Three carnivores, a vegan, a pescatarian and a person with coeliac disease walk into a dinner party. It’s not the set-up for a joke, but the stuff of nightmares for many home cooks. For Annabel Crabb, though, it’s no problem. “It does involve a bit of mental gymnastics,” she admits, “but it is possible to cook a meal that everyone can eat.”
Her new cookbook, Special Guest: Recipes for the happily imperfect host, is billed as being “for anyone who ever felt like punching a wall before their guests arrive”. It includes a subindex that makes it easy to find dishes to suit all dietary requirements. It’s just one way she’s trying to take the stress out of entertaining.
Crabb has spent most of her career as a political journalist. But she’s always loved cooking. The two disparate worlds collide on her ABC TV show Kitchen Cabinet where she interviews politicians over a meal prepared in their home.
For Special Guest, she’s collaborated with her oldest friend, Wendy Sharpe – again. This is the pair’s second cookbook; the first, Special Delivery, centred on food that travels well. Sharpe now lives in London, which Crabb says is “a very sad thing because I don’t get to eat her food”. Working from opposite sides of the globe presented some challenges, but it also provided a simple test – if a recipe could work simultaneously in different hemispheres and seasons, it was definitely versatile.
That versatility courses through the book as an antidote to the performative cooking that dominates Instagram and Masterchef. In those worlds, a dish that looks perfect is often prioritised over a simple meal that appeases the masses.
Viewing food as a vehicle to bring people together rather than the centre of attention is liberating for Crabb. Just as fine dining has moved away from starchy, restrictive ideals to embrace chefs’ personalities, home cooks occasionally need a reminder that shared meals are supposed to be about everyone having a good time.
“If a guest turns up to your house and you’re in tears … that’s not a happy house to walk into,” she says. “So even though you're trying to demonstrate your proficiency, what you end up doing is making yourself unhappy.”
For less stressful entertaining, Crabb suggests inviting friends over for breakfast or afternoon tea rather than tackling a complicated three-course dinner. The bonus of less formal gatherings is the different set of expectations. “You basically make do with what you've got most of the time and you can create interest and delight using much simpler methods than making a croquembouche,” she says.
Special Guest also features plenty of recipes that can be whipped up quickly if friends drop by, or if the number of dinner guests swells unexpectedly.
And how does that hypothetical dinner party with a raft of dietary requirements play out? One of Crabb’s favourite ways to host is to have a central dish guests can build themselves, such as a poke-bowl buffet.
“Everyone can quietly just build their ideal bowl of food but everyone still feels like they’re eating the same thing, so it's a communal experience,” she says. “I get a good feeling about sitting with the people that I've cooked for and shooting the shit. You're not concentrating on the food, you're concentrating on each other.”
Special Guest: Recipes for the happily imperfect host is available online and in store now.