A few afternoons ago, I was strolling through downtown San Francisco, when I noticed a foil-wrapped packet of ketchup that had blasted open and sprayed in an artistic "fan" across the sidewalk. It looked like it exploded from the pressure of someone's high heel. Looking at that lonely, mutilated packet of ketchup motivated me to take that packet of insta-seasoning, and elevate it to an artform.
I wanted to pay homage to the insta-meal, and combine two discreet blog themes (quick meals and entertaining), and focus on the venn-diagram-like areas they intersect. Thus, this post is a working eater's guide to entertaining, with ideas for simple dishes (that in and of themselves would be a great working eater meal), but when combined, would be even better for a group-load of guests. My beau and I invited some guests over to his house, and went crazy creating dishes and ideas for this post.
Quick entertaining dishes (that take much less time than meat dishes but still provide the necessary protein nutrients) include tofu. Don't limit yourself to using the regular plastic containers of cold uncooked tofu, but think about trying tofu that has been fried, dried, fermented, pickled, or marinated in different spices and sauces. For our party, we stir-fried dried tofu with carrots, and soy sauce, and sprinkled the dish with roughly chopped cilantro.
Another easy shortcut for a working entertainer, is to serve shrimp unpeeled. Unpeeled shrimp not only provide a unique beauty to an Asian dish, but also impart a more intense seafood flavor to the dish. For our party, we cooked unpeeled shrimp with scallions, ginger, and a tomato-vinegar paste.
Cold noodle salads like cold Szechuan peanut noodle salad also are wonderful "prepare-ahead-of-time" dishes, and great for working entertainers, because the night of the party, you just take them the dish of the fridge without any additional prep whatsoever! We prepared a peanut sauce made with peanut butter, soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice wine vinegar, and mixed the sauce with Chinese wheat noodles, scallions, shredded carrots, matchstick-cut cucumbers, and cilantro. We incorporated the ingredients until the noodles were thoroughly coated with the sauce, and served the dish with a bean sprout garnish.
Remember that for all entertaining, one must make plentiful use of fresh ingredients and seasonal produce. The number one easy dish that has "great taste, [and not necessarily] less filling," is stir-fried leafy greens. Remember however, when you fry up vegetables (like coeng ching tsai with garlic), you must control the wilt, and prevent the leafy greens from becoming sloppy or soggy.
A great (and easy) crowd-pleaser is steamed fish with soy sauce, ginger, and scallions. If you purchase fish with scales, employ the entertaining shortcut of removing the fish skin right before serving. That way, you don't have to struggle with scraping off the scales and cleaning up the floor (that has been littered with chipped scales and sprayed with fish liquid). Also too, your guests won't have to deal with the slimy fish skin.
For fast cooking, the most important entertaining tip I know is portion control. Always cut ingredients into bite-sized pieces and make it healthy: regulate the amount of oil and cornstarch that you use. We made three dishes that had bite-sized and easy-to-serve components.
We made drunken chicken, or chicken breasts that were marinated in rice wine and ginger;
Pan-fried chicken thighs marinated in soy sauce and honey, and that were cut into "chicken tender-sized" finger food pieces;
And the universally recognized Chinese dish of meat (here, chicken) and broccoli, again cut into small, bite-sized pieces.
Cutting up the meat and vegetables makes the food cook significantly faster, and helps the flavorings to penetrate more surface areas than if one cooks one large piece of steak for each person. It does take more prep-time of chopping up ingredients, but it also extends the food across more guests.
Another great entertaining idea that I use for all Chinese-inspired parties, is to incorporate dim sum (or other dumplings or snacks) into the meal. Usually, since these types of snacks are so time-consuming, it is best to just buy frozen dumplings or premade dim sum. One great suggestion, that will make your guests believe that you labored all day, is steamed daikon cakes, or lwoh bwoh gao. You can buy the refrigerated, premade version (below is the homemade version), and right before your guests come, pan fry the cakes with some peanut oil, and serve the soft cakes with a hot and crispy exterior.
I hope that I gave you some family-style entertaining ideas that are heart-warming (if this is the food of your family) or daring (if this is not the food of your family)! This was an idea-inspiring post to use Chinese dishes for a simple entertaining dinner. All these dishes were made "free-stylin'," without the use of recipes, but in the best way to make food--based on family memories and measured by continued tastings throughout the cooking process.