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If you’re anything like me, your first thought when invited to a party is “wonder what the food will be?”. I love a good party; putting on the little black dress, mingling with new people, seeing friends I might not have seen in awhile. But to me, the food is always the glue that holds the whole evening together. If the hors d’oeuvres are bad, I will undoubtedly be disappointed. If they’re good, I’ll tell everyone how fabulous the party was.
Truth is, there’s a lot of bad party food out there. When you’re in your twenties, it’s acceptable to put out a couple of bowls of chips and pretzels and a plate of sausage rolls. When you’re in your late thirties, plus … not so much. I know, I know. My food snobbery is showing. Or maybe it’s the way I was raised by my European parents. They had their share of parties and when they did they went all out. They prepared for days. My father prepared plate after plate of charcuterie, my mother baked tortes and spent hours hunched over her recipe box, looking at appetizer recipes. BYOB was considered the biggest insult.
A few years ago, when I had a housewarming party at my new condo, I was surprised at how quickly the food was gobbled up. The guests descended on the food like a flock of hungry eagles. Everyone told me how good it was, but to my mind it was nothing special. With a new mortgage to pay, my budget was tight, and the offerings at my table were not what I would have wanted them to be. Even so, it seemed I knocked it out of the park that night.
A couple of weeks ago I went to a party. The spread consisted of a large platter of fruit, jumbo shrimp cocktail, and slabs of cheese served up with herbed flatbreads. It couldn’t have been more simple or more delicious. I went away with the menu for my next party.
Feeding guests at a party doesn’t have to be intimidating. You don’t need to spend hours rifling through Martha Stewart’s Hors d’Oeuvres Handbook or serve mahi mahi. All it takes is a little creativity and attention to detail. For me, my little mini muffin tins are a boon. The possibilities are endless. You can make miniature polenta cakes, phyllo purses, or–one of my favorites–mini crab cakes.
The recipe here is for shrimp cakes. They’re lovely with either shrimp or crab. Since shrimp is what I usually have on hand, it’s what I ended up using the last time I made these. This recipe is adapted from the April 2009 issue of Bon Appetit magazine.
Mini Shrimp Cakes
Adapted from Bon Appetit, April 2009
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
3/4 cup finely grated parmesan cheese, divided
1 large egg
1/4 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel
3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives, divided
1/4 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
6 ounces fresh shrimp, chopped
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/4 cup (1/2 sick) unsalted butter, melted
1) Beat cream cheese with an electric mixer in a medium bowl until smooth. Beat in 1/4 cup parmesan and egg. Add sour cream, lemon peel, 1 1/2 tablespoons chives, and salt. Fold in shrimp.
2) Preheat oven to 350F. Generously grease 2 mini muffin tins or spray with cooking spray. Toss panko, 1/2 cup parmesan, and the rest of the chives in a small bowl. Drizzle with 1/4 cup melted butter and toss with fork until evenly moistened.
3) Press 1 rounded tablespoon panko mixture into bottom of each muffin cup to form a crust. Spoon 1 generous tablespoon shrimp mixture into each cup. Sprinkle rounded teaspoon of panko mixture over each.
4) Bake cakes until golden on top, about 30 minutes. Cool in pans for 5 minutes. Run knife carefully around each cake and lift out of pan. Let cool to room temperature.
These cakes can be made 2 hours ahead. Rewarm at 350F for 6-8 minutes. Arrange shrimp cakes on a serving platter and garnish with a sprinkling of chopped chives or parsley.
So tell me … what do you like to make for a party?
For years, Korean food and I were strangers. I had never heard of bulgogi or japchae. Even kimchi, the side dish of pickled vegetables that Koreans eat with every meal, was as unknown and distant as Korea itself.
It’s not that Asian food was foreign to me. I’m from Vancouver, Canada, which boasts a large Asian popuation. Sushi bars can be found on every corner of the city, as are noodle shops, and a variety of Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese restaurants. Dim Sum dumplings and sticky rice are available in the freezer section of regular grocery stores like Safeway. Growing up, I even ate Chinese food at home. My parents were adventurous travelers and eaters. Shortly after my mother bought a wok and took a Chinese cooking class, our family was feasting on lemon chicken and shrimp fried rice as a weekend treat. Only Korean food remained a mystery.
There were maybe two or three Korean students at my high school and for a long time, the number of immigrants moving to my city from South Korea was low. However, this is changing. More and more Koreans can be found living in the suburbs, particularly in Coquitlam, which has “Koreatown”, an area in which Korean restaurants and businesses have proliferated in the last decade.
Several years ago, I began teaching English to foreign students. Although most of my students were from all over the world, the bulk of them came from Japan and Korea. As much as my students learned from me, I learned from them. I learned about their culture and traditions. I learned that no matter how differently we sometimes see the world, we’re all very much the same. But most importantly, I learned about their food.
The first time my students took me to a Korean restaurant I didn’t know what to expect. I thought I might not like the food. I had heard it was spicy. I don’t mind a little heat, but generally spicy food doesn’t agree with me. I ordered hae-mul pajeon, a type of savoury pancake, filled with scallions (we call them green onions here in Canada) and a variety of seafood. About the size of a large dinner plate, it was served to me on a sizzling pan of cast iron. It was big enough to feed three people. I wish I could tell you that I shared my pajeon that day, but I ended up gobbling down every last scrumptious morsel. Unlike a lot of Western pancakes, it had an impossibly light yet crispy texture.
I have eaten this seafood pajeon several times since then and have tried to recreate the pancake at home. My first attempts from bad Western recipe books resulted in duds–heavy discs that ended up in the garbage. With some experimenting, I have come up with a version that is not quite as good as the crispy pancakes served to me in Korean restaurants, but comes close.
Korean Style Seafood Pancakes (hae-mul pajeon)
Serves 4 as an appetizer (about 16 small pancakes)
In Korean restaurants the pajeon comes as one large pancake, cut into 6 or 8 pieces, like a pie. I often just makes the pancakes small, flapjack style, so they can easily be picked up and eaten in a few bites.
2 large eggs
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 cup water
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup rice flour
3/4 cup sliced scallions (green onion)
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
1 cup cooked shrimp
1/2 cup cooked squid
1 tablespoon or more cooking oil, for frying
Beat the eggs, salt, sesame oil, and water together in a bowl. Add flours and beat until smooth.
Stir in scallions, red pepper, and seafood. Let stand at room temperature for 15 minutes.
Heat oil in a large non-stick frying pan. Add about 3 tablespoons batter for each pancake. Cook on medium heat for several minutes until the edges appear dry. Turn over once, cooking until golden. Repeat with remaining batter, adding more cooking oil if necessary.
For dipping sauce: add 1 tablespoon of vinegar (I prefer apple cider) to 1/2 cup of soy sauce. Add 1 minced garlic clove and 1/2 chopped scallion. Toasted sesame seeds may also be added.