This post was written in association with Argos.
Let’s talk about dinner parties.
I learnt to cook when I was 20. I was studying at uni but living at home, and my mum was working long hours. I only had ten or so contact hours a week so spent most of my time bumming around at home. It made no sense for my mum to come home and cook when I was home already, so I learnt to cook so that my family and I could eat. It was a fair reason to crack open that first cookery book, but “needing to eat” doesn’t account for the five years, hundreds of new recipes and thousands of hours of thinking about food that followed it.
I quickly realised that I was good at cooking. I could easily whip up a cake for my mum to take with her to meet her friends, or some tacos for my boyfriend when he came home from work, or a pie to eat with my family on a Sunday. And as a result of that cake, those tacos, that pie, I was making people happy.
More specifically, I was making the people I loved happy. I was creating something that gave them joy and pleasure. I was looking after them, I was bringing them together over a plate of something hot and delicious and spending an hour with them chatting about our days. A little bit of effort for making myself and my family happy. It was the most wonderful feeling, and is the reason I took to cooking as I did.
This is why I love dinner parties so much.
When I have a dinner party, I am basically picking some of my absolute favourite people in the world and giving them something to make them happy. I get to put in an hour-or-so’s effort, then serve them something delicious and sit with them whilst they eat it. It’s the most wonderful thing in the world. I would rather sit around a table with my family and friends and some gorgeous food than do absolutely anything else.
Last year, my friends Tami and Katie and I had dinner together once a week. Sometimes we’d eat burgers and wedges off our laps with the TV on, sometimes we’d sit and pile spaghetti on our plates whilst children screamed in the background, and sometimes we’d do it more formally with a tablecloth and a couple of courses. The only thing that these dinners had in common was that the food was all low-calorie.
My best recipes come from my urge to make something that tastes like it’s fattening but is actually fairly good for you – just look at my Baked KFC or my Hunter’s Chicken. Because of this, Argos challenged me to take part in their dinner party campaign and throw a dinner party with some healthy dinner party recipes. I immediately took it upon myself to make the filthiest, most decadent recipes I could whilst keeping the fat and calories down.
For the starter, I made some low calorie dips and served them with crudities. Quark is the secret ingredient here – it’s a low fat cheese that soaks up flavours beautifully. You can make a fair hummus by whizzing chickpeas with paprika, a tablespoon of peanut butter, garlic cloves, a squeeze of lemon juice and heaped tablespoons of Quark. Similarly, mixing a handful of basil leaves, garlic cloves, 200g of Quark and 20g Parmesan cheese with lots of salt and pepper gives a delicious pesto-style dip. Mix Quark, garlic cloves and your favourite herbs (I like dill, chives and oregano) to get a gorgeous garlic and herb style dip.
Dips are great to serve for starters when your guests and coming in and getting settled. They’re easy to eat and don’t distract from conversations. From a pure health point of view, they’re also an excellent way to get lots more veg without even really thinking about it.
For the main course, I pulled out all the stops.
This is a spinach, cheese and gnocchi bake. Gnocchi isn’t actually that bad for you – sitting somewhere between potatoes and pasta, you don’t have to eat that much of it to feel satisfied. As long as you’re clever with the sauce you serve it with you can enjoy it without feeling like you’ve overindulged.
This is a very clever sauce. It tastes ridiculously cheesey, but there’s only 90g of cheddar in the whole thing. Once again, it’s Quark that’s doing the legwork here – it soaks up the flavours of the vegetable stock and the cheese whilst giving the bake a beautiful texture.
And, of course, I added more cheese on top. Because why wouldn’t I? Baked cheese is one of life’s true joys. The crunch and crispy top is a lovely counter to the thick, creamy sauce and the plump little gnocchi within.
The recipe is below – has it inspired you to make your own healthy dinner party?
The reason Argos wanted me to write this post is that they’re holding a competition. They want people across the UK to hold their own dinner parties and share photos, and have shared tips on how to throw a great dinner party on their website (with a few ideas from me). The winner gets a bundle of kitchenware – a dinner set, cutlery and glasses – from Heart of House! All you have to do is share a photo of your dinner party on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #ArgosDinnerParty. Click here to download full T&Cs.
If you do enter, please tag me in the photos so I can check out what beautiful recipes you’ve made! I have a whole category of Food for Friends here that you might want to check out.
Oh, and if you’re wondering what I made for dessert, you might want to check back next week. I have a mixed berry and dark chocolate pavlova recipe you’re going to love.
- 500g gnocchi
- 1 bag of baby spinach
- 1 red onion, sliced
- 120g strong cheddar
- 200ml vegetable stock
- 200g Quark
- 2 eggs
- Salt and pepper
- Pre-heat the oven to 200C
- Cook the gnocchi according to the packet instructions. Drain and set aside
- Wash the spinach and shake lightly. Add to a pan over a high heat and stir until wilted. Set aside and reduce the pan to medium
- Fry the onion until soft. In a jug mix together the vegetable stock, Quark, eggs and seasoning. Add to the pan and heat through. Then add 100g of the cheese. Stir through to melt, adding splashes of hot water if it seems too thick
- Drain the gnocchi, add to the sauce along with the spinach
- Pour into a dish, top with remaining cheese, then bake for about twenty minutes until bubbling