Everything tastes better outdoors

Aren´t picnics the best?
Any kind of picnic, wether it´s a full dress affair, with champagne cooling in the river and a wicker hamper, or a simple sandwich savoured on a park bench while reading Vogue. The best.

This spring has been quite picnicful.I´ve had a Retiro park picnics of cheese and gazpacho. Freesbee tossing and tuna sandwiches, plus ice cold beer on the beach at Cape Trafalgar.An elaborate meal for six, with the dogs, in the country, under the encinas.

Maybe I´ve been brainwashed by all the Enid Blyton I read as a child. In her books, the phrase "everything tastes better outdoors" is mentioned at least twice. Always followed by the same litany; ham sandwiches, chocolate cake, hard boiled eggs and ginger beer.

So it may be brainwashing, or maybe things really do taste better outdoors. It doesn´t need much for a meal to be memorable. The setting is doing most of the work for you, and bread and cheese, a few cherries and some wine will be more ambrosial than a meal you´ve slaved over for hours.

However, sometimes a little more is called for. This is what I make. High-impact, low-effort sandwiches that travel well,but will also do if your mother´s friends are coming over for tea to check out your wedding china.

You´ll need
20 slices of brown bread, crusts off.
300 gr. smoked salmon
200 gr. (one package) cream cheese
Chives, parsley, black pepper, a lemon

Mix the cream cheese wiwth the chopped herbs ( quantities up to you. I like mine pretty green), the zest and juice of the lemon, and lots of freshly ground pepper.

Spread on 10 of the slices, all laid out on the table. Top with the salmon. Spread a minimum of butter on the other 10 slices, if you like.
I cut these sandwiches in triangles, with scissors.

The picture is from a book I illustrated a couple of years back, called "Marcela". The title role is a little girl who loves to eat cauliflower when on a picnic. Takes all kinds.


How I love packaging.

I do. Very much. There is so much quality in a lot of labels. A trip to the shops is a feast for the eyes. And, sure, you end up buying stuff that you´ll never use. Especially in ethnic shops, where half the time I don´t know what I´m buying. Occupational hazard, maybe, but who cares. The graphics are so stunning, and it´s a cheap habit.
I always fall for classic labels like arroz Sos. The paper wrappings in oranges. Some old fashioned olive oils, like Carbonell.Heinz ketchup bottles.Avecrem stock cubes.Dairy milk chocolate.
Sometimes caring so much has its problems. They keep changing labels I´ve known all my life , like After Eights, or Principe de Bequelar biscuits. And not for the better, sadly.
Here´s a favorite, from a brand that takes very good care to keep that classic prestigious look.
And here´s a link to another packaging aficionado. It´s good to know you´re not alone.

Sunday night sushi

Yesterday we came back from a picnic (of which more later) hot , tired and stuffed. After cooling showers, and once under the fan, we started to recover. "Cast Away" was on, and we settled in for a lazy afternoon.
Spanish tv adds at least an hour´s running time to all films, with ads. I don´t have cable. Terrible, I know. But think of my rich inner life, and the deep meaningful conversations we have during ad breaks. Um, yes. Anyway
It was a long time watching Tom Hanks sucking coconuts and raw crabs. And our lunch had been a very early one. And by the end, when he comes back, and sees a tray of sushi on a buffet table, both our brains simultaneously clicked and we said "sushi!".
It being a sunday night, and really not suited for anything very tiring, we went not to our favourite, but to the nearest sushi restaurant.
I sketched this while we were waiting for our order, on the bit of paper that holds the chopsticks.And coloured it back at home, in case anyone´s wondering.
We had California rolls. José is very much in love with California Rolls. He´d never had them until a month ago, because I always write them off as sissies´sushi. But now I guess he´s seen me for the food snob I am, and doesn´t listen to me any more. Wise man. I love California rolls, really.

Nagoya.C/Trafalgar 7.28010 Madrid.91 448 69 07


More tomatoes

I´m a sucker for a god looking bunch of tomatoes. Usually I buy way more than I need, and I don´t mind, because I like the way they look on my white table. I may sketch them if I have time. And if I have time, I will make any of a million different things with them.
But if I don´t have time, or if I need to get them out of the way before I succumb to the next gorgeous looking lot, I roast them.
In they go, into a roasting pan where they will fit snugly. I drizzle some olive oil over them, some salt, maybe some oregano. I put them into a hot oven, and forget about them, more or less.
After an hour they´ll be pretty much cooked, and can be used. But I prefer to squish them a little, sprinkle some brown sugar over , and leave them there for another hour, or two in a slightly less hot oven.
When they´re done,and cooled, I either put them in a glass jar in the fridge, or I freeze them. They´re very handy to have around.
By the way, if I seem annoyingly vague about oven temperatures, it´s because my oven doesn´t have any. No gas marks either. Baking is a high anxiety business for me.


Marmitako ; The fishermans friend

I think it´s about time we post a little Spanish regional cuisine.
I hardly every cook real Spanish food. For one thing, it´s what I eat mostly everywere else I go. And for another, most dishes involve copious doses of chorizo, or lots of frying, or both.
I am not a health nut, I just don´t like chorizo all that much. And I don´t like to stand over a stove, flinging things into hot oil for hours, when I could feed a crowd with something that takes care of itself in the oven.
There are a few exceptions, like fideuá, pisto, and escalivada, that I make quite often. And my favourite, marmitako.
It´s a fisherman´s soup from the Basque country, up north. Originally the fishermen would make it in their ships when they were out for bonito.
Sticklers can have a field day with this recipe. Purists (like my father) insist that only potatoes and onions were carried abooard.
Others, (like myself) say, yes, probably, but what´s wrong with a basic elemental sofrito with tomatoes and peppers?
Whatever the case, here is the recipe. Nobody argues about the fish, which is bonito del norte, and a beautiful beast indeed.


1 kg potatoes
1 kg bonito (albacore), cleaned and cut into bite sized chunks
2 tomatoes, grated
2 onions, choppoed
1 red pepper (green is more orthodox, but I like red), choped
1 garlic clove, chopped
Fish stock (1 litre)
olive oil, salt, pepper

Cover the bottom of a heavy pan with olive oil. Sautee the onion and garlic. When they´re slightly transparent, add the pepper, and a couple of minutes later, the tomato, and the salt.
Leave it to become a pulpy mess, around 15 minutes. Be patient, because it will be much more delicious, and you´ll be peeling the potatoes , anyway.
Cut them into chunks, but don´t cut the whole way. Make a small indentation, and turn the knife so that the potato is torn, not cut. This will make the starch seep into the broth and thicken it.
Put the potatoes into the sofrito, and add the stock. If it doesn´t cover, add water.
Let the potatoes cook. It will take around 20 minutes.
When they´re done, put the salted tuna chunks inside. Cover, and wait 5 minutes. If they´re not too big, they should be cooked to perfection.

If the broth is very liquid, crush a few of the potatoes in a bowl, and put them back.

This,with a green salad and some crusty bread, will serve four hungry people who´ve been out fishing all day. Or six poor citybound souls, if one of them has brought pudding.



They´re red, they´re beautiful, they´re back!


Yesterday we had dinner at Buen Gusto.
It´s my favourite Chinese restaurant, a big, brightly lit, garish place, very noisy and bustling. The food is out of this world. Well, out of this Madrid world, which ain´t all that cosmopolitan, really.
We pigged out massively. It was terrible.
I now feel sorry, and slightly sick, and must atone for my sins.
A bowl of broth is all I will have. Good ole chicken consommé, made by simmering chicken bones and stock vegetables and a serrano ham bone for three hours.
I can´t actually contemplate the idea of cooking. Good for me that I made a big batch two weeks ago, and it´s patiently waiting in the freezer, neatly portioned and labelled.
I don´t put garlic in stock, by the way. The illustration is for sopa de ajo, of which more some other time.

Restaurante chino "Buen Gusto". Pº Sta. María de la Cabeza 60.


A nice cup of tea

Here´s another breakfast post, dedicated to my darling daddy. A lovely cup of tea, black indian, Pompadour Gold of course. A dash of milk and a sixth of a spoonful of caster sugar. In my most favourite mug.


We´ve been eating quite a few bunches of asparagus this spring. I do love them.
And I love the trick where they snap on their own just at the place where you have to cut them because they´re too fibrous.And I like eating with my hands.
We´ve had them steamed, and then dipped in mayonaise or in vinaigrette. Once I went so far as to try hollandaise and it was heavenly.
I´ve done risotto, and asparagus soup, and thought I´d make a quiche but was too greedy and ate them before that could happen.
I´ve roasted them, and boiled them.
But my favourite method, so far, has been to pan-steam them.
You take a non stick pan with a lid. Put some olive oil on it, very little will do. Put the spears in , and leave them for a minute. Then cover , and leave two to five minutes, depending on the thickness.
This is quick, unfussy, and gives you a crispy burnt asparagus that is also juicy and that cooks very fast.


Toast and oil for breakfast

I´m about to have breakfast.
A leisurely and healthy breakfast is by far the best start to the day. It makes life easier, and happier, and I see it as a major perk of my job that I can do it.
Since I work at home, I have the privilege of spending my first couple of hours in my pijamas , drinking tea, answering emails, drawing and colouring, and reading the papers on the web.
By 10 o´clock the hunger hits, and then I take a break, and eat my breakfast, proper, while I read whatever book I´m on at the moment ("Esta noche volveré tarde", if you´re interested. A very funny novel from the 50´s, that could show these chick lit girls what´s what).
Today I´m going to have white bread toast with the best olive oil. My husband´s family are olive growers, so of course we´re meant to push the envelope, but I swear , this stuff, Oleoestepa, really is the best. Look out for it.



I had lunch today at alfredo´s. Arguably, the best burguer in Madrid. There are other candidates, but this one is my favourite.It is the right distance from home, either a 3€ taxi ride, or 20 minutes nice weather walking.

The burguer is perfect, charred black outside, perfectly a point, pink in the middle. A generous dollop of mayo, a slice of tomato, some lettuce, a good bun. a delicious cluster of fries, hot, crunchy, golden brown.
And a bottle of ketchup and mustard. No stupid little single-serving bags that you have to open with your teeth,smear all over your fingers. They pile up on the table, the tell-tale debris of your greedy ways with condiments.

This sketch was dashed off while we waited for our blts. Quick service, I didn´t have time for more.

Alfredo´s Barbacoa. C/ Lagasca 5. 91 576 62 71


I was thinking of doing a banana post, inspired by
this one at mattbites.
And so I went to my drawing board. And there I managed to upset the inkpot. Rivers of blackest ink flooded my table, ran down my arm, splashed my shirt. I can only describe that as treading on one of life´s banana skins, like the great inmortal P.G. Wodehouse used to say.

Here´s a smoothie to make anyone rebound from that, or any other disasters. bananas pack a lot of energy.

1 ripe banana
4 or 5 strawberries
splash of yogurt
juice of one orange
juice of half a lemon
spoonful of sugar

blitz. enjoy.

I don´t like my drinks too sweet, so you´ll probably want more sugar than that.


more grown-up food

yes´m. it doesn´t sound likely as a choice of adult food, but that´s what it is , for me. more than capers, sushi or bitter greens.
because when I was little, all I wanted was to take big chunky bites out of apples. and it was never possible, because my mouth was too small.
and now that I can, I still feel a little frisson of grown-upness with every single apple that I snatch and cruch at.


my very excellent fish soup

now don´t think me vain, but I am ever so proud of this soup. I love it. everyone who tries it loves it. and every time I make it I pat myself on the back , and think, well, now, you´re a grownup. this is grownup food.

going to the fishmongers used to scare me. i´d look at the array of glistening glassy eyed fish, and wonder, what was what, and what did people do with them?. you see, my family are not big fish eaters. as children we´d be given the occasional fishfinger, but everyone, from my grandparents down to the smallest cousin, seemed to have a profound contempt for seafood. and on good friday we´d ahve pasta, thank you very much.

however, some members of the family, especially my mother, would always make a point of asking for fish soup at restaurants. and when I had it I loved it , but always to me this was restaurant food, sophisticated and difficult. and that was that.

enter alain de botton. in one of his books he makes a wishlist of things, among them a chef, and the dishes he should be proficient in. I can´t remember it all, but it included roast chicken, zuchini fritters and fish soup.

and I thought, yes, that´s a good list. I can roast a chicken, and I don´t fry so am exempt from the fritters, but the fish soup nagged me.

so I started to hunt around for recipes.and found all sorts. they all involve a terrifying amount of fresh fish, and all sorts of preparations with mussels on one hand, shrimp heads on another, and a lot of complications involving mouli legumes. and I thought, screw that. there has to be an easier way.

finally, I found it. this is a very very simple and very quick soup. you only make a sofrito, add stock, simmer a few minutes with some rice or rice cakes to thicken it. blend it and then poach the (frozen) fish inside.

I like frozen fish. they´re convenient, they can be had on mondays, they´re really very good. nothing compares to a good smacking fresh fillet of fish, but frozen fish is not expensive and it´s not intimidating. a good place to start.

one thing. the soup stands or falls by the stock. this must be prime quality excellent fumet. and if this is where you say "aha, I knew it couldn´t be that easy", let me just point out that there are some execllent commercial fish stocks around. just don´t use cubes, nd don´t use cheap bottled stocks. go for broke, which is actually maybe a couple of euros more, and a world of difference.

and if you actually do make your own fumet you´ll be shocked at how quick and how delicious it is. and you´ll want to pat yourself on the back, because you will have tackled a preparation involving fish heads, and that´s VERY grownup.


serves 4

1 litre good fish stock
1 onion or leek or both
1or 2 cloves garlic
2 tomatoes (grated if fresh, tinned is excellent)
pinch saffron trheads
salt, pepper
olive oil for sauteeing
300 gr. peeled prawns
400 gr. white fish. both defrosted if frozen
rice cakes3, or 1 cup cooked rice.

heat oil, sautee onion, garlic, cover and sweat til soft. add saffron, stir for a minute. add tomatoes and leave to become as pulpy as you can. all patience at this point will be rewarded. if you´re very rushed, you can used tomato sauce, in which case, a couple of minutes is enough.

add stock, and leave to simmer ten minutes. add the rice cakes, and let them soak the stock.blend. if you want more body, add more rice cakes,let soak, and blend again.

up to this point, this can be made ahead. it is a good idea to do so, as soups improve with staying around a little. it also freezes perfectly,and is a good idea to have around.

reheat, or continue. put fish, cut into slices so they´re more or less same size as prawns. leave three minutes, check for doneness, and you´re done.

served with garlic bread or focaccia and a green salad, this is a whole meal, and very delicious, too.


substance abuse

let me confess. I am an addict, and it don´t look like I´ll be recovering any day soon.
my house can´t hold any more cookbooks. they have overflowed from the kitchen bookcase, and sit on chairs, nestle on headboards, under sofas, on radiators and window sills. they lurk in stray piles of papers on my desk, inside drawers, under sofas.
and I just give in to my cravings, with no thought for my personal space.
yesterday at the bookfair, I bought 3 new cookbooks. they only set me back €7, how could I resist?
it´s very stupid. the equivalent of having 67 pairs of jeans. and only wearing the same 3, of course.
I could cook all my life with a handful of the books I own, but I go on buying. there is so much promise in a cookbook. it sets my mind off, ideas for menus and occasions bumping into one another and shooting off sparks.
so , what does it matter if all I have afterwards is a tuna sandwich or a bowl of tomato soup? I enjoy my artificial paradise, and that´s that.