"Card games, cocktail nights, wine pong...but, most excitingly, the prospect of dinners shared with friends."ILLUSTRATION BY OLIVIA LISLE. INSTAGRAM: @LIVCOLLAGE

This was supposed to be the year of the dinner party. As soon as I discovered that our second-year kitchens came equipped with the most coveted of luxuries, a dining table, I soon began planning ways to enjoy this newfound freedom. Card games, cocktail nights, wine pong... but, most excitingly, the prospect of dinners shared with friends.

When I envisaged dinner parties, I wasn’t thinking of the pretentious affairs endured by Bridget Jones — competitive, thirty-something bores boasting about success in life and the size of their spice cupboard (somehow the two are linked...) — but rather, something far more fun. To cook something with sharing in mind, rather than just cobbling together a meal from whatever is cheap, quick or about to go out of date, feels like a special occasion. Also, I can’t deny that hosting friends, however informally, seems like a badge that needs to be earned on the way to adulthood.

The fact that for most of the last year, the prospect of hosting a dinner party could risk a hundred-something-pound fine seems pretty bizarre. My grand plans were delayed; wine pong would just have to wait. However, if all we want is to share cooking and company, we can achieve a similar effect just by talking. I casually told a friend that I had made mackerel pasta for lunch, and was flattered when she asked me for the recipe. The ultimate compliment came the following week: the pasta was a hit and she had made it three times! Although we’re yet to sit down together and eat mackerel pasta around a dining room table, in the meantime, we have recreated all the basic principles of dinner with friends.

“My grand plans were delayed; wine pong would just have to wait.”

So, in that spirit, let me tell you how I made the easiest, classiest pasta dish and, if you’re feeling brave, why not turn it into a fully-fledged dinner party, complete with starter and dessert? The centrepiece is the pasta, but a courgette salad makes for a beautiful opening act and you’ll still have room for apple crumble. And booze, I hear you ask? Maybe let the guests sort that one out.

Courgettes, Halloumi and Harissa (serves 4)

"Courgettes, Halloumi and Harissa"ILLUSTRATION BY OLIVIA LISLE. INSTAGRAM: @LIVCOLLAGE

In truth, the halloumi is not strictly necessary here, but I can never resist it. Hot and squeaky, it is a perfect contrast to the courgettes, and its saltiness balances out the spicy harissa well. I sometimes add gently wilted spinach or kale to make it a stand-alone summer lunch, draped over bread or couscous, with a drizzle of tahini or a spoonful of hummus. But here, I’ve kept it in its simplest form: all elegance and no fuss.

Ingredients:

Ø 2 courgettes, sliced on the diagonal into centimetre-thick ovals

Ø Olive oil

Ø 2 teaspoons harissa paste

Ø Salt

Ø A block of halloumi, sliced into centimetre-thick pieces

Ø Optional garnish: fresh mint

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Method:

Ø Fry the courgettes in olive oil until light brown on both sides. Remove from the pan, lay on a serving dish and lightly salt them

Ø Spread each courgette slice with a thin layer of harissa (aim for spicy rather than fiery)

Ø Fry the halloumi until each side is crispy and golden but the insides are still soft and white

Ø Layer on top of the courgettes, finish with a drizzle of olive oil and scatter with mint. Serve while still warm

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Silky Mackerel Pasta (Serves 4)

"Silky Mackerel Pasta"ILLUSTRATION BY OLIVIA LISLE. INSTAGRAM: @LIVCOLLAGE

This is ludicrously simple: the sauce is thick, comprising supermarket pre-cooked smoked mackerel, made velvety with crème fraiche and lifted with a little lemon. Mustard adds warmth, but if you felt like adding an extra kick, add or substitute some chilli flakes or sauce (I used Encona hot sauce, but Tabasco would work).

Ingredients:

Ø 300g pasta (any shape but long pasta gives it a silky sophistication)

Ø 3 fillets of peppered smoked mackerel

Ø Half an onion

Ø Approx 100ml crème fraiche

Ø 2 teaspoons of mustard

Ø Black pepper

Ø Fresh parsley

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Method:

Ø Cook the pasta according to the packet. When you drain it, save about a mug’s worth of the starchy cooking water. Meanwhile, fry your onion until soft.

Ø Use a knife and fork to peel the skin off the mackerel and flake it up into chunks. Add to the pan, along with the crème fraiche and mustard. Stir.

Ø Combine the pasta and sauce. Top it up with more crème fraiche or mustard if needed, plus chilli if you like. Loosen with a splash of pasta water if too thick.

Ø Finish with chopped parsley, a generous grinding of black pepper and a squeeze of lemon.

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Apple and Oat Crumble (serves 4)

"Apple and Oat Crumble"ILLUSTRATION BY OLIVIA LISLE. INSTAGRAM: @LIVCOLLAGE

This isn’t quite a “health food,” but the oaty topping and low sugar content meant I had no qualms about testing this recipe out — my flatmates and I will gladly repeat the experiment in the name of serious journalism. Whilst not the most sophisticated of desserts, apple crumble is a forgotten favourite, a guaranteed crowd-pleaser that is easily dressed up with good ice cream, custard or double cream (the dessert Holy Trinity). The real reason I love this warm, slightly wintry pudding is because it’s student-friendly, easily whipped up in a small kitchen (with no need for scales or cake tins), and you really can use whatever fruit you have; I’m going for apples and plums. Finally, raisins are a curiously divisive ingredient. Although I’m a fully-fledged member of the pro-raisin community, feel free to swap them for another dried fruit, or omit them entirely. For a festive touch, add a tablespoon of cinnamon.

Method:

Ø Combine the fruit, raisins and sugar in an ovenproof dish.

Ø Topping time: combine the oats with the butter, mixing well with a spatula until you get a shiny rubble that clumps together when pinched. Add the sugar and stir.

Ø Spread the crumble topping evenly across the fruit. Dust with a little extra sugar and bake for 20-25 minutes, until the top is golden and the fruit soft and bubbling.

Ø Cool slightly before serving and top with the holy trinity - ice cream, custard, double cream… or all of the above!

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Ingredients:

For the fruit mixture:

Ø 3 large or 4 small apples, peeled, cored and chopped into inch-sized chunks

Ø 3-4 plums, quartered (or try a couple handfuls of blackberries or raspberries)

Ø A handful of raisins

Ø 2 tablespoons brown sugar (more if you like it sweeter)

For the topping:

Ø 50g butter, melted

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Cooking my way through Covid

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