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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Pupu party for people on the go-go

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Illustration by Martha P. Hernandez • The Honolulu Advertiser
Malia Ramirez likes to have friends over, but after spending several of her own parties "running around like crazy and then collapsing, watching everybody have fun while my feet hurt," she decided there had to be a better way.

Now when she gives a party, the Waikiki sales executive gets help. "Costco, the supermarket, okazu and friends — my secret weapons," said Ramirez, who recently gave a retro cocktail party. "I did canapés with Cheez-Whiz and pimento spread on Ritz crackers. I asked my friend to do rumaki (bacon-wrapped water chestnuts). Someone else brought chunks of ham and cheese and olives with toothpicks; toothpicks are very important to a retro party. Another friend did the martini bar. Main thing: I didn't try to do all the work."

In the next week or so, many of us will give a party or attend one where we're expected to bring something. We'll also be working, spending time with visiting relatives, giving presents, returning presents, doing the year-end house cleaning, taking care of a million-and-one details.

Here are Ramirez's techniques — and some other ideas we gathered on the way — for managing to have a little fun if the party's at your house, and for coming up with something semi-original to take to a party, even if you've only got half an hour to throw something together.

It's your party

• Advance work. "One time, I was giving a party on a Saturday, but I had to be away on sales calls all that week, so I did everything except the food the Saturday before — the shopping, the cleaning, got the dishes out, everything," Ramirez said. "It worked so well that that's how I do it now. The weekend before the party, I do all the work as if the party was going to happen that day. For the next few days, I just have to tiptoe around and not mess things up too much."

• Limit the menu. "I go by the rule of three or five," said Ramirez. "If I'm having just a few people over, I have three pupu plus munchies (Chex Mix, arare, nuts, little crackers). If it's a bigger party, I do five pupu plus munchies and one fruit and one veggie platter. Plus, people are always going to bring something, even if you tell them not to."

• Don't cook. "I don't allow myself to make elaborate hors d'oeuvres — or maybe I make just one thing, and everything else is from Costco or the okazu," Ramirez said. Make pupu that start with prepared foods. Buy party platters — which, in many cases, are cheaper than what you could make yourself.

• Pretty it up. Store-bought stuff can be "kicked up a notch" by adding high-quality, fresh ingredients, and by placing the food in your own serving dishes. Arrange sashimi or poke on a wooden platter lined with ti leaves; add bright-pink pickled ginger and maybe an orchid. Buy hummus, but add a squeeze of lemon juice and top with a puddle of fruity olive oil; warm the store-bought pita bread in the oven and cut into quarters. Place cookies on a pretty platter with scattered mint. Top storebought boboli (pizza bread) with chunks of feta, fresh herbs and a drizzle of good vinaigrette.

• Dish-free zone. Ramirez uses attractive, sturdy paper or plastic plates for everything but serving pieces. She provides chopsticks and forks (usually real cutlery). "I try to make sure that everything on the pupu table can be eaten with fingers, chopsticks or a fork; everything's in bite-sizes and nothing is runny enough to require a spoon. That keeps it simple," she said.

• Island buffet. Pupu should be placed on a table in an open area that allows access from all sides. Set bowls of nuts and other munchies around the room. Ramirez has a long, narrow folding table that she sets up in the dining room extending out into the living room, covered with a tablecloth that hangs to the floor. Add drama by going up — use tiered serving dishes or cake stands (Ross has inexpensive ones), or place a pot or bowl under the tablecloth and place a platter atop that.

• About the bar. BYOB is the rule at most Island parties, but you've got to have some drinks available for those who don't bring anything or run out. Ramirez's bar: chilled white wine (usually chardonnay, but sometimes an Italian pinot grigio or a sauvignon blanc); red wine, slightly chilled (usually cabernet sauvignon, but also merlot or Italian chianti, depending on the menu); beer (a lager, Gordon Biersch or Budweiser, whatever's on sale). She figures two drinks per person per hour; four glasses of wine per bottle. Two coolers of ice sit on the kitchen floor, and guests serve themselves.

"For my retro cocktail party, I set my friend up at the pass-through from the kitchen," Ramirez said. "We limited the menu to martini-style drinks — real gin or vodka martinis, plus Cosmos and like that. Anybody who didn't want that had to BYOB. And I made it a 'happy hour' — my friend made drinks for two hours, then we closed the bar down so he could relax, and we just drank wine and sodas."

• Atmosphere. Ramirez often assigns a friend to bring flowers instead of food. She stocks up on the inexpensive candles they always have at Ross and lights lots of them for an evening party. And there should always be appropriate music; she prefers instrumentals that don't interfere with conversation but provide a nice background.

• Napkins are nice. "I noticed that people are always jumping up to get napkins, or spilling and then looking for something to clean up, so I put stacks of big napkins all over the place," said Ramirez. "Those cocktail ones are silly — they're too small and they don't absorb. I get the big dinner ones. I also have lots of cotton fabric napkins that I hemmed myself in different colors, and I like to use those too."

• Take a plate. Be ready for Hawai'i's take-a-plate-home custom with disposable plastic containers, or plates and foil squares. Having guests carry off leftovers also helps with clean-up and prevents waste.

Bringing something

Store-stop ideas. If you haven't left yourself time to do anything but run to the store, here are some ideas from "The Dinner Doctor" by Anne Byrn (Workman, paper, $14.95).

Buy cheese, crackers, grapes and pears and a nice disposable presentation tray.

Pick up some fancy cookies and a pretty presentation tray — many people get 'ono for a little sweet treat after munching pupu.

Drop by the seafood shop for boiled shrimp, and throw together a dip from mayonnaise, a bit of ketchup, pickle relish and a dash of hot pepper sauce.

Buy several different types of mustard, salami, sour pickles and crusty bread; set up a mustard "bar," with sliced salami and bread.

Pick up tortilla chips and doctor a bottle of salsa. Some methods: 1) stir in mango chunks, chopped cilantro and some lime juice; 2) add a drained can of black beans and another of corn along with chopped parsley; 3) stir in plain yogurt, chopped cucumber and cumin seed.

• Just ask. "I always call that day and ask what they need," said Ramirez. "If you ask before, they say, 'Just come, no need.' But on the party day, the hostess is usually frantic about something she forgot or something she wishes she'd thought of, then I just pick up whatever that is and I'm a hero."

• Avoid the kitchen. Don't bring food that needs a lot of last-minute prep unless you check with the host first; the oven or counters might not be available.

• Overcome your pride. It's perfectly acceptable to bring a nice store-bought platter or a tray of sushi if you've had a busy day. The point is to be with friends, not impress them.