This is the second article of six highlighting themes from my new cooking and lifestyle TV series, Margaret’s Table. Each theme guides viewers and Diplomat’s readers through practical entertaining options while always maintaining a sense of occasion.
Home entertaining is on the rise. And when it comes to entertaining, it is important to be able to pull together a classy meal without too much time or effort. Some may find this a potentially stressful challenge; however, my approach is logical and realistic.
It is no surprise that the menu should be one’s first concern. My philosophy is to start by creating a basic three-course menu (a starter, main course and dessert) where each course is relatively quick and easy to prepare and where each definitely displays some pizzazz. The objective is that all three elements of this basic menu should — each in its own way — impress or capture the attention of those at the table. This could be achieved through the choice of ingredients, presentation or both.
Ingredients that are rather unique, perhaps those perceived as being slightly extravagant (which may not necessarily be the case), or exciting combinations of ingredients are always a welcome treat. When contemplating the choice of recipes, certainly reject those with a lengthy list of ingredients or that require a lot of preparation. Take advantage of products already on hand as well as commercial options. These include everything from soups, sauces (savoury or sweet), vinaigrettes, ice creams, chocolate cups to baked goods including meringue nests and pastry shells.
The starter might be a soup, salad or an appetizer of some kind. Regardless of the choice, remember that first impressions count. When serving a soup, heighten the presentation factor by garnishing artistically with fresh herbs, drizzles of heavy cream, seafood, or by serving it in an original manner — cappuccino style in a demi-tasse cup, in a parfait glass with a spoon balanced horizontally across the top of the glass, or baked in a cup with a puff-pastry dome. An easy presentation trick for a salad (as seen in the previous issue of Diplomat), is to serve it in individual bistro bowls or large plates which allow the salad to breathe. Scattering crushed black peppercorns over a portion of the plate or bowl rims, tends to subtly frame the salad and adds a quick bit of flair. As for appetizers, I find they take on new appeal when presented as stacks, trios, in luscious layers, or “stuffed” in some manner. With this in mind, plus a little imagination, tried and true long-time favourite recipes can be reinvented as new culinary masterpieces.
The greatest challenge when it comes to the main course and dessert, is to select recipes that will wow guests while demanding relatively little last-minute preparation just before serving. Reducing this final preparation to what is basically an assembly process with a minimum amount of cooking and/or reheating is an important tip and a fail-proof technique to achieving a relaxed dinner.
The main course shrimp recipe which follows is one such example. Imagine exquisitely spiced garlic butter-sautéed butterflied shrimp, snuggled into a bed of exotic squid ink fettuccini, bathed with a rich and mildly edgy sun-dried tomato butter sauce. It is definitely a show-stopper particularly when super-colossal shrimp are used.
The shrimp may be peeled, butterflied and refrigerated up to a day in advance, ready for last-minute sautéing. The fettuccini may be cooked and the butter sauce virtually prepared an hour or two before guests arrive. As an accompaniment, think of adding 2 spears of tender-crisp asparagus cooked (in advance and reheated), drizzled with sesame oil and arranged in a criss-cross manner over the shrimp.
As for dessert, it is always quick and easy to dazzle palates when dessert includes a chocolate cup, pastry shell or meringue nest filled with fruit, whipped cream, lemon curd or a delectable combination of some of these delightful ingredients. Try to include lively fresh herbs or edible flowers as well as artistic swirls of a sauce or drizzle. As I say, presentation gives you free bonus points and should not be ignored.
To render this menu undisputedly chic, it’s always best to add a fourth course — perhaps a small portion of sorbet served before main course as a palate cleanser.
Extraordinary Sun-dried Tomato Shrimp
Makes 4 servings
20 colossal shrimp, deveined and peeled
8 oz (225 g) fettuccini/linguine of choice
To taste salt
4 tbsp (60 mL) garlic butter or butter, divided
1 recipe Garlic Wine Butter Sauce*
To taste crushed black peppercorns
1/2 cup (125 mL) julienne cut sun-dried tomatoes in seasoned oil (drained)
Extra heavy cream to thin sauce (optional)
1. Peel shrimp keeping tails intact; butterfly and set aside.
2. Cook pasta in boiling salted water until al dente. Drain well and toss with 2 tbsp (30 mL) of garlic butter; set aside.
3. Prepare Garlic Wine Butter Sauce* to point of blending in heavy cream; remove from heat.
4. Just before serving, in a large heavy skillet over medium heat, sauté shrimp in remaining 2 tbsp (30 mL) of garlic butter. Season with salt and pepper, and cook until almost done. Transfer shrimp to another large skillet, leaving the black little bits from frying behind.
5. To finish the sauce, place small skillet with partially prepared sauce over medium-low heat and warm; whisk in butter a few cubes at a time. Remove from heat promptly; season with salt and pepper.
6. Add sun-dried tomatoes and Garlic Wine Butter Sauce to sautéed shrimp in large skillet; toss. Add extra heavy cream, as desired, to thin the sauce.
7. Serve (3 to 5 shrimp per serving) over hot pasta. Bathe shrimp and pasta with remaining sauce.
* To make the Garlic Wine Butter Sauce, in a small skillet over low heat, combine 1/3 cup (80 mL) of chopped green onion, 2 1/2 tbsp (38 mL) of both raspberry vinegar and dry white wine, 2/3 tsp (3.5 mL) of both grated fresh gingerroot (peeled) and finely chopped fresh garlic and 1/3 tsp (2 mL) of powdered mustard. Cook the mixture until only about 1 1/3 tbsp (20 mL) of the liquid remains. Blend in 2 1/2 tbsp (38 mL) of heavy cream (35% fat); set aside. Before serving, using almost 1/3 cup (80 mL) of room temperature unsalted butter (cut into cubes), whisk in the butter, a few pieces at a time, until it is completely incorporated. Promptly remove the sauce from the heat, add salt and crushed black peppercorns to taste and combine with shrimp.
Margaret Dickenson is a TV host and author. See www.margaretstable.ca