Entertaining in the Recession

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image by Jason Raish

One little pending global economic disaster, and the whole world goes into a tizzy.

You would think we could make this economic sinkhole a fun adventure kind of thing. I like to think of it as a lot like camping. You know, while you’re sitting on the bare ground, under the stars, with nature all around, you silently assure yourself it’ll all be over soon and you’ll get back to things like soft beds and hot showers, where humankind belongs.

Those bodacious dinners at Tony’s you once hosted are a thing of the past, sure–right there with the due date on the American Express card. It’s at this point that one must bow the head and humbly confess.

No, not that you’re broke. Confess that it is too ostentatious to do those dinners, seeing as how so many others are down and out. Entertaining should be done at home. And, with a little American ingenuity, you conveniently save a bundle, too.

Yes, it’s American ingenuity that gave the greatest gift to entertaining on a budget: America invented fake food. Where else but in this grand land of ours can we have whipped cream fabricated in a chemistry lab, all-vegetable hamburger meat, and unidentifiable pork parts made into ham loaf?

A faux feast on a budget is really rather simple, but it takes some advance planning.

For example, you know those nearly empty bottles of expensive liquor you hide from relatives and guests? Empty them. (I have one suggestion on a good way to do this.) Now go get the cheap stuff. Smirnoff goes into the Grey Goose bottle. Beefeater into the Bombay Sapphire. Old Crow into the Maker’s Mark.

Do you think anyone will notice? Maybe the next morning, since the cheap stuff tends to have that effect. But people with hangovers always blame themselves. What they will remember is your impressive bar.

As for the fake foods . . . the trick is in naming the dishes, not the ingredients. It’s an old trick. A 1949 Canadian recipe I read about calls for stitching together Maple Leaf wieners to approximate a standing crown roast, then stuffing the contraption with creamed cabbage and wrapping it all in bacon.

So how does a delicious course of seafood rellenos sound? Or cutlets in a mustard caper sauce? And while your guests are happily sipping your camouflaged spirits, would they not love nibbling on gougères (miniature cream puffs) stuffed with curried ham?

The original recipe for the gougères was in a magazine story about an elite annual party in Charleston. The stuffed puffs are as traditional as the party, and, of course, the recipe calls for traditional and, of course, costly Virginia ham.

I’ve done it in the past by the recipe and loved the results. But in hard times, one can learn from Austin, Minnesota: home of Spam.

Did you just go yuck?

The truth is that, since 1937, through war and bad economic periods, Americans have found comfort in this gelatinous, meaty stuff. And if you want proof of the economic straits we are in, reports from the Hormel Foods plant in Austin are that they can barely keep up with the demand.

So take back your yuck. Chop up Spam with enough raisins, curry powder, mustard, and cream cheese, and it tastes a lot like Virginia ham at a fraction of the cost. Carefully pump it into those cute little gougères and as the compliments flow, you can chuckle all the way to your cheap liquor bar.

Now there’s no stopping.

Without real crab claw meat, rellenos are cheap to make. Just alter the unnatural shape of fake crab, place it on top of a narrow slice of cheap Mexican white cheese, then stuff both in the pepper. Who has to know that this authentic, utterly decadent pile of seafood rellenos is really pureed, processed, and pressed Alaskan pollock?

The chances you’ll get caught are not great, actually, as most people don’t go to a dinner party and concentrate on the food. Just cover your tracks by removing from the house all the packaging that clearly admits your fakery.

Should someone call you on your truthfulness? Humbly confess again.

You’ve become an environmentalist. All of your dishes not only took some stress off the food chain (when’s the last time you heard about endangered Alaskan pollock?), but also relieved your conscience about being ostentatious.

Then offer your guest another Grey Goose martini.

Excerpted from My Table(Feb.-March 2009), a go-to publication for dish on Houston’s culinary scene; www.my-table.com.

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