CHICAGO -- Anyone who loves to cook faces a dilemma when planning a meal for company. Do you give the meal your very best shot, even if that means spending time away from the guests in the kitchen with last-minute preparations? Or do you decide your role as hostess or host is primary, plan a menu of do-ahead recipes and cast aside the apron when company arrives?
Even the pros think about this. The professional chef, exceptionally deft in the kitchen, can turn out a celebratory meal much faster than the home cook. But the chef's life involves working in the kitchen while others (the customers) enjoy themselves in the dining room. Since cooking at home is something of a busman's holiday, the chef is likely to want to ride in the front of the bus and spend as much time as possible with the guests.
That, at least, is the point of view of Leo Waldmeier, the much-decorated executive chef of the Drake Hotel.
He recently shared a formula for what, to him, is a trouble-free menu ideal for serving on a relaxed Sunday afternoon when no one is pressed for time. It can even be presented buffet-style.
The chef does much of the preparation ahead. He will serve ham and melon -- sliced and placed on a platter before company comes -- as a first course and end with a made-ahead dessert. Sometimes the dessert is an apple pudding made with apples his family has gathered during a visit to a pick-your-own farm during the fall. By this time of the year, the apples are gone, so today he is offering caramel custard.
The centerpiece of Mr. Waldmeier's menu is an astonishingly fragrant and tasty combination of chicken, ribs and seafood, inspired by the Spanish dish paella. The Swiss-born chef, who has cooked in Asia as well as Europe and respects authenticity, is quick to point out that his is a personal recipe, not the Spanish classic. He brings to it some non-traditional ingredients and a distinctive method of cooking.
Pork, chicken and seafood special
Makes 8 to 10 servings.
1 slab meaty pork ribs, cut in half lengthwise by the butcher, then into individual riblets
8 pieces of chicken (thighs, breasts or a combination)
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and diced
1/4 cup chopped garlic
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup olive oil
1 medium-size onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 cups chicken stock or broth
1/8 teaspoon saffron, or more to taste
3 cups converted, long-grain rice
2 chorizo sausages, cut in 1/2 -inch-thick slices
2 bay leaves
L 1 cup cooked red or black beans (if canned, drain and rinse)
8 to 16 littleneck clams or mussels, scrubbed
12 to 16 large prawns or shrimp in the shell
1/2 pound fresh squid, cleaned
1 (10-ounce) red snapper, monkfish or scrod fillet, cut in 6 to 8 pieces
1 cup frozen green peas, defrosted but not cooked
1. Place rib and chicken pieces in a stainless steel or glass bowl. In a separate bowl, combine jalapenos, garlic, cilantro and black pepper. (If desired, prepare in a food processor.) Rub this mixture over the ribs and chicken, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave to marinate for 1 hour at room temperature or 3 to 4 hours in the refrigerator.
2. Select a large, heavy pan, preferably of cast iron, and warm it over medium heat. When hot, add the olive oil, then the pork and chicken pieces in a single layer. Turn as needed to brown each piece well. Do not crowd the pan; if necessary, do two batches. Remove browned pieces and drain on paper towels.
3. Add the chopped onion and diced bell peppers to the pan. Cook until softened, then remove to a bowl. Do not worry if bits of the marinade that remain in the pan blacken.
4. Add white wine and bring to a boil, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to deglaze it. Remove from the heat and combine with the room-temperature chicken stock. Stir in the saffron. (Recipe may be done ahead to this point. Heat oven to 400 degrees before continuing.)
5. Select a large pan (an 18-by-11-by-2 1/2 -inch roasting pan is just right) or buy a disposable roasting pan at the supermarket. Spread a layer of rice over the bottom, add the chorizo slices. Spread the cooked onions and peppers over the chorizo, then add the bay leaves and the beans. Add the pork and chicken pieces and the clams. Pour on the stock mixture and place in the hot oven, uncovered. Bake for 15 minutes.
6. Remove pan from the oven. Add prawns, squid and snapper pieces and fold them into the rice mixture. Return pan to the oven for an additional 10 to 15 minutes, or until the rice is tender.
7. Remove pan, stir in peas, then taste for salt and adjust seasoning if necessary before serving. If desired, let the mixture rest about 10 to 15 minutes and serve the dish tepid.