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The Surreal Universe
by Bob Blumer
Magazine Issue: Internet Only

The collection of suggestions that follow each recipe is designed to add a few more shades of color to you cooking palette and help transform every meal into a bona fide celebration. See which suggestions work for you and let them inspire your culinary muse.

le secret. . Most recipes have one key step or component that can make or break the whole dish. If I were at your house while you were cooking one of my dishes, I would uncontrollably gravitate to the kitchen, hover behind you and extol the virtues of this important tip. "Le Secret" is my way of backseat driving in absentia.

the adventure club. . There's no money down, no obligation and relatively little risk. If you have the time, energy and/or inclination to take any of my recipes one step beyond, follow these suggestions to add the forth, fifth and sixth dimensions of exotica, spice and heat. Adventure Club aficionados should make a beeline for "The Advanced Adventure Club" (coming soon).

garnishes. . These suggestions are designed to inflate the "presentation value" of your dishes.

suggested accompaniments/suggested appetizers. . Instead of creating complete meals -- which I find rather presumptuous -- I have presented a choice of finger foods, soups, salads and entrees that you can mix and match according to your own tastes and whims. In the event that you're cooking on autopilot or looking for inspiration, follow these suggestions for side dishes and appetizers that complement the entree you have selected.

alternatives. . If there's an easy way to convert a meat dish to vegetarian, create more ingredient choices or reduce the evil Cs (calories and cholesterol), you'll find it noted here.

wine. . It's with a clear conscience that I acknowledge serving $4 wines at my dinner parties, and even on occasion buying a wine because I'm attracted to its label. My suggestions for genres of wine to serve with each entree were made in consultation with a panel of wine aficionados. When two or more of them suggested the same wine, I listened. Within any genre you can either spend $4 or sell the farm and shop at Sotheby's wine auctions.

music to dine by. . With each entree I suggest five albums to provide you with an evening's worth of stimulating music, chosen to enrich the spirit of the meal. I picked the number five so that those of you with a five CD carousel (the preferred method of transport to Surreal musical nirvana) can load it up and let it rip. The rest of you with single CD players, tape decks or (gasp!) turntables should assign a guest to play disc jockey.

guest assignments. . Guests are always asking if they can help. Most of them don't really mean it and should be graciously guided back to the comfort of the living room, where they can continue to nibble and drink. For those occasions when somebody sincerely wants to help, or when you are in dire straights, I have supplied tasks that even the most bumbling sous-chef can conquer.

cooking apparatus. . Some recipes require large pots or specific utensils such as a steamer or skewers. Check this section before grocery shopping to be sure you have all of the tools required for the job. Substitute liberally (i.e., any skillet may replace a saute pan).

serving apparatus. . An early warning signal for those dishes that require large serving platters, bowls, etc.

hints for advance prep. . The more you can prepare in advance, the more time you will have to enjoy your own party. These tips will allow you plenty of time to bask in the glory of your culinary creations.

prep time. . Although everyone slices and dices at his or her own speed, I have provided my best estimate of the time required to measure out, wash, chop and assemble all of the listed ingredients for a party of 6. Preparing portions for 12 should only increase the prep time by about 50 percent (don't ask me to prove the inverted mathematical theorem).

cooking time. . My best guess for the amount of time that should be allocated from the moment you crank up the heat until the dish is ready to serve.

miscellaneous notes & nuances

measurements. . Each recipe includes ingredient amounts for 6 to 12 servings. In most cases I have simply saved you the trouble of multiplying and the need to bring a calculator to the grocery store. But in some cases, the amounts do not increase proportionately. These situations are noted.

All of the instructions are for 6 servings. At any time a step in the cooking procedure calls for a specific portion, I include an * to indicate that you should double whatever is required if you are cooking for 12, or amend accordingly, per your guest list.

If you are cooking for more than 12, think logically about the size of your pots, pans, etc., to be sure that they can accommodate the portions.. Cooking times will also vary accordingly.

time & money. . Surreal food doesn't cost a lot of money or take days to prepare. Any combination of a finger food, salad and entree can be served for about ten dollars per guest (with the exception of lobster) and be prepared in about 90 minutes of actual kitchen duty.

If you're still waiting for that big check in the mail, throw a "twenty dollar dinner party." This poor man's feast is a variation on a potluck theme. Assign each guest to bring one specific ingredient and a bottle of wine. The luck element is left out of the equation because you assemble the meal.

to be or not to bbq. . Several recipes call for grilling as the preferred method of cooking. An oven broiler will always suffice, but nothing beats the flavor of the grill. Adventure Club types living in northern climates need not limit grilling to the summer months. Use your porch or balcony. If you are fortunate enough to have a fireplace, indoor grilling is a simple yet unexploited solution. Stick a small Hibachi or Weber-style grill in the fireplace, open the flue, close the gate and forget about the four feet of snow in the backyard.

Caution:. . Burning charcoal emits carbon monoxide. Proper ventilation is required to disperse the toxic fumes. Only grill indoors under a well-ventilated chimney and never go to sleep with the coals still burning.

eating and driving. . Several of my recipes call for modest amounts of alcohol as a flavoring ingredient. In every case the cooking time is sufficient to burn off virtually all of the alcoholic content. If the smallest trace of alcohol is undesirable, replace with a non-alcoholic equivalent.

garlicmania. . Okay, so I use a lot of garlic. But I have tangible evidence of its popularity. Two days after the 1994 6.8 Northridge earthquake (in Los Angeles), I left my quivering house for the first time to pick up some groceries. My cupboard was full of dried pasta and olive oil, but if I was going to stranded indefinitely, I needed fresh garlic. Surprisingly, after the hordes ahead of me had replenished their earthquake supplies, the market still had bottled water and batteries. But alas, a run on garlic had left the shelves bare.

kitchen fever. . Any kitchen can accommodate the recipes in this section. If your kitchen is large enough to harbor all of your loitering guests, consider yourself fortunate. But no kitchen is too small to impede you from preparing a great dinner. To compensate for a teeny kitchen, or one that is certifiably dysfunctional, barrow a neighbor's oven or alter your menu to reduce the cooking. But don't cancel the party.

nutritional neuroses. . Sumptuous food and fine drink are just rewards for hard work, regular exercise and a generally balanced diet.

Virtually all of my recipes are made with unprocessed, unpreserved, fresh ingredients. However, a few of natures finest gifts, such as olive oil or coconut milk, are considered "unhealthy" by some, if used in amounts greater than a thimbleful. It's some of these same ingredients that contribute to the instant gratification that great food delivers. Fortunately (or unfortunately), life is not one big dinner party. There are plenty of sensible meals to be eaten and plenty of time to exercise in between. Be rational, but don't be a frugal gourmet.

surrules

#1) Serve hot food hot.. . If you have prepared some elements of the meal ahead of time, reheat them to their appropriate temperature just before serving.

#2) Never serve hot food on cold plates (except as noted for buffets).. . Warm all dinner plates, serving plates and bowls in the oven at 200 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes. If the oven is full, warm them under hot tap water and stack them to retain heat.

#3) "The first taste is with the eyes" [Sophocles].. . Take the time to present every dish in style.

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