A couple of weeks ago my friends and I got together to celebrate the new season and enjoy a long Winter Lunch under a canopy of evergreen trees rustling ever so gently in the breeze. Coming together each season at a beautiful location, enjoying the delights of a cosy winter menu at a stunning table setting, and indulging in a few glasses of wine while catching up on all the latest, is my version of heaven. Luckily it doesn't get too cold here in Queensland during the cooler months, so unless it's raining, dining outdoors is always possible.
Celebrating a new season is always fun, and I was tasked of putting the winter themed menu together. This is my favourite part! I absolutely LOVE creating a menu. Our theme is always seasonal, and seeing as it's winter, I wanted to create a menu that was warm, cosy and comforting. Here are my tips for planning a menu.
Find out dietary requirements
It is always prudent to find out if any of your friends have dietary requirements, such as allergies and preferences. There is nothing worse than having a meaty BBQ when one of your friends is a vegetarian or a pescatarian - no one wants that to happen. If you there are any non-dairy and non-gluten guests, I absolutely make sure this is taken into account across the whole menu so no one feels left out. It's best to find out as early as possible because you'll be busy planning a beautiful menu and you don't want to have to change it a week out from the event...if you can help it.
Select the theme
Having a theme is really important as it guides the cuisine and menu. Our long lunches are seasonal, so the theme this season is winter - rustic, minimalist, cosy. But for you it could be Christmas, an Italian summer, an Indian birthday, or a backyard BBQ. Once you have your theme, it's time to choose the cuisine.
Choose the cuisine
Now that you have chosen the theme, it's time to hone in on the cuisine you want to cook. Will you be cooking Italian, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, French, Scandinavian or modern Australian? You can choose one or many, but I find it keeps things simple for you if you choose one (maybe two). Remember to check in wiht your friends; if you plan on creating an Italian feast but one of your friends doesn't enjoy pasta or pizza, you may need to think about switching the cuisine. For our Winter Lunch I chose to cook modern Australian using native ingredients, but there is definitely an Italian and French influence as well.
Planning the menu
A couple of weeks before your long lunch or dinner party, start planning your menu. Look at your favourite cookbooks for inspiration and food magazines to get a feel for the cuisine you have chosen. From my experience, choosing simple recipes that have minimal preparation time but are also packed with flavour is absolutely essential. I always try to create recipes that can be made in advance so I'm not having to cook everything on the day. You do want to be able to enjoy yourself too, you know.
Depending on how many people are attending, I always make sure I have at least a meat dish and/or a fish dish, a salad, a vegetable dish and a carbohydrate dish. And lets not forget dessert! I always like to make something fresh and fruity ahead of time, so if it's winter you'll often see me baking something in the oven, but when it's summer I'll be making something cool that can be kept in the fridge, like this Lemon & Native Lime Macadamia Tart.
Track your spending
When I plan each dish, note down the cost of ingredients and avoid overspending where possible. I like to think about the cost of the big ticket items like meat and fish. Feeding a group of people can get expensive, so think about the cut of meat or if it's more cost effective to cook a whole fish as opposed to individual fillets. For our Winter Lunch, I could have chosen to cook beautiful fillets of steak, but as I was feeding 7 friends and would have to be managing individual cooking times per person, I decided to cook lamb shanks (which is a very reasonable cut of meat) and cook them over 4 hours in the slow cooker. All I had to do was season and sear the meat, and let it cook slowly in softened garlic and onion, red wine, vegetable stock and fresh herbs.
Don't spend too much time in the kitchen
When you plan your menu, also take into consideration how long it will take to prepare each dish and how much of the preparation and cooking you can do beforehand. Your goal is to (obviously) cook really delicious food, but you want to also avoid spending to much time in the kitchen otherwise you'll miss out on all the conversation and banter with your friends.
As a sample, this is how I usually plan and create a menu:
Think about the menu presentation
I love nothing more than a table setting with a printed menu. It just adds that extra touch and not only does it look beautiful on a styled table at each setting, but it allows the guests to find out what they'll be eating and talk about the menu and ingredients with each other. I ran out of time to do this for our Winter Lunch, but you can bet I'll be doing it for our Spring Lunch!
Now I am sure you are all wanting to know:
I'll tell you.
Winter Lunch: Menu
For our Winter Lunch, I opted out of a Starter and we went straight for the mains. I served:
Winter Lunch: The Details