The first thing that I do is write out a list of foods that are in season. This is so important to me as seasonal ingredients always taste so much better and I love being present with the passing of the seasons. It creates such a memorable occasion – indeed all the recipes in the pages ahead mark the seasons. Seeing the first of the rhubarb in my local vegetable shop and making it into a syrup for a sparkling rhubarb cocktail – that first delicious sip has me right back to when I was a child and my mother would make butter pastry rhubarb tarts. That is exactly what suppers are all about for me – creating memories that will live on and on… Cooking with the seasons allows me to get excited about the coming months and the produce it will bring.
The menu is undoubtedly the most important part of my supper party and I always carve out a bit of time to create a well-balanced menu with courses complementing each other. I love getting into bed early with pen and paper a few nights before I host a supper and leisurely write a menu that I will get excited about cooking.
BALANCING THE MENU
When I am planning my supper, I start with the dish that I am most excited about cooking and then I build around it. Here’s what I always stick to. If I am cooking fish or something spicy for the main course, then I will tend to serve a light, refreshing dessert to cleanse the palate. To start the supper, a vegetable or fish-based dish works very well. When it comes to a meat-based main course, I serve soups or other light meat dishes. I am never in favour of spicy or creamy courses following one another – and with that I mean I wouldn’t serve a cream-based dish after a chowder as it would be too rich. The trick is for your guest’s palate to be refreshed with different flavours after each course. the menu also goes with the season – I tend to eat more hearty foods in the winter (I think we all do!) and so during the colder months you can get away with serving more filling courses throughout the supper. In the summer, we look for lighter fresher-tasting foods, as we don’t crave the warming comfort dishes of the colder months.
Once you have decided on your menu, the next thing to start thinking about is how best to prepare and get organised. Everyone knows how to write a shopping list, but it might also help to have a checklist of everything you need to do beforehand, from choosing the wine to creating a playlist and even to thinking about who’s going to sit where. This is my helpful guide to everything that you need to consider before your supper.
I am a bit of a list queen, it has been said… I like to be organised and making lists is how I take the stress out of any tasks. When it comes to hosting a supper at home, the shopping can be the most mundane part of it. I separate my shopping list into two sections. Dry ingredients and fresh ingredients. I go through my cupboards and check my stock of dry foods, candles, fizzy water, wine, etc and then make my list and do the order online and have them delivered days before, which saves time and energy. The fresh ingredients I spend more time on; if it’s fish that I am cooking, I take the time to go to a good fishmonger, as the better the quality, the better your cooking will taste! For meat, it is always worth the trip to a good butcher. If you are on a budget, then you’ll have a better range of cheaper, less-used cuts from the butcher, which is also a great place to get bones for broths and stocks if you are making a soup or risotto. The fresh ingredients I shop for the day before.
Don’t leave this until the last minute, or your guests could be eating off paper plates! Count how many guests you have for supper, then pull out all your crockery, cutlery and glassware. Decide which dish you are going to use for each course and count how many you have to ensure there’s enough for everyone. Do the same with your glassware, matching them to the wines and water you are serving. And then the platters (if using) for serving the food.
HERE’S MY FOOLPROOF SUPPER CHECKLIST
• Count cutlery, crockery and glassware
• Polish silverware and glassware
• Cocktail set up – ice, shaker, liquor, soda water, lemons, cocktail glasses and tray
• Linen – napkins and tablecloth
• Two good playlists – one for before and during supper and one for afters (if your suppers are like mine and you like a post-supper boogie!)
• Candlesticks and holders, cleaned and polished
• Candles for the table, around the house and a nice smelling candle in the bathroom
• Vases for flowers cleaned and ready for arranging
• Flowers for the table, around the house and also a small arrangement beside the sink in the bathroom
• Water jugs filled with ice, mint and lemon slices
• Butter sliced on small butter dishes with a little sprig of fresh rosemary
• Small bowls for sea salt
A handwritten menu perched in the middle of your supper table sets such a lovely personal tone. This can be done really simply by using nice postcards or A5 blank white cards. I always write them in pencil (easy to rub out mistakes) and draw little illustrations of vegetables or festive images along the side. The following day, I clip the menu on my menu string in my kitchen as I love to stop and read back through them.
Texture is important to create a beautiful table, and good linen will soften and warm hard textures, such as wood or glass. It is worth investing in a good tablecloth and napkins that will last you through the years. I love natural linen as the more you use and wash it the better it becomes. I have four different sets of linen – one for each of the four seasons. Soft blush pink for summer, mustard for autumn, teal green for winter and soft sage green for spring. The linen for me is the canvas to the table, and I build upon that, introducing colours through flowers, and
crockery that will reflect the season and work with the linen. Linen napkins bring a softness to the table that you won’t get from using paper. As well as linen, I have a drawer where I keep all different colours and textures of ribbon – these are to tie napkins with sprigs of seasonal flowers or herbs.
Along with creating the menu, styling the table is definitely one of my favourite parts of planning a supper. I love being able to transform my table into a space that reflects the seasons and the ingredients that I’m going to use. In this section, I share with you the best ways to create a beautifully set table that will make any supper even more special, and the great thing is that it can be done in advance leaving you more time to enjoy cooking.
Fresh figs, heather, pussy willows, red berry branches, pomegranates and clementines are all in season during the winter months and will make any table look so magical. In this setting I am using my teal blue linen tablecloth and napkins which not only give a lovely warmth but also go so well with winter reds and the earthy colours of fresh figs and heather. I buy the heather in pots which I keep in the garden, and then I cut the sprigs when I need them to decorate my table. Simple bundles of heather tied together on a napkin look so lovely.
I also use fresh figs as table settings and by making a slit halfway down (cutting from the top) you can pop name cards into them. Big beautful sprigs of pussy willows look fabulous as a centrepiece to a winter table, with a few sprigs of red berry branches dotted throughout. Add a few fairy lights (battery powered) around them for an instant festive ambience!
When I am planning my festive tables during the winter I often use clementines to decorate place settings. Try to find the ones with the green leaves on them so you can write your guests’ names on the leaf. Along the table arrange halved pomegranates, as the jewels inside the fruit look so prettty and festive. Finally don’t forget to add lots of candles to light up your Christmas table!
This is an extract from Clodagh’s Suppers by Clodagh McKenna.