Cooking seafood for a crowd has never been my forté. The first time that I did it, over ten years ago!, I futzed around with a River Cafe Cookbook recipe involving potatoes cooked along with mussels, shrimp, and fish in a tomatoey broth. It was not a hit. The next time, about seven years later, I hosted an indoor clambake and though that was tons of fun, the sausage didn’t really cook along with the fish so I ended up dumping raw sausage on the table along with all of the clams and corn. I had to have everyone help me pick out all the sausage so I could pop it on to a cookie sheet and finish it in the oven. Again, not a triumph.
But last night I cooked seafood for a few friends and it was my best go at it yet. The key? Simplicity!
Riffing off a recipe in Alison Roman’s terrific new cookbook Dining In, I decided to do everything in a big pot. Not just a big pot, my biggest pot. That’s right: I brought out my stock pot.
Into the pot I poured a huge glug of olive oil (coating the bottom), turned on the heat, and added a few sliced shallots and garlic cloves.
Just as those were starting to brown, I threw in some chiles de Arbol (about three), a few sprigs of thyme, and then poured in an entire bottle of white wine. I let that cook down for a bit and then I chopped up two beautiful heirloom tomatoes from the farmer’s market (yes, there are still great tomatoes at the farmer’s market in L.A. in November) and let that all cook down until I had a beautiful, flavorful broth.
I turned off the heat, set that aside, and then made an aioli in my blender using a whole egg, Dijon mustard, lemon juice, three cloves of garlic, and a healthy amount of olive oil poured in as the machine was whirring. (Confession: I forgot to take pictures of this part of the process, though you can see it happening in my Instagram stories.)
Finally, I prepped the ingredients for a salad and sliced up a big baguette for dunking into the seafood soup.
When everyone got to my place, I told them to hang out in the living room with the Marcona almonds while I made the fish stew. But they wouldn’t have it… they wanted to watch. What did they think this was, Benihana? But being the gracious host that I am, I permitted it.
So what did they watch me do?
Well I cranked the heat back up on the tomato/wine mixture until it was bubbling, then added in whole, unpeeled shrimp (making your guests peel shrimp is fun and interactive and one less step for you in the kitchen), a bunch of clams and mussels (that I shocked in ice water on the recommendation of the fishmonger at McCall’s), and finally two filets of halibut which I cut in half and then had my friend Justin season.
You put the lid on the pot for a minute then lift it off and study what’s happening. Any clams and mussels that’ve opened up? Pluck ’em out with tongs, they’re done. When the shrimp are bright red and firm, they come out. And finally, when the halibut is no longer translucent and starting to flake apart but still tender, out that comes too.
Everything goes into bowls and then you ladle on lots of that broth, drizzle olive oil on top, and then sprinkle on chopped up herbs (I used parlsey, dill, and tarragon). C’mon, who wouldn’t want to eat this at a dinner party?
The best part about serving something like this is how animated the dinner table becomes: everyone’s pulling their mussels apart, dunking shrimp into the aioli, dishing out salad, dunking bread into the broth, etc.
For dessert, once again I turned to Ottolenghi’s new cookbook Sweet, and made his tahini halva brownies (the recipe’s on his website here, though weirdly the one in the cookbook doesn’t have walnuts).
It’s a very strange recipe when you’re doing it. Well not strange at first, you start with the same technique that I use for my flourless chocolate cake, where you melt chocolate and butter in a double boiler. Then you whip up four eggs in your mixer until they leave a trail and you fold the cooled chocolate mixture in with the eggs.
In goes flour, cocoa powder, and salt, and then you fold in lots of chopped halva (I thought that would be hard to find, but it was in the refrigerated section at Gelson’s).
You pour that into a prepared pan, then add dollops of tahini which you swirl around with a skewer. I wish I’d been neater in that step, keeping the dollops further apart but what can you do.
Here’s where things get strange: he has you cook the brownies in a 400 degree oven for 23 minutes. He emphasizes in the headnote: “In order to achieve the perfect balance of cakey and gooey–that sweet spot that all brownies should hit–the cooking time is crucial.”
So when I took mine out at 23 minutes, they were so, so undercooked-seeming. Wildly wobbly, not just “a slight wobble” as the recipe says. I put them back in for a few more minutes and still, when they came out, they were super wet and barely, but not really, set.
I decided to trust the recipe so I let them rest and then put them into a Tupperware overnight and the next day, when I went to cut them, they were perfect.
So I guess the moral of the story is: always trust Ottolenghi.
And these were most excellent. Sweet and salty and almost savory, in a way. The perfect end to my first-ever triumphant fish feast.