FOOD & DRINK : Finger-lickin' good

Tex-Mex is the ideal buffet food. In his occasional series on entertaining, Michael Bateman meets a party-planning expert
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The Independent Culture
THE FIRST rule for a successful party is never serve a dish you haven't made before. Thus speaks party expert Martha Rose Shulman. A counsel of perfection but, alas, who keeps to it?

She recalls the occasion when she made a dish for 400, a bean casserole in tomato sauce. She covered the containers with aluminium foil and put them in fridges overnight. Surely the sensible thing to do.

To her alarm, the next day she discovered that the acid of the tomato had reacted with the metal to produce a rust-coloured skin. She spent an hour scraping off the discoloured bits while worrying about consequences of poisoning 400 guests.

Well, we've all had similar experiences. I remember that once I was anxious about a dish I was cooking for 30 people. So I carried out a trial run the previous day to make sure I would judge the exact time for roasting some chicken pieces marinated in spicy yoghurt.

I thus cooked four chicken portions in a very hot oven. They were done in just 12 minutes: succulent, tender; tasty, perfect. Clever, eh? So, on the day of the party, 12 minutes before serving, I banged in 30 pieces of chicken. Um. They were ready about 45 minutes later, the guests having whiled away the time by drinking the better part of 30 bottles of wine.

In a small domestic cooker, the shock of putting in so much cold food had the effect of reducing the temperature of the oven almost to zero. So it was all of half an hour before it generated enough heat to cook the chicken for the required 12 minutes.

Right, says Martha Rose. And even if you have done it before there's always the unexpected. "On one occasion I carefully stored a fresh fruit salad in a cooler overnight as I'd often done before. But the next day, in boiling summer heat, the whole lot went off." The culprit was identified as an over-ripe melon. It had been reduced to little melon balls, and in that form had hurried all the other ingredients into premature decay.

So much for first rule of entertaining. Probably there's another one, but it's not in Martha Rose Shulman's book. Rule number one: if you don't like entertaining, don't even think about it. For many the effort and execution is fraught with anxiety, not to mention expense and physical labour.

But it's nothing to American-born Martha Rose who has turned a passion for entertaining into a career. She was stage-struck from the word go. "I had given a huge party that lasted through the night - I'd spent most of the time replenishing finger foods and appetisers, making sure they looked beautiful so it felt the party would last forever - and by the morning I was absolutely sure that this was what I most wanted to do with my life."

She started catering for friends' parties, weddings and conferences. And for her hippy friends (we're going back a bit) she started Martha's Moon House Supper Club. She crammed in 35 people at a time seated at benches and charged them a subscription of a modest $1.50 a head. Tex-Mex was the in-thing, and with a friend she launched her first Migathon, named after the the celebrated spicy Mexican scrambled egg dish, migas.

Then a holiday in France opened her eyes to French cooking and she was inspired to move to to Paris. Her friend Christine Ruiz Picasso, a daughter- in-law of the artist, rented her a flat. Here she decided to revive her Supper Club and for seven years she produced a dinner a month for 25 people, largely serving the American community. Guests would pay "une participation", a fee to cover food and wine.

Tex-Mex remained a speciality. Twice she did parties on the Seine on a bteau-mouche for the International Herald Tribune crowd. She recalls negotiating the Paris rush-hour traffic with containers of spicy beans for 150 slopping around in the boot of her VW Passat. She also worked for the sculptor Niki de Saint-Phalle, another Tex-Mex aficionado. The artist expected Martha Rose to trek up to her St Moritz ski resort bringing with her a tortilla-press, bags of masa harina (cornmeal flour) and sacks of black beans.

Now Martha Rose Shulman commutes between Paris and the West Coast, the author of acclaimed books on vegetarian cooking, bread and entertaining. The most recent will be published next month, Classic Finger Foods and Appetisers (Dorling Kindersley, £l4 99).

Mexican continues to be her favourite style for entertaining friends. The following is a buffet she put on for friends, finger-food rather than a formal dinner party.

The recipe quantities given below serve 12. Adjust accordingly.

FORWARD PLANNING

"I have a set guidelines I follow rigidly," Martha Rose says. "I make a lot of lists and tick off everything as I go along."

The first thing is to decide the date and time of party; then plan the guest list and send out the invitations. Next, plan the menu, checking recipes to make in advance.

Nachos (generally known here as tortilla chips) are a basic ingredient of a Tex-Mex finger-food party that needs to be prepared in advance. These are tortillas cut into bite-sized pieces and deep-fried. You can buy them ready-made from supermarkets but home-made nacho chips are infinitely better than commercial ones, which tend to be over-salted and oily.

Cornmeal tortillas are available in most supermarkets (even Mexicans buy them rather than make their own now). Made well in advance, nachos can be stored in airtight tins.

COUNTDOWN

Party day minus 3: Make lists. Do any supermarket shopping.

Party day minus 2: Explore the markets, looking for best buys: fresh chillies, avocados, limes, tomatoes, mangoes, watermelon.

Party day minus 1: Order the fish.

PARTY DAY

Pick up the fish (cod, tuna and scallops) early in the morning. A session cutting, chopping, preparing. If I get ahead, I deliberately work more slowly, so that I have to push myself to catch up in the afternoon. I seem to thrive on a certain amount of tension. There is something inside me that makes me want to rush towards the end.

7pm or 7.15pm: I'm out of the kitchen. This is my quiet time. I take a hot bath and retreat to the bedroom; unplug the phone, turn off the lights. Then I lie back on the floor, my lugs over my head. (You hope this is not the moment the first guests choose to arrive). I close my eyes, breathe deeply and let go of the day's tension. I forget that I have been in the kitchen all day.

8pm: Get dressed. Half an hour's burst of frenetic activity. A friend helps set out the dishes. I make the margaritas, uncork the wines. THE MENU

BLACK BEAN NACHOS GUACAMOLE NACHOS CHICKEN NACHOS WITH SALSA VERDE CEVICHE (MARINATED FISH DISH) MEXICAN FRUIT PLATTER TO DRINK: MARGARITAS; RED AND WHITE WINES

BLACK BEAN NACHOS Makes 48 2 tablespoons sunflower or rapeseed oil 1 large onion, chopped 4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped or crushed 375g/12oz dried black beans, soaked overnight in 3 litres/5 pints water salt 2 litres/312 pints water 2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander 2 teaspoons ground cumin 2 teaspoons chilli powder 48 nacho chips 125g/4oz Cheddar cheese, grated 6 tablespoons crme frache or plain low-fat yoghurt green tomatillo salsa (see below) or chopped tomatillos fresh coriander for garnish

Heat half the oil in a large, heavy-based sauce-

pan and saut the onion with 1 garlic clove for about 3 minutes, until onion begins to soften.

Drain the beans and add to the pan with the 2 litres/312pts water. Add another quarter of the garlic, and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 1 hour.

Add salt to taste, the remaining garlic and the coriander, and simmer for about 1 hour, until the beans are soft and the liquid has thickened.

Let cool, then drain off about two-thirds of the liquid, and reserve. Mash half of the bean mixture coarsely in a food processor or with a potato masher in batches. Stir back into the remaining bean mixture.

Heat the remaining oil in a large non-stick pan over medium-high heat, and add the cumin, chilli powder and a pinch of salt. Cook until the spices begin to sizzle, then add the beans. (This can be done in batches if your pan is not large enough to hold all the beans.)

Fry the beans for 15-20 minutes, mashing with the back of a wooden spoon and stirring often, until they begin to get crusty and aromatic. If they seem too dry, add some of the reserved cooking liquid. The beans should bubble, thicken and reduce, forming a thin crust on the bottom of the pan, which you should stir back into the mixure.

Place the nacho chips on baking trays and sprinkle them with the grated cheese. Place in an oven preheated to 375F/190C/Gas 5 for 5-10 minutes, until the cheese melts.

Spread the refried beans over the cheese, and top the nachos with crme frache, or yoghurt and salsa, or with chopped tomatillos (or green tomatoes). Garnish with coriander.

GUACAMOLE NACHOS

My guacamole is mild, with no hot chillies added to it. The spicy flavour comes from the salsa which garnishes each nacho chip.

Makes 48

4 large ripe avocados

2 medium tomatoes, chopped

2 tablespoons finely chopped red onion

1 small garlic clove, finely chopped or crushed

juice of 1-2 lemons

14-12 teaspoons cumin

14-12 teaspoons chilli powder

salt

48 nacho chips

90g/3oz mild cheddar cheese, grated

125ml/4fl oz plain low-fat yoghurt, fromage blanc or crme frache

12 batch fresh tomato salsa (see below)

radishes for garnish

Cut the avocados in half, remove the stones and scoop out the flesh with a spoon. Mash the flesh in a bowl with a wooden spoon, or use a pestle and mortar. Add chopped tomatoes and continue to mash together. Add the onion and garlic, with lemon juice, cumin, chilli powder, and salt to taste. Cover the guacamole and refrigerate until you are ready to assemble the nachos.

Place the nacho chips on baking trays and sprinkle with the grated cheese. Place in a preheated 375F/190C/Gas 5 oven for 5-10 minutes, until the cheese melts.

Place a spoonful of guacamole on each chip, a little yoghurt, fromage blanc or crme frache, then a spoonful of salsa. Garnish with radishes.

(The guacamole and salsa will keep for several hours in the refrigerator. Place the guaca-mole in a tightly covered container; the surface will turn a little darker, but when stirred, it will regain its pale green colour)

CHICKEN NACHOS WITH SALSA VERDE

Makes 48

1 meduim onion, coarsely chopped

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1.5 litres/212 pints water

salt and freshly ground pepper

4 large chicken breasts, total weight about 625g(114lb)

12 teaspoon dried thyme

12 teaspoon dried oregano or marjoram

2 bay leaves

1 batch green tomatillo salsa (see below)

4 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander

48 nacho chips

175ml/6fl oz crme frache, fromage blanc or plain low-fat yoghurt

1 large or 2 small avocados, peeled, stoned and diced

juice of 1 large lime

additional coriander leaves for garnish.

Place the onion, garlic, water and 1 teaspoon salt in a large, heavy- based saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the chicken. Skim off any foam that rises, then add the thyme, oregano or marjoram, and the bay leaves. Reduce the heat, cover partially, and simmer for 15 minutes.

Remove from the heat and let the chicken cool in the broth. Remove the chicken from the broth, and then skin, bone and shred the meat.

Strain the stock through a muslin-lined sieve and set aside for another purpose if desired.

Toss the shredded chicken with the tomatillo salsa, chopped fresh coriander, and salt and pepper to taste.

Place 1 heaped teaspoon of the mixture on each nacho chip, and top with a little crme frache, fromage blanc or yoghurt.

Toss together the diced avocado and lime juice, and add salt to taste. Place about 2 teaspoons of the mixture on top of each nacho chip, and garnish with fresh coriander.

CEVICHE

Ceviche is a Latin-American dish of marinated raw fish. It is, in fact, no longer raw when eaten, as the lime juice "cooks" it during marinating.

750g/112lb very fresh fish fillets, such as cod, whiting, red snapper or bream; or the same weight of centre-cut tuna fillet, dark meat and connective tissue removed; or 750g/112lb shelled scallops

350-500ml/12-16fl oz lime juice (about 7 large limes)

1 small onion, sliced

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped or crushed

1-2 fresh or canned jalapeo or serrano chilli peppers, seeded and chopped

2 medium tomatoes, chopped

1 large or 2 small ripe avocados, peeled, stoned, and diced

2-4 tablespoons olive oil

salt and freshly ground pepper

4-5 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander

small lettuce or chicory leaves, or 24 nacho chips for serving

Cut the fish or scallops into 1cm/12in cubes and place in a bowl. Pour on the lime juice and toss together well. Cover and refrigerate. Marinate white fish or scallops for 7 hours, tossing ocasionally. Marinate tuna for 112 hours or a little longer; it should remain pink in the middle.

Add the onion, garlic, peppers, tomatoes and avocado, then add olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Toss together, cover, and refrigerate for another hour.

Remove from the refrigerator, and stir in the coriander, adding more to taste if you prefer. Adjust seasonings. Let stand for 15-30 minutes. Before serving, place the ceviche in a colander set over a bowl, and drain off most of the marinade. Serve on small lettuce or chicory leaves, or on nacho chips. If you prefer, you can serve the ceviche on a platter or in a salad bowl, encircled by lettuce or chicory leaves.

FRESH TOMATO SALSA

Jalapeo peppers vary in intensity from mild to hot. If you are not sure of their strength, add them sparingly and adjust the flavour of the salsa by adding extra peppers after tasting.

Makes about 600ml/1pt

1kg/2lb tomatoes, chopped

1/2 small red onion, finely chopped

1 tbsp red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar

2-3 jalapeno or serrano peppers cored, seeded and finely chopped

4-5 tbsp chopped fresh coriander

salt and freshly ground pepper

Combine all the ingredients, adding jalapeo peppers, coriander, salt and pepper to taste.

GREEN TOMATILLO SALSA

250g/8oz tomatillos (or small green tomatoes), skinned, or 1x 400g/14oz can tomatillos, drained

2-3 fresh green chillies, cored and seeded

12 medium onion, roughly chopped

2 large garlic cloves, roughly chopped (optional)

6 sprigs of fresh coriander

salt

125ml/4fl oz fromage blanc, plain low-fat yoghurt, or sour cream

Tomatillos are small, hard green tomatoes. You may find them in cans in specialist food stores, or you can use any other hard green tomato.

If using fresh fruit, put in a pan with water to cover and simmer for 10 minutes, then drain. Process the cooked or canned fruit with chillies to taste, with the onion and garlic (if using it) and the coriander sprigs to a coarse pure in a blender or a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Season with salt to taste, and let stand for 30 minutes or longer before serving.

MEXICAN FRUIT PLATTER

500g/1lb watermelon chunks

4 mangoes, peeled, stoned and sliced

6 passion fruit, halved

2 star fruit (carambola), sliced crossways

3 papayas, halved, deseeded

500g/1lb pineapple chunks

350g/12ozs dark chocolate

Melt chocolate in a double boiler (or basin over hot water in a pan). Spear pineapple chunks on cocktail sticks and dip them one by one. Leave to cool on baking paper.

Place halved papaya shells in centre of platter and fill with chocolate pineapple chunks. Surround decoratively with the other fruits.

MARGARITAS

This is the drink to have before the meal to set the Mexican tone, but it's also an excellent drink to break the ice. Make up a large batch according to these proportions. You will need, per drink:

45ml/112fl ozs tequila

30ml/1fl oz fresh squeezed lime juice

20ml/34fl oz Cointreau or Triple Sec or, if you like it less sweet, 15ml/23fl oz

Mix together. For a less potent drink, though equally delicious, blend the mixture with ice, which will dilute it. Or you can shake up the margaritas with ice, then pour them out. !

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