A good host puts his guest at ease from the get-go, and nothing spells comfort like a warm bowl of soup. That’s why Konstantino Blokbergen, founder and director of hospitality and lifestyle consultancy firm Gastro-Sense, enjoys starting dinner parties with soup and home-baked bread (he plans to open a bakery here next year).
His go-to recipe is that for a classic pumpkin soup. Although Swiss-born Blokbergen didn’t grow up eating the fruit, he fell in love with its sweet nutty flavours, thanks to his wife and while dining in restaurants.
“The main ingredient is very accessible,” says the 41-year-old. “It’s easy to pick up an Australian or Japanese pumpkin, both of which I prefer, from the supermarket. And, when they are in season, the European and US ones are good, too.”
When he has to work with an unripe pumpkin, which doesn’t yield much flavour, he would add orange zest to the soup stock to give it punch. Soup that has been over-boiled – more solid than liquid, in other words – can be saved by blending in more water or vegetable stock, says Blokbergen.
If it’s too salty, throw in a knob of unsalted butter to smooth and tone down the flavour. “It’s actually quite forgiving as a recipe,” he says.
INGREDIENTS: Olive oil, large sweet white onion, peeled garlic cloves, large butternut pumpkin, fresh orange peel, bay leaves, thyme, toasted Indian fennel seeds, sea salt, and water or vegetable stock.
01 Heat up the olive oil and add onion and garlic.
02 Add pumpkin and stir occasionally until vegetables are softened.
03 Add the thyme, bay leaves, fennel seeds, orange peel and sea salt and stir.
04 Add water and simmer until vegetables are tender.
05 Remove orange peel, bay leaves and thyme sprigs.
06 Puree the soup in blender then set aside to cool.
07 Garnish with fresh cream and olive oil.
MAIN COURSE: PORK BELLY
It started as a longing to re-create familiar flavours of home when he was studying in Portland, Oregon. But it wasn’t long before Martin Geh’s university mates caught whiff of his talent and asked him to whip up dishes like steamed drunken prawns and braised noodles for their parties.
Although Geh no longer insists that his friends buy the ingredients and clean up after the meal, he still runs a tight ship in his kitchen, which spans the length of his home in Dempsey and is lined with windows for better ventilation.
“When you are pan-searing half a dozen steaks at a time, you need that,” jokes Geh, who hosts dinner parties of up to 10 guests about thrice a month. The menu changes according to his whims, but one dish that is always a hit is his signature roast pork belly.
“I’ve been experimenting on how to get a perfect crackling skin for years,” says Geh.
“What works best is cooking the pork at a low temperature in the oven for three hours, then cranking up the heat for the last half hour.” If the skin is still not crunchy, Geh turns to plan B: Deconstruct the dish. This is a lesson he learnt the hard way a few years back, when the middle of the pork belly sank in while he was preparing it for a party.
“I removed the skin and put a Mexican-inspired green salsa on the meat,” says Geh, who then garnished the pork chunks with fragments of skin that had turned out crispy, and added sides of roasted corn.
“It worked like a charm to cover my mistake, and the guests were none the wiser,” he says.
INGREDIENTS: Green chillies, garlic, cilantro and fresh mint, salt, green chilli padi, lime, a purple onion, small bunch of spring onions, ripe tomatoes, garlic powder, a 2kg slab of Australian or Canadian pork belly (ask the butcher to score the skin).
01 Rub salt onto the pork belly and into the slits of the scored skin. Sprinkle garlic powder all over and leave, half-covered, in the fridge overnight.
02 Remove from fridge. Wait a couple of hours, then roast in oven at 140 deg C for three hours.
03 Increase heat to 220 deg C for the last 30 to 40 minutes.
04 Blend green chillies, garlic, cilantro, mint and lime. Add chopped onions and tomatoes.
05 Remove pork belly from oven and let it cool. Separate the skin, chop up the meat and massage it with green chilli salsa.
06 Arrange skin on top and garnish with roast corn and cilantro.
DESSERT: CHEESE & SWEETS
Making a dessert of baked camembert with fruit is a way for Edwin Soon to serve the best of both worlds. “I always had guests who couldn’t decide between cheese and fruit for dessert, and I had got to a point where I didn’t want to make both after a heavy meal with wines,” says the oenologist, who hosts dinner parties in his home every month. Soon is a published wine consultant and also heads the panel of experts for the annual wine awards held by The Peak Selections: Gourmet and Travel.
Coming across a recipe that combined the two solved his dilemma. “The baked cheese even goes well with the leftover wines from dinner,” says the 56-year-old.
The recipe may be simple, but the flavours produced are complex. Crunchiness from the nuts, sweetness from the honey, and acidity from the fruit lend different flavours and textures.
There is also room to be creative, great for times when your larder is sparse. “For something sweet, you can easily substitute honey with maple syrup or make your own sugar solution; and if you run out of nuts, use sesame seeds in a pinch,” says Soon.
n fact, Soon prefers the cheese to overcook in the oven. “There’s no need to worry about burning this dish, because the cheese just becomes super soft and creamy,” says Soon, who sprinkles dried fruit and nuts on the round when that happens, and pours syrup over it before torching the whole concoction.
He adds: “It actually looks more beautiful overcooked, to be honest.”
INGREDIENTS: Petit Camembert de Normandie, macadamia nuts, chopped pineapple, nutmegs, brown sugar, maple syrup.
01 Heat oven to 200 deg C.
02 Mix macadamia nuts, brown sugar, nutmeg and maple syrup together until it forms a thick paste.
03 Unwrap the cheese from the packaging, slice the crust from top and place the cheese back in its box.
04 Spoon the thick paste over the cheese and bake for about 20 minutes.
05 Garnish with some mint or lime zest.
(header image credit: Hip Hostess blogspot)