While it’s technically spring, it doesn’t really feel like it yet in most parts of Canada. In our attempts to heat things up, we suggest you throw a Latin American influenced dinner party, with a culinary nod to the country that links two continents, Panama. One of the country’s best loved and most talented chefs, Charlie Collins, shares some of his top tips for putting a little fiesta in your next gathering.
Setting the ambiente
Ambiente in Spanish is ‘ambience’, or the vibe you plan to set. If you have an outdoor fire pit, light it up and dine as they do in Charlie’s home town of Boquete, Panama where warm, soft-as-cashmere pashminas are offered to all guests adding to the cozy, fireside factor. Sidle up next to the fire while enjoying an alfresco dinner. Give your table a pop of tropical colour by placing a few, well chosen tropical flowers in a bud vase – birds of paradise are particularly dramatic. Your centre piece can be a pretty, easy arrangement of whole coconuts, mangos, papayas, star fruit, lemons, oranges and any greenery you like. Set atop a rustic, wooden platter and go with bold, tropical prints for place settings and napkins. The idea is to go for relaxed, casual elegance where hits of vibrant colour feed the eyes before you get to the food.
You can go with a chilled out, lounge-inspired musical repertoire that can include southern Spain’s Chambao, the Thievery Corporation or Argentina via Paris’ own Gotan Project. If you feel like something more upbeat and Latin, there’s always the magical musical stylings of Cuba’s own Celia Cruz, Panama’s Ruben Blades, Toronto’s favourite Latin Jazz band Cimmaron, or the fall back fave, The Buena Vista Social Club. Or start the night out slow and languid and go for more upbeat tunes when coffee and dessert are served.
In Panama, Chef Charlie likes to greet his dinner guests with a beautiful cocktail and some little nibbles, or “Panamanian tapas” as he calls them. You can replicate this thoughtful gesture by whipping up a frosty beverage in the blender using frozen or fresh mango, good quality rum, ice, a shot of freshly squeezed orange or blood orange juice, served with fresh lemon zest in a martini glass. Pair this with mini empanadas, cassava (a.k.a yucca) fries with a spicy mayo dipping sauce (you can likely find these in your butcher or grocer’s frozen section), and patacones – green, twice fried plantains that are flattened and sprinkled with coarse sea salt.
Serving it simply
Chef Charlie’s mother, Inga, is a legendary hostess. When she sets the table for a Panamanian dinner party, she serves soups, stews or bisques in traditional totumas. These are the hollowed out gourds of the calabash tree – and while we know you likely won’t have access to them in Canada, you can replicate this by serving a coconut milk-infused seafood soup with island peppers in a South American or Mexican clay bowl. Just baked bread rolls can be served alongside creative compound butters featuring exotic sea salts, dried chili flakes or citrus zest with finely diced dried papaya. If you’ve got wooden serving utensils, now’s their time to shine along with any hand crafted serving dishes that speak of lands in warmer climes and food kissed by the sun. Use banana leaves (you can find them frozen in Latin or Asian food stores) to line your serving dishes to further infuse the night with a tropical touch.
If you can get your hands on some top-shelf Panamanian coffee, you’ll be the hostess with the mostess – guaranteed. Jamaica has Blue Mountain, Hawaii Kona Coffee and Colombia their single estate treasures, but only Panama offers Gesha. Hard to find, but worth the effort, this is fruity, floral, full bodied wonderment in a cup, without the need for milk or sugar. It’s that bitter-free! In Panama, they like to serve it in a French Press with dainty, white coffee cups to show off the rich, dark hue of the cafe. Add a little amber rum, a shot of coffee liqueur or whiskey, and well, you’ve taken your cup to a whole new fiesta level. If you can’t find Gesha, look for a Latin roast from Ruiz, Finca la Milagrosa or Finca Lerida and you won’t go wrong.
ENJOY ENTERTAINING? SEBASTIEN CENTNER SHARES HIS HOSTING TIPS AND SECRETS: