Sunday, April 13, 2014


Hosting a lunch for a fun-loving bunch of friends is always exciting. Off late, I find an array of appetisers and a selection of desserts to work better than an elaborate lunch. A heavy lunch is literally frowned upon these days. After a light lunch, everyone can go back to do whatever it is that they need to without feeling stuffed or drowsy. For the health-conscious guests, throw in a couple of salads. The salads can be served in small ice cream bowls or shot glasses to make it look elegant and alluring, at the same time. Here is how I went about planning and executing a lunch that I hosted recently for a bunch of girls.

It is important to know everyone's dietary preferences before planning the lunch menu. Very often there are vegetarians and we need to bare them in mind as well. Surprisingly, some of these vegetarians are partial to seafood, especially fish. I know of quite a few vegetarians who eat fish occasionally. Well, they are not technically vegetarians, are they? I am always happy when a so-called vegetarian eats a piece of fish or prawn, I take it as a compliment and feel upbeat about my food. I feel that my food smells and looks enticing enough for them to change their mind and eat a piece of it.

While planning for the appetisers, I try to keep it colourful and also look for a good mix of protein. For the non-vegetarians, I try and include one chicken dish, one mutton dish, one of fish and one of shellfish as well. I prefer not to repeat the same protein in two different dishes. If there are enough takers, beef and pork should also work well. An appetiser with cheese is generally appreciated but make sure not to have many dishes with cheese in them. Pita chips with one or many dips is also hugely popular. Store-bought pita chips can be served along with a few dips and some of these dips can be made a day ahead. A friend of mine once served pita chips with 10 different dips. I also try to keep the number of deep-fried dishes to a minimum as most of my friends are health and calorie-conscious. If your friends offer to bring food, go ahead and accept the offer as it gives you more time to focus on the dishes you are preparing and on the decor. Hosting a lunch for friends should be light and easy on the host as well.

Clockwise from top left: Vegetable sticks with red chilli pickle and cream cheese dip, Pesto Gnocchi with oven-roasted cherry tomatoes, White bean crostini with truffle salt and truffle oil & Corn balls with ketchup

I laid out the pita chips with Babaganoush and Black Olive and Fig dip while my friends were trickling in. The guests can dig into them while settling down and getting to know each other, if some of the guests haven't met before. While bringing out the appetisers one after the other, it is a good idea to alternate between vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. A friend of mine brought Vegetable sticks along with a Red Chilli pickle and Cream Cheese dip. The presentation of this appetiser was very smart and colourful. She also brought Mushrooms with a Cream Cheese filling. It was one of the best appetisers of the afternoon and the serving platter was wiped clean in no time. Some of the other vegetarian appetisers were Mini Corn Balls with ketchup, White Bean Crostini with Truffle salt and Truffle oil, Pesto Gnocchi with Oven-roasted Tomatoes and Vietnamese Rice paper Rolls.

A lot of these dishes were inspired by recipes I found online and from visits to restaurants. Wherever appropriate, I have given the links to recipes. The White Bean Crostini was inspired by a recent meal at the Yauatcha in Bangalore. They have a steamed dumpling that has a filling made with pureed Edamame beans and Truffles. It was a stand-out dish at the restaurant and served as an inspiration for me to recreate a similar taste but with a different texture. Gnocchi with Pesto is an easy appetiser to prepare especially if you use store-bought Gnocchi and store-bought Pesto. I love using Oven-roasted Cherry Tomatoes in my cooking. I love to toss them in salads and in appetisers as a garnish. Cut cherry tomatoes into half and spread them on a baking tray. Drizzle with Extra virgin Olive oil, salt and pepper. Stick it into a 160C oven for about 30 to 45 mins, depending on how roasted you want them. They can be made a day ahead and stored in an air-tight container in the refrigerator. The Vietnamese Rice paper rolls are loosely based on a recipe by Chef Emeril Lagasse. The sauce that accompanies the rice paper rolls is always a big hit. The Rice paper rolls themselves are very light and refreshing loaded with lettuce, carrots and herbs. The salty soy and peanut sauce that accompanies it is a striking contrast and works wonderfully well.

Clockwise from top left: Shredded Buffalo Chicken in Lettuce cups with Ranch dressing, Bengali steamed Fish, Teriyaki Mutton Ribs & Vietnamese Rice paper Rolls 

Buffalo chicken wings are a firm favourite for many. So when I found the recipe for Lettuce cups with shredded Buffalo Chicken with Ranch dressing on Pinterest, I knew I had to try it for my lunch. As expected, everyone liked it very much. The Bengali steamed fish was inspired by a recipe for Prawn Chingri. I applied the coconut spice paste only on one side of the fish (on top), wrapped it in banana leaf, secured it with a thread and steamed it for about 10 minutes. I removed the steamed fish pieces from the banana leaf it was cooked in and served them on top of fresh banana leaves cut into squares. It made for a very striking presentation. The recipe for the Teriyaki Mutton ribs are from a dear friend. It has a simple marinade of light and dark soya sauce, sesame oil, green chillies, garlic, ginger and brown sugar. I marinate the mutton pieces in the marinade for a few hours and pressure cook them. Then I reduce the sauce until it becomes sticky in consistency. The dish can be garnished with finely chopped spring onion.

Desserts, Clockwise from top left: Flourless Chocolate cake, Yogurt Panna Cotta with Balsamic and Vanilla Strawberries & Miniature cupcakes with Butter Cream frosting

Now for the desserts, the most important part of a meal for many. A friend of mine baked these really cute Bite-sized cupcakes in pink and blue colour with a simple butter cream frosting. It was the perfect size for a cupcake as we could eat one of these cupcakes and try the other desserts too. The kids may not appreciate this size but it definitely is the ideal size for cupcakes for adults. If I am making more than 1 dessert, I always make sure that at least 1 of the desserts has chocolate in it. For this special lunch I baked a rich Flourless Chocolate cake along with the other desserts. The consistency of the cake is much better if its baked the previous day and stored in the refrigerator overnight.

My final and most popular dessert that afternoon was the Yogurt Panna Cotta with Balsamic Strawberries. It is a very simple dessert to make and almost always bowls by guests over with delight. Unlike, many panna cotta recipes I have come across, this one does not have any cream in it. It uses a combination of milk and yogurt. You need to get the right amount of gelatin in order to get a good consistency. Depending on the gelatin leaves or the brand of gelatin flakes you use, you may have to alter the quantity of gelatin to get the right consistency. This may require a couple of attempts but the results make it worthwhile. The same Panna Cotta can be served with other fruit compotes as well. The original recipe for this panna cotta calls for an orange compote but I always serve this with the balsamic strawberries, the recipe for which I found elsewhere on the internet. If strawberries are not in season, any other seasonal fruit compote can be used depending on your liking. I also recommend that you make this panna cotta a day ahead and refrigerate it overnight. That way, you will be sure that it is set and not have a Masterchef moment of 'has it set or has it not?'.

A lot of these dishes were inspired by recipes I found online and from visits to restaurants. The following are links to recipes that served as inspirations to make some of the dishes for my lunch.

Vietnamese Rice paper Rolls -
Buffalo Chicken in Lettuce cups and Ranch dressing -
Bengali Steamed Fish -
Flourless Chocolate cake -
Yogurt Panna Cotta -
Balsamic Strawberries -

I hope you enjoy trying out some of these recipes. My friends and I had a lot of fun that afternoon and everybody went home with a full belly and a big smile on their faces. I can't wait to plan my next lunch or dinner for my friends. It is always exciting and fulfilling to cook for family and friends.

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