Category Archives: Dinner parties

Dinner for 11

This is the power of gathering: it inspires us, delightfully, to be more hopeful, more joyful, more thoughtful: in a word, more alive.
~ Alice Waters

Last Saturday we were happy hosts to 9 friends, who joined us for a dinner party.

I think it is safe to say that all 11 of us adults + 1 baby + 1 dog had a great time :-)

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Our menu for the evening:

Food
Mezze platter, pita wedges
Smoked salmon
Itamar’s bulghar pilaf
Cucumber and poppy seed salad
Leg of lamb with oregano and lemon
Roast kumara with pomegranate molasses (not pictured)
Green beans with olive oil (not pictured)
Sweet layers – hubby’s creation

Drink
Water with lemon and mint
Orangello
Les Fiefs d’Aupenac 2013 – Saint-Chinian-Roquebrun
Coffee and tea

Dinner party at G’s

The best kind of dinner parties are the ones where you’re at home in another house; being, talking, sharing, laughing 🙂 All over delicious fare! Thanks G & C for the wonderful meal – complete with homemade dips, beef roulade, apple croissant pudding … mmm …

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A special evening at Ang Bahay

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.
~ Charles Dickens

Sometimes, life throws you a bouquet with flowers you fancy (my ideal one would have tiger lilies, chocolate mint and maybe a leprechaun or two thrown in for good measure). I am talking about days on which life tickles and delights – you know the ones. They don’t need to contain one million dollars or a rugged Prince Charming arriving on a motorbike (though I suppose they would be nice…). They could happen in good company; at the beach; at the duck pond – when the beauty of life rises to meet your face – and you find your heart and feet dancing.

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The last 10 days have contained a few of these moments for me – a crucial ‘aha’ moment in my work; swimming at Eastbourne; watching a ladybug glide slowly by; having my friend Jane visit. So many things. Hellos and goodbyes. New friends. Last but not least, a spectacular surprise – dinner with the gracious Philippine Ambassador to New Zealand, Her Excellency Virginia Benavidez.

Yes!

Through serendipity, friendship, a big dollop of warm Filipino hospitality and more, Her Excellency hosted a dinner in honour of Jane at Ang Bahay, the Ambassador’s residence. And I got to be Jane’s guest.

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Recently, Jane visited the Philippines and was clearly enthralled by the experience – I could feel her passion radiating through the phone as we spoke. It awakened good memories – mainly of a visit to Manila when I was a little girl, where I found myself chin and elbow-deep in mango heaven… and of the Filipino friends and domestic helpers I have met, almost all of whom are always, in my mind, laughing, boisterous, joyous, gentle as they speak with their beautiful Spanish-tinted accents.

Just the other day, I met one of Jane’s friends, a glorious Filipina lady, who had me beaming within seconds of meeting her. I begin to understand Jane’s heart for the Philippines and its people.

So… when the invitation to Ang Bahay arrived in our email inboxes, we were thrilled! Of course!

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Opening your door to someone is something special; sharing stories and food with someone, even more so. Her Excellency did these and more. I thought to myself, here is a lady in a significant position with a sea of facts and faces to remember – and here she is, humble, graceful and approachable. She included all of us in her informal address and in conversation. No one looked ill at ease – we dived into conversation. Never mind that I have little connection to the Philippines or that I only know about five words in Tagalog – we laughed, chatted, joked… and I forgot myself in the course of the evening, mainly in exchanging stories with the people seated at my end of the table. No attention to napkin placement / polite regal laughing needed (though, umm, I tried to behave ;-)).

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I could try to explain what made it all wonderful – getting to dine at the Ambassador’s beautiful residence, the amazing food, the smiling people… but all that doesn’t really say it. Pretty surroundings, novelty and friendliness are great, of course. I noted, with pleasure, the table setting, tall vases, art on the walls, menus printed on handmade paper cards supporting Samaritana, and (real) fruit candle holders! I enjoyed our meal immensely – everything from soup with a perfect puff pastry crown to an impressive ice dome with fresh fruit tucked into it, which kept cool the entire time. I soaked in the whole experience, marvelling at the fact that I was at the Ambassador’s place.

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But all that doesn’t encompass what made it possible to be fully present and at ease in a new and novel situation. Soaking in something that is at once complex and terribly simple: genuine hospitality. Hospitality that is generous, other-focused, radiant and passionate – hospitality from a host that brings out her best for her guests – hospitality that is glorious, yet humble and welcoming, with no airs and pretension. Hospitality that makes me fall in love again with the world, and its diversity, and the beauty of culture and humanity. Hospitality that seems to touch me not as a gesture, but as an embrace.

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It all sounds terribly cheesy, doesn’t it. But, well, that is the way it was. To Her Excellency, Jane and the other guests: thank you.

Masaganang bagong taon sa lahat!

P.S. Just in case you are interested, the menu was as follows (ah, I’m getting hungry all over again, typing this!):

Mushroom soup with puff pastry
Alfa salad with fruit
Strawberry sorbet
Fish and vegetables in teriyaki sauce
Chicken royale
Braised pork hocks
Fresh fruits in dome
Turon with chocolate dip
Wine
Date tea

Hello, 2012

It is bad to suppress laughter. It goes back down to your hips.
~ Author unknown

Christmas has done it again. Rushed in and tiptoed out, leaving January in place of the Christmas tree. I know it’s already the 2nd, but I still feel surprised whenever I see the date on anything. Do you feel like you’ve arrived at 2012? I feel like I can see it in the distance, but I’m still on a boat bound for it.

I’m having to tell my hand to get with the times and write “2012” in my journal entries.

January! Already!

Are you still eating Christmas treats? I am, but there is no ham, no chicken, no Christmas cake. The one I am loving the most now is this spicy jar – Grandma’s potent hand-pounded shrimp and chilli paste, flown over by plane. It’s one distinct flavour that transports me instantly to a time in my life that involved mahjong, fried shallots, playgrounds and congee. Good memories. I am glad that I only need a teaspoon or two of it for each dish, so I expect it to last me through January at least…

I also wanted to tell you about this recipe I found the other day. I know many people are now in “diet mode”, having feasted excessively over Christmas. I, however, was in cake mode right after Christmas, though I did not want something too rich. I wanted good-cake-in-a-jiffy, and I knew that might be too much to ask for, even as I searched Google…

But I found it.

I found great-cake-in-a-jiffy in this cocoa and applesauce cake. It fell out of the tin in one piece, and it was moist, beckoning, gently sweet… I liked it instantly. This cake is strong enough for you to hold a slice of it in one hand and eat it like a sandwich (without spilling crumbs!), moist enough to ooze easily past your tongue and down your throat, light enough to have two slices in one go, and definitely delicious enough to make again. Thank you, The Pastry Affair.

And now I will leave you, readers, because I need to go and buy a chicken for dinner tonight. Friends are coming over, and I want dinner*** to be palatable, pleasurable if possible. ;-)

Have a beautiful day! Bake a cake to share soon, won’t you.

    Ingredients:
    1 1/2 cups flour
    3/4 cup sugar
    3 tbsp cocoa powder
    2 tsp espresso powder
    1 tsp baking soda
    1/2 tsp salt
    1 tsp vanilla extract
    1 tsp vinegar
    1/4 cup applesauce
    1 cup water
    Method:
    Preheat oven to 350°F (I preheated it to 180°C). Grease a 9-inch cake pan.
    In the greased pan*, combine the flour, sugar, cocoa, espresso powder, baking soda, and salt until well mixed. Make 3 depressions into the flour. Place the vinegar into one depression, the vanilla extract in another, and the applesauce in the last. Pour the water over the entire mixture. Using a spatula, mix together the batter until smooth.
    Bake for 30 to 35 minutes**, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Run a knife around the edge of the cake and cool completely on a cooling rack.
    [I dusted my cake with icing sugar, and served it with unsweetened yoghurt.]

    * I made the batter in a bowl before pouring it into the cake tin.

    ** Baking time may vary, depending on your oven – my cake was done in 25 minutes.

    *** [Edit] I was concentrating more on dishing up than taking pictures, but here are three photos of tonight’s dinner (thanks Jeremy for the first one!)

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Thanksgiving, bright and beautiful

I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.*
~ Jon Stewart

In the way that nice ideas sometimes drop in without an invitation, the idea of having a Thanksgiving dinner sailed through the door of my mind one evening a few weeks ago. And so it is that around 15 of us celebrated Thanksgiving last Saturday (yes – on Election Day, but I won’t elaborate on that right now) at my place, many of us for the first time. Aside from the lack of football, family members and sweet potato/marshmallow pie, I think we did pretty well ;-)

Friday turned out to be a long day at work, and I only got to hang out with my turkey after 10.30pm. Thank you Nigella Lawson, because without your fabulous-smelling turkey brine, I’m not sure I would have felt like taking taking out giblets**, neck and liver from the turkey instead of going to bed…

And yes, I had to place him*** and Nigella’s brine in a (very clean) bucket because he was way too large for my largest pot. The bucket then sat in the fridge for a night, so Steven-Thomas** could soak in all the goodness.

Of course, we had the all-important pumpkin pie – prepared by an honest-to-goodness American, no less. Also of note: this was made with hand-smashed pumpkin, in the absence of canned pumpkin purée in NZ! A most admirable and delicious effort (thanks Brad!).

I don’t think I’ve ever tried pumpkin pie, and I was pleasantly surprised by the taste of pumpkin in a sweet dish! It made an excellent addition to my mental taste library.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you will know that I have been charmed by Ottolenghi’s recipes more than once. So of course I turned to them for help this Thanksgiving! This recipe for sweet potato wedges with lemongrass crème fraîche (crème fraîche not pictured) comes from their book “Plenty”. Unfortunately, the man at the farmers’ market didn’t have lemongrass – so I added more lime and ginger to the crème fraîche. I also used a giant farmers’ market pepper in place of a chile. Loved the way the zest and zing in the crème fraîche combined with the coriander and salt-flavoured baked sweet potato wedges, and the Christmassy colours of the pepper and parsley.

Here is one of the fastest “dishes” ever to assemble – a few sliced juicy tomatoes, a heavenly ball of Clevedon Valley buffalo mozzarella, some torn basil, salt, pepper and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar – a 30-second plate to put together, so handy for gatherings!

I have no idea how this tasted, but I poached a few stalks of white and green asparagus with a bay leaf in white wine, then added some feta and lemon zest on top. Hopefully it sort of worked…

Here is an impromptu watercress and tangelo salad, served with a (not pictured) balsamic, olive oil and orange blossom water dressing on the side. Thanks to the wonderful Ian for making this look so pretty, and while I am doing the thanking thing – I was pretty grateful for the takeaway coffee he presented me with while I was cooking!

G brought these crazy delicious roasted pears with red onions… mmmmm! Sweet, soft, smile-inducing… yum yum yum. I had a few servings of these!

She also brought a most charming gift – a bunch of herbs from her garden with a note! Love it. Thank you, Miss G!

A second round of thanks to Brad for doing a marvellous job with carving the turkey! It is definitely not as easy as he made it look. Not all of us have that level of competence with knives…

My vivacious friend Emily brought this sweet pumpkin pie cheesecake – on a gingersnap crust, sweet and very nice, though I wish we could have let it sit in the fridge for a tiny bit longer to set properly!

Dinner was a real team effort, and everyone pitched in so cheerfully and kindly. Fiona got super strong plastic cutlery that didn’t even flinch when used to cut turkey slices. Anna brought juice and yummy savoury pumpkin. Ian chopped vegetables with precision and without complaint. Kath brought wine and a vase for my flowers. Jacq brought carrots and capsicum – a pretty medley of red and orange candy cane shapes! Stacey bought a generous tray of potatoes. Emily brought (in addition to the cheesecake above) some very good Swedish meatballs which we devoured with cranberry sauce. R and K brought more wine. I nearly had to physically kick a few people out of my kitchen (when they insisted on doing the dishes) – I really could not have asked for better guests!

Oh yes, and – this cheesecake! My family couldn’t make it to dinner, so Dad baked a cake and my brother dropped it off at my place! Way sweet, and I’m not just talking about the cake, which was fluffy, designed to melt in the mouth and just rather madly good.

So it was lovely to have friends meet other friends, and share conversations and food and flowers and laughs… though I certainly missed a few friends who could not make it that evening! We shared what we were thankful for (some more seriously than others). We had a Thanksgiving toast. People washed plates when we ran out, and took photos for me when my hands were too greasy to touch a camera. The night flowed smoothly like a glass of red… and I was a little sad that the night seemed to end so quickly… but then the smiley MANDY arrived (visiting from Singapore!) and we went out for a late night of bubble tea and cards and got stitches from laughing. Always the case when she’s around!

Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers who celebrate it!

* Only points #1 and #2 of Jon Stewart’s quote above happened in my home on Saturday – my guests are still alive. To the best of my knowledge.

** Does anyone have a good recipe for giblet sauce? I was going to try making it but couldn’t find a recipe that sounded realistic and good.

*** The turkey was christened “Steven-Thomas” at an informal ceremony in my kitchen.

I felt like Winnie the Pooh

“Sometimes,” said Pooh, “the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”
~ A.A. Milne

Tasting this, I was Winnie the Pooh in Wonderland.

I am sure I am not the only J. Friend and Co. honey consumer who has thought about sticking a human paw into one of their jars…

Before we moved to New Zealand, I was a stranger to the wide honey world. If anyone said “honey”, I’d think of couples or of a sticky bright yellow substance glooping down Pooh Bear’s rotund tummy. Over the last few years, I have really loved getting acquainted with the beautiful honey made right here in this country – especially the unique manuka honey which NZ is so rightfully well known for.

While I like honey, though, I have seldom enjoyed it neat. I can be persuaded to try raw cookie dough, or lick my butter knife after using it to spread PB on toast, and once or twice I have even been seen to lick a plate (ungraceful, I know)… but I am mostly NOT a honey-spoon-licker. I’ll drizzle honey on my crumpets or stir honey into warm water, then toss the honey-coated spoon straight into the sink.

So yesterday, while trying to choose a honey (of my three jars*, of which I had only tried one) for R’s salmon, I took a TINY sample of each one… before Winnie the Pooh unexpectedly whooshed into my brain. He nearly took over. Instead, I took out teaspoons and insisted that everyone try some honey. I think I may have looked frighteningly excited, because they all looked a little shocked and just obeyed silently.

;-)

I am happy to say that after everyone had a taste of some honey, no one questioned my sanity. It spoke for itself…

We used a few spoonfuls of the Beechwood Honeydew honey to make a honey-balsamic glaze which greatly enhanced our main course of seared salmon fillet; baby spinach and blanched asparagus tossed with lemon zest; portobello mushrooms baked with halloumi; and couscous with parsley.

This honey tasted of forests and fairies… it was a total surprise, and it was wonderful to place a full teaspoon of this into my mouth and shut my eyes for a minute… I thought of Enid Blyton’s “The Wishing Chair” (still so fun to think about, years later). What can I say? If you were to use a liquid to describe imagination and abundance, this honey would come pretty close.

We ate very well last night. R and K thoroughly spoiled us with this dinner, and their company! (Thank you R and K!)

In addition to that crazily delicious salmon dish above (which the photo does not do justice to), we also had prosciutto draped over cantaloupe… a combination I have often heard great things about but never ventured to try. I was certainly not disappointed!

For dessert, I just assembled two platters:

Havarti with grapes and crackers, and fresh strawberries with crème fraîche and brown sugar. Not that we really fit much dessert in after the preceding courses!

* Thank you so much, kind Sharyn, for sending me two jars of your precious honey to try! I can’t wait to try the Viper’s Bugloss honey in a dish. :-)

Dinner for seven

Precisely the least, the softest, lightest, a lizard’s rustling, a breath, a flash, a moment – a little makes the way of the best happiness.
~ Frederich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

In pursuit of succulent prawns for our dinner party, Kath and I visited Auckland Fish Market on Saturday morning. Mmmmm seafood… there was a generous selection. Big and little fish. Spiky kina. Creepy lobsters, looking quite far removed from the beautiful, creamy white flesh encased in orange shells that I much prefer ;-) Looking at the lobsters, I thought of Julia Child clutching them and dropping them into scalding water… and my body itched with discomfort. :-o

We didn’t buy prawns here in the end, because the prices were a little higher than we wanted to pay – but we had a good time wandering around the shops in any case. The kind man at the smoked food section gave us samples of orange roughy roe… the wedge I put in my mouth morphed into a rich bittersweet bouquet, lots of depth, wonderful! (Though I am not sure Kath enjoyed it as much as I did). I also picked up some smoked broadbill steak which looked too enticing in its golden/orange glory to pass up.

Second stop: Sabato. When you first walk in, it doesn’t appear to be a dangerous place. Don’t be fooled – only ignorance and a very blocked nose could save you. This place forces you to smile, grin even. For the first few seconds as your eyes scan its interior, the words ‘gourmet’, ‘ridiculous’ and ‘food for rich people’ may float into your head and do a little dance. You’ll think you’re safe. But then you venture to one of their taste stations, carelessly take a bite – and suddenly the mist clears, and you realise you won’t be escaping for a while!

It’s not just ‘cos their offering sounds fancy (though incidentally, they do the fancy thing well. Truffle oil, aged balsamic, porcini crema, anchovies, orange blossom water – you name it!)… It’s the fact that (based on what I tried in their store) whatever they possess in ‘gourmet-ness’, they actually match in deliciousness too.

And if that ain’t convincing enough, they also have drool-inducing recipe cards scattered in various nooks and crannies, friendly staff who offer you a complimentary coffee while you browse, oh… and might I just casually mention that they have a tall shelf stocked with Valrhona (only the best chocolate ever?!) goodness! Eventually, I exercised some restraint and walked out with just a bottle of orange blossom water and a jar of sweet, sexy anchovies (the latter were at one of those tasting stations). Kath got a bottle of rose water.

We then stopped at a friendly vege shop which had very attractive-looking produce – see golden tamarillos above! Picked up fruit, herbs, miso paste.

Finally, we went to the supermarket to pick up everything else that we needed.

Back at Kath’s apartment, we put away the food that needed refrigeration before sitting down for a quick lunch: impromptu platters of smoked broadbill salmon from the Fish Market, avocado, tomato, black pepper and bread.

At some point, we rose from the dining table and got to work. I dawdled for ages, wanting to take photos of everything and talk and all; luckily, Kath is WAY more organised than I am and so our guests got to eat dinner before 8pm ;-)

Everything really smelled so good as we pounded, blended, fried – my nose was pretty happy while we cooked. Sizzling garlic. Sweet gingersnaps. Toasted seeds and spices. Chilli and chocolate. Ginger and miso. Etc.

Here is our mole in its infant state – containing onion, garlic, toasted seeds, cumin, fennel and more… believe you me, it was potent!

This is Kath, blissfully unaware of me snapping a photo of her whipping up a storm!

This is Kath again, aware that she wasn’t going to escape my camera and making the wise decision to smile.

Mmmm… it was all going along nicely and I was still thinking “yay we have plenty of time”, when all of a sudden I realised we did not afterall have much time left! Somewhere in the middle of the time speeeeeeeeding by and the stove on full throttle I stopped taking pictures of the food.

Sure, we had a few mini disasters along the way… this cracked egg being the least of those mistakes…

AND, at dessert time, we had a case of “our tart runneth over” (aka liquid mascarpone) and Ben was assigned the guest duty of being Tart-cutter:

But we managed to serve dinner, and eat with a bunch of fantastic people (including the very cool Kimberley, whose presence is every bit as delightful, interesting and thoughtful as her writing). It was great! And everyone was still smiling and talking at the end, so I think we can call everything an overall success! Our menu was as follows:

    Prawns with lemon, chilli and feta – served with crusty baguette
    Baked baby carrots with orange, ginger, miso and tamari – recipe here
    Chicken mole (our sauce comprised garlic, seeds, spices, tomato, chilli and chocolate)
    Wild rice with sliced almonds and raisins
    Berry and mascarpone tart

Thank you Kath, Ben, Komal, Quinn, Kimberley and Kirsty for a very full and fun Saturday evening (we missed the few people who couldn’t come along this time, and look forward to having you come next time)!