We've got guests! 4 handy standby dishes

The festive period is great for popping round to see friends and family – but what do you do if they land on you? Here are some great recipes that can’t fail to impress unexpected diners.

Comfort food: Fish pie
First put some potatoes on to boil for mash. Then, poach your fish – whatever you fancy, though cod or coley are safe bets if you’re not sure about the tastes of your guests. Poach it in a frying pan of milk flavoured with bay leaves and onion quarters that have been studded with cloves. When it’s done (about 8 minutes) keep the fish and the milk, but throw everything else away. Meanwhile, boil eggs (roughly one per person), peel and slice them, then put them on top of the flaked fish in a baking dish. Use the fishy milk to make a white sauce, season and pour over the fish and eggs, then put the mash on top and sprinkle the whole thing with cheese. Bake for half an hour at 200 degrees. (If you have a little bit of notice, you can make this great all-rounder a day ahead.)

Veggie VIPs: Lentil and parsnip pots

These can be served in individual pots if you’re catering for veggies separately, or in one big dish if everyone’s having the same.
There are three elements to make. The first is simply some thinly sliced parsnips, parboiled for two minutes and then drained and flavoured – try a hint of garlic, or a delicate hint of sweet dill, or plenty of black pepper. In another pan, simmer up some green lentils and brown rice together for 40 minutes until just cooked. Finally, make an onion sauce by softening finely chopped onion in plenty of butter, adding flour to make a roux and finally adding milk gradually until you have a white sauce. Simmer until thickened and then flavour with nutmeg. Make up the pots in layers, finishing with the onion sauce and a slice or two of parsnip, then bake for 60 minutes.

Mates round for supper: Potato, provolone and pancetta
An easy-peasy bit of Italian yumminess to knock out in a hurry while you chat.
Boil potatoes in their skins for about half an hour, then slice when cool. Arrange them in a shallow oven-to-table dish, layering them with slices of pancetta and Provolone cheese (for authenticity – but feel free to use cheddar, edam or any other hard cheese). Season and sprinkle with sage leaves or dried sage, drizzle with olive oil and back for about 8 minutes until bubbling. For a veggie version, replace the pancetta with thinly sliced tomatoes, mushrooms or both, but make sure you cook and drain them first or they’ll make the whole bake soggy. Serve with green salad.

Winter warmer: Beef stew with chestnuts

A hearty English recipe dating back to the 1700s – great if you have a more adventurous stash of Christmas larder treats.
First, brown cubes of steak in a casserole dish with some butter and oil and a couple of rashers of bacon. Remove the meat and fry a chopped onion before draining off most of the fat and putting the meat back in. Add a tablespoon of flour and cook, stirring, for a couple of minutes, then add a small bottle of brown ale, the same amount of beef stock, the juice and rind of an orange and a pinch of nutmeg. Season well, bring to the boil, then add 15-10 chestnuts (tinned are easier). Cover and bake at 170 degrees for about 45 minutes before adding three sticks of chopped celery and baking for another hour.