Game Changer

Poker party fare fit for guys who appreciate good grub as much as a winning hand.

Up the ante on the basic beer-and-pretzels menu at your next poker game, and treat your guests to a splashy spread that will provide sustenance during even the most serious all-night card party.

“The typical man on the street is looking for simple recipes,” says Bill Justus, executive chef at The Boar’s Head in Charlottesville, who knows how to notch up a poker spread from the standard pizza delivery. Don’t bother with intricate dishes that require a lot of prep time and many bowls and plates to clean before the party even begins. Instead, stick with the tried and true, with tweaks all your own.

For starters, Justus recommends homemade potato chips that can be done a couple of days ahead as an alternative to the bagged variety. Just slice, fry and spice. “You can do the same with peanuts,” he says. Grab a can, mix in some herbs and spices, and you’ve bumped up the finger food. And the rest of the menu doesn’t have to be any more complicated. Justus says the secret to turning cold cuts and beer nuts into a worthy man-cave menu is what he calls “speed scratch”: “The way supermarkets are now, there are a lot of fresh [prepared] foods you can get,” says Justus. Take chili, for instance, but don’t stop there. Take it home, and make it your own. “Add your own touches. You’ve still got the homemade taste, but you’ve taken out some of the legwork.”

Keeping in mind that hands will be holding playing cards on a poker night, greasy food is not advisable. Sliders keep hands relatively clean. And you can change them up with something other than hamburger. On a recent poker night at The Boar’s Head, Justus served tuna sliders with Sriracha (the spicy red paste of chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt found on tables in most any Asian restaurant). Nobody beefed about the missing meat.

While the traditional poker libation is beer, even that can become special in the right hands. “You have microbreweries that are doing things that 10 years ago were unthinkable,” says Justus. Legend Brewing Co. in Richmond, for instance, has added chocolate and caramel malts to some of its brew recipes. And beer bars—a brew buffet of your own making—are becoming a popular choice for hosts who want to turn a bucket of bottles into something more interesting. For the beer bar, Justus recommends providing additives like ginger syrup or ginger-infused water and orange slices instead of the more common lemon or lime. “Put out a few different bottles of hot sauce, too,” he adds. And definitely include energy drinks.

“Pair them carefully with flavors,” Justus warns. But don’t be shy. “Medium-body beer with a little [energy beverage] won’t change it too much.” Best of all, when you’re down a few dollars with only enough time for a couple more hands, a blast of Red Bull in your beer might give you just the surge you need to win back some of your losses.

Unfortunately, there is no magic antidote for the resulting man-sized mess. But with good paper products (no flimsy plates or see-through napkins), cleanup is easier than trying to mash pizza boxes into a 13-gallon trashcan. Even if you’re down on your luck, by night’s end, you’ll be declared the go-to guy for poker night.

Lamb Lollies

2 racks of lamb (18 chops)

3 tablespoons chopped garlic

2 tablespoons finely chopped rosemary

1 tablespoon fresh ground pepper

¼ cup olive oil

Mix all ingredients except lamb. Season chops with the mixture. Marinate at least three hours. Grill two to three minutes per side. (If using a pan on stovetop, heat two minutes per side.) Thicker chops will be rarer; thinner chops will be more well done.

Baked Sweet Potato Fries with Chipotle Cilantro Dipping Sauce

sweet potatoes (1 to 2 per person)

corn oil

salt to taste

1 cup mayonnaise

chipotle powder

fresh lime

salt to taste

¼ cup cilantro

Cut sweet potatoes into French fry-sized pieces. Toss in corn

oil to lightly coat. Season with salt. Bake at 375 degrees until dark red and crisp. Mix remaining ingredients and refrigerate until ready to use.

Crabcake Sliders

1 pound jumbo lump crabmeat

½ cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon kosher salt

½ cup minced red pepper

1 tablespoon minced jalapeno

¼ cup minced parsley

2 to 3 tablespoons corn oil

½ cup Panko bread crumbs

Mix all ingredients except crabmeat and corn oil. Then gently fold in crabmeat. Form into roundish patties. Roll in bread crumbs. Refrigerate at least three hours. Heat skillet over medium heat. Add corn oil to pan. Brown cakes five minutes on each side.

Chicken Drumettes

1 dozen drumettes

1 rounded tablespoon Adobo seasoning

1 teaspoon Hungarian half-sharp paprika

1 ½ tablespoons corn oil

1 ½ teaspoons chipotle powder

1 tablespoon lime juice

Mix spices and liquids, and coat drumettes. Marinate at least three hours. Bake at 375 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes.

Chunky Egg Salad

8 large hard-boiled eggs

1 stalk celery, sliced

1/4 cup red onion, chopped

2/3 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 tablespoons parsley, chopped

2 teaspoons salt

fresh ground pepper

Chop eggs into chunks. Mix all dressing ingredients. Fold in eggs. Spread on your choice of bread.

Sakura Shrimp Cocktail

5 pounds shrimp, 16-18 count, cooked and peeled

1 ½ cups mayonnaise

¼ cup water

1 teaspoon tomato paste

1 tablespoon melted butter

½  teaspoon sugar

¼  teaspoon paprika

cayenne to taste

Mix all ingredients except shrimp. Refrigerate overnight. Let dipping sauce come to room

temperature before serving.

Ice Cream Sandwiches

½ gallon of your choice of ice cream

1 ½ sticks butter

¾ cup unsweetened cocoa

1 ½ cups sugar

3 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

pinch of salt

Slowly melt butter over low heat. In mixing bowl, mix butter and cocoa until smooth. Add sugar gradually until blended, scraping side of bowl. Cool. Add eggs and vanilla. Mix well.

Sift flour and salt. Add to mixing bowl and blend well, scraping

down sides.

Line a 9-x-9-inch pan with buttered foil. Pour batter into pan and smooth until evenly distributed. Bake 20 minutes at 350 degrees until toothpick comes out clean. Cool completely. Then cut in half lengthwise. Spread softened ice cream one inch thick over one half of cooked brownie. Top with other half of brownie and press down gently. Wrap in foil and freeze overnight. When ready to serve, peel away foil and cut into pieces.

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