I’m not a giver of huge dinner parties. I love sprawling Sunday lunches and Saturday-night suppers with old friends, but dinners for 14 people I don’t know well? They’re not fun, neither to throw nor to attend. They look great in films, but never pan out that way in real life. Perhaps I’m not sociable enough.
When people tell me they’re holidaying in some rural villa with 18 friends I look at them askance. I’d be running for the hills. I once agreed – because it looked glamorous – to go on a boating holiday on a Turkish gulet with 20 people, only four of whom I already knew.
It was like being at a never-ending wedding reception. I actually started to skip breakfast – yes, I know, all the feta, figs, Turkish yogurt and honey! – because the level of bonhomie required over the first meal of the day was just too much. I think I had one decent conversation all week.
I’ve been cooking family meals for the last 20 years, with all the problems that entails (picky eaters, tiredness, children who’d rather go back to their online game), but I still look back on the pre-children dinners for two – with my ex-husband – fondly.
In those days I did a plan for the week, working out which meals would dovetail, thinking about our favourite dishes and ingredients, fitting in ‘treats’. There was barely a night when a candle wasn’t lit, even though the meal could have been very simple.
During courtship – an old-fashioned concept in these days of Tinder, but I still like it – and the early days of a marriage, these meals become the bedrock of shared conversations and intimacy. They’re where you do your building.
Meals for two aren’t just for partners, though. In my early teens I would invite my school friend Kathryn to stay over on a Saturday night so I could make her either steak Diane or an old dish we found in a Marks & Spencer cookbook, chicken with peaches à l’Indienne (hilarious in both concept and title, but we loved it).
Meals for two are an important part of life even if you no longer have – or have never had – a partner. Whether in a restaurant or across a kitchen table, a shared meal is the best way to engage with anyone. Somehow food makes a meeting of minds easier.
I love making dinner for two for close girlfriends and male friends, and put as much effort into thinking about what to make as I do when I’m cooking for a larger gathering.
Meals for two seem the least demanding kind of cooking as well. You’re dealing with small amounts of food and generally not juggling lots of side dishes. It often looks as if small supermarkets have been set up specifically to answer the needs of couples.
Fillets of fish, veal escalopes and duck breasts come in packs of two. Chicken thighs come in fours – two for each of you. Stirring a risotto is exactly the same process whether it’s for six or two, but there is a manageable neatness to making it for two, and it’s the same with pasta. Steak for four is rarely on the menu in my house – too expensive – but steak for two? That’s a goer, and I won’t be stressed by making a jug of Béarnaise sauce to go on the side, either.
Big roasts, obviously, are too large for a couple, though a small chicken (that you have further plans for) is fine, as are poussins, quail and fillets of lamb that you can roast quickly and carve into pink slices. Even scrambled eggs, cooked over a low heat until you have a pot of creamy softness, have a particular beauty when they’re for two. And then there’s the conversation to come, which is surely what sharing food is all about.