I grew up in a finca, a working farm or “Cortijo” where brave bulls, horses and sheep are bred; there are olive groves, and fields of wheat, sunflowers and alfalfa. The house is an ancient country house built on the foundations of a Moorish silo during the time when the Moors lived in Spain.
I come from a large family: seven brothers and sisters, thirty five cousins and now my parents have nine grandchildren. When we get together, about once a year now, as we all live around the world, the conversation always includes jokes and teasing – one can’t hide from the past, and I am always reminded of the day at age 5, when I tried to cut grapes with a knife and fork after I had been told I had to behave really well. I remember these meals fondly: memories of my aunts and uncles telling us sensational stories of long gone family members. I learned from my mother the art of entertaining large groups of all ages: there has to be something for everyone, from unruly, picky toddlers to that grouchy uncle that has an un-diagnosable “stomach” problem.
At home, when family members come to visit, I want to impress them with my cooking and entertaining abilities and show them the easiness and practicality of the American way, without forgetting the graciousness, sophistication and generosity of the way I grew up in Spain. I do like to make an extra effort so that the “tale” of my lunch, when it reaches the rest of the family members on the other side of the ocean, is told with kindness and fondness as opposed to “you are not going to believe what happened…”
Photo: Francesco Perre. / 123RF Stock Photo.
I adore having meals with children. How else are they going to learn to eat at the table, try that new dish or hear the stories about that eccentric aunt when she traveled through Africa with a piano, or my brothers’ tale of how he fought a brave bull? Family stories, lore and traditions endure and continue to be told at these events. A little bit of teasing is also essential to keep everyone smiling.
I like the children to help, from preparing the chocolate chip cookies and tossing the salad to passing hors d’oeuvres and clearing plates. There are limits to their concentration and ability, but isn’t it a proud moment when you tell your sister-in-law that your four-year-old son helped set the table? Granted, the down side is that you might have to set the table three times as your now, very helpful child, is not able to stop re-arranging plates, forks and knifes. Yet it’s a small price to pay for a fun lesson on table setting!
It is a good idea to plan some games the children can play before they sit down for lunch. Teenagers become the best entertainers at these events, and with a few props like balls and a handkerchief, a fun game of hide and seek or chase the donkey can be arranged in no time. The timing of the lunch is also an essential consideration, if the children are too tired they will not be in their best behavior so I serve lunch promptly and reserve a few games for after lunch when the grown ups, after a glass of wine or two, will be happy to join in the activities.
For the grown ups, the most important aspect to consider, besides their general well being, is their comfort, and I am a great believer in eating at the table. Eating on one’s lap really doesn’t work. It is awkward and uncomfortable when you have toddlers running around. So, I set as many seats as there are people and bring out the folding tables and chairs if needed. We have lunch by the pool, but drinks and hors d’oeuvres are in the front garden so the children are able to run around without messing the tables and are able to play before lunch while grown ups sip their drinks comfortably and catch up on the latest family gossip.
For this spring lunch I am preparing a menu that, hopefully, will please all. Summer wine, an easy version of Sangria made with Sprite, lemon juice and white wine, and large pitchers of minted iced tea for grown ups; juices for the children. For hors d’oeuvres cheese sticks, mini pizzas on toast and crudités with a garlic mayonnaise (I am always hoping my children will eat a vegetable).
As my boys are 3 and 4, I don’t expect them to sit at the table throughout the whole lunch, but hopefully, this menu, will interest them enough to sit with us for more than ten minutes…and as long as they eat “something”, I am happy.
For lunch as a first course, gazpacho served the way it used to be done in the country, in thick glasses that you sip instead of eating it from a bowl; it shortens the wait for the second course. In Spain this is called gazpacho bebido. The second course is served on a buffet table so children and adults can serve themselves: marinated skirt steak, an inexpensive cut of meat that is quickly grilled in the oven or on the barbecue. (I do own a barbecue that I gave my husband for Christmas one year. It rests on one side of the garden, and it has never been used so I continue to grill in the oven). The meat, accompanied with spicy sausages (a crowd pleaser), small red potatoes tossed with salt, garlic and parsley and a warm salad of green beans seasoned with olive oil and red wine vinegar is a terrific and easy main course. For dessert, peach mousse, made in the blender with fresh peaches and condensed milk, add a few drops of brandy or Cointreau for grown ups and chill it so it hardens a little bit. If the peaches are ripe, I like to make a salad by adding a few mint leaves and sugar to some chopped peaches and serve it with the mousse. Small chocolate chip cookies (this is what the children have helped you to make) are passed around with the coffee after lunch. An easy menu that can be mostly prepared in advance and delicious enough to impress your most difficult relative.
Mini Pizzas on toast
Crudités with garlic mayonnaise
Red potatoes with parsley
Warm Green Bean Salad
Chocolate chip cookies
For this menu, the cheese sticks, gazpacho, bean salad and the peach mousse can be made the day before. The skirt steaks take about 10 minutes to grill and 10 minutes of rest so during that time you can boil and toss the potatoes, cook the sausages and broil the pizzas. I like serving the bean salad warm, but cold or tepid is just fine. I make two batches of the peach mousse, one for grown- ups with brandy served in a large bowl and the other for the children, served in small glasses. ■