La festa al fresco: bonito en escabeche

I was very happy last week to receive an invitation from the so wonderful Ivonne to take part in a food event she and Lis are hosting.
It´s called La festa al fresco, and we all have to rally round and bring the best and freshest and most beautiful of summer produce to their table.

Of course the first thing to bring is a crate of the beautiful peaches and nectarines we´re having this year. I am in stone fruit heaven. All peaches so far have been excellent, ripe and juicy and so fragrant

But that´s by the way. My pièce de résistance is a beautiful jar of bonito en escabeche.
I do run on about bonito, don´t I? Well, it´s an awsome fish, you know, but you can use any other blue fish you want.

Escabeche is an old method for preserving meat or fish. I know you can find it in cans, but it tends to be dry and has none of the nuance of this dish. It´s ideal to take to an alfresco lunch in summer, because being more or less pickled, it won´t matter if it´s left standing around while you go grape picking, or swimming or playing badminton or whatever.

It took me forever to find the right recipe. I won´t bore you with the search, which was long. Basically, your elemental escabeche technique tells you to deep fry a fish, then pour over a sauce made of 4 parts oil to 1 part vinegar. Piecing together bits of different recipes, I arrived at this method. I don´t know how useful it would be if you mean to preserve the fish for long, but otherwise it´s awsome.

It has a lot of escabeche, the liquid, but that´s not a problem. Just think of it as the best possible vinaigrette for fish dishes. A salade niçoise dressed with it will bring tears to your eyes, I promise.

Here it is, anyway:

1 kilo of fish ( I´ve tried bonito, mackerel, trout, salmon and chicharro and they´re all good. If you do the salmon, use pieces from the tail, with the skin on)
3 carrots ( I cut them in batons, but do slices if you prefer)
2 leeks, coarsely chopped
5 or 6 whole cloves of garlic
a handful of pearl onions, or 1 onion in half moons
1 bay leaf
1 tsp peppercorns
1 sprig of thyme
1 cup each water, white wine, good vinegar and olive oil
plus a little olive oil

Take a wide mouthed non-reactive pan. Cover the bottom with the extra oil, and sautée the vegetables, herbs and pepper for about 5 minutes, until they´re a bit soft.
Add the liquids, and leave for 15/20 minutes at a brisk bubble.
Slide the fish in, making sure it´s covered by the escabeche. If it isn´t you can try to take out a few of the vegetables and then put them on top, or you can cover the pan so the fish will steam.
Turn the fire down, and leave it for a little less than you think it will take the fish to cook. For thick chunks of bonito I make it 7 minutes.
Leave the fish to cool inside the escabeche. The residual heat will finish the cooking, and if not, the vinegar will.
Keep it in a glass or earthenware container with a lid. Don´t keep it in plastic, as the vinegar might spoil it.
Refrigerate it for two days at least, so the flavours can develop, and serve at room temperature.
It´s heavenly with boiled potatoes, or in a salad of crunchy lettuce and avocado.


A bollywood drink: agua de jamaica

Agua de jamaica is a cold drink made from the flowers of the hibiscus.
I´d never heard about this exotic and colourful drink in my life. Heidi blogged about it, and I looked for the dried flowers high and low, with no luck.
Then Matt wrote about them, and I renewed the search, going to every specialist tea shop and Latin American supermarket, but again, nada.
It turns out that it´s very popular in Latvia and Estonia, so I brought back a packet. Please let´s not add up the air miles. This had become a sort of spiritual quest, I just had to know.
When I did it, I couldn´t beleive my eyes. It´s the pinkest thing you´ve ever seen outside a Bollywood movie.
It even tastes pink, tart, sharp, like berries, almost.
It´s the first time in my life something I´ve done has looked as good as the photo of the original recipe. And when we´re talking of someone with Matt´s or Heidi´s talent for food photograpy, that´s saying a lot.
Go try it.It´s really fun, and almost impossible to believe that anything so outrageously colourful isn´t artificial.


SHF nº22. A sweet and spicy chutney

José was saying just yesterday how he hates the end of August. Because it´s still hot, and nobody´s around, and you can´t get any work done, and the countryside is baked to a crust, dry and horrid.
I had just been thinking how I love the end of August. Because nobody´s around, and you don´t have to get any work done. And because that baked countryside is producing tons of my favourite foodstuffs. And since there´s not much to do, what better excuse to make preserves?
Evidently everyone seems to be thinking along the same lines, and Nicky and Oliver of Delicous Dayshave made them the subject of this month´s Sugar High Friday.
Now I am above all things lazy. And hooked on season one of The West Wing. So I have no time for candy thermometers, fruit pectin or jelly bags. I love the rush of smugness that hits when you label and put up your very own jars of fruit preserves, but I´m sloppy. And I love vinegar.
So of course it has to be chutney. I love chutney so much, I put it in practically anything that´s not breakfast cereal, and that only because I don´t have cereal for breakfast.

I use the "glutney" recipe from the River cottage cookbook, adapted to fit the two-litre capacity of a Thermomix.
It´s very accomodating, and works with any combination of fruits and vegetables you might come up with, within reason. As long as you respect the ratio of fruit to sugar and vinegar, you´re in business.

Chop one and a half kilos of fruit or veg, one onion, one apple, one fresh chili (or more),250 ml cider vinegar, 200 gr. of sugar, a handful of raisins.
The spices are negotiable, but I like 1 tbs black peppercorns, 1tsp coriander seeds, 1tsp. ground ginger, 3 cloves. You can tie them up in a teabag, but I think they look very pretty once the thing is in the jar.

You put all this in a pan, and leave it to simmer for about an hour and a half, or until thick and gloopy. It sticks. Beware.
For the Th, give it 45 minutes at 100º,speed 1, and 45 more at Varoma. Check near the end, in case it reduces too much.
Spoon into jars and give it 20 minutes in a bain marie.

Write down every batch that you make. No two are alike, but sometimes you strike a particulary wonderful one and it does well to keep a track record.
My own batch today was 4 nectarines and 4 tomatoes. It looks pretty amazing, a dark brown in which cunks of nectarine looks a paler ochre. The flecks of chili and the black peppercorns give it a pretty looking contrast. I won´t open it for a couple of months at least, but I think I´m onto a winning batch. I´ll keep you posted.
My labels are pretty pedestrian, typed on an old Hispano Olivetti, which gives them an early industrial mechanical feel that I quite like.

While it cooks, you can watch exactly two episodes of West Wing. Perfect.


A really awsome fideuá

I´ve always wanted to learn how to do a proper paella. But it seems to be a pretty huge undertaking. So many factors to take into account, so much fiddling around, so many arguments as to what constitutes a "true" paella...And there´s always the tricky question of the "punto del arroz", that exact nirvana of the rice grain, achieved only with extreme precision and an almost otherwordly flair. Or so they say.

All these tiresome rice pundits do agree on one thing, though ; fideuá is a sort of paella for dummies. The preparation is similar, but there´s none of that stress about perfection. It can be dry, or soupy, and pasta is pretty foolproof to cook. It doesn´t even have to be al dente, so you have a few minutes grace.

One day I´ll try my hand at rice, but yesterday I took my first steps, and produced fideuá. And, I am happy to say, it was excellent. It was delicious. It took less than half an hour to cook, and was bursting with flavour from all the things that were inside.

I´ll give you the recipe, and hope I´m not being irritating with the imprecision, but that´s the beauty of it. You can be pretty slapdash and it will still be good. This is how it goes.

I had some good fish stock in the freezer, about 1 1/2 cups, and the especial fideuá noodles in the cupboard. They´re small, curved and hollow in the middle, but you can do it with normal thickish noodles. Onions, garlic, saffon, pimentón and tomatoes I had. I then bought a courgette, one small squid, and a handful of mussels.
It can be done with any other vegetables, shellfish, or even chicken. Your call. The quantities here are for two.

You start the sofrito with onion and garlic in a frying pan, or similar wide low pan.
While they soften, you grate the tomatoes. Dice the courgette pretty small. By this time the onions will be pretty floppy. Add a pinch of saffron strands and a third of a teaspoon of pimentón. Mix it for no more than thirty seconds, and add the tomato. It´s important that you do this, otherwise the pimentón will burn and taste really horrible.

Let that reduce. It will take around ten minutes. Cut up the squid into small chunks. Open the mussels. I do this in the microwave, but use your preferred method. Add the liquid to the fish stock, and reserve the mussels.

When the sofrito is done ,add the squid and the noodles. I used two good handfuls, about 150 gr. Move them around the pan for a minute, and then add the stock. It has to cover the noodles by about a finger.

Let it boil away for 12 minutes or so. You can spend the time doodling the bowl of mussels, or clearing up the kitchen a little, or making a salad.
Check after 10 minutes. By that time, the pasta will have absorbed most of the liquid, and the starch from the noodles will have made the stock all silky and risotto-ish. When you think the noodles are done, turn the fire off, scoop into bowls, and add the mussels.

Mine out came more soupy than not, but when we came back for seconds the pasta had soaked up everything, and it was quite dry. I think trial and error is in order if I ever want a crusty socarrat bottom, but for now, I´m very happy with this.


Five things to eat before you die

I´ve been tagged!
It´s too exciting. I´m sorry not to be blase and woman-of-the-world about it, but I´mloving every minute, and can´t pretend to be cool. My first meme! And it comes from Melissa! The traveler´s lunchbox is one of my most favourite food blogs, and so, I am gibberish with joy. If I haven´t posted this before it´s because it´s proved pretty hard to write.
See, this meme, or joint project, has the ambitious but very necessary aim of coming up with a definitive list of things to eat before you die. Each blogger contributes five, and tags another five bloggers.
And I´ve been scribbling lists all of yesterday, and they were long.Lots of things have ended up on the cutting room floor, like tortilla de patatas in Galicia, toasted ham and egg sandwiches in Cafeteria Santander, fried fish on the beach in Andalucia, a picnic of viande sèche in the Alps, or onion soup in Paris, etc. Pinning it down to five has been hard, and the list may be a little lopsided, but anyway, here goes.

1. First quality Ibérico de bellota

The best, the loftiest, most explosively good food product ever to come from the body of a pig. And I adore bacon, mind, but ibérico is in a league of its own.
My advice to anyone coming to Spain is to do the following. Go somewhere good to eat, restaurant, tapas bar, whatever. Look at the price of a ración de ibérico. Write it down, order something else.
Then go to a market or good food shop, and buy some jamón from one of the specialized stalls. It will be perfectly cut, and you will pay much less. Applying what Calvin Trillin calls Alice´s law of compensatory economics, you´ll have "saved" enough money for a nice bottle of wine and some picos ( bread sticks), and will have the perfect picnic on your hands.

2. Angulas, (baby eels)

This is a case of things to eat before they die. And before you accuse me of enviromental malpractice, let me say I´ve only had them a few times, when I was little and they weren´t so endangered.
But one of my dearest memories is angula related. I was eight or nine, had had my bath, and was waiting to have dinner in my pijamas. My parents told me instead to put some normal clothes over it, and took me down to Ciriaco, the restaurant below us, where they were having dinner with friends. I was given a plate of angulas to try, and I gobbled them all up.
They are heavenly, a writhing tangle of grey tiny snakey looking animals, sauteed quickly with garlic and chili, at once crisp and soft. You eat them with a special wooden fork, which is always fun. Not so fun is paying for them, because these babies are almost as expensive as caviar.

3.Dim-sum, from wheeled carts

I´ve only been to a real dim-sum with carts reastaurant once, with my sister María in New York. It was one of the best meals I´ve ever had, and probably the best Chinese meal. But apart from the quality of the food, what I loved was pointing to the dishes as they arrived in the carts. I´d never have been able to order a meal like that, with so much stuff I didn´t recognize.

4. A full-on English cream tea

Betty´s in Harrogate comes to mind, but for the quintessential five o´clock tea it has to be one of the swanky London hotels. Sit on one of those low sofas beside the potted palms, listen to the tinkle of the piano and feel like the deb of the year while you wait for the tiny sandwiches, petit fours and scones with clotted cream to arrive.

5. Pipas,(toasted salted sunflower seeds)

I´d always thought pipas were as Spanish as can be, but recently read in Juan Eslava Galan´s history of the Spanish Civil War that they were introduced by the Russian tank soldiers, and quickly caught on. Well, one good thing about a war, who new?
My mother is annoyed with me for including pipas in the top five, but you see, she´s one of the ones who just don´t get pipas. You either do, or don´t, and that´s it.
I agree that they´re messy, and inelegant, and they make people look like parrots as they crack them with their teeth. But there is nothing like sitting outside in the summer with a bag of pipas on your lap, and a bowl that slowly fills up with shells, while you pander to the ying and the yang, alternating September´s extra-thick Vogue with Flashman.You know when to stop when your lips are cracked from all the salt.
I always do this with my father, at sunset, in el Pantano, and it´s the best thing in the world.

Picking the next five bloggers has been just as hard. I´m going with

Brett, from San Francisco
In the East Coast, I couldn´t decide betweenJulie, from Baltimore, and Ann, from New York, so I´m cheating and having them both.
Jenjen, from Sydney
Bea, from France via Boston
Melissa, from Panama

It´s arrived!!!

Finally! Talk about snail mail. There are few mailmen about in August, and no wonder, I´d hate to be delivering letters in the sun, myself, but anyway, it´s here. My blogger postcard has arrived, and I´m ever so pleased.
Thank you, Puspha, I love it. My own went to Switzerland too, so it´s a neat little round circle.
I´ve only been once, but I´d love to return. I spent a really fun week walking in the mountains and feeling quite like someone out of The Sound of Music (different country, but same mountains, so not too far out I hope). I´d love to go back and visit Bern, which looks very beautiful in this photo.
It´s so fun to receive postcards, so, all thanks to Meeta for coming up with the idea.


The Baltic, part II

You must know that I left Riga central market practically crying with frustration. Left to myself , I would have filled a couple of suitcases to bring home, but J dragged me away, in the end, and I can see that it made sense, but dear me, it was hard.

It was all so fascinating, you see. We´d gone to shops, and to the market in Tartu, which is really quite fine. And there had been the roadside stalls with the raspberries, pretty much everywhere and so delicious.

But that market, o my.
I wish I had pictures to show you, but there was no time to draw.You can check out these, to see what it´s like.

First, it´s huge, filling five old zeppelin hangars (how cool is that?) and spilling out over a big square.

And it´s just brimming with stuff, and all of it so damn good looking. Mind you, it´s not lively like Spanish markets, where there´s a lot of noise from people gossiping and joking. Here the air was pretty serious, and everyone moved with a respectful bustle inside those huge hangars with the golden light streaming in from high above. The feeling was of being inside a cathedral built to honour pork products.

And what pork products. The variety of sausages, and smoked hams, and the fresh stuff, cut so weirdly. I could feel my head popping with all the new information.

Each hangar seemed to have a different thing, so one was meat, one dry goods and bread ( again, eye popping selection of black breads ), another vegetables, another dairy ,and the rest clothes and stuff.

Outside there were many more stalls with fruits, vegetables and flowers. Everything looked so colourful, and was so attractively arranged, I really had trouble not stocking up.

Berries, for one. You see, here fresh berries are exotic, and sell in tiny containers, cost a lot, and taste like nothing. I buy frozen mix packs, and they´re perfect for baking. But when I saw all those, arranged so neatly, and so many of them, I just wanted to start making jam straight away.
And they had Uzbek melons! I illustrated a book of Uzbek folktales once, and they went on and on about melons, and now I can see why. They´re a zeppelin cousin of honeydew, I think. José patiently explained to me that if the new air security regulations balk at hair gel, a melon the size of a pig wasn´t going to make it through. Again, sigh.

The mushrooms, well, they were mindblowing. In August! I ask you, how could I let those beauties pass me by? It was heartbreaking. There seemed to be so many, and all looked so pretty, and they were cheap, so help me. Triple sigh

The herbs were everywhere. The whole market smelt of dill, pretty much, but there was so much else. Onion seeds, and purple basil, and many more I didn´t even recognize. They sold bouquet garnies for pickling cucumbers ( I think) ,a gorgeous mix of greens, with the onion seed tuft on top. I would carry them as a posy, they looked that good.

You´ll be glad to know Gallina Blanca exports stock cubes, and I´m glad to say, they have kept the good packaging there, phew.
And by the way. In Latvia, they sell single cubes, at the checkout, next to the chewing gum and candy. Isn´t that odd? I didn´t actually see anyone sucking a cube, but I take it that´s what they´re for, since they´re in the sweets section. Fascinating.

That´s all. I can´t write about it anymore without practically crying at the thought of all those missed opportunities. O well.


The Baltic trip, part I

So, Estonia and Latvia.

It´s been a lovely trip. We milled around for fifteen days, feeling totally cut off from real life, wandering around the train-set towns, and walking in the fairy tale forests.
For a Spaniard , it´s all very exotic. Flat as your hand, with endless pine and birch forests, huge sluggish rivers, lakes all over the place, and the sweetest little wooden houses, painted in bright colours.The coast is the best, with amazing beaches, practically empty, and a lot of romantic peninsulas with lighthouses at the end.

I will be totally honest with you, though. This was not a chowhounding trip. I won´t pretend I spent the time looking into obscure alleyways and far-flug suburbs for the best piroshki, because I didn´t. I was lazy as lazy can be, and often plumped for the nearest and easiest places. Sometimes, even, goshelpme, the self-same hotels.

Im my defence I´ll say that we went to pretty remote places, and those hotels or B&Bs were all there was. And that suited me just fine.

Another thing that will doubtless disqualify me forever with serious foodies is that we didn´t always sample the local cuisine. It´s the kind of top-heavy, meat-cabbage-potatoes kind, very delicious, and a life saver if you´ve spent the morning shovelling snow. But for summer, hardly the ideal nosh. And anyway the locals, like everywhere else, are mostly hanging out at Italian reastaurants, or burger joints.

So, discounting the odd pizza, steak sandwich, and an Indian meal in Jurmala that was truly excellent, I´ll tell you what ethnic food we had.If anyone´s interested in names and places, email me, because I can´t be bothered to type it all out.

There was a cabbage roll stuffed with meat, very similar to the Ukrainian golupsi.The ubiquitous herring, which I´m not crazy about. It tastes like the big bully cousin of boquerones. Various potato and/or beetroot salads. Beetroot soup, both hot and cold. Solyanka, a Russian soup that seemed to consist mostly of potatoes, meat, sausage and cut up gherkins. It´s sour, hearty and so delicious, I´d never have thought it possible to like gherkins in soup, but there you are.
Dill, and lashings of sour cream with everything. Cucumber, either pickled or fresh, seems to be a big hit over there, and comes on the side of everything. As well as tomatoes, which I thought surprisingly excellent, until I noticed that almost everyone seems to have a little greenhouse with a few plants.
And their dense, chewy black bread, that I really love.
For breakfast, I always had it with butter and smoked ham.And a bowl of lovely porridge, thick and bland and more satisfying than I could beleive, with jam, often home made, and often from berries I´d never seen before.The porridge was sometimes oats, sometimes semolina, and always wonderful, fit for Goldilocks.
In Tallin we went to a really good Georgian/Armenian restaurant, where we had a whole lot of incredibly delicious things, and I forgot to write out their names. They were mostly the vegetable starters, all beans and aubergines and spinach , with tonnes of garlic. And the famous cheese flatbread in Nigella´s Feast. They gave us a cheat´s version with puff pastry, but it was still delicious.

I really enjoyed checking out the supermarkets, and the markets. Best by far was Riga Central Market, of which more some other time. More to come in the Baltic,part II.


Gee, but it's good to be back home

Oh, the joy.
It's been the best holiday ever, but I have a theory that says that a holiday isn't a proper holiday unless by the end you're itching to get back. That is the true test of its therapeutic power.

And so it is. I was desperate to leave, and I'm so glad to be here, with my darling goose-down pillow and my kitchen and my blog.

Now I´m going again, which sounds a little stupid, after all that, but it´s only for two days and to the country, to stay with my family, so it doesn´t really count.
I´ll have all the trip report on Monday, but for now, I want to celebrate Spain, in all its dusty glory. We´ve been driving on Baltic roads for fifteen days, and yes, they´re beautiful, don´t have too much traffic, and sport those really cool "beware of elks" signs.

But they don´t have road bars like we do. They don´t have any road bars, as far as I can make out.

Ours are oddly likeable in their crumminess, their loudness, the clank of the slot machines, the crushed paper napkins and toothpicks on the floor. The shrill blast of the espresso machine, and the snappy shouted orders for dos de bravas y un carajillo.
I love to sit at the bar,and look around at the posters of local bullfighters, the parsley and lottery tickets tucked behind an image of San Pancracio, and the various calendars from trucking and fertilizer companies,while listening to the locals growling about football or the harvest as they drink their coffee with brandy and their anis.
There´s a lot of commercial enterprise, too. You can buy cassettes,mostly Manzanita and Azúcar Moreno, with a couple of Julio Iglesias thrown in. They´ll usually have gallon bottles of local oil, and boxes of doubtful looking almond pastrires, chorizos in oil, cheese, keyrings with ferrari logos, or their patron saint.

Yep. I really like them. The only difficulty is in making J stop at them. He´s just as bad as my father about pushing on til we arrive at our destination. Let´s see if I can make him stop this time.


Away for a couple of weeks

Well, I'm off. Finally. After at least a couple of months of stifling heat, strangling deadlines and ever mounting wanderlust.
I've been dreaming about this Baltic trip for ages. The mere idea of wearing shoes again has me wild. I took out my favourite light cotton jacket, and almost cried with joy.
I see myself as a cross between Anouk Aimee in A man and a woman, and Pippi Longstocking. Those endless sandy beaches, a lighthouse at the end, and a picnic basket.
I'm already very excited about trying the Piparkukas and Speka Rausi  Tatiana recommended.

The one thing I'll miss is this blog. It's been such a source of fun, and of new friends, I don't want to do without it. And I thought I might try to blog on the trip. But frankly, I think for the sake of my mental health it's best that I stay away from computers for a couple of weeks, and forget about work.
I plan to tune everything out.
Two weeks will be a long time away from the blog, but I hope you won't forget me altogether. I'll be back soon, with tall tales of bacon buns and pepper cookies.
Take care.

Blogger postcards

This is the postcard for the Blogger Postcards from the World .
I haven't bought the stamp yet, and it annoys me not to be able to show it, because I think half the fun in a postcard is in the stamp.
However, the stamp people in this country have been producing some really ugly stuff lately, and they're sticker stamps, which takes half the fun out of that, too. So you're not missing much.
As for the picture, there's not much sense to it. I did the first thing that came into my head, and had a lot of fun just not thinking.It's not heavy on the literature, but I hope it will be forgiven in view of its being homemade. I promise I put all my love in it.
I can't wait to receive my own postcard.Meeta, you had a great idea.Thanks.