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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Weekend Guests -Life's Colorful Stroll

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You can't hide behind the wine... or the fork.

You can't hide behind the wine... or the fork.

Our world is made up of a bunch small moments.  Each strung together to make up a life.  And when those small moments are fulfilling and memorable, then that string makes up a beautiful life.  Mine is a long string of glistening pearls. Moments upon moments that bring me joy and memories that squarely plant a smile on both my face and heart. 

Last fall I added to that string when we hosted our friends from Miami who have a passion for photography. (Well, Marta has more than passion.  It's her profession. Check out her work here .)

They wanted to enjoy the cool fall weather and snap shots of the changing of the seasons. Which, of course,  is a big deal to them being from a one season city. It ended up being a spectacular weekend as the weather was cool but pleasant, the leaves were all starting to turn and gave way to a rainbow explosion.  The bursts of colors were emblematic of our feelings of spending time together.  Bright and cheerful with the crisp air breathing life into our souls.  

Lake view
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On weekends like these, entertaining takes a more relaxed vibe. We keep the food simple so we can spend quality time together. Plus with all the other activities going on who wants to spend oodles of time in the kitchen.  Simple entertaining doesn’t have to mean boring. It just means easy preparation, few ingredients with big flavors.  

Day One - An evening at home with cocktails, snacks & poached salmon

Since I was working in the city, the first night’s meal was prepared by my hubby who made an easy poached salmon with vegetables.  While we waited for the meal to be ready we downed the 'way to easy to drink' Citrus Martinis while snacking on some cheese, olives, marinated garlic cloves and the famous crowd pleasing nut, Marcona almonds (all of which I brought home with me from Despaña.)

Citrus cilantro jalapeño Martinis.  Refreshing and the perfect drink to get the evening started.

Citrus cilantro jalapeño Martinis.  Refreshing and the perfect drink to get the evening started.

I also roasted up some tomatoes ahead of time.  These are the easiest 'must have' staple in your fridge.  Since they are made with enough oil to keep them cured for awhile, they are a savior to pull out in a pinch.  Which is what I did, and then served it on crusty bread.  Our friend, Illy's, reaction to the simplicity but deliciousness of this bite... Priceless.

The OMG moment of food ectasty 

The OMG moment of food ectasty 

After the snacks and the drinks came the easy 'meal in bowl' dish; Poached Salmon   

Ingredients

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(serves 4)
1.5 lb Salmon
1/2 yellow onion, cut in quarters
2-3 carrots, cut in 1" pieces
2-3 ribs of celery, cut in 1" pieces
4-5 new potatoes, cut into small chunks
Oil, salt, pepper

Directions: 

Sauté for 2-3 minutes only all the vegetables in a large, deep pan using oil and seasoning with salt and pepper.  Then place the seasoned salmon on top of all the vegetables and fill the pan with water to cover the fish.  Place a cover on the pan and cook over a low heat to a simmer until the fish has turned a pale pink.  Should take about 12-18 minutes depending on the thickness of the fish.  You can leave the vegetables whole or blend them up to create a puree.

 


Day Two - Fahnestock State Park followed by cauliflower soup, snap peas, salad, scallops
The following day we drove up to Clarence Fahnestock State Park wandering around, climbing up rocks and snapping off photographs as if film were free. Oh, that's right, we had digital cameras.  Snap a 1000 and deal with it later! 

Things are looking up for me.  Photo credit: Marta Neira

Things are looking up for me.  Photo credit: Marta Neira

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Quite honestly, as eye catching as some of the photos are, they never seem to capture the true beauty of nature in its most vibrant state.

JC taking a test digital photo before using his film camera.

JC taking a test digital photo before using his film camera.

The stillness of water reveals stark reflections 

The stillness of water reveals stark reflections 

Reflections of a vibrant kind

Reflections of a vibrant kind

After being out in the chill of the day, we needed a little warmth.  What better answers that call than soup.  That night's no fuss easy line up:

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Day Three - Stone Barns followed by pizza, shrimp & salad
We drove Marta and Illy to one of our favorite local treasures; Stone Barns at Rockefeller State Perserve   I think you can tell by those smiles that we had a good time.  We hiked around for a leisurely 5 mile trek capturing even more photos of fall’s abundance. Crayola crayons, eat your heart out.

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Illy's gentle essence

Illy's gentle essence

Marta's soulful smile

Marta's soulful smile

JC with one of his vintage cameras. Photo credit: Marta Neira

JC with one of his vintage cameras. Photo credit: Marta Neira

Marta & Illy admiring the cows at Stone Barns

Marta & Illy admiring the cows at Stone Barns

On our familiar path at Rockefeller Park

On our familiar path at Rockefeller Park

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Oodles of color and lushness.

Oodles of color and lushness.

Upon returning for our final evening together, we felt like keeping it cozy with comfort food. I made an array of pizzas as appetizers followed by a quick sauté of shrimp and a salad.  Since we had been out on photography adventures all weekend, there was no time to make homemade dough. Store bought version does the trick and works like a charm.  

Keeping it warm by the stove

Keeping it warm by the stove

Spreading roasted garlic mash on the dough

Spreading roasted garlic mash on the dough

I add oil to a bowl, plop the dough inside, cover with a towel and don't let the dough rise too much.  Then I stretch it out with my hands into whatever shape it feels like making and add various toppings.  Here's a few we served that night.

Hot off the stone

Hot off the stone

Roasted tomato, roasted garlic, basil & Parmesan cheese pizza

Roasted tomato, roasted garlic, basil & Parmesan cheese pizza

Fresh tomato slices, goat & Parmesan cheese pizza

Fresh tomato slices, goat & Parmesan cheese pizza

Roasted red pepper & goat cheese pizza

Roasted red pepper & goat cheese pizza

After that yummy goodness, some greens and a protein were all that was needed. 

  • Sautéed jumbo shrimp (with garlic, scallions)
  • Boston salad with celery, fennel, scallion
     
Similar to my  Graped up Bibb Salad

Similar to my Graped up Bibb Salad

Jumbo shrimp with garlic & scallions

Jumbo shrimp with garlic & scallions

There was nothing extraordinary about any of these dishes other than good ingredients made with absolute love.  There was, however, moments of extraordinary all weekend long.  Hosting weekend guests doesn't have to turn your life upside down.  And even if it does, you will always land right side up.

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Take a colorful stroll, breathe in the crisp Fall season, spend time with people you love, then return home to a warm meal. Fill your life with special moments and string together your own pearl necklace. 
 

A colorful stoll

A colorful stoll

The girls.  Photo Credit: JuanCarlos Casas

The girls.  Photo Credit: JuanCarlos Casas

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Citrus Cilantro Martini with a Kick

On evenings when I need something to put a smile on my face, I find my hubby's Citrus Cilantro Martini...with a kick, does just the trick.   He makes several different variations, mixing fruits and herbs, but this one is my go to cocktail. With the weekend fast approaching, I thought this was a good time to share some citrus cocktail cheer.

Ingredients

Makes 1 (strong) Martini
 
1/2 c Vodka (of your choice, we like Tito's, Kettle One, Belvedere)
Splash of simple syrup*
Juice of pink or red grapefruit
juice of 1/2 lemon
juice of 1/2 lime
mint or cilantro leaves
1/4 tsp minced jalapeño

*Simple syrup is equal parts water and sugar brought to a boil and then let to cool.  Refrigerate for future use.

JC squeezing up some citrus goodness

JC squeezing up some citrus goodness

Put all the above ingredients into a shaker with ice, and do your best jig.  Shaking for 30 seconds or until you feel like you've jumped around enough.  Pour into a martini glass, add a few cilantro leaves and sit back and let the kick kick in.

 
Grapefruit with cilantro

Grapefruit with cilantro

I find this drink both refreshing and warming at the same time, which makes it perfect for any season.  The crispness of the grapefruit is clean and light.  Definitely use the pink or red version, as the traditional yellow kind can be too tart. The jalapeño gives it the heat which warms you up. Plus the color is just plain inviting.  I clink my virtual glass to yours wishing you a wonderful weekend.