How does one plan dinner for guests who may or may not come?
Lest you cast aspersions on my blameless and nameless invitees, this delicious dilemma was entirely of my own making. I fail utterly in making social phone calls to my friends and family, metamorphosing in reverse from a gaudy, extroverted butterfly to a bashful brown pupa. This unexplainable behavior defies both logic and the reproachful exhortations of my mother whose disembodied voice comes to me from half a world away. It’s not that I don’t enjoy company, I love it. But, the thought of picking up the phone and making a cold call paralyzes me. So when I belatedly learned of an imminent visit to town by kinsfolk, I hastily dashed off an email with an open invitation to “come to dinner any evening”. My menu must be the sort that keeps, or better yet, improves in depth and flavor over a day or two, and good enough to provide fodder for the family in case dinner plans fall through. Here are two of my picks:
- Cook baby potatoes in their jackets. Submerge in a pot of cold, salted water, bring to a roiling boilthen simmer until knife-tender. Do not put them into already boiling water, this results in the outer parts cooking faster than the innards, resulting in an uneven, unsatisfactory texture. Leave the skins on. This not only conserves time and patience (always in short supply), but also retains precious nutrients.
- Finely chop a large onion (couple pulses in the food processor works) with an inch piece of ginger and a couple of cloves of garlic. Heat a few tbsp of oil in a large, heavy pot. Add whole spices (garam masala): few cloves, couple cardamoms, smattering of pepper corns, half a stick of cinnamon and a large bay leaf. When the spices heat through, add a tbsp of cumin seeds and let sizzle. Next, add the chopped onions and cook, stirring at intervals until the onions are nicely browned and pull away from the sides in a unified mass.
- Add more spices. Of course. A tsp of turmeric, a tbsp each of coriander powder, cumin powder, ground fennel, and red chilli powder calculated to the lowest common tolerance factor (LCTF) of the target palate. Salt to taste. Stir in, at low heat. Do not let the spices burn. Add half a cup of water and let simmer.
- Crush a cupful of roasted cashews in a food processor, then add some tomatoes and blend together into a grainy consistency. Add this mix to the gravy and continue to cook until it looks rich and bubbly. You could add a dollop of yogurt or some cream for extra richness at this point.
- Gently introduce the baby potatoes to their fragrant bath. Simmer on low. Adjust seasoning, if needed. Garnish with chopped coriander leaves. Enjoy the masterpiece right away, accompanied by a simple pulao or naan. Better yet, reheat after a day or two of marinating in the fridge.
Key Lime Pie
Inspired by a netted bag of tiny Key Limes that I purchased for a bargain at H-Mart, dessert would be a cold and creamy pie, served with a dollop of sweet and sour cream. I chose the best rated recipe from Food Network, after all 143 ‘5-star ratings’ couldn’t be wrong! Also, Emeril Lagasse’s version seemed slightly less likely to send my guests into a diabetic coma relative to the offering by Paula Deen.
Graham Cracker Crust (Take One)
- In a food processor, add a dozen or two of honey graham crackers and blend until crumbly. Measure out 1.5 cups to which you add half cup of sugar and half a stick of melted butter. Work with your fingers until moist and barely holding together. It looks beautiful, so invite kids to try some. Spoon some out onto eager palms and sample in happy expectation. “OHHH SH**!,” I sputter in shock. “Keep it PG-13, Mom”, my teenage daughter hoots with laughter while my 12-year old is round-eyed and stupefied with disbelief. I had used salt instead of sugar.
Graham Cracker Crust (Take Two)
- Repeat step above, but this time use sugar in place of salt. Thank the Culinary Gods that you discovered your blunder early and firmly deny to your 12 year old that you said anything other than “Oh sugar”. Pack the Graham cracker crust into the base of a 9 inch cake pan, not forgetting to go up the edges (I did forget).
- Bake for 12 min in 375oF oven, until the edges are slightly crisp. Remove and let cool.
- Reset the oven to 325oF.
Luscious Pie Filling
- Break two eggs into a bowl. Homogenize with a fork.
- Slowly pour in two 14-oz cans of sweetened condensed milk while stirring. Yum! Regress into hazy memories of Enid Blyton, boarding schools and dorms, and smuggled tins of condensed milk, eaten spoon by forbidden spoon. Sigh…
- Extract juice from key limes. You will need 1 cup. Dribble into milk mixture and incorporate well.
- Pour into cooled pie crust and bake for 20 min.
- After cooling, refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
- Mix one cup of sour cream with powdered sugar to taste (4 tbsp should do).
- Add a dollop to each pie slice. Garnish with a slice of Key lime. Enjoy!
Oh, and Happy “Everyday is Father’s Day” to my dad, my children’s dad and dads everywhere. This pie is for you.