Sept, 2003 Contest: What is your best recipe for easy entertaining?

Congratulations to our contest winner!
Hsiu-Lan Chang of Brookline, MA

I’ve lived and traveled all around the world over the last fifty years and now I ponder whether there actually are any easy recipes for entertaining. In Asia, I literally spent days preparing an elaborate spread of foods…the duck needed to be poached and dried 24 hours before roasting, the jellyfish needed to soak for 72 hours , the yellowfish needed to be kicking before steaming, the shrimp needed to be de-veined and marinated, the greens needed to be absolutely fresh, the vegetables needed to be washed, diced and shredded, the soup needed to be stocked from chicken and pork carcass, the dumplings needed to be stuffed and on and on and on… When the guests sat around and showered me with compliments, the right thing to do was to brush it all off with a few modest waves of the hand and make it sound as if it were all effortless.

The challenge in Paris was to outdo the French who always considered themselves the culinary queens. So it was running around for 2-3 days obsessing about how to give my multi-course meal a twist & that certain je-ne-sais-quoi that made each course a little closer to heavenly. So twenty years ago, I enhanced my salads with balsamic and walnut oil, pre-flavored my shrimp with lemongrass, lime, course salt and six kinds of exotic pepper, grilled my turbot (always served head and tail on) with ginger & scallions, slow-roasted my pre-marinated (with soy sauce, sesame and olive oil) duck to a crisp, sauteed snow-pea-shoots instead of plain old spinach, served cheese as-is since I would have been shot for blasphemy if otherwise and crowned it all with a five-berry desert anointed with white peach sherbet from Bertillon. …And, of course, wonderful wine. …And, of course, when I gave the choice of expresso, decaffeinated or camomile tea in the salon, I had to look as chic as Catherine Deneuve and act as subtly sexy as Sophie Marceau, while doing so.

Then I got married at the late age of 40 to an Italian named Italo and moved to Monte-Carlo. I don’t even want to go into the details about the gymnastics of food and entertaining there…the tomatoes for my sauce had to be the sweetest and the ripest, the carpaccio could only be served with parmegiano from Reggiano, the prosciuto could only be St. Daniele, the roast pork had to be suckling… and so it went for 7 years until it s time for Italo to become my EX! The day it all ended was when I realized that he only used his cell-phone for one thing – upon leaving work he’d dial me up and haughtily utter…buta la pasta …put the pasta to boil…then click…no mi amore, no carrissimo, no tesoro…

After the divorce, I win custody of the children and literally fly off to Boston to start from scratch. I miss the butcher, grocer and fish-seller. I have a hard time finding ripe cheese and fruit. I have to trek to Chinatown to find my snow-pea-shoots. I’m sad that America spends more time and money packaging its foods than worrying about the tastiness of the contents. Thanksgiving is a philosophical nightmare because I’ve always been taught and believed that the smaller…the better — there’s no way you can cook a bird that big and make it a real treat to taste. My beautiful silverware and Puiforcat china lay in waste. My guests prefer to use their fingers. This is the only place I’ve been where the waiter comes over and asks me whether I’m still working on my meal.

But believe it or not, it is in this country that I’ve grown to love entertaining. In the end all that counts is that my friends are sated and happy without me sacrificing my sanity. My freezer has become my trusted ally. All it takes is strategy and organization. The menu always ends up being a reflection of my many homes and my past like:

1. Shrimp with cocktail sauce spiced with horseradish and WASABI, 2. Gazpacho seasoned with cilantro, BASIL, worcestershire and SOY SAUCE, 3. Cold steamed whole chicken with a dip of fresh ginger, scallion, sesame oil, tamari and cilantro, 4. Caesar Salad made with chopped baby spinach colored with tiny diced tomatoes, cooked with olive oil and topped with sizzling spicy grilled lobster bits, 5. Duck curry with peas, apple and pineapple, 6. Teriyaki soaked beef and chicken on baby skewers sprinkled with Japese SHICHIMI (7-flavor) spices), 7. cheeses with toasted baguette 8. a warm full-bodied red wine, a chilled dry white, my margaritas and fizzy San Pellegrino.
9. …and oh, but absolutely, my SPRING ROLLS & DUMPLINGS that I make by the hundreds and freeze until needed.
10. Subtle lighting, a couple of candlesticks, my beautiful crystal/porcelain/tablecloth combo, divine music AND a clean and clutter-free home.

If you don’t have Number Ten — forget it! How would you like being served caviar on a paper plate or Romane Conti in a plastic goblet? Funny thing is … if I had Number Ten, I can serve green salad, my ever-present dumplings and a non budget-breaking wine and still have a great time… What I love about the USA, is that I can break all the rules I’ve learned, slap all kinds of flavors together and still end up with friends that loved it all because it was soooooo eclectic!