The days of summer have stretched out and you were just thinking dinner might be as simple as pouring another glass and chucking a sausage on the barbecue. But before you know it, the neighbours have lingered after drinks, the kids have invited 10 mates to stop by or those "oh you must call in if you're at the beach" guests have taken you up on your offer. Don't panic, pull out your Clever Bach Catering Corps and spring into action.
Pull out your biggest platter, un-jar those gifts of olives and Italian and Spanish delicacies from the Christmas hamper. Chop up some raw veges, open bags of bagel chips or wheat crackers and set out some dips. Stir some flavourings through yoghurt or sour cream or go to that Kiwi standby: reduced cream and a packet of onion soup. Whizz a can of white beans or chick peas with garlic, olive oil and lemon juice or mash some avocados with lemon juice for a guacamole. Save cheese for the pudding course.
At a stretch
That 1kg of mince planned for hamburgers won't go far. But with lentils and cans of whole tomatoes in juice you can extend it to a bolognese-type pasta sauce. Soften masses of chopped veges (onion, carrots, celery, peppers, mushrooms) before browning the meat. A splash of milk, cooked down until it evaporates, and plenty of wine (again, cooked down til it has condensed) gives a rich creamy meat, throw in the cans of tomatoes and simmer away. Now is the time to have loaves of part-baked bread in the freezer: bake a couple while the sauce is simmering and the pasta water boils. Serve on a huge platter that people can help themselves from.
Boost the wee roast chicken in the fridge into a chicken Caesar salad. Fry loads of bread in garlic-infused oil for croutons. Either soft-boil and shell eggs to throw on the salad, or make up Caesar salad dressing, a garlicky, lemony, raw egg concoction. Pile cos lettuce leaves on a platter, throw on the shredded chicken, anchovies, croutons and pass plenty of dressing and the shaved parmesan cheese for people to serve themselves.
Make the side dishes and salads substantial enough to make up for the slimmish protein supplies you had. Courgettes, beans and other greens can be built into an Asian-style salad with crispy noodles, peanuts and a chilli/lime/sesame dressing. Rocket gets quite meaty when mixed with cooked lentils dressed with lemony/mustardy vinaigrette or served with generous shaves of Parmesan cheese. A potato salad turns into a main dish with Nicoise-style additions of steamed beans, boiled eggs, olives and tinned tuna. Cold roast veges are great with a strong mustardy dressing, robust greens and - again - those handy lentils. Feta or blue cheese crumbled over anything makes a meal, as do generous shaves of parmesan, hearty handfuls of toasted nuts, seeds or pine nuts, or crispy croutons or noodles.
Cheese to finish
Finish with a platter of cheeses, crusty breads and something sweet (dried fruit, quince paste, slices of stone fruit or apples and pears), the final chocolates and mince pies from Christmas with a glass of something sticky and sweet.
* Catherine Smith is editor of Weekend Life and a member of the Food Writers' Guild.