An Enchilada Dinner Party, Part 1: The Sides

In theory, it’s healthier and more satisfying to eat with people. You slow down, socialize, and relax; it becomes an experience rather than a quick means of quieting an empty stomach. But in actuality you’re often alone, or at least eating your own meal, and there’s not much more to it than spoon-mouth-swallow-repeat. And that’s fine (I hope), but in order to alleviate the redundancy of lonely eating, sometimes a dinner party is in order. Living in Chicago, it seems like it would be easy to get a group of friends together several nights a week. In every TV show I know featuring a group of friends in a big city (which is pretty much every TV show), group gatherings are a nightly occurrence. It’s almost as if these TV shows don’t accurately portray the busy schedules inherent in our actual reality (gasp!). But in real life, it’s hard to find time. Everyone works different jobs, everyone is an obnoxious amount of public transit away, and everyone has his/her own life to uphold. So the dinner party is thought of, pondered about, mentioned in passing, and usually forgotten. But with a little bit of effort, and a lot of in-advance planning, it comes to fruition: a fantastic weeknight in with friends, food, and awkwardly invasive dogs. It is so worth the preparation, the extra time, the poor sleep that night, and the slightly-more-rough-than-average day at work.

I’d highly recommend, if I can, an enchilada dinner party. Not only were several trays of these enchiladas downed by a moderate group of people in barely enough time for the dogs to lunge at the plates, but they were very conducive to prepping in advance and, consequently, quick to pull together the day of. But enough about enchiladas; we’ll get to those later. What about their classic additions, the staples of Spanish and Mexican-inspired cuisine? Every party needs its drinks and appetizers.  I’m of course talking about guacamole, the most delicious of dips, as well as sangria, the fruity-yet-classy drink of the Spanish gods. The recipes for these sides are barely recipes, more like a list of components, but they certainly become greater than the sum of their parts. With recipes this delicious, easy to prepare, and relatively hands-off when the guests arrive, we’ll certainly be doing this again.

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Red Wine and Clementine Tempranillo Sangria

1 pitcher, serves 10-12

2 bottles of Tempranillo wine

1/2 bottles sparkling clementine juice (available at Trader Joe’s)

Juice of 1/2 a lemon

1 lemon, diced

1 orange, diced

1 apple, diced

In a large pitcher, mix wine, sparkling clementine juice, and lemon juice. Dice the fruit and add to the pitcher. Chill to serve.

That’s it. Easiest recipe ever. But this sangria earned compliments ALL around. It’s slightly sweet, just barely effervescent, and full-bodied without the burdensome dryness red wine can at times impart. And then obviously, the fruit is the best part.

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Classic Guacamole

Makes ~ 3 cups

6 ripe avocados, pitted

3 limes, juiced

1/3 white onion, minced

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 jalapeno, minced

1/2 cup cilantro, roughly chopped

1/2 – 3/4 tsp. salt, to taste

1/4 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper

In a large bowl, mash avocados. Add the juice of 3 limes and minced accompaniments and stir. Add chopped cilantro, salt, and pepper and mix until thoroughly combined. Serve with a ton of your favorite tortilla chips.

This is another easy recipe, but, again, oh so good.  The beauty of an enchilada night is that the snacking and drinks are nearly as good as the dinner, leading to an evening that is indulgent, spicy, fresh, flavorful, and an all-around good time.

But don’t serve your guac yet; it really goes best before enchiladas, and those recipes are coming soon.

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Salted Vanilla Caramel Mocha

It’s the post Merry-Christmas-to-you-! let-down, and I have the method and means to warm everything back up. Your Christmas package this year included vanilla caramel and marshmallows, and, while homemade, they come together better than a Starbucks mocha in a red cup. I’ll include the recipes I used for the caramel and ‘mallows, because they turned out tremendously well, if I do say so myself. But, more importantly, you should ASAP marry those foodstuffs into a mug full of mocha goodness. This could be done with simple hot chocolate, but given the recent days upon days of indulgence, I find a coffee kick to be a good counter to the ensuing, near-constant food coma. Not that we should stop the indulgence, however; we’re nearing the new year when resolutions (and green eating!) can abound. Let’s finish this year strong (it is still winter, after all).

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(You’ll notice there are no marshmallows in this picture. That’s because I sent them all to you, Brian [and other family members, eh hem]).

Salted Vanilla Caramel Mocha

Serves 1 (in a large mug)

1 cup fresh brewed coffee

1/2 cup milk, anything but skim (cream if you’re living big!)

1 tbsp. cocoa powder

2 tsp. sugar or stevia

Smallest pinch of salt

1/4 tsp. vanilla extract

1 tbsp. water

1 tbsp. homemade vanilla caramel

1-2 homemade vanilla ‘mallows (or more, or store-bought if you’ve eaten the homemade in an indulgent binge)

First, prepare fresh coffee to your liking. Using a Keurig, I brewed 1 cup in a separate mug and set aside. In a separate, heat-safe cup, heat/microwave milk until just before boiling and also set aside. In the mug in which you’ll drink this delicious concoction, mix together the cocoa, sugar (or stevia; I used two packets of Truvia), and the smallest pinch of salt. Add approximately 1 tbsp. water and vanilla extract until a thick paste is formed.* Drizzle the vanilla caramel around your mug, just below the rim, so it drips slowly around all sides and rests above the cocoa paste. Pour in hopefully-still-very-warm coffee and milk and stir. Top with a homemade vanilla ‘mallow and enjoy immensely.

*Alternatively, you could use about half of a hot cocoa packet, if you keep those stocked. I feel the homemade cocoa powder option to be just as satisfying and significantly cheaper.

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Homemade Vanilla Caramel

Based off of this recipe

Makes approximately 4-5 cups of caramel (a large batch for multiple recipients)

4 1/2 cups sugar

2 tbsp. sugar cane syrup*

1 cup water

1 quart (4 cups) heavy cream, organic preferably

2 tsp. vanilla extract

In a large (large and deep!) Dutch oven or sauce pan, mix together sugar, sugar cane syrup, and water until all is well distributed. Insert a cooking thermometer and turn the heat to LOW. Heat the sugar mixture until completely dissolved, which, given this large batch, may take quite some time, approximately 20-30 minutes. Trust the process, and don’t give in to turning up the heat. We’re here for quality, not speed.

Once the sugar has completely dissolved, gradually turn up the heat to medium-low. I still err on the low side here, because lower heat just means more time, whereas higher heat may mean unequal cooking and a higher incidence of crystallization. If the boiling syrup deposits some drying crystalized molecules along the side of your pan during cooking, use a wet pastry brush to paint the sides of the pot with water and rehydrate the sugar along the edge. Be careful during this entire cooking time to NOT stir or overly aggravate the pot.

The sugar mixture will gradually approach a deep amber color. The heat rises more quickly as the sugar approaches caramelization, so check the pot and thermometer regularly. Once the cooking thermometer reaches about 330-340 degrees (over 350 the product begins to go south, so I like to stop it a bit early), remove the caramelized sugar from the heat. Pour into the pot 1 quart of heavy cream and 2 tsp. vanilla extract. The cream will rise and bubble violently, but don’t worry, it will calm. Return the cream and caramel to LOW heat, and stir constantly until the caramel has dissolved into the cream and the mixture is smooth and dreamy looking. We’re practically in the waterfall of caramel in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Pour the caramel into receptacles of choice (I obviously chose mason jars), and cool to room temperature, approximately 4 hours. Refrigerate to store.

*I used Lyle’s Golden Syrup, which is so, so delicious. Light corn syrup is an appropriate substitute, albeit less flavorful. Sugar cane syrup/light corn syrup supplement this recipe by providing stability to the sugar molecules formed during the caramelization process. Making caramel can be rather temperamental, quickly resulting in crystallization (read: failure) if the sugars are over worked, dried, budged, unevenly heat, otherwise upset that day, etc. By adding syrup, the sugar molecules are significantly less likely to crystallize during the process (although stirring, shaking, and moving the pot are still strongly discouraged), resulting in a smoother and more successful (and less frustrating) caramel product.

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Homemade Vanilla ‘Mallows

Makes 60-75 marshmallows

For the homemade marshmallows lovingly packed for you, I followed this recipe exactly. I’d report here, but that would be extensive and tiresome, and I truly found this recipe perfect unadjusted in any way. There are many, many recipes for marshmallows of varying flavors, dipped in varying sauces, atop varying hot beverages. Follow them as you’d like; just make sure you enjoy the result.

And just so there’s documentation, I sent along the roasted nuts below to complete your winter package. I’d repost the recipes, but to be honest I sort of winged it in the kitchen as I did not have many of the ingredients used in the recipes I was following. If I recreate at home and perfect these roasted and spiced nuts, I’ll be sure to post.

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Roasted Sweet and Spicy Mixed Nuts and Smokey Roasted Pecans