Ask Peter: Last-minute entertaining
I like asking people to dinner last minute — it seems more fun and relaxed when expectations aren’t raised by a long-standing invitation. I would love to hear of some dishes that you make just using pantry/freezer ingredients that would be nice to assemble for guests? What are some things you always keep on hand to turn ordinary dinners into something special, last minute?
The must-haves I always have in my pantry include tins of coconut milk, chopped peeled tomatoes, chickpeas and other beans (borlotti/ cannellini/ flageolet, etc), along with risotto rice, couscous and pasta. In the vege basket there are always lemons, onions and garlic, and in the freezer chillies and ginger (both of which freeze really well).
I also always buy a good sized bag of lime leaves and a large bunch of lemongrass and freeze what I don’t use immediately. Olive oil, fish sauce, soy sauce, miso paste and parmesan are always in the fridge or pantry and then of course I have spices such as cumin, fennel and coriander seeds, star anise and cinnamon.
Armed with the above you can create many dishes - simply by buying some veges, and if you’re having it, meat or fish. Starting with a carb for the meal - it might be as simple as couscous mixed with a little olive oil, lemon zest and basil or parsley. This can be made in 15 minutes with almost no effort. Otherwise you might want to make a simple parmesan risotto, or some pasta.
Vegetables are where you can work wonders, offering a salad of tomatoes, cucumber and lots of mint tossed with olive oil and lemon juice, as well as some steamed or wok-fried shredded veges tossed with grated ginger and chopped chillies. Another carb might be chunks of kumara and sliced red onions tossed with cumin, unpeeled halved cloves of garlic and olive oil — roasted until really caramelised (a handy hint is to line the roasting dish with baking paper which will make it easier to wash afterwards). By blanching broccoli and whizzing it up into coarse crumbs, and adding it to the couscous you can manage to offer carbs and veges at the same time.
If you’re cooking meat or fish, then you’ve got to decide how long you have to prep before buying something. If you’re heading home at 6, with friends coming at 7, then buy some fish steaks or lamb cutlets and marinate them in olive oil, chopped chillies and herbs before roasting or grilling them. If you’re going to have a little longer, then a roast chicken is one of the best meals ever and so long as the chicken is plump and juicy, all you need worry about are a few vege dishes as described above.
If you have three or more hours, then a stew is a great dish, even though it’s warming up, as it’s so simple. Saute sliced onions and garlic (and chilli — always chilli) until caramelised. Add diced meat (beef, lean pork, venison or lamb) and brown a little. Add a few cans of chopped tomatoes and any spices you fancy, add enough water to cover the meat by 2cm and bring to the boil. Turn to a simmer and skim off any foam, then cook, covered for 2 hours. Mix 2 Tbsp miso paste (or use 3 Tbsp soy sauce) with a can or two of cooked chickpeas or beans and add to the meat and cook another hour, stirring occasionally. Taste for seasoning, stir in lots of coarsely shredded parsley and serve.
For pudding, diced fresh fruit, a fabulous gourmet sorbet or ice cream (there are so many in New Zealand) and some chopped roasted nuts on top will have everyone happy.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to email@example.com and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.