Belfast Telegraph

Dinner ladies... the Northern Ireland women who just love to entertain


A survey reveals that 84% of people in Britain now prefer buffet style dining to a formal dinner party. Karen Ireland talks to three well-known local ladies who like to entertain to find out about their dinner dates.

‘I keep the menus simple, so I don’t get into a tizzy’

Colleen Bennett (56), owner of Fontana restaurant in Holywood, is married to Stephen McCauley and they live in Belfast. She says:

For nine years we have been building a house and living in a caravan, so our idea of entertaining has been a barbecue outside.

Now we have moved to the new house I am really looking forward to entertaining and having lots of dinner parties.

People think that for me it is a busman's holiday, cooking for a dinner party, as I do it all week in work, but I got into cooking as I love to cook. So that doesn't change and I love cooking at home for friends.

I have to have the table looking perfect, with a beautiful table cloth and all the glasses and cutlery the same.

I always have fresh flowers and I clean the house from top to bottom.

Since we moved though, I can't find our good cutlery, as it is still in a box somewhere.

When people come I like to have most of the work over, so I can sit and relax and enjoy good conversation.

I choose my menu as I would choose food for the restaurant and look at what is in season.

At home, I try to keep menus as simple as possible, so I am not getting into a whole tizzy cooking.

I just want to relax and sit and talk with my guests.

My kitchen was found by a friend in Banbridge. It is an ex-display, but it looks like it was made for my kitchen space.

I think I get the entertaining bug from my parents. They travelled the world and came back with some amazing ideas for cooking and entertaining. One of the biggest disasters I have ever had was when I cooked a full salmon in tin foil and as I lifted it out of the oven the foil gave way and it hit the oven door and crashed into pieces. That time, I had to do chicken as a reserve and had to put on a lot more vegetables.

One of my favourite recipes has come down the generations from my native Canada - a cedar wood salmon. The cedar wood from the trees is steeped for a couple of hours and then it is cooked on the BBQ alongside the salmon.

I love going to the farm on the morning of a dinner party and picking out fresh vegetables. They are delicious."

Colleen’s cedar plank salmon

Colleen’s cedar plank salmon


1 side of fresh salmon - get the fishmonger to remove the pin bones or do it yourself with a good pair of thin needle nose pliers, being careful to remove them all.

1 board of cedar wood, untreated, cut to the same size as the fish, aprox 40 cm

Salt and pepper.


Soak the cedar plank overnight in a container of water with a weight (tins of beans will do the trick), on top to keep it submerged.

Light the barbecue to medium high when you are ready to cook. Place the salmon skin side down on the damp plank, season it with salt and lots of ground pepper, place the board on to the grill, turn the heat down to medium.

After 15 minutes test the flesh with a gentle poke of your finger, it should be slightly firm but still have a light flake. I like to refer to the Canadian Fisheries guide which advise 10 minutes per inch of flesh.

Serve straight from the plank onto a platter accompanied by what ever salad, potatoes or favourite BBQ garnishes. We love raw fennel salad with this.

Finely slice 2 bulbs of fennel, 2 shallots also finely sliced, salt & pepper, a good squeeze of a whole lemon, several table spoons of red wine vinegar, lots of good extra virgin olive oil and fresh chopped herbs of you choice.

Pomegranate seeds also work well in this, as do orange segments or both. Simply toss everything together and let it sit til the salmon is ready.


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‘For me, it is about spending quality time with my friends’

TV presenter Emma Louise Johnston (39) is married to Jonathan Crawford. They live in Maghera with their three children, Emily (5), JJ (4) and Lucy (1 1). She says:

Since getting married and moving to the country I have found I entertain more. I love nothing more than having friends over for dinner and wine.

As you get older and have kids your socialising changes and you tend to go to friends’ houses with the kids or they come to us.

As we live quite far away from most of our friends, when they come up they usually stay over with their families and because they have made the effort to come and see us I like to put on a good spread.

I always have one sitting when we feed the kids first and then they can go off and play or go to bed while the adults relax and enjoy a nice dinner.

For me, it is all about spending some quality time with my friends, so I will try to have as much done beforehand as I can.

I like making dishes like curries which can be prepared beforehand. I will serve a nice starter like escalopes and then have a curry.

I do most of the cooking, though during the summer, if we have been having friends over, it is less formal and Jonathan cooks on the barbecue. He loves to cook as well and makes a great Sunday roast.

I am a real foodie and will explore different recipes and try things out.

One time we were having friends over and they were friends of Jonathan’s, so I was probably trying to impress them — so I had crab claws to start and then cooked two geese.

I had no idea how much goose shrinks, so when it came to serving there just wasn’t enough to go around, so Jonathan and I ended up having a plate of mash and vegetables without any meat.

I always entertain around my big wooden kitchen table. Our house is all open plan so it is designed for entertaining and perfect for just sitting chatting.

I don’t have a table cloth because the style is very modern but we do have napkins and I always have candles. I think candles make it cosier.

I am having girlie friends up at the weekend and I won’t fuss as much about that as it is more about seeing them, having a few glasses of nice wine and getting down to the gossip.

I’ll probably cook a curry beforehand, so I can spend as much time enjoying their company as possible. I didn’t get my entertaining bug from my parents as they didn’t really entertain — they tended to go out for meals and drinks.

I love it though and look forward to having friends over and always have a good night.”

Emma Louise’s beef curry

Emma Louise’s beef curry


2-3 tbsp groundnut oil

2kg beef short ribs (bone-in ribs left whole), or brisket, cut into large chunks

large bunch coriander

2 lemongrass stalks, 1 bashed, 1 roughly chopped

3 garlic cloves, chopped

1-2 green chillies, roughly chopped, deseeded if you like

2cm-piece galangal or ginger, peeled and chopped

50ml rice wine vinegar

50ml fish sauce

2 tbsp palm or light brown sugar

400g can coconut milk

2 star anise

6 kaffir lime leaves

juice 2 limes, plus wedges to serve


Heat a little of the oil in a large pan and brown the beef in batches, removing to a plate after, reserving any juices. If your slow cooker has a browning function, use this instead.

Meanwhile, in a mini chopper or food processor, whizz half the coriander, the chopped lemongrass, garlic, chillies and galangal with the rest of the oil until you have a rough paste.

Turn the slow cooker to High. Heat the paste for a few minutes, then add the beef and all the remaining ingredients, apart from the remaining coriander and lime juice. Turn slow cooker to low and cook for 8 hours, or until the meat is falling off the bone.

If using beef ribs, remove bones from the beef, then shred the meat with 2 forks. If the sauce is too thin, strain it off and boil it to reduce. Stir in the remaining coriander and lime juice, then season with more fish sauce or sugar.


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‘Buffet-style parties are much less stressful ...’

Model agency boss Tracey Hall (50) lives in Hillsborough with her husband Stephan Rogers, a fitness instructor, and their dog Frankie. She says:

Before I got married and moved to the country, I lived in an apartment. I always loved to entertain and would have had many dinner parties over the years.

It was a bit of a squash in a small kitchen but it always turned out all right on the night.

One year though, I cooked Christmas dinner for 13 people in the tiny kitchen in the apartment. I had my mum’s hostess trolley to keep the food hot and had other things keeping cool upstairs in the roof garden as I didn’t have enough room.

That was so stressful and I swore I’d never do it again.

I must admit from a hosting point of view I prefer the buffet style as it is easier than stressing about timing everything, but I prefer to serve a sit-down four-course meal.

We have been renovating an old house outside Hillsborough since we got married and we knocked three rooms into one for the kitchen dining area, so it is the perfect party house and great for entertaining.

I recently hosted a surprise 40th party for one of my models and had all the girls over for a buffet-style meal and also did my best friend’s 50th which was a full sit-down meal.

My sister has a degree in hospitality management and two of my best friends are excellent cooks.

I think they are surprised when I manage to pull off a dinner party.

I actually love cooking and it makes all the difference now that I have a helper in Stephan. We haven’t got round to doing up the dining room yet so we haven’t purchased a proper dining table. We are still using the big glass one from the roof garden in the apartment but it seats 10, so it is perfect for a dinner party.

I made Christmas dinner for 11 last year and in the new house, with a big kitchen and two ovens, it was so much less stress than in the apartment.

It was just like cooking a Sunday roast. I would definitely do it again.

I love making the table look pretty and doing a centrepiece with floating candles or a Christmas theme.

I am one of those people who tidies the whole house before people come over — especially at the minute as a lot of people haven’t seen the house and want the tour.

This means I have to tidy every single room.

One of my signature desserts is a blueberry cheesecake.

The second time I made it, I put it in the tin upside down, and all of the liquid leaked out and I was left with a lumpy mush which I couldn’t serve to anyone.

I had to make another one quickly before all of my guests arrived.

I think the beauty of a dinner party versus a buffet is that a four-course meal will definitely last longer.

Often though, people have a few too many glasses of wine and they forget what the food was even like.”

Baked blueberry cheesecake

Baked blueberry cheesecake


50g butter, melted

200g pack butter ginger and oatflake cookies, crushed

1 vanilla pod

2 x 250g tubs mascarpone

280g pack full fat Philadelphia cheese

125g caster sugar

2 tbsp cornflour

grated zest of small orange and lemon

3 large eggs, whisked

300g blueberries

For the compote

200g blueberries

2tbsp caster sugar

squeeze of orange juice


Preheat oven to 180C. Grease and base line 23cm non-stick springiform cake tin. Mix crushed cookies with melted butter and press into tin with the back of a spoon and chill for 10 minutes.

Add the vanilla seeds to the mascarpone, soft cheese, sugar, cornflour and zests.

Stir most of the blueberries in and pour the mixture into a tin.

Bake on a baking sheet into the middle of the oven for 45 minutes until golden and almost set.

Chill, covered, overnight.

For the compote, simmer blueberries, sugar and orange in a small pan for 10 minutes, then cool. Remove cheesecake from the tin and serve.


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