Cooking for a crowd: New Year’s Eve

Back in December, Tony texted me: ‘Al, would you be up for helping cook something on NYE?’

He then added: ‘Appreciate you spend your life cooking but it could be fun!’ *Lots of emojis*

It didn’t take me long to agree. No doubt it was the emojis that swayed me.

I only had to read Tony’s text to start excitably planning a menu (but all the while acting nonchalant). Some people have their addictions whether it’s bungee jumping or gambling, and mine, along with all my other food-loving friends, is looking up recipes and designing menus. Just as much adrenaline, I’d say.

So, you’re suddenly cooking for a crowd, where to start? As this was an informal evening with alcohol flowing and probably a quiz or two, I thought it would be best to serve a buffet (plus, less pressure on the cook who would otherwise be running to and fro from the kitchen and dining table). Everyone can queue up in demure British-style, plates in hand, and help themselves to whatever they fancy. Segueing naturally from that, there needs to be a focus – a dish that draws the eye – and for a cold dark night there is a demand for hot and hearty, and preferably slow-cooked, so once again the cook can relax. As you can see all my decisions were based on my own needs.

I thought of stews, curries and chillies, and hungrily reflected on the gargantuan platter of spaghetti bolognese sloppily dolled into bowls for guests in Blue is the Warmest Colour, before settling on a slow-roasted hunk of crispy, juicy pork belly. Incredibly low-maintenance, pork belly can be simply shoved in a baking tray of marinade, in this case a mixture of sweet and salty; sake, soy sauce, honey and five-spice, and gently braised until falling apart in its juices.

Serving-style sorted, main dish considered, it’s now ideal to know how many people you’re cooking for (surprisingly, this is important!). Numbers can be tricky and fluctuate haphazardly especially at last minute on the busiest night of the year. Ultimately there were nine of us – admittedly more of a gathering than a crowd but I like titular alliteration – enough to warrant my enthusiastic menu planning. With numbers in mind you can browse for accompaniments and side dishes to your heart’s content, meanwhile balancing that tightrope of flavour and texture combinations, food groups, and ensuring you cater for the rouge vegetarian or vegan.

I kept to the theme of East-Asian flavours and settled on big bowls of fresh, crunchy salads – pickled red cabbage with birds-eye chillies and sesame; pencil-thin slivers of carrot and courgette, tossed with beansprouts and spring onions and scattered with coriander and crushed peanuts – and a plate of sticky, charred miso baby-aubergines, meaty and sweet, for the vegetarians, and meat-eaters who couldn’t resist. All these dishes of bright, colourful food were accompanied by a tureen of snowy white coconut rice.

On New Year’s Eve Calum and I arrived at Tony’s door, each laden with a box full of various vegetables, a knife roll and the all-important slab of pork. We were greeted by an excitable Tony who immediately quizzed us as to whether he should have bought napkins for his guests. (Unsurprisingly, I said yes, Calum said no.) I donned my apron and after some mental adjustment to the new kitchen, and the fact I forgot scales, garlic and a peeler, set Sous Chef Calum to work mixing the marinade for the pork. We sipped wine as we chopped, whisked and grilled, and soon enough, the whole room was filled with the sweet mouth-watering scent of soy and honey. Meanwhile, Tony and his girlfriend Anna, hurried back and forth clad in rubber gloves as they cleaned around us, suddenly breaking out into a duet as they scrubbed the bathroom.

Calum carving pork belly

Guests arrived (Ollie bringing the coveted napkins, adorned in various cat designs), prosecco was popped and we nibbled on crisps and snacks as I merrily (drinking while cooking is always better) tossed the cabbage through its pickling liquor and fired the oven to crisp up the pork fat for crackling. The salads were piled with an attempt at careless flare onto plates, and the aubergines delicately stacked and sprinkled with spring onions. I left the pork carving to an eager Calum, the meat tenderly falling apart at the gentlest touch, and I poured the syrupy marinade into the only jug available, a teapot.

ollie cat napkins

In the spirit of celebrating a year of friends and good food we loaded our plates high, and settled on the sofas, chatting and eating. Plates scraped clean and people disappearing for second helpings is any cook’s fantasy and became a reality. Once everyone was finally sedated and pork-stuffed, the chocolate cake was unveiled – squidgy and velvety like mousse yet dense like a devilish brownie. We all devoured slabs loaded with a loosely-whipped dark brown sugar-cream, before more wine was poured and the party really got started with a quiz.

Happy 2018 everyone!

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