BOOK REVIEW: Meals in Heels, Do-ahead Dishes for the Dinner Party Diva by Jennifer Joyce

by - March 15, 2010

I quite fancy myself as the hostess with the mostess. I like to have a calm, organised affair at my dinner parties, swarvely greeting guests at the door with a casual glass of wine in hand. Little do they realise that on occasion, I have experienced a total meltdown 20 minutes prior to their arrival. Flour in my hair, every dish and fork I own dirty and piled high in the sink, with me gibbering in the corner, suffering the consequence of my overly ambitious menu which I will later shrug off with a dismissive hand wave as merely a "little something I threw together earlier."

But I want to be the calm illustrated girl in the Meals in Heels cookbook so I decided to cook from it for a full on dinner party chez moi. Make no mistake, this is an unashamedly feminine, frivolous and fabulous book that on the surface could be dismissed as a fluffy and forgettable, but in practice is a useful and very well put together book indeed. Still, not exactly one for the alpha male cooks out there.

This is a very different style of cookbook to those I have been looking at and reviewing lately. For one there is no glossy food photography, just illustrations. A big no-no for me but you know what? The descriptions are so well written and food relatively simple so I didn't feel they were really needed. Photography, for once, would have actually taken something away from the lovely design of the book, the idea being a sort of modern 1950's entertaining style. Actually, when you think about it, photography and cookbooks is a relatively new thing. I mean, Mrs Beeton managed ok without it didn't she?

Each recipe comes with make ahead and presentation tips as well as ideas of what to serve with it to create a full dinner party menu. The book is written by Jennifer Joyce, a food stylist as well as a writer, so I found her styling tips a nice, helpful touch. At the front there are some suggested menus for specific seasons and occasions plus some practical advice on hosting a dinner party.

As well as the usual starters, mains and sweets there are also sections on canapés, a section specifically for make-ahead stews and roasts, barbecue, sides and basics (pickles and sauces). Many food styles are covered here; Mediterranean, French, Asian, Indian and some good old British classics too. The only thing missing that it would be quite difficult to accommodate vegans with the recipes (but then it's always difficult to accommodate vegans).

The design is truly lovely. Gorgeous illustrations and really sweet attention to detail, the designers out there can really appreciate what a b*tch of a print job this must have been with a 4mm border on each page so bravo to the production team.

I thought I would thoroughly test the book by cooking not one, but five recipes for a dinner party. I never do canapés but I thought some pre-drinks and a little light eating would be a great way to kick things off. For these I chose Bacon-wrapped Dates stuffed with Parmesan along with Artichoke, Pine Nut and Parmesan Crostini. Both of which were simple to prepare in advance and were quite retro-looking which I liked. They were utterly delicious, especially the Bacon-wrapped Medjool dates which had a hell of a lot going on with sweetness, savoury, softness and stickiness. Yum. A great start.

I was expecting a vegetarian guest who couldn't make it at the eleventh hour, so I turned their Lemon Gnocchi Sorrentina into a starter for everyone. Ricotta gnocchi can go totally wrong quite easily but the quantities in the recipe gave firm but fluffy, lemon flavoured gnocchi that I really enjoyed. Far lighter than my usual potato gnocchi and ones that I will be making again for certain. These I made on the morning and the sauce took 10 minutes to make just before serving.

For mains I chose a Greek Lamb Stifado, containing sweet baby onions and 2 hour cooked lamb in a seriously tasty tomato sauce flavoured with cinnamon and cloves. The sauce also had a good quantity of red wine vinegar and a little sugar which gave a great savoury/sweet contrast. This was a real hit with my guests. I served it as suggested with buttered green beans and lots of mopping bread. I made the stew in the morning and simply reheated it, leaving only the beans to cook.

For dessert we went back to Italy with my first attempt at a pannacotta. This one was a vanilla flavoured pannacotta with citrus and honey. I must say, this was one of the easiest desserts I have ever made. Preparing it the night before and letting it set overnight left me with just an orange to segment and honey to drizzle before serving. One friend said it was better than any she had eaten out in restaurants. Well, that is good enough for me!

I really enjoyed cooking from this book and not once did I feel even remotely stressed preparing anything. I still spent a few hours cooking and preparing everything but once everyone arrived, most of my time was spent enjoying myself at the table instead of stuck in the kitchen so this book does deliver what it promises. And yes, I wore my favourite heels!

Meals in Heels, Do-ahead Dishes for the Dinner Party Diva by Jennifer Joyce is published by Murdoch Books and costs £12.99.

Many thanks to Murdoch Books for this review copy.

Ps. It looks like I have kankles in the top pic but I can assure you I do not. That's cleared that.

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