We're well into the Fall now. I am guessing your schedules are filling up, like mine and it seems like in no
time the silly season will be upon us once again. When life is so busy, sometimes it seems tempting to
make the same dishes over an over again. I know I am guilty of it - curry and chili are favourite Fall dishes
in our house - so easy to make on the weekend to enjoy through the week. But sometimes don't you wish
that you could sit down to a more gourmet dinner? A gourmet dinner without all the fuss? Well I'm here to
tell you it can be done, with less hassle than you think.
Let's start with appetizers - maybe you think you don't have time to make appies during the week. Or maybe you think they're too fussy to bother with for a dinner party and you always ask someone else to bring them? In our house, we have an old standby recipe adapted from The New York Times that is a winner every single time we serve it. The recipe called for them to be serve on a platter, family style, but it you take the extra effort to cook up some sticky rice the night before, you can serve them atop cubes of that - making for an elegant presentation of a dish that takes less than 30 minutes to prepare.
Vietnamese caramelized chili prawns
1 cup sugar (plain white sugar is best – it caramelizes well)
2 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
2 teaspoons Penzey’s Black and Red Spice blend (or dried chili powder)
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 1 1/2-inch slice fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Zest of one lime
Vegetable oil, for greasing baking sheet
24 jumbo shrimp, peeled with tail left on, deveined
Juice of 1 lime
1. Preheat the oven to 500˚F.
2. In a mixing bowl, combine the sugar, salt, Black and Red, garlic, ginger, allspice, turmeric, flour and lime zest.
3. Grease a large baking sheet.
4. Dredge the shrimp, a few at a time, in the sugar mixture and place on the baking sheet.
5. Bake until the sugar is caramelized, especially on the bottom, about 10 minutes.
6. Remove the shrimp from the oven, turn over with a spatula and squeeze lime juice over them. Place on a platter and serve immediately.
What about something you might actually have all the ingredients for - like these blinis with caramelized shallots and wilted arugula?
I like to keep store bought blinis on hand for unexpected guests - if you have some pesto, tapenade, hummus or any other dip, you've got yourself a quick appetizer that always looks elegant. These blinis are topped with caramelized shallots (you could use onions) that are just pan fried in a little butter with some sugar over a low heat until they start to caramelize. Then you remove them from the pan, turn off the heat and throw in some arugula until it just starts to wilt. Place a tablespoon of crème fraîche on the blini, top with caramelized shallots or onions and the arugula and you're good to go with another elegant appie that took next to no time.
Just like with appetizers, presentation is all important with main courses. I am sure you all see the comfort food factor in shepherd's pie. I am sure you all have the family recipe, handed down from generation to generation (and even if you don't I am sure you have a favourite). But when you think shepherd's pie, you don't exactly think "gourmet" or "elegant", right? I know they say taste is all important but we do eat with the eyes and there's a simple thing you can do to elevate a shepherd's pie to the level of an uncomplicated yet elegant meal. Serve it like this:
I made this shepherd's pie in a regular old Pyrex baking dish, like I normally would. To serve at a dinner party, I took a pint glass and cut out small rounds of the pie. Yes, this method means you will have ugly leftovers (the cutaway bits) but your dinner guests will be thrilled with their beautiful, yet comforting dish.
Another main that you can elevate to the gourmet category is ribs. I know, I know, who associates ribs with elegance? Certainly not me, until I started working with beef short ribs which I had the butcher separate to make elegant plating easier. Wouldn't you agree that this is a beautiful plate of food?
I served these on a bed of mashed sweet potatoes (mashed with milk, butter and a crumble of blue cheese). These ribs can even be prepared the day before, simply requiring heating up before you serve them - a simple, elegant meal to wow your guests or simply to spoil you during the week!
When it comes to desserts, again, you can't go wrong with individual portions. Often large desserts are brought to the table and plated and served there but as a guest, I kind of like to have my own little portion - it feels so much more special. Take a look at these classic desserts and tell me what you think.
Flourless chocolate cake:
(made in a regular cake pan and cut out into tiny portions with a shot glass!)
and even Eton mess - a typically, well, messy dessert:
They all look so much better plated individually, don't you think?
So you see, with just a little thought and effort, you can take your weeknight or special occasion meal from glum to gourmet in just a few easy steps!
by Mardi Michels