Yesterday, Catherine I and returned from three luxurious nights with friends at a cabin in the foothills north of Mount Hood. I hope to remember and repeat the way we cooked: We all brought food, so there was plenty. We mostly didn’t coordinate, we just ensured we got our own needs met. It was an open kitchen, so everyone was welcome to graze whenever. Those of us who like to cook, cooked when we felt like it. Those of us who hate cooking did dishes. Some of us brought booze, some brought mixers. With regards to the kitchen, each of us got to feel like we were on vacation.
I planned a Spanish night, with several different tapas courses leading up to a main dish, a sarten. The word is Spanish for “frying pan”, so the word is similar to saying “casserole”; both dishes are named for the dish they’re cooked in. In this case, I planned a dish of garlic, seafood, and black pepper swimming in a sea of olive oil, seasoned at the end by wild peas with a fresh nutty flavor that our new friend Kate had harvested nearby.
I started off making a Béchamel sauce into which went a bunch of garlic and about 2 cups of prawns, cooked and finely diced, plus about a quarter cup of tomato paste and seasonings.
While the prawn sauce thickened, I started on mushrooms, to go with aioli on bread. A few days prior, while camping at Bagby Hotsprings, I had failed miserably at sautéed mushrooms by marinating them in far too much balsamic vinegar. They turned out unpalatably bitter, and no amount of salt or other ingredients we had on hand could rescue them. That dish went so badly that I consulted cookbooks after the fact to learn how I could have been so wrong (a true admission of humility for me, which for the record happens regularly).
It turns out my problem wasn’t too much balsamic, but incorporating it at all. Balsamic vinegar was a bad guess. Sherry was the key! We had packed an impressive bar up to the mountain, but it was stocked for making cocktails. When do you ever need sherry in a cocktail? We had none; dry vermouth intended for martinis worked in a pinch. The mushrooms came out as dark and delicious as I had wanted, with nothing in the way of their perfect mushroom-forward flavor.
I improvised aioli: We had brought Trader Joe’s mayonnaise, the best kind. To it I added a lot of garlic powder that had simmered in as small an amount of olive oil and lemon as I could manage to simmer anything in. I think this would have worked if I had cooled the garlic oil and then whipped it into the mayo. Anyhow, it was a mistake to add the mayo directly into the still-hot pan, as that didn’t result in an emulsion. The flavor was just right, though and it was easy to hide its consistency in the plating: I simply spooned the oily, lumpy, delicious mixture over bread before covering it over with mushrooms. This tapas plate was the first served, and it was a hit.
Before adding the prawns, I had thought to double the recipe, but I didn’t end up having enough prawns for that, so I made twice as much Béchamel sauce as needed and reserved half of it. I offered it up to Zack to use in his cooking if he liked, but he had a brilliant idea: croque monsieurs, which are essentially Béchamel baked over grilled cheese sandwiches. (God bless the French.)
It was perfect. It had to happen. I had purchased two baguettes, and was simply slicing pieces off as needed for each dish, as thick or thin as needed — so we had plenty of bread. We also weren’t lacking for cheese, so I didn’t skimp on that or on the butter to fry the cheese in. While heating the oven, I made bacon, which went right back in after cooking, in between the grilled cheese sliders and their Béchamel blankets. (So these ended up somewhere between croque monsieurs and croque madams, which are like the former but with a hat of sunny side egg atop ham.)
Using the vermouth earlier had reminded me that martinis exist, and I’m afraid one thing led to another and I forgot to mind the broiler. I ended up burning the bacon, but I’ll be damned if these weren’t melt-in-your-mouth perfect just the same. That was a bit of luck.
Something like an hour and a half in, I had served two dishes. This felt about right. I had warned my friends this would be a lazy, casual, gradual evening of gluttony. But it felt time for a bit more variety, and also something a bit lighter, so I sliced up another bowl of bread and served it with oil and vinegar for dipping, mainly to buy a bit of time. Simple bread and oil can be such a treat. After giving the prawn sauce a stir for the dozenth time, I prepared and served a caprése salad, which was simple, light, and delicious.
Then came deviled eggs, which I was quite proud. They were every bit as delicious as they are typically served, but took a fifth of the time to prepare and were quite unique: I quartered 4 hard boiled length-wise to form wedges, and plated them with the hardboiled yolk left intact, yolk-side-up in a starburst pattern. Over that I drizzled what was left of the aioli and sprinkled salt, dried parsley and chives, and paprika. I served this with in true Spanish tapas style: Several forks for sharing and eating directly off the plate. The reaction in the living room restored the blow that the bitter balsamic mushrooms had recently done to my ego.
Into the skillet went as much spinach as I could get to stay in, with a quarter cup of water and several tablespoons of white vinegar. When it had cooked down I filled the skillet again with more, again as much would fit. A few minutes later I added an entire package of Neufchatel (cream cheese, essentially), half a lemon, and several tablespoons of Penzeys’ Tandoori curry seasoning to taste. About 5 cloves of garlic ended up not being enough to make a difference, so I’ll know to triple that next time. I also forgot to add the ghee, which I believe is what made this such a success the first time I’d experimented with it a week before.
While the spinach cooked, I served some salami and mozzarella on a plate, to keep up the rhythm. By the time I brought out the spinach, I was met by protestations: Was I was trying to kill my friends? No one could find any more room in their stomach, so sadly it was time to stop cooking.
I couldn’t have enjoyed myself more with having so much to do in the kitchen and delighting my diners with such a rich meal. And at the same time, it was healthy: We all ended up eating less since the slow pace and small portions of tapas force you to eat small amounts so that by the time the third and fourth dishes are coming out, you already feel full.
I’ll be cooking tapas more often. How I do miss you, Spain, and how grateful I am to be able to enjoy your cuisine!
What about the prawn sauce, you ask? It spent the night in the refrigerator, and the next day I formed it into small lumps breaded in panko, dipped in egg, and breaded a second time, before frying in a few centimeters of canola. These served for lunch. To my surprise, they needed salt — but otherwise you’re damn right I will be doing that again.
And that next day was Zach’s night to cook, so the sarten never got to be. Perhaps tonight… if only it weren’t 100 degrees in Portland today… maybe tomorrow, for a late breakfast with more bread and chilled white wine.