I was a little girl when I discovered my passion for cooking. I was always engaged in failed attempts at making bright blue soupies, fried chicken and cheese sauce (try mixing milk and grated cheese and see how well that works!) In my early twenties, I discovered that having dinner parties was a fantastic excuse for spending money on ingredients and trying new dishes. Yes, I'm one of those people who experiments with dishes when she's serving them - for the first time - to a room full of expectant people! (I took this to a ridiculous degree when I made sushi rolls for 40 people last year! By the time guests started arriving, I was a shattered bundle of nerves!)
So I decided to have my first little dinner party in the new apartment. I'd already organised a small girl's lime, but that was quite impromptu, so it doesn't really count.
I think the dinner party is a dying art in Trinidad. I can count on one hand the people who invite me over to their homes to eat food that they have prepared. I don't know why, but everyone seems to prefer to meet for drinks or go out liming. I love to stay in to lime - to invite people into my home; to share food with people I love; to go through the stress of planning and cooking and then the dishes afterward - these seem correct to me; a good way to honour my friends and family. (I always remember my friend, Angela Cropper, telling me that inviting people over to eat is a gift, and washing up is just part of that gift. I have to consciously bring this to mind whenever I'm faced with a post-party MOUNTAIN of dishes. Of course, I'd never serve food on a paper plate (sacrilege!) so no doubt I'm my own worst enemy.)
Having decided to have people over, I had consider who I'd invite. I've been trying to invite new people to my get-togethers, as well as long-established friends. But that's a bit dicey - you know what you're gonna get with the ole timers, but you've no idea what the newbies will bring to the table. So I try to compensate - this one is a great story-teller, that one is an excellent conversationalist, this one will give me a hand in the kitchen if it all goes awry, and so on. I put together a pretty decent guest list - small, just 10 people including me and my boyfriend.
What to cook? Hmmm. Ordinarily, I'd use the opportunity of having people over to cook something new and exciting, but for some reason, I'd lost my nerve. So I decided to do an old favourite - something I hadn't cooked in years, but feel very comfortable with: lamb shanks stewed with tomatoes and mint (lamb shanks are a really affordable option for dinner parties - you just have to cook them in the pressure cooker as they're tough as old boots otherwise!), basmati rice with toasted almonds, a greek salad and a bean salad. (Those pesky vegetarians who always pop up out of the woodwork! I WISH vegetarians, non-shellfish eaters, and non-dairy eaters would tell you, when you call them to invite them over, by the way, I don't eat meat! I've been mortified too many times, when I cook a meal that's all shellfish, and then someone tells me they're allergic! It's a horrible feeling - that you've not catered to the needs of all your guests, so someone is going to end up with rice and two lettuce leaves! So please, let your host or hostess know if you have any particular food issues... in advance!) So I made the bean salad for my vegetarian friends.
The trick with bean salad is to make a really tart salad dressing (with cider vinegar), and then add some fresh celery, bean sprouts and sweet corn to the mix of beans - that way there are a variety of tastes and textures to experience.
The appointed night arrives, and my boyfriend is laughing at me - I'm nervous. Will everyone I've invited come? Will they get along well? Will they like the food? Will there be enough food? (I once ran out of food - it was awful! Painfully embarrassing.)
Everyone comes. We sit on my roof under the full moon and talk, and laugh, and eat. There's enough food. It tastes pretty good. People leave having had a good night - with a smile. And Richard and I face the mountain of dishes with a sort-of-smile too!