Top tips for a dazzling dinner party
Pursuits – The Great Indoors

Dinner. Party. Two words to make the busy professional shudder. And yet, people still have them, and are expected to host them. No matter how many times you've made that signature vegetarian lasagne, do you still lose your cool when peeling the butternut squash?

Well, the good news is – you don't have to peel it, says John Benbow, who runs "Foodat52" from his home in Clerkenwell in London. A former furniture maker, Benbow recently decided to turn his airy kitchen into a small cookery school. I am attending a Stress-Free Dinner Party course on a Tuesday night and I have already broken my mother's entertaining rule: only one glass of wine before your guests arrive. No matter, because the point of this course is that most of the hard work can be done in advance.

We begin by caramelising shallots in brown sugar, water, vinegar and thyme. These can magically reappear to form the basis of a salad with torn prosciutto, shards of pecorino and rocket. Next, a main course of duck breast with saffron couscous and butternut squash. Another spectacular tip: couscous is less likely to clump if you pour cold, not hot, water on to it, add a dash of olive oil and steam it in the oven under tinfoil. This can also be done in advance, as well as a pea and mint puree, and a marinade for the duck. Then, the dastardly squash: hacked in half, seeded and roughly chopped up and baked – no need whatsoever for a struggle with a potato peeler. The duck must be cooked au dernier moment, ditto a sunken chocolate souffle.

By the time we sit down to eat, our group of trainee dinner party hosts is tipsy and ravenous. The best bit: no washing up, and not having to wait for the last guest to leave.