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I can’t really think of a better way to spend a Saturday night than sat around a table with good friends, jugs full of gin cocktails and overflowing bowls of hummus primed for freshly baked bread to be dunked in.. I know the thought of cooking for a group can be really daunting for some and realistically it’s never going to be an easy task, but personally I absolutely love it.
A few weeks ago I spent my Saturday afternoon listening to Fleetwood Mac, setting the table, arranging the flowers I’d been to collect the day before and lighting the candles; it was a pretty perfect way to spend a day in mu book. It was all in preparation for five friends heading over to spent the night digging into dishes all cooked from Yotam Ottolenghi’s latest book, Simple. Minus the smoked hummus and gin cocktails. Those creations are all mine, Yotam can take no credit there.
I had an idea a while back whilst dusting my extensive collection of cookbooks that it would be fun to hold a dinner party and use a book to create the entire menu from. I purchase many, many cookbooks and more often than not they are relegated to the shelves in my dining room after their initial read. Very few become go-to books for everyday cooking. Simple seemed like a good place to start trying out the idea, having just arrived on the shelf in the form of a birthday present from my friend Jo.
In the past my table settings have been all white. To say I was a one trick pony would be entirely justified. I was a one trick white pony. If you’ve followed me on Instagram for any time you might have noticed that lately there have been some softer tones arriving here and there… a dusky pink, a pale blue there. Let’s call it personal growth.
The beautiful tableware you see here was kindly sent to me by Habitat, a brand I was also lucky enough to collaborate with on some content with earlier in the year. I first spotted the pink Nona plates whilst having dinner at a restaurant here in Newcastle, Cook House, and fell in love. The size you see here is the side plate, but to be honest they’re fairly generous.
To contrast with the pale pink of the Nona plate, I went for a matte grey set called Violet. Both stoneware ranges have been handmade by small ceramic studios and so are irregular in their colour and pattern – something I absolutely love about Habitat’s dining ranges. It makes everything look softer and more organic, and well, much more expensive than it is. The Violet range has a beautiful soft lilac-grey tone to it that works perfectly against the white linen. The rose gold cutlery you see here was a sale purchase from M&S some time ago, but you can find similar here at Made.com.
To serve everything I used a combination of plates, bowls and large dishes, scattered across the table and just invited everyone to dig in.
I’m a bit old fashioned when it comes to table linens. I think things to be actual linen wherever possible. Both the table cloth and the napkins are from The White Company. They come out time and time again, wash perfectly and iron up to have a lovely dishevelled crispness to them. Each napkin was folded in half beneath the tableware, very handily serving as the place setting and the napkin.
The White Company were also kind enough to provide the beautiful gin glasses and pitcher used to serve the cooler in. The pitcher comes with a very elegant glass stirrer that did not at all make me feel like I had a magic wand and in no way lead to me pretending to cast spells.
The finishing touches of any dinner party table are the flowers and the candles. Again in a break from my all-white tradition I went for small glass vases of wild flowers, everything from softly scented cornflowers to soft pink snapdragons. They were beautiful scattered across a mixture of glass and stoneware vases, mixed around the table with tealights and Jo Malone London candles. Fragrance wise I decided to go for a combination of Lime Basil & Mandarin (a classic, naturally) and the sweet scent of Orange Blossom.
Keep everything low level so as not to obscure anyone’s view of each other across the table. That’s never fun. Be sure to also light the candles around 40 minutes before anyone arrives also so they have time to scent the room.
First up, I wasn’t the best at photographing the food itself. Mostly because everyone arrived and well… it’s bad form to be photographing people’s food before the dig in I felt.
Smoked Hummus – The recipe for which is below
Apple & Elderflower Gin Cooler – The recipe for which is below
Burrata with chargrilled grapes & basil, page 43
Stuffed courgettes with pine nut salsa, page 60
Roasted whole cauliflower, page 94
Harissa and confit garlic roast potatoes, page 142 – with the Goose Fat substituted for butter
Puy Lentils with aubergine tomatoes and yoghurt, page 166
Honey & yoghurt cheesecake, page 280
Everything went down a treat, there’s no denying that. The burrata and chargrilled grapes and lentil dishes being the real stand outs here! The cheesecake was also subject to seconds for everyone. If you’ve ever had any of Ottolenghi’s books because you’ll likely be aware that his dishes, whilst being amazingly tasty, can often involve an awful lot of ingredients and time. Simple’s concept is pretty clear from the name. Most dishes can be made in advance either in full or in part, making you’re life a little easier here.
On Friday afternoon I started preparing most of the dishes in some form, ready to be finished and cooked before serving on Saturday. I also made the cheesecake in its entirety as it can simply sit in your fridge until needed. Excellent. It’s not a baked cheesecake and the most tricky part here is the straining of the yoghurt to remove the liquid. That was messy and I definitely recommend doing that in advance. It will likely also ruin a tea towel, keep that in mind.
The grapes for the burrata were left to marinade overnight to really absorb the flavour and the confit garlic from the potatoes does take quite some time, so keep that in mind during your prepping process!
I’ve only cooked roasted cauliflower for one person who didn’t enjoy it and to be honest his opinion is sketchy at the best of times. It’s a revelation. Watery boiled cauliflower? Absolutely not. Roasted cauliflower? A delight.
Anything I wouldn’t cook again?
The stuffed courgettes were a little uneventful. Not sure I’d recommend those from the book! I would likely substitute them for a stuffed tomato or pepper perhaps.
And my own additions to the menu were:
Game-Changing Smoked Hummus
2 x 400g tins chickpeas (reserve the water from one tin)
3 large cloves garlic
Smoked Rapeseed Oil (available at Sainsbury’s)
Smoked Salt (I use Maldon)
Zest & Juice of 1 lemon
3 tbsp Tahini
This makes a hefty portion of hummus, enough for a dinner of six with plenty left over for the week ahead. I tend to make it for just about anyone who arrives on my doorstep, I love it. The deep smoky flavour comes from a combination of Smoked Rapeseed Oil and Smoked Salt, with a touch of Smoked Paprika at the end.
Place your garlic cloves on a baking sheet and lightly drizzling with olive oil, pop in a pre-heated oven for about ten minutes to roast. Don’t let them burn, they should go a nice golden colour. I always find raw garlic in hummus to be a bit too sharp, this brings a lovely mellow flavour.
Drain the two tins of chickpeas, reserving the liquid from one tin in a jug to use later. When the garlic is roasted take it out of the oven and use the same baking tray to roast a handful of the chickpeas on. Drizzle with oil, salt, pepper and some smoked paprika. Toss everything so it’s covered and pop in the oven for twenty minutes until nice and crispy.
In your food processor add the drained chickpeas, the tahini, juice and zest of the lemon, smoked salt, pepper, garlic, an initial glug of smoked rapeseed oil and a pinch of ground cumin. Blend everything up and when the mixture looks like it’s sticking to the sides of the jug, begin to pour in some of the chickpea water, then some more rapeseed oil, alternating until the hummus has a lovely smooth consistency. The more powerful your food processer the quicker this will be.
Taste to check the seasoning and adjust if needed. I usually find it needs more pepper!
To serve swirl the hummus into a bowl, add the roasted chickpeas to the top, a scattering of smoked paprika and a good glug of olive oil. Tear up chunks of bread or toasted pitta breads to dig into the hummus with.
Apple & Elderflower Gin Cooler
Gin (A crisp, clean gin is best rather than anything spiced)
Cloudy Apple Juice
Juice of three limes
Cucumber & rosemary to serve
Makes a large jug full.
There’s no quantities with the recipe above as to be honest I mostly just do it by eye and taste.
In a large jug add the gin, a sensible amount please. Pour in a 1L bottle of cloudy apple juice and the juice of your three limes, along with a glug of Elderflower cordial. Taste and see if it needs more gin or elderflower.
Just before serving, fill large gin glasses with ice, cucumber and a spear of rosemary, then pour in. You can add an additional twist of lime at this point too if you’d like. Simple.