Dinner Parties 101: Tapas Night


In my opinion, baby steps are the best way to approach any angst-ridden endeavor. Not quite ready to tackle a four-course dinner party? Take baby steps by serving baby plates: tapas. Four or five of these Spanish-themed appetizers easily make a full meal while introducing your guests to new flavors and combinations they may not have experienced before.

More importantly, a tapas night helps avoid a potentially stilted sit-down dinner. Encouraging guests to pass, share, and even eat off each other’s plates seems to break down the wall of formality and creates a relaxed and pretension-less atmosphere. (This is also a great option if you’re having a singles get-together this Valentine’s weekend.)

Best of all, some of the more rigid dinner party rules conveniently disappear: Serve the dishes buffet style or family style; bring them out all at once or serve them sporadically; eat them sitting, standing, hot, or at room temperature. Start with these three recipes, which use a variety of herbs, spices, and flavors that play off of each other brilliantly. You can round out the offerings with bowls of olives, almonds, and even cured meats (Pine Street Market in Avondale Estates is one good source). These dishes also provide enough substance that guests won’t mind that the esteemed main entree is MIA for the evening.

Tacos of Flank Steak with Red Onion Jam and Cilantro
Serves 8-10

Flank steak, also called skirt steak, is an inexpensive cut of meat and can be tough if not prepared properly. In this recipe, the acid in the lime juice marinade helps break down some of the connective tissue in the meat. While it says to marinate a minimum of 30 minutes, I recommend a few hours in order to achieve maximum tenderness. The “punch” in this dish comes from the red onion jam—the combination of the vinegars, honey, and orange juice produce a tangy, sweet kick that highlights the strong flavors in the meat.

12 7-8” diameter flour tortillas
3 fresh limes
1 ½ – 2 lbs flank steak
5 cloves garlic, minced
½ tablespoon ground red chili
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
¼ tsp. ground cumin
½ tablespoon vegetable oil
Chopped cilantro for garnish

Cut limes in half and squeeze the juice over both sides of the steak. Rub the garlic on the steak and then sprinkle with chili, pepper and cumin. Allow steak to marinate for at least 30 minutes at room temperature. While meat is marinating, prepare red onion jam.

At serving time, preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Heat a dry 10-inch heavy skillet (preferably cast-iron) over moderately high heat until hot, about 3 minutes. Add the vegetable oil to the skillet and then brown the steak about two minutes on each side. Then place the meat on an ovenproof dish and roast in the oven for 10 minutes—medium rare will be between 130 and 135 degrees. (Alternatively, flank steak is wonderful when grilled; medium-rare if five or six minutes on each side). Transfer meat to a cutting board, let it rest, covered, for about five minutes, and then thinly slice on the bias (against the grain). Place steak slices on warm tortillas and top with red onion jam and chopped cilantro—or, let guests assemble them themselves!

Red Onion Jam
2 lb red onion, very thinly sliced
1 cup red wine
1 clove garlic, minced
½ cup orange juice, reduced to about 2 tablespoons in a saucepan
3 tablespoons honey (orange blossom preferred)
1 tbls. fresh thyme, finely chopped
1 tbls. red wine vinegar
1 tbls. balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

In large skillet, combine all the ingredients except the vinegars. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a bare simmer and cook until the liquid is almost evaporated and the mixture has thickened, stirring from time to time, approximately one hour. Stir in the two vinegars and simmer for about five minutes to blend flavors. Correct the seasonings with salt and pepper.

Shrimp and Saffron Risotto Cakes with Chive Olive Oil
Serves 6

One of my five initial rules to a perfect dinner party was to avoid high-maintenance dishes. Risotto, which always requires constant stirring and a lot of TLC, is just that. Luckily, this dish is a way to serve risotto while doing all the prep work ahead of time so that the risotto cakes are ready and waiting in a warm oven until ready to serve. It’s best to prepare the chive oil a few days ahead of time in order to infuse the oil with as much flavor as possible.

4-5 cups chicken stock or broth
¼ tsp. pulverized saffron threads
2 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 clove garlic, minced to a paste
1 ½ cups onion, finely chopped
2 ½ cups Arborio rice
½ cup dry white wine
non-stick vegetable oil spray
1 cup white rice flour
6 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
24 large shrimp, peeled, de-veined and butterflied

In a saucepan, combine the chicken stock and saffron; bring to a simmer. Remove from heat and keep warm.

In a large saucepot, head the olive oil and butter and sauté the garlic and onion over medium/low heat until soft, translucent and tender, about 6 minutes. Add rice and stir to fully coat granules. Add wine and stir over medium high heat until most liquid has evaporated. Add a ladle full of saffron broth, stirring constantly until completely absorbed. Gradually continue adding broth in this fashion until rice is tender. Season risotto with salt and pepper and spread evenly on to a baking sheet that’s been sprayed with vegetable oil. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold and firm, about two hours. Will keep up to a day if made ahead of time.

When ready to prepare cakes, preheat oven to 300 degrees. Place rice flour in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. With a 2-inch diameter cookie cutter, cut out rounds from risotto sheet and dredge in flour. In a large non-stick skillet, heat four tablespoons of the vegetable oil and when hot, sauté risotto cakes until golden brown, about two minutes on each side. Transfer to a clean sheet pan and keep warm in a 200 degree oven.

In a clean skillet, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil and sauté shrimp until opaque, about 1-1 ½ minutes per side. Top each risotto cake with shrimp and drizzle with chive oil.

Chive Oil
1/3 cup fresh chives, finely chopped
½ cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic

Blend ingredients in blender until smooth. Strain any remaining solids out of liquid and season with salt and pepper.

Gazpacho with Goat Cheese Balls Coated in Chopped Olives
Serves 4-6
From 1080 Recipes by Simone and Ines Ortega

While cold soup can be a hard sell for some, I feel you can never go wrong with good gazpacho. It combines my favorite aspects of cooking: it’s fresh, flavor-packed, shockingly simple to prepare, and healthy. Even though all ingredients are blended together, I still feel like you can detect a hint of each vegetable. To give the gazpacho a special touch, use sherry vinegar instead of white wine vinegar. You can also add a little freshly ground black pepper at the last minute.

2 ¼ pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped
¼ onion, coarsely chopped
1 small cucumber, peeled and coarsely chopped
½ small green bell pepper, seeded and coarsely chopped
4 ½ cups bread crumbs
¾ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons white-wine vinegar
¼ an ounce of fresh goat cheese
6 black olives, pitted and chopped
chopped fresh basil

Working in batches, put the tomato, onion, cucumber, bell pepper, bread-crumbs, oil, and vinegar into a food processor or blender and process until smooth. Transfer to a bowl and if the mixture is too thick, add a little cold water. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least two hours before serving.

Just before serving, shape the goat cheese into little balls using a melon baller or with your hands. Roll the balls in the chopped olives. Season the soup with salt to taste, stir well, and garnish with the basil. Serve with the cheese balls.