Saturday Dinner Party - A Nod to the Mediterranean

A nod to the Mediterranean using a Provencal tablecloth. Simple. No fuss.

A nod to the Mediterranean using a Provencal tablecloth. Simple. No fuss.

We are in the midst of planning a trip to the South of France.  In our research, food and wine keep popping up frequently.  So much so that JuanCarlos has taken to buying only French wines at the moment.  Getting his palate ready, I guess. 
I'm getting mine ready by dreaming of Mediterranean flavors. So with plans to host a Saturday night dinner party for our friends, Donna and Jeff, it made total sense to devise the menu around that theme.  It's easy to cook for them. They are food lovers, too, and enjoy a wide variety of food.  Well, except that Jeff isn't quite that fond of spinach or squash, which believe or not, were both on my original plan. I had my heart set on making fish en papillote using carrots, zucchini and spinach. But no biggie, there are so many other ways to go.  I could still make fish en papillote, but minus those two ingredients. Thinking cap on, I would spiritually fly myself to the Mediterranean and envision some ingredients.  I had capers, olives, tomatoes which all fell right in line with that theme. It seemed even more fitting since Jeff and Donna have been to France numerous times, plus they are planning a trip to Italy in June.  Yet another cosmic nudge toward a Mediterranean mood.  So, mind made up. Plan in place. A celebration was in order, not just the flavors of the region but the style, too.
Starting with the table setting. 

I pulled out a tablecloth that had olives, sunflowers and tones of green, all of which are reminiscent of the Provence region of France.  I added deep olive green, velvet placemats and playing off the yellow tones, I used gold rimmed dishes and draped a triple pointed folded napkin slightly askew. Simple, elegant but not too fussy.

All keeping in the same tones. Greens play off the yellows and reds. Even the water glass is green and gold.

All keeping in the same tones. Greens play off the yellows and reds. Even the water glass is green and gold.

The Plan:

  • Table setting with a Provencal tablecloth

  • Keep appetizers to a few simple bites in the bistro style

  • Main course featuring fish with Mediterranean flavors, potatoes and salad

  • Dessert: true European style - Cheese platter

For appetizers, I thought a fun intro to the meal would be small pressed sandwiches accompanied by marcona almonds, olives marinated with herbs de Provence and cornichons.  The mini sandwiches were made with a combination of cured meats/cheese and leftover pork loin & onion jam

Plus a little twist on an old classic; Pigs in a Blanket, served up by using mini spicy Spanish chorizo wrapped in puff pastry and a side of whole grain and dijon mustard mix.

 

Lastly, a bite from the sea provided by marinated boquerones served on a crisp, cool slice of English cucumber.  

These offerings were just the right amount to get us started.

A panini press gives a nice warm crispness to the bread and melts the cheese.

A panini press gives a nice warm crispness to the bread and melts the cheese.

Cut strips of puff pastry

Cut strips of puff pastry

Roll 'em up in their blankets

Roll 'em up in their blankets

The puff pastry adds a buttery flavor that complements the spice of the chorizo. These are a more grown up way of serving Pigs in a Blanket. Adding a nod to France, I mixed up whole grain mustard with dijon for dipping. Marcona almonds and cornichons for crunchy, salty bites.

The puff pastry adds a buttery flavor that complements the spice of the chorizo. These are a more grown up way of serving Pigs in a Blanket. Adding a nod to France, I mixed up whole grain mustard with dijon for dipping. Marcona almonds and cornichons for crunchy, salty bites.

Boquerones  are fresh anchovies. I marinated them in crushed garlic, olive oil and parsley. Then placed them atop an English cucumber slice.

Boquerones are fresh anchovies. I marinated them in crushed garlic, olive oil and parsley. Then placed them atop an English cucumber slice.

All appetizers were prepared ahead of time and kept in the fridge till right before serving. I made the sandwiches and wrapped them in plastic wrap. Then pressed them when our guests arrived.  The boquerones were assembled and plated earlier in the day. So all I needed to do was place them on the table.  My adult version of Pigs in Blanket were cooked right before they were due to arrive, so those were warm and ready to go. These small bites created a relaxing, no fuss vibe giving us a chance to sit, chat and catch up before the main meal.  Many a moon ago, Donna and I had blood orange cosmos at the Royalton NYC.  It seemed only fitting that we serve up a similar cocktail to start... just for old times' sake. As we nibbled, we sipped on Blood Orange Martinis made by the deft hand of my hubby, who lovingly squeezed all the citrus and mixed this drink to perfection.  

A mix of blood orange, lemons, limes, vodka and simple syrup.

A mix of blood orange, lemons, limes, vodka and simple syrup.

Squeeze them all into a bowl and include some of the pulp.

Squeeze them all into a bowl and include some of the pulp.

I love the bright color and flavor of this drink. So fresh. So delicious. Goes down so easy. Now that's AMORE!

I love the bright color and flavor of this drink. So fresh. So delicious. Goes down so easy. Now that's AMORE!

Dinner was also prepped ahead of time, stored in the fridge and then pulled together before serving.  The real nod to the Mediterranean came in the flavors used for the cod. I like using the en papillote method (cooked and served in paper wrapping) because it cooks beautifully. It's easy to prep, and each guest gets their own portion. I have made fish this way numerous times using different vegetable combinations. Not going with my original plan of zucchini and spinach, I needed some inspiration and found a recipe using grouper with capers, red pepper, tomatoes, kalamata olives and lemon.  I immediately knew that combo was the perfect way to go since I had most of the items save for the red pepper.  I took my cues from the recipe photo but used my own amounts. I also used cod because it was the freshest at the market.  I swapped the red onion for yellow, and eliminated the garlic and red pepper flakes. Although, I made modifications, this isn't my own, so if you want to follow the recipe to a tee, click here.

Using the mise en place method of cutting all ingredients, and getting everything ready makes assembly much easier.

Using the mise en place method of cutting all ingredients, and getting everything ready makes assembly much easier.

I place the parchment paper right on the baking sheet and built up the flavors.  Then folded the paper into a packet and built the next packet. I put two on each pan, then placed the whole baking pan in the refrigerator.  Once we were done eating our appetizers, I placed the pans in the oven to bake for 20 minutes.

Fresh, clean and ready to make a pocket full of Mediterranean yum.

Fresh, clean and ready to make a pocket full of Mediterranean yum.

Simply fold the edges around to create the pocket.

Simply fold the edges around to create the pocket.

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For side dishes, I made Potatoes Anna turned Potatoes Dana, crispy kale/caramelized onions and Baby Arugula salad with oranges, tangerines, red onion, chopped marcona almonds with a orange/lemon vinagrette.

Slices and slices is what creates layers of potato for this dish.

Slices and slices is what creates layers of potato for this dish.

A slice of layered potato goodness.

A slice of layered potato goodness.

Peppery bite of arugula is balanced by the sweetness of the orange with the crunch of the almond.

Peppery bite of arugula is balanced by the sweetness of the orange with the crunch of the almond.

Baking en papillote allows all the juices to delicately poach the fish and vegetables together. A harmony of Mediterrean flavors.

Baking en papillote allows all the juices to delicately poach the fish and vegetables together. A harmony of Mediterrean flavors.

Of course, French wine was served. Beaujolais Blanc and Chateau Saint Roc Cotes du Rhone.

Of course, French wine was served. Beaujolais Blanc and Chateau Saint Roc Cotes du Rhone.

Finishing off the meal with savory flavors of a full cheese board was perfect way to end the evening.  Cheese selection of Époisses, Sofia, Majorero Pimenton surrounded by fruit and sweet condiments all enjoyed in front of a roaring fire.  

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We had a wonderful time together with friends with love, savoring food that paid homage to places we all love.  Pick a country or a region and honor it by creating a menu to share with those who love it too.  We're glad we did.

 
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Sunday Brunch - Part Homemade/Part Not

A bounty of yum.

A bounty of yum.

Hosting a brunch can be easy, or a lot of work.  It can be made up of all the usual suspects, or a mash up of the expected and the unexpected.  I am never one to shy away from hard work, but I am also a huge fan of working smarter not harder.  So the idea of creating a sumptuous brunch spread that would serve up that mix with as much ease as possible was what I was aiming for.

One of the keys to achieving success; a good mash up of homemade items with banging good store bought items.  This greatly cuts down on the amount work.  Another huge help is asking guests to bring an item or two.  I'm sure your guests, as do ours, always ask, "what can I bring?" This is the perfect time to say "Bagels, or lox".  Or both!

Such was the case when we hosted a Sunday family brunch.  Our guests provided the bagels, lox and cream cheese. While we prepared the remaining dishes. 

For me, the perfect brunch is a like a moveable feast.  As with any party that isn't a sit down meal, there should be a decent variety of items ranging in temperatures and protein choices. A to and fro of movement.  Nibbling here, picking there. Foods that can last for several hours of conversation without too much fuss.

Here is what we offered up, and what was consumed with zeal.

When you buy quality products, the best plan is to let them shine with maybe just a few embellishments. That was the case with all of the "some assembly required" items. The Spanish sardines were enhanced with cucumbers and tomatoes. 

Spanish sardines with cucumber and fresh grape tomatoes.

Spanish sardines with cucumber and fresh grape tomatoes.

Cucumber slices bring a crisp, freshness to the intense sardine.

Cucumber slices bring a crisp, freshness to the intense sardine.

Plate them simply and use the rich oil they are packed in.

Plate them simply and use the rich oil they are packed in.

You've seen me use boquerones before. This brunch crowd loves them so, of course, I would serve them.  These fresh anchovies dressed with chopped garlic and parsley and good olive oil always get gobbled up.

I selected fish shaped dishes for these two under the sea selections. I love the shape and cobalt color. I've had these dishes for 30 years. Yes, you read that number correctly.

I selected fish shaped dishes for these two under the sea selections. I love the shape and cobalt color. I've had these dishes for 30 years. Yes, you read that number correctly.

Cheese/Charcuterie platters are another easy to assemble ahead offering that everyone loves.  And a perfect brunch item.  So go ahead and create one chock full of your favorite combinations.

It's always good to have a full board of charcuterie and cheese mixed with fruits, olives and nuts.

It's always good to have a full board of charcuterie and cheese mixed with fruits, olives and nuts.

The lentils were partially homemade, in that I used delicious precooked lentils that I get from Despaña but enhanced them by sautéing onions, carrots and celery then adding the lentils to warm through.  That simple.

This group of guests hadn't had my Eggplant Gemolata dish yet, so why not make it again. I did alter the feta topping, keeping it simple and not using the sun-dried tomatoes, olives and lemon zest but adding oven roasted tomatoes to finish the dish.  It was a huge hit with no left overs. This is one of those dishes that you can prep, then cook right before serving.  The flavors are powerful and beautifully melded. It has never let me down, no matter the event or the guest.

Eggplant with feta gremolata.

Eggplant with feta gremolata.

A little something for the meat lovers. Pork belly, lovingly prepared by JuanCarlos, cut in bite sized chunks and simply served on a wooden board.

Pork belly does take some time, as it is twiced cooked. Slow oven roasted to render the fat, then seared crispy in a skillet.

Pork belly does take some time, as it is twiced cooked. Slow oven roasted to render the fat, then seared crispy in a skillet.

The usual brunch suspects, bagels, lox, cream cheese are always welcome and always the perfect Sunday comfort food.

Bagels, lox, cream cheese, capers. Also served was Sushi grade Salmon Sashimi.

Bagels, lox, cream cheese, capers. Also served was Sushi grade Salmon Sashimi.

Eggplant, lentils and a bowl of the extra oven roasted tomatoes.

Eggplant, lentils and a bowl of the extra oven roasted tomatoes.

Make your life easy with the table setting.  Throw a graphic cloth down the middle as a landing strip for all the dishes. Then a simple stack of all the right plates, bowls and utensils in an easy to grab fashion keeps the laid back feeling going.

Finish with a little something sweet, Apple Tart.  And that's how part homemade/part not is done.

Create the vibe you want by selecting food that fits that mood.  A spread that spreads love.  One that invites conversation and fills their bellies and their souls.  What a great way to mark a Sunday, or any brunch day.

 
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The Feast of the Seven Fishes

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Another request from the readers...

What to make on Christmas Eve.

If you are an Italian American then Christmas Eve is celebrated by serving a boat load of fish.  Some call it The Feast of the Seven Fishes.  In Italy they just call it a grand meal. 

It appears that the root of this tradition is based mostly in the religious fervor of abstaining from eating red meat until Christmas day.  Folks stayed away from meat eating during various religious days throughout the year and the eve before Christmas was no exception. La Vigilia or Vigilia di Natale; the vigil held until midnight when baby Jesus was born. However, in true Italian style, just because one is abstaining from one type of food doesn’t mean you go hungry.  Oh, the contrary.  Instead they serve an abundance of something else.  Hence, bring in the fishes!

My mom and grandmothers prepping. It takes a village and a few generations to feed an Italian family!      Photo credit: Paul Majewski

My mom and grandmothers prepping. It takes a village and a few generations to feed an Italian family!     Photo credit: Paul Majewski

So serving seven fishes is a made up number really.  Some Italian American families go up to 13. These are clearly people will a ton of time on their hands. Preparing that many dishes, and ones that are not so easy to pull off is no simple feat.  But usually this group has a team of grandmothers, aunts, cousins, etc all pitching in.  It seems that whatever the number count, it is always an odd number since that brings good luck.  However, the number 7 is believed to hold a higher significance as it is based in religious reasons. Some theories:

  • The number 7 is the most repeated number in the bible, making appearances over 700 times.
  • God did all his work in 6 days and the 7th he rested.  I would say he could use a day off.
  • In the Roman Catholic Church there are seven Sacraments.

Blah blah blah.  The number isn’t as important as the tradition of serving fish.  I’m not so big on the why but continuing traditions that bring good memories.  If it’s a tradition that is based on something religious and that has meaning to you, great.  If not, but the tradition evokes love and laughter with family and friends, well that my friend is what it is all about.

Family meal. Eat up everyone!                                                                                                                                             Photo credit: Paul Majewski

Family meal. Eat up everyone!                                                                                                                                            Photo credit: Paul Majewski

If you are going to attempt the feat of The Feast of Seven Fishes, start early.  And I mean that.  You will need several days of prep if you are going to make any of the tradition recipes.  I have listed them at the bottom of this post with links to popular recipes.  This list is the most common fish used for the feast.

  • anchovies 
  • salted cod fish
  • clams
  • eels
  • lobster
  • merluzzo (cod)
  • mussels
  • octopus
  • sardines
  • scungilli
  • shrimp
  • smelts
  • squid
  • whiting

So let's say that you are interested in trying this tradition but just want to give a nod to the fishes, as opposed to swimming with the fishes, which is another reference entirely. Then swim along with me. I like abundance but I don't have a team of helpers. Below are a few dishes that are simpler in preparation and in numbers.  Pick and choose among my recipe list below. I’m suggesting you start off with 3. Still an odd number for good luck, if you believe in that sort of thing, and much easier to manage. These recipes are not traditional Italian but a lighter version than all the usual fried options and much less demanding. You should only need one day of prep prior and help on the day of.

I had every intention of writing about some of the dishes below prior to this post but alas I had other recipes I wanted to share with you all year long. So you will just have to give it a whirl with my quick instructions.  You can always call or email me with questions.  I mean that.  

The FIsh usually swim onto the plates in an order like this:  First course, something light and snack like.  Then followed by a salad of seafood. Then a dish that is a bit heartier, like a roasted, grilled or seared fish, followed by the pasta course then a hearty seafood stew.  I think I hit most of these courses with the exception of the stew.  But remember I was trying to ease up on the workload for you.

 

Smoked Trout served on potatoes with sour cream & chives

  • Cut small new potatoes in half, slicing off a tiny bit of the rounded edge so they sit properly.  Boil until tender. Let cool.  Top with flaked pieces of smoked trout, a dollop of sour cream and sprinkling of chives.
Little bites of yum, smoked trout with sour cream & chives on potato rounds

Little bites of yum, smoked trout with sour cream & chives on potato rounds

Crabmeat & Citrus 'Martini'

  • Combine fresh crabmeat, with yellow bell pepper, celery, grapefruit and orange sections and mint. Serve in a martini glass with endive leaves and spoon the juice from the citrus into each glass.  
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Boquerones 

  •   Fresh anchovies can be served in several ways.  Check out the highlighted title link for serving ideas.
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Salmon & Cucumber Rounds

  • Cut English cucumbers into 1/2” rounds. On plastic wrap, spread smoked salmon out to create a full layer.  Spread whipped cream cheese over the entire layer. Sprinkle with chives (capers and minced shallots optional).  Roll up the entire layer to create a log. Wrap and refrigerate for a couple of hours. Before serving cut into 1/2” rounds, place on top of the cucumber and finish with a small piece of fresh dill

Bellini with Crème Fraiche & Roe

  • These mini bellinis that can be store bought, top with crème fraiche & your favorite roe.
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Whole Baked or filet of fish: Salmon, Trout, Sole , Grouper or Grilled Shrimp

Roasted Salmon

Roasted Salmon

Stuffed Dover Sole

Stuffed Dover Sole

Oven Roasted Grouper Filets with roasted tomatoes, onions and garlic

Oven Roasted Grouper Filets with roasted tomatoes, onions and garlic

Grilled Shrimp served with grilled yellow peppers and onions, and creamy polenta.

Grilled Shrimp served with grilled yellow peppers and onions, and creamy polenta.

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Yes, JuanCarlos was out in the snow cooking a paella!

Yes, JuanCarlos was out in the snow cooking a paella!

All the above dishes not only would be my choices for Christmas Eve, but these were the dishes I served for a New Year's Party, only I swapped out the linguine & clams for seafood paella.  That dish is one that my 'also good in the kitchen' husband likes to tackle. The fun part about a paella (although not a traditional Italian dish,  is that guests love to watch it come together.)

 

 

If you feel that you have the strength of a mighty Italian, then go for the gold.  Below is a list of some of the most common dishes served during the Feast of the Seven Fishes.  I provided links to recipes from popular sites for your reference.  Please note that I have not tried these recipes. My goal was to do some of the leg work finding  links to make your search less stressful.

•   Baccalà (salt cod) as a salad or fried

•   Baked cod or Baked cod & potatoes

•   Baked Clams casino or a lighter, easier version Clams Casino

•   Cod fish balls in tomato sauce

•   Deep fried calamari

•   Deep fried cod

•   Deep fried fish/shrimp

•   Deep fried scallops

•   Fried smelts

•   Insalata di mare (seafood salad)

•   Linguine with anchovy, clam, lobster, tuna, or crab sauce

•   Marinated or fried eel

•   Octopus salad

•   Oyster shooters

•   Puttanesca traditional tomato sauce with anchovies

•   Scungilli salad (sea snail)

•   Shrimp cocktail traditional version   or Roasted Shrimp Cocktail version

•   Stuffed calamari in tomato sauce

•   Stuffed-baked lobsters

•   Whiting

Whatever you serve, whether it's 7 or 13 fishes, or no fish at all, just remember the most important ingredient of all... LOVE.

After all the fish, leave room for the dessert!                                                                                                                   Photo credit: Paul Majewski     

After all the fish, leave room for the dessert!                                                                                                                  Photo credit: Paul Majewski    

Buon Natale, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays. Eat well. Be well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boquerones = Bow ka roe nays

Garnished with crushed garlic, chopped parsley and fruity olive oil

Garnished with crushed garlic, chopped parsley and fruity olive oil

A boquerón is a little white anchovy that didn’t get salt cured.  Yet this little fish can cure your any need for an elegant, and full of flavor appetizer.  Another big plus, it can be served in a variety of ways.  I love this tiny fish, and I think you will too.  Even people who don’t traditionally like anchovies like them because they are so completely different.  They aren’t salty, and don't have that dried intense flavor of the sea.  These are much more subtle with a vinegar flavor note (if you serve as they come).  Although these delicate delights are becoming more popular, you might not find them in your local market.  However, speciality stores such as Despaña have them readily available both in store and can ship them as well.  These happen to be one of their best sellers.

Skewered with cucumber & olive. Photo courtesy: asithappens.com

Skewered with cucumber & olive. Photo courtesy: asithappens.com

Now, I do admit that I love regular anchovies, so you make think I am biased.  But even if you aren't an anchovy lover,  these are a must try because these babies are not anything like salt cured anchovies. Toss those old notations out and dive in head first.

First off, a boquerón is a fresh anchovy that gets a salt water bath then a vinegar bath for several hours which helps to give them their crisp white color.  The most common and traditional way of serving these is with crushed garlic, chopped parsley and olive oil, as shown above.  I love them served swimming on a stream of fruity olive oil. However, one of my favorite ways of presenting them is on a skewer.  It creates an elegant appetizer and one that is incredibly cocktail party friendly.  Grab, bite and go. I first came to know this method when we prepared them for a big event that Despaña hosted. Shortly after that I added them to Despaña’s After Hours Catering Menu.  They are always a huge hit,  whether at my home or at a catered event, these fish go flying off the plate.

The skewered version is easily made by using a vegetable peeler to create super thin slices of cucumber.  I use either an English or Persian cuc. Simply fold the cucumber in a ribbon style and poke the skewer through.  Do the same with the boquerón and then finish with an olive.  What I adore about this version is that the vinegar flavor profile is highlighted by the olive and cucumber which keeps this app crisp and refreshing. 

There are so many ways to serve these.  Just fish around your creative mind and express your own artistic style. Below are a couple of other versions that I have used for delight my guests.  One, keeping the vinegar flavor.  The other adding the garlic, parsley and oil.  In either style, it allows your guests to take a little of this and a little of that.


Or you can take your cue from Spanish tradition, serving it as an individual tapa:  atop a slice of bread and tomato.

Here is the way  Despaña  traditionally serves them up. Photo courtesy of Despaña

Here is the way Despaña traditionally serves them up. Photo courtesy of Despaña


Any way you let these fish swim, they are sure to be a crowd pleaser.