. I thought nothing of this at the time but as she later pointed out it’s just a fancy way of saying shopping.
Never the less I had managed to “source” everything I needed, including some nasturtium leaves and edible viola flowers from Fine Food Specialist, whose next day delivery was a life saver, if a bit expensive and I began prep. Not having ever prepared this sort of meal for ten before I thought I was giving myself plenty of time to get this all sorted. Previously my cooking for large groups had been limited to roast dinners and one pot dishes – fish and shepherd’s pies etc. but here I was trying to pull of high end dining, so there was a lot to do. I think in total I did about 8-9 hours prep, granted this included time I spend dancing around my kitchen listening to music I'm probably too ashamed to admit to, but thankfully the menu I had designed put most of the emphasis things i could do in advance. Certainly the starter and dessert did anyway (Baked Stuffed Mushrooms w/ balsamic glaze and Cranachan Panna Cotta) both of which essentially only required plating up – so these make great dinner party dishes for anyone looking for ideas. As for the main for which I had to provide two options – one meat and one fish- I knew this would be the tricky part. Simultaneously pan frying 5 fillets of Sea Bass which was specially requested was ambitious especially seeing as I’d also have to finish off two ballotines of chicken breast in a pan as well. I hate overcrowding fish in pans as the skin doesn’t crisp as I should and turning them becomes a pain. It’ll be alright on the night I thought – ever the optimist.
Come the day of the meal, Charleigh’s birthday itself, and I messaged her on Facebook to wish her a happy birthday and say that I hoped to see her soon. “Only if you’re cooking” she replied. She didn’t know how right she was and with all the prep having been done I decided, much like when i was on MasterChef, that i would ignore the nerves and was suddenly very excited.
The meal in itself was a doddle and went off without a hitch, although I did have the help of my Mum, my comis for the night, and a hotplate from 1993 that had never been used before. Both of these things turned out to be life savers!! The hardest thing about cooking in these numbers and trying to plate elegantly is keeping everything warm and the hotplate was able to do exactly that. Should you find yourself in a position where you’re doing something similar search one out, I'm sure there are plenty knocking about in charity shops up and down the country.
Thankfully the meal went off without a hitch and I am thankful for being able to be part of what was a lovely evening.
I must confess I rather liked the whole private dining lark and could be convinced to do it again but really this post is a long winded way of introducing the new recipes I am posting on the site. So accompanying this article is the recipe for: Baked Flat Mushrooms Stuffed with Sundried Tomatoes, Chevre & Rocket and Sea Bass, Chorizo, Mussels & Jersey Royals. Unfortunately no recipe for the panna cotta guys as the BBC own my ass, but I'm confident a well trained chimp could work it out!!! Hopefully you’ll be whipping some of these up at home and you’ll have your guests drooling.