September 25, 2013 at 1:00 am

Maureen Tisdale

Let's Talk Food: Tropical dishes, theme party food & messing with methods

My 'Al-Oat-Ha' Sweet Tropical Porridge for a friend's luau in celebration of her 40th birthday may have been more silly than authentic, but it was tasty. What are your tropical- or theme-party dishes? (Maureen Tisdale / The Detroit News)

“You’re invited to a luau! Tropical drinks, limbo contest, Twister, island music by Jimmy Buffet and Bob Marley. Costumes a must – wear your Hawaiian shirts and grass skirts. Bring a tropical dish to pass.”

Which one of those phrases on the invite to my friend Jenny’s recent birthday party do you suppose caught my eye? (Hint: It wasn’t the costumes. My co-worker Eric, whose “microwave stir fry” I wrote about recently, upon editing this: “How does your husband look in a coconut bra?” Ha!)

I’ve always wanted to mess with poi, the traditional Hawaiian dish I’ve heard is a kind of sweet pudding. But while this seemed the perfect event to do so, the opportunity didn’t exist on the schedule; my husband’s work party was the same day and I had to get his Aunt Bev’s special taco salad (his request!) off the ground, too, in addition to the regular flotsam and jetsam of life as a busy working wife and mom.

Besides, I also had been wanting to play with a dish featuring oats soaked in milk overnight that I’d read about once in a Charlotte Observer story I read on our wire service. The original “Overnight Pineapple Oats” was how I learned oatmeal doesn’t have to be cooked, which led to me coming up with my go-to yogurt/berry/oats breakfast I wrote about previously. Since the inspirational dish featured pineapple and banana, I figured it was a good base for “a tropical dish to pass” (along with some shredded coconut I’d recently acquired for my husband’s Aunt Bev’s On the Go Breakfast Cookies, which I’ll be writing about soon).

So I came up with a very un-authentic “Al-Oat-Ha Sweet Tropical Porridge.” I threw it together by 8:30 a.m. before turning my attention to the taco salad; the porridge was ready by the time we headed to the party that evening, decorated to commemorate the 40th birthday.

“Cheesy?” I asked my husband as I showed him the laboriously pecan-spelled-out “40” on the dish.

“Yeah, that’s pretty cheesy,” he said. I snickered and packed it up, and we headed off.

The dish seemed to be a hit at the party (though let’s face it, one’s friends aren’t always as brutally honest as one’s husband). Jenny said she ate the leftovers for breakfast; I also took a break from my go-to breakfast for about four days to try it different ways, playing with cinnamon and vanilla instead of cardamom, regular whole milk vs. unsweetened vanilla almond milk (surprise — the thinner almond milk worked better) and the proportions of fruits and nuts, plus adding some heart-healthy flax seed I had on hand.

The party itself was great, complete with Mai Tais in coconut mugs and tiki torches. As for the limbo contest, I was a little busy chasing a 15-month-old around to see how low I could go – but we had fun anyway.

Got any tropical or theme-party dishes — or special methods you’ve tripped across in one recipe and played with in others? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below the recipe. You need a Facebook account to add comments, but they’re free and easy to sign up for. Maureen Tisdale, Detroit News Food Editor, will be keeping an eye out the next few days to respond to any great comments or questions you post. You can also follow her on Twitter @reentiz. Join the discussion!

'Al-Oat-Ha' Sweet Tropical Porridge

Adapted from Overnight Pineapple Oats from “The Short-Cut Vegetarian” by Lorna Sass (Quill, $16). I made this with vanilla soy milk for the party; I liked it best when I played with it later as a breakfast with vanilla almond milk (unsweetened in my case; if you go that route, you need extra banana, in my opinion). If you’re really adventurous, check out the article we ran recently on making your own almond milk. I used unsweetened shredded coconut because that’s what I had on hand, but I think I would have chosen that regardless to keep the dish from going sickly-sweet. Cardamom has an exotic spiciness that I thought worked better for the luau version than a breakfast dish, but if you like a little surprise in the morning, try it; cardamom is nice with coffee.

4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
2 (8-ounce) can unsweetened crushed pineapple (you can also puree pineapple chunks in a food processor if you don’t have crushed)
½ cup shredded coconut
3 cups almond, rice or soy milk
¾ teaspoon ground cardamom
18 teaspoon salt
2 sliced bananas, plus more to garnish
¼ to ½ cup toasted pecans (macadamia would have been a great match, come to think of it, but the presentation is nicer with the darker pecans).

Combine oats, pineapple, shredded coconut, milk, cardamom and salt in a glass or plastic bowl. Stir well, cover and refrigerate overnight (at least eight hours). Before serving, stir in the bananas and top with nuts.

Serves 8, at least.

This dish was inspired by a great overnight breakfast, and leftovers were ... (Maureen Tisdale / The Detroit News)