Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 26, 2001

A home cook renowned for her tasty appetizers shares secrets

Frico cups are fried parmesan cups filled with a goat-cheese spread.dried tomato salsa.

Photos by Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Jody Nakamura, 32, is known jokingly among her friends as "Princess Pupu" — a play on the old song, "Princess Pupule," and an acknowledgement of her skill at throwing parties where appetizers are the centerpiece of the menu. Her philosophy: "Keep it easy. Five ingredients is about right. Use store-bought products wherever you can. Use the best ingredients when it matters."

"I like to make dinner for people, but I always end up so tired by the time the guests get there, and I'm up and down into the kitchen. I'd much rather make a lot of pupu ahead of time and then be out on the lanai with everyone else," said Nakamura, who shares a Hawai'i Kai home with several members of her family and is planning a New Year's Eve party despite the fact that she has to work that day (she's an executive secretary).

"I'll do the Costco run Saturday, make a lot of things in advance Sunday and Monday, I'll get off work at 3 and be ready with the first batch of pupu at 6," she said, confidently.

Nakamura has a plan of attack that she follows for these parties: She chooses a centerpiece recipe and then builds around it with complementary dishes. The centerpieces are what she calls "little plates" and they include everything from polenta cakes to rice balls, tortillas to pita. "The idea is you make a whole bunch of something and then make spreads, dips, toppings or side dishes people can mix and match," she said.

She got the idea when she was watching a TV Food Network show on the Dutch-Indonesian custom of rijstaffel (rice table), a meal in which rice is the centerpiece, surrounded by a group of highly seasoned toppings, rich sauces and stew-like dishes.

"I got to thinking about how we were always having chips and dips and thought, what if we did something more substantial than chips and something homemade and different, and then we just made all kinds of things to scoop and spread and dip and top?"

Her first "pu party," as she called it, was a great success. "My Portuguese girlfriend told me about how her grandma made cornmeal mush and then she refrigerated it until it set and sliced it and fried it for breakfast. Then I read about Italian polenta, which is a really good-quality coarse cornmeal, and I thought, polenta cakes!"

Nakamura's boyfriend is into wines, so she had him shopping for Italian wines while she planned an Italianesque spread based on a favorite cookbook, Carol Field's "Italy in Small Bites" (William Morrow, 1993), which she bought second-hand at a library book sale. It is about the Italian custom of merende, sitting down to quick little between-meal snacks mid-morning or late afternoon. (In the Philippines, there's a similar custom — merienda — a refreshing pause in the day for fruit juices and little fried and baked snacks.)

Nakamura said polenta turned out to be both easy to make and inexpensive. One $5 package of polenta from R. Field made batch upon batch of polenta cakes: Boil the polenta with salt and water; spread in a flat pan and refrigerate; cut with cookie cutters; fry, grill or bake and top with goodies. "I made some plain and some with fresh herbs cooked in it, and some with cheese in it, and I had lots of toppings, like fresh tomatoes with basil and a little balsamic vinegar, a cheese spread, olive spread, Italian meats, pesto, a tuna spread, grilled eggplant with a marinade. ... And here's the best part: I made everything the day before and just had to bring things to room temperature or give them a little hit in the oven or microwave."

In our testing, the polenta cakes held together very well, especially the plain ones (polenta, salt and water), which are so firm that they can actually stand up to being grilled and acquire a nice smoky flavor that way. Versions made with cream and cheese are softer and are best gently baked.

Polenta triangles with sun-dried tomato salsa.

Other ideas Nakamura has used:

  • Rice cakes (she learned the fine art of forming these from her late grandmother) with a spread of sushi-style ingredients, including ume niku (pickled plum), scrambled egg, aburage and furikake, plus ham and char siu and other less-traditional ingredients. She made the cakes larger and flatter than usual, and everyone had a good time eating with their fingers or chopsticks, she said.
  • Homemade whole-wheat pita bread, cut into halves to make pockets, with hummus (garbanzo spread), eggplant "caviar," sliced cucumbers and yogurt dressing, a chunky olive salad, egg salad, strips of grilled lamb, fresh vegetables.
  • Crostini (garlicky bread rounds) with a group of toppings similar to those she used for the polenta party: "Everybody really likes Italian food!"

"This way, the party has a theme and you can even match wines to it and decorations, if you want, but you don't spend all your time in the kitchen," she explained.

Nakamura said she's shameless about collecting recipes. "I can't afford to buy all the cookbooks I'd like to have, but I'll go to the library or to Borders and browse, and I just copy down anything that looks easy or read ideas and think of how to simplify them," she said. "The best are the community cookbooks, because those recipes are from real people who don't have time to spend days testing a dish. And neither do I."