Home-made takeout event.

Lindy is hosting this event. I think that´s a great idea, because I´m quite fascinated by the whole wide spectrum of lunchboxes around the world.
I don´t pack lunches for myself, since I work from home, and mostly every day go to my mother´s for lunch. But since J has a long horribly trafficky conmute to Toledo, when he goes there I make him lunch to go.
In this way I assuage my guilt. Not that it´s my fault, but it feels very unfair that I take my lunch among the crazy babble of a family table, and then have coffee and a nap on a sofa, with a jack russell on my lap, and a labrador at my feet.
And since he always says that he lives in Madrid because of me, I do feel slightly bad. J´s fond dream would be to be the pharmacist in a small mountaintop village, and play mus every evening with the priest, the head of the Guardia Civil, and the mayor. Never mind that for that he´d have to move to the 1960´s, he sticks to his fantasy, and so I try to make up for it with lunchboxes.
Also because J, left to himself, would have fried eggs with chorizo at the university canteen every day, and that would never do.
The lunchbox itself is the Nomad model from Valira. It´s really great. It´s insulated, and holds two containers that close hermetically, so you don´t have to worry about sauce spilling everywhere. And there´s still room for a yogurt or some fruit, too.
It´s impossible to predict what will find its way to the lunchbox. Usually it´s whatever we had for dinner the day before, or else a sandwich. But I also like to have single portions of frozen dishes cooked at other times. Curry, or pisto, or noodles. They may not taste as good as they did the first time around, but I think they can stand up to the uni cafeteria food, any day.
I also always put in a salad in the small container. The dressing goes into a little plastic ziploc bag, so the greens don´t become soggy.
Unless it´s for J´s favourite salad. I make this one a lot, since it´s made from frozen green beans, and they´re a pretty handy thing to have around in case there´s nothing fresh in the fridge.

Green bean salad

Steam a handful of french beans.
Then mix a couple of spoonfuls of your favourite vinaigrette with a squirt of lemon juice and a teaspoonful of mayonaise. You might want to chop some shallot, too, but probably not. It´s only a lunchbox, after all.
Add some whole cherry tomatoes, and let the flavours meld. The vinegar will make the beans lose their bright green, but the taste will more than make up for it.

This brings the health quota of the lunchbox up so high, that you can even slip in a cookie. Go on.


Nestegg soup

Every time José sees me carefully spoon some leftovers into a freezer bag and carefully label it, he smiles fondly, the way someone might who sees a puppy bury a bone.
I don´t care, not even when he says I must have been a squireel in a former life. My freezer is my safety net. That stash of leftovers that will carry me through any situation, or almost.
Take last Sunday. We had gone to bed at five a.m. on the Saturday. The wedding revels were of the highest order, and I went into the spirit of the thing very thoroughly, even unto smoking a Cuban cigar, and drinking vast quantities of champagne.
We woke at nine thirty, and by eleven were in the family car, driving back the 541 kilometers back to Madrid.
By the time we arrived, I was something vaguely resembling a human being that was coming apart at the seams. I needed sustenance, and I needed it fast.
I rummaged around, and found chicken stock in the fridge. The freezer yielded a single portion of espinacas con garbanzos .
I put both in a pan, left the frozen lump to melt/thaw in the heating stock, added a dollop of ketchup and some salt, and went about the business of unpacking.
By the time I had untangled my tights from my heels, and sorted out the makeup from the toothpaste tubes, the soup was ready. It hit the exact spot, being hot and nourishing but not too heavy.
The siesta afterwards almost restored me to health. Two episodes of Sex&the city later, I had arrived at the stage where I wanted a hit of something more robust and greasy.
Further foraging unearthed brown bread and roast tomatoes in the freezer. The fridge had onion jam and eggs, so all that remained to be done was a rendition of these scrambled eggs, creamy and buttery.
At times like these, the last thing you want is to experiment with new recipes.
Today I am fully recovered.
(M, I hope you are, too. I think in the future we´d better stop chasing the waiters with the champagne, and let the mountain come to Mohamed)


Scavenger mackerel sandwich

I am going to be in Sevilla this weekend, celebrating the wedding of two very dear friends. Since they asked me to illustrate their invitation and the little menu cards for the tables, I know what the menu will be. Takes such a load off my mind. Otherwise, I spend all the time at the church wondering if it´s going to be a fish or meat wedding. Idle thoughts, you´ll say, but it´s hard to be entertained by a wedding mass, at my time of life. I get to hear St.Paul´s epistle many times every year.
Not that I needed the privileged info this time. The groom is allergic to shellfish and strawberries, which rules out all that traditional part of the wedding feast.
And anyway, this post is about the sandwich we had yesterday for our dinner. There was also chicken consomé, because it´s been raining like hell all week, and I´ve been communing with my inner five-year-old and stepping in puddles, and rather fear I´ve caught a cold.
But the sandwich? It was excellent, and surprisingly so, since it started from really scavengy beginnings.
Pan de leche buns, which are rather sweet and soft, were spread with a mayonaise made better and pinker with lemon juice and chili paste. The remains of the mackerel escabeche, carefully de-boned, were laid on top. Black olives were then dotted around tastefully, and the whole thing covered with a crunchy lettuce leaf.
I loved it. All the tastes seemed to meld into a very harmonious whole, somehow, which I never thought they would. Just what I wanted for dinner.


Advice on advice

I´ve never understood all those magazine articles and pages and pages in books about cleaning fish. It seems to me that they must be intented for boy-scout minded people who own a pleasure boat and some fish hooks.
For me, there is only one method of cleaning fish, and certainly it´s very easy. You just go to the fishmonger, tell him what fish you want and what it´s for, and the guy will very obligingly clean it for you.
I have always found this by far the best way to go about. I put my trust in the professionals, always.
So it was the other day. I asked the fishmonger for some mackerel, filleted, please, as I would be making escabeche. He looked at me searchingly, and said, well, for escabeche you´ll be wanting thick slices, surely? That´s how my wife makes it. And I said, no, I like fillets, there are too many bones, otherwise. No, no, he said, the vinegar will make the bones melt away. I hesitated, but then I reflected, here´s this guy, who´s clearly been monging fish for many years, and what do I know? I told him to go ahead and do it his way.
Now, take it from me, I know how to make escabeche. I make the best damn escabeche in the world, and just now I want to kill that person. He was wrong, dammit. The bones do not melt away.
I know you´ll tell me that fish cooked on the bone is juicier, but come on. It´s a bore to have to pick the million bones in mackerel, and frankly, escabeche is not about complication. It´s an easy summer dish, a happy-go-lucky thing to be eaten with an easy mind, not with the attitude of an archaeologist.
No way. However, it´s ok. I´ll eat the mackerel carefully, because it does taste very good, but I´ll keep all the vegetables and the escabeche liquid. I will use them to make a second batch, poaching bonito this time.
Of course I will not tell the fish guy what I´m making, as who knows what kind of strange alternative cooking his wife likes. I might come home with a bunch of bonito flakes, or a whole fish. I think I´m either going to have to beleive more in myself, or buy my fish from another stall.


Yesterday I did something I´ve never done before.
I sent back a dish to the kitchen.
It made me feel so bad. I´ve been told, all my life, to be nice and pleasant and well-mannered, to take the rough with the smooth, to not be a grouch.
But I looked at that pasta dish, the 13€ pasta dish, that had pisto where it had said it´d have pesto, and I was annoyed. But I thought, well, never mind, let´s just eat it, it smells good. But it was salty. So salty as to be really really bad. I tried another mouthful, but there I stopped. I change drawings all the time, I reasoned. If clients don´t like it, I start over. That´s how it goes, right? No offence, surely?
It was hard. It went very much against the grain. I´m not your outspoken, open type. Muttering darkly behind backs is more my style.
As I told the waitress to take it back, I told her not to bring anything else instead, because I was too full from the starter, anyway. Which was delicious, and so you can tell the chef from me, please do.
See? The well-brought up little girl, to the last.
The guys admitted that the dish was inedible, by the way, and sent back a tray of complimentary puddings, which was very sweet of them. I just hope I haven´t made enemies for life.


More pesto tips and a recipe

Since writing the last post I´ve remembered another good tip

6-when the jar of pesto is on its last legs, use it to make salad dressing, so you don´t lose even a speck of precious sauce. Just put oil and vinegar and shake it well.

Browsing Apartment Therapy I´ve discovered this website, Specialty Bottle, which is the place to hunt for jars. They have every size imaginable. I want them all.

Freezing: yes, I freeze pesto, too. It´s perfect for bringing a little warmth to your winter. My method is to spoon just a little into my smallest plastic containers, and put them in the freezer overnight. Next day, when they´re hard, I snap them out and put all the different sized discs inside a ziploc bag. That way, they take up no room at all, and you have different serving portions at the ready. You can do this with ice cube trays, but it´s hard to prevent the whole freezer from smelling pesto-y for a long time. Not very good news for those gin and tonics.

And now for my all-time favourite cold pasta dish. I discovered this in the chiller cabinet of the long gone and much lamented Marks & Spencer on C/Serrano. You can see how old that drawing is, in that the label shows the salad to have cost 395 pesetas. Ah, what times...

It´s a very simple salad that consists mainly of pasta, penne rigate for choice, but orecchiette also ok, dressed with pesto and olive oil until slick. It is then combined with raw spinach, not much, it´s just for looks, really, and toasted pinenuts.
The trick is to toss it very well, so that lots of pine kernels end up inside the penne rigate. A few slivers of parmesan and you´re in business for a real crowd pleaser. I always make it for buffets, as it cosies up very well to all sorts of things, from other salads to cold meats or salmon.
You can also ring the changes by adding black olives, sauteed mushrooms, cherry tomatoes or mozzarella.


Pesto rules

It really does, no? I think so. I can think of few ingredients that have so much potential inside them to change whole dishes, usually for the better. It is the Touche eclat
of the food world. Boring grilled chicken, dull takeout pizza? Not any more. Yesterday´s sorry looking vegetable soup? Suddenly perked up beyond recognition. In sandwiches and panini, I have yet to meet a piece of ham or cheese that wouldn´t welcome a kick of basil. And as for vegetarian sandwiches, well, I think grilled aubergines just scream out loud to be brushed with pesto.

And there´s the pasta sauce use, too, where it ranks in my all time top ten. But where it comes first is at the top of the fast food top ten.
Unless you are an like an Italian grandmother , or you decide to gather pinenuts in your garden, which I once did and wouldn´t recommend, making pesto is a wheeze. It is my belief that people who bang on about pestles and mortars are very wrong to do so. They make it seem like a big deal, and this can be offputting to newcomers, who go through life in a sad twilit world of inferior pesto jars. And that´s just mean. Everyone should be made to make pesto even once, just so they can see that they can.

Now that summer´s almost here and there are big bunches in the market, priced like herbs and not jewels, there´s no excuse not to make some. I won´t give a recipe, because there are so many out there, and it really is a matter of taste. But just a few tips.

1- If you´ve never made it before, start with the real thing, and leave the experiments with other herbs and other nuts for later.

2-Make twice the amount you think you´ll need. Pesto keeps for weeks if properly cared for, which brings us to

3- Store it in small jars, the narrower the better. Make sure that whenver you take some out you scrape down everything very well, and cover it with a film of olive oil. That way, no air will get at it and it won´t turn black and nasty.

4- Put a few parsley leaves in the mix. The clorophile in the parsley also helps the fight against rust. Not so much that you can ignore step 3, though.

5- Start off with less garlic than specified. Not everyone likes that raw burning taste. You can always add more later.

That´s it.


The fridge thing

Sam started, and then I saw that Melissa and Brett followed, and then a whole lot of others, so of course I´m running behind, yelling, "I want to play too!".
This is my attempt at unedited, front-line, grungy reportage drawing.
As you can see, I´m a condiment junky, and there is never much fresh stuff in the fridge. This is because I like to buy whatever I need for a couple of days at the market. Plus, I change my mind a lot, so it´s never a good idea to buy too far ahead.
I have lots of oriental cheat pastes, like black bean garlic and chili garlic. Luxury jams and chutneys that I buy on impulse, and pots of the homemade stuff.
I also have some well-wrapped brownies left over from J´s birthday last Thursday, and a jar of pesto I made yesterday. The onion jam is also the result of some last minute industriousness. The eggs are from Pazo de Vilane, at the high end of the food chain. The yogurts from Día, at the far lowest possible (well, sorry, but they´re the only ones open on Saturday afternoons around here).
I also have tomatoes, but I would never, EVER, keep them in the fridge.
Some day I´ll do my freezer, and then you´ll see true chaos.



I give a lot of thought to saldads. It seems to me that there is a lot to be learnt about all human life from salads, somehow, if I could only crack the code. Sociologists are letting a great potential go untapped.

It´s not just how you can tell so much about someone by the way they dress a salad. That´s not it, because sometimes all you can tell is that they can´t dress a salad, and what does that tell you? Not that much. I can´t dress in clothes that make any sense, but I hope all that says about me is that I can´t dress.

It´s more than that. A whole lot of society trends, all mixed up in a bowl. The whole health food, slimming issue, for example. I wish I had a euro for every time I´ve been told that we´ll have a light, healthy, diet conscious meal by someone who tears open a package of (wilted) leaves, then drenches them in oil and smothers them in cheese and nuts. Ha.

And how about Time? Salads are considered quick, but I find them quite time consuming. If you take the trouble to wash and thoroughly dry your lettuce and mache, that is. If you´re content to serve a waterlogged mush then, yes, it´s ready in less than no time.

Or how about Creativity, that new curse of our age? People are being told all the time that they have to be creative, and then, when they realise that they aren´t, they take their frustration out on some defenceless vegetables. Beetroot, sweetcorn and tuna in brine are flung right, left and centre, and some hapless guest is left in the middle to eat up the pieces.

I´m tellin´ya, there´s plenty to be learnt. But make your first lesson be caution. Pasta salad, for example, is a favourite of people with some vague notion of being dashing. They end up clearing their fridge on top of some fusilli, with mixed results. So here´s another hard-earned lesson: beware of anything with more than four ingredients, smile a lot, and start with a very small portion.

Then again, you can be so pleasantly surprised. Yesterday, at the opening lunch of Casa Decor , I had some of the best salads of my life. It may have been the expertise of the Sergi Arola catering guys, dazzling us with their Michelin stars. Then again, it may well be that I was starving, and tipsy from all the pink Moët.

I´m going to try this at home the minute I can, but for now, if anyone wants to get ahead, here are the ingredients, as far as I could make out.

Salad 1-orecchiette, mushrooms (cooked), smoked salmon, (bottled)artichoke hearts, mustardy dressing, tangy but not too strong.

Salad 2-spinach leaves, tomato wedges, artichoke hearts, smoked salmon, pine nuts, the same dressing.

In fact, you can see that they were almost the same salad, and indeed, I ended up mixing both and they still tasted great. They break all the rules of salad making as I understand them, but they worked a treat.

If you make them and are not impressed with the results, then have three or four glasses of champagne and try again.


Spring newsletter for Daniel

Please please let me brag. I feel you lobstersquad readers will be a much more appreciative audience than anyone else I know.
This elegantly laid out page you see before you is the spring newsletter for Daniel Boulud´s restaurants. Does that merit a !!!!!!!! or what?
This is why I drew the live crayfish. For anyone else I´d have googled the little beasties and left it at that, but I´m a snob before anything else, and a world famous chef well deserves a trip to the market and a tussle with clawed creatures.
This was a really fun job to do, and working with Carla from the public relations team was a pleasure.
Really too bad that I can´t go and get my payment in kind.



I´m very busy and very crazily running around until we get this Casa Decor show on the road, of which more later. It was all non-stop Monday and Tuesday, which didn´t stop me from dashing over to Kawara, a three minute walk away, for some restorative sushi. They´re very quick, but I still had time for a quick doodle.
I seem to only go to places with paper tablecloths, don´t I? No shame in that. For the record, though, Kawara used to have salmon pink cloth tablecloths. Just so you know.
I had the sushi lunch deal, 10.5€, and green tea. J had the katsudon and a beer.


Il Pizzaiolo

I´ve recently been recommended a restaurant, Il Pizzaiolo, and a program, Pages, by my friend Edu, a conoisseur of both. If you want to read my restaurant review, you´ll have to click on the image to read it. I´m in love with software. And I thought I couldn´t get any geekier!


El Rincón

Here´s one of my new favourite places: El Rincón, on Plaza de Juan Pujol. I really like the feel, which is warm and cozy, but without that dark and stuffy feel places can sometimes have. Being on a square, they get plenty of sunlight, but the outside seating is in the shade most of the day, which is very handy for the summer. The music is just what you would play if you were as hip as the waiters there and had a massive CD collection. The beer is per-fect. The food is only so-so, which happens a lot in these places where everyone looks like they´re modeling for Dazed and confused. But it doesn´t really matter. I go there for aperitivos or coffees. It´s a great place to hang out. And as you can see, you can while away the time waiting for your order by sketching on the paper place mats.


Bocata de calamares

Today is Madrid´s regional holiday. We conmemorate the popular uprising in Madrid against Napoleon´s troops, back in 1808. It seems odd to celebrate giving the French a bloody nose, now that we´re in the European Community an´ all, and hardly politically correct. But politicians like it. The right, because it´s a glorious moment in History. The left, because it was the populace that rose. The actual contemporary populace, because it comes right after the 1st of May, a national holiday, which makes it a nice little very long weekend.
It´s not a traditional holiday, being only in its twenties. So there are no traditions, other than driving back from wherever it was that you went to, and being stuck in traffic for hours. But that´s a pity, and should be remedied.
I think we should institute a pilgrimage to the Prado, to see Goya´s famous pictures about the event. You don´t have to see the whole museum, just amble in, see the mamelukes being dragged from their horses, see the moustachioed guy who´s about to be shot. Wag your head a little, reflect on history, argue wether it´s cyclical or progressive. Mention Manet, maybe, but only a little. This is a holiday, after all, so take it easy.
Now, the food. If it was a properly traditional holiday, with roots in the distant past, I´d tell you to have cocido. But since we´re making this up as we go along, I´ll tell you instead to walk down the Paseo del Prado to Atocha and have a bocata de calamares at el Brillante.
El Brillante is one of those bars lit with harsh neon, wallpapered with blueing photos of their specials. The air there is thick with fumes from the deep-fat fryers and the cigarette smoke, the floor full of toothpicks, sawdust, and crumpled paper napkins.
The bocata is a roll full of fried calamari rings, doused with mayo from a squirt bottle. The whole experience is more about, well, experience, than actual cuisine. Don´t judge the bocata on its merits alone, but on its place in the collective unconscious. Think of bites grabbed after a movie, or in themiddle of a bar crawl, or in the middle of a crazy Christmas shopping spree around the Plaza Mayor.
Even with that in mind, though, don´t forget to squirt it with lemon. And don´t eat it on a first date. It´s apt to splash fat everywhere, and some of the calamares will prove too chewy and strech crazily. Plus, you probably will come out of the bar smelling like you´d spent the last half hour inside the fryer.
None of which will matter if you´re washing it down with several cañas, the hand pulled beer as we like it here, with a lot of pressure, and ice cold.
After all that, you can wander around Malasaña, where it all happened two hundred years ago. Instead of hussars and lancers, you´ll find the bohemian bourgeoisie out for a stroll and some coffee. Much more comfortable.