Oct 21, 2023

How to Prep a Fabulous Cocktail Party

Food & Drink

Set the stage for a summer party with Chef Cheetie Kumar’s egg- and-herb dish with tomato chutney, spiced meatballs, and refreshing watermelon-cucumber cooler

By Jenny EverettRecipes by Cheetie Kumar

August/September 2023


Between a yearslong, pandemic-delayed house construction project and preparing to open her much-anticipated new restaurant, Cheetie Kumar hasn’t had much time lately for entertaining. But with the opening of Ajja in Raleigh and a finally completed home, she’s more than ready to welcome a houseful of friends again. Ajja is the Hindi Urdu word for “come over,” which fits Kumar perfectly. “The way I started my cooking career was having a bunch of people over for dinner parties in college,” says the chef, who spent much of her early childhood in India cooking alongside her mother and grandmother and later toured as the guitarist in a rock band. “It was thoughtful but never about formality.” That’s the vibe she channels with this cocktail party menu, which taps into her roots to create unfussy bites with bold layers of flavor. The details—like toasting fresh-ground spices for the rim of her refreshing watermelon-cucumber cooler, or making a tamarind glaze for pork meatballs—take the finished dishes over the top. But she also designed them with pieces that can be pulled together in advance, “so we can enjoy each other during the party.” And if you have any of that tamarind glaze left over, all the better. “Put it on ro- tisserie chicken from the grocery store,” she says, “and you’ll have an easy meal later that week.”

Listen to Kumar’s party playlist.

The Persian dish pairs perfectly with a spread of dips and savory bites

Yield: 8 to 12 servings

1 tsp. whole cumin seeds

2 tsp. whole coriander seeds

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided

2 lb. sweet onions, julienned

2 tsp. plus 1½ tsp. kosher salt, divided

2 leeks, white and pale green parts, diced

2 tbsp. butter, cubed

¾ tsp. baking powder

¼ tsp. turmeric

2 tsp. ground ginger

½ tsp. sweet paprika

1 tbsp. dried fenugreek (available online or at specialty grocery stores)

¼ tsp. black pepper

½ lb. (about 4 cups) mixed soft herbs (cilantro, parsley, and dill), cleaned and finely chopped

6 eggs, beaten

½ cup walnuts, toasted until fragrant, then chopped

⅓ cup currants

Sweet-and-sour tomato chutney (recipe follows)

1 to 2 oz. crumbled feta

6 Roma tomatoes (about 1½ lb.), cut into 8 wedges each

1½ tsp. kosher salt

2 tsp. plus ¾ cup sugar, divided

2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup apple cider vinegar

1½ tsp. ground cumin

2 tsp. ground ginger

⅛ tsp. cayenne

Chef ’s notes: With its bright green color, this traditional Persian egg-and-herb dish will no doubt have guests talking. Cut it into bite-size cubes to liven up a spread of other party snacks. “This dish belongs on a table filled with pickles, spreads, cheeses with breads or crackers, and some crisp white wine. It’s remarkably better several hours after preparing and can even be served the next day, so it’s a perfect dish to make ahead and refrigerate. Just pop it in an oven on low to take the chill off.”

In separate batches, toast the cumin and coriander seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat. Shake pan frequently, and remove from heat as soon as the spices start crackling, about 5 minutes. Grind with a spice grinder or mortar and pestle; set aside to cool.

Next heat a large, wide sauté pan and add ¼ cup olive oil. Add onions and sauté over low-medium heat until caramelized, about 30 to 45 minutes. Add 2 tsp. salt, fold in leeks, and caramelize 10 additional minutes. Onions should be jammy but not too dark. Spread onto a sheet pan to cool (can make ahead and store in fridge for up to 3 days).

Preheat oven to 375°F. Line a 9-by-12-inch baking pan with parchment. Spread ¼ cup olive oil over parchment, and sprinkle with cubed butter. In a bowl, add bak- ing powder, ½ tsp. ground toasted cumin, 1 tsp. ground toasted coriander, turmeric, ginger, sweet paprika, dried fenugreek, 1½ tsp. salt, black pepper, and chopped herbs. Fold in the onions.

Place the pan in the oven to melt the butter. Fold beaten eggs into the herb mixture along with walnuts and currants, gently combining all ingredients. The mixture should be thick and a little glossy.

Remove pan from oven. Scrape egg-herb mixture onto pan. Spread it evenly with a spatula and then quickly push the mixture away from the sides of the pan, so the edges are somewhat rounded (because pan is warm, it will set quickly in this position).

Bake for 12 minutes, then check to see if the center is firm to the touch. (Can take longer depending on oven. Check every couple of minutes once it seems close.) Invert onto a larger sheet pan or cutting board. Cool completely at room temperature. Can be made a day ahead and refrigerated.

Make the sweet-and-sour tomato chutney: Preheat oven to 250°F. In a bowl, toss tomato wedges with salt, 2 tsp. sugar, and olive oil. Place in an even layer, cut side down, on a parchment-lined sheet pan. Roast until they’re shriveled and most juice has evaporated, about 60 to 90 minutes. Cool completely. Meanwhile, combine ¾ cup sugar and apple cider vinegar in a small nonreactive pot. Simmer and stir until sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat, and cool to room temperature. Scrape tomatoes into a blender. Puree until just broken down. Add vinegar and spices. Puree until smooth. Refrigerate for several hours or up to 5 days. Taste and adjust salt if needed before serving at room temperature.

Before serving, warm briefly in a low oven if refrigerated, cut into bite-size cubes, and top with tomato chutney and crumbled feta.

Dress up versatile spiced meatballs with a sweet tamarind glaze

Yield: 16 skewered koftas (or 12 to 14 sliders)

1 guajillo pepper (or other medium-hot pepper), stem and seeds removed

½ ancho pepper (or other mild pepper), stem and seeds removed

1½ tbsp. whole coriander seeds

¾ tsp. whole cumin seeds

1 tsp. whole black peppercorns

2 tsp. poppy seeds

1 stick cinnamon, broken into smaller pieces

⅛ tsp. turmeric

2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

1 large or 2 small/medium yellow onions, small diced

1½ tsp. kosher salt

1 tbsp. minced garlic

1 tbsp. minced peeled ginger

1 lb. ground pork

⅓ cup cooked white rice

1½ tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil (plus more for drizzling)

1½ tsp. kosher salt

¼ cup currants

2 tsp. honey

Tamarind glaze (recipe follows)

Mint sprigs, for garnish

1 tsp. whole cumin seeds

1 tbsp. raisins

2 tbsp. red wine vinegar

¾ cup tamarind pulp, thawed if frozen (available online and in specialty grocery stores)

¼ cup sugar

1 tbsp. brown sugar

2 tsp. chopped ginger

Salt, to taste

Chef’s notes: “The pork koftas are essentially meatballs seasoned with chiles and spices and parbaked ahead of time. You then coat them with this delicious tamarind glaze sweetened with raisins.” Serve on skewers for easy noshing, or shape into sliders and pop on Hawaiian or potato rolls with mint and pickled red onion.

Make the spice blend: Heat a frying pan over medium-high heat. Add both peppers and cook, flattening the peppers with tongs and flipping often, until fragrant and toasty, about 4 minutes. Remove and cool completely. In the same pan, toast coriander, cumin, and black peppercorns until just starting to crackle, about 5 minutes. Add poppy seeds and cook for another 20 to 30 seconds (shake pan to prevent burning). Transfer to a plate to cool completely. In a spice grinder, whirl the peppers, toasted spices, cinnamon, and turmeric until fully ground. Store in a tightly sealed jar for 2 to 3 weeks.

Make the onions: Heat olive oil in a small to medium skillet over medi- um heat. Add onions and season with salt. Cook until translucent. Add garlic and ginger and continue to cook until golden, about 2 to 4 minutes. Fold in 2 tsp. of the spice blend and cook for 20 to 30 seconds more. Scrape into a bowl and set aside to cool. (Can be made up to 3 days ahead and refrigerated.)

Make the koftas: In a mixing bowl, combine pork, cooked white rice, 3½ tsp. of the spice blend, olive oil, salt, ½ cup of the prepared onions, currants, and honey. Mix with gloved hands until well incorporated, but don’t overmix. Chill mixture for 6 hours or overnight. Preheat oven to 325°F. Roll koftas into small egg-shaped meatballs. Line a sheet pan with parchment, and place koftas about 1 inch apart. Drizzle with olive oil and bake for 12 to 14 minutes until internal temperature reaches 150°F (they will be cooked again). Don’t overcook.

Cool completely. These can be precooked 2 days in advance and stored in the fridge.

Make the tamarind glaze: In a dry pan, toast the cumin until just starting to crackle, about 5 minutes. Whirl in a spice grinder.

Soak raisins in vinegar and set aside. Combine tamarind pulp, sugars, ½ tsp. ground toasted cumin, and ginger in a small pot. Simmer for 5 minutes, until sugar is completely dissolved and mixture is glossy. Remove from heat and let cool completely. Puree tamarind mixture in a blender with raisins and vinegar. Season with salt and transfer to fridge (glaze thickens as it cools). Can be made up to 5 days ahead.

Before serving, coat (or dip) the koftas in tamarind glaze and bake in a 375°F oven for 5 to 8 minutes until glaze is caramelized and the insides are heated through. Insert skewers for easy noshing. Garnish with mint and serve with your favorite pickled veggies.

Cheetie Kumar adds a tangy rim of toasted spices to this refreshing summer cocktail

Yield: 8 servings

3 cups seedless watermelon chunks

3 tbsp. plus 4 tsp. granulated sugar, divided

2 cucumbers, peeled and roughly chopped

2 tsp. whole cumin seeds

5 or 6 whole black peppercorns

¼ cup kosher salt

¾ oz. fresh-squeezed lime juice

1¾ oz. silver rum, gin, or vodka (if desired)

1½ oz. soda water (Topo Chico works great)

Mint sprigs, for garnish

Cucumber slices, for garnish

Lime leaves, for garnish

Chef’s notes: “I can’t get enough of watermelon in the summer, and I made this by the pitcherful through the tough summer of 2020. It works equally well with all the clear spirits—I’m partial to rum—or no booze at all.”

Make the syrups: In a blender, puree watermelon and strain through a fine-mesh strainer. Discard pulp. Return juice to blender and whiz with 3 tbsp. sugar to dissolve. Repeat with cucumber and 4 tsp. sugar and set aside. This makes enough of each syrup for 8 cocktails (and can easily be doubled).

Toast spices for the rims: Heat a small dry skillet over medium heat. Add cumin seeds and peppercorns and cook, shaking the pan, until crackling and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Remove from pan and cool before grinding with spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Stir in kosher salt and set aside.

To serve: Rub rim of each glass (Kumar likes an 11 oz. collins or double rocks glass) with a lime wedge and dip in spice mixture to coat rim. Drop in a few ice cubes. For each cocktail, in a shaker add 2 oz. watermelon syrup, 1 oz. cucumber syrup, lime juice, a pinch of salt and grind of pepper, and the booze (if using). Add plenty of ice, shake well, and strain into prepared glass. Stir in about 1½ oz. of soda (more if omitting alcohol). Garnish with mint, cucumber, and lime leaf.



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Chef ’s notes:Chef’s notes: Chef’s notes: