Cracking it: roast beef for 6 people

I've written here before about my problems with mass catering. The fiddliness of getting everything ready, while also smiling, taking coats, handing out drinks and exuding calm and hostessly bonhomie. I can't really do it. I freak out, go red, drop things, sit down and eat my lunch with audacious haste so that I can start freaking out about coffee and pudding and keep saying "Is it okay? Really? Is it? Sorry the veggies are a bit burnt! You don't have to eat it if you don't want!!!" rather than leaning back and saying something divine like "Henry, did you know that you and Sally share the same views on Renaissance art?" as if I'm some Princess in Anna Karenina.

Anyway, yesterday we gave a lunch for six and it went just fine. Admittedly, there were two of us doing it, which always helps but, amazingly, nothing was burnt, undercooked or gross and we all managed to talk at the table about something other than the niceness or not of the food.

So the menu went like this:

Chilli and Parmesan popcorn to snack on while stragglers turned up
Roast rib of beef with Henry's macaroni cheese and roasted vegetables
Steamed treacle pudding (which I bought from the farmer's market but it wasn't very nice, so I'll skip over this).

Chilli and parmesan popcorn is just brilliant stuff; pop the corn as you normally would in a large pan with a thin layer of vegetable oil on the bottom. Tranfer it to a large bowl and toss in a few shakes of mild chilli powder (or paprika) and sprinkle over a handful of parmesan. Delicious.

In the morning, we made Henry's macaroni cheese, which I've described before in my Dimbleby's dinners post. I really can't recommend that you try this out for a dinner or a lunch party highly enough. Everyone loves it.

I cooked 500g of macaroni until al dente (about 4 minutes) and then rinsed it immediately a few times in cold water to stop it from cooking any more. We couldn't find any morels, so we rehydrated a handful (when dry) of chanterelles and porcini mushrooms in a small bowl with just enough water to revive them. Henry says that you want to steep them quite tightly so you can use the mushroom water to give added wow to the mac cheese sauce.

With the now-cool pasta in a large pan, pour over two slim tubs of single or pouring cream (I think this was about 350-400ml). Squeeze the mushrooms dry of liquid in your hands and add these, then strain the mushroom liquid through a tea strainer or normal sieve (to get rid of grit) and throw that in. Grate in a handful of Gruyere cheese.

Season with salt and pepper and give it a stir. Then generously butter a large-ish gratin dish and pour the pasta in. Grate over enough Gruyere cheese to completely cover the pasta (it melts right down in the oven so don't be shy about really walloping the cheese on). This is then ready to go in the oven for about 25-30 mins, while the meat is resting.

The rib of beef Giles bought from a butcher in Kew and it was a bit of a beast, I think 2.3kg. Before it went in the oven, Giles rubbed dripping all over the meat and a good sprinkling of salt and pepper.

We cooked it according to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's meat cooking times in the River Cottage Meat book - I think it was half an hour's sizzle at 200C and then 1.5 hours at 180C and then half an hour's rest, kept warm under tin foil and a tea towel.

While the meat was resting, we put the mac cheese in the oven at 180C. In the roasting tin that the beef had been roasting, we put in 3 young leeks and five carrots, chopped up and par-boiled (for about 4-5 minutes), swirled them around and slid them in the same 180C oven. Both the roasted veggies and mac cheese cooked for about 24-30 mins.

And that was that! For some reason, it was really easy. Nothing burnt. Nothing was gross. Except the bought steamed pudding, but the less said about that the better.

Perhaps finally after so many bad dinner parties and lunches this is my reward: a good, stressless lunch?

Perhaps I am, actually, learning something.

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