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From left to right Amanda Aachen, Jon Lee Keenan, Abdiel Gonzalez and Elissa Johnston.

From left to right Amanda Aachen, Jon Lee Keenan, Abdiel Gonzalez and Elissa Johnston.

I hope you’re hungry and thirsty when you read this post!

It’s funny how celebrations come together. When I planned an all Elliott  Carter concert for our recently completed Los Angeles International New Music Festival at REDCAT, I didn’t give the idea the green light until I got positive responses from Jon Lee Keenan, Abdiel Gonzalez and Elissa Johnston. And all three were concert ready from the very first note, impressive to say the least

At the first rehearsal at my house, well ahead of getting together with the ensemble, Abdiel and I got to talking, as he had just returned from a tour to Ireland. Whiskey tastings had started around 10 AM. How about a true cocktail party to celebrate the Carter concert?

And so The Gin Party was born!

A selection of gins for our party.

A selection of some of the gins for our party.

I’ve had a more than a few suggestions to write up some tips for entertaining for non-profit leaders. Not only because it’s important, but after 28 years of doing this, I know of no better way to consolidate your support, from donors to composers to players to soloists to friends and neighbors.

With our recent appointments as Artistic Advisors to the Hanoi Philharmonic Orchestra and Hanoi New Music Ensemble, I don’t think it’s time to write a cook book, so a few blog posts will have to do! But I hope you might get some time tested ideas for your own projects.

Here is one simple rule. Try as best you can to select dishes that can be prepared in advance. Our goal is to literally have to turn on the stove to reheat yummy dishes once the party gets started. That way you are not stuck in the kitchen, which is a strategy to be avoided.

A juniper berry Beefeater gin cured gravlaks got the party started,

A juniper berry Beefeater gin cured gravlaks got the party started.

One essay by Jacques Pepin put us on the best entertaining path. Pepin wrote of the difference between the professional chef and the home cook, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of both. He urged the home cook to plan, take time to shop for ingredients and head towards slow stews and dishes familiar and easy to prepare. Without confidence, you might want to avoid your first souffle for a party! Hope you can find this wonderful essay by a great French chef.

Which brings me to curing salmon gravlaks for our Gin Party. Preparing gravlaks is one of the most straightforward tasks in the kitchen. Find a good fish market for a fatty piece of salmon, cut it in two, make a salt sugar rub and pour on usually a reasonably priced cognac and fresh dill. For a gin party, we wanted to accent the juniper berry in the cocktail and so we used my favorite spice and with a little research learned that the British say Beefeater’s has the most juniper punch of all brands.  Sold!

The rubbed and boozed salmon takes a good three days to cure in the refrigerator (we weigh ours down with old bricks) and needs to be turned once a day. Cured gravlaks also has the advantage of being sliced ahead, so your appetizer is ready to present a few hours ahead.

Jan slicing the salmon hours ahead of the guests arrival.

Jan slicing the salmon hours ahead of the guests arrival.

Be sure to slice the salmon as thin as you can!

Slice gravlaks in one direction.

Slice gravlaks in one direction.

Here’s a good tip on pairings for a cocktail party (and is good for wine as well). Three tastes are about perfect (to which we add an optional digestif for our friends to go with a cheese or dessert course). Like programming, it’s good to make decisions so that you focus your audience.

Gin LOVES spicy food, or herbaceous dishes like gin and juniper berry gravlaks. And this was intentional as you should never mix the booze! Stay with a gin, or tequila, or vodka party idea. We had inklings from Hanoi that our appointments were very much on the way, so Jan and I wanted a personal subtext to the tastes which helped us decide on gin.

We did some research and decided on a Pegu Cocktail for the gravlaks, which was very popular in Rangoon at the British Pegu Club. It’s a gin margarita, essentially. We also learned that the best gin possible is the first gin ever made, which is the Dutch Genever, mixed with lime juice and an orange liqueur of your choice. And that means Pegu Cocktails, like margartias, would respond to being made in advance in a pitcher!

My mother's treasured cocktail glasses hole 1.5 ounces, a perfect amount.

My mother’s treasured cocktail glasses hold 1.5 ounces, a perfect amount for the Pegu Cocktail.

I also would recommend thinking in courses, 6 for the most important occasions, but 4 to 5 will do for most entertaining. This gives conversation time to develop, and you time to move gradually through the party. Also I use post-it notes in my kitchen to remind myself of ingredients and to keep a to-do list present.  I forgot a few key ingredients at one party, which was frustrating to say the least.

The mistake made me realize that when I worked for my parents’ restaurant every order was written and in front of me at the stove, griddle and work station. Eureka! I’ve adjusted that restaurant necessity for home parties with the trusted post-it note (like “take out the cheese when entree is served” or “garnish with chives” type messages). Problem soved!

The next course was a persimmon curry soup. Soup LOVES being made in advance, so on the Wednesday before a Sunday party we cured gravlaks then on Thursday I made the soup. I adore persimmons in the autumn, and found that if I put the skins with some pulp in a blender the skins blossomed away from their somewhat chalky taste and were perfect for soup. I’d frozen about 4 cups and voila, had a great soup for the Gin Party.

Remember, our subtext was spicy Southeast Asia tastes, and though this soup has an Indian aroma, it loved a saffron gin cocktail with a honey and cardamom pod syrup (you can see the saffron gin bottle above). Imagine an Old Fashioned with saffron. One other helping notion was that this cocktail is best with ONE ice cube and is stirred, not shaken, so a pitcher was perfect again.

Set your dinner table in the morning for an evening party.

Set your dinner table in the morning for an evening party.

Jan and I wanted to make the Gin and Tonic a special special capstone to thank our singers for their incredible performances of Elliott Carter’s late song cycles. This to us was risky as, like programming the Beethoven 5th, the Gin and Tonic is much abused and overly familiar.

I sleuthed on the internet for British websites. John Cage was right when he advised people to as much as possible go to the top of the company to find your teacher. So for gin that meant looking around the bartendering blogs of London. Found a convincing argument to serve the G&T in a balloon or large wine glass and loose the lime garnish for a lemon peel. All gins have lemon peel and NOT lime and we taste through our sense of smell.  We also wanted to use Bombay Sapphire East, as it uses Thai lemongrass and Vietnamese peppercorns, thereby helping our Southeast Asian tastes.

Jan and I auitioned the G&T's the day before the party!

Jan and I auditioned the G&T’s with the gravlaks the day before the party!

I always check for food issues in guests and this crowd sang in unsion. Spicy was fine! Gin was fine! Cheese was fine! How I knew we had the right group, as parties need a good casting director, if you know what I mean.

Combining the right people is always important. One of our best pairings was William Kraft and Martin Perlich. Blending their long careers was one of the best evenings, and their wives are from Shanghai and Paris – talk about food towns!

A great party with William Kraft and Martin Perlich.

A great party with William Kraft and Martin Perlich.

Joan Huang, Jan and Lucille Romieu.

Joan Huang, Jan and Lucille Romieu.

And so, G&T’s with lemon peel in balloon glasses with lots of ice to keep it fizzy and pouring 1 to 2 of gin to tonic, we moved on to deciding our entrees. Gin LOVES spice and so we wanted to incorporate tastes from Laos and Cambodia. So we were in the neighborhood of our impending news from Hanoi. If you look closely at the picture above of Jan with Joan and Lucile, you’ll spot a brown Laotian runner on the wall from Luang Prabang, a great daily memory.

So from Laos we made jeows, finger food to be served with sticky rice (and of course can be made ahead) and a Cambodian spiced brazier of chicken wings in a fiery coconut milk sauce. All messy, so lots of napkins, but after working on Elliott Carter together you pretty much trust each other!

The markets of Luang Prabang inspired our Gin Party.

The markets of Luang Prabang inspired our Gin Party.

I’ve got an earlier blog post about our Thai friends cooking in our home which you might want to search.  Our dear friend Lawan taught Jan the best way to use coconut milk, and if you find Arroy coconut milk from Thailand, do it. The paste for the chicken wings can be made, and if this is predicatable to you bravo, ahead and then slow cooked on the stove.  Just so you know, Arroy is Thai for yummy!

With Laotian and Thai friends as teachers, Jan knows the best way with coconut milk.

With Laotian and Thai friends as teachers, Jan knows the best way with coconut milk.

So the main meal is ready!

Amanda, Abdiel and Elissa toasting the G&T!

Amanda, Abdiel and Elissa toasting the G&T before dinner!

The Laotian jeows are ready.

The Laotian jeows are served with herbs and sticky rice.

Jon, Jan and Amanda toasting as well!

Jon, Jan and Amanda toasting as well!

Spicy, messy, gooey and delicious Cambodian chicken wings to share.

Spicy, messy, gooey and delicious Cambodian chicken wings to share.

Codas are important in music as well in cuisine. So to top this feast off, we hit on the idea, also from my British sleuthing, that cheese from the British Isles is incredible with Sloe Gin.  Says so write on the back of my bottle of Plymouth Sloe Gin, so I decided to do what they told me!

Yummy, yummy, yummy way to enjoy Stilton, Cotswold, Sage Derby and a horseradish infused brie-like cheese. Try it!

A good coda leaves everybody happy, and notice the bottle of Plymouth Sloe Gin.

A good coda leaves everybody happy, and notice the bottle of Plymouth Sloe Gin helping the cheese and fresh grapes.

Lauren Bacall is often quoted as saying she didn’t trust people who didn’t drink. I should know, as she and Humphrey Bogart asked for my mom to be the only server at their private Los Angeles wedding reception held at Chasen’s, where mom saw them all. I think Slim was on to something! Jan and I only drink when we’re happy, and the dedication and love put forward by Jon, Abdiel and Elissa at every rehearsal and surpassed in performance was a definition of why the energy of music is inspiring.

And, since Jan and I are headed soon to Vietnam and probably will have a kitchen where we stay, I am dreaming about a meal to share with them. Look closely at a few of the table pictures and you’ll see our hints of Vietnam with Water Puppet statues from Hanoi, a nice silent Gin Party secret just for Jan and me.

Ideas don’t grow on trees. They happen inspired by food!

Best, best, best,