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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.