Matthew Fort on how and what to cook according to the number guests you invite

For one

OK, so beans on toast will suffice. But catering for yourself isn't an excuse to let your standards slip - on the contrary, there's a special pleasure in trying out new things when you're on your own.

Poached egg on butter beans and ham

I have a thing about butter beans. I quite like them straight from the tin (when no one's looking). They're dead easy to cook from scratch if you buy the dry version (which make, incidentally, a very fine mash, with garlic, olive oil and lemon juice). But as we're on our own tonight, it's time to reach for the can.

1 can of butter beans

85g ham (preferably smoked and cut thick)

30g butter

salt and pepper

2tsp whole-grain mustard

1tbsp chopped parsley

1 fresh egg

1 Drain the liquid off the butter beans.

2 Cut the ham into strips about 0.5cm thick.

3 Melt the butter in a saucepan.

4 Add the ham strips and fry gently for a couple of minutes. Add the butter beans and stir round to mix with the ham.

5 Season with salt and plenty of pepper.

6. Put the lid on the saucepan, turn down the heat and braise gently for 20 minutes or so.

7. Add chopped parsley and stir in the mustard just before serving.

8. Poach the egg.

9. Decant beans'n'ham to plate. Place egg on top.

Eat in cheery solitude.

For two

This is where you get to show off your skills. You can be ambitious with a meal for two in a way you probably wouldn't want to be ambitious with a meal for 10.

Grilled plaice with braised romaine lettuce, ham and peas

All my life I have had a weakness for petits pois à la francaise, peas cooked in white wine and stock with onions and bacon. And all my life I have had a weakness for cream. So I brought two of my (many) weaknesses together to make this vegetable stew to go with some plaice. Of course you could use most other fish just as well - salmon, cod, monkfish, sole. But not herring, mackerel, sardines or tuna.

The vegetables:

1 bunch of spring onions

2 slices of ham

20g butter

200g frozen petits pois

1 heart of romaine lettuce

70ml chicken stock

lemon juice

100ml double cream

salt and pepper

1. Trim the onions.

2. Slice the ham into matchsticks.

3. Heat the butter in a saucepan. Add the onion and fry gently until soft. Add the ham, and the peas and the leaves of the romaine lettuce, sliced. Pour in the chicken stock, and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and the cream.

The fish:

2 plaice

melted butter

salt and pepper

1. Turn on the grill

2. Brush the fish with melted butter and season with salt and pepper.

3. Grill for four minutes on each side. Serve with the vegetables.

For six

Happiness at table has a good deal to do with company, which is why six is such a great number for a feast. Conversation, laughter and debate and, on the cooking side, you need to put in a bit more thought beforehand.

Chicken breasts in almond and lemon sauce

Normally I am loth to cook just a breast, or just a leg or thigh, come to that. I like to cook the whole bird, but every now and then you have to give way in the interests of portion control and eye appeal. I happen to think this dish tastes as good as it looks, if not better - and the people to whom I served it thought so too, luckily for me.

6 chicken breasts, skins removed

120g leeks

2 shallots

25g butter

1 lemon

75ml white wine

100ml chicken stock

100ml double cream

80g ground almonds

salt and pepper

For stuffing the chicken breasts:

250g spinach

100g onion

100g prosciutto

40g butter

salt and pepper

1. With a sharp knife, slice the chicken down its length so that it opens like a pocket. Spread the stuffing inside each and then close it up again.

2. Wash the leeks finely and slice thinly. Chop the shallots finely.

3. Heat the rest of the butter in a deep frying pan or a sauté pan large enough to hold the chicken breasts. Add the leek and shallots and fry gently to soften without browning for 10 minutes.

4. Add the juice of the lemon, keeping the peel. Add the vermouth (or white wine), stock and cream and simmer for 10 minutes.

5. Place the chicken breasts into the pan and simmer for a further 10 to 12 minutes. Then take out the chicken breasts and keep warm.

6. Whizz the vegetable and liquid contents of the pan in a liquidiser until smooth.

7. Add the ground almonds and grate the lemon peel in as well. Season, then reheat the sauce until it thickens.

8. Serve over or under the chicken breasts, according to your fancy.

For 10 or more

Whether it's 10, or 20, or even more is almost immaterial: the effort involved in cooking for this many people is pretty much the same. This isn't the sort of thing you'll do very often, but nor is it likely to be last-minute. Gauging quantities is a bit haphazard, but it's far better to have too much than too little. And make sure you've got enough pans - large enough pans - before you start.

Lancashire hotpot

My family comes from Lancashire, so we have very particular views on this, as do most Lancastrians. For the record I have not included oysters, although there is a school of thought that insists they should be there. To my mind, the kidneys are far more important.

15-20 middle neck lamb (or better still, mutton) chops on the bone

75g dripping

1kg onions

1.5kg potatoes

15-20 kidneys

1 litre lamb or chicken stock

salt and pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 190°C/375°F/Gas 5. Trim excess fat from the chops.

2. Melt the dripping in a pan, and brown the chops on both sides. Set to one side.

3. Slice the onions finely and stew in the dripping until soft. Peel and slice the potatoes quite thickly.

4. In the crock/casserole, place a layer of potatoes, then a layer of chops, then a layer of onions, then a layer of kidney slices.

Season and repeat until all the ingredients are used up, finishing with a layer of potatoes (peel and slice a few more if you need to).

5. Pour in the stock. Brush the top layer of potatoes with any remaining dripping.

6. Cover with foil and then the lid of the crock/casserole. Place in the oven and cook for two hours. Remove the lid and let the top go brown and crisp - 20 to 30 minutes should do it.

· Cooking by Numbers by Matthew Fort is published by Virgin Books , price £12.99. To order a copy for £11.99 with free UK p&p go to or call 0870 836 0875.

· This article was amended on Friday September 21 2007. We gave the wrong telephone number for Guardian Books in the footnote to the article above. The correct number is 0870 8360875. This has been corrected.

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