2021 has flown by sooner than we thought. And the last leg of the year, is, perhaps the most fun, because it coincides with the festive season—and the parties, dinners, lunches, and brunches that come with it.
Whether it’s Dussehra, Pujo, Diwali, or Christmas, food is what everyone looks forward to the most. Cooking for and serving a crowd may seem daunting—but it doesn’t have to be. As more of us play hosts at home this year, we’re here with a handy guide that shows you how at-home entertaining can be easy, accessible, approachable—and fun!
The Prep Rally: Getting it down on paper
We may sound terribly clichéd—but fail to plan, and plan to fail! A little prep goes a long way. You don’t need an army of below-the-stairs staff a la Downton Abbey to pull things together—just a few minutes to figure out the what, where, how many and how much.
● What: What kind of get-together are you hosting? Is it a brunch, lunch, cocktail, or dinner? Formal or casual? Are you going to follow a theme, or make it a mix-and-match affair?
● Where: Where will it be—in your living room, on your terrace, in your balcony, garden or backyard?
● How many: Do you have a guest list, or is it going to be an open house where friends and family can drop in as and when they please?
● How much: How much food you need will depend on the factors above, but always budget and cook for more than you think you’ll need. You may have unannounced visitors, or guests who bring along a plus one (or two, or three, you never know).
The Prep Rally: Put your pantry, fridge and freezer to work
When it comes to food, the key is to keep some good pantry items on hand, and prep and store fresh ingredients that can be pulled out on the day-of. Olives, sun-dried tomatoes, marinated peppers, kimchi, salted nuts and namkeen can be bought weeks ahead and stored in the pantry—and brought out as snacks.
Chef Keertida Phadke, a former restauranteur who now runs the plant-based food brand better., is all for using your fridge and freezer to make cooking and serving easy on the day of your party.
For Indian food, she suggests preparing aromatic pureed bhuna masala beforehand (like an onion-tomato paste, or cashew-based masala paste), pouring them into ice cube trays, and freezing them. When it’s time to cook, you can thaw your pastes and add them to your vegetable or protein.
She also believes that fresh herbs can elevate any dish and add a final flourish. Often, they are forgotten when grocery shopping for your party, since the hero ingredients (like protein, grains and vegetables) are on top of your mind.
Instead of running around on the morning of your party to buy a bunch of mint or coriander, she suggests ordering or buying herbs in batches ahead of time and storing them in airtight containers in your fridge. “Don’t wash you herbs, though. Place them straight into airtight containers and put them in your fridge. The moment you introduce moisture, herbs start wilting. All kinds of herbs—from rosemary and thyme to mint and coriander—can be stored in this manner and used when it’s time to cook or plate up.”
Plus, herbs are not just a garnish—they can be used in condiments, cocktails and more, so stock up ahead of time.
Certain dishes, like soups and stews, taste better after a day or two hanging out in the fridge—so don’t be afraid to make them in advance and reheat on the hob as your guests sit down to dinner. The same goes for pasta sauces that are not heavy on dairy, like a marinara or Bolognese.
Several other elements of the cooking process can be taken care of ahead of time, too:
● Vegetables and fruits can be washed, peeled, and cut ahead of time for sabzi, crudités or salads.
● Protein—from chicken and mutton to paneer and tofu—can be cleaned, chopped, marinated, and stored in the fridge for upto 24 hours before it’s time to cook.
● Dry ingredients—for desserts, spice rubs, pulao and more—can be measured out before hand and stored in Ziploc bags or airtight containers.
The Perfect Platter
Another make-ahead/prep-beforehand wonder is the grazing platter. Charcuterie and cheese boards are getting popular, add a wow factor (there are endless images of boards and platters on Instagram for inspiration), and are a great way to serve delicious food without having to actually cook!
Bengaluru-based Shwetha Gupta and Bhawna Rao are the founders of The Picnic Company — a unique venture where the duo curate picnics for their customers. Bhawna and Shweta find the location, put together a delicious basket of goodies and plan the event from start to finish. Shwetha owns and runs her own restaurant, Whattay Brewpark, while Bhawna owns a travel company, Encompass Experience. Between the two of them, they know how to pick the best picnic spots in and around Bangalore, and source their food from farms and local artisans, like Begum Victoria Cheese and Not Just Hot Sauces N More. (If you’re looking to host an outdoor event, you can get in touch with them here.)
Charcuterie platters and boards are very popular amongst their clients and Bhawna says it’s not that hard to create one at home. Says Bhawna, “Charcuterie boards are traditionally served with cold cuts but in recent times, people have gotten innovative, creating snacking boards inspired by the concept, without using expensive ingredients. There are plenty of readymade options available at local grocery stores especially dips, crackers and cheese. Add some fruits and nuts, and you are all set!”
And this is a sentiment echoes by other professionals as well. Susan Mody, a Cordon Bleu-trained home chef, runs a gourmet catering business in Pune specialising in boards. While she crafts her own dips and cheese wheels for clients, she too, says that a board is well within the reach of a home cook. “You can make your board look bountiful with just a few basic things. You can have as little as just two cheeses, one cured meat, some fruit and nuts. Fill up the spaces on the board with inexpensive things you might find in your fridge, like cherry tomatoes, small bowls of honey, mustard or preserves,” says Susan.
She adds that the entire board can be prepped a day ahead, covered in clingwrap and refrigerated. Leave some space for the crunchy elements like crackers, which can be added later. And last but not least, “Remember to bring it to room temperature before serving!”
Susan Mody’s tips for a good board:
● Do cut the cheese ahead of time
● Don’t place a strong-smelling cheese next to a mild one
● Do offer something sweet and savoury
● Don’t crowd the board with too many elements
The chip and dip has stood the test of time, from Mad Men-era cocktail parties to IPL watching sessions in 2021. We’re encouraging you to keep a few easy dips on hand that can anchor the appetiser course. Dips are a great idea on several fronts: they can be prepared ahead; they keep well in the fridge for a few days (when stored and covered properly) and they can be paired with everything from crackers to crudités.
Vidushi Singhania is the multi-hyphenate recipe developer, stylist, and photographer behind Sprig & Vine (an online community filled with vibrant recipes, wellness tips, home, and living inspiration). She’s a fan of savoury dips, and says you can’t really go wrong with them because they’re a crowd favourite.
She says, “There's a little something for everyone to nibble on during cocktail hour without ruining dinner. Put out 2-3 kinds of dips, and an assortment of things that can act as a carrier for those dips: chips, herbed crackers, crusty toasted bread, and veggie sticks. The bonus: the spread will look like it took a lot of effort and will impress your guests!”
Here, she shares her recipe for creamy French Onion Dip. Yes, you do need to invest a little time and some good knife skills to slice the onions—but with that out of the way, it comes together quickly, and is guaranteed to please even the pickiest palate. Vidushi adds, “You can make this dip a day ahead. Believe it or not, the extra time in the fridge allows the flavours to meld together better!”
Vidushi Singhania’s French Onion Dip from Sprig & Vine
• 400 g hung curd / Greek yoghurt
• 2 medium onions, thinly sliced
• 1 tbsp oil
• 1/2 tbsp butter
• 1 tsp sugar
• 2 cloves garlic, crushed into a paste
• 2 tbsp chopped parsley
• 1 tbsp lime juice
• Salt and pepper to taste
Vidushi’s pro tip: “Start with a really thick creamy yoghurt base—hang the curd in a muslin cloth lined sieve for at least 6 hours. This makes sure that your dip is spreadable and scoop-able, and not a runny mess. Also, watch the onions like a hawk. You want to take them all the way to super jammy and caramelised (yum), but not burnt and bitter, and it only takes 2 minutes for the latter to happen.”
Chef Keertida is also big believer in dips as an entertaining element. Her recipe—using pumpkin, a vegetable that’s at the peak of its goodness in winter—has an Indian touch to it, and can be paired with a desi menu or a European/global one.
Keertida’s Pumpkin Dip
Keertida’s pro tip: “The dip is a very traditional Marathi side that marries ripe sweet pumpkin with tangy thick yoghurt. The individual elements can easily be made ahead and stored in the fridge. You can boil and puree the pumpkin a couple of days ahead and store in the fridge. And before it’s time to serve, all you need to do is mix it with yoghurt and add the tadka.”
Another reason we advocate for dips? They are hands-off for the host (you can just lay it out and let everyone serve themselves), while being hands-on for the guest (they can smear as much or as little as they want on their dipping vehicle of choice).
The Perfect Party by Alison Price (Kyle Cathie Limited, 2006)
All In Good Taste - from the editors of Kate Spade New York (Abrams, 2015)