I don’t normally think of myself as lazy. But when it comes to being the hostess for a large group of people, I say be as lazy as possible. If that sounds just wrong and ungracious, it probably is a little. But no one I know has time to serve 4-course plated meals on their own these days. And most people I know don’t want to eat like that either. They want dinner parties to be casual, warm, a little raucous and most of all free. Gluten-free. Lactose-free. Meat-free. Sugar-free.
You can wrack your brain to come up with a formal menu that accommodates all of the real needs of your guests. Or you can do what I often do which is make it a DIY dinner party. I love to make people make their own food. First of all, your guests have the freedom to eat what they like and avoid what they don’t. Second, DIY dining is interactive and fun and you have limbs crossing over each other at the table reaching for food and people are talking to each other, if only to say, excuse me, can you please pass the sauce. Third, your guests ask questions about the food and come away learning how to make a dish which makes them feel proud and increases the chances they’ll make it for you someday. Lastly, it’s so much easier to put ingredients into bowls and throw them on the table. And the bonus is that a multitude of bowls on a table always looks good.
If you come over to my house for a meal, there is a more than 50% chance that you will have to assemble your own dish. Apologies in advance, but now you know. That dish might be a Korean-style taco, or it might be Korean bibimbap or bibimguksu. Bibimbap means “mixed rice” and bibimguksu means “mixed noodles”. Your guests add their own toppings of marinated vegetables, kimchi and meat and then mix it. It’s all in the name. So simple, yet the flavours and textures are complex, savoury and spicy. I’m often asked to make a bibimbap bar as special requests by my friends.
Recently, some of us threw a surprise baby shower for our dear friends Trish and Simon. This was not a traditional baby shower with bunting and ladies oo-ing and aw-ing over bottle-shaped biscuits. Trish likes real food, especially spicy Korean food, wearing lots of black, and obscure music and hates pink baby gear and games. So instead, we had a lunch with black balloons, black signs, a rock and roll t-shirt or two and a DIY bibimbap bar and DIY sundae bar. And we invited the men.
For their bibimbap bar, I made a pot of brown rice and a pot of quinoa for the white carb-free. Options for toppings included spicy marinated pork and grilled mole-slathered halibut, marinated spinach and carrots, avocado slices, red cabbage slaw, bean sprouts, lime wedges. I laid out dishes of chilli paste to mix into the dish and homemade pickles as condiments. Everyone started with their choice of a grain base and topped it off with whatever they wanted. For me, the key is to have a variety of fresh and cooked, light and heavy foods, all in a gorgeous array of colours.
As DIY as all this is, I do help people with the proportions for the different toppings and how much sauce to add. Some guests also prefer you to make their dish, which they find tastier. And I always tell people that it’s absolutely traditional to mix and eat bibimbap with a spoon. It breaks my heart to watch people struggle to pick up slippery grains of rice or quinoa with chopsticks insisting that they’re fine, they love using chopsticks. Koreans don’t struggle like that. Koreans are smart and use spoons.
For dessert, my friend Paola made homemade vanilla ice cream. I set out more little containers filled with toppings. On the trashy side we had everything from Maltesers to gummi bears, and on the classy side, we had freeze-dried raspberries, fresh mangoes and chopped Iranian pistachios.
Everything was mix and match to your heart’s content. Trish and Simon were over the moon. And that’s really all you want when you’re the hostess, isn’t it.