Hang up that call to the takeaway and get into the kitchen with Elaine Lavery’s beginners guide to dinner parties

Some of the best nights I have spent during my three years of studenthood have been at dinner parties, some hosted by friends but most hosted by myself. This is not some kind of boastful triumph, sadly the truth is that I have found most student friends slow to reciprocate the gesture. Some have used the excuse that they could never satisfy a self-modelled Mrs Bree Van de Kamp, but I suspect the real reasons are fear and cost.

I appreciate that many of you may not cook at all, or have very limited culinary skills. If this is the case I urge you to take a leap of faith and have trust and confidence in your ability to (a) read and (b) follow instructions. You don’t have to be Jamie Oliver with ‘a handful of this and a handful of that’. I learnt to cook by weighing everything to the gram and following recipes to the letter.

The more experience and practice you get, the more natural it becomes. If you’re a first-timer, choose simple recipes with few ingredients that are quick to prepare. Always remember: preparation is the key. The more you can do in advance of your guest arriving, the less stressed you will be and the smoother your night will go.

If cost is a concern, plan your menu around seasonal ingredients rather than recipes to avoid paying through the nose for imports. Be a savvy shopper and look out for supermarket deals. I always opt for a chicken, fish or veggie main course to get the most bang for my buck.

Regarding desserts, pavlova is always a fail safe. It is surprisingly easy and low cost to make, and delicious with endless fruit combinations. If you are a confident cook and are out to wow, there is no problem asking for everyone to throw into the pot so that you can splash out on some higher quality ingredients. Five euro won’t buy you much but multiply that by six or eight and it really makes a huge difference to your wallet.

Finally, if fear of complete disaster and cost were of equal concern, I would recommend throwing a potluck dinner. The idea here is that everyone brings their own individual dish to be shared around. This is also advantageous as you can avoid liability for any post-dinner party bouts of food poisoning.

BYOB is a necessity at student dinner parties. Even better, get everyone to bring a bottle and mix up some old-time dolly mixtures. At the end of the day, people will rarely remember a dinner party solely for the food, it’s the whole package that counts and the drunker you get your guests, the more rose-tinted everything will become.

A helping hand to get the ball rolling…

Gratin of Fish with Cheese, Tomatoes and Herbs

This is a slightly tweaked recipe, robbed from the fabulous Mrs Rachel Allen. Many people are afraid of cooking fish, but here you cannot go wrong. Even better, this can be prepared up to several hours in advance of cooking.

Serves 6:

150g Gruyere or Emmental cheese, grated

3 teaspoons Dijon mustard

5 tablespoons single cream

Salt and pepper

Punnet of cherry tomatoes

2 teaspoons fresh Thyme leaves, chopped

6 generous pieces of white fish filleted and skinned (any fish works, so go for the freshest/best value)


Preheat the oven to 180C.

Place the grated cheese, mustard and cream into a bowl and mix well. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Cut the cherry tomatoes in half and place into a clean bowl, season with a little salt and add the herbs. Mix the ingredients well so that the cherry tomatoes are well seasoned.

Spread half the cheese mixture into a gratin dish. Lay the fish on top and place all the tomatoes and herbs on top. Finish with a final layer of the remaining cheese mixture (you can cover and refrigerate at this stage for up to several hours, but make sure to bring back to room temperature before cooking in the oven).

Transfer the fish to the oven and cook for 20-30 minutes, until it has turned golden-brown and is cooked through. Serve with a big green salad and some boiled new potatoes.

Apricot Ice cream

This is probably the easiest and most impressive dessert recipe I have ever come across. And it lasts for weeks in the freezer.

Serves 6:

500ml single/whipping cream

1 pot of apricot jam

Juice of one lemon

Whip the cream to soft peaks. Gently fold in the apricot jam and lemon juice. Transfer to a freezer proof container/Tupperware box and freeze for at least 4 hours before serving. Serve with some homemade shortbread (or best quality shop bought).