The other day we were out for dinner as the tag-along guests of some friends we were staying with. Over pre-dinner drinks, I happened to overhear our hostess remarking to another woman that she couldn't stand going to other people's houses to find they were still getting things ready.
"It just isn't right to turn up and find people still prepping and cooking. Honestly, if you're going to invite people over you need everything prepared and ready before people arrive, it's just bad manners if you don't."
I made a quick mental note to never invite these people to my place for a meal. Hell, I'm never that organised. Dessert – yes, that's always something I have ready to go (even if it's store-bought icecream and bottled fruit). Generally the business of washing and chopping vegetables is sorted but, unless it's a big party, I am happy to cook while everyone's there, especially now as the days lengthen and our appetites turn to lighter, fresher tastes and dishes that, for the most are best cooked quickly at the last minute.
In days gone by, you could have easily turned up to my house on the invitation of dinner to find no sign of any preparations and perhaps wondered if you had arrived on the wrong day. Life was so busy that all my cooking was on the wing. Over the years I've learned that this strategy is not only stressful but also easily given to failure.
These days, no matter how far behind I am on food prep, before anyone arrives I always set the table, arrange fresh flowers, light candles, put on some cruisy tunes, throw some booze in the fridge to chill and set a bowl of olives or pistachios on the bench with some glasses. Then I get changed as if I was the one invited out for dinner.
Even if there's nothing ready to eat, when people arrive, they feel welcome and I feel fabulous. I've learned that it's better to drop the bar rather than try to raise it. Prepare food that's easy and yummy, that you don't really have to think too much about.
If the kitchen isn't your comfort zone, don't let that put you off inviting people over. Just buy really good-quality ready-made foods that you can more or less "assemble". The better the ingredients, the less work on your part.
Fresh salmon with a crispy skin and fragrant lentils, a tangy salad and an easy cake make for a yummy menu that can mostly be prepped ahead and won't stress you out.
Roast salmon with fragrant lentils
Fresh salmon is one of my favourite things to cook. It always looks pretty, is super-quick to cook and the high fat content means that you even if you stuff up and overcook it, it will still be good. Because it's rich, you don't need a lot. I love serving salmon with a crispy skin but if you prefer less last-minute fuss, just roast the salmon in the oven for about 10 minutes without first crisping the skin on the stovetop. The lentils can be cooked ahead of time. Reheat and add the parsley just before serving so it doesn't lose its colour.
Ready in 40 minutes
1¾ cups Le Puy or beluga lentils
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, very finely diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 bay leaf
4 cups chicken stock
1½ tbsp sherry or wine vinegar
½ cup chopped flat leaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper
6-8 x 150g boneless, skin-on salmon fillets
1 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper
1-2 lemons, sliced into cheeks or wedges, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil
Place lentils in a pot with olive oil, onion, garlic, bay leaf and stock.
Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a low simmer, cover and cook for 15 minutes then remove lid and continue cooking until lentils are just tender and liquid has evaporated (time will depend on age and dryness of lentils, about 20 minutes). If liquids have evaporated and lentils are still hard, add some water to the pot and continue cooking until they are al dente. Take off heat, remove and discard bay leaf. Stir in the vinegar and most of the chopped parsley and season with salt and pepper to taste.
To cook salmon, preheat oven to 200C. Heat a large, heavy-based ovenproof frying pan over a medium-high heat with 1 Tbsp olive oil. Sprinkle salmon on both sides with salt, and zest the lemon rind over the top.
Add salmon to hot pan, skin-side down. Cook for 4 minutes over high heat. Transfer pan to hot oven and cook for 5-7 minutes or until salmon flesh has a little give when gently pressed from the sides (the thicker the fillets the longer they will take to cook). Rest for a few minutes before serving.
To serve, divide lentils between 6 serving plates and place a piece of salmon on top. Scatter over reserved parsley and drizzle over a little olive oil. Garnish with lemon and serve.
Fennel, avocado and orange salad
All the components of this salad can be prepped ahead. At the last minute, cut up avocado, add to the other ingredients, dress, toss and serve. Dressing will keep in the fridge for a week.
Ready in 15 minutes
1 ⁄ 3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp lemon juice
2 tsp white wine or rice vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp honey or sugar
½ tsp salt & grinds of pepper
1 cos lettuce
1 small head radicchio or endive
1 medium head fennel
Juice of ½ lemon or 1 Tbsp rice vinegar
2 oranges, peeled and cut into segments
1 large, just-ripe avocado
½ cup roasted, shelled pistachios or roasted almonds
Ahead of time, make dressing by shaking all ingredients together in a jar. Halve fennel and shave through a vegetable slicer or with a peeler. Place in a large bowl of cold water with a lemon juice or rice vinegar to keep crisp and prevent browning. Wash and dry salad leaves, cut cos leaves into thirds.
If not serving within an hour, place in a bag in the fridge. Remove peel and pith from oranges and cut into segments, place in a bowl. Squeeze juice from the cores and shells into dressing and put dressing and oranges to one side.
When ready to serve, slice avocado. Thoroughly drain fennel, add salad leaves, oranges, pistachios and sliced avocado.
Add dressing and toss gently to combine. Transfer to a serving bowl and serve.
Lemon poppy seed cake
This is one of those fabulous one-pot cakes you can throw together in a flash. The honey ensures the cake stays nice and moist. Store leftovers in a sealed container in a cool place.
Ready in 1 hour 10 minutes
1 cup sugar
2 Tbsp honey
¾ cup natural yoghurt
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups self-raising flour
1 cup poppy seeds
Zest of 2 lemons, finely grated
3 Tbsp lemon juice
1½ cups icing sugar
2 Tbsp natural yoghurt or sour cream
2 Tbsp lemon juice
2 Tbsp finely chopped crystallised ginger or glace lemon peel, to garnish (optional)
Preheat oven to 160C fanbake. Grease the sides of a 23-24cm diameter cake tin and line the base with baking paper.
Melt the butter in a large pot. Remove from the heat and stir in the sugar and honey.
Once honey has dissolved, add yoghurt, eggs and vanilla and whisk lightly to combine.
Add flour, poppy seeds, lemon zest and juice and mix gently until evenly incorporated.
Transfer mixture to prepared tin and bake until the cake is golden, the top springs back when touched and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean (about an hour).
Allow to cool for 10 minutes before removing from the tin.
While the cake is cooling prepare icing by stirring together all ingredients until smooth.
Spread over fully cooled cake, allowing it to drizzle down the sides. If desired, scatter the top with ginger or lemon peel to serve.