I arrived in Spain as a wide eyed, 21 year old college student, eager to spend a winter away from a frigid Madison, Wisconsin. I got my wish for warmer weather plus a whole lot more when the plane touched down in Seville, Spain, and I locked eyes with the family who would become “familia” for the next six months.
The first words out Paquita’s mouth were, “Hello!” and “Don’t worry, be happy!” It turns out these were the five English words my hostess knew well, the latter of which had unknown origins of how she learned it. With two years of college Spanish under my belt, I wasn’t exactly fluent but could cobble together some decent sentences.
On the first evening at home with my Spanish hosts, Paquita proudly presented me with an individual pizza for dinner, covered with miniature pepperoni. The rest of the family had soup, followed by an egg and potato omelette known as tortilla española. I looked longingly at their meal and ate my pizza, not looking to ruffle feathers on my first night in Spain.
The next night, she came out of the kitchen with paella for the family and…hot dogs for me. I questioned it. She explained that she wanted me to feel at home, and that serving me “American food” would perhaps make me feel comfortable in Spain. She had such sweet intentions, so I managed to hold back an eye roll while muttering something about stereotypical Americans under my breath. (I should talk—I’m 99% certain I was wearing a Wisconsin hoodie and sneakers with jeans when this occurred.) Then I told her in my shaky Spanish that I’d love to eat whatever the family ate.
Paquita agreed to my request, and I dug into the paella, learning to slurp the juice from the shrimp heads like Paco, her husband. Truthfully my favorite dish was her homemade chicken soup with tiny star-shaped pasta, and also the fresh squeezed orange juice that she made every morning. But I did learn a few things about Spanish cuisine from her, including how paella should taste and how to use copious amounts of olive oil when cooking.
Paquita’s family didn’t drink at home, so I got to experience the beverages of Spain in tapas bars and on sidewalks outside of bars. Drinking on the sidewalk or street, known as botellón, is still legal in many parts of Spain, and we fully maximized our college student budgets by participating in the tradition.
We weren’t sipping fancy sangria on the street but instead a drink made with 1€ wine and orange Fanta. Mix equal parts over ice (or no ice if you’re drinking on the street like us) and you have yourself a tinto de verano, which means red wine of summer. While it’s not the most sophisticated beverage, I fell in love with the idea of a drink that pairs red wine with something fizzy, thereby the inspiration for this sparkling sangria.
Long before I frequented farmer’s markets or knew what eating locally meant, I watched Paquita and her sister return from the market every day with just enough fresh food to make it to the next day. They’d haul in oranges for the morning juice, soft rolls for sandwiches, potatoes, eggs, zucchini, and whatever else looked good that day. Many of the preparations were quite simple—shallow fry the vegetable, egg, meat, etc. in olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and serve.
It got warm toward the end of my time there, so we ate a lot more raw fresh fruits and vegetables. I took a cue from Paquita when creating this raw zucchini salad, taking advantage of citrus and olive oil for the dressing and topping it all with slivered almonds for some crunch.
I hope to make it back to Spain one day to soak up all of the flavors again, but until then, I’ll settle for getting a little taste here in Chicago. These dishes create the beginnings of a flavor-packed Spanish dinner party, one that I made in about 90 minutes. Here’s how I did it:
1. Make the Raw Zucchini Salad and allow it to marinate in the refrigerator. Set aside the toasted nuts to top right before you serve it.
2. Start the Sparkling Sangria and refrigerate the fruit mixture. Refrigerate the unopened cava (you’ll add this right before serving).
3. Start on the Seafood Paella about one hour before you wish to serve it. You’ll want to serve this right away so the seafood doesn’t overcook.
All of the recipes serve 6–8, which is my ideal size for having people over for dinner. If I had to choose, I’d lean toward six so we can all participate in the same conversation. Often larger groups start to form two conversations and I’m too nosy to pay attention to just one conversation. 🙂 When I do the inviting (usually just a text!), I start with eight invitations, which almost always dwindles to six because a couple people have other plans.
Along with the menu here, I added a baguette on the side, warmed in the oven while covered in foil. You could also add some Spanish olives to little dishes and scatter them on the table for nibbling, or serve one of my personal favorites: bacon wrapped dates. Here’s the quick how-to for that: take the pit out of Medjool dates (the big, juicy ones) and wrap each date in ½ of a slice of bacon. Secure bacon with a toothpick. Bake for 30–45 minutes at 375°F on a sheet pan or until the bacon is crisp. That’s it! You could get fancy and stuff them with chorizo or Manchego cheese first but I like to keep them simple.
So go ahead, invite a few friends over and try your hand at a Spanish dinner party! After you’ve tried the recipes, I’d love to hear how it went. Leave a comment below or find me on Instagram or Facebook. Or if you’ve ever been to Spain, I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments below!
Yield 6–8 servings
This Spanish-inspired entrée will undoubtedly impress your guests. I like to serve it at the table to show off the beautiful presentation.
- 1 large Spanish onion, roughly chopped
- 3 roma tomatoes, roughly chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 4 cups chicken stock or seafood stock
- ¾ teaspoon smoked or sweet paprika
- ½ teaspoon saffron threads
- 1½ teaspoons kosher salt
- 2½ cups paella or risotto rice
- ½ lb mussels
- 8 jumbo shrimp (shell-on if desired)
- 8–10 piparra peppers
- Heat olive oil in a 12 inch skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and tomatoes. Cook for 8–10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent and very soft. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds more.
- Transfer the mixture to a blender. Remove the middle portion of the blender lid to allow steam to escape, and cover the hole with a dish towel. Blend at medium speed for 30 seconds, until the mixture is mostly smooth.
- Transfer the tomato mixture back to the pan and add the stock, paprika, saffron, salt, and rice. Allow to cook uncovered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Meanwhile, inspect the mussels. If any are open, tap them gently against a countertop and wait for them to close. If they do not close, discard. Place the closed mussels in a bowl of cool water and let sit for 10 minutes to allow any dirt or sand to release to the bottom of the bowl.
- When the liquid is almost absorbed by the rice, stir in the chorizo and shrimp. Drain the mussels and lay them on top of the rice.
- Cover the skillet with aluminum foil and allow to cook for 4–5 minutes, or until the clams and mussels open. Arrange piparra peppers over the top and serve.
An easy swap: Not a seafood fan? Swap in boneless skinless chicken thighs and chorizo instead. Here's how: cut the chicken thighs into bite size pieces and slice the chorizo. Before beginning the recipe, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a pan over medium heat and cook the chicken thighs and chorizo until brown and just cooked through. Remove from the pan and then begin with step 1. Add the chicken and chorizo back in step 5 when the rice is almost cooked through.
Raw Zucchini Salad with Toasted Almonds
Yield 6–8 servings
A fun way to jazz up your salad routine!
- 3 medium sized zucchini
- 3 medium sized yellow squash
- ¼ cup lemon juice
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- Pinch of sugar
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 3 handfuls arugula
- 1 tablespoon canola oil
- ⅓ cup slivered almonds
- Place one zucchini on a flat surface. Using a peeler, slowly drag the peeler the length of the zucchini to create a ribbon. Repeat until the zucchini is too small to peel. Repeat with the remaining zucchini and yellow squash. Place in a large bowl.
- In a small bowl, whisk the lemon juice, olive oil, sugar, ¼ teaspoon salt, and pepper together. Pour over the zucchini and yellow squash and toss gently. Refrigerate for at least one hour, or up to 4 hours.
- Meanwhile, place the canola oil and almonds in a small nonstick skillet. Place the skillet over medium heat to toast the almonds, stirring occasionally. Watch closely—the almonds will go from untoasted to burnt quickly! Cook until the almonds are lightly toasted. Sprinkle with ¼ teaspoon salt and set aside.
- To serve, place the arugula on a large serving platter. Spoon the zucchini and squash ribbons over the top of the arugula, adding the vinaigrette from the bottom of the bowl to taste. Sprinkle with toasted almonds and serve.
Change it up: walnuts or pine nuts would be delicious in place of the almonds.
Yield 6–8 servings
A super refreshing white sangria with Cava, a Spanish sparkling wine.
- Fruit of your choice: lemon slices, orange slices, berries, grapes, sliced peaches or nectarines, sliced apples, etc.
- ⅓ cup sugar
- 2 (750ml) bottles cava (Spanish sparkling wine)
- 1 cup white grape juice
- Zest and juice of one orange
- For garnish: fresh mint
- Place the fruit in a large pitcher. Sprinkle the sugar over the top and stir gently to coat the fruit with the sugar. Add the orange zest and juice and the white grape juice. Allow to sit for at least 30 minutes in the refrigerator, or up to overnight.
- When it’s time to serve, add the cava and stir to combine. Transfer to glasses and garnish with fresh mint.
Tip: If you can't find white grape juice, pineapple juice is a good substitute. I chose Cava since it's from Spain, but another medium-sweet sparkling wine would be good here, too.