Latin Inspiration

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This summer, host your perfect fun-in-the-sun fiesta. All you need are finesse and a few fabulous details, Latin-style.

What are the ingredients for an unforgettable summer party? A palatial estate? A chef from a four-star restaurant? Famous musicians playing poolside?

If you don’t have any of these things, what then? Are you just doomed? Doomed to a lifetime of barbecues and parties at which banged-up coolers full of soda cans hide in the shade of the garage and the appetizers are whatever was on sale at Sam’s Club?

No! A thousand times, no! You are not doomed to dull parties. All you need to turn this summer’s fun in the sun into something really memorable is a couple of good ideas and a commitment to details, say Carolina Buia and Isabel C. González, coauthors of the new party planner and cookbook Latin Chic: Entertaining With Style and Sass (HarperCollins, 2005).

I spent a few days poring over photos of the themed parties, luncheons and dinners around which the two have arranged their book and encountered all kinds of brilliant little touches that I never could have dreamed up.

Call me crazy, but I’m beginning to think that a great party has something in common with a good yoga class: It captures your attention in such a way that the present moment vibrates vividly before you. The difference is, instead of using your breath to distill your attention, for a party you use details. Lots and lots of vivid details.

Details like seashells used as salt and pepper shakers, lime rinds as dishes, eggcups as place-markers, port glasses as soup bowls, dried corn husks as disposable dip or nut holders. Details like music, glassware, garnishes and flowers all grouped around a theme. Lots of special, inspired little touches every step of the way.

Latin Chic author González, who is also an editor at Teen People, says the reason she is so good at identifying these important little details is because she grew up watching some real party pros. “My maternal grandmother was an incredible cook,” she explains, “and my other grandmother was definitely not – but boy, could she throw a party. She was putting flowers in individual votive holders years before I saw that in any magazine. An hour or two before the guests arrived she would wander here and there, adjusting various little things, until somehow everything just came together to feel perfectly special. I couldn’t help but study her as she went. I was in awe.”

Now, González honors her grandmother with that sincerest form of flattery – imitation – by doing the kinds of things her grandmother did at parties. “I’m a big fan of doilies – doilies can spruce up a coffee table like nothing else. Serving dishes do more than just hold things,” she advises. “If you present things on trays instead of plates, or have bowls on trays, everything just seems more special. I buy vintage mismatched cheese knives from flea markets; they’re so much nicer than something plastic. And I always like to make the drinks look pretty. That doesn’t mean they’re pink with an umbrella, but it could mean you just pick out the prettiest mint sprigs to use as a garnish. My grandmother taught me that 2 percent more effort can yield 98 percent more enjoyment – and it gives a little more depth to the experience, too. That’s living life to its fullest.”

González’s coauthor Buia thinks that this type of attention to detail is appreciated today more than it ever was. “Because we live in such a fast-food culture, if you actually do bake a cake, you get an incredible amount of validation for it,” Buia says. “All your friends gather around, and they’re crying out, ‘Oh my god, this is homemade!’ so you really feel appreciated. It’s not like it was in our grandparents’ generation, when everyone baked. I feel like, for a long time, women were confined to this Betty Crocker homemaker role. Then the pendulum swung the other way, and everything was about career and independence. Now I feel like it’s a really great time – because you can have your career and your Betty Crocker moments, too. You can get a totally different kind of satisfaction out of each of them.”

Do you agree? If so, consider this your summer to have your cake and throw an unforgettable party around it, too.

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Let’s Drink to Summer

Tasty summer drinks that will quench your thirst.

Virgin Mojito

  • 4 sprigs mint
  • 1 tbs. superfine sugar
  • Juice of 1 lime, plus wedges
  • Juice of 1 lemon, plus wedges
  • Club soda

In an old-fashioned glass, mash the mint and sugar. Add the lime and lemon juices along with a few lemon and lime wedges. Fill the glass with ice and top with the club soda.

Kumquat Mojito

  • 4 sprigs mint
  • 2 tbs. superfine sugar
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 2 kumquats, halved
  • 2 1/2 ounces light rum, such as Bacardi Superior
  • 1 1/2 ounces club soda
  • 4 ice cubes
  • Thinly cut sugarcane

In an old-fashioned glass, lightly mash the mint and sugar for 30 seconds or until the mint aroma is released. Add the lime juice, then squeeze the kumquats to release their juices into the glass. Drop in some of the kumquat shells, pour in the rum, top with the club soda, give it all a stir and finish with the ice cubes. Use the sugarcane as a stirrer.

Sweet and Delicious

Three desserts that will leave you taste buds wanting more.

Branded Pineapple With Vanilla Ice Cream and Caramelized Walnuts

  • 1 whole ripe pineapple, peeled and cored
  • Vanilla ice cream
  • Caramelized walnuts (optional)

Prepare the grill on medium-low heat. Slice the pineapple into 3/4-inch rounds. Over low-medium heat, grill for approximately 3 1/2 minutes on each side, or until the pineapple slices become pliable.

Arrange two slices on each serving plate. Add a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a couple of caramelized walnuts, if desired.

Makes eight servings.

Caramelized Walnuts
(Make ahead and keep in an airtight container for up to two weeks.)

1/2 cup sugar
16 shelled walnuts

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Pour the sugar into a small saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring. When the sugar turns a caramel color, drop in the nuts, two at a time, turn them with a fork to coat and then use tongs or another fork to remove them. Place them on a lined baking sheet to cool.

Watermelon Rubies Drizzled with Rum Sauce

1 medium watermelon, preferably seedless
Juice of one lime

Rum Sauce

  • 1/2-cup sugar
  • 1/2-cup dark rum
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

Halve the watermelon lengthwise. Using a melon baler, carve out little round “rubies” and place them in a large bowl. Pour the lime juice over them, toss gently, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve.

To make the rum sauce, take a small saucepan and heat the sugar, rum and cinnamon, stirring until the sugar starts to dissolve (it should not dissolve completely) and small bubbles appear on the sides of the pan. Remove from the heat. Using a spoon, drizzle the sauce over the chilled watermelon rubies and serve in individual bowls. They may be eaten with a fork or fingers.

Makes six servings.

Three Milks Cake Tres Leches Cake

  • Butter for greasing the pan
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 5 large eggs, separated
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/4 cup pecans, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 3 tbs. Chambord or Bailey’s Irish Cream
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract

Cream

  • One 12-ounce can evaporated milk
  • One 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 cup heavy cream

Meringue Topping

  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3 egg whites

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly butter a 9- by 13-inch baking pan. Sift the flour and baking powder together in a large bowl. Set aside.

In a mixing bowl, beat the egg whites on low-medium speed until soft peaks form. Slowly add the sugar and increase speed to medium-high until stiff peaks form. Then beat in one egg yolk at a time, incorporating each egg yolk for about 15 seconds before adding in the next one. Add the pecans. Slowly add half the flour, the milk and then the remaining flour, liqueur and vanilla.

Occasionally scrape the sides of the mixing bowl. Keep mixing the cake batter until it is smooth and forms ribbons, for about two more minutes.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for about an hour, or until the cake is golden and springy, and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Cool in the pan on a rack for 10 to 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the cream by whisking together the evaporated milk, condensed milk and heavy cream. Pierce the cake all over with the tines of a fork and, while the cake is still warm, pour the cream evenly all over. Cool to room temperature.

To make the meringue topping, combine the sugar and 3 tbs. water in a small saucepan and stir until the sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil and then simmer the sugar syrup until it reaches the “soft-ball stage” or 240 degrees F on a candy thermometer, about five minutes.

At the same time that the sugar syrup comes to a boil, begin beating the egg whites on medium-high until they reach the soft-peak stage. Slowly pour in the sugar syrup along the sides of the mixing bowl and beat on low speed. When the sugar has been incorporated, increase the mixing speed to medium and beat until still, glossy peaks form.

When the meringue topping has cooled slightly, spread it evenly on top of the cake with a spatula or knife. Refrigerate for at least four hours or overnight.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Dara Moskowitz is a Minneapolis-based food and wine critic. Nominated five times for James Beard Awards – the Oscars of the food world – she received the award for her restaurant column in the Village Voice–owned newspaper City Pages. Her work has been selected for inclusion in the Best Food Writing anthologies of 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2005.

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Nutrition
By Dara Moskowitz
Food-Culture