Saturday, August 16, 2008

Quick and easy dinner party fare



Quick and easy dinner party fare


Champagne and I are not the best of friends. While wine, white or red, makes me happy, chatty and sleepy, with not much ill effect, the fizz in champagne almost always leaves me with a hangover the morning after. Single malt whisky, another of my favoured tipples, is also quite harmless, except for the one time when celebrating some big wins in the client stake, I overindulged with a friend to the tune of a whole bottle of Glen Morangie between us in an evening. The colossal hangover that time was a valuable lesson learned, and I never committed such excess again.

My personal experience, though limited, led me to believe that time is not only effective cure for a hangover, but it is also a precious commodity, which most people don't have when afflicted with this particular alcohol backlash. Type "hangover cure" into Google, and up comes 1,000 solutions, some sound reasonable, others simply ridiculous. The top recommendation is to sleep it off, my own idea exactly, but if you have an office to report to, and a boss to ingratiate, you may need other quick remedies. Replenishing your dehydrated body with fruit juice and water is a general consensus. If you have seen coffee being poured down the throat of hangover victims in a lot of films, it is now a good time to learn that caffeine is in fact a big no-no. It will dehydrate the body further, which is the opposite of a cure. Taking a shower, switching between hot and cold water, sounds reasonable.

Taking Alka Seltzer seems to get an overall nod of approval, but taking aspirin, Tylenol or ibuprofen to kill the hangover pain does not. It appears that their side effects can be magnified when alcohol is in your system. If you believe in prevention rather than cure, it is widely believed that taking some multi-vitamin tablets before the evening's indulgence helps deter the ailment. Indeed, it was one of the strongest word-of-mouth claims when I was looking after the campaign of one of the better-known multi-vitamin brands.

The best of all prevention, though, is to have some food in your stomach before you start drinking. People who surround the food islands at cocktail parties have the right idea. And if you're giving a friendly drink party of your own, make food the star of the show. These are best presented as nibble food or finger food, as it is expected that each guest would have one hand around a drink, leaving only one hand free to cope with the eats. I have a menu of cocktail party food here that is not necessarily confined to the role of accompaniment to alcoholic beverages. In fact, I've made some of the dishes very often as simply light meals or snacks. We'll start with the salt and pepper squid. Bypass the cute baby squid when you shop. Go for the bigger red squid, called banana squid (pla muek gluay) in Thai, and ask the counter person to peel off the skin for you. This has much thicker flesh which, when scored and cut to bite size, curls up nicely as it fries.

The chilli and lemongrass chicken is a close kin of larb gai, and could be made as spicy as you wish. Do splurge on a head or two of chicory (labelled "witlof" in supermarkets, also known as Belgine endive). Its boat-shaped leaves make very pretty individual servers, while its crunchy, slightly bitter taste pacifies the spiciness. Your guests can pick the spiced coconut prawns up by the tails, but you might provide some spoons, too, because a lot of the delicious lemongrass, chilli and coconut mixture is bound to be left at the bottom of the plate and shouldn't be allowed to go to waste.

For guests who are not too keen on spicy food, the sesame pork rice paper rolls should be a hit. The sliced and pan-fried pork slivers vie for attention with grated carrot, green onions, coriander, mint and basil leaves, with a dollop of hoisin sauce to liven up the whole roll. There's also prosciutto melts, a cunning arrangement of a hunk of cheese wrapped in Parma ham, placed on a slice of baguette and baked until the cheese oozes and the bread crisps up.

With lots of yummy food in your stomach, and with drinking in moderation, hopefully you won't have to resort to drinking pickle juice to ease your hangover as they are said to do in Poland, or be buried up to the neck in river sand - an Irish cure.


Salt and pepper squid

To serve 6-8

Ingredients: 1 Tbsp Szechwan peppercorns

1/2 tsp chilli flakes

1 1/2 tsp Chinese five-spice powder

2 tsp salt

80g rice flour

2 red squids, cleaned, scored and cut to bite-size

2 egg whites (about 60ml) lightly beaten

vegetable oil for deep frying

lime wedges to serve


1. Heat a frying pan over medium heat. Add the peppercorns, chilli flakes, five-spice powder and salt, and cook, stirring, for a minute or until fragrant. Place the spice mixture in a small food processor and process to a rough powder (or use pestle and mortar).

2. Mix half the spice mixture with the rice flour. Dip the squid in the egg whites and toss in the spice mixture to coat. Heat the oil in a large frying pan or wok over high heat. Cook the squid in batches for a minute or until crisp. Drain on absorbent paper and toss with the remaining spice mixture. Serve with the lime.


Chilli and lemongrass chicken

To make 16 servings

Ingredients: 2 tsp sesame oil

2 stalks lemongrass, very finely chopped

2 large red chillies, seeded and chopped

1 Tbsp finely grated ginger

500g chicken mince

3 Tbsp lime juice

3 Tbsp fish sauce

2 tsp brown sugar

11/2 cup shredded mint leaves

16 witlof or romaine leaves


1. Heat a frying pan over high heat. Add the oil, lemongrass, chillies and ginger and cook for a minute. Add the mince and cook, stirring, until the chicken is cooked through. Stir through the lime juice, fish sauce, sugar and mint.

2. Spoon the lemongrass chicken into the witlof and serve.


Spiced coconut prawns

To serve 6-8

Ingredients: 1 stalk lemongrass, very finely chopped

1 Tbsp grated ginger

2 large red chillies, fine chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 Tbsp vegetable oil

3 Tbsp desiccated coconut

1kg prawns, peeled and deveined, tails left intact

lime wedges to serve


1. Heat a frying pan over medium heat. Add the lemongrass, ginger, chillies, garlic and oil and cook, stirring, until fragrant. Add the coconut and cook until toasted. Remove from the pan and set aside.

2. Add the prawns, salt and pepper, to the pan and cook for two to three minutes or until cooked through. Return the coconut spice mixture to the pan and toss with the prawns. Serve warm with the lime.


Sesame rice paper rolls

To make 24

Ingredients: 1 Tbsp vegetable oil

2 Tbsp sesame seeds

2 Tbsp grated ginger

300g pork fillet, trimmed and sliced

24 rice paper rounds

150g hoisin sauce

4 cups grated carrot

6 green onions, sliced

2 cups coriander leaves

2 cups mint leaves

2 cups basil leaves


1. Heat a frying pan over high heat. Add the oil, sesame seeds and ginger and cook, stirring, until the sesame seeds are golden. Remove from the pan and set aside. Add the pork to the pan in batches and cook for one or two minutes or until browned and cooked through. Remove from the heat. Add the sesame mixture, mix to combine and set aside.

2. Soften each round of rice paper in warm water for a minute and pat dry with absorbent paper. To assemble, divide the pork, hoisin sauce, carrot, green onions, coriander, mint and basil between the rice papers. Fold over the base and then roll to enclose the filling. Keep covered with a damp, clean cloth until ready to serve.


Prosciutto melts

To make 12

Ingredients: 12 slices cheese of your choice (goat's, Gruyere, mozzarella)

3 tsp thyme leaves

6 slices prosciutto (or Parma ham), halved

12 thick slices baguette

olive oil for brushing


1. Preheat the oven to 180C/fan 160C. Sprinkle the cheese with the thyme. Wrap a piece of prosciutto around each slice of the cheese and place on a slice of baguette. Place on a baking tray and brush with the oil. Cook for 10 to 12 minutes or until the cheese has melted and the baguette is crisp.

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