Good Food, Bad Photos

January 2, 2009

We really wanted to go out for New Year’s Eve this year. We even had a reservation at a restaurant with three other couples and I tried for weeks to find a babysitter. After going through eight possibilities (none of whom were free), I decided that maybe we should just invite everyone over here. Thankfully, the other three couples were fine with a change in plans.

I didn’t quite have the energy to go all out on a menu and yet I knew we were going to need a lot of different food to sustain us on the march towards midnight. I decided to do a Spanish theme and ask each couple to bring a tapas of some kind. I would make a little nibble, a vegetarian paella, and a dessert I have been wanting to try. Of course, me being me, the nibble became two, and I added a side dish and a salad to the main course. But, after catering a party for 30, preparing three appetizers, mashed potatoes and two desserts for one of my client’s Christmas Eve dinner in addition to making a whole dinner for my own family, and a side dish for Christmas in the last two weeks…I felt like this dinner would be a walk in the park.

The first step was making this appetizer. Manchego cheese. Membrillo (quince paste). Radicchio. That’s it. It is the perfect mouthful. Salty and creamy cheese, sweet and slightly gooey quince, and bitter radicchio. These are addictive and beyond simple. I have a couple of tips. Buy thin skewers so that the cheese doesn’t break apart as you thread it. On that same note, buy young manchego (as opposed to aged) as it tends to be less brittle. You can find membrillo at Whole Foods and also at the Spanish Table if you happen to live in Seattle. Sometimes it is sold in jars, but for this appetizer you will want the type that comes in kind of a mini-tray. That way, you can slice it just into the size that you want.

Another thing I did to make my life a little easier for this dinner was to totally bastardize paella. Yes, not only was this vegetarian, but I made it with couscous instead of rice. My thinking was, we are going to eating tapas the whole evening and no one is going to be all that hungry when we actually sit down to dinner, so let’s save some time (couscous cooks extremely quickly) and lighten the meal up. I have a trusted recipe and although I feel almost foolish calling it paella, it’s quite delicious.

All in all, I made the skewers, my trusted dates, the paella, roasted cauliflower, green salad with a hazelnut raspeberry vinaigrette, and butterscotch budinos. Yes indeed I did have this recipe and yes indeed it was amazing. You are supposed to serve this dessert in small ramekins and it should make 10 of them. We were only 8 people and I couldn’t find all 8 of my small ramekins so I served huge portions in my large ramekins. Some people finished their portions, but most didn’t. After a huge meal a huge dessert was not what was needed. But they were exquisite. You can find that recipe here. And you can find the recipes for the skewers and the paella below.

Manchego, Membrillo, and Radicchio Skewers

This is is not really a recipe, more just a gathering of ingredients, chopping and threading. I bought about a half pound of manchego, had a half container of membrillo left in my fridge, and bought a head of radicchio. You don’t use a lot of the radicchio, so I would buy the smallest head you can find.

Cut the manchego and membrillo into roughly 1 inch squares. Slice the radicchio into roughly 1 inch slices and then cut into 1 inch squares. None of this has to be exact – it will taste great any way it looks. Just keep in mind that this is meant to be a one bite appetizer, so don’t cut anything too big.

Carefully thread the manchego onto a skewer, followed by the membrillo, and finally the radicchio. If you try to put the membrillo on first, it will slide down the skewer (trust me.) Repeat with as many skewers as you need – I would plan on 2-3 per person. You can refrigerate them for a few hours, but make sure they at room temperature before you serve them.

Vegetable Couscous Paella
Adapted from
Bon Appetit Magazine
Serves 6

Here are my make ahead tips. I cut up the carrots, tomatoes, and bell peppers the day before and stored, covered, in the fridge. I made the base of the paella (i.e. everything before adding the couscous) early in the day, then reheated it on the stove with a little extra water and added the couscous just before serving. I also waited to add the peas so they wouldn’t lose their color.

Olive Oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped

1 medium red pepper, chopped

1 medium green pepper, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 tsp. paprika
2 cups vegetable broth

3 large roma tomatoes, seeded and coarsely chopped

1 cup frozen peas

1 cup chick peas, drained

2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped

tsp. saffron threads, crushed between your fingers
tsp. cayenne pepper

1 1/2 cups couscous
6 canned artichoke hearts, quartered

Green olives with pimentos

1 red pepper, thinly sliced crosswise

1 lemon, cut into thin wedges

Chopped fresh parsley

Heat a large heavy pot over medium-high heat and add just enough olive oil to lightly coat the bottom of the pot. Add onion and chopped bell peppers; saute until vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and paprika and saute 1 minute. Stir in broth and next 6 ingredients. Bring to simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and cook 5 minutes to blend flavors. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Mix couscous into vegetable mixture. Cover and simmer 1 minute. Remove pot from heat. Let stand covered 5 minutes. Fluff couscous with fork. Let paella stand covered 5 minutes longer; fluff with fork again. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to serving bowl or platter. Arrange artichoke hearts, red bell pepper rings, lemon wedges, and olives atop paella. Sprinkle parsley over and serve.

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