For successful shoes and accessories designer Tu-Anh Nguyen (www.tu-anh.com), presentation is everything. So it stands to reason that besides knowing a thing or two about fashion, she's also a pro at making food look sensational.
Nguyen typically opts for recipes that tantalize the taste buds but are easy to put together -- for as any savvy host or hostess knows, the point is to make entertaining seem effortless. One of her favorites is a cool clam salad, a traditional North Vietnamese dish made with just a handful of ingredients: clams and an abundance of fresh, finely chopped herbs, mixed with lime juice for a zingy flavor.
When she wants to save time (not to mention money), she uses canned clams for the bulk of the dish, though for decoration, she also picks up fresh ones. Using chopsticks, she gently stirs everything together in a large pot, then lets it cool before serving.
Traditionally, the salad is served with sesame crackers, but Nguyen prefers shrimp chips instead -- fried, rice-based crackers with a hint of shrimp flavor. "Their texture is simpler and they complement the salad well visually," she says, pointing out how the pink-hued chips contrast with the speckled green salad. They're also fun to watch cook: Seconds after a quarter-size chip hits a pan of sizzling oil, it balloons to tennis-ball size, then slightly deflates, until it's the ideal shape for scooping. (You can find the uncooked chips -- or pre-puffed versions -- at most Asian markets.)
To showcase the food at a recent soiree, Nguyen arranged a variety of details to frame her edible delights: celadon-blue plates courtesy of her pottery instructor; blooms picked fresh that morning for garnish; and two handmade parasols, one lime-colored, the other tangerine, strategically placed behind the serving table.
Drawn by the intoxicating scent of basil, cilantro and mint, her guests -- sipping from flutes of champagne mixed with grapefruit juice -- made their way into the kitchen. There, she spooned the salad onto water-lily leaves and surrounded it with a circle of clams in their shells, topping everything off with a single white flower.
Which demonstrated perfectly one of the hazards of Nguyen's being a professional design diva: Often, her food looks too good to eat.