When we have a bunch of people over for dinner - or lunch for that matter - my favourite way of feeding them is always buffet style. I love the self-service aspect of eating in this free form manner for all its relaxed and friendly vibe. I also enjoy the visual aspect of putting together a range of different dishes, piled high, to create a spread that you just want to dive in to. But I also appreciate the fact that this is often the easiest way to cater for a crowd.
The majority of the dishes that I choose on these occasions tend to be somewhere on the salad spectrum and will be served at room temperature - but my instinct is always to have one hot (or more likely 'warm') dish because I feel a little cheated when the entire meal is cold. And let's be frank, serving multiple hot dishes all at once is a challenge not for the faint-hearted. And certainly not for me. That will be why a traditional Christmas dinner always strikes me as faintly ludicrous.
Dinner consisting of a bunch of interesting salads and side dishes, packed with colour, fragrance, spice and texture is what Ottolenghi has turned into an art form in his cafes and restaurants around London, but I genuinely believe that it's an approach that's easy to pull off at home.
And here's how I plan this type of dinner -
- A 'protein' dish - the centrepiece if you like. Perhaps some grilled salmon, why not a steak or three off the barbecue or maybe a chicken dish like this Harissa Chicken, which you can prep beforehand and pop into the oven while your guests are chatting.
- A green salad - make it interesting by including some sugar snaps, a few defrosted garden peas, some thinly sliced fennel ... anything that's more than lettuce and cucumber.
- Something carbohydratey - maybe a rice salad or a couscous dish. Perhaps bulgur wheat or these Easy Oven Chips if you've got the space (oven and/or brain space) to be cooking them just before you're ready to eat.
- One or two 'interesting' salads - Now 'interesting' doesn't have to mean complicated or time-consuming. In the summer months when tomatoes are at their most delicious, slicing them up and sprinkling them with salt, pepper, a little oil and some torn basil is about as good as it gets - even more so if you can find some beautiful heirloom varieties (or even just the yellow coloured ones) to add to the visual drama. I'm also a big fan of this Courgette, Feta and Mint Salad and this Roasted Curried Cauliflower Salad.
But at our most recent gathering over dinner, it was this Roasted Aubergine with Date Molasses, Tahini & Mint that really stole the show. It's certainly a looker but it also follows through with flavours and textures in spades. I am officially hooked.
And as a bonus, there's nothing complicated involved in making this dish - roast the aubergine, make a dressing in a jar, drizzle the roasted aubergine with dressing + date molasses + chopped mint and there you have it. An enormous amount of impact for very little effort. And we like a bit of that.
Finding date molasses (also known as date syrup) may be your stumbling block. In Dubai dates grow on trees - literally - so you can find it on every virtual street corner. But elsewhere may be a bit more tricky. So that you know what you're looking for, it's a natural sweetener made from dates, with a richness and treacly depth that can be used how you would use, say, maple syrup. Amazon sells it and health food stores too. It really is worth the effort to track it down. If all else fails, try using regular molasses or dark honey.
So let me rave about this dish for a moment -
- It's such a great mix of flavours - the slightly bitter roasted aubergine; the sour, nutty, creamy tahini; the sweet date molasses and the fresh, minty mint. A knockout.
- And it looks sensational too.
- It can all be prepared in advance and put together when you need it.
- The tahini dressing is a winner on its own and will keep for a week or so in the fridge. It is also gorgeous served with these Falafel Stuffed Pita Breads - I'd recommend them for an easy, delicious dinner.
- It's a useful vegetarian dish which makes a lovely main course with some fresh bread.
- Leftovers get a big thumbs up too. If you're lucky enough to have any.
So are you convinced? Do you fancy giving this roasted aubergine dish a try? Really ... get a few interesting salads into your repertoire and feeding a crowd will be a pleasure, not a chore. And if you're making this dish, could you invite me along too please?