You may not have a stunning waterfront view — if you do, we'll be right over — but the idea of tapas, skewered pintxos (pronounced peen-chos) and the oh-so-appealing practice of late night sips and small plates on the patio is tailor-made for relaxed entertaining.
It was a gastronomically charged trip to Barcelona, where Michael Chiarello, a Napa chef known for his Italian cuisine, that sealed the deal.
“I fell in love with Barcelona, with the emotion and the community of eating,” he says. “The waterfront, the seaside style of eating, where you eat as little or as much as you like, pintxos and a glass of sherry. It's dinner without such a large commitment.”
From the party host perspective, it can be a delightful level of commitment — or rather, noncommittment — as well. Chilled wine, fizzy cocktails, platters of cured meats, cheeses and olives, and you're halfway there. Saute a batch of padron peppers — the occasionally hot one in a glistening sea of sweet gives the dish a dash of chile pepper roulette. Make albondigas, perhaps, in a wine sauce, a la San Francisco chef Joyce Goldstein, whose recipe tastes even better when made the night before. And don't forget the jamon, the incredible prosciuttolike ham that may well be Spain's national obsession.
Then pass a tray of brightly hued, Basque-inspired pintxos — skewered pickled vegetables and anchovies, for example, or the fresh baby beets, cucumbers and feta cheese combination favored by Gerald Hirigoyen, whose small plates fare dazzles at his Basque restaurant, Piperade, and in a cookbook, “Pintxos” (Ten Speed Press, 2009) devoted to that cuisine.
One of the most common is the Gilda, a toothpicked flourish of cured guindilla peppers, green olives, cornichonlike pepinillos, magenta-tinged pearl onions and anchovies. Legend has it that the pintxo was inspired by Rita Hayworth's 1940s film “Gilda,” because Gilda and the pinxto are both “green, salty and a little spicy.”
They make a great little nosh to pair with that other Spanish obsession, the gintonic — one word, Chiarello says — served in balloon-shaped wine glasses or Riedel-type stemless goblets. In Barcelona, entire bar menus are devoted to gintonics. The libation becomes a splendidly aromatic, effervescent mix of stellar gin, Fevertree Mediterranean or house-made tonic ... plus slivers of citrus, swaths of zest, interesting botanicals and petals, punctuated by juniper berries.
Just don't forget the ham. It's not a true Spanish spread without cured meats, sliced chorizo perhaps — caramelized, Chiarello suggests, then deglazed with Spanish cider and cooked a few minutes more with fresh, pitted cherries — and, of course, the Iberico.
“The expensive ham! People will eat two pounds!” Chiarello cautions. So use it the way you do prosciutto, complementing the salty, savory flavors with the sweetness of melon. Chiarello serves it with fresh peaches, soft cow's milk cheese and a dusting of dried piquillo peppers, or plums, watercress and a drizzle of olive oil. The combination, he says, is “a perfect celebration of the season.”
A gin and tonic consists of just four things — gin, tonic, ice and garnish — but that simplicity means every ingredient matters. So don't slosh well gin into a plastic tumbler with diet tonic and a dessicated lime wedge.
Here's how to make a perfect Spanish-style “gintonic”:
1. Drop fresh, clear ice — the bigger the cube the better — into a wine glass or tumbler. Your freezer's ice-maker produces the very opposite of cocktail-ready cubes. Its ice has gone through repeated cycles of refreezing, thanks to your freezer's defrost function.
2. Add top quality gin. Coqueta uses London Bloom gin for its Barca gintonic, Cooperage uses St. George — and Barcelona's famous Bobby Gin bar opts for Tanqueray Ten, Hendricks and No. 3.
3. Top with good quality tonic, such as Fevertree, Q or Fenniman's.
4. Twist strips of fresh citrus zest — lime, grapefruit, orange and/or Meyer lemon — to release the oils and drop them in. Add juniper berries, flower petals or other botanicals.
6 medium cured guindillas
12 large green Spanish olives, cured, marinated
6 cured cornichons
6 cured cebollitas
6 cured anchovy fillets
Arrange 1 guindilla, 2 olives, 1 cornichon, 1 cebollita and 1 anchovy on each wooden skewer. Serve on baguette slices or, if you want the pintxos to stand up, skewer the cebollitas last for stability. Makes 6.
Note: This classic Basque pintxo calls for specific pickled vegetables, but you can use Italian pepperoncini, for example, instead of guindillas, small Basque pickled peppers.
3 to 5 yellow chili peppers, such as guindillas or cubanelles, pricked a few times with a toothpick
White wine vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar per 1 cup liquid
1 tablespoon kosher salt per 1 cup liquid
Place chilis in a jar that just holds them; cover with water. Drain water into a measuring cup. Note the amount. Discard half and add an equal quantity of vinegar.
In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, heat the sugar and 1 tablespoon of water, swirling the pan lightly until a light amber caramel forms. Add the vinegar mixture and salt. Reduce heat to medium; simmer until sugar and salt have dissolved.
Combine peppers and pickling liquid. Weigh down peppers so they are submerged. Cool, then seal and refrigerate for 2 to 4 days, or until pickled.
Makes 3 to 5 pickled peppers.
Albondigas with Wine Sauce
1/4 cup onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 pound each ground beef and pork
3 tablespoons fresh, flat-leaf parsley, minced
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 slices country bread, crusts removed, soaked in water, squeezed dry
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons chopped, blanched almonds
2 tablespoons fresh, flat-leaf parsley, minced
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
A few saffron threads, warmed and crushed
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup minced onion
1/2 cup dry white wine, dry fino or amontillado sherry
2/3 cup chicken broth
For the meatballs, saute the onion and garlic in a little olive oil, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 3 minutes. Combine ground meats, parsley, egg, softened bread, spices, salt, pepper and onion mixture. Mix well. Fry a nugget of the mixture, taste and adjust seasoning. Shape mixture into 1-inch meatballs. Spread flour in a shallow bowl. Roll meatballs in flour, coating evenly and shaking off the excess. In a large frying pan, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Working in batches, sear meatballs, turning as needed, until golden brown on all sides, about 5 minutes.
For the wine sauce, combine the garlic, almonds, parsley, paprika, saffron, a pinch or two of salt and a few grinds of pepper in a food processor; process until finely ground into a “picada.” In a large frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened. Add wine and broth; bring to a simmer. Add meatballs, reduce heat, cover and simmer until cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes more. Add the picada and cook a few minutes more.
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