Oy Caramba! Serve a Simcha Fiesta

Your special family simcha (celebration) is just around the corner and you aren’t feeling enthusiastic — the caterer’s offerings feel predictable, and the room you’ve rented seems impersonal.

Whether you’re organizing a bris, congratulating a bar or bat mitzvah, welcoming a new son-in-law or daughter-in-law into the family or celebrating a birthday or anniversary, honoring the people we love in an inviting, intimate setting with exquisite food is one of the best gifts someone can give. Choosing to hold your celebration at home is to select the warmest venue of all.

Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, chefs and co-owners of Border Grill and Ciudad restaurants, are big advocates of entertaining at home.

“If you want to have a really special party, where everyone will feel not only loved and appreciated but comfortable and relaxed, decorate the house with bright, happy colors and serve them Mexican food,” Milliken said. “It puts people in the mood for a party.”

South-of-the-border cuisine is the perfect fit for at-home celebrations — it’s colorful and conducive to being shared.

Dress your dining room in oranges, greens, reds, blues and yellows. Cover the table with a bright tablecloth and add an earthenware tureen of pimento red, richly flavored tortilla soup; a cast-iron kettle of glistening black beans; piping hot, multiflavored tortillas nestled in a hand-painted tortilla warmer; twin bowls of red and green rice; a brightly colored platter of halibut Veracruzana; an assortment of red, yellow and green salsas; and handmade reed baskets of quinoa fritters, with a bowl of Mexican red Romesco sauce. Also, don’t forget the different fillings, toppings and stacks of tortillas clumped together at a special interactive taco-making table.

Olvera Street or local Mexican art stores, such as Artesanias Oaxaquenas in Santa Monica, have authentic paper flowers and ethnic accessories.

“Orchestrate your party. When guests arrive, serve them cool drinks and hot and cold appetizers. Guests are more forgiving if they have a drink in one hand and an appetizer in the other,” Milliken said.

Welcome them with refreshing watermelon lemonade, horchata and margaritas — alcoholic and nonalcoholic versions. Pass trays of appetizers and scatter additional offerings about the room — miniature tacos and tamales, guacamole and salsas.

Halibut Veracruzana

1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless fillets of halibut, sea bass, snapper or other firm-fleshed fish, cut in four portions

Salt and pepper to taste

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced

4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

2 serrano chilis, stemmed and sliced in 1/4-inch disks

1/2 cup lime juice

1 tomato, cored, seeded and cut in strips

1/2 bunch (1/4 cup) fresh oregano leaves, coarsely chopped

1/2 cup Spanish green olives, sliced

1/2 cup white wine

3/4 cup fish stock

Season fish fillets evenly with salt and pepper. Heat one very large skillet or two medium skillets over medium-high heat for a minute; coat pans with olive oil.

Add fillets and turn heat to very high. Sear until golden brown, about two minutes, then flip to sear the other side, about one minute. Transfer fillets to a rack over a plate to catch the juices; reserve.

Return the pan (or pans) to high heat. Add onion and sauté, stirring frequently for one minute or until it starts to brown. Add garlic, chili slices, lime juice, tomatoes, oregano and olives and sauté briskly for an additional minute. Add wine and boil until reduced by half.

Pour in fish stock, bring to boil and reduce to a simmer. Return fish fillets, along with their juices, to the pan. Cover and cook gently for two minutes or longer, depending on thickness of fillets. Taste broth and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.

Serve with a generous puddle of broth and garnish of vegetables.

Makes four servings.

Tortilla Soup

5 garlic cloves, peeled

10 Roma tomatoes, cored and quartered

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 large yellow onion, diced

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

8 cups vegetable stock

1 dried chipotle chili, stemmed and seeded (optional)

3/4 pound tortilla chips

Garnishes: 1 bunch (1/2 cup) cilantro leaves; 1 avocado, peeled, seeded and roughly chopped; 1/2 cup Crema; 2 limes, cut in wedges

Puree garlic and tomatoes in a blender until smooth. Heat olive oil in a large stockpot over low heat. Add the onion, salt and pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until pale brown and caramelized, about 10 minutes. Stir in tomato puree and cook 10 minutes longer, stirring frequently.

Pour in vegetable stock and add chipotle chili (if desired). Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook uncovered for 20 minutes. Stir in tortilla chips and cook 10 minutes longer, until chips soften. Remove and discard chili.

Serve hot, with cilantro, avocado, Crema, lime wedges and some extra-crisp fried tortilla chips for adding at the table.

Makes six servings.

Quinoa Fritters with Romesco Sauce

These delicious fritters may be made ahead, frozen and reheated.

2/3 cup quinoa, preferably organic

1 1/3 cups water

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup grated Spanish manchego, romano or parmesan cheese

3/4 teaspoon salt

Pinch freshly ground black pepper

4 scallions, white and light green parts, finely chopped

1/2 cup basil leaves, chopped

1 egg

1 egg yolk

3/4 cup vegetable oil

Lemon wedges for juice

Wash the quinoa and drain well. Place a small, dry saucepan over high heat. Add the quinoa and toast, shaking and stirring constantly with a wooden spoon to prevent scorching, about five minutes. Transfer to a large saucepan and add water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook covered until water is absorbed, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.

In a large bowl, combine quinoa, flour, cheese and salt. Add scallions, basil, egg and yolk. Blend thoroughly with a mixing spoon until mixture has consistency of soft dough.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. With your hands, roll dough into walnut-sized balls and press to form small cakes.

Fry until the bottoms are golden brown, less than a minute. Turn and fry the second side until golden. Drain on paper towels. Drizzle with a lemon juice; serve with Romesco for dipping.

Makes 18 pieces.

Romesco Sauce

2 large, thick slices of country bread, crusts removed and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1/3 cup red-wine vinegar

1/3 cup blanched almonds, toasted to golden

1 1/2 red peppers, roasted and peeled

6 cloves garlic, peeled

1 tomato, cored, seeded and chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/3 cup olive oil

Soak bread with red-wine vinegar for 10 minutes, pressing to moisten thoroughly, and transfer to a food processor. Add almonds, red pepper, garlic, tomato, salt and pepper and puree until smooth. With the motor running, add olive oil in a thin stream, until mixture is the consistency of a thick creamy sauce. Thin with warm water as necessary.

Serve at room temperature.

Capirotada (Mexican Bread Pudding)

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter

1/2 loaf French bread or baguette with crust cut into small cubes

1 pound brown sugar

1 1/2 cups water

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

2 large Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and chopped

1 cup walnuts, chopped

1/2 pound tofu or regular cream cheese, chilled and chopped

Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a 13-by-9-inch glass casserole or lasagna pan. Melt butter in a medium saucepan, add bread cubes and stir to coat evenly.

Spread cubes on a baking sheet and bake 15 minutes or until lightly brown and crisp. Remove bread and turn oven temperature up to 400 F.

Combine sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat. Stir in cinnamon and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the chopped apples, walnuts, cream cheese and toasted bread cubes. Drizzle with the reserved sugar syrup and mix to evenly distribute. Transfer mixture to the prepared pan.

Bake uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Then bake an additional five minutes without stirring, until the top is golden brown and crusty and liquid is almost gone. Drizzle with powdered sugar. Serve warm. If desired, plop a dollop of nondairy ice cream on top.

Makes eight to 10 servings.

Watermelon Lemonade

What could be cooler than a nice, tall glass of iced watermelon lemonade? Serve sandia (Spanish for watermelon) in a clear pitcher to highlight its brilliant color. A garnish of thin lemon slices looks nice against the pink of the juice.

4 cups watermelon chunks, seeded

2-3 tablespoons sugar (to taste)

1/2 cup cold water

5 ice cubes

Juice of 1-2 lemons (to taste)

Combine all the ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth. Serve over additional ice.

Makes four servings.

All recipes courtesy of Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken.