Dinner party.

From J., 8 June 2010 – an appetizing dinner party?

Q: I would like to throw a party for some of my close friends. I live in the city so space is a bit tight to have a sit down dinner for 15 to 20 people. I was thinking the best alternative would be to have heavy appetizers and drinks, which would alleviate the seating issue. Do you have any suggestions on appetizers that would be a great substitute for a sit down dinner and also be easy to eat while standing?

A: Thanks for your question. It’s a great one, since a lot of people living in the city have struggled with elegant solutions to the problem of entertaining on limited space.

The first decision you must make is whether you want a buffet of main course-type food, or whether you wish to serve substantial appetizers. You noted that “heavy appetizers” may be the way to go, and your guests may find this easier. Nothing is more irritating than toting a full, and full-sized, plate of food while cradling a once-cold beer in the crook of your arm. And the full plate virtually rules out cocktails or wine unless your guests intend to find a patch of sofa or floor. Now, if you have adequate seating throughout your entertaining space, you might consider serving a full meal buffet-style, but even then, substantial appetizers are more fun.

Your second decision should be the theme. If there’s one thing that makes me cranky, it’s the “greatest hits” appetizers on so many catering and restaurant menus. Do I love potstickers, buffalo wings, satay, crab cakes, and spanakopita? Of course. Do they have any business being served together? No – or not unless you find a way to make them consistent. So choose a theme.

Which brings us to the food. Recently, I came up with a catering menu for a friend’s wedding, including appetizers for the tray pass. The appetizers are influenced by the Mediterranean cuisines – flatbreads with ricotta and pancetta or fontina and mushroom, arancini (crispy fried risotto balls), little albóndigas (meatballs) in a Spanish-influenced sauce of peppers, tomato, and almonds, shrimp with piquillo pepper, chilled cups of zucchini soup with lemon and yoghurt. You could add Spanish omelet – tortilla española , thick with potato and cut into easy to eat cubes.

Not feeling that? Check out some previous posts for easy-to-eat foods like the Japanese yakitori and kara age, and Taiwanese street food, like steam-fried buns, lotus leaf rice, and fried dumplings. And if you do want to serve a meal-type dinner, buffet-style, try out the Cuban menu from a couple of weeks ago. With mojitos and Cuba libres, it’s a perfect casual dinner.

Mediterranean small plates party

Flatbreads with ricotta/pancetta/red onion or fontina/mushroom/caramelized onion
Arancini
Albóndigas with roasted pepper sauce
Shrimp with piquillo pepper
Chilled zucchini soup with lemon and yoghurt
Tortilla española

Arancini

Follow this link for the recipe.

Arancini.

Albóndigas

I always grind my own meat. Most people don’t, so I’ve provided instructions using ground meat. If you do wish to grind your own, let me know and I’ll post the instructions for making these with whole cuts, since the process differs. Such albóndigas will have a lighter texture than if you use pre-ground meat.

Per 50 portions [may make more]
1 1/4 lb ground pork
1 lb ground veal
4 oz crustless rustic white bread (about 4 slices)
1/2 c cream
1/4 lb onion
12 cloves garlic confit
2 tsp fresh thyme leaves or 3/4 tsp dried thyme
1/4 c fresh parsley leaves
salt and black pepper

For the sauce:
1/2 lb onion, peeled and diced
8 cloves garlic confit
1 c tomato purée
1/4 lb hazelnuts, blanched
2 tsp sherry vinegar (substitute red wine if unavailable)
1 tsp pimentón de la vera, agridulce (bittersweet)
4 oz piquillo peppers or roasted red peppers (jarred/canned are fine)
4 dried ñora peppers or substitute 2 dried guajillo peppers and 1 ancho peppers
1/2 tsp salt
olive oil
water

Prepare the sauce up to 3 days in advance.

Toast the hazelnuts and ñora (or guajillo/ancho) peppers at 350F for 8 minutes until the nuts are light golden. Remove from heat. Remove the seeds and stems from the peppers and discard.

Place a large pot over medium heat. When hot, add 2 tbsp oil, the onion, and the garlic confit. Sweat until the onion is very soft and translucent. Add the piquillos, crumbled dried roast peppers, pimentón, and tomato concasse. Bring to a simmer and simmer until the dried peppers are tender. Add up to 1/2 c water.

Transfer to a blender and add hazelnuts and sherry vinegar. Purée until completely smooth. Taste and add salt. Purée again and taste; add additional sherry vinegar if necessary. Chill and set aside in tightly sealed containers.

Prepare the albóndigas.

Place a large pot over medium heat. When hot, add 2 tbsp oil and the onion.

Sauté until the onion is very soft and light golden. Remove from heat. Combine the bread and cream, allow the bread to soften, and stir well to form a paste (panade). Smash the garlic confit to a paste and add the garlic, onion, and thyme, and panade to the ground meat. Combine the ingredients but do not overwork.

Pinch off 1 1/2 tsp portions and form balls. Fry in batches in olive oil, turning to fry evenly on all sides, about 5 minutes total. Coat evenly with sauce.

Skewer with parsley leaf.

Albondigas, nora pepper sauce.

Shrimp with piquillo pepper

Per 42-50 portions

2 lb shrimp (21-25 size), shelled and deveined
12 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 c dry white wine
2 lemons, halved
2 tsp pimentón de la vera, agridulce (bittersweet) – available at Whole Foods
olive oil
sea salt and black pepper
4 large piquillo peppers, divided into 12 or so pieces each [substitute roasted red peppers]

You will need to cook these in batches. Don’t crowd the pan.

Place large sauté pan over high heat. Add a generous quantity of olive oil and add the garlic. Cook until aromatic but do not allow to brown, tilting the pan if necessary to fry the garlic in the oil, and add the pimentón. Add the shrimp.

Cook quickly, turning when the shrimp are cooked on one side, and after turning, add the white wine. Cook until wine has nearly evaporated. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with additional olive oil. Skewer with piquillo.

Shrimp with piquillo and pickled garlic.

Chilled zucchini soup

1 lb zucchini, ends removed, sliced
1/2 lb onion, peeled and sliced thinly
4 cloves garlic confit
olive oil
1 bay leaves
4 sprigs thyme
4 stems flat leaf parsley
4 leaves basil
olive oil
1 c cold water
1 cups ice
2 lemons, zested and juiced
3 oz whole milk yoghurt, drained (Greek yoghurt is fine) or sour cream

Tie the bay, thyme, and parsley sprigs to make a bouquet garni. Sweat the zucchini, onion, and garlic confit in about 2 tbsp olive oil with the bouquet garni over very low heat until all are very tender and the zucchini give up some of their liquid (you may cover the pan). Remove the bouquet garni and ensure that mixture is free of all bay leaf/thyme branches. Transfer zucchini mixture to a blender and add basil.

Add about 1/2 c water and 1 c ice. Cover and purée until completely smooth. Continue adding water if necessary to desired consistency. Season with salt, pepper, and lemon juice to taste. Do not add lemon juice all at once but be sure to taste as you go. Chill.

Before serving, taste again for lemon and salt. Serve in 2 oz portions garnished with lemon zest and a teaspoon quenelle of drained whole milk yoghurt or sour cream.

Tortilla española

I work on this recipe every time I return from a trip to Spain. This version, which I developed last summer, is perfect.

2 large medium-starch potatoes (yukon gold are widely available)
1/2 cup Spanish olive oil
8 cloves garlic confit
6 extra large eggs
sea salt

A well-seasoned 8″ steel or cast iron saute pan works best. For a largerpan, increase the quantity of potato, garlic confit, and egg proportionally.

Oven 275F.

Peel and dice (1/2″) the potatoes. Place in small, cold saucepan (tall and narrow is best) with the oil and garlic confit, and bring to a simmer. Cook until the potatoes are tender. Do not brown or allow garlic to brown. Drain the oil and reserve. Season well with salt.

Beat the eggs with a fork until just combined. Do not overbeat. Season with salt. Stir into the potato mix.

Heat the 8″ pan and add a little of the reserved cooking oil. Heat to medium. Pour the potato/egg mixture into the pan. Using a silicone spatula, release edges as they cook so uncooked egg mixture flows to pan surface and bottom of pan. Place pan in center of oven.

When tortilla appears to be nearly cooked through, set oven to broil. Do not allow tortilla to brown – a light gold is sufficient. Remove from oven; loosen and release onto wooden cutting board. Cut into 1″ squares and skewer with toothpick. This is best served at room temperature; if you are preparing in advance, keep it cold and then cut it about 15 minutes before serving.

Tortilla española, with roasted asparagus and romesco, and pan con tomate.

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