Entertaining on a Budget

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Someday I will have a house built for entertaining. That is what I covet in a house, a lovely open space for the throwing of dinner or cocktail parties and a kitchen with a very big cooker. I remember a scene in Sleepless in Seattle where Tom Hanks is dealing with a client (he is an architect if I remember correctly) and she is a little freaked out as her kitchen may not accommodate a fridge big enough to take platters if she was throwing a party. I think we are meant to take Tom’s side in this scene and find the lady a wee bit mad in her pestering of poor bereaved Tom however I know where she is coming from. That is the only scene in that movie that struck a chord with me, I too have known the pain of trying to fit too many things into a tiny fridge. Fridge Jenga I call it and it is a pain.

When you live in a rented house with a tiny kitchen and small rooms entertaining can be difficult but it can be done. Forward planning is the thing. I have managed to squeeze 12 people in to my wee dining room and feed them with great success.

The first thing to do is make a guest list. Sit down and think how many people you can realistically fit in your space. If you can’t fit everyone around your table then think buffet or drinks and nibbles.

Then plan your menu, be realistic about your budget. Do not go broke feeding other people. You should also be realistic about what you can cook in your kitchen. You don’t want guests arriving at your door to find a host seething with suppressed rage because you have spent all day in a hot kitchen goddammit and everything has gone awry. Look at cooking times. See how many rings you will need on the stove, how many things will need to go in your oven. Time everything, if you are planning slow cooked pork but you also want roasted vegetables will this work if you only have one oven and you need it at a low heat for the meat. I am deeply envious of my Mum’s three oven range and her five ring hob, I could go mad in a kitchen like that but I have to work with what I have and what I have is a 50″ wide single oven.

This might seem elementary but you should also look at your cooking equipment and your serving dishes, cook with what you have for what you have. If you have one pot and one frying pan then choose your recipe accordingly. The thing to remember is that your guests, if they are right thinking people, will be happy to have been invited into your home and given a meal, they are more likely to be interested in the conversation and the craic than in the actual food. I am not saying don’t try to impress to the best of your ability but you should not make yourself miserable by trying to produce something amazing that while not beyond your capabilities as a cook is beyond your current resources.

Invest in a few things. I have been buying plain white plates and side plates from Dunnes Stores over the past few years. They are cheap and as they keep the same design, easy to replace if you smash one. You don’t need to have matching plates, mismatched plates can look great on a table just make sure you have enough for all the guests. The other thing I invested in was a €50 folding picnic table, this little gem slides neatly in behind our couch when it isn’t being used. Our actual dining table is small and round and just about fits four people but it does fit the dining room. When it is up the picnic table takes up the whole room but since it is only for a few hours it’s grand.

Instead of investing in a proper tablecloth as these can be ridiculously dear I went in to The Woollen Mills, now alas closed, and invested in a few yards of fabric. I got a very inexpensive length of cotton gingham that could be boil washed in case of wine or food spillages for less than €10. Folding chairs are always useful if you have the storage space. Never be afraid to borrow from people if you know they have a few bits you can use. Just make sure to return everything in good nick. There is nothing worse than loaning something only to have it returned damaged or worse still, not returned at all, do not be that person.

Use your imagination and be creative with what you have. I have quite the collection of glass candle holders and yogurt jars that I have carefully cleaned and now use for deserts. A friend kept bringing fancy lemonade in pop top glass bottles when they visited and these have also been scrubbed clean of labels and I use them to serve water. Any interesting jar is kept for flower arrangements. I will gratefully accept things I like when people are doing clear outs, I am not too proud to take used things, one man’s rubbish is another treasure.
Make sure your house is tidy before you start cooking. Once you are deep in dinner prep you will not have time to hoover or mop floors. Clean your bathroom, for the love of all that is holy please do this, put out clean towels, light a scented candle and put some flowers in there. People will be in and out of that room all night so make it a nice place to be.

Clear your entertaining space, move stuff in to bedrooms if needs must. People should feel free to move about without fear of tripping over clutter. This will also make your room look bigger. Set up a drinks station so people don’t keep wandering in to your tiny kitchen, you will need all the space in there for cooking.

Do buy some flowers. Virginia Woolf got the opening of a book out of the importance of getting flowers for a party. Don’t break the bank but go to Aldi or some other reasonably priced store and buy a few bunches of flowers and then break those bunches down and fill a few jars. Raid your garden, if you have one, for some foliage. Dress your table, light some candles put on some music and create the mood.

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It isn’t important to have the most expensive cheese or wine or the best plates and crystal. Good food, well cooked, even if it is just a bowl of pasta and whatever wine was on special offer that day, served picnic style on your sitting room floor will make your guests happy as long as you present it with confidence and grace.

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