STARTING off a home-cooked Chinese dinner party with a simple cold plate makes your role as a host more relaxing. It allows you to seat your guests and have a welcoming toast without worrying whether something on the stove is about to bubble over and burn. You can sit with your guests and actually enjoy a part of the meal before you run off for some finishing touches. And, best of all, the dishes can be prepared at least a day in advance. Yan Kit-So's book, Classic Food of China, instantly became my favourite not only because of the clarity of presentation but because of her fascinating historical treatment of each subject. On the topic of cold starters, she writes that most authorities agree the custom of eating cold dishes before something hot originated some time between 770-476 BC. From simple roasted pine-nuts and pickled vegetables to elaborately decorated restaurant platters of vegetables, meats, and seafoods, cold dishes represent the perfect starters. Spicy Pressed Tofu (Serves four) 1 block pressed tofu, fresh, cut in 2cm squares about 3mm thick 1/4 cup (62.5ml) coriander leaves, roughly chopped 1 tsp (5ml) garlic minced finely 2 tblsp (30ml) fine light soy sauce 1 tsp (5ml) chilli paste with garlic and oil Combine tofu squares with coriander leaves and garlic; then refrigerate. Stewed Black Mushrooms (Serves four to six) 12 Chinese black mushrooms (fa gu or other high-quality type), hydrated, destemmed and all of similar size 1/2 cup (125ml) clear chicken stock 2 tblsp (60ml) Chinese rice wine or extra dry sherry 3 generous slices of ginger 11/2 tsp (7.5ml) sugar 1 tblsp dark soy sauce 1 tblsp light soy sauce 11/2 tsp (7.5ml) cornstarch dissolved in 1 tblsp (15 ml) stock Add mushrooms, chicken stock, wine, ginger, sugar, and soy sauces to small saucepan and bring to boil. Cover with lid and simmer slowly for two hours, checking periodically to mix and make sure liquid has not boiled off. When liquid has been reduced by about half, add cornstarch solution to thicken. Remove to a small container and refrigerate until needed. Pickled Cucumbers 1 large, long, firm hothouse cucumber peeled, cut in 2cm cubes (or roll-cut) 2 tsp (10ml) salt 3 tblsp (45ml) of sugar and distilled white vinegar 1 tblsp (15ml) of sesame oil and toasted sesame seeds Place cucumbers in bowl, sprinkle with salt, toss and let stand for two hours at room temperature. Squeeze out and discard excess liquid by firmly pressing the cucumbers a few at a time, being careful not to bruise them. Transfer to clean bowl, add sugar, vinegar and sesame oil. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Just before serving, sprinkle with sesame seeds.