Hot sauce for ice cream

Here are two useful recipes for Christmas. One is the stuffed chicken we do every year. Provided you have a good butcher who will debone the bird, it´s not difficult at all. It feeds a crowd and makes the house smell wonderful during the long baking time.It´s an essential part of our family Christmas, together with the film "Donavan´s Reef", which we always watch as the chicken cooks, after a siesta.

For more impromptu entertaining, the best thing to have always on hand is a block of basic elemental own-brand vanilla ice cream. If you have chocolate biscuits, make ice cream sandwiches. If not, a hot sauce tastes great and looks like you went to a lot of effort.

I always eyeball the hot sauce, so can´t help very much with quantities, but it´s something like this:

1 heaped spoonful of Nutella
50 gr. dark chocolate, chopped
a generous glug of cream

melt this in a saucepan, pour into a jug. If you have any, toast nuts briefly in a frying pan to scatter over.
If you have no Nutella, peanut butter can do. If you have no cream, a bit of butter and a splash of milk will do beautifully. And if you have any bonbons or chocolate bars around, chop them and throw them in at the end, so they melt but not all the way.


The ultimate lemon bar

First off, a new discovery: I have a food writer cousin in Palm Beach! She does great stuff, so go check it out. This is not one of those Spanish stretches of the word cousin, either, but an actual relative. We are both descended from same the great-grandmother who made American style biscuits for tea in Bilbao.

Simon Hopkinson says that good cooking is one third talent, one third skill, and one third good taste.
I think that´s probably true for high-end creative chefs. But for the rest of lowly mortals, it´s one third skill and two thirds repetition.
Take these lemon bars. They are without question the most wonderful morsels of tangy-sweet deliciousness known to mankind, but they didn´t start out this way. I tried several versions, all of which were good, but not quite as good as I hoped. Finally, after tweaking and trying and making them several times, I am now convinced that I have the ultimate lemon bar.

The biscuit base is from Belinda Jeffrey´s "Mix and bake". The lemon curd is from Donna Hay´s "Modern Classics 2". Both have been tampered with by yours truly, and adapted for that versatile and trusty old machine, the Thermomix 31*.

The ultimate lemon bar

Preheat the oven to 180º, and make the base

225 gr. flour
180 gr. butter
80 gr. sugar
zest of one lemon
pinch of salt

Put them in that order in the Th, program 15 seconds, speed 6. Turn out and let rest in the fridge for 30 minutes. It´s so buttery that it can be hard to work, so I just squish it into a 30x23 cm. tin, lined with greaseproof paper, and hope for the best.
Bake until pale golden, about 25'.

Meanwhile, make the custardy lemon filling.
Put 6 eggs,
1 and 1/2 tablespoonfuls of cornstarch
1 cup sugar**
1 cup lemon juice
zest of the lemons used for the juice
200 ml. cream

in the bowl. Program 5 minutes, speed 4, 80ºC.

This makes more than you´ll need for the size of tin. You can either do the complicated sums needed to cut down the recipe to four eggs, or have a bit of a lick-the-bowl fest, and still have some left for a couple of sweet little ramekins.

Let it cool a little, and spread it over the pastry base. Put in the oven for five minutes to set a bit more, then take it out and leave to cool.

To serve, dust with icing sugar and cut into squares. If you make the squares very small, nobody will even consider doing that annoying polite "oh, no I couldn´t" thing. They´ll come back for more and more.

*If you´re making them without machinery the best way to go will be to make the base as you would shortbread, and the filling as you would custard.

**I like my lemon desserts tart and not overly sweet, so just for your information, I will point out that the original filling in Belinda´s book called for two cups of sugar, and Donna for only 3/4 cup lemon juice.


Prunes in Pedro Ximenez syrup

Prunes have a bad rep. I don´t know why this should be so, but it is. Maybe it´s better if you think of them as dried plums? After all, plums are popular, beautiful, exciting little things with a short season and a winning nature. Prunes are their unglamorous spinster aunt, maybe, but still and all, they´re the spinster aunt of an exciting family, and I love them.

This is my adaptation of a Nigella Lawson recipe. She makes it with Marsala, but of course I use Pedro Ximénez, and so should you. It´s a wine made with rasins, so it goes particulary well with prunes. The result is a strong, dark Rembrandt-brown shiny compote. The fruit is chewy on the outside and smooth inside, and the syrup is beautiful and spicy, and you´ll have plenty to drizzle over yogurt and cereal once the fruit is finished.

Prunes in Pedro Ximenez syrup

Make 500 ml of tea (Earl Grey preferred but any black one will do).
Put it in a saucepan with a strip of orange peel, a star anise, a clove and a stick of cinammon. Add 80 gr. of brown sugar and 100 ml of Pedro Ximenez.
Bring to the boil and put in the plums (prunes, I mean). Simmer for 20 minutes.

Leave it to cool and wait at least 24 hours. It gets better and better, all winey and dark and sticky. N says to serve it with custard, but that´s overkill. Fridge cold yogurt cuts the richness perfectly.


Brownies vs. Lemon bars

There´s a dinner party tonight at my parent´s house. Nothing to do with Thanksgiving, just a plain old dinner party. Odd in that my mother doesn´t approve of dinner parties. Lunch, yes. She´ll have hordes to lunch every day very happily, but she likes her beauty sleep.
But sometimes these things happen. And I have been roped in to make the puddings.
We´ve had very long discussions. My views on the subject can be summed up in one sentence: why have anything else when you can have chocolate?. My mother, on the other hand, is adamant. Fruit says it best, and among all fruit puddings, lemon bars are the ticket to paradise.
Both positions having been defended with strenght, in the end we´ll have both. I don´t mind baking two things, as long as I have help with the clearing up and a signed agreement that there will be some leftover when I go to lunch tomorrow.
So I´m not going to post the recipe for the prune compote yet. It was great, yes, but compared to the wonder of brownies and lemon bars everything pales.



I deeply regret this, but feel it is my duty to inform you that the soup was inedible.
The leeks became a greenish slime, the barley a mess of waterlogged burst white forms. The meat was grey, and not all that tender. It didn´t smell remotely appetizing, and the taste was sweet and bland, even after a good dose of salt.

What did I do wrong? Who knows.
Next time I make leek and barley soup I´ll do it like I always have, boiling the grains separately, and sauteeing the vegetables first, and using stock.

Meanwhile, J was beginning to demmand his dinner much in the manner of his infant daughter. So, in the end he went out to get a couple of pizzas, and we ended the working week very happily negotiating strands of melted, gooey cheese and slices of spicy salami.


Friday evening

Here is what´s cooking in the Lobstersquad kitchen right now. Will it be good? I´m sure it will. Laurie Colwin and Smitten Kitchen can´t both fail me at the same time.
I´m also poaching some prunes, following a Nigella Lawson recipe from How to Eat, but substituting Pedro Ximénez for Marsala. If it´s any good I´ll report back. I don´t see how it can be anything but good, though. PX, star anise, orange peel, cinammon, clove and sugar in a tea syrup as a poaching liquid; what´s not to like?
The drawing is nothing to do with anyghing, except that it concerns Don Quixote, which, like PX wine, and myself, includes an x in the name. More pics about it here.


Beans, local food and fuel waste

(This drawing has nothing to do with the subject, but I rather like it, and there´s no chance I´m ever going to post a recipe for yemas de santa teresa, so there you go. And on another off-subject note, here´s a blog I´m totally loving at the moment).

Eat local, seasonal. Buy from people who look like they have spent the past few decades buried in loam. Make a point of choosing the specimens that look more dubious, for they will be the most flavoursome and un-supermarkety.
City dwellers fall for it every time. We´re such suckers.
Take me. I was in La Granja last May. La Granja is beautiful, a small town in the mountains, built around an XVIII century royal palace, with the most gorgeous forests and gardens.
Now, you´d think it would have been enough to walk around and take in the beauty of the flowering chestnuts, but I was heavily pregnant at the time, and so rather lazier than usual. So we walked around the town, and browsed the one shop that was open, a little grocery store.
I love that kind of shop. Time seems to have stopped in many of them, and you find all sorts of fascinating packages of stuff you´d have sworn had stopped production before Franco´s death.
The one famous specialty of La Granja are beans, called judiones, which might be translated as mammoth-beans. So I bought a packet, even though I think cooking your own beans is a waste of fuel. This was all in the "support the yokel" patronizing townie thing. And in the way of such exchanges, I was made to pay through the nose. I staggered out of that shop clutching my wallet, and the beans sat on my counter for a while.
And now, finally, when I´m cooking them, I realize that ye olde merchantman has evidently sold me some very ancient, Franco-era beans. They are still rocky after a couple of hours on the hob, and a good overnight soak.
I don´t know if they´ll ever get to any reasonable softness, but in the meantime, I am bored, and more than ever confirmed in my rule: buy beans in jars, and only ever cook lentils.
And don´t knock supermarkets, they´re not all that evil.


Onion jam, redux

I can´t resist a shortcut, and I can´t resist raiding my mother´s pantry.
So when I saw a half-empty bottle of good Rioja that had been lingering for a few days, and spotted a couple of tins of Hida fried onions, I inmediately snaffled them for a trial at cheat´s onion jam.
Now, I´m not saying this is necessarily going to be my method for ever, but it works. The stuff still has to simmer for ages, but it does so unattended, and you save all the onion cutting time, plus your tears.
A jar of onion jam in invaluable at all times, for stirring into scrambled eggs, for sandwiches, cheese bruschetta, pizza, hamburgers, tacos , goat´s cheese salad or pasta, so keep it in mind.
The quantities, adjusted slightly:

Two tins of Hida fried onions
300 ml. red wine
a splash of Cassis
10 tablespoons of Sherry vinegar
140 gr. sugar

Simmer on Varoma, with the butterfly on, for 50 minutes ( I might use less wine next time, and only give it 40 minutes, just so you know. This is work in progress)

If you´re using a normal pan, you´ll have to stick around and stir it from time to time when it´s reduced.

Oh, and by the way, Foodbuzz is officially launched now, and I keep forgetting to post about it. Check it out!


Cheat´s Pilaf

So, here we are. Posting! Wow. Something that reminds me of my former life, before Groundhog Baby Day hit me in the back on the neck.
Actually, to tell you the absolute truth, my life isn´t all that incredibly changed in the tiny details. The Big Picture, yes. But the details? Not so much. I wasn´t glamorous, or thin, or constantly hopping on planes. I didn´t go in for dodgy stuff like contact sports, designer drugs, or investment banking. Mostly I used to be home, drawing or reading or cooking or hanging out with like-minded friends or family. And now I have a baby? I read, and draw and cook and hang out, only I do it at odd intervals, punctuated by attending to said baby.

Not that I´m adventurous in my cooking. It´s back to basics at the old home kitchen. Stuff I could do in my sleep. I might be reading, and busily flagging, recipes for Afghan Snowshoe Bread, Three-layered walnut torte with whipped cream, and Truck-stop cinnamon rolls, but what I´m doing is very simple stuff. And most of it seems to be rice.

What follows is a recipe I´m very proud of. I call it Pilaf Fullero, or Cheat´s Pilaf, and it´s very very good and totally easy, provided you have a rice cooker, and a bag of those nifty fried onions to be found in Ikea.
Now, don´t let me hear groans of "do you really need a rice cooker?", because yes, you really do. I daresay in a broader, cosmic sense you don´t, just like you don´t need a remote for the Tv. But life being as it is, I don´t understand why anyone voluntarily chooses to suffer rice anxiety, when it can be avoided for 40€.

Pilaf Fullero
being a very good-looking spicy, nutty, herby, elegant rice that can be served to the snootiest guests with pride.

First, take a skillet or big frying pan and drizzle some olive oil into it. When it´s hot, add a teaspoonful of cumin seeds (non-negotiable) and whatever else you like; allspice berries, a cinammon stick, mustard seeds, fresh ginger or garlic even.
When they´re fragrant, add 500 gr. long-grain rice. I don´t soak it, but be my guest.
Toss it until it soaks all the oil. Put it in the rice cooker with 610 ml. water and a pinch of salt. Turn it on.
Now, usually when I do this I´m in the kitchen doing something else, like chickpeas and spinach, so I´m on hand when it goes into "warm" mode.
This is the time to open the thing, fluff up the rice, and add a half cup of raisins. But if you´re not around, just leave it and remember to soak the raisins beforehand. Close, and let steam until you´re ready to serve the rice. This, as happy owners of rice cookers know and love, can be a few hours.
When you´re ready, add a good handful of chopped parsely, about half a cup, a generous cupful of the fried onions, and a golf ball of butter, cut in slivers.
Toss until the butter melts.
If you´re in lily-guilding mode, scatter toasted flaked almonds or pinenuts over the thing, and wait for the compliments.


Quick cake with plums

I´ve always had a bit of a cookbook habit, but of late it´s spiralled out of control. I´ve realised it´s the perfect reading when you have a new baby cornering the market for attention.

Cookbooks are cut down into very manageable chunks, so that even if you have the concentration span of a mosquito, you can generally get to the end of a recipe. There are no sub-plots, barring the occasional suggestion to serve with mashed potatoes. And always, always, there´s a happy ending: serves 4-6.

But this is strictly for entertainment. Now I only cook things that I know by heart, that are very simple, and can either be done ahead of time or in a very short flash. The soups, sandwich fillings, roast tomatoes or rice I might do while Pía lounges in her buggy and looks on with very mild interest. The quick stuff I reserve for just before dinner, when J can look after her and I am left alone. At the risk of sounding like an evil mother, I´ll say it´s a very relaxing break. I focus on the food, and the food only, and come back to my baby much refreshed. And I get to eat dinner, too.

The shopping is somewhat more erratic than it used to be, and I find myself with surplus stuff that needs to be used, fast. This is what I did yesterday with a bowl of plums that needed to be eaten. I´m very pleased with the result: a dead-easy, delicious cake that can be done on the spur of a moment (no need to remember to leave butter to soften), isn´t guilt-inducingly decadent, cooks fast and keeps very well for a day. I know that for a fact, because that´s how long it´s lasted, but for all I know, it might keep for longer.

All you do is use the batter for these little lemon cupcakes, sans lemon, and put it in a square pan of 21x21 cm. Then cut 8 plums in half, and arrange them in the batter so that you can later cut sixteen squares.

Bake as you would a normal cake. Sorry to be so imprecise, but my oven has no buttons. It took somewhere around 40 minutes in a mid to lowish one, with the heat coming only from below.
The result is a dense, slightly coarse sponge that surrounds quivering sweet fruit. Can´t wait to try it with pears.


Another blog header

I´d meant to post this picture ages ago, before the little mite was born, in fact. It´s the blog header for Lego y Pulgón, a favourite blog. Go check it out. It´s not all food, but it´s lovely. Just don´t blame me if you begin to feel very dejected at not being in the Canary Islands under flowering fruit trees.


With one hand

First off, a big thank you to every one of your very sweet messages. I´ve loved them all, and would have loved to answer each and every one, except that typing with one hand free and a baby in the other isn´t my forte, yet (I´m getting better).

This morning I managed a pretty impressive one-armed feat, and prepared toast with tomatoes and olive oil and salt. Slicing tomatoes, now, that´s not easy, beleive you me.
The baby ensded up covered in crumbs, which made me feel I´m not cut out to be anyone´s self-sacrificing mother. But hey, if I don´t have a good breakfast, I can´t keep up my status as a dairy queen, right?


Blog abandonment explained

Dear readers, this is the post where I Explain All. The abandonement of the blog, the not answering the comments and other faults in etiquette. It´s not because it´s too hot, or because I´ve left and gone to eat my weight in wild rasperries on a Baltic beach.
The reason, and you´ll have to agree that as reasons go, there´s none better, is that exactly two weeks ago I had a little baby girl. And it´s not that I don´t have time for anything else, exactly, because I´m staying at my parents´, and there´s always someone more than willing to hold the baby. In fact, there´s usually a group of bessotted adults standing round the crib.
But it´s proving kind of hard to not drool a lot, myself, so it seems to be all I do. And as for food, well, mostly I´m concentrating on producing milk, right now.
So it´s safe to assume that I´ll neglect the blogs a little, but I hope to bounce back at some point, and not stare at Pía´s toes for more than three hours on end.


Too hot to cook

Is anyone, anywhere, going into the kitchen for anything more than sprinkling lemon juice over chunks of watermelon? If so, you have my deepest envy.


The one and only kitchen tool for summer

Well, let´s face it: I don´t really like summer. I don´t mind being cooped up under a whirring fan in a darkended room, but I hate not being able to go out between 11 a.m. and 11 p.m.
There are millions of delicious summery foods I´d love to be eating, to make full use of the season´s bounty. But I´d rather cut off my foot than turn on the oven; my expeditions to the market are short and to the point, and have to be made when J is at hand to carry home the watermelons; and there are plenty of establishments happy to serve me icy beer and boquerones en vinagre.

So I have just one word for you, young man: "tin-opener". Summer is the time to rummage around in the cupboard and root out all those exotic jars you found at that darling little stall in the market in the pretty village. The chutney somebody gave you. The tinned fish you only bought for the cool graphics. The packet of slimy looking Oriental pickles. The tube of anchovy paste.

Bring ´em on, I say. It´s all very well to go on about fruit cobblers, clafoutis, coca, grilled fish and escalibada. The truth is, when the thermometer is in the 40ºC range, if you can slice a tomato you´re in Olympic endeavour territory, and good luck to you.

The picture is for a baking group (baking!! gasp! I just went slightly green), the Bakeanistas. Mary, of the Sour Dough blog (and check that out for great bread and new drawings at some point, too) comissioned it, and I had a lot of fun with the Wild, cool and swingin´ Sixties look.


Tote bags and summery dishes

Here´s a site I love: Reusable bags.

They have lots of different models for all sorts of bags that fold into tiny little pockets, perfect for carrying in a handbag and pulling out at the market or grocery store.

I don´t know about you, but I am terribly promiscuous in the market. With meat and fish I´m pretty faithful, but with fruit stalls, forget it. I have one guy for herbs, another for ginger, limes, avocadoes and mangoes, a third for apples and a fourth for all the rest of the normal stuff. And if the plum tomatoes are at 99 cents the kilo, I´ll have a fling with anyone.
I don´t like to arrive at a stall carrying the bag with the logo of another, and it´s my main reason for loving these tote bags.

Also, that they´re more comfortable and planet friendly. And you look so much better with a prettily stamped bag on your shoulder than with several ugly plastic ones dangling from your hands. What´s not to like?

On a more culinary note, here are links to the so-excellent and summery vichyssoise, and this salpicón from last year.


Fake-dukkah dip

I´ve spent the weekend in Galicia, or rather, on the train, which takes all of eight hours to get there, and eight back. Rather cuts into the w/end, and it made us late for the game yesterday, but never mind. Spain won the European football championship, and aren´t we all glad to have passed a pretty sleepless night from all the shouting and singing.

If your team gets to the final (which Spain never had in years and years) you have to see six matches. You´ll probably see some of those with friends, and some will be at their place and some will be at yours. So you´ll be called upon to produce some kind of nibble to quiet the nerves and settle the stomach of the nervous fan.

Here´s a quick dip I made for the semifinals against Russia. I had Greek yogurt and I had cucumber, but no mint, my usual default combo. My dukkah tin has been empty for months, and though I´ve been meaning to mix up a batch, it´s clearly become one of those things I mean to do but never will.
But in the rush to assemble everything before the game began, inspiration struck, and I came up with a quick and pretty tasty alternative.

Fake dukkah dip

Heat up a non-stick pan, and throw in a handful of sesame seeds, some crushed nuts, and a spoonful of a spice mix. I had a tin of Nomu´s
"Moroccan Rub", but I think anything that has cumin and herbs is a pretty safe bet. Toast this until it´s fragrant, then lay aside to cool a little while you grate and squeeze your peeled and deseeded cucumber.
Mix cucumber and spice mix into the yogurt, add salt and pepper to taste (maybe not too much, if you´ll be dipping salty potato chips), and try to enjoy the game.


Strawberry ice tea

Yesterday we had Sunday morning pancakes, a rare occurrence, but one I really love. I make the batter, J makes the cakes, and we take turns to eat them while they´re hot, drenched in maple syrup and lemon juice.
I also tried to make a strawberry sauce to go with them, by boiling down some sorry looking frozen strawberries I had, with a splash of water and a couple of teaspoons of sugar.
But we gobbled up the pancakes very quickly, and the sauce looked rather gross anyway. I tried pressing it trhough a sieve it seemed ok, a syrupy dark red liquid.
I poured two tablespoonfuls of this, later, into some ice tea. And that I am very happy with. Sugar-free Nestea always needs some tricking out, wether a squeeze of lemon juice or a few mint leaves.
This strawberry syrup makes it a little pink, and changes the flavour just enough.
If you put pieces of strawberry in it, it looks so pretty that you feel you have to throw some kind of a tea party, complete with cucumber sandwiches and teddy bears.


Corazón de melón

Here´s another recipe from the blogging of yore (read the original post here).
The heat has finally arrived. I´m taking pains to close my shutters at noon, to top up the bottles of cold water in the fridge, and to plan my walks carefully, so I´m in the shade as much as possible.
Not that it matters, because when it´s hot it´s hot, and that´s that. But melons have arrived, and they´re always a compensation, wether eaten in chunks or served up, retro-style, with cured ham. Or in the chilled-soup version.
A chilled soup is a good thing to have around on 35ºC plus days like these. Especially if you have guests and want to look like you´ve made an effort, when all you have on the table is cheese and bread.
The only important proviso is that you make it with a juicy melon, the kind we call "toad skin". Galias or cantaloupes are not really going to be any use, because what you want is a fruity pulp on which to float your jamón slivers, nothing more.
So anyway, here´s your recipe, perfectly suited for a blistering day, or for that frustrating moment when you realize that the melon you lugged from the market is only so-so.

Cut the melon, blitz in a processor with a pinch of salt, a good sprinkling of lemon juice, and a grind of pepper. Serve in pretty bowls, and dot liberally with shards of serrano ham (the better the better, of course, but it won´t do to waste your prime ibérico on this).
That´s it.


Marmitako, reloaded

Ok, I´m not proud to admit this, but the Blogs of Note mention has gone to my head. I want to post all the time, anything, and keep those stats up.
However, I´m crazily busy. And there´s also the little thing of my fidelity. I don´t want to sound boring, but I tend to make my favourite things over and over, so it´s not like I can post new recipes every day for very long.
I´ve therefore decided to be a little sneaky, and re-post some of the old recipes from the dark ages of this blog, two years ago. But in order not to bore my faithful readers (hi, mum!), the drawings will be new, and everyone´s happy with that, I hope.
This is for marmitako, a beautiful bonito and potato stew from the Basque Country, up north. Now that white tuna´s in season, and hopefully not too expensive, you just have to make it.


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, the salt and some sugar (just a little, while nobody´s looking, and maybe a splash of wine).
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.


Ajoblanco: the other Spanish chilled soup

Ajoblanco literally means "white garlic", but I´ve seen it translated as "white gazpacho" (which it isn´t) and "almond gazpacho" (which it is, kind of). It sounds more chic that way, I guess, and that´s fine by me, because this is one very chic chilled soup, having almonds as a main ingredient, and being served with fruit floating inside. I also happen to think that the colour of ajoblanco is particulary beautiful, being of a very luminous warm white, nothing like the creamy white of a vichyssoise, or the eggshell of horchata.

Gazpacho will always remain the favourite, because you really can´t beat a bowl of gazpacho on a hot day. But ajoblanco makes for a welcome change, being light and refreshing and, well, not gazpacho, which you might appreciate if you´ve been having it for lunch every single day of every summer.

This here recipe is my adaptation of the one in 1080 recetas. Basically, it´s just the same, but with half the oil. The one in Moro has lots more almonds and way less bread, which I daresay is lovely and luxurious, but since at home we´ve always made the 1080 one, and it´s so good, I haven´t bothered to try the Moro way.

The traditional way is to serve this with grapes floating inside, and maybe a drizzle of precious fruity olive oil. I was all out of grapes, or apples or melon (traditional subsitutes too), so we stoned a few cherries, and it was not only a delicious alternative, but very pretty. The fruit juice made pink swirls in the soup. I think I may have stumbled on a new classic.

Ajoblanco con cerezas

150 gr. raw almonds, without skins. You can buy them ready ground, too.
Garlic (one or two cloves, your call. I suggest you start easy and add more as you go)
100 ml. good olive oil
2 tablespoons Sherry vinegar
200 gr. bread, crusts off, stale if you have it but don´t go crazy if you don´t
salt to taste,
cold water
and grapes, cubes of Granny Smith apples, melon or stoned cherries to serve.

Soak the bread in water if it´s stale, and if not then don´t bother.
Throw the almonds into a food processor and grind them as finely as possible. Now add the garlic, bread (squeezed out if it was soaked), salt, olive oil and a bit of water and pulse til you have a paste.
Add iced water and pulse again, and then just add water until you have the consistency you like. I think ajoblanco should be thin and drinkable, like gazpacho, but there is a school of thought that favours the spoonable, slightly thicker stuff.
Add the vinegar, adjust the salt, and chill it thoroughly.

When it´s time to eat, check again for salt and vinegar, since the cold might have numbed their taste. Serve in soup bowls, scatter a few seeded grapes or stoned cherries, and leave the olive oil on the table for the drizzlers.

The image is courtesy of Agitado no batido , advertisers extraordinaire and its legal owners.



Lobstersquad was on Blogs of Note!!!
Very incredible. To celebrate, I´ll tell you about the dessert we had at Oriza last week.
Egaña Oriza is a wonderful restaurant in Sevilla, some say the best in town. The chef is a very good friend of my parents, too, so it´s a special favourite of ours.
Over the years the menu has changed, and my favourite pudding had dissappeared, but we pleaded nicely and it made a comeback, just for us.
The silly thing is that it´s so easy to make, I don´t know why I haven´t had it in millions of years.
All you have to do is fill a big goblet half and half with fresh orange juice and cava (sparkling white wine), and plop a ball of good vanilla ice cream. Bring it to the table with a couple of straws.
It´s really really good, a mix of tangy and sweet and mellow and sharp and bubbly, and a not too heavy ending to what is usually a heavy meal.
Thank you for all your very sweet comments.


Cheese and mayonaise?

I feel strongly about sandwiches. I love them, but most of all I hate to see them badly treated. A bad sanwich is an insult. Pies, soups, sauces- they can be tricky. Anyone might be distracted at a critical moment and overcook pasta, or burn a sausage. But to make a bad sandwich requires truly obscene sloppiness. You don´t even need great ingredients for a great sandwich. A colection of packets and jars from the dingiest corner shop will have you more than ready to play.

I have been raised in a sandwich loving family. Each one of us has our different take on the things, but we all acknowledge that my sister Gadea is The One. She can turn the least promising heap of ingredients into a tower of beauty. Never mind that the chicken was dry, the lettuce limp, the tomato a sorry January specimen. Put it in her hands and it´s instant couture.

My only quibble with her was our cheese/mayonaise-tomato/butter argument. I have always held that a sandwich that holds cheese should never have mayonaise, and that tomato and butter have no place together under a bread blanket. She disagreed.

And you know what? After years and years, yesterday I skipped my rule, tried it her way, and o my. We were so happy with our sandwich that we watched the entire Switzerland-Turkey football match, and really, that takes a lot of blissed out unconsciousness.

Surprisingly good Chicken Sandwich

Heat up the panini grill.
Shred the chicken (roast, boiled, whatever you have), mix it with mayonaise.
Slice some cheese that melts well. I had semi-cured manchego.
Fill two slices of wholemeal plastic bread, crusts off, with chicken mix. Top with cheese slices and grill.
Meanwhile, thinly slice a tomato and some good sweet-sour gherkins.
Once the sandwich is toasted, open it (careful with those fingers, you know it will be hot). Try to ignore the rather disgusting way it looks, with all that melted cheese and mayo goo.
Overlap the tomato slices, salt them slightly, arrange the pickles, and top again.

Bliss. Utter and complete. We also had chips from a bag and some cucumber mint raita on the side, just for kicks.



And, no, since you ask, the livin´ ain´t particulary easy. Or summery. It´s been rainy and cold, and there´s been a lot of work to do. Cherrires have appeared in the market, and it seemed odd to spit the stones while looking out at the grey sky. But nice.
I´m in the throes of a love affair with sardinillas, the little sardines that come in tins, eight dainty darlings nestling in a bath of olive oil until the minute they´re called on to lie on top of toast and tomato.
There has been a lot of drooling since I was given a copy of Martha´s cookie book.
And a certain measure of microwaved popcorn, of the sort that´s made in a normal paper bag, with just corn, olive oil, salt and pepper, zapped on high for two minutes.
I hope the work will slow down, or my energy perk up, but let me tell you, once summer starts for good, and it will, then I´m bound to crawl into the shade and stay there.


Masa monster no-knead bread

Well, what do you know? It works!
It works, even though everything went wrong. Let me tell you.
First, I intrigued to get my pal Guru on board. She is the recent posessor of a KitchenAid, a fact that makes my face blotchy green every time I think about it. I thought this sounded like a perfect recipe to try a deux, even if thousands of kilometers apart, as she is an expert bread baker -and in this instance I would have no spells of jealousy, as there´s no machinery involved.
We made our doughs, and compared notes the following day. Regrettably, instead of a substance recognizable as dough, we both had a gloopy mess that Guru lost no time in christening "la masa monster", which translates roughly as "the monstruo dough".
Still, we went ahead, because it had certainly risen in a very satisfactory manner, being full of bubbles and life, in the manner of a pestilent swamp.
Instead of the usual method of patting the dough into some sort of bun shape and making a round loaf, I splashed the creature into a piping hot Dutch oven, gave it twenty five minutes covered, and fifteen uncovered.
Amazingly, it turned out fine. Because my le creuset pan was very big, I had a very low, almost flat bread, but it was hollow and golden, wonderfully crisp outside, airy and chewy inside.
The flavour was so good that I didnt´bother with butter or oil, until the next day, when it had gone flabby (but not stale) and began to benefit from light toasting.
I made the dough on Friday, and baked it on Saturday, so I can´t vouch for the waiting time making it so much better. Yet.
I also tried adding more flour to the remainder, because it seems that flour isn´t quite te same over here on this side of the Atlantic.
That has been sitting there patiently for four days now, and it´s time to put it to the test.
Will it be as spongy? Will it be as good? You´ll know soon enough.


The bread mission

There´s a new bakery in our neighbourhood, Cosmen&Keiless. Brought to us by the self same Hespen&Suárez, it makes the fourth place within shopping-with-a-market-trolley distance where you can pay over 2€ for a loaf of excellent bread.

Now, I´m as snobby as anyone when it comes to bread, and I care enough about it to take the trouble to go and get it and pay through the nose for it, especially if it´s a main element in the meal I´m preparing.
But there are limits to my patience, and soon there will be limits to my pockets, at this rate.

As I was having my fresh bread and butter with Marmite and browsing a few blogs before beginning to work, this popped up on my bloglines. A sign! A few searches more in Food blog search and I was armed with a handful of recipes from the book that seems to have everyone raving.

All I need now is a jumbo bag of flour and some faith. I just can´t beleive it works, it sounds much too good to be true, but hey, so did the roast pork, and look how well that turned out.

I hope to report on my progress next week.


The best chicken sandwich?

Ok, here´s a confession : I´m a pathetic roaster of chickens.
There, it´s out, and I feel much easier.
I can roast a bird with enough decency that it´s edible, of course. I would even rate myself in the "not bad" bracket sometimes.
But that plump, juicy bird, tender and flavourful, burnished like blonde mahogany and oozing pints of gravy? Hardly.
I blame my oven, which is the easy way, and have learnt to live with chickens in which the breast is delicious and not dry at all, and some of the dark meat is still slightly underdone.
We eat one of the breasts, both legs, the crunchy skin and the roast onions. I save the carcass for stock, pick the pinky not-that-good-looking dark bits for later use in creamy sauces or risottos, and jealously guard the untouched breast and the leftover gravy.
Because if I make indifferent roast chickens, my chicken sandwich is second to none, I think, and it´s what keeps me coming back to the oven to roast birds. Rotisserie chickens taste great, but I shudder to think what dodgy farm they grew up in, and what exactly is in that sauce.
If the chicken I have to play with has been poached, not roasted, then I go for all the heavy artillery of bacon, avocados and tomatoes. If the bread is only so so, then I toast it.
But when I have proper bread, from La Tahona, then I just lay a crisp lettuce leaf on it, and top it with the chicken.
Which, if it´s good, just needs some mayonaise, Helman´s for choice, perked up with lemon juice and a bit of olive oil, and the essential touch for it to be really sublime: a couple of spoonfuls of jellified gravy.
That gravy is full of chicken flavour, and of oregano and lemon and garlic and pepper, too, and it´s the touch that elevates the sandwich. I beleive it to be the secret ingredient in the ones they make in La Marina, and so am always careful to save the last drop of sauce and juice, even if it means smacking J´s hand as he mops everything up enthusiastically.
Of course if your roast chicken is amazing, then maybe you won´t have enough leftover for sanwiches, and that´s something you´re going to have to live with.
Unless your oven fits two chickens.


Three epiphanies: café frappé, roast pork and lemon churros

Madrid is in the middle of a long long weekend. These are lazy times. If you stay in the city it takes at least a couple of days to wipe off the smug grin off your face when you hear the horror stories of people locked in nine-hour traffic jams on the way to the beach.
Turning on the computer is an act of sheer willpower. Particulary since to get to it I have to leap over a Scalextric set I´ve been lent (childhood dream), and a pile of rubbish J has promised to throw away after my crazy bout of clearing up yesterday.
So. This post is going to be a lazy, catch-all post, but it will be full of useful stuff. In the past weeks I´ve had no less than three epiphanies, but they are all such simple stuff that I can´t justify a whole post for each of them.

Number one falls under the category of the "how is it possible that it took me 32 years to do this". I can´t understand it, but there it is. A lifetime of sprinkling lemon juice and sugar over pancakes and crepes, and it never, ever, ocurred to me to do it on churros. A true eye-opener. Crunchy salty greasy churro and sweet sugar is a classic, but it can be a bit heavy. The lemon brings freshness and tang and danger: you end up eating quite a few more than you would otherwise.

Number two is, again, one of those duh moments. It took my cousin Pablo to mention the frappé method with Nescafé to send me hurtling to my cupboards to hunt down the cocktail shaker I received as a wedding present and never used (I´m a basic elemental gin and tonic girl, you see).
The pricey and not-really remotely good iced latte of Starbucks can be done at home with minumum fuss and maximum fun.
Just put 2 oz. milk, 3 oz. water (Euro meassures would be 50 ml and 75 ml), ice cubes, a spoonful of Nescafé and sugar as you like, inside a cocktail shaker or a glass jar with a trusty lid.
Shake the hell out of it, dancing to Carmen Miranda, or not, as you will, and pour the icy milky coffee with its creamy beige frothy head into a big glass.
This is a small quantity, but the shaking is such fun that I´d rather make two small ones than one big.

And finally, three. The Dutch oven method for pork shoulder. People. Seriously. What took me so long? I´ll tell you; it seemed too good to be true, that´s why. I just plain didn´t beleive it would taste better than an effortful way. Normally I slow roast my pork shoulders, basting from time to time, and it´s very good, juicy and flavourful. I´m not saying I´ll abandon that
method forever, because it´s hardly a big deal, but compared with the total ease of this other one, I´m not sure.
All I did last Wednesday was put the 1 kg hunk of meat with the ingredients of this marinade in the covered pot and leave it in a low oven for 3 and a half hours.
At the end, the meat really and truly fell apart. It was golden, and when brushed with the thick syrupy gravy, a thing of true beauty.
True, it becomes a shreddy, jellified mess at the slightest touch, but when has that ever been a problem?


Jet lag and how to feed it: a beautiful sandwich.

Hardcore fans of Laurie Colwin will recognize that as the title of one of her essays. I´m going through a particulary strong LC phase right now, reading all her fiction. Her food writing I know by heart, almost.

Last week J came back from a congress in Vienna. I didn´t pick him up at the airport, tut tut, but I did compensate by having a good meal waiting for him. Sure, a Vienna-Madrid flight is hardly a Lindbergh-esque exploit, but I find that any sort of waiting around airports takes its toll these days, and well deserves a treat.

Now, Laurie says that someone just off a plane should be given soup and a sandwich. But J was arriving at 5, and that´s mots emphatically not soup-time in Spain. All hours are good for a sandwich and some cake, though, so I made a cute little Victoria sponge, complete with strawberries and jam, and prepared all the ingredients for this awsome sandwich, which has now entered my files as the

"Welcome back from Vienna awsome sandwich":

Crusty bread, baguette or good oldfashioned "barra"
Balsamic sausages
Onion jam
A perfect avocado
A tomato

The assembly is as simple cutting a good sized portion of bread, taking out some of the white crumb, smearing one side with onion jam, topping with slices of the avocado and tomato (and salting them a little)- and then finishing off the job with the sausages cut into thick wedges.

This sandwich has everything: the crunch from the bread, the fatty cloudy factor from the avocado, satisfying and savoury protein from the sausages, oomph from the onion jam and freshness from the tomato. Per-fect, good at any time, and just the thing to get you ready for a slice of cake, a shower and a long walk admiring spring in the Retiro.


Food illustrations for Telva

The May issue of Telva Telva magazine is out. It comes with a little book of recipes for rookie gourmets, illustrated by yours truly.

Everyone in Spain go buy it inmediately! I haven´t had time to go into to it fully, yet, but apart from its extraordinary beauty, it looks like there are good recipes inside, and lots of tips.

I´ll report back as soon as I´ve tried and tested the intriguing concept of the bisque made from tinned mussels (always been one for striking the iron while it´s hot, you see).


Memento mussel soup

The joys of spring, as seen last week:

Buying asparagus from a farmstand covered in blue tarpaulin, by the side of a field. Is there anything a city slicker loves more than some residue of mud on their vegetables?

Podding peas and eating the tiny ones straight away. Sweet.

Marinading strawberries in balsamic vinegar and brown sugar, a la Nigella. The only way to make silly huge fresones edible, really.

Splashing home under an umbrella, and stepping in puddles.Lovely lovely.
If you live in a desert and there´s a drought, you won´t complain about rain, but it might pose a bit of a catering problem. You can´t give dinner guests a trim dinner of steamed asparagus with poached eggs and strawberry cake; they´ll freeze. But you can´t really trot out lentils and apple pie.

The answer? Memento mussel soup. Memento being a restaurant where they serve a beautiful starter of mussels with chistorra (a light cooking chorizo from Navarra). It always has us clamouring for more bread to dip in the rust-red strong sauce, and seemed like a perfect springboard for a good soup.
My version is soupier (duh) and lighter, and has gone straight away into the folder of "things I´ll be making again and again".
It´s good, and it´s easy, and it´s quick, provided you buy cleaned mussels or enlist help.
I served it with a home made focaccia, which was pretty amazing, but any crusty bread for making boats will be great. Provide plenty of napkins and maybe finger bowls.

Memento mussel soup

2kgs mussels, cleaned and debearded
100 gr. or so of chistorra, or any other cooking chorizo
a bunch of spring onions, or three shallots
2 cloves of garlic, minced
4 smallish tomatoes, grated (or a 1/2 kg. tin, which will give you more liquid, and lucky you)
salt, pepper, dried oregano to taste
1 tablespoonful flour
300 ml or so of liquid (white wine, beer or both)
olive oil
Creme fraiche, or any thick cream

Begin by sauteeing the chistorra in olive oil in a big pan that will hold all the mussels later, until it´s released its fat and it´s beginning to crisp up. Add the spring onions. After a couple of minutes, add the tomatoes and garlic. None of this has to cook down a lot, but give it a couple of minutes, too. Now add the flour and stir til it dissappears, and stir it around for a bit more so it won´t taste raw.
Pour in the liquid and stir until it´s thickened and the alcohol has evaporated. Throw in the mussels, cover, and, taking the pan in your mittened hands that are also clamping down the lid, give it a good shake.
Do this again a couple of times (males of the species are good for this job. recruit one). Check after three minutes. If there are a lot of unopened shells, leave it another minute.

Now serve in big deep bowls, as many mussels as you can, plenty of the soup and a blob of sour cream (with chopped parsley or chives if you have them, for prettiness). Put a big salad bowl for the shells on the table, alongside some hot sauce. As people eat, their bowls will be ready for more, so top them up.

Serves 4 as dinner, with fresh bread, or 8 more timid souls as a starter.


Best ever stuffed peppers

Oh the guilt. Albatross round my neck, dammit! This won´t do. I feel guilty enough about enough things, to have to add a blog to the list. So finally I drag myself to the computer and here I am. I feel I´m fobbing you off with a photo of my cooking notebooks, but that pepper is the illustration I did ten years ago when writing doen this recipe, so at least I´ve done some archival effort.

We had a visit from Pille and K. of Nami-nami.
Not that that´s an excuse. I´m just mentioning it. We had the best four days of food related talk, and of eating and tasting and cooking and sightseeing, and it was wonderful and fun. But the retribution wasn´t long in coming, and I had to work, and so I hung up the apron and lived on toast for the rest of the week. Do you beleive that? No? Well, it´s almost true. I also had a lot of pollen chocolate, and yogurt with sea buckthorn muesli. Perks of having friends in the Baltic, you see.

Anyway, I´m going to post a recipe for the peppers Pille and Kristjan had at my parents´. These peppers are the most wonderful thing ever, and if I haven´t blogged about them before, it´s because I´ve never cooked them before, and it feels a little bit like cheating.
The thing is, these are the special, for-guests-only, best-in-the-world stuffed peppers, and they are only made at home, by Escolástica, when the occasion merits. It´s never entered my mind that I, your humble self, can ever come close to the effect.
However you, labouring under no such a heavy weight of tradition, can have the recipe and go ahead and made these beauties, thereby making friends and influencing people. Here they are.

You need as many red peppers as will comfortably fit the tray in your oven. Here in Spain it´s very usual to find red peppers the size of rubgy balls, and those aren´t very good, since you can only fit four, and one of the beauties of this dish is the ease of portion control. You don´t want the petite Dutch cricket ball type, either. Try to find ones that are the size of a tea mug. Am I making sense? I feel not. Anyway. The perfect type of pepper will have ten or eleven snugly nestling side by side in a standard oven tray.

Ground meat, 600 gr. We like a mixture of beef and pork.
One green pepper, one onion, one 1/2 tin of tomatoes, 2 cloves of garlic, 1 bay leaf.
Two cups of rice. At home they use parboiled, and much as it pains me to say it, it´s wonderful in this dish. It´s the only time I don´t mind parboiled rice, but of course sticklers go with any long grain variety that gives you confidence.

Heat the oven to 170ºC

Take your biggest frying pan and fry the mince for a few minutes, until it´s no longer pink. Set aside.

Now make a sofrito, which, as you know, consists of chopping finely your onion, sauteeing it in plenty of olive oil, adding the chopped green pepper, waiting a bit for it to wilt, and then throwing in the tomatoes, bay leaf and garlic (I add a good handful of sugar too). When it has reduced to a fragrant dark pulpy mess, it´s done. You should probably make it salty, as the peppers will be unseasoned.
Now add the meat and the rice, and turn to coat well. You want a homogenous mix, and you want to rice to be nicely coated with all the flavorings and oils.

While the sofrito reduces, you can spend the time cleaning the peppers, which you do by carefully cutting round the stem, and keeping that bit; then cleaning the inside of seeds and that white membrane thing. Be careful and don´t break them.

Now fill them with the mixture. Go easy. They should be filled more than half but less than three quarters, as the juice from the peppers will make the rice swell. Put the stem lids back on.

Coat them with a slick of olive oil, put them on their sides and bake them for an hour. Turn them over (careful now! go easy and use a couple of very wide spoons), and bake for another hour.
At the end, they will be sticky and glossy, charred in places and smelling so good that you will want to eat them all.
Don´t forget to dip your bread in the oily dark goo at the bottom of the tray.


French(ish) onion soup, no tears, some lies, some remedies.

If it´s cold and blustery and you have lots of onions to use, and the only other things in the house are a rather old hunk of Manchego cheese and a slightly passé mollete(bread), what do you do? French onion soup. Of course.
The problem is that a proper onion soup takes forever, what with the slicing and the browning and the many hours that go into good beef stock.
Then I remembered a Nigel Slater recipe I´d read in his Kitchen Diaries: onion soup without tears. Nigel chirpily halves some onions, dots them with butter, roasts them to goldeness and in they go into the pot. A gloriously dark comforting soup is achieved in less than no time, and with vegetable stock. Wow.
Can such things be? I don´t think so, my friend.
Well, maybe I´m just incompetent. Or maybe Nigel was bending the truth a little. Or lying in his teeth, even.
Whichever it was, my onions, after double the time N said, and even though I´d shaken them about a few times, were black on one side, white on the other. Cooked through, sure, and the house smelt like a French bistro (which it still does, by the way) but they didn´t look even remotely like the sort of brown limp mess you expect to begin a soup with.
Since my stock options were half a litre of great home made chicken stock, and a litre of Aneto low salt chicken stock, which is a tad on the bland side, and interestingly pale, I´d clearly need something else in the way of kick and colour.
Gallina Blanca has the nerve to sell an ersatz beef stock that contains 0,1% beef extract, water, 0,1% beef, caramel and flavourings, and yet tastes slightly beefy. So Bovril and caramel seemed like a good idea, as long as I upped the percentages.
I cut up the big onion wedges with a pair of scissors, which certainly beats the tearful chopping. Then I started with the cheater´s ingredients.
First, the wine. If the wine is dark, all the better. Red is a possibility, but I opted for Pedro Ximénez, because I wanted to finish off a bottle and because I decided I´d give the whole thing a Spanish twist.
A glug of sherry brandy seemed like an excellent idea, and while the alcohol burnt off, J and I had a tug of war with the caramel bottle. By the time we had it open, it was time for the stocks, a good spoonful of dark caramel and a teaspoonful of Bovril.
Twenty minutes of brisk simmering and, magic, the thing really resembled a good old onion soup.
The mollete was toasted, the manchego was grated, the bowls went under the grill and the whole thing was perfectly beautiful.
The next time I´ll cook my onions on the stove, or I might even, if really really lazy, use a couple of tins of Hida cooked onions. With that, and the doctoring of the stock, we´re talking some seriously decadent practically instant comfort food.
Now that´s a real soup without tears, and it works, too.


Cooking lessons for the holidays

It´s a holiday in Spain. A very long weekend to spend frying torrijas and squinting at processions through clouds of incense. Or flopped on the beach. Or being lazy in Madrid and enjoying the empty city.

We´re having a tad more activity than that, however. My sister María has decided to learn to cook, and so we´re having a Karate Kid Holy Week, with myself in the role of Mr. Miyagi and she as Daniel San.

I´m a very stern pedagogue and have insisted from the first that she learn to hold a big knife properly, keep it sharp, and chop all the onions. So far we´ve done tomato sauce, both normal and Thermomix-cheat; chicken curry; sauteéd greens; beef stew; and a salmon escabeche for tomorrow.
Today we´re onto the rice for the curry, more vegetable stuff and roti. We´ll also cover buttermilk biscuits and possibly some form of cookie or cake as the week progresses, if my pupil´s patience holds.

How does that sound? I think it´s all stuff that isn´t hard to do, or complicated, and the skills involved are pretty similar, so confidence grows.
It´s not the usual Spanish canon, and I bet I will get many a raised eyebrow for not starting out with bechamel sauce for croquetas, with albóndigas (meatballs) or with cocido. I love all these dishes, but I find them too fiddly to be sprung on a novice.
Tomato sauce will always be the true test of a beginner, not the proverbial fried egg. From tomato sauce you can jump to curry, or to baby squid in ink, to pisto or to a quick cheat´s potaje. Fried eggs will only lead you to cholesterol, and besides, I don´t know how to do them, so there.

I´ll be back next week, all rested from not having touched the computer in days. Have fun.

And if anyone has a suggestion for something that´s an absolute must for a beginner, please let me know; I´m all ears.


Tricking out leftover beef stew

The beauty of stew is that it keeps getting better and better until it´s over. But you might get a little bit bored. Or you might need to make it go further for unexpected guests. Or maybe you were planning to have a springy lunch, but the weather suddenly turned from Barefoot in the park to Doctor Zhivago, like this week in Madrid, and you want something hot and warming.
Whatever the case, it´s where your pantry comes into play. Lydia has been showing us the contents of her Perfect Pantry for a while, but now there´s a new feature of sneak peeks into other pantries, and you can have a look at mine. It´s far from perfect, but provided you have the basics, like onions and oil and such, a few odds and ends will make all the difference to leftovers. You´ll be able to cook up huge batches of the easy beef stew, with no fear of boredom.
Just shake off any notions of cooking for real ethnic authenticity and enjoy the ride with any of these clever stew makeovers.
1-Patatas con carne. Put your stew, potatoes cut into chunks, and stock to cover in a pan (of course by stock you know I mean water and a cube. Viva el MSG, I feel ever so vindicated by the New York Times!). When the potatoes are done, it should be a thick warming soup. If you take the time to start with a sofrito and add a dash of pimentón, so much the better.
2- Ragù. Put whatever meat and gravy you have, well shredded, in a pan with a jar of good bottled tomato sauce and some sugar (or ketchup). Leave to bubble down furiously while you cook the pasta. Don´t forget to add a couple of spoonfuls of the pasta cooking water to the sauce.
3- Curry. This can be as basic as frying some spice paste from a jar, adding the meat, and waiting for it to heat trhough; or as elaborate as you care to make it, with a good vegetable base and your own whole spices. I usually sautee onions and garlic and ginger and cumin and chili, add some curry powder, the meat and maybe some coconut milk or yogurt, maybe some tomato sauce, maybe both, and simmer it a bit while the rice cooks. I might throw in some frozen peas, too. They make a pretty contrast with the dark sauce.
4- Chili. Do the onion-garlic-pepper thing, add cumin and whatever source of heat you like, a dash of barbecue sauce, then the stew and a can of beans. Very lovely stuff.
5-Pie. Put the meat in a dish and cover with puff pastry. If you make a bottom layer of shortcrust, then it will be the stuff of legend. Serve with minted peas.
6- Go Middle Eastern by making a spiced sautee of onions and garlic (with cumin and ginger and maybe cinammon, whatever you like), add dried apricots and prunes, leave to soften a bit, then add the meat and simmer for a few minutes. Scatter some toasted almonds on top and serve with cous cous and you´re in business.


Very easy, relatively quick beef stew

I think beef stew, or any other meat stew, is one of the pillars on which one can build their cooking life. I would even put in the list of the basics everyone should know how to make, with tomato sauce, brownies, vinaigrette , biscuits and roast chicken.
If I don´t, it´s because it´s a lot more hassle than it looks, and if the result is going to be very homely, then I don´t want to spend a lot of time on it. Low effort, high impact is my motto.
The problem, for me, is the browning. That instruction, "brown, in batches, until all the pieces are dark", always sends my heart plummeting to my feet. Oh, sure, I know it´s important, I know, it adds colour and depth of flavour to the final dish, and we all want colour and depth of flavour in a stew, do we not? Sure.
But, but. Browning a kilo of meat takes at the very least half an hour. And it´s half an hour spent battling meat that spits, fat that sputters, flour that burns, and a deep prevalent smell of beef that, however appetizing to begin with, permeates every stitch of your clothes, wherever they may be in the house.
This is not cool. This means that I only make my deeply flavoured and highly coloured stew once a year, and that´s not a lot of flavour, divided by 365, not really.
So, last week I tried it without browning it first, and at the end of fifteen minutes of relaxed prep time and three hours simmering in a low oven, what did I get? A dark, robust, hearty and very deeply flavoured stew. Plenty of colour, because all the liquid was red wine, plenty of flavour, because the beef was excellent Guadarrama grass-fed.
From now on, this is the way I ´ll go, because I love stew, and J adores it. You can´t call something that takes three hours in the oven to come to a jellified quiver quick, or that´s better for being left lying around for a day or two. But if you think that the active time is very very short, I think you might. And if you´re nervous about your reputation, call it a daube. But frankly, once you´ve tasted it, I doubt you´ll give a damn.

Very easy, relatively quick beef stew

Assemble all your ingredients on your work top, and preheat the oven to 150ºC.
Heat up a heavy Le Creuset type cast iron casserole, or something that can later go in the oven. Cover the bottom with a generous layer of olive oil.
While it heats up, chop an onion, finely but without finesse. It will mostly dissappear. Chuck it in the oil, give it a swirl, leave it to sweat.
Wash two sticks of celery, take out some of the long strands, and chop it finely. Add it to the onion.
Peel two fat carrots and slice them into pinky-sized batons (you could make rounds, but I hate carrot rounds, myself).
Smash a clove of garlic, add it.
Give everything a stir with a wooden spoon, and check out if the onion is beginning to be translucent. When it is, add a heaping spoonful of flour and stir until it´s dissappeared.
Now add your meat (1 kg of stewing beef), and move it around until it´s gone from angry ruby red to ugly browny grey. This is a moment where doubt will assail you, but go on, trust me.
Once that´s done, you´re ready to add your liquids. As long as they´re dark, you´re in business. Guinness is good, as is red wine, and if you change the aromatics at the beginning, you can make a good mix with Shaoxing wine and soy sauce and a bit of stock. Tomato paste has a lot of fans, as do anchovies. Go whichever way you like, as long as you´ve got enough to cover the meat. I like to bung in a stock cube and a bay leaf.
Now cover the pot with foil loosely, and press is lightly in the middle so it makes an inverted dome. Cover the pot. This means that all the steam rises and falls back on your stew, rather than escaping the pot.

Put it in the oven, leave it for three hours. It will be even better the day after.


Food blog search

What was I thinking all week? Maybe all the nutrients from the organic veg have addled my brain. I forgot to mention Food blog search. Elise, not content with having the überblog Simply Recipes has now come up with this great idea, a search engine that allows you to look for recipes in food blogs (I´m not sure if search engine is the technical term, but I´m sure you get my drift).
I don´t know about you, but I´d much rather hear what a real life person has to say about a recipe than to battle it out with the bare lines stuff from Epicurious, good though that is.
I´ve had the pleasure of doing the illustration for the header, and also for the nifty search bar that anyone can add to their site.
Have a look, it´s really great.


The organic box veredict, and artichokes vinaigrette.

So, my organic vegetable box arrived on Tuesday, promptly at 8:30 am, just in time to slice a tomato for breakfast pa amb tomaquet.
A tomato, you say? I was surprised, too, but this is Spain, after all; the seasons tend to become fuzzy, especially in a droughty sunny year like this.
The contents were:
6 big tomatoes on their stems
a generous handful of cherry tomatoes
a non-curly head of frisee. I think I might swap this with my mother, and get her garlic shoots instead
tiny pickling onions
a head of broccoli
7 artichokes
four oranges, four pears, six bananas, and the courtesy parsley and bay leaves.

If I have one quibble it´s the plastic everything came wrapped in. If the stuff arrives in a neat little box, why do they need a plastic bag for each offering? Surely the box is enough, except maybe for the garlic shoots, which could have made everything smell, and which were, in fact, unwrapped anyway.

We used the garlic shoots in a risotto on Tuesday evening, with mushrooms (not in the box). Wednesday seemed perfect for steaming the broccoli and serving it alongside some rice noodles with minced pork and a nice and kicking garlic black bean sauce. Today for lunch we´ve had the cherry tomatoes in a salad, the artichokes with vinaigrette, and a fruit salad with a mix of the stuff in the box plus some kiwis I had.

The veredict so far? Very positive. I only signed up for this because they promised very fresh stuff. I don´t mind pesticides so much, really, but the idea of a piece of fruit being picked while very green and then languishing in storage for weeks seems plain daft. The rest, all the sustainability and ecology and good health are all very well in their way, I guess, but mostly a bobo concern that I´ll indulge as long as it doesn´t incomode me in any way. It´s the taste that matters. Yesterday´s broccoli may have been more chock-full of nutrients than others, but what leapt to the mind straight away was the fact that is was tender and almost buttery, and so flavourful that I didn´t add salt (though there was plenty of soy in the noodles, so that may have played a part).

So anyway, here´s my favourite way with artichokes. Rather than coring them ruthlessly and reducing them to just the tender little hearts, I like to strip them of just the very obvious hard outer leaves, and the tops. Boiled briefly, they are then allowed to cool for a little while, before being handed out, with little dipping bowls of vinaigrette. You tear out two or three leaves, dip the bottom, bite it, and toss the hard tops into a pile of debris on the side. In a few moves, you´ll be at the heart, and that you can dip whole and munch happily in its entirety.
I wouldn´t recommend it for a first date, but it makes for a more fun way of eating artichokes, and they don´t go so fast, after all that boring prep work.


True loves, and tomato sauce for dummies.

I´ve been on a slightly mad cookbook buying spree lately. The kind that takes place on the web, when you´re bored. Not a good way to buy books, not really. Some stuff is easy to choose, but a cookbook should be thumbed first, I think.
So anyway, I have all these new fellows looking at me from their high stack next to my armchair, and I feel only a slight guilt when I look at them. No love there. They´re one night stand books. My true loves have been knocking around the kitchen for years now, and can show battle scars ; they bristle with post-its, fall apart at certain pages, refuse to open at others where I absent mindedly left a greasy spoon.
This lot are general cookbooks, the sort that have the author´s favourite stuff, culled from many other books and friends, that have Japanese noodles and pizzas and steak sandwiches jostling happily in the index . They never fail me. And their most endearing trait is that no matter how much I think I know them by heart, every time I take them up there´s something I hadn´t noticed before, or had flagged and forgotten to try.
I could cook for many years from Nigella´s How to Eat, Nigel Slater´s Real Fast Food, Lindsey Bareham´s A wolf in the kitchen and Laurie Colwin´s two heartbreakingly short little volumes. All the others, they mean nothing, really, even if they´re fun to read.

The only exception in all the books I bought last year is Relish. I´ve posted about it before, and I mention it again because, even though it might turn out to be a passing affair, I think it´s here to stay. It´s cool and witty and makes you wish you were Joanna Weinberg´s best friend, and the recipes work perfectly.

The ultimate proof of its worth was the tomato sauce test. With every book, I always check out the tomato sauce and the chicken stock. If I don´t approve of the author´s methods and opinions, I don´t even bother with the rest. If I do, I nod in agreement, but them go on making things my way, because tomato sauce and stock are very basic things, and what are you going to change?

Well, Joanna´s tomato sauce has certainly won me over to the winds of change. The method is incredibly simple, and the result is a smooth, dark orange, very savoury and velvety sauce that can play any of the million parts tomato sauce can play, and play them well. If you want chunky, then it´s not the one, but trust me, if you try it you´ll want to make sure you always have some around ever after, because it´s like all ideal tomato sauce from a jar should be, and then some.

I make it with the Thermomix, since it has to be blended at the end, and I´m always nervous of sauce sticking to the bottom of the pan. I´ve adapted the quantities to fit the machine and my taste, but if you´re going the good old fashioned way, then make a bigger batch, and you´ll be glad.

Put 2 kilo tins of whole tomatoes, and their juice, inside the Th. Add one roughly chopped onion, 3 peeled whole cloves of garlic, 4 tbs sugar, salt to taste, maybe a little dried chili, and half a cup of olive oil.
Leave to simmer for 90 minutes, and when it´s cooled slightly, blend.
Th. instructions, make it 60 minutes at 100º speed 1, and then give it half an hour more on Varoma. Don´t blend it too long or it will turn orange, not that that´s a problem, but I´m just warning.


Good old Banana bread.

This drawing is one I´ve used already, but I can´t help using it again. For one, I really like it, and for another, it appeared on this blog almost two years ago, back in the days when only I and my mother read it. The quote is more or less from Wendy Cope´s The uncertainty of the poet.

The thing is, I can´t be serious enough about banana bread to do a special illustration for it. I just can´t. Even though I love it, I dont´think of it as proper food, but as something that belongs in the "cooking for kids" section.
It may be the name. There´s something so wholesome about it, it sounds as the sort of thing you´d have after a tofu burger. And the fact that the first instruction is to mash bananas, well, I ask you. Is that a worthy pursuit for anyone over four?

The only reason I cooked it the first time was that J loves it and says it´s his favourit cake(mind you, I haven´t seen him refuse a slice of any other). He must have picked up the taste in some summer camp stint abroad, because here in Spain we don´t do banana cakes much.

My recipe is adapted from Nigella´s How to be a domestic goddess. I´ve substituted most of the butter for a pot of yogurt, and left out a couple of spoonfuls of suger, because, well, since it´s not a serious cake, it shouldn´t have serious calories. But anyone wanting the uncut real McCoy can head over to Pille´s blog and check out the full glory version.

For all my apparent lack of enthusiasm, let me tell you that I make this cake a lot, and that it´s really great. It´s fragrant and dense and full of flavour, it keeps very well for a day or two (as if!) and freezes very nicely, making it a perfect breakfast, lunchbox or picnic sweet.

The most important thing is to start with really ripe bananas. Really. The barest minimum is a banana with little brown spots, but if you can hold your nerve until your bananas look deader than dead, so much the better. If you can smell banana every time you walk into your kitchen, they´re probably ready.

70 g sultanas

Rum or brandy, for soaking them

175 g plain flour

2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

50 g unsalted butter, melted (this may seem silly, but it makes a difference)
1/2 cup (125 ml.) yogurt

120 g sugar

2 large eggs

3 very ripe bananas (about 300 g peeled weight)

60 g walnuts, coarsely chopped
1 tsp vanilla extract ( I often forget this and it doesn´t seem to matter)

Put the sultanas and rum in a small bowl and soak for about an hour (again, if you forget and just bung them in, it´s ok) .
Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium-sized bowl.
In a large bowl, mix the melted butter and sugar and beat until blended. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then the mashed bananas. My method for this is to mix it all with a potato masher, eggs and all. Maybe it won´t rise so puffily, but who cares?
Stir in the walnuts, sultanas (liquour too, if you like, Pille´s tip, and very brilliant, too) and vanilla extract. Add the flour mixture, a third at a time. You will have a wobbly looking uneven mixture that will smell really good already.
I line my loaf pan with baking parchment, because it´s a pretty moist cake. Bake in the middle of a pre-heated 180ºC oven for about 50 mins/ 1 hour, and do the toothpick thing.
Leave to cool on a rack and try to hang around the kitchen for a while. It will seem that all the bananas in the world have vaporized and are having a convention in your house.