The formal dinner party is back in vogue. But while the recession may have curbed our cooking and eating habits, Lydia Slater talks to Jennifer Joyce, a cookery writer who can help you achieve gastronomy for guests without facing a feast of burden. On the stove, the prawns are sizzling as they flush a brilliant pink - as is the face of the dishevelled hostess hurtling from kitchen to dining table, attempting to fold napkins into ornamental shapes, make witty conversation and whisk crème brûlée all at once.
Yes, just when we thought it had gone for good, the formal dinner party has returned to haunt us. And there's no escape. Entertaining at home is smart again. The trend began last year, in a deceptively unthreatening guise. As we couldn't afford to eat out as regularly, we began to invite friends home again. But with frugality being the watchword, guests never expected more than a stew, with cheese to follow.
The recent upturn, however minor, in the global economic situation, has brought about a renewed longing to impress rather than simply to console. Hence, the sudden increase, according to the supermarkets, of sales of salmon roulade and beef Wellington. "I think people are just a little bit bored with thrift and the obsession with bistro food," says the glamorous cookery writer and food stylist Jennifer Joyce, who is at the vanguard of this new trend in entertaining. "I know I'm sick of writing recipes about mince. People do still want to cook at home, but they want to try something more glamorous. Entertaining isn't particularly cheap but it's fun, and it bonds you to your friends far more than if you just go out together to a restaurant. The effort is valuable to friendships."
The trouble is that for many of us, the effort is just too much. Far from feeling bonded to our friends, we resent them for lumbering us with extra work after a busy day. So Joyce has written a timely dinner party tome, Meals In Heels, which is designed to give the domestic dinner party the maximum impact while minimising potential disasters. Her secret is simple. Like a Boy Scout, a dinner party giver should always "be prepared" - ideally, a day or two in advance.
"The most common dinner party mistake people make is to try to do everything - plan the menu, shop, cook and tidy up - on the same day. Even if you manage it, you'll be much too tired to enjoy your party," she counsels. "I've been to so many dinner parties where that's happened, and you do feel uncomfortable as a guest if you can tell your hostess is loathing every minute." In Joyce's case, much practice has made perfect. At her home in Twickenham, south-west London, she hosts dinner parties every fortnight with her husband Patrick, who works in computer software (and whose speciality is laying the table).
All the recipes in her book sound glamorous, exotic and rather dauntingly complex: we're talking sushi squares with chilli crab and cucumber, and coconut macaroon ice-cream sandwiches - but they have all been fully tested at her own events "If you're having a dinner party, you want to make at least one thing that's special or different, but this is all easy to make though it sounds very sophisticated, even if you've hardly cooked at all."
It's not merely that the techniques are easier to master than they sound. More importantly, each recipe comes with a suggested timetable for making as much as possible earlier in the day. Even green beans should be prepared hours before, then refreshed just before serving in boiling water, while meat should be seared in the morning so that the smell of smoke has time to leave your house. "The aim is to have everything ready a couple of hours before your guests arrive," says Joyce. "Then you can focus on other things, like tidying up, getting flowers in, laying the table and having a shower.
"It also gives you time to think about how the food should be presented - like having brightly-coloured vegetables if your main dish is brown, for instance." When it comes to impressing guests, the presentation of the food is as vital as the taste, so each recipe also comes with a recommendation for the colour of china you should serve it on. If you're unwilling to invest in a new dinner service to offset the appearance of your lemon grass and lime prawn skewers, all is not lost; she has a plethora of professional tips up her sleeve, including using a veg peeler on your Parmesan to carve attractive-looking slices, wrapping your lemons in muslin and using banana leaves to serve your roast meats on.
Joyce's catering skills were laid down in her early childhood. She was the youngest of nine children and born and brought up in rural Wisconsin, USA. Her father, a sales executive, was a keen gardener and her mother, the daughter of Italian immigrants, held strong views about food. "Everything was made from scratch. We grew our own vegetables, kept chickens and led an organic lifestyle, though that word didn't exist then.
"It was the era of real junk food. All my friends were eating Pop Tarts, but my mother was almost militant in her attitude to cooking. It had to be home-made, we never had anything out of a box and we all learnt to make cakes and bread." On Sundays her grandmother, who had emigrated from Abruzzo in Italy, came over, poured a huge pile of flour in the centre of the dining table, and made fresh pasta. "It was a crazy, fun childhood and meals were paramount."
From the age of 12, Joyce took her turn making a weekly meal for the entire 11-strong household. "That was how I learnt about time management and getting the vegetables done early." She then studied business marketing at the University of Wisconsin and joined a computer company. It wasn't until she was 28, and taking a break to travel around Europe, that she decided that her future lay in food. "When I got to Italy, I felt as though I'd come home."
After arriving in London, she made her way to Books for Cooks, a cafe-cum-bookshop, and was soon whipping up recipes in its kitchen. Then, she helped run a party catering company for five years, which she describes as "quite heinous work. But that's where I learnt how to stage things and keep everything fresh." It also left her with a passion for canapés. "They're still my favourite food," she says fondly. "They can be really simple, with just some crostini with something spread on them, but people are always impressed."
Even with all her experience, she admits she's had her share of dinner party disasters. "Last Sunday I had people, and I thought I'd make sushi in the new rice cooker my husband gave me for Christmas," she confesses. "It didn't say how much water you should add, so we guessed and it turned out a complete bowl of glob, like porridge. "One of my friends said, 'I've never been here when you've got anything wrong, but that was really, really bad.'"
So what does she advise when the hostess's best-laid plans go astray? "All you can do is smile," she says. And make sure, in the worst case scenario, that you have a reliable pizza delivery company on speed-dial. Meals In Heels by Jennifer Joyce (Murdoch Books) is available to order from McGrudy's (Dh 85). See Jennifer's blog - mealsinheels.wordpress.com