We´re packing up to leave for the south of Spain until after reyes. I wish you all a very fun evening of the 31st, a hangover free 1st and all the best for 2010.


Winter Caprese

I know, I know. Oximoron, right?
It´s just that after eating so much rich food every day I need a rest. The tons of smoked salmon and stuffed meat and roast potatoes and caramelized onions and the chocolate and polvorones, they´re great, but need some balance.
And since I found my favourite cherry tomatoes, pear cherry tomatoes from Pascual, in Murcia, practically given away at a Chinese grocer´s the other day, I simply had to do this.
It makes for a perfect dinner for two. A bag of fresh mozzarella, the tomatoes, sauteed, topped with either the last of some home made frozen pesto or a sprinkling of dry oregano.
Toast bread, or a few flour tortillas and you´re laughing.


Top 9 of 2009

I love a good end of the year best of list, so here is one: best things I have learnt to cook this year.

1- Bread. Tips that have meant I bake every week. One, that as long as I have a packet of gluten in the cupboard I am free of the whims of bakers who may or may not sell me strong bread flour. Two, that dough can sit around in the fridge happily for days, and be pulled off to make a small bun or a flatbread in a few minutes. Three, that this method works beautifully and can be taken in many directions, and makes for a fast, easy way to avoid turning on the oven or having leftover pizza luring you into the kitchen for dangerous snacking.

2- Korean pancakes. Wonderful stuff, the sort of thing to be knocked up for a quick dinner for two or a starter for a bigger dinner.

3- Brownies- I didn´t know that all you need for a hard, crusty top is to beat the hell out of the eggs, which will form a sort of meringue on top. Also, that you can bake a few spoonfuls of the batter and so have a quick chocolate hit in no time.

4- Yogurt. Easy to make, much better than any store bought stuff and quite fascinating, in a science project kind of way.

5. Poached fruit- Sally Schneider´s trick: poach it in white wine sweetened with honey and aromatized with cinnamon or vanilla. Right now I´m on a wintry kick of dried apricots, prunes, and eating apples.

6- Stock- I´ve always tried to have some on hand, but since my baby eats real food, I couldn´t be without it. Throw some frozen chicken stock, a couple of florets of broccoli cut really small and a handful of pastina, and while Pía has her bath, her dinner cooks.

7- Peanut butter- an unsual ingredient in Spain, but one I´m learing to love. It can stand in for tahini in a batch of hummus (ok purists, leave me alone, it really can) and give oomph to one of my favourite second-breakfast treats: a flour tortilla smeared with a teaspoonful of peanut butter, filled with poached fruit and lightly warmed/toasted in a pan. Yogurt also very good here.

8- Knife skills.Learn how to keep your knives sharp, and it´s a world of difference. If you can chop quickly prep time is whittled away to nothing, and so are cooking times.

9- Cooking makes me happy- I used to have tons of time to lounge around in the kitchen. Now I have less, what with a job and a baby who has learnt to open drawers and bang doors, and is only weeks away from lighting matches, I dare say. But I still cook all I can, and any five minutes snatched to make a batch of dough, or throw some bones into a pot, or mix a jar of dressing to have on hand in the fridge are relaxing and make me feel in control (as if!).

If only shopping were so easy and adaptable...


Asparagus soup

It´s a previously published recipe, and you can find it here, but I feel it is very appropriate now. Like every year, tins and jars of asparagus are flooding the shelves of shops, and turning up in every single Christmas gift basket, so you might welcome some ideas.
Of course if the asparagus are the real thing and come from Navarra or La Rioja and are the thick, good ones, just have them with mayonaise or vinaigrette, please. But upstarts from China or Peru masquerading under labels that look charmingly rustic and Spanish, they are perfect candidates for a quick warming soup.


Big cuts

Today is a holiday, and we´re struggling with a 6 kg front leg of pork (paletilla) that´s been in the oven for three hours already. It´s a test run for a pre-Christmas dinner we´ll have on the 20th. I´m too selfish to want to eat this amazing stuffed bird four days before the day, and then again, after having waited all year, so I´ve convinced my mother to let me try this.
Let me tell you, it´s alarming to manouver around a cut of meat that looks so utterly huge, but I have high hopes for this one.
The inspiration for the big one comes from this article. In the meantime, a reminder of a less unwieldy piece of meat, slow roast pork shoulder.


Empanada gallega

Empanada gallega is a pie from Galicia. It has a top and bottom crust and traditionally it´s a vehicle for leftovers; any bits of meat or small pile of seafood can become a gorgeous pie with some dough and a lot of slippery slow-cooked onions.

Being one of those traditional homely dishes, there are as many versions as there are grandmothers. The dough can be yeasted, use baking powder, or nothing. You can use the oil of the sofrito in it, or not. Liquids for the dough can be orange juice, white wine, beer, or milk. Strong words are sometimes exchanged on the subject of putting tomatoes inside. And so on.

As for the filling, anything goes, but make sure you use more onions than seem reasonable. It´s all about the onions, really. And my mother´s trick: a couple of hefty spoonfuls of sugar. Classic combinations are tomato sauce and tuna or sardines(from a can); peppers and onions with pork (pimentón optional); onions, salt cod and raisins; squid in its own ink sauce; peppers and onions with any shellfish or any of the more esoteric tins manufactured in Galicia.

I have been trying several versions, based on the instructions of several of my empanada instructors, and at last have decided on this. It´s an adaptation for the Thermomix, but is easily done by hand, and responds well to tweaking to suit what there is in the pantry. Although it seems to be a big production at fiest sight, like most things it comes down to experience: once you´ve made it a few times you realize that it´s easy, and impressive.

The filling:

The first thing you have to do is sautee a lot of onions and peppers, slowly. This takes the longest, but isn´t hard, as you know. However, if you´re in a hurry and need to get the pie off the ground quickly, a tin of Hida fried onions and a bottle of piquillo peppers, or a tin of Hida pisto will be great. I won´t tell anyone, just take out the trash before the guests arrive.

Mix this with the tinned seafood or meat and let it cool a little.

The dough (enough for a pie for 4/6. If you want a big one that takes up the whole oven tray, make two batches in the Th or a double batch by hand)

You need 80 grams of oil and 3 tablespoons of another fat. The oil can be from the tins of fish you´re using, or it can be fresh olive oil. The fat can be butter, lard, or bacon fat. Mix these with 80 ml of white wine, and heat them a little so the fat melts. In the Th. this is 50ºC 1 minute speed 1.

Now add approximately 450 grams of all purpose flour. You may also want to use yeast, in which case 1 sachet is what you want, plus a good spoonful of salt. I don´t bother with the yeast any more, and it cuts down on waiting time not to.

Either mix in speed 6 for 20 seconds until it forms a ball and then give it 2 minutes of kneading speed in the Th, or do it by hand. You want a dough that is smooth and soft and warm, very nice to the touch. As ever with dough, you might have to add a bit more liquid or more flour to get where you want.

Give it a rest while you preheat the oven to 200ºC. This usually coincides with the onions finishing cooking.

While they cool a little, divide the dough in two. Make a big rectangle, stretching the dough as thin as you can, and spread the filling evenly. Roll out the other half of the dough, cover the bottom crust with it, and them crimp the filling shut. Use the stray cuts to make decorations, make a few cuts to let the steam escape, and brush with beaten egg.

(Here´s a post with step by step photos. That pie is nothing like mine, but illustrates well the point I make about there being no two alike.)

Bake for about half an hour, until golden all over.

Do not, EVER, serve this piping hot. Warm is best, cold second best. Leftovers possibly best of all, and if you take it to a picnic you will receive ovations.


Smoked sardines in olive oil

I´m preparing a big post about empanada gallega, which has been something of an obsession lately. While I write it up, you can check out Pille´s version, which looks great and has the best possible and least Galician name: Galiitsia tuunikalapirukas.

This is just a quick Sunday evening post to highlight an ingredient I´m totally in love with: smoked sardines. You can buy these at the market if there´s a good stall with olives, boquerones, tuna and all the rest of the gang.
They are just sardine filets in oil, with a faint smokey taste. They are rich but not oily, and the taste is strong, but not overwhelming like it can be with anchovies. They are quite expensive, for sardines, but very cheap when compared with something truly expensive like wild salmon.

If you don´t want to take them home, Fide in c/Ponzano does a beautiful canapé that is just to die for several times over when paired with their classic Madrid-style beer caña.


Drop in and decorate

Just a little reminder to go and check out Lydia´s great job making cookies for donation. And if you don´t know the blog, then you´re in for a treat of browsing all the back archives.
I´m off to Santander for a book launch, hoping to eat some amazing fish. Back tomorrow.


Ugly, thrifty, wonderful fish soup

If you call something or someone "morralla", you are doubtless referring to "scum" or "bilge". It´s an insult. But actually what morralla means is the heap of fish and shellfish left at the bottom of the net, too small or too damaged to sell, and often used by fishermen in soups and broths. And that´s not so bad, surely?

I´d never had access to it because Madrid is far from the sea, and the fish that arrives, while plentiful, tends to be of the good-looking, important type. But yesterday I scored a handful of morralla, a beautiful, slightly scary looking lot of tiny sea monsters.

With the economy so bad and everything so glum, it´s great to know that you can feed four people with this hearty soup, and not feel deprived at all. It´s reasonably sophisticated, and tastes great. Which of course it might, since it´s served with Gruyere and rouille toasts, and frankly, what doesn´t taste amazing with that? Mind you, it starts out so ugly that you might think I´ve gone crazy, but trust me, this works.

It´s a very simple soup that starts, as so many good things, with a sofrito (and to be truly Provençal you should use fennel, and orange peel and saffron. But I don´t like fennel and had no oranges on hand, so I used leeks, and oregano and lemon peel, and vermouth instead of Pernod).
Then the whole fish and water to cover are added, and left to simmer for 40 minutes, until everything is falling apart.
Now comes the weird part: you puree it, bones and all. If it was ugly before, now it looks like an untidy sludge you wouldn´t feed your cat, but, patience. Strain it through a chinois and you´re left with a creamy thick soup.
I add a slug of sherry because I can´t help thinking it brightens up every soup.
Serve with grated cheese, toast and rouille.

If you can´t find morralla (and today already there was none at the market) then just do it with whole fish, cut in big chunks. Or buy a couple of whole fish and ask for them to be boned and filleted, and simply make a broth with the bones from your fish and any others the fishmonger may give you, and do this less alarming version.



Delicooks is a new food website in Spanish, and it´s beautiful, stylish, fun and helpful.
Also, there is an interview with yours truly, not in English so you´ll have to take my word for it that it´s perfectly fascinating.


Oven baked breaded fish

I love crispy crusty breaded fish, but since I don´t fry, I´d assumed it was something I´d never eat at home and that was that.
This is done in the oven, and is falling off a log easy, takes just a few minutes and comes out just great. There is no greasy fug around the house, and even though it pains me to point this out, it is a much lighter and healthier way of cooking.

Tamasin´s Kitchen Bible
, the book it´s from, is rather bossy in its insistence on fresh produce and seasonal stuff and what not. I agree in principle, but I hate to be told what to buy by cookbook authours, and it makes me hopping mad when they write "feel free to change an ingredient". Well,of course I feel free. It´s a cookbook, not Stalinist Russia. Are these people totally nuts or what?

All this is just to say that the fish I´ve used is some doubtless highly reprehensible frozen white fillet, and it was still delicious.

The recipe: preheat the oven to 180ªC, dredge the white fish in flour, then dip it in beaten egg, then in breadcrumbs mixed with parsley and lemon zest. It´s much better with home made, coarsely grated breadcrumbs.
Lay the fish on an oiled tray or baking dish and bake until golden, about ten minutes, but do check. It´s usually ten minutes per inch of thickness, but ovens vary, etc. That´s it. Easy easy, and plenty of time while it bakes to dress a salad and doll up some bottled mayonaise with lemon juice and olive oil.


Julie & Julia

Can you beleive it´s taken all these months for Julie&Julia to finally be released here? I haven´t waited so breathlessly for a movie since Return of the Jedi.
I loved it, of course, but I feel I must warn all viewers in Spain to watch it in English, because the voice over is a bit of a massacre. And also to watch a video of the real Julia Child (totally unknown in Spain before the movie), or they will come away thinking that Meryl Streep was on something stronger than butter.
And the bonus? This is the video I watched, and I tried the method tonight and got it perfect straight away. Magic omelette. Viva Julia.


Polenta in the rice cooker

The one thing I hadn´t tried in that Gourmet article about rice cookers  I go on and on about was the polenta. It seemed too good to be true, but I needen´t have been so mistrusting. It works a treat. You put the cornmeal and the water and a bit of salt and in a short while there is a creamy mush inside, beckoning with its promise of bland comfort.

I don´t adore polenta, so I wouldn´t be making vast batchces of these, except that I´ve discovered that my baby loves it. This is great because I can plug the thing when we get back from our evening walk and it´s ready by the time P comes out of the bath, hungry.

But even more wonderful, she is just as happy to be fed it the next day. Now, if I am to eat old polenta, it has to be grilled to a crisp and dusted with Parmesan, but P, bless her, knows no better, and is perfectly happy to it wolf down, barely warmed in the microwave. She finds it very easy to spear with a fork and eat it on her own, so it´s all win-win.

Therefore, even at the risk of being a complete bore, I will rework my mantra and say it this way : "parents of toddlers, get yourselves a rice cooker, NOW!" 

Seriously. I have always enjoyed the idea of food that cooks itself, but when there is a young varmint in the house who has just learnt the trick of climbing onto chairs and diving off them, it becomes a necessity.


15 minute emergency brownies

I don´t want to start with a tiresome cliché about how brownies are the little black dress of chocolate puddings, so I won´t.  I will say, though, that they´re an endlessly useful recipe, because everyone seems to love brownies, and they go with everything, and they can be served just as is for a picnic or dolled up with hot fudge and ice cream for your best dinner party.

Or so I think, anyway.

They can also be frozen, so that when you make a big batch and have leftovers you can remove temptation, a little. Once they´re frozen they don´t even have to be thawed; just slice them thinly  and you won´t miss any Swiss bonbon.

If they have one shortcoming it´s the  impromptu chocolate binge. From start to finish, including baking time and cooling time, it´s at least an hour before you can be biting into your brownie. Not bad, but sometimes not quick enough.

For these moments we have the wonder brownie, also known as the brownie-cookie (no, I won´t say brookie).

This is simply a scaled down recipe, made with just one egg, and baked in dollops, cookiewise, for just five or six minutes.

The result are about fifteen wodgy disks, chewy at the rim, fudgy in the middle, perfect for scoffing right out of the oven, or to serve any way you would a brownie, in case of a brownie emergency.

I made them on Sunday and it took me eighteen minutes from start to finish, but that included doing the sums, never my forte. Since you have it done already, count on fifteen minutes, tops.

Preheat oven to 180ºC.

Melt 65 grams of chopped chocolate and 65 of butter in a bowl in the mircowave, on medium, for a minute. Once out, stir thoroughly with a wooden spoon so it mixes really well. Add one egg, beat, add 65 grams of sugar, and 40 of flour. Pinch of salt, stir well and spoon onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Bake for six or seven minutes. 

In this time you can lick the bowl and spoon, wash them for real, make coffee and prepare a pretty tray.

A palette knife might be good to take the things out, as they´ll be still sticky in the middle.

Serve and astound friends and family. You´re gonna love me for these, I bet.

Oh, and if you want to make a proper tray, the recipe I use is Nigella Lawson´s from How to be a domestic goddess, minus 100 gr. of sugar. It´s here.


Bread, II.

I´m on a bread kick. It happens to me every year, but I would lie if I said it led to my making all the bread I eat. Usually after a few weeks my interest peters out.
But maybe this time it won´t. My last two loaves were so stellar, they may just have hooked me.
I made two, by the old hit and run method I wrote about, except that in one I used more water and it whooshed into an airy, domed creation. I also forgot to add the yeast to it, and bunged it in later, and mixed it without much hope. But it still turned out fine, so I´m beginning to think that it´s really no big deal.

One of the loaves, the normal one, smelled very yeasty on coming out of the oven, but didn´t taste so strongly of it. Not that I mind bread tasting of yeast. If it tasted of fish, or old socks, then I would worry, but yeast? Hardly.
However, I just bought the latest River Cottage book, and since I had the baby off my hands for the whole morning yesterday, I decided to try out the sponge method.

It bubbled away merrily all day yesterday, and the kneaded dough has risen admirably overnight, and now I´m waiting for it to prove. It seems to be a slow process but there´s no hurry. I´m curious to know if the flavour is really all so much better, because, frankly, that basic elemental bread turned out beautiful, delicious, and lasted all week.

So, while I find out about the supposedly fabulous bubbling sponge , here´s the variations on the basic recipe from the other post.

I used 350 gr. white flour, 150 gr. wholemeal, about a half cup of wheat germ, 40 gr. of gluten, a tablespoonful of dried yeast and one envelope of cultured buttermilk. This last is a very exotic ingredient that I´m almost running out of, but it´s just a question of using 1 cup of milk instead of all water.
The difference in this loaf was that I used almost 400 ml of water, which made the dough impossible to handle after it came out of the machine. But so much water means so much steam, and airy bubbles inside.
A sprinkling of cornmeal on the bottom of the loaf pan makes for a very good addition to a crackly crust.


Master mojito recipe from "Taste of Cuba"

Ah, Cuba... still as shabby and as gorgeous as ever. It was great to be back, even though the tropical summre heat knocked me flat.
Being deeply in love with Mad Men I was in a swoon over all the beautiful modernist architecture. We also went to Trinidad, a beautiful town that has managed to retain its XVIII century character without looking fake and over polished (unlike some bits of old Havana).
And the food? Well, Cuba has the sort of hearty Creole cuisine that I love, and staying at the house of a wonderful cook I was lucky enough to taste the best of it, which isn´t always easy for a tourist (or a Cuban citizen).
I could give you a recipe for beans and rice, or those fritters, or the amazing Key Lime Pie we had . Instead, I think I´ll do you a favour and pass on this great mojito, because that´s the best way to win friends and influence people, and if you´d been at the book launch, that´s what you´d have had, so here goes.

The beauty of it is that it´s a mojito base that you can make and keep in the fridge for any impromptu mojito madness. It will also make serving a lot of them the work of a moment, which, you won´t need me to point out, is great for a party.

Mix well, really well, like, shake the hell out of: 1 cup sugar, 1 cup fresh lime juice, a bunch of mint (stalks and all) and 1 75 cl bottle of 3 year old rum.
It keeps in the fridge for at least a month, as the rum in the mix keeps everything fresh..

When you want to make the mojito, just quarter fill a tall glass with the mixture, add ice cubes, sparkling water and a sprig of mint. Maraca noises optional.


Off to Cuba

There´s an exhibition of drawings from the book "A taste of Cuba" at the Biblioteca Nacional in Havana. If you care to browse a bit of the book, here´s a link. I´ll be back in a week, and report faithfully.


The bread post

So, here´s what I think is the problem with bread:

If you want to buy bread, you are lost between either industrial, cheap, pre-frozen or plastic stuff on the one hand, and artisanal, wonderful, insanely expensive things on the other.

If you want to make bread you find things that look easy but are only edible to earth-mother types who live mainly on sprouts and peanut butter. Or else you have to wade through weighty tomes written by people who all seem to have biochemistry degrees from the MIT.

I tried making Laurie Colwin´s bread, and Nigella Lawson´s simple white loaf. And they were fine, and they of course produce that magic buzz you always get when you take bread out of the oven. Sometimes they were better than others, and I didn´t know why. Now I think I do, and here´s what I´ve learnt: 

They will tell you about yeast being a living organism, and fragile, and precious, a being to be treated with all the respect due to your firstborn. Well, I take my darling one-year-old to the park in mismatched socks, and give her ice cream in public, and sometimes salt her food, and sure I get dirty looks, but she´s survived so far. So, accomodate the dough to your schedule. Leave it to rise overnight, or up the yeast a little to make it quicker. Don´t suffer. But if you don´t have time to let it rise, don´t go the yeast way, make biscuit dough instead.

Strong bread flour really makes a difference. I can´t always find an obliging baker to sell me some, but Guru stepped in to the rescue and told me to buy gluten from a health store. A spoonful of powder and voila, you have strong flour (I calculate around 10% of the four weight, a bit less, maybe, nothing to get hung up on).

The oven really really has to be hot. I mean HOT. So wait for it. But don´t bother with quarry tiles or trays of boiling water or anything that might put your life in peril. Do want a Bocuse d´Or or a loaf of bread?

That "will sound hollow when it´s done" is true, but it will also sound hollow when it´s slightly underdone, so watch out. And whatever you do, wait for the bread to be cold to slice it. I know it smells good, I know you want a piece. Believe me, I know. But wait.

Dough can stay around for a week in your fridge. This means you can pull out a ball and cook just what you need each day. And it´s where the flatbread thing really comes in handy. For feeding lots of people the oven is still best, but for one or two quick naans or pizzas, go the stovetop way.

My bread recipe

One day, maybe, I will try all those sponge methods that involve stirring a dough a hundred times in the same direction, and I will knead by hand, and I will locate caraway seeds. But for now, this is how I do it, in my trusty old Thermomix.

Put 500 grams of all-purpose flour, a teaspoonful of salt, a heaping tablespoonful of gluten and a teaspoonful of dry yeast in the bowl. Give it a whirr so they mix well. 

Now add 300 grams/ml of water. Mix on 6 until it clumps into a ball. See if you think it needs more water or more flour. Irritating sort of instruction, I know, but you just have to eyeball things sometimes.

Now put it on kneading position for two and a half minutes.

Turn it out into a bowl and either dust it with flour all around or give it a coating of oil. Leave it to rise, covered with a tea towel or plastic wrap. I usually make this around midday, when I remember, and leave it to rise over a few hours.

When it´s doubled in size, punch it down (that´s fun) and knead a little. Shape it and leave it to proof if you can. That just means you leave it to puff up a bit again, and then bake it as you will.

For pizza or focaccia I add a good glug of olive oil to the dough. For naans I substitute some of the water for yogurt (125 ml, since that´s the size of yogurt pots in Spain). Sometimes I make half wholewehat half white, and others I add wheat germ, and of course you can go the way of the seeds and nuts. It´s all fairly loose.

That amount makes four pizzas the size of a dinner plate, or eight naans. It can be kept in the fridge and pulled out as need be, so it´s as well to make the full amount, but the recipe can be halved easily.

The illustration if for Abe´s Penny.


Spanish mangoes

They´re in season! Whole boxes of them, fresh from Almuñécar, cheap and beautiful. I gloat.


Free from flatbread fear

One of the few cookbooks that has survived my cull is Flatbreads and Flavors. I´ve had it for a year, and I´ve picked it up and put it down many times, but I´ve never cooked from it. For one thing, it is almost off-puttingly cool. I´m not always in the mood for the off the cuff "we got this recipefrom a Tajik woman milking a goat outside her yurt when we were cycling in the Chinese Pamirs". If it catches you on one of those "Am I measuring my life out in coffee spoons?" days, it might tip you over to the suicidal.
On more settled, serene days, however, you can acknowledge with grace the fact that if you´ve never cycled in Guadarrama you´re unlikely to do it in the Chinese, or any other, Pamirs, and that that´s ok. But when you think of making the flatbread you quail. It looks complicated, there are quarry tiles invovled, and a process where you have to open and shut the oven door seventeen times, not to mention tackling something called a sponge. With a weary sigh you think that there´s as much chance of making injera as of climbing some Hymalayan gorge, and open a bag of flour tortillas instead.

The book is chock full of other things besides bread, though, so you can have a field day with curries and condiments. So all is not lost.

Unless, that is, you suddenly perfect a great method for making flatbreads. One that will win no smiles from Neapolitan grandmothers, and would make a Pakistani mother in law faint. But do you care? You can have a beautiful, golden hot slab of holy glory on the table in a few minutes, and who cares if it´s called pita or naan or fougasse or what? It´s there and it´s delicious, that´s all that matters.

It´s from The Kitchn, and it´s brilliant. Once you have your dough (and you can buy it, you know, so don´t complain) all you do is heat a covered skillet and cook a pizza or a naan or whatever inside. It works just as they say, except that you should definitely turn down the gas once you turn the thing. Brown spots are lovely, charred, blackened crust, no.

Also, I find that best results come from a heavy non-stick skillet, topped with a cast iron lid. This heats up in no time, and you don´t have to waste a lot of time and energy, and make your kitchen a living hell in summer. I think of this as the easy-bake tandoor, and it´s brilliant.

As for doughs, I have found out a heap of things in my experiments this week, and will Tell All in the next post.


Quinoa in a rice cooker

In the two years since I discovered the gizmo, I´ve become a recognized rice cooker bore. I love my rice cooker so much, you see, I just can´t shut up about it. And since it´s so cheap, I´ve embarked on a near-reaching campaign to spread the gospel, and have given away several to deserving friends and relatives.
Not everyone is with me on this, and on receiving a largish box, they say, oh, but it´s so big, and where will I put it? It only makes rice...

Now, this is plain silly. I´ve never heard anyone complain that their favourite brain surgeon can´t play the violin or score winning goals. And I´ve met plenty of coffe makers that take up lots of counter space and only make indifferent coffee.

But anyway, that don´t matter, because when I read this piece in Gourmet, I found out something I´d long suspected but never tried: you can make quinoa in a rice cooker. Isn´t that great? Those little seeds can be a right bore to get just right, just like rice. And as the mother of an enterprising toddler who is apt to climb tables to get to the (thank God) butter knife, I appreciate hands off cooking.

So anyway, quinoa, andean gold, the perfect side dish, and so distressingly healthful, too, is there for you at the push of a button. Now go and get a rice cooker, will you?


Brick-fried chicken

Roast chicken is great in almost every way, but it has two drawbacks. One, that the oven must be turned on, which in Madrid in the second hottest summer ever is a no-go. The other is that if you´re on your own, it makes for a lot of leftovers: J is away, and baby P can pack away a less than impressive amount.

However, there is a way to crisp skin and tender meat. This recipe, Sally Schneider´s brick-fried chicken, but made with chicken parts rather than a whole chicken. Drumsticks, or thighs, or whatever. You need only buy as much chicken as you can bear to live with , fit it snugly in your skillet, and then enjoy the fun DIY aspect of playing around with weights, since I doubt you keep bricks in the kitchen.

Just one note: turn off the smoke detector at first, and watch the time. Single bits will take less than the whole chicken in the original recipe.


One must assume that the man was talking about literature and not food, because for all the love you may choose to throw at cake, it won´t come out unless you stick to your recipe. Still, I like the sentiment.


Ramen in Madrid

Those afflicted by xenophilia (oh yes and and we´re linked to Gourmet magazine, how cool is that) and living in Madrid will be happy to know that at long last we have a ramen bar. It´s right behind Callao and you can amble in, take a peek at the giant bubbling stockpot, place your order, nibble a couple of rolls from the little train of sushi rolling by, and before you know it, have a giant bowl of soup placed before you.

This is truly good news. A place for really fast, really nourishing and good food, right in the middle of the most hectic shopping district, just where you might begin to feel faint from all the noise and the confusion.

Oishii, c/ Miguel Moya, 6 91 522 75 74 Metro Callao


Hard choices

My baby turned one yesterday. This means that she can now smear bits of her own birthday cake everywhere, and that she crawls with the speed of lightning. So we´d either have to watch her like hawks, or else take away most of the stuff in danger of toppling off onto her head.

Everything not strictly useful has been boarded up and carted away, and that includes my embarrassingly large cookbook collection. At first I was puritanical and fierce, and tought I´d only keep Nigella´s How to... books and my own notebooks.

Then I decided The improvisational cook could stay, too. And I´d probably need an all-purpose reference, so out came The Ballymaloe Cookery school book. By then my will had snapped, and I started to make little piles of survivors.

My rule: only stuff I really cook from. No fascinating but intimidating ethnic foods, no pretty but vague stuff, nothing too new, nothing too big.

Lindsey Bareham´s paperbacks, Nigel Slater´s Real fast food, Nina Simmond´s Noodles. For times when I want an exotic change of pace, Flatbreads and flavours. And Claudia Roden, of course. Imagine putting her in a box! No American baking books because of the meassurements, but the Barefoot Contessa stays because she´s just so friendly. Likewise The breakfast book, and The Joy of Cooking, which I would have packed up, but it turned out to have been propping up a lame chair and I only found it after the move, so it´s been allowed to stay.

My kitchen is still more full of books than most, but I feel virtous and monastic, and I´m looking at this select few with a new, loving eye, that promises happy hours spent with them.

We leave today for the beach and will be back around the 20th, so posting will probably be slacker than usual.


Smashed eggs

I live right in the centre of Madrid, on a reasonably picturesque street with a pretty mix of old brick buildings and trendy tatto parlours, independent bookshops, italian restaurants and ultra cool hairdressers. We also, this being Madrid, have a few bars, and a fair amount of night time traffic, but less than most surrounding streets.

This means that on weekends there are people walking around drunk and loud until more or less three or four. And that´s fine by me, until the high spirits become out and out vandalism. Walk along singing off tune and you´ll find I merely turn over and fall back asleep, but smash bottles under my window, or use thrash cans for a batucada, and you wake the dragon.

I go to the balcony and if they´re near enough, smash a couple of eggs into the offending group. This is all in the great Madrid tradition of "huevos estrellados", or smashed eggs: fried potatoes with fried eggs gently broken over them, so that the yellow yolk gets everywhere and you can have a proper cholesterol fest. Apparently the secret to making this, according to Lucio, the famous master of the smashed egg, is to make the egg over easy, not in masses of boiling oil. 

So there you are: urban violence and popular culture, all in the Sunday morning´s work. I just wish I could remember to buy cheap eggs for this, because it breaks my heart to waste good organic stuff.



I wish Madrid had the kind of weather that allowed one to amble down to the market to buy beautiful summer fruit and veg and then come home and cook up a storm. Sadly, you can shop or you can cook, but you can´t do both. It´s too hot to spend energy on more than one thing, and so, I laze around the kitchen, making sandwiches or maybe, if I´m feeling very active, salads (all that spinning, what a drag).

I did try this recipe of Sally Schneider´s for socca. It´s good, a crunchy, quick pancake that makes a good appetizer, and reminds me of the fried chickpeas in rebujina. Only worth making if locating chickpea flour isn´t a great hassle, though.


Portugal again

We´re spending a long weekend ambling around the beaches of the costa alentejana, where we were last spring. This time around it´s sunnier and hotter (though as cool as Estonia in August, easily) and we can swim in the cold waves.

We also eat the wonderful food, and that would be a good thing, except that I´ve decided that the Portuguese are either crazy or superheroes. The portions are so huge that we leave the table staggering and dazed. And I´m usually one who can pack away enough to keep a grown man on his feet on a Polar trek.

Ask for grilled fish and you will be brought a slice carved from Moby Dick, with a whole other dish of vegetables on the side, and salad. And all this after you´ve nibbled your way through bread and butter and cheese and olives as you wait (they´re generous, but they sure ain´t fast, you see).

So all I´m saying is: if you have any intention of having enough room to have coffee and a queijada or one of those little cream cakes, which you should, be sure to work up an appetite. 

More drawings here


Takeout fusion

Takeout fusion of the highest order. They used to serve this as an appetizer in No-Do, which was a very happenning restaurant in the mid-90´s.

Prawn crackers, the big, white, crunchy, very artificial looking Chinese snack, with salmorejo for a dip.

It´s as easy as blending some tomatoes and bread with olive oil and vinegar, and either frying up some crackers yourself or, much better, ordering them from a convenient restaurant that delivers. We are very happy to have a new one in the neighbourhood that´s so close and so efficient that food arrives piping hot and crunchy.

People go nuts for this, I warn you.

(And yes, again, the drawing has nothing much to do with it, but I like it, and it is sort of pink, like salmorejo)


Turning Japanese

How much Japanese cooking can a person do, who vows never to stuff, roll, or fry? Quite a lot, actually. Whenever I say I love to make  Japanese food, people eagerly say, "oh, you do sushi and tempura?". I fix them with a stony glare, or a pitying glance, or maybe just brush an infinitesimal speck of dust from my sleeve and say "there´s a lot more to Japanese food than tempura and sushi, you know. And no, I couldn´t do either of those to save my life".

I am broadminded in my definition of Japanese, and anything that has soy sauce and mirin and wasabi and sesame oil is Japanese enough for me. A scattering of sesame seeds over some white rice, eaten with chopsticks, and I´m there.

One of our favourite lazy dinners is a bowl of white rice topped with cut up omelette (made with a dash of sugar), slices of avocado, sesame seeds and a bit of nori. Dip the egg or avocado in soy sauce and there you are. A quick, beautiful, really quite Japanese looking dinner.

I might also marinate some defrosted salmon to go along with that, or throw in some smoked salmon, which always goes so well with avocadoes.

What I had never made is real sushi rice. I found the instructions intimidating. What with the kombu, and the soaking the special wooden instruments, and the soaking then resting the rice, and all that palaver of "gently fold the vinegar into the rice with one hand while you fan it with the other"...I mean to say, what? I need two hands to fold vinegar into rice if it´s not all to end up on the floor, thankyouverymuch. Fanning, indeed. No sir, I thought.

But yesterday the crushing heat of Madrid summer brought the solution. I have an electric fan in the kitchen, and what could be easier than mixing the vinegar-sugar-salt into the rice, inside a normal baking tray, while the electric fan did its sushi job and also made me not faint from the steam?

So there you go. Ignore the punctiliousness and the ritualistic stories and don´t let that Japanese aura of perfection put you off. After all, they invented those little junky packets of ramen, so shortcuts must be quite common in Japan. Just get yourself some mirin and soy and sesame oil and sake and start playing.


Leek and potato salad

Potatoes and leeks go together like Simon and Garfunkel, and it´s just a shame to limit their summer partnership to vichyssoise.
My favourite new thing is to add leeks vinaigrette to potato salad. Isn´t that somewhat brilliant? Raw onions are very popular in Spanish potato salads, but I hate to be reminded of my lunch all day long. Leeks, though, leeks are elegant and unobtrusive, and upgrade your humble potato salad.

So here it is:

Boil your potatoes as you would, and in another pan boil whole leek whites until tender but still with a bite.
Cut the warm leeks in shorter segments, mix them with the warm potatoes and add vinaigrette thinned down with a little water. Chopped boiled eggs and parsley can never go amiss.


Closed for the week

This is a post intended solely to turn everyone green with envy.
I am packing my brushes, pens, watercolour box, bottles, jars, papers and easel and setting off. I will be in La Granja, a beautiful place in the mountains. I am officially going to be working on a book about the gardens, but it will feel more like a picnic holiday.


The exhibition last month

For those kind souls who asked how it went, here are pictures of the opening, thronged, as you can see. The subject was culinary, as you might expect, and the portraits of famous brand names of the pantry bottled in gallon jars sold like churros. It was all perfectly loverly.


Making home made yogurt

It is well known that I am very lazy and refuse to cook croquetas or tortilla, am more than glad to buy roast chickens, would not dream of making my own jam and feel faint at the mere thought of cleaning anchovies for boquerones en vinagre. So severe is the case that I won´t go near most recipes that call for sepparating eggs or browning meat. I don´t fry, I don´t roll and I don´t stuff, and am constantly plugged to my freezer, Thermomix and rice cooker.

So you see that when I say that making yogurt is well worth your while, it´s true, and not the kind of annoying off-the-cuff remark of someone who can take apart a car and put it back together. The basic elemental yogurt you buy costs ten times more than what you´ll make and tastes nowhere nearly as good. And if you buy good milk, even organic, the economics of the thing really start to make sense. And it´s so so easy. 

Back when Abba were still together, my mother owned a yogurt making machine, and I´d always assumed that it was necessary for making yogurt, as a waffle iron is for making waffles. But like so many of my late seventies beliefs, this isn´t true. All you need is milk and yogurt and a bowl and time and a blanket. 

To further convince you of my laziness I won´t even bother to type the recipe, but instead direct you here. Though I´ll warn you that Heidi makes it sound much more complicated than it is (really, you just boil some milk, wait for it to cool down a bit, mix in yogurt, leave it to set somewhere warm). Just one piece of important advice given by my friend Cristina, dairy expert of Malasaña: to retain the heat the best thing is to put the yogurt bowl inside one of those insulated coolers one takes to the beach. Much better than blankets or shawls, whatever Ms Roden or Ms Colwin may say.

Make your yogurt int he evening in five minutes, shut it inside the cooler and awake next morning to thick, creamy, sweet tasting yogurt you got for pennies.


Strawberry gazpacho

Gazpacho is such a great soup that some people just can´t hold themselves in and wait for tomatoes to be good. The minute the thermometer flirts with 30ºC they´re off, and the resulting gazpachos can be a little bit boring and somewhat pale.
This is a version I was taught last week by Isabela Muro. Throwing strawberries in with tomatoes and olive oil into a blender may seem a little bit wacky, but it works very well. The strawberries give it sweetness and colour, and the whole thing is fruity and light and satisfying. The normal gazpacho is much much better, but this makes for a fun little change, and good sense if you must have gazpacho right now.

All you do is mix 1 kg. strawberries, 1 kg. tomatoes, 300 ml. olive oil, 4 tablespoons of vinegar and 1 garlic clove (seedling out and blanched beforehand). Blitz it in a stong blender, strain it with a chinoise and you´re good to go.



We had a strawberry discussion this weekend, and all agreed that the best we´ve had came from Aranjuez, and were grown in the open air. The great whopping plastic-raised fresón from Huelva is no love of ours. But. Apart from nísperos, it´s all there is, so we eat it very happily in all its possibilities:

with sugar and yogurt
with chunks of pineapple
with whipped cream and meringues
crushed with whipped cream and sandwiched between two sponge cakes
with pancakes and caramelized apples

doubtless we´ll think up a few more before cherries begin to claim all the love.



It works! It really does. Yesterday´s pancake batter looked a bit dodgy in its plastic container, a bit more alive than yesterday, but the minute it hit the pan it made fluffy, perfect pancakes just the same.
I had two plates of pancakes with caramelized pear and a pot of tea ready in less time than it took J to change Pía and install her in a highchair. Mind you, he´s not fast, and has some issues with the straps in the highchair, but still, this was a lightning fast operation, and possibly the only way to make Mr.No-Breakfast go out into the world with a full stomach in the morming. Now I know.



Tomorrow is the opening of my show, and I am in that marvelous state where I am either staring blankly at the wall or snapping at whoever has the misfortune to speak to me. I can´t eat, or I am ravenous. I feel there are a million things I must do, but can´t think of any. Very much like pre-wedding nerves, except on that day I knew what I was going to wear, and had only to make sure I fit into it.
Since I have no idea what I will be looking like tomorrow, I have instead cooked myself a beautiful, decadent breakfast: pancakes with sauteed pears.
I´d never made pancakes for one, because one egg makes too much batter, and if I make the whole batch intending to freeze some it´s more than likely that I will eat all the pancakes anyway. But Marion Cunningham says you can keep batter in the fridge, and if that is true, well then, we´re home free.
I made three panckaes from this batter and sauteed a pear in butter and brown sugar in another pan, and it all took fifteen minutes, including one phone call to J to apologize for having snapped before, and another to my mother to schedule Pía´s morning.
Why don´t we make pancakes every morning?


Sauteed cherry tomatoes

One of my rules is: no tomatoes between October and June. There are enough dissappointments going around to add mushy, mealy, pale, tastless toms to the list.

And yet. Sometimes, I really, really want a tomato. Or big bags of them are on sale, and, well, I´m not made of iron. The rule that ammends the broken rule is: cook them. Slow roasting makes up for their sins pretty well, but it takes forever. My new favourite thing is to achieve a similar result within minutes. 

All you need is a handful of those accomodating little things, cherry tomatoes, and a bit of balsamic vinegar.

Sauteeing the cherries at high heat brings out all the things you want in a tomato: juiciness, flavour, tartness, sweetness. A drizzle of vinegar at the end makes them caramelize, or look caramelized, dark and long cooked. And it all happens while you get a sandwich ready!

Over the past week I´ve used these in a salad with fresh mozzarella and anchovies, as a side vegetable, and as a garnish to perk up a bland sqash soup from a carton.



Peanut slaw

Oh the joy of French onion soup. Not only the queen of soups, but probably top of my list of all time top ten grilled cheese greats, and high up there in any top ten list I ever make.
We had that on Thursday at the knife skills class, which was great, because I´ve always had some caramelization issues and I think now I know how to do it properly.
Also, I learnt this great tip: add vanilla right at the end of whatever you do with it because it tends to lose its perfume with long cooking. The reduced red wine sauce the chef made to prove this point was like hitting a brick wall of vanilla. Except, you know, nice.

All the stuff we did was classic bistro cooking and as such way beyond my usual scope, so instead I´ll link to this cabbage slaw, and just say I do it without the cilantro.
It´s a perfect thing to make when you´re distracted and kind of hungry but not really, because you had a heavy lunch, yet want some kind of a healthy yet not boring dinner. Or when you´re on a diet (but don´t go wild with the peanuts). Or when you want to serve vegetables but can´t be bothered to peel carrots or wash and dry lettuce. Or when cabbage is all you have, since it can last forever, unassumingly lurking in the fridge until called for.
So you see, most of the time, really.
It´s a good one for trying out new found knife skills, too, as chopping cabbage has to be one of the easiest, most rewarding chicken tasks. No matter how inept or slow you are, in no time you have a mound of crunchy leaves to be proud of.


Knife skills course, part 1

Yesterday we had the first leg of the knife skills course at Alambique with Alonso Roche. I really enjoyed it. I will never peel an onion the same way. My chopping might not change so much, because all those nifty little shapes professionals make come at the cost of a huge amount of scraps. And I don´t make stock every day, and I don´t mind irregularity in my soup at all.
But it was a lot of fun to chop carrots into tiny dice for a delicious soupe au pistou, and to watch an expert going through the motions of sole meuniere. A fillet of which I cut myself, a very impressive feat I don´t think I´ll repeat much, since my market is brimming with stalwart guys who are only to happy to do that, but still, very useful to know how in case I´m ever confronted with a whole flat fish.
Today, chicken, and how to sharpen. Fun.


Back in Spain, oh dear

Yes, we had withdrawal symptoms and really wanted to get back to our baby. But it was very hard to tear ourselves away from the coast yesterday, because as usually happens after a rainy weekend, the minute you pack your bags in the car, the sun shines merrily.
It was a very long drive, and we stopped in Elvas for lunch. J thought we might as well have the bacalhau dourada, and we did, and it was pretty good, considering we chose a nondescript touristy little bar in the square.
Elvas looked very beautiful but we couldn´t explore. That´s the problem with Madrid; it´s just too far from everything else.
J´s mother is coming for lunch, so cure the saudade I´ll make octopus salad to start with, and I´ll crush the meringues I bought in Evora to scatter over strawberries and cream.
As far as I can make out, the salada de polvo goes like this:

Octopus, boiled and cut thin (you can buy boiled octopus at the market here, so that´s easy)
Parsley, chopped
Onion, cut very thin and marinated in vinegar (?)
A generous dose of extra virgin olive oil

Just the thing with the so excellent bread we´ve also brought back from the Alentejo.


Portugal and chocolate mousse

J and I, when in Portugal, could bore anyone to death as we talk about the same thing, all the time, over and over; why is it that their coast is perfectly beautiful, while ours is a total mess of concrete apartment blocks?
Right now we´re on the Costa Vicentina, which is a string of sandy coves and dramatic cliffs where storks nest on jutting rocks and the surf pounds.
Also, the food is great. Not just the grilled fish, which is of course excellent, but the boiled vegetables that come with it, which are so sweet and fresh that we eat them outright, no oil, no salt, nothing. The fish soup, the cuttlefish stew, the octopus salad. All great.
One thing I find particulary charming is the chocolate mousse. In Spain, chocolate mousse is over. Trendy restaurants have banished it from their menus, and serve instead brownies, or carrot cake, or cheesecake. You might, perhaps, be treated to some foamy thing featuring local cheeses or honey, or a molecular rendition of some traditional nunnery pastry.
As for the basic elemental roadhouse restaurants, if they have mousse, you can be sure it comes in a little clay pot, straight from a factory who knows where.
These Portuguese, though, they know their way around a carton of eggs, and see no problem at all in dishing up such a classic.
It comes in fluted glasses, or little metal cups, maybe with a dollop of whipped cream, maybe not, but it is that homely type that is more creamy than moussy, having been too thoroughly beaten, perhaps, and is just chocolatey enough, being blissfuly free of any 70% cocoa conceits.
In fact, as J and I simultaneously mumbled through our first mouthful of the stuff, it is exactly the same mousse we had at our grandmothers´houses.
Brilliant. Next time I have people over for dinner, I´m giving them chocolate mousse, and I bet they´ll say wow this is great we haven´t had this in ages.


In Portugal

J and I have left baby Pía with her Fan Club, and headed off to Porgual. J for work, moi, tailing along in the feckless fashion that being a freelance illustrator sometimes allows.
This here in the drawing is my very bad rendering of one of the main jewels in Evora: a Roman temple flanked by Baroque palaces.
We have been very dutiful and eaten just as we should: José "porco a la alentejana", which is pork with clams, cooked with lots of garlic and topped with fried potatoes. I chose the salt cod, like the locals did: boiled, with boiled potatoes and chickpeas. A very monastic looking dish, which one tops with the garnishes brought to the table: raw garlic, mince raw onion and parsley, vinegar and olive oil.
It´s proving very difficult not to stop at every "pastelaria" for a cup of the perfect coffee and one of their egg-laden, almondy pastries. I´m particulary smitten with the "quejadas", and in fact, about to go to Café Arcada to buy a cartload to take home.


Apple and pear sauce

Life is pretty hectic, and my kitchen is bubbling with all sorts of new things. I tote "The Zuni Café Cookbook" around, and make it bristle with post-it notes, even as I tell myself to ignore its higher flights ( use pecorino sardo for this dish, as pecorino romano would be way out of line. really?).
The markets are all closed for Semana Santa, so I can´t go wild with tubs of sardines. Instead, I boil vats of bones for ramen broth, after Hiroko Shimbo´s instructions.
Also, I mourn the loss of the shop where I bought the flakiest, crispest dough for turnovers. Will I find those Argentine beauties ever again?
Then there is Pía. Every day she has a lunch consisting of a bunch of vegetables and a few scraps of chicken or beef, simmered and pureed until they lose all identity and interest. She is very welcome to this.
Her tea, now, that´s different. That´s a world-class smoothie of several fruits, and there are always several vultures lurking around to finish off whatever she doesn´t eat.
I also make batches of applesauce to freeze, and to give her when we´re out of the house, as we were last Thursday, when she came with us to see the Bacon exhibition at the Prado (no, it didn´t seem to scare her or give her nightmares).
It´s a mushy, velvety, not overly sweet and very good apple and pear sauce. I´m not above stealing a few spoonfuls myself.

All you do is peel and core three apples and three pears, toss them into the Thermomix bowl, add a cup of water or so, and program 15 minutes at 90ºC, speed one. When it´s done, puree it at speed 7 until it´s very very smooth.


Salad or soup?

March was ablaze with sunshine; cotton jackets emerged from under heavy coats, cherry tomatoes covered the breakfast toast, creamy avocadoes turned up for almost every meal,
and it seemed that the jellied chicken stock would not go the way of onion soup but of asparagus risotto.
Except that now we´re firmly back in midwinter. With a fridge full of stuff bought with different weather in mind.
It seems too springy, despite everything, to make soup, and yet we can´t live on a few leaves and some silly white wine.
My favourite in between solution is lentil salad. Robust, yet sprightly enough.

All you need is lamb´s lettuce , topped with lentils that you´ve boiled yourself. THe reason for this is that the cooking liquid is full of flavour, and will help you to avoid dressing them with tons of oil. With a few spoonfuls of the liquid, a bit of oil, lots of lemon juice, some of the zest, and the garlic from boiling lentils squished in, you have a pretty wonderful combo.
If you have some bacon on hand, that can never hurt, and goat´s cheese is always good. A poached egg is heavenly. And for a gold medal, add a spoonful of onion jam.

I´m a huge fan of bottled beans, but lentils don´t seem to make it past the process so well, and they´re not such a bother to make, with the no soaking, no taking forever thing. So I definitely recommend making your own, specially if you can find the little black exquisite caviar lentils from León.


More sprouts

J and I received another sprouty present yesterday. More mustard, which is sitting pretty until it goes into another avocado salad; and fennel seed sprouts, which I´d never seen in my life and which are so gorgeous.

At first I didn´t quite know what to do with them (except munch them out of hand, which I did with gusto). Fennel isn´t very common in Spanish food, that I know of. I toyed with the idea of a Provençal fish soup, but it felt like too much work. And it was J who provided the anser. "That Sicilian pasta with sardines and fennel", he said. What a jewel of a man!

These shoots are tender little things, and I feel won´t stand up to actual heat. So what I did was mash a tin of sardines with some butter and lots of pepper and a dash of orange juice and the merest shaving of zest. This, spread on those Nordic dark crackers, and topped with fennel sprouts, made me feel utterly sophisticated and springlike and healthy and ready for anything.

I daresay thinly sliced fennel bulb might do the trick, but these little tendrils are so pretty, I´m almost tempted to start up a jar of sprouts myself. We´ll see. For now, I still have a few left, enough for another sandwich.

The illustration will be in next mont´s "Viajar" magazine.