Whenever I have to think of something to cook, I try to think of an upcoming event that would benefit from some good food. It's kind of a dry season in terms of holidays and major sport events right now, but lucky for me, my family was having a bon voyage party for my brother, who is departing on a five-month gig playing with a band on a cruise ship.
Well, not that lucky I guess. We'll miss him and everything, but it was a good opportunity to try out some food.
I had been reading about tapas cuisine in food magazines, and thought that may be a good idea for the party. Tapas is a Spanish style of dining, which translates loosely to "to cover," which makes sense. Many small appetizers and other finger foods are offered to diners, and they do a good job of covering the table. The tradition began when a Spanish king recovered from illness after drinking wine with small dishes between meals, and, thinking this method medicinal, ordered all taverns not to serve wine unless it came with a small snack.
Tapas dishes traditionally include chorizo sausage, olives, cheeses, anchovies and even squid. While exotic-looking and interesting to me, I knew my family might not be so open-minded. Especially my brother, who, in my family, is the "kid who won't eat" (for those fluent in "A Christmas Story").
I wanted to make some tapas-style dishes to serve, and found that there is not only Spanish-style tapas, but Italian and Mediterranean as well. Dishes have evolved to suit many cultures and tastes, but the overall purpose remains - to encourage family and friends to gather for food and conversation.
Remembering past parties and appetizers at restaurants, I came up with a few dishes that my family would probably enjoy.
8 ounces whole fresh mozzarella cheese
2-3 ripe tomatoes
3-4 leaves fresh basil, or dried basil
cup olive oil
1 loaf ciabatta bread
Slice tomatoes and mozzarella. Cut basil leaves lengthwise into strips. Arrange slices on plate, alternating between tomatoes, cheese and basil, or tomatoes and cheese sprinkled with dried basil. Coat slices with olive oil, cover and refrigerate at least one hour. Cut ciabatta bread loaf in half, so it opens like a book. Cut each side into six pieces. Heat sliced ciabatta bread in a pan or toaster oven, cut side down, until toasted. Place slices of tomatoes, cheese and basil on ciabatta and serve.
1 package shredded crab claw meat
1 cup seasoned bread crumbs
cup grated parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon olive oil
10-12 white cap mushrooms
Crushed red pepper flakes
Remove stems from mushrooms, and blanch by placing them in boiling water with a pinch of salt for 2-3 minutes. Drain, and allow mushrooms to cool. Mix crab meat, crumbs, cheese and oil in a small bowl, and stuff into mushroom caps. Sprinkle tops with red pepper flakes, and bake on greased baking sheet at 400 degrees for 10 minutes.
Honey Dijon Chicken Wraps
2 boneless chicken breasts
4 round pitas
2 cups honey Dijon salad dressing
1 tablespoon olive oil
Slice chicken breasts lengthwise into strips. Grill in pan with olive oil or on a grill coated with non-stick spray. When fully cooked, allow chicken to cool. Cut pitas in half, and place chicken strips on bread, drizzle with dressing, and roll into wraps.
1 cup brown sugar
cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
Pinch of salt
2 sticks butter
1 tablespoon almond extract
1 cup chopped almonds
2 cups flour
2 sheets frozen pastry dough
Mix sugars, cinnamon, almonds and salt together until blended. Melt butter, and then coat sugar mixture in butter and almond extract and stir. Add flour and toss with fork until moist clumps form. Slice thawed pastry dough sheets into three strips, and slice those strips into four. Drop spoonfuls of mixture onto pastry dough, and then wrap dough around mixture, forming a cup, pinching the sides shut. Bake on greased baking sheet at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes. Add dollop of maple syrup to top of cup before serving. Makes 24.
A Caprese salad I had at a summer barbecue came to mind, a dish with sliced mozzarella cheese, tomatoes and basil marinated in olive oil and spices. The ingredients are sliced and marinated in the oil for a few hours in the refrigerator. I transformed it into a finger food by slicing the tomatoes and cheese lengthwise and serving them on toasted ciabatta bread - Caprese Ciabatta. These are also good warmed up in a toaster oven, the cheese melted.
Next came a dish as suggested by my dad - stuffed mushrooms. These are also a traditional tapas dish, and can be portabellas or cap mushrooms stuffed with chorizo, sun-dried tomatoes or seafood. I took some shredded crab claw meat and added seasoned bread crumbs, parmesan cheese and olive oil, mixed it up and stuffed them into de-stemmed button mushroom caps.
To de-stem, just wiggle the stem until it comes loose, then it pretty much pops out. Sprinkled with some crushed red pepper flakes, they baked at 400 degrees for 10 minutes. There was some leftover crab mixture, which I told my dad to make into crab cakes the next day.
Next came something simple and healthy, which would please all. A Middle Eastern restaurant in Boardman serves a fantastic chicken pita pizza that I enjoy, which is also pretty healthy. It's grilled chicken with a honey Dijon mustard-type sauce and scallions on toasted pita bread.
I copied this with some flavored low-fat whole-wheat pita wraps and fat-free honey Dijon salad dressing. The chicken can be grilled on an electric counter grill, or in a pan with a little olive oil. Just season with a sprinkle of salt and fresh-ground pepper. One pita can be cut in half, and the chicken drizzled in the dressing can be wrapped up inside.
Lastly, some dessert. For my mom's birthday, I made a New York-style crumb cake I saw in Bon Appetit, and it was amazing. The crumb topping was especially good. Since tapas desserts sometimes include almonds, I decided to prepare the crumb topping, flavored with some almond extract and chopped almonds, and bake it inside pastry shells.
Sounds plausible, right? But what sounds good in concept can sometimes backfire. I bought some frozen pastry dough (I don't have all day, people) and cut each sheet into 12 squares, and spooned the brown sugar crumb mixture onto each piece, then wrapped the sides around it to form a little shell. When baking, however, the shells began unwrapping until they were flat on the cookie sheet. While plain looking, it didn't affect the taste, which, after adding a dollop of maple syrup to the tops, was delicious.
By the time I was done in the kitchen, the family was eagerly awaiting some food. We cut my brother's bon voyage cake, and everyone dug in. The "kid who won't eat" chose instead to have one last Sunrise Pizza before going out to sea. The family enjoyed all of the dishes, and even though I was stuck in the kitchen and didn't get to visit, I enjoyed feeding them.