14 Dec 2023

Hosting Hazards

It’s never plain sailing when you’re hosting at home, especially at this time of year. Ideally, you want to appear calm and unruffled, despite any kitchen calamities, so we’ve had a look at some common pitfalls and how to overcome them.

Seasoning Slip-ups

It’s all too easy, when you’re distracted by children, pets and guests, to be heavy-handed with the seasoning. When you taste the result, you might be thrown into a blind panic and tempted to throw the whole dish away, but there are lots of fixes that will salvage even the spiciest, saltiest dish:

•Dilution
If you’ve overdone the seasoning in a soup, stew or gravy, the easiest solution is to dilute it by gradually adding water and tasting as you go.

Alternatively, you can mitigate the over-seasoning by adding vegetables, grains or noodles – they will soak up the strong tastes.

•The Handy Potato
Chunks of raw potato, added to soups or stews, will act as a sponge, absorbing the salt. You can leave the potatoes for a few minutes to work their magic, then discard them.

•Sugar and Spice
If your dish is flaming hot, add some sugar or honey, which will offset the spiciness. Dairy products will also offset the effects of over-spicy food. Serve hot curries and salsas with a side dish of yoghurt or sour cream.

If you’ve overdone the sugar and honey and made the dish sickly sweet, offset the cloying flavour with the addition of citrus juice, wine or vinegar.

What's that Smell?

It’s so easy, with so much going on, to take your eye off the stove at a crucial moment and find that you’ve burnt the gently frying onions, charred the salmon fillet, or let the water run dry on the boiling sprouts.

There’s not much you can do with food that has been incinerated (which is why you need emergency back-up in your freezer), but it’s important to get rid of the smell of burning, which might be deeply discouraging to your guests. Quickly open all the doors and windows to air the house. Try simmering a couple of cinnamon sticks or a handful of cloves in a saucepan of water or burning a scented candle. Air freshener won’t mask the smell, it will just fill your house with a chemical stink.

Emergency Remedies

If your food is irredeemably burnt or catastrophically over-seasoned, your turkey is dry and stringy, or you’ve upended the roasting tin and dropped roast potatoes and hot fat all over the floor, you might have to turn to your emergency supplies. For meat-eaters, it is a good idea to stock your freezer with chicken breast fillets. These can be grilled super-quickly (you can use a microwave or jug of hot water to defrost them). You can dress them up with a mushroom sauce, drizzle them with pesto (a store cupboard stalwart) or whip up a quick tomato, olive oil and garlic sauce, served with pasta. The latter is a good solution if you have vegetarians at the table. Vegans and vegetarians alike will be delighted with a chickpea, coconut and spinach dahl. Lentils, tinned chickpeas and coconut milk are store cupboard staples, and it’s a good idea to have spinach in the freezer.

The Unexpected Guest

It is, of course, a faux-pas to bring an uninvited plus one to dinner without adequate warning. The fault is with the guest who has taken the liberty of bringing the extra person, but it is the host who must pay the price and frantically re-appraise catering options, juggle with ingredients, and even accommodate special dietary requirements.

At Christmas, there is also a high risk of spontaneous invitations and last-minute bouts of bonhomie that bring unanticipated guests to the festive table. It is important during this most hospitable time of the year to be well-prepared for all contingencies.

The ideal option is to bulk up your existing menu with rice, French bread, an extra dish of peas from the freezer, a large bowl of salad. Even though the main dish might have to be stretched further, the table will be groaning with offerings and will look generous and hospitable. Introduce a cheese course to stretch food even further – if you are following the French style, you will have it between the main course and pudding; the English fashion is to eat cheese at the end of the meal, preferably washed down with a glass of port.

If all else fails, you might have to create some extra last-minute dishes, in which case you can look at the emergency suggestions outlined above.

Spills and Breakages

These are always on the cards when a large group is gathered, spirits are high, and wine is flowing freely. As the host you must immediately quell any post-accident furore and put the lid on the culprit’s self-reproach. Breakages are inevitable – if you know your guests are going to be rowdy and the children are hyped-up and over-excited, don’t use your grandmother’s precious heirloom glasses. Sacrifice your desire for a super-stylish table and opt for more workaday china and glassware. If a guest breaks something that is obviously valuable, they should offer to compensate you, and you should politely refuse.

There are few stains that can’t be removed – even red wine. A little white wine, applied immediately, will neutralise the effect that the red wine has on your carpet. If the wine has dried, dab it with soda water to lift the colour from the carpet fibres. Salt will keep the stain from setting in - leave it on the carpet for about 30 minutes before hoovering it up.

Never Apologise, Never Explain

Remember, your guests don’t know what you’ve planned to serve, so they won’t be disappointed when it fails to materialise. The main thing is to keep calm and reserve panic, rage and hysteria for the kitchen, or somewhere suitably private, with the door firmly closed.

Present your rescued, salvaged, or improvised dishes with aplomb and never indulge in an apologetic commentary: “I’m so sorry, this was meant to be a light and fluffy soufflé, but it hasn’t risen and it’s more like a concrete brick...” and so on. Anxiety is infectious and your guests will have a much better time if they feel they are in the hands of a self-confident and capable host.

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