5 Rules for Crafting a Standout Dinner Party Menu
Food writer Diana Henry explains how she puts together the perfect three-course meal for any season.
The book is a testament to that very idea—that food can evoke long lost memories from childhood and let us travel without leaving the dinner table. Food gives us the keys to forgotten places.
“When you give people mussels to eat, they feel like they are on holidays, and they start to act like they are on holidays because you associate that kind of food with being at the seaside,” she says.
Henry is a master at creating these kinds of structured meals that elicit personal memories: How to Eat a Peach consists of 26 three-course menus (12 for the summer and spring and 14 for autumn and winter).
Though she jokes that she would “never write a book about entertaining, where there are loads of paragraphs about plumping cushions and putting all sorts of sprays in the downstairs loo,” she does abide by certain rules (though she explains that they are closer to guidelines, and swears that they are made to be broken) when it comes to not only putting together menus for gatherings, but also for throwing a dinner party that makes people feel comfortable, satisfied, and transported to another time or place.
Here are five of Henry’s most important pieces of wisdom for creating a masterful dinner party menu.
Setting the table
Henry doesn’t think fancier necessarily equals better, so forget fancy appetizers. A couple tried-and-true necessities will impress your guests and prime their palates for the meal to follow.
"I think you have to buy good bread. You have to buy good butter... Making things nice. That sounds like such a trivial phrase, but I think it’s what you want to do to make people feel cared for. It doesn’t have to be over the top at all.”
Some flavors go naturally together. Look for those patterns when you’re planning your menu, and bring dishes together that create a story on the palate. Don’t shy away from strong flavors, either. Henry admits she loves “really bright strong front-of-the-mouth flavors,” and that her cooking is not very subtle.
“Things like capers, anchovies — they’re quite salty, so I end up pairing them with things like raisins or currents to make sauces,” she says. “I’m also very drawn to South East Asian [where] hot, sweet, salty, and sour flavors go together.”
To that end, an ingredient like fish sauce should also be paired “with sugar, to balance it out.”
At the same time that you’re thinking about flavors to pair, think about ways that dishes contrast each other, in terms of flavor, but also texture and temperatures.
Keeping things fresh
Henry advises that you should avoid repeat ingredients in a menu. Depending on the ingredient in question, the meal could turn out too rich or too repetitive.
“I would never have mango in the starter, and then have mango for pudding. Or I wouldn’t serve a pork terrine and then serve roast pork. It’s too much of the same thing,” she says. “I think you’ve got to watch richness. I would never serve aioli or mayo in the starter, and then go to an egg yolk based ice cream for the pudding.”
Henry also warns against serving fried food for a large group, unless it’s a small canapé, which can be eaten at the start of the night, as your guests are mingling with a glass of wine.
Simple meals made from recipes that you know by heart will often be the most delicious food you can put on the table, even if it’s not the most complicated dish you’ve ever made.
“You shouldn’t be ashamed of doing things that are incredibly ordinary. I think roast chicken is brilliant. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t love roast chicken,” she says. “Have a green salad with that and little baby potatoes that you’ve roasted in olive oil.”
Henry always serves her roast chicken with the more complex apricot tart (which she makes the day before). A no-frills main course makes room for a more involved dessert. Plus, Henry prefers menus that “weave between the prosaic to the more surprising.”
Making a roadmap
Planning is a critical element of any dinner party. Make sure you’re not trapped in the kitchen, cooking last minute dishes, as your guests begin to arrive. Focus your attention on the courses that need the most work a day or two before the appointed date.
“You should never cook more than two courses the day of the party, and preferably only one at the last minute,” says Henry. “That’s the most crucial thing you can think about is, is what you can manage.”
However, be aware that there really is no “most important” course. Don’t get too fixated on the main course, to the detriment of the rest of your meal. Henry insists that no course deserves “more weight than any of the others, even if one of them ends up being slightly bigger in terms of quantity." In fact, she prefers the appetizer course to the others because it “opens your appetite.”
How to Eat a Peach: Menus, Stories and Places, $29 on amazon.com