Ah, summer. For some, that means jet-setting to far-off locales like Fiji or Bali (or Gulf Shores, if pressed for time), but the rest of us can create a mini-getaway that's just as enjoyable and exotic right at home. Sarah Hall, president of Joel Catering and Special Events, and Bryan Clark, executive chef at Joel Catering's offsite division, explain how to throw a themed dinner party that evokes the beaches of Latin America and the Caribbean, the Old World elegance of Spain and France and the spiced, fragrant air of Morocco and India.
Setting a mood
No matter which destination you choose, Hall and Clark have some general tips for setting the scene.
"Be as thorough as possible with the theme," Hall says. "You want to make sure people get it, especially if you're looking at themes that may be a bit more subtle, like a French theme. One way of course would be music — put together a playlist of French songs or Spanish songs that would evoke that feeling."
Avoid using scents to create the ambience, she says, because "once you put it out there, there's no getting it back." Cooking scents should be enough to set the olfactory table. And speaking of tables, Hall cites a classic rule for table decorations dictating that they be less than 1 foot tall so guests can see over it to talk with others across the table or more than 2 feet tall with a small base that allows guests on both sides of the table to see each other.
For the host or hostess who ends up in a decorating jam before the party, Hall offers this advice.
"The No. 1 tip is lighting," she says. "Turn off your overhead lights. You want dim ... eye-level lighting, so keep a lamp on, but not all of them. You may need to switch out some light bulbs to get the right levels." And don't forget the candles — unscented tea lights and votives work best.
Clark shares his go-to tip.
"The best advice is to find things that work great in your kitchen space," Clark says. If your kitchen is shoebox-sized, don't go overboard with the number or size of dishes. Is it a seated dinner? Buffet style? Plan accordingly.
"Make yourself a list and plan (the dinner) days or weeks in advance so you can make sure that you have a menu and have a recipe for everything on it that you can follow at home," he says. "Make sure you have the right utensils and the right equipment to make these dishes."
Some recipes call for highly specialized cooking tools, but rather than buying a clay tandoori oven to roast your marinated chicken or lamb, Clark suggests talking to experts at a restaurant supply company or cookware store or home cooks for possible equipment substitutions. You may already have a tool in your kitchen that will get the job done.
Recipes also may specify using fresh spices and seasonings for a dish. Clark says delicate herbs and vegetables should be chopped fresh, but dried spices work just as well as their just-ground counterparts. Avoid flash-frozen veggies, which release a lot of water during cooking.
Hall suggests a tropical fruit arrangement in a low bowl with a few tropical flowers tucked around to represent Latin American and Caribbean agricultural bounties. For a beachy Caribbean vibe, place "non-cheesy" seashells around the room. She also recommends lightweight or sheer fabrics for table linens and decorative touches.
When cooking Latin American or Caribbean food, Clark's general advice is to be careful with the seasonings. These regional cooking styles employ lots of cumin, coriander, fresh cilantro and mint, which may be unfamiliar territory for a home cook. Season to taste — you can always add more of something after the dish is complete, but one heavy hand can ruin the whole dish.
For an appetizer, try a scallop, fish or shrimp ceviche made with fresh peppers, onions and citrus juices. Clark decries the use of bottled lemon or lime juice, as it's often full of additives such as sugar, or made from concentrate. Another starter option is spicy beef empanadas, baked or fried on the stove. For an entree, try chicken escabeche over white or jasmine rice, and for dessert, serve a salted caramel flan.
"I would get out my best china and ... silverware or julep cups," Hall says. "Use things that are very elegant-looking, but in casual ways." Use china serving platters (or vintage shop knockoffs) for plating hand foods such as Spanish tapas or French cheeses with jams, nuts and crackers. Silver-plated or pewter mint julep cups can hold bunches of irises or carnations.
Clark urges cooks to handle proteins with care. French cuisine especially features many delicate flavors, which are easily overpowered by even a hint of overcooking. Most European cuisines, he says, don't lend themselves to improvisation.
"Most of the classic recipes are very ... precise, so stay on track and follow (the steps) in depth," he says.
Garlic shrimp tapas cooked in butter and seasoned with dried chilies are an appetizer that evokes the coastal regions of the Iberian Peninsula, while foie gras torchons served with sweet Sauternes wine jelly are a traditional Gascon delicacy. The torchon takes several days to prepare and requires special equipment, but Clark says the the flavor and texture is worth the labor. For a main course, he likes filet of beef au poivre served with Lyonnaise potatoes with caramelized onions and fresh herbs. Round out the meal with crepes with a variety of toppings and fillings.
"Morocco and India have really distinct visual cues that would be really gorgeous," Hall says, such as the oblong, perforated metal lanterns of Morocco or the traditional block-printed fabrics of India. These themes cry for color in keeping with the bright, kinetic landscapes of the bazaars of North Africa and the far east. Earthenware vessels and rough-hewn utensils also evoke these exotic locales — dust off that glazed clay tagine and set out teak-handled serving utensils.
Clark says Indian and North African cuisines are similar to Latin American and Caribbean dishes, in that you should use the freshest ingredients available and have a light touch with spices and seasonings. Many of these dishes use complex floral seasonings such as cardamom and saffron, which can be overpowering if used excessively.
Lamb and garlic samosas with a green lentil puree dipping sauce excite the palate as an appetizer. Chicken coconut curry or Malabar mussels steamed in Marsala wine and bathed in a broth of coconut milk, tomatoes, ginger and garlic make excellent entrees. Kheer rice pudding made with basmati rice and coconut milk and garnished with spiced almonds, pistachios and golden raisins puts the finishing touch on the meal. Clark substitutes rosewater for half the coconut milk in the recipe to enhance the dessert's aroma and flavor.