Preparing ahead

The secret to stress-free entertaining is having as much as possible prepared before the guests arrived.  Last night two couples we hadn’t seen for some time joined us for dinner, so I chose a menu which involved a couple of hours of preparation, but would leave me free to enjoy their company.

We started off with Prawn, Avocado and Tomato Tian with Green Shallot Dressing, adapted from a recipe by Curtis Stone which uses crab rather than prawns.  Crab is expensive and often difficult to find, whereas cooked prawns are readily available and often on special.  I had all the elements ready in the fridge and just had to assemble the tians before we sat down.  In Curtis Stone’s recipe he used beefsteak tomatoes and managed to cut circles for the tops of the tians.  My tomatoes weren’t big enough, so I had to use several pieces.

Prawn, Avocado and Tomato Tian with Green Shallot Dressing

Prawn Layer
1 kg cooked prawns, shelled and deveined (about 500g shelled weight)
Juice of 1/2 a lemon or one lime
2 Tbs mayonnaise, preferably home-made
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Avocado Layer
3 ripe avocados
1/2 red onion, very finely chopped
Juice of 1/2 a lemon or one lime
2 Tbs mayonnaise, preferably home-made
1 small red chilli, seeded and finely chopped (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Tomato Layer:
6-8 large ripe tomatoes
Salt flakes, such as Maldon
Olive oil
Green Shallot Dressing
4 spring onions, mostly the green tops
1 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup white wine or white balsamic vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place prawns in food processor.  Pulse a few times to chop roughly but still leave some large chunky bits.  Mix with remaining ingredients for prawn layer, cover and refrigerate until serving time.  Peel and dice avocados and mix with remaining ingredients, cover and refrigerate.  Cover tomatoes with boiling water for 1-2 minutes.  Refresh under a cold tap, then cut a cross on the bottoms and remove skins.  Cut tops off the tomatoes – just far enough down so you get rid of where the stalk was – then remove all seeds and pulp and discard.  It’s easier to do this if you make a cut down the side of the tomato.  You should be left with just the outer layer of each tomato in one large piece which you can flatten out.  Place on a plate lined with paper towel and refrigerate.  Place all ingredients for dressing in food processor, process until smooth, then place in a small jug or a bottle with a squirty top.

Just before serving time use stacking rings to assemble the tians – prawn layer, then avocado layer.  If you’re only making six servings you will have some prawn and avocado leftover.  Lastly cut pieces of tomato to cover the top – doesn’t matter if it’s like a jigsaw puzzle.  Brush tomato with a little olive oil and sprinkle with a few flakes of salt.  Drizzle some dressing around each tian, lift off the rings and serve.

Serves 6-8

For the main course I served lamb cutlets with mint pesto.  Crunchy roast potatoes and pea puree went down well with this.  Boil the halved potatoes until they are almost done, then drain, place on baking paper on an oven tray and spray with oil.  You can do them ahead to this stage, then just bake for about half an hour or so in a hot oven until brown and crispy.  For the peas boil half a kilo of frozen peas in salted water.  When tender blitz in the food processor with a lump of butter and about 2 Tbs of cream.  Season to taste then push the puree through a sieve.  This can also be done ahead and reheated in the microwave in a covered bowl.  For each serving put a circle of pea puree in the centre of the plate, then arrange two potatoes (propped up against each other looks good) and two lamb cutlets on top,  with a blob of mint pesto on each cutlet.   You will have to cook the cutlets at the last minute but they don’t take long.  Just season then pan fry in a tiny amount of olive oil for 2-3 minutes each side.

Mint Pesto

1 bunch mint, washed, leaves removed
2 Tbs grated Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup pine nuts
2 tsp honey
1 clove garlic, crushed
Between 1/4 and 1/2 cup olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 Tbs white balsamic vinegar or lemon juice

Place mint, Parmesan, pine nuts, honey and garlic in food processor and process until chunky, stopping once to scrape down the sides.  Add oil through the feed chute with the motor running.  Stop when you have a thick spoonable pesto, then lastly add vinegar or lemon juice and seasoning to taste.  It should be slightly chunky, not completely smooth.  Place pesto in a small bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.  The top with darken, but if you give it a quick mix it will be a nice bright green when you serve it.

We finished off with individual Pineapple and Pepper Tarte Tatins – the usual butter and sugar caramel, but the pineapple rings were seasoned with coarsely ground black pepper – served with vanilla icecream.