PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 December, 2011, 12:00am


The holiday season is a time when people feel compelled to cook. Even those who subsist on takeaway sandwiches and salads for most of the year are gripped by the need to repay social debts and invite people into their home for drinks and nibbles. And a lot of people want to put a little more effort into entertaining than offering the odd bowl of crisps (although there is nothing wrong with crisps, as long as they are good ones). This can mean going from cooking for none to cooking for a roomful of guests, and, in the process, creating a lot of unnecessary stress.

It is probably too late to hire a caterer (most would have been booked ages ago by people who plan ahead). So go by the KISS principle: keep it simple, sweetheart. It is far easier to serve just a few things in large quantities than it is to make a lot of smaller dishes. Prepare as much as you can in advance and supplement your home-made dishes with food that can be purchased from supermarkets.

Few people dislike smoked salmon, so buy a good quantity of it and serve with thinly sliced brown bread, red onion and cream cheese that has been beaten in advance, so it is spreadable. Because the salmon and bread dry out and look tired if left out for too long, it is better to serve them on small- ish plates (proportionate to the number of guests) and keep more (in cling-film but otherwise ready to serve) in the fridge.

A beef fillet is expensive, even though it is not the tastiest cut of meat, but it looks impressive, is easy to slice and much of the preparation can be done in advance. Buy the fillet (as many pieces as needed to accommodate the size of your party and each about 30cm in length) several days before the party and have the butcher remove and discard the silverskin. Sprinkle salt lightly but evenly over the meat, then cover with cling-film and refrigerate for a day. Heat an oiled skillet over a high flame, then sear the fillet on all sides - you only want to brown the meat, not cook it. Remove it from the pan then wrap it tightly and securely in cling-film and plunge this into a large container of ice water, to stop the cooking. Unwrap it, cover it with fresh cling-film, then refrigerate until the day of the party. Use a pastry brush to coat the exterior of the fillet with grainy mustard. Mix breadcrumbs with melted butter, chopped garlic, parsley and salt and pepper. Press the mixture onto the fillet and refrigerate until about two hours before your guests arrive. Preheat the oven to 220 degrees Celsius, put the beef on a roasting pan and cook until it reaches an internal temperature of 48 degrees Celsius (for medium-rare). Leave for at least 10 minutes before slicing. If you're cooking several for a large crowd, roast them one at a time at judicious intervals so they're warm when served. Accompany the beef with sliced bread, a small bowl of coarse salt (Maldon or fleur de sel) and a choice of mustard.

Set up the salmon and beef on a table, and round out the spread with plenty of other dishes, such as dips and crudit?s, olives, pickles, pretzels and crisps. If you must serve something sweet, buy a selection of good-quality biscuits and mince pies.

The alcohol is the most expensive part of the party, but don't bankrupt yourself by trying to provide top-notch bottles; serve what you can afford, and welcome alcoholic gifts from your guests with open arms. At the least, serve one red and one white wine, plus beer and soft drinks. A large punchbowl of mulled wine adds a festive touch to a party, and it is inexpensive to make. Attempting to serve a huge variety of drinks can make things difficult: you'd need someone on hand to mix cocktails, not to mention all the different glasses and accoutrements each would require.