While much of what I learned in school is buried deep in the mind’s recesses, probably never to see the light of day again, I still frequently go back to a saying by one of my teachers; “Proper planning prevents poor performance”. He would refer to it as the 5 Ps. Leaving aside the clever alliteration I can add to his by saying “Proper planning prevents unnecessary stress” and, of even greater concern these days, “Proper planning saves you money”. Easter is on the horizon and Confirmation and Holy Communion parties are also in the lens of many right now. Whether it is a buffet style party for thirty or an Easter Sunday lunch for ten, it can all be accomplished relatively fuss free and without needing to remortgage the house to finance it, with a little forward planning. How many times have you tried that free style approach only to end up with far too much food left over, a kitchen that looked like it had been hit by an earthquake, and an ulcer inducing level of stress and exhaustion? If that sounds all too familiar stick with me and the lessons learned can be used at any time of year.
Not only should you plan the main event you should also have a plan for the leftovers, even if you never get around to using it. Professional chefs do it all the time. What is a main course today becomes a starter tomorrow if it isn’t used entirely. What isn’t too popular on Tuesday as a side, becomes the soup for lunch on Wednesday. Isn’t that the old joke, “I never order Soup du jour, it tastes different everywhere I go!”
Planning isn’t rocket science, and all it requires is a pen and paper, (or ipad/computer for the tech savvy) and a few obvious questions:
- a) How many are coming?
- b) What time of day will we eat?
- c) What will I cook- a general Menu outline
- d) How much of this menu can be done the day before?
- e) Are there any clashing oven times/temperatures and if so what’s the solution?
- f) Can I simplify this even more?
Now write down the list of ingredients you need for every dish and then check what you actually have in the cupboard and fridge and mark them off. Do not go to the shops without doing this check as I guarantee the fear of not having something will make you buy it just in case. This is where money and food are often wasted.
While a one pot is often the answer for a large crowd, traditional joints are also a great solution. A roast dinner with beef or lamb as the star of the show rarely disappoints. A joint of meat also needs adequate time to rest before serving and so that 30 to 40 minutes between coming out of the oven and serving creates the perfect window for finishing off sides and making great gravy.
I love getting everyone around a big table and particularly enjoy the special days such as Christmas and Easter. I have long since taken the stress out of these events by simplifying as much as I can and remembering why I’m doing it. It’s not about me and how good or bad my culinary skills are: it is about enjoying the company and sharing great food. Even if I have discovered some amazingly chef-y way of tying up asparagus bunches with lemongrass strips I’m careful not to try and impress with such overly fanciness if the numbers are too large. Tying small bunches of greens in dramatic fashion is just about fun for a lunch for four but becomes downright tedious to prepare for a dinner for 12. (That’s assuming of course that you don’t have an army of kitchen staff, in which case there are no limits.) We are often tempted to show off with some TV cookery programme inspired dessert frippery that needs more attention than a newborn baby, but my advice is, don’t do it! Choose a popular dessert that can be made the day or night before and left in the fridge ready just to plate up; the same goes for starters if possible. If you’re super organised you could even prepare them in individual dishes. Trust me when I say your guests will prefer something common and delicious and an unstressed and present host over a stress inducing frilly dish any day. Buying the best ingredients you can get your hands on will also remove a great deal of the work. Good quality meat will need no disguising and fresh, local, in season vegetables will taste great naturally and will create the ‘wow’ for you.
You are also allowed to buy in some of the courses, in part or entirely, if it makes it easier. I don’t know where we got this idea that unless we do everything ourselves that we are cheating! In Tipperary when there are so many excellent artisan producers on the doorstep we should definitely avail of their help. I agree entirely with the philosophy of fresh and natural, but that need not be compromised. From local breads, preserves, cheeses, desserts and sweet treats, herbs and vegetables and meat, there is a world of wonderful local food at your disposal. If you are in any doubt check out the Tipperary Food Producers network website for a full list of what’s available locally. I would also encourage you to drop by the James Whelan Butchers site for inspiration and of course, you are always welcome at our shop in the Oakville Shopping Centre in Clonmel. Planning well is definitely the key to keeping great family occasions ‘great’ and avoiding that awful feeling of being an indentured kitchen slave to a bunch of ungrateful relatives.
We hope you enjoyed reading this post by Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers. Pat is a 5th generation butcher, cook book author and the director of James Whelan Butchers with shops in Clonmel, the Avoca Handweavers Rathcoole and Kilmacanogue, Dunnes Stores Cornelscourt, Rathmines and Swords in Dublin. Sign up to our newsletter for more updates from James Whelan Butchers