Levine and Jackson: If your dinner party all goes wrong, you can always order pizza
Forget candlesticks and place settings, the key to a good dinner party is keeping it relaxed. Alice Levine and Laura Jackson, the authors of Round To Ours, offer Keeley Bolger a few tips on simple hosting duties
DINNER parties. The term can't help but conjure visions of Hyacinth Bucket fussing over napkin rings and place settings. But radio and TV presenters Alice Levine and Laura Jackson are keen to set the record straight.
Over the past four years, the pair, who met at a jumble sale, have devoted any spare time from their respective Radio 1 and ITV2's Take Me Out: The Gossip hosting duties to cooking for paying guests at their London supper club. And it's not as fusty as the name implies.
"I remember being at university and having people round for dinner so I don't think dinner parties have all those 80s connotations of it being avocado mousse or melon and Parma ham now," says Levine.
"It's a very modern way to have all your friends around the table and have a catch-up. You go to a restaurant and you've got to be out at a certain time and maybe the wine is a bit too expensive, or maybe there's a vegetarian and there isn't a vegetarian option. With a dinner party, you call the shots. It's just about having all your friends around the kitchen table and entertaining."
And now they've compiled their meal collections into their first cookery title, Round To Ours. They're clear the book isn't a one-stop shop for definitive recipes; it's more a collection of meals for loosely themed food events, including hungover brunches, movie nights, late summer barbecues and summer garden parties. Each is designed for ease of entertaining rather than hosting Michelin-starred events.
Neither author is formally trained in the kitchen, nor too proud to admit that sometimes things don't go to plan – like, for example, when it took 12 attempts to make a successful lemon tart.
"No-one is ever happy if something goes wrong when you're cooking, because everyone wants it to be perfect, but at the end of the day, it's just food," reasons Levine. "If it all goes wrong, you can order pizza. It's not the end of the world. You just have to think on your feet and usually, it's just a little bit of the recipe that has gone wrong and the rest of it is salvageable. So if you've burnt the top, cut the top off and use everything else.
"Our evenings are about people leaving and thinking, I've had such a fun time, I've been well looked after and the food's been plentiful. It's not about having a cordon bleu experience, and with dinner parties, too, it's about you making an effort and making people feel wanted and special, so if something goes wrong, you have to laugh it off. It's not about keeping it a secret and not letting anyone know. You have to be like, 'You'll never guess [what's happened], it's been a disaster. Let's move on. Let's get the crisps and dip out'."
Inspired? Here are three recipes from the summer garden party menu, all designed to feed 12 people.
WATERMELON WITH ALMONDS AND DILL
2 large banana shallots, thinly sliced into rounds
Cider vinegar, for soaking
300g almonds, roughly chopped
1 small watermelon, peeled and cut into 2.5cm cubes
300g radishes, thinly sliced (ideally with a mandoline)
Large bunch of dill (about 75g), roughly chopped
Sea salt and black pepper
Place the shallots in a bowl and pour over enough cider vinegar to cover. Mix, making sure all the shallots are coated in the vinegar, and set aside. Place the chopped almonds in a dry frying pan over a low to medium heat. Toss until toasted and the skin has turned golden brown; this will only take about five minutes, so don't leave them unsupervised. Tip on to a plate to cool.
Place the watermelon in a large bowl and crumble over the feta. Remove the shallots from the vinegar and add them to the bowl, along with the radishes and toasted almonds.
Scatter over the dill, season and mix well with your hands. Transfer to a large platter and serve.
:: ROAST SALMON STUFFED WITH WATERCRESS
115g unsalted butter, softened
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
200g watercress, woody stalks removed, roughly chopped
1 small banana shallot, finely chopped
1 whole salmon, about 2-2.25kg, gutted
1 lemon, thinly sliced
Sea salt and black pepper
Preheat the oven to 170C/gas 3.
Put 90g of the butter, the lemon zest and half the juice, the watercress, breadcrumbs, shallot and plenty of seasoning in a bowl and mash together with your hands until well mixed. Spread the stuffing inside the cavity of the salmon. Tie the salmon together at intervals with kitchen string, so that the space between each set of ties is roughly one portion – try to achieve equal portions while taking into account that the salmon tapers towards the tail end.
Cut a slit in each segment of salmon and insert a half-slice of lemon (you may not need all the slices). You can protect the head and thinner tail end of the fish with a layer of well-greased foil, to slow their cooking. Squeeze the remaining lemon juice over the fish and spread the remaining 25g butter over the top.
Cook in the oven for 30 minutes, or until it is cooked through but still pink and lovely and moist.
:: SUMMER BERRY AND PISTACHIO PAVLOVA
For the pistachio meringues:
10 large egg whites
Large pinch of salt
500g caster sugar (white is better than golden)
140g shelled pistachios, chopped
For the topping:
650ml whipping cream
25ml elderflower cordial (optional)
600g mixture of fresh fruit (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries)
45g shelled pistachios, roughly chopped
Fresh mint leaves
Fresh edible flowers (optional)
Heat the oven to 110C/gas 1/4. Line four baking sheets with baking parchment (you may need to cook the meringue in batches if you don't have enough baking sheets or oven shelves) and draw a circle 20cm in diameter on each sheet. Turn the sheets over so that the circles are visible from underneath.
Place the egg whites and salt in a large, clean bowl. Using an electric whisk, and starting on a low speed, whisk into a foam, then increase the speed a little and whisk until the whites stand in stiff peaks. Up the speed again and add the sugar a tablespoon at a time, whisking for about five seconds between additions, until all the sugar is incorporated and you have a glossy mixture. Now use a metal spoon to fold in the chopped pistachios.
Place a tiny dot of meringue underneath each corner of the sheets of parchment to hold them in place. Divide the mixture evenly between the four trays and, using the back of a large serving spoon, spread the mixture out to fill the four marked circles. Bake in the oven for two hours, then turn the oven off but leave the meringues in the oven until they are completely cold. (At this stage, you can store the meringues in an airtight container, separating the discs with baking parchment; they will keep for a few days. Or you can freeze and use within one month.)
When ready to serve, whip the cream to soft peak stage, then stir through the elderflower cordial, if using. Spread the cream over the meringue discs and top with the fruit. Sprinkle over the chopped pistachios, mint leaves and edible flowers if you have some.
:: Round To Ours by Jackson & Levine is published in hardback by Quadrille, priced £20.