As any high society hostess worth her salt will tell you, a successful dinner party has less to do with the food than the mix of personalities. A sort of alchemy takes place when a group of people gets together. On the surface, the four of us who supped together last night may have seemed quite similar. We all met at the same advertising agency, though years apart; we all live (or once lived) in San Francisco; we're all white, college-educated and middle-class. Dig a little deeper and our differences emerge. There is R., an entrepreneur and amateur photographer with a travel bug who intends to move back to Spain as soon as she can; R., a first generation Iraqi-American who grew up summering in Baghdad back when its art and music were lively and rich, and its populace was imperiled by a dictator rather than a superpower; Mr. Food Musings, a writer who has taken up songwriting with a vengeance since his devastating injury earlier this year. And then there's me, a bit aimless and shallow, but hey -- every group needs one!
Our conversation flowed from Reaganomics, to the abysmal failure of the Democratic party to save the country from the religious right, to Oprah's influence on the world, to the maddening experience of getting a phone installed in Germany. Despite a few bumps in the road of the raised voices variety, it made for an intellectually invigorating evening.
Lucky for us, our meal was equal to our chatter. We started out with rose champagne, prosecco and a few nibbles of edamame at 7, moved on to chicken lettuce wraps near 8 and finally sat down to panang vegetable curry around 10. The late hour left us all feeling slyly cosmopolitan.
The finger-licking good chicken lettuce wraps turned out to be a sleeper hit. I made them a la minute so I could serve them hot, and other than chopping up a few scallions and water chestnuts, there was zero prep. I served them on a big tray with swaths of green leaf and butter lettuces, and small bowls of fresh mint, cilantro, ground peanuts and lime wedges. I think next time I make them, they'll be the main attraction. I love the idea of sitting around the table, drinking and chatting while piling succulent bites of chicken, slick with peanut oil, onto our little lettuce boats. I think that sort of family style eats suits me more than the traditional dinner party format, where the hostess feels like she's the conductor of the orchestra moving stiffly at the podium, rather than a part of the rootin-tootin band. Next time I plan to add sambal, chili paste or crushed red pepper to the chicken mixture. We all agreed it would have been even better with a kick. You can find the recipe here.
Panang curry with vegetables
Ever since the charitable Ms. Pim gifted me with some fresh, homemade panang curry paste I have been looking for the perfect opportunity to use it. I hated to waste it on Mr. Food Musings and me because I was confident it would make an impressive meal. Little did I know just how impressive. The curry itself has a soft sweetness to it and despite its ferocious heat, which left all four of us sniffling and tearing up a few bites into our curries, everyone went back for seconds. The fresh blend of chili peppers, shallots, garlic, galangal, lemongrass and all the rest was exquisite.
This is essentially Pim's beef panang recipe gone vegetarian. I've not made the beef version, but from what I could tell the recipe doesn't seem to suffer for the substitution of fresh veg for the more traditional meat. Measurements are pretty close to the original, but I was feeling a bit carefree (and tipsy, too) so I abandoned my measuring spoons for the thrill of tossing in great lumps of chili paste and handfuls of sugar, tasting as I went.
2 TBSP vegetable oil
1/2 red onion, sliced into thin half moons
8 TBSP fresh panang curry paste
2 14-ounce cans of coconut milk
3 carrots, sliced 1/2-inch thick on the diagonal
3 crookneck yellow squash, sliced 1/2-inch thick on the diagonal
1 yellow pepper, sliced into strips
1 zucchini, sliced 1/2-inch thick on the diagonal
1 cup baby bok choy, stems and leaves separated
3 TBSP fish sauce
2 TBSP sugar (use palm sugar if you have it)
5 kaffir lime leaves, cut into thin strips
Heat the vegetable oil in a large pot and add the onion and the curry paste. Let the onions fry up a bit and stir the curry paste until the clumps break up. Add a splash of coconut milk and stir the curry paste until it's a bit mixed in, then dump in the rest of the coconut milk and bring it to a gentle boil for several minutes. Reduce the heat to a simmer and toss in everything else except the bok choy leaves. Let simmer until the vegetables are cooked through and the curry has thickened a touch, 10-20 minutes. Add the bok choy leaves, stir to wilt, and serve over rice.