Saturday, December 16, 2017


A festive dish: Partridge in escabeche with quinoa salad. And, guess what? The partridge comes out of a can! Garnishes make it special--"teardrop" red peppers, "pearls" of extra virgin olive oil, sliced hard-boiled quail eggs.

Here’s a novel idea for planning your holiday menus—start with the garnish, the finishing touch that makes a dish special. I shopped around, pulling jars, cans and packets off supermarket shelves, to select ingredients that would add a pop of color or punch up the flavor of simple foods.

Some of them were pricey, gourmet products; others were as basic as a handful of fresh parsley or a tin of smoked pimentón (paprika). All of them were produced in Spain. Back in my kitchen, I planned dishes to go with the garnishes.

Some of the ingredients I collected: orange-flavored salt flakes (Alicante), olive oil “pearls” (Jaén); sea urchin roe (Gijón, Asturias); black garlic (Las Pedroñeras, La Mancha); partridge in escabeche (Ciudad Real, La Mancha); “teardrop” red peppers (La Rioja); saffron with D.O. La Mancha; smoked picante pimentón with D.O. De la Vera (Extremadura); purple carrot jam (Cuevas Bajas, Málaga), and purple Empeltre olives (Aragón).

Here's the menu plan.

Aperitifs, for a drinks party or the anticipatory hour before dinner is served. Fino Sherry or Manzanilla is the perfect drink. Bubbly cava is good too.

Easy canapés--duck liver pâté, goat cheese and sea urchin roe with sour cream on crispy (packaged) toasts. A dab of purple carrot jam (mermelada de zanahoria morá) complements both the pâté and the cheese.  For garnish, try alfalfa sprouts, sliced radishes, black olives.

Sea urchin roe doesn't look like much, but packs a walloping big flavor. Place a small spoonful of the roe with sour cream and a sliver of lemon on toasts.  

Sweet jam made from purple carrots! The town where they grow even has a festival dedicated to the zanahoria morá. Look for other interesting jams: onion, tomato, eggplant. (They're pretty good on a peanut butter sandwich, too.)

Starters. Fish and shellfish are traditional for the Spanish Christmas Eve meal. Soups and bisques are perfect starters on wintry days, but salads are a light entrée to a main course.

A seasonal salad--two kinds of citrus fruit, kiwi and avocados--with langostinos, large shrimp. The finishing touches are tangy purple-black Empeltre olives and crunchy salt flakes infused with orange zest.

Fancy flavored salt is a great final touch. This one, from Alicante, is infused with orange zest. The crunchy flakes add textural interest to foods. Some imported salts are also visually thrilling--the black Hawaiian or Himalayan, for instance.

White asparagus bisque is gilded with wisps of saffron. Another last touch; a spoonful or two of fino Sherry to add depth of flavor to the soup.

True luxury, the best saffron has denominacion de origen Azafrán de La Mancha. (Most saffron sold in Spain comes from Iran.)

 Side dishes. An inspired garnish turns ordinary potatoes and vegetables into value-added dishes.

Are those truffles? Nope. They are cloves of sweet black garlic studding a savory dish of cauliflower in almond sauce. And, that's not just any red paprika sprinkled on top. It's smoked pimentón de la Vera, this one picante, or spicy-hot.

Black garlic is ordinary garlic that is "aged" in humid conditions, causing a sort of fermentation. Inside the skin, the white cloves soften and turn black. Black garlic has an amazing sweet taste, without the "bite" of fresh garlic. It can be used whole or mashed to a paste. With oil for a baked potato, on pasta or steak. It is sold, peeled, in jars or in whole heads, as shown in the photo.

Main dish. Quinoa is the basis for this main dish salad that can be vegetarian or not. It gets festive treatment with bright red piquant peppers and tiny "pearls" of olive oil. The pearls are tiny transparent balls that burst when you bite into them, releasing a drop of extra virgin olive oil.

Festive treatment for quinoa--red "teardrop" peppers and tiny pearls of encapsulated olive oil.

"Teardrop" peppers from La Rioja are sweet and piquant.

Tiny pearls of olive oil do not need refrigeration. They are sold in jars. Use them to garnish any dish.

White Asparagus Bisque with Saffron
Crema de Esparragos Blancos con Azafrán

Canned asparagus may seem very mundane. But in Spain, white asparagus is considered a luxury and appears in holiday gift baskets and as a garnish for special salads. Here it is cooked in a smooth bisque, with the tips to garnish the soup. The finishing touch: a spoonful or two of dry Sherry to give depth of flavor to the soup and a scattering of golden saffron on top, for color and inimitable aroma. This makes a lovely starter for a holiday meal.

Serves 6.

1 or 2 cans or jars of white asparagus spears (24 ounces)
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 leeks, white part only, chopped
1 shallot, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 cup peeled and diced zucchini
1 cup peeled and diced potatoes
5 cups chicken stock
Sprig of parsley
Salt and pepper
½ cup light cream or evaporated milk
2 tablespoons dry Sherry
Saffron threads, preferably D.O. La Mancha

Drain the cans of asparagus, saving 1 cup of the liquid. Cut the tips off the asparagus and reserve them. Chop the spears.

Heat the oil in a soup pot. Sauté the leeks, shallot and garlic on medium heat until softened, 5 minutes. Add the chopped asparagus spears, zucchini and potatoes and sauté 3 minutes. Add the reserved asparagus liquid and the stock. Add the sprig of parsley and salt and pepper to taste.

Bring to a boil and cook gently, covered, until vegetables are very tender, about 20 minutes. Let cool 15 minutes, then puree the soup in a blender. Add the cream or evaporated milk and blend again. .

Shortly before serving, reheat the soup, but do not boil. Add the Sherry.

Serve the soup into shallow soup bowls. Divide reserved asparagus tips between the bowls. Scatter saffron on top of the soup. 

Festive Flamenco Salad with Fruit and Shrimp
Ensalada Flamenca

Add a generous sprinkling of salt flakes to the salad.
On my way to the market the other day, I passed beneath a balcony where a woman was leaning out, telling a guy in the street below how to make her special salad for the cena de Noche Buena (Christmas Eve dinner). Seasonal fruit, she said, avocados, oranges, clementines, kiwi and olives, sliced and arranged on a platter and topped with  bocas de mar, imitation crab sticks made of surimi.

I asked her what the salad was called. “I named it ensalada flamenca,” she said.

It is so traditional to serve fish and shellfish for Christmas Eve celebration. But, my version would be with langostinos, big shrimp, instead of the fake crab. For showiness, I left the shrimp whole, to be peeled at the table. But, for ease of serving, you could remove shells before adding to the salad. Other shellfish can be used as well.

The finishing touch: Instead of the local olives, cracked green ones with thyme and garlic, I used purple-black Empeltre olives from Aragón. And for crunch, orange-flavored salt flakes generously sprinkled over the whole salad.

Serves 6.

12-18 whole shrimp
2 oranges
2 clementines
2 kiwis
2 avocados
Salad greens
Extra virgin olive oil
Olives, black or green
Orange-flavored salt flakes

Cook the shrimp in boiling, salted water with a bay leaf until they turn pink and begin to curl. Drain and plunge the shrimp into ice water to stop the cooking. Drain. Refrigerate until ready to assemble the salad.

Peel and slice the oranges, clementines, kiwis and avocados.

Place salad greens on a serving plate. Arrange the fruit in a single layer on top. Place the shrimp in the center. Garnish with olives. Sprinkle the salad with the salt flakes. 

Cauliflower with Almond Sauce and Black Garlic
Coliflor con Salsa de Almendras y Ajo Negro

Cauliflower with almond sauce is a very traditional side dish for the Christmas Eve meal. The almond sauce can be used with other vegetables as well. If you make it with vegetable instead of chicken stock, it makes a really good vegan gravy.

The final touch: stud the creamy cauliflower with cloves of coal-black garlic, then dust it with deep red pimentón. A side dish with dramatic impact! The black garlic requires no cooking. Just peel the individual cloves and add to the cauliflower immediately before serving.

Serves 6.

1 small head cauliflower, cut into florets
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 slice bread (1 ounce), crusts removed
½ cup blanched and skinned almonds
2 cloves garlic
1 ½ cups chicken stock
Salt and pepper
Black garlic cloves, to garnish
Smoked pimentón picante (spicy-hot smoked paprika)

Cook the cauliflower in boiling salted water until just tender, 6-8 minutes. Drain well. Keep the cauliflower warm while preparing the almond sauce. (Or, cook in advance and reheat.)

Heat the oil in a skillet. Fry the bread, almonds and 2 cloves of garlic, turning, until they are golden. Remove them. Reserve a few of the almonds to use as a garnish for the finished dish. Add the remaining almonds, bread and garlic to a blender. Add some of the stock. Blend to make a smooth paste.

Stir the paste into the skillet with the remaining stock. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until sauce is thickened and smooth. It should be the consistency of cream, thick enough to nap the cauliflower. If too thick, add additional stock or water.

Place the cauliflower in a bowl or spread it on a platter. Slice the reserved fried almonds into slivers and scatter them over the cauliflower. Stud the cauliflower with cloves of black garlic. Finish with a sprinkle of hot pimentón.

Quinoa Salad with Partridge in Escabeche
Ensalada de Quinoa con Perdiz en Escabeche

One partridge in escabeche is boned and divided between four salads.

This salad features canned partridge in escabeche marinade, a traditional way of conserving partridge in La Mancha, where the wild game bird is abundant. (The canned partridge usually is produced with farm-raised birds.). Allowing one bird per person, this salad makes a main course dish. Boned, it can be divided between four salad servings.

You can use the escabeche marinating liquid to dress the quinoa instead of the oil and vinegar called for in the recipe. You will have more quinoa salad than needed for four servings.

The final touch: little sweet and piquant “teardrop” red peppers add a pop of color to the quinoa salad. (Substitute chopped red piquillo peppers if the teardrops are not available.) Olive oil pearls on top give a touch of luxury. Oh, and some cute little quail eggs make the salad more fun.

Serve the quinoa and partridge at room temperature.

Serves 4

1 ¼ cups quinoa, two colors, if possible
½ cup diced carrots
5 cups water
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons Sherry vinegar
¼ teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
½ cup red teardrop peppers
Pinch of thyme
1 canned partridge in escabeche (415 grams/ 14.5 ounces)
Salad greens
Quail eggs, hard-boiled, to garnish
Olive oil pearls to garnish

Cook the quinoa and carrots in boiling water with ½ teaspoon salt (approximately 12 minutes). Drain well and place the quinoa and carrots in a bowl. Add the oil, vinegar, pepper and ½ teaspoon salt. Stir in half of the red teardrop peppers and a pinch of thyme.

Drain the escabeche liquid from the partridge. Carefully de-bone the partridge, keeping pieces of meat as large as possible.

Make a layer of salad greens on individual salad plates. Place a mound of the quinoa in the center. Lay pieces of partridge around the quinoa. Garnish each salad with a few teardrop red peppers. Peel and halve the quail eggs and put one or more halves around the salad. Put a spoonful of olive oil pearls on top of the quinoa.

More festive recipes:
Purple Carrots with Raisins and Pine Nuts.
Quail in Escabeche.
Saffron Ice Cream with Chocolate Sauce.
Basque Style White Asparagus.


  1. Fantastic as always.
    I hope that you have enjoyed a Happy Christmas and I wish you a Peaceful and Healthy 2018. I shall be coming to Mijas soon and I shall look for the cans of Partridge, yummy! Thanks for everything.
    Jane Lowther

    1. Jane: Thanks for the good wishes. Hope you catch your partridge in the new year!