It has been a difficult and even terrifying holiday season – thanks to several tornadoes that tore through North Texas the day after Christmas – for many of our neighbors and friends around Dallas, where we live.
For my friend and colleague Seema Yasmin, her husband Emmanuel, and Seema's mom, Yasmin Halima, it was truly an ordeal, as their house was completely destroyed by a tornado. Emmanuel and Yasmin, unable to get to the safest part of the house, huddled in front of the refrigerator, clinging to Seema and Emmanuel's two-year-old pit bull, Lily, as their kitchen was hit. Seema, a medical doctor-turned-journalist who specializes in infectious diseases, was away in Liberia, reporting on survivors of the ebola epidemic there, when she had news of the disaster. She cut short her trip and arrived back in Dallas – but not home; that was gone – four days later. Emmanuel, Yasmin and Lily were staying in a hotel.
My husband Thierry and I had planned to spend a quiet evening at home for New Year's Eve, so we invited them over New Year's Eve dinner. What to cook for friends who've been through (and are going through) such a traumatic experience? Seema and Yasmin don't eat meat unless it's halal; "consider us piscatarians," says Seema. When I mentioned the restriction to Thierry, he had one gleeful suggestion: paella!
Perfect. We'd start with tapas and a bottle of Cava (for those who would partake). I whipped out my favorite Spanish cookbook – Anya von Bremzen's 2006 volume, The New Spanish Table – for tapas ideas. For a first course, maybe I'd whip up something involving piquillo peppers, tuna and allioli – lemony, super-garlicky Spanish mayonnaise, which is also great stirred into seafood paella. For a sweet, I turned south, reaching for a lovely dessert of poached pears and prunes scented with bay leaf and orange from Paula Wolfert's The Food of Morocco.
I found some beautiful organic red Bartletts at Whole Foods, with a couple days during which I could let them ripen in a paper bag. I poached them New Year's Eve morning. It's a great dessert for a dinner party, as it can be made completely in advance. Wolfert's recipe calls for 12 prunes, but I say the more the merrier and double them; they're so good with the pears – which I planned to serve with some thin almond crisps I picked up at the store.
For tapas, I settled on Sevillian marinated carrots – zanahorias aliñadas – that I'd set out with fleshy, green Castelvetrano olives and smoked almonds. Then we'd have a passed tapa inspired by one I saw in Anya's book: slow-scrambed eggs with wild mushrooms (I was hoping to find some chanterelles), to be served in brown egg shells. I took the eggs in a more French direction, using butter (lots!) rather than olive oil and shallots rather than garlic, as we had so much garlic going on in the paella, carrots and allioli. I couldn't find chanterelles, so instead I snapped up some beautiful cultivated beech mushrooms and small, fresh shiitakes.
Just as Seema and company rang the doorbell, blam!!! I dropped a glass bowl filled with eggs that I was pulling from the fridge. Eggs and broken glass went flying all over the kitchen and beyond – landing in the dining room, the living room, the breakfast nook. Brilliant! Thierry scrambled (hah!) to clean it all up (bless his heart!) as I welcomed our friends, apologizing for the chaos and putting up a fence of chairs to keep Lily from stepping on broken glass in the kitchen.
Later, as we sat at dinner, Emmanuel and Yasmin – still pretty shellshocked – recounted their terrifying ordeal; they didn't have time to get to a safe room, which was probably a good thing, as the room they thought safest was bisected by a garage door torn from its hinges. Emmanuel was barefoot when the tornado hit, and there was broken glass everywhere; he stepped on a nail as they were walking the streets looking for help. He was carrying Lily at the time, all 65-pounds of her. Yasmin had shards of glass hit her face.
We knew it wouldn't exactly be an evening of revelry, considering all they been through and all they had lost, but I was hoping – with food cooked with love, and good cheer and the warmth of a fire in the fireplace – to make their holiday just a little bit less dreadful.
Lily, a sweet creature who is in training to be a therapy dog, was quite nervous, but they had brought her bed – which we set up in the dining room so she could be next to us. Once she settled in, we broke out the tapas. While everyone nibbled on the carrots – garlicky, lemony and fragrant with herbs – and the olives and nuts, I put the finishing touches on the eggs, scrambling them slowly with sautéed mushrooms in butter till they were custardy. (Fortunately I had eggs to spare!) I had just the thing for serving them: a fabulous ceramic egg carton my friend Michalene brought me as a gift from South Africa a few years ago.
Seema seemed to melt."Oooh," she said when I brought the egg carton to the table and offered her one. "I love anything with eggs." There were only five of us and half a dozen eggs, but it wasn't hard to find a taker for the last one.
Next came the peppers with tuna. I wasn't able to find piquillos – those slender, pointed Spanish red peppers with a lovely bite you can buy (if you're lucky) in a jar already roasted. Instead I found jars of whole roasted Spanish Morron peppers. Not as nice as the piquillos, whose shape is perfect for filling. I spooned some allioli onto of our salad plates, set a pepper on each and tucked in fillets of fancy tuna I'd bought in jars, packed in olive oil, into the peppers. The combo was actually pretty good – especially with some crusty baguette to sop up the extra allioli.
Seafood paella was the main event, of course. Our recipe is based on the one from Anya's book, though I've tweaked it over the years. This time I found some beautiful baby octopuses to use in place of the squid Anya's recipe calls for. About 20 minutes before our friends arrived, I'd started cooking the paella, knowing I could prepare it up to a certain point, then leave it off-heat on the stove. I popped it into the hot oven, letting it bake while we had the tapas, and pulling it out to rest while we had the peppers and tuna.
Some red wine – Garnacha from Spain (for a few of us) – those poached pears and prunes, and before midnight, the exhausted trio (um, woof! quartet) was ready to head back to their hotel. But not without an invitation to come back soon and cook: Yasmin, who was born in India, has lived in South Africa – where she worked for an international non-profit aid organization – and has roots in Burma, is already missing the kitchen.