Smoked mackerel paté

Smoked mackerel is my favourite thing about Scotland. Scots often ask me, on learning that I'm Spanish, why I'm here. As in, "You live in Aberdeen, omigod WHY". To which I reply "why indeed". My other favourite thing about Scotland is that they speak English here, which lets me channel Maggie Smith with a dry "indeed"every now and then.

Still, the mackerel trumps everything because smoked mackerel is truly amazing. It feels luxurious and decadent, even though it's cheap, and sustainable, and healthy, and you don't even have to cook it. The win-win fish product, all the way up there with good Galician tinned sardines.

I usually have it on toast, with avocado and lemon juice, for an omega 3 double whammy.
Or with a beet salad, rye bread and butter with crushed caraway seeds.

If I'm feeling elegant, I make a paté, with cream, lemon zest, pepper and hot sauce. Blitzed for a few seconds in a processor, sprinkled with chives or parsley, it's a great starter or appetizer.

If you don't have smoked mackerel, well, sucks to you, but don't despair. You can make this with the aforementioned sardines, and it is also wonderful, although the colour is less pretty.

It also works with yogurt instead of cream, for you nervous waistline watchers.
We in Scotland need all the calories we can get hold of, which is another thing I kind of like.


Winter salads, part II (beets)

On with the winter salads, then. Everything I said in the other post about shredded cabbage goes just as well with red cabbage, of course, but also with carrots, and with celeriac if you like it (I don't, very much) and even with parsnips, if they're small.

All of those are things that keep for ages, so there's no reason not to have at least one or two around. But they do spoil, eventually. Vacuum packed beets, on the other hand, are something you can count on having around when you come back from holiday, or have forgotten to go shopping, or whatever smallish crisis hits.
The problem with beets is that many people don't like beets, which may be one of the reasons why those packets are always there. My own J, who eats anything and everything and has never been known to complain, is not enthusiastic about beetroot. But he is being brought round, because  It really is delicious, as long as you take a little care.

First, don't be shy with the salt. No silly stuff now. It's the ready made foods that hide the nasty salts. If you don't salt it well you won't be able to eat it, and will miss out on all those nutrients.
Likewise, vinegar is a must, and it's better be strong. Beets are usually called earthy but what people mean is that they often taste like ducking your head in a muddy puddle. And we want to avoid that.

Also, slice them thin. Mandoline or food processor thin. No grated beets, they are horrible.

Add carrots, or apple, or orange segments, or a few shreds of cabbage, for contrast of colour. They'll go bright pink, which is the whole point of eating beets, really.
Also, some herbs, parsley, or chives, or both.  And a finely chopped dill pickle too.
The dressing must be vinegary and oily and have a spoonful of horseradish.
And for great effect, you should scatter something crunchy on top, like chopped nuts or toasted pumpkin seeds. It's a cooked vegetable, after all, so the interesting texture must come from somewhere else.

I love this as is, but if you add smoked mackerel, and serve it alongside rye bread, with cold sweet butter and caraway seeds, you have yourself a beauty. Vodka optional, cold beer if not.


Winter salads, part I

Salad. A crunchy, sharp, fresh, enlivening plate of raw stuff. What's not to like? I feel almost sorry for myself if there's not a salad on the table at every meal. Luckily, my definition of salad is broad, and I'm happy with a few slices of salted cucumber, or a dish of chopped parsley and yogurt.
Winter presents problems, though. Lettuce and tomatoes are out, frisée is scratchy and annoying, and although I can eat endive and radicchio I'd really rather not, thank you.

Which leaves me with a few things to play around with, any day. They last for ages, so I don't have to brave the elements if I want a crisp addition to lunch or dinner. Unlike soft, summery leaves, they can be dressed way ahead of the meal, only increasing in flavour, and leftovers can even be used in a sandwich later. They are your friends. Cabbage, carrots, and those vacuum packed beets that stain your fingers the minute you go near the packet. Add to that oranges, and onions and celery, used with caution, and your salad problems are over.

I often shave a bit of cabbage with the mandoline. I do love a mandoline, and in a minute a smallish wedge of cabbage is a mountain of shreds. I salt it and leave it for a while, and then later dress it, either as a very simple ensalada de matanza, or maybe with just oil and lemon, or with caraway seeds instead of cumin, or with yogurt. Nothing fancy, and certainly nothing exciting, but a lunchtime bowl of rice and beans with this on the side is more of itself.

I haven't been posting a lot but promise to more, in a series of posts about winter salads. I will probably draw inspiration from this gorgeous book, if I can manage to tear myself away from drooling over pictures of ripe summer Sicilian tomatoes.

(Thank you for all the replies about the icon, I'm hoping that we can push the lobster to front place. Those pesky Facebook fans like the others better, but we will fight it, I promise.)


Dear readers, please help

As you may know by now, Terrier Digital is about to launch an app with lobstersquad recipes. It's almost done, but we still haven't decided on an icon. These three have made the final cut. If you could leave me a comment saying which you prefer, I'd be very grateful.


Mid snow and ice

I need to empty my freezer and defrost it,  but it's not easy. I'm a hoarder, and I can't help buying things that look good, and then putting by a bit of leftover this or that, and keeping a bag of bones and vegetable peelings for stock, and a long list of etceteras.
But finally I'm getting there. A ruthless plan means that this week, come what may, I'm unplugging the damn thing, and if I have to throw away some stuff (a bag of chicken skin? what was that about? ) so be it.

Once the fun-size Greenland ice cap that's inside is melted, I will have a pristine, good-as-new, bigger than ever freezer. And I will have to fill it, because, duh, everyone knows a full freezer is more energy efficient, and because I'm a freezer geek.

So a fresh start means that for a few days at least, I will have the perfect wish list freezer. The real thing. The go-to ingredients that save the day, the hard to find meats and fish, the tubs of stock. So, while I struggle to plan meals that will accomodate a jar of mushroom ragù, pesto ice cubes, 6 Chinese sausages, a tub of carrot soup, another of poached pears, two bags of raspberries and a packet of broad beans, I dream up my perfect new freezer contents. 
Here they are:

First, I will buy ham hocks and chicken wings, and I will make at least 3 litres of strong stock, to pack into 500 ml containers. At least.

And maybe I'll cook up a batch of tomato sauce, so I can have a couple of tubs in there too. 

The rest is all stuff I can buy:

Fish fingers, which are my disgusting children's favourite food, and a surprisingly good sandwich filler for decadent days.

Coley and mackerel fillets. Sustainable, quick to thaw, quicker to cook, essential.

Octopus for J, and squid if I can find it.

Sausages: good British bangers, and chipolatas, which can be sliced when frozen and cook very quickly.

Minced beef and pork, mixed by myself into delicious little patties and meatballs.

Minced free range turkey, not easy to score, packed into 100 gr. pouches.

Organic chicken livers.

Smoked pork ribs, for bean dishes.

Green beans.

Whole leaf spinach.

Petit pois.

Puff pastry, the good all butter kind.

Ice cream, vanilla, or maybe Mackie's cream.

Naan bread, or pizza bases, the good ones smeared with tons of butter from the chiller cabinet.

I will try to leave room for bread, or for more ice cream, or for nestling beers when they won't fit in the fridge, and for the packets of stuff that find their way into the freezer from time to time: a bit of stew to be turned into a noodle topping, a bag of pisto to pull out for a quick lunch, bechamel, soup, etc. 

And so the long unending game of Freezer Tetris that is my life will begin anew, until the ice advances and I have to start the cull all over again.

(The drawing above is of Amundsen's crew. He's my least favourite Polar explorer, but you have to admit he was a good leader; he made sure to hire an excellent cook who kept the pancakes coming.)


Chopped chicken livers

A while ago I wrote a blog post about my favourite kitchen tools. No mention of a chopping board. Not because I don't use one, but because the one I've been using for eight years is quite unremarkable. 
Then my friend Simón, who is now a fantastic carpenter, gave me a new one, made with his own hands. A single piece of walnut, sleek and polished, smooth, heavy, with a narrow, long shape, glossy and dark. Beautiful. Everyone who saw it said, oh, you'll be sorry to use it, think of cutting into that perfect surface...
Silly. Of course I use it. Certainly it has a few nicks already, and will soon have more, but that's a badge of honour.

I use it for everything, every day, from breakfast to dinner. But this recipe is one where the board is crucial. You can't do it without a board, even if you're an expert in the traditional method of  chopping with one hand and holding with the other.

Chopped liver paté
(loosely based on a recipe in Lindsey Bareham's The Fish Store)

You'll need chicken livers. I'm never one to be annoying about these things but I think it's worthwhile to hunt down good ones, since all the nasty chemicals fed to factory chickens end up in their livers.
Garlic, or chives, or both. Parsley. Butter and oil. Salt. And some sort of liquor. I go for Oloroso Sherry but it can be anything, really.

Put a big frying pan on the fire with a biggish piece of butter and some oil. While it melts, check the livers for those slimy green bits and for any stray bits of white fat. If you're in Spain, your butcher will have done that, but still, have a look.
Salt them, and put them in the hot fat. Leave them alone until they've formed a crust underneath, and only then turn them. Now they'll need a minute at most. You want pink insides.

Take them out and let them rest on the board. Turn up the fire and deglaze the pan with the Oloroso. Now is the time to add some finely chopped garlic if you're using it. Let the sauce reduce a little and then put out the fire.

Now chop the liver into little bits, as little as you like. If you're potting it for paté then you want small, but I often have this straight away, in which case just a few cuts.
Chop the herbs you're using and smoosh it all together. It's messy, but good.

Put it in a plate, or in the terrine, add the pan juices, some pepper, check for salt.

If you're having it straight away, go for it with some toast, something sharp and vinegary (I'm currently in love with pickled walnuts) and wine, of course. And if you have some onion jam on hand, heaven.
I like it as part of a meal, with a lentil salad and a big salad, and some cheese, maybe.

If you want it cold, let it wait for a day if you can, two, even. 



Much frantic rushing about here, and I have abandoned the blog, which is bad. But just so you know, it's all because we're making an app of lobstersquad recipes, which is not a cast iron excuse but not so bad.

I have also received a beautiful present that means I might just have to ignore my no-frying rule and break out the oil and the strainer to make some oldschool buñuelos for All Saints.

This illustration is a proof from a book I've just illustrated, "101 plats de la cuina catalana que has de tastar".


Comfort in a bowl

Two weeks in Spain. The end of summer, spent lounging around, enjoying the tomatoes, the last melons, the greengages, the Spanish mangoes, so good. Picking a ripe, bursting fig from a tree, still warm from the sun, then throwing it away (I really don't see the point of figs, so don't bother trying to convince me). Going to the market and coming back with bulging bags, almost sad from all the millions of things I didn't have time to buy. 
Beer and wine and friends and sunshine, and all those lovely things.

Coming back, we're in full autumnal spate, so this is the first thing I've cooked for lunch. It's a hearty one-pot meal, easy, full of good stuff, and all of it made from store cupboard ingredients, if you consider your freezer part of your store cupboard, which I hope you do. 
I use a pressure cooker because otherwise it takes forever, but if you want to use a normal pot just multiply the time by three at least, and stop when everything is cooked.

All you do is put a cup of dried chickpeas, half a cup of pearl barley, a peeled onion, a bay leaf and some salt in a pressure cooker. To this I add a piece of smoked pork rib, because that's easy to find here, but anything goes: chorizo, a piece of ham hock, or a bit of parmesan rind. You just want a bit of depth of flavor, nothing more.
Cover with water, add a splash of oil, and 40 minutes under pressure should be enough. When the chickpeas are cooked, check for salt, add a good handful of frozen spinach and a bit of butter and cook  until it's all heated through.
If you remember to soak the chickpeas the night before, it takes just 15 minutes, and the barley is just fine. Or you can use lentils, in which case 10 is enough. 

Serve with a bottle of hot sauce on the side, and olive oil, and maybe a quartered lemon.
J and I ate all this for lunch, with a small bowl left over for the kids. Who weren't too pleased, but that's their problem, not the soup's.


My favourite things

In no particular order:

Indispensable: The vegetable peeler. I must have at least a couple of these, because they cost nothing, get lost all the time, and because I let my daughter have a go at peeling potatoes and carrots.

A cheap, bamboo handled strainer from the Chinese supermarket. It´s used for frying, but I use it to fish out poached eggs, or to scoop boiled vegetables, or pasta, so I can use the water to boil something else, and something else again, and then use that as stock.

My Ikea box grater. Ten years on the job, and it can still scrape a knuckle.

The knife sharpener. Chaira, in Spanish, such an old, beautiful word. It makes me feel very cool just to use it, professional, even. There is no place in a home kitchen for ring moulds, squeeze bottles and foam syphons, but it makes sense to keep knives sharp and learn to use them well and quickly.

Kilner jars, jam jars, pickle jars; they store chickpeas, flour, rice, sugar, almonds...I make labels for some, and my pantry looks ever so pretty.

Tea towels. I have lots, and use them all the time. Why clutter the landfills with paper towels when you can use thick cotton cloth with pretty line patterns? Use a couple every day, toss them in the wash at the end, start over.

Anyting enamel. Here aesthetics trump practicality, because I don´t allow enamel in the dishwasher and so must wash them by hand. But I love it so. I have cups, bowls, a huge bread bin, plates and pie dishes, and lust after a spoon but can´t find one.

A whiteboard near the freezer, to keep an inventory of what´s inside the icy wastes. It was very useful until my daughter grew enough to reach the pen and now it´s full of doodles. 

Pouring tops for oil and wine bottles. Highly recommended. 

An old tin of Martinete tomatoes to have garlic and ginger on hand by the stove. And a small Chinese porcelain cup my mother gave me, antique, beautiful. I used it to drink tea, but it broke, so now, stuck together, it houses the salt.

A cheap plastic scraper for baking, so handy and so right. The stainless metal one with the handle is an affectation, but it is actually very useful  for scooping stuff from cutting board to pan.

My favourite wooden spoon, yew, golden and strong and with the perfect balance. I wish I´d bought a dozen when I got this one in Alambique. And a short one, that only gets used on sweets.

My four kitchen notebooks. Four, because the other three are filled with recipes I want to keep, notes on various dinners, labels I like, the odd magazine article or photo. It´s sometimes hard to remember where a particular recipe may be, so I have an address book with a partial index.

A step. Because this kitchen was designed by a madman, I need it to reach the upper parts of the cupboards. My daughter uses it to stand beside me when they cook (my son drags a chair).

Mechanical whisks. I have two, both vintage finds, both gorgeous, but nothing as beautiful as my porcelain rolling pin. Much love.

The apple cutter/corer. A one trick pony, yes, but the one trick means that my kids agree to eat "flower apples".

A wooden mortar and pestle. It´s just right for crushing a garlic clove to dress a salad, or a few almods. I'm not one of those who extol the virtues of hand made alioli, thankyouverymuch, but this is a very pretty mortar and the pestle has a hole from a fault in the wood.

The tin opener, "el explorador", a Spanish classic. Essential in this benighted country where most tins don't come with the easy pull off handle.

Six jelly moulds from John Lewis, with two lids, in pretty colours. These get a weekly outing at least, even though one of the lids is lost and unset jelly often spills in my horrible, tiny, overstuffed fridge.

This is just stuff I love, the things that always surprise me with their perfect selves. Of course I have tons of other things, pans, pots, baking trays, measuring cups, timers, thermometers, spatulas and paring knives that are always getting lost, pressure cookers and rice cooker and blender and Thermomix and digital scales. I would never advocate one of those spare, bowl/knife/board kitchens. But the ones I´d save from a fire are simple, low tech things that have been around for years. 


Summer cooking

Escalivada, originally uploaded by Lobstersquad.

Summer is coming to an end here in Scotland. How sad. All the more reason to make the most of it, and spend every possible second outdoors. And to pick the last raspberries, and freeze or jam a few.
I also have to empty a bulging freezer that needs a good clean. There is so much stuff there: lamb's liver, red braised oxtail, bags of prawns, tubs of stock, packets of iberico ham bones, boxes of fish fingers, frozen spinach, beans...Endless list. Happy task, but harder than it sounds.


Payback time

Lunch today will have to be a plain, severe bowl of congee. Perhaps I might allow myself a drizzle of soy, a few almonds, and the merest suggestion of spring onions.
Yesterday we had the bright idea of buying some fish and chips and having an impromptu picnic at a nearby park. The shop was famously good. The sun was shining. The fish and chips was as greasy and crunchy as I remembered. And as I had, stupidly, forgotten, it knocked me out with a blinding migraine that lasted all afternoon.
This is what old age will do to you. Sad, but true. And now I still feel a little frail, so congee it is. Here's a blog post from the LA times that will tell you all you want to know about it, and another one from Use real butter, in case you want to use a pressure cooker to make it.
(How do Scots survive frequent ingestions of the stuff? Must go see Brave and find out)


The icing on the cake

The time has come to write about The Icing. 
I hesitate to write about baking, because there are so many beautiful things out there, done by people who combine the talents of Benvenuto Cellini with the colour schemes of Hello Kitty, and that's enough to depress anyone.
I'm not one of those who despise baking. I love sweets, and I do not fear them. I just don't go into the whole decoration thing. It seems the height of silliness to me to try to make cakes and biscuits look professional. It used to be that people would buy things, and, in shame, bash them up a bit so they looked homemade. What happened to that?
My cakes that look glorious in their simplicity,  smell like eggs and vanilla and good butter, usually slump in the middle, but more than make up for their looks with a jug of home made custard and a bowl of good fruit, fresh or poached.
There is no need for more.
Unless there is, in which case, bring out the icing. But don´t go nuts. This one is made in seconds, is very easy to use , as long as you´re cool with a few jagged edges, and can be coloured in pretty pastel shades.
And unlike most icings, which are cloying  and pointless and make your teeth ache, it tastes wonderful, with a salty sweet kick that makes licking the bowl almost the whole point of the exercise.
People go mad for this, I tell you. Even if there are dainty looking cupcakes of utter prettiness on the table, cakes with this icing are devoured, and the recipe is always requested.
Did I mention, it´s so easy you could train a chimp to make it? It is this simple: take a tub of Philadelphia cheese (the full fat version, OF course) and add a packet (200 gr) or equal weight  of melted white chocolate. Mix. Add colouring of your choice. That´s it.
You can cool it so it´s firmer, but it will never be as stiff as the kind that is almost pure sugar. I've certainly never tried to see if it will work inside a piping bag, but if you´re game, try it and let me know.
You can also mix the cheese with milk chocolate, which leaves no room for pretty colours but tastes divine, a bit like salted caramel.
I used it yesterday for my daughter´s fourth birthday cake. It was the chocolate cake from "Relish" and the icing was a pretty soft pink. Topped with hundreds and thousands and pearls, and a pink Disney princess, it looked silly but tasted like the real thing.


Summer salad

Just a salad. Words that strike dread into my heart. I've written about this before, but it bears repeating: if you have artistic tendencies, or think you may have, ask for help. Don't take it out on a pile of defenseless greens, and start flinging things at them until they are smothered in bits and bobs.

Yes, if salad is going to be the meal, it can't just be a sliced tomato.  I know it's too hot to cook actual food, and it makes sense to make the most of fresh summer produce and a couple of tins. Fine. But that doesn't mean it should have seventeen ingredients. It just looks messy and tastes messy, too.

Why don't you make two, or even three, salads instead? I looks beautiful, lavish, fills you up just looking at it, and takes a little more time to prepare, but much longer to eat.

A combination I like is a bowl of green lettuce and ruccola, perhaps. Tossed with this dressing, with perhaps a tiny bit of raw garlic and some chopped nuts.

In another bowl, tomatoes, just like that, with a drizzle of oil and some salt. If they´re good tomatoes, they need nothing more.

A third can have the heavy duty stuff: the boiled eggs, tuna, olives, asparagus, etc. Placed side by side, drizzled with a simple vinaigrette, or perhaps one that you have made creamy by adding some mayonaise.

Doesn´t that look pretty? Toast some bread, open some wine, enjoy the summer. And if you´re somewhere northern and blustery, have a hearty pudding afterwards. See the advantage where you can.


In praise of blenders

Untitled #206, originally uploaded by Lobstersquad.

Why is it that when it comes to ecquipment cookbooks either assume that you cook in a primitive, empty kitchen, or else devote the whole thing to squeezing every possible use out of one particular gizmo?
I wish sometimes they'd include pressure cooking instructions. And I have no wish to bake a cake in a rice cooker, thank you very much.

It gets really annoying when it's all embraced in a spirit of simplicity, back to a happier time before we were the slaves of electrical machines. Machines that turned up in kitchens just as servants were exiting them.
Except from restaurants. Funny, that.

So I'm not impressed by entreaties from chefs to use volcanic rock pestles and mortars. As for mayonaise by hand...well. Really. Mayonaise was the very first thing I learnt to make, ever. It is ridiculously easy, as long as you have a blender. Crack an egg, add salt and vinegar, pour over a cup of oil, lower the stick blender into the mess. Pulse as you slowly raise it. In a few seconds, you have mayonaise.
Although these days I just use bottled mayo and add lots of lemon juice and a bit of good oil, and it's excellent.

So anyway, here is a song of praise to the humble hand held stick blender, hero of countless gazpachos, pureed soups, smoothies and milkshakes. And if you get one of those with a small bowl with a fierce chopping blade, also home to hummus, small chopped vegetables for sofrito or soup, spice pastes, and pesto.

And since we're on the pesto theme, don't be blinkered by the classics. The Genovese version, heady with basil and peanuts is wonderful, and certainly, make it in a mortar if that's your thing. Myself, I take the broad, sweeping view. Cooked vegetables, or even fresh tomatoes, or ruccola, or leftover pisto, blended with a bit of garlic, a handful of nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, or pine nuts) a bit of parsley, some cheese and a good glug of oil...that's a pesto. And it's not just great on pasta, but on sandwiches and in soups and quesadillas

So I'm very happy with my blender. I could live without it, yes, but why would I?


Fruit salad

In all of my many many cookbooks, there are always a bunch of recipes I flag, and some that I try. They are usually the ones where I spot a sensible new way of doing something complicated. I care more for tips and methods than for actual recipes, and more for ease of handling than for time cuts.
Lucky for me, or not, maybe, that this book by Alice Medrich has every single sweet recipe of that sort that you could ever want. Crusts that don´t need rolling, one bowl cakes, cookies that use melted butter, and tequila poured over shop-bought lime pops, sprinkled with salt. Pure, undilluted genius. Buy it inmediately.

There is only one omission, because it is a very hip book: there is no fruit salad. And yes, I hear the collective groan that springs from memories of those boring, boring apple-pear-banana-orange fruit salads from winter bowls of yore. That is boring. But a good fruit salad is a joy, the easiest, most comforting way to eat fruit, and it is a bowlful of love. Making fruit salad is a generous, selfless task. Nobody is going to say "oh wow, did you really make that?", as they would over a daintily piped cream cake. They will not be impressed by your skills, because a six year old could make it (in fact, train your six year old to make it). But they will eat it, and be pleased.

So go on, make fruit salad. Especially in a place like this, where the fruits that arrive can be a little bit short on flavour (ahem. A lot, most often). And yes, it really is the best way to make a couple of wrinkled nectarines and a  woebegone pear look good.
Cut them up, squeeze an orange over them, dot with strawberries, don´t forget a bit of banana for heft, and let flavors mingle in the fridge for a bit. 

Sweet Sherry, vanilla extract, mint leaves, whipped cream...yes, you can add them, but don´t forget to give in to the simple pleasures.


Kedgeree risotto

It seems that every minute two or three cookbooks are published that have the word "seasonal" in the title. Or at the very least, the subtitle.
Which is all very well, if you´re in California, or Spain, where things grow plentiful under the generous sun. But see, now I live in a place that has two seasons: bad, and worse.
The calendar says I should be going for the salads and the first gazpachos, the bowls of cherries, the lightly grilled fish, the ice cream. But my eyes see clammy fog, and my stomach says to hell with all that. I want stodge.

Kedgeree risotto is a beautiful dish. The real thing is a sort of pilaf, served with boiled eggs, but this is much better. A creamy risotto, light yellow and faintly smoky from the haddock, flecked with parsley and topped with a runny five-minute egg. Really good stuff. And if you can find it, samphire, that weird crunchy seaweed, is a great last minute addition.

When I make it in Spain I have no smoked haddock, of course, so I proceed as for a normal risotto and add smoked salmon or trout at the end.

The method is as for a normal risotto, except that you start by poaching the smoked haddock for a very short while, and setting it aside. This fishy smoky water is the stock for your rice.

Start with onions in butter and oil, as always, and when they´re transparent, add a spoonful of curry powder. You heard me. Curry powder. None of your fancy freshly ground spice pastes, please. The yellow stuff from the jar.
When that smells good add the rice, then the stock, etc. As you know, I always use a pressure cooker for this, so just give it double the volume of stock to rice, lock, cook five minutes at high pressure and there you are.
If you do the normal method then it´s the stirring, adding stock, etc. A very soothing, gentle way of relaxing after a long day and enjoying a glass of wine, if you must.

While this is happening drop eggs into boiling water, and simmer them for five minutes, too. Chop parsley, and when the rice is done, add the flaked fish and the parsley.
Serve with the peeled eggs on top.


Cookbook review: "Every grain of rice"

For all the fuss about authentic recipes, I think they aren´t all that useful. I prefer true recipes.

Take  lamb, for example, done as they like in Castilla: roast in a wood fired bread oven, in an earthenware dish, with nothing but water and salt. That is the authentic recipe. The true recipe, however, would read something like this:"get into your car. Drive on the N-I until you get to Burgos. Get out, order lamb in a good restaurant"
Often, traditional, authentic dishes are weekend food, or restaurant or village fiestas food. Spanish people don´t have paella for dinner on a Wednesday at home, they have a couple of fried eggs.

Which is why I recommend Fuchsia Dunlop's latest book, "Every grain of rice". Her two other books are a lot of fun, great reads, and her memoir, too, is excellent. They are one hundred per cent authentic. But this one, which has been out just a few days, has got me cooking straight away. I had to do a quick razzia on my Chinese market to complement my already bulging store cupboard. Yes, I already had sesame oil, soy sauce, chili bean sauce, chili oil, black bean sauce and several types of rice and noodles. I even had preserved mustard greens, but dried shrimp, where have you been all my life?

I am going to cook my way through this book, I can tell. It´s full of doable, quick, really great recipes, simple, chock full of flavour. True home cooking, see? 
It´s reasonable: for every last-minute stirfry there is a long simmered braise or cold dish you can make ahead.  The emphasis is on vegetables. It´s beautifully photographed, very well written, and the design is awesome.
It even made me buy a block of tofu, so help me. That´s very powerful powers of persuasion, let me tell you.

I am also doing my favourite cookbook game, which is to see which recipes I can adapt to the pressure cooker, to the Thermomix, and which to the steamer in the rice cooker. Yesterday we had rice (duh), over which I cooked some spectacular steamed chicken with Chinese sausage and shiitakes (pg 114). Spring greens with dried shrimps (pg 172). And an omelette with spring onions (sort of pg 132). My kids wouldn't touch the vegetables, of course, dammit, but they did wolf down the chicken and rice.

I had meant to write about a whole other lot of cookbooks. Claudia Roden´s "The Food of Spain", for example. Great book. Or David Tanis´"A platter of figs", which I´d assumed would be smug and annoying but is a lot of fun, and full of things you might use for entertaining. Joanna Weinberg´s "Cooking for real life". Not as good as "Relish", but then again, nothing is as good as Relish. Dan Lepard´s "Short and sweet", a gorgeous, gorgeous book that I will surely be cooking a lot from. "Animal, vegetable, miracle", which I´d resisted for years, fearing it would be worthy and sanctimonious, but which turns out to be a great read. "Family life", a memoir by Elizabeth Luard, which I loved. And Béa´s "La tartine Gourmande cookbook", which is beautiful and warm and full of delicious stuff. And which makes me all smug when I say, "my friend, the author...".
I won´t go into any of them at length, and I won´t write about the ones I haven´t liked, since I feel happy and positive today, because it´s sunny and summer solstice means different things when you live in the north pole.

Going off to make some fried rice for lunch.


How to eat out (with kids)

Hear this from the lips of your wise aunt lobstersquad: once you have kids, restaurants, as you know them, are over. Yes, they are. Just face it. None of this pious "oh, it's just different, no worse or better, just different". Because it is. Worse, I mean.

Don't get me wrong; my kids are astonishingly beautiful, wonderful, charming, funny and bright, and I love them to bits. They are also two and three, which means they are impatient, loud, fidgety and extremely annoying. 
Sounds bleak? Take heart from this most beautiful of words: babysitter.

And whatever you do,  don't fall into the so called "family restaurant" trap. Unless run by an actual family, like my favourite place ever, Virginia´s. Otherwise, family restaurants are bottomless pits of hell, constructed around luring you in with promises of crayons and balloons, while holding you hostage for ages until you cave and order overpriced nachos and brownies. And don't get me started on "kids' menus".

So, then: dim sum. Chinese restaurants don't discriminate by age. They treat everybody with the same gruff indifference. No crayons, true, but also, no sigh of despair at the sight of very young customers.
Kids don't like to wait, and things arrive quickly. Kids don't like to share, and dumplings are ideal single serving portions. Kids like variety, so lots of little plates keep them entertained, and everyone gets to choose several things. 
Kids like familiarity, so there is no better option when out of town; they see dragons, chopsticks, Chinese characters on the wall and are instantly at home.

By the time their best-behaviour span is over, so is lunch. Pay, go, smile, and wipe their little soy sticky selves before you get to the car.


A few links

I´m preparing a cookbook post, but because I consume a staggering amount, it might take a while. In the meantime, since it´s June, here are a few links for picnickers, wether they are bundled up in fleece and windbreakers, like me, or barefoot and chasing away wasps.

Empanada gallega, an imposing pie.

Empanadillas, little pies that fit in any lunchbox or picnic basket.

Tortilla española, that old standby.

 Venus is in transit, enjoy!


Noodle soups

Yes, Scottish weather is back to normal, which is to say, cold. Which is to say, soup. Remember that chicken I wrote about, that I poach with no particular purpose in mind, and stash in the freezer in handy 500 ml containers? Here it is again.

It can be broth, chicken sandwiches, risotto, risotto soup. Or  maybe made chicken pie, or chicken and dumplings. All these things are lovely, but they are a bit…I won´t say boring, of course, but staid. Pale in colour, gentle in taste. Wonderful in every way, but about as exciting as an afternoon on a cushy sofa re-reading Georgette Heyer.

Let´s look to Asia, then. And let´s be broadminded about this, ok? Don´t beat me up on regional stuff. I´m Spanish and I add a dash of ketchup to my gazpacho, so I´m pretty sure there are things going on all over the world that would shock the recipe police.

Here´s the game. You have chicken broth, and you have poached chicken. You only need noodles to make noodle soup, and a few bits and bobs to make it interesting.
Quantities are imprecise, not because I want to be annoying but because leftovers are not an exact science. You have to wing it with what you have.

The simplest is to heat the broth, add a pinch of sugar, lots of fish sauce, lime juice (or lemon), chilies and ginger, and pour it over noodles and the chicken. A few sprigs of herbs to make it pretty and that´s it. I sometimes cook the noodles inside the broth, but that´s false economy. It really is better to boil them apart. And as for the herbs, whatever you have. I hate cilantro, so tend to use parsley, or chives, or mint, or all three. 
As far as I can tell, that puts us in or near Vietnam.

Another one I like is to heat the broth, dissolve a heaped spoonful of miso and let some wakame seaweed swell. Boil noodles (and they should be ramen noodles, but anything goes, and actually fresh spaghetti work very well) float chicken. Poach an egg, directly in the soup if you like, and serve, with some nori, a bit of chopped scallion for colour, and, if you have it, that moreish sichimi togarashi.
Would a Japanese granny approve? Who cares.

Prettiest of all is this third option, flirting with Malaysia or Thailand. Boil noodles in a pot, rice noodles for preference.Heat another  pan and fry some Thai red curry or  tom yum paste.  I add more ginger because I really, really love ginger. Add the broth and coconut milk, fish sauce, lime or lemon juice, chili, etc. Tweak and see how you like it.
At the last minute add the chicken and some frozen prawns, and when the prawns are done, so is the soup.
I like to add peanuts and fried onions (from a bag) and any pretty herb I have. In fact, it´s so hearty that even if there is no chicken it´s more than fine. And if you have little or no broth, make it less soupy and serve it over rice instead. 

The great thing about these soups is that they are just as good for any weather, so don´t feel you have to wait for the nippy winds of the North Sea to have a go.



Untitled #113, originally uploaded by Lobstersquad.

You can never tell when summer will hit Scotland, and when it does, it's best to drop everything and enjoy it while you can.
Which is to say, blogging will resume as soon as the clouds and icy winds come back. It's bound to be soon, never fear.


 This is just to say: I'm in Madrid, catching up with old friends, visiting family, ignoring my children and going to all my old haunts. This makes for bad blogging. Also, I have no scanner, so you have to suffer these terrible photos.
Still, the recommendations are good: For tapas, bar Laredo in c/Menorca, 14
For old fashioned beer and chips, bar El Doble, c/Ponzano at the corner with José Abascal.
The rooftop terrace of hotel Ada, overlooking the beautiful skyline (this is new to me, and my favourite place, ever) for coffe or whatever.


Finally, lobsters.

Six years of blogging on lobstersquad and this is the first time lobsters make an appearance. At last.

Scotland has many shortcomings in the grocery shopping department. In Aberdeen we have no market, so I miss out on all the banter, the great produce, the old ladies at the queue who can tell you how to cook anything. We have no greengrocers, so I have to buy all my vegetables and fruits encased in plastic, in a supermarket with no soul. I haven´t eaten a tomato since I arrived, two years ago. 

But on the plus side, we have parsnips, and kale, and raspberries and real strawberries, and new potatoes, and crisp apples, and sausages and gammon joints, and Marmite and hot mango sauce and chapati flour and gorgeous thick yogurt and creamy milk and cream so rich that your arteries clog just from looking at it.
So we´re ok. 
Then on top of all that there are the shellfish. In Spain they are the most highly prized, expensive, luxurious articles you can buy. Here, not so much. Boiled crabs cost about the same as smoked mackerel, far less than sole or monkfish or that ethically unsound tuna. And you can buy the crab meat, neatly picked, in a box. As for lobsters, a fat whopping thing at the fishmonger will set you back about the price of a plate of nachos and two beers in a pub. In other words, a bargain.

So when we have guests from Spain, we like to order one of these beauties for a showy first course. They are already boiled, so there are no Annie Hall antics to suffer. All we need is a bowl of mayonnaise and another one of chopped herbs and pickles, so people can mix and match their tartare as they like.
Wine, or beer, bread, salad, and away we go.

When we´ve finished, I put the lobster shells in the pressure cooker with an onion, a stick of celery and a carrot, cover it with water and give them 30 minutes under pressure. In a normal pot I guess that´s 90 minutes, but you can stop when you think it´s ready.The stock is thin and malevolently red, tastes strongly of lobster, and makes a next day risotto or fish soup a thing of beauty. Of course there are never any bits of lobster meat left (cookbook writers, what planet do you live on?) but you can throw in frozen prawns and white fish and it will be wonderful.


Risotto soup

So, still on that chicken that I poached. Risotto is a usual second stop. Lovely, velvety, just-short-of-stodgy risotto. Good stuff. 
Try to have some left over. The highest, most famous use for leftover risotto are arancine, those deep fried balls of craziness. 
Are they delicious? Yes. Are they something you want to make yourself? No. Fried foods are only really great when cooked by somebody else, somewhere other than your home. So arancini are out, because, anyway, you need tons of leftovers to make a reasonable amount. You´re going to all that trouble, you want something to show for it.

Consider, instead, risotto soup. Just bear with me here. I know it´s going to sound like the dullest, most bland concoction you can think of, but wait. You only need a couple of scoops of risotto to simmer in some broth, or water, even, for a few minutes. The rice collapses a bit more, becomes almost mushy, the broth cloudy, and the whole thing moves away from Italy and towards Asia. It´s almost congee, and as such, comfort food personified. Add little bit of parmesan, or a beaten egg stirred in to make a sort of straciatella, or even a bit of soy sauce. 
You have yourself a bowl of heaven.

The drawing has nothing to do with the soup. I like to have a jug of flowers in the kitchen, and now that my kids are happy to spend many consecutive minutes at the kitchen table, drawing, I get to do the same, and sketch the flowers, many times.


Mars and Venus and the chicken sandwich

Every now and then I poach a chicken. 
It´s very easy: salt it when you get back home, let it sit for a while as you put the shopping away and after, put it in a pressure cooker with a few aromatics and water to
come up to just below the breast. 20 minutes under pressure, 15 for it to come down and there you are. Chicken meat, tender and juicy and delicate, plus a bucketful of jellied broth. No particular purpose in mind, something´s bound to come up that will make good use of it. And if it doesn´t, freeze in pint bags, some chicken and some broth. You´ll be glad to have that on hand.

The first thing we make are usually chicken sandwiches, which can be taken anywhere you like, and made into pop psychology, even.

José makes a chicken version of the classic Cuban sandwich, called habanero in Madrid and bocadito in Cuba. Chicken, ham, cheese, pickles, mustard, white bread, and let the panini press work its magic. Manly.

I tend towards the ladylike in mine. Breast meat, with a little bit of the jelly still on it. Mayonaise, from a jar, with plenty of lemon juice. A few slices of avocado. A suggestion of black pepper. Chopped celery leaves, chives, and parsley. Lightly toasted white bread, or very fresh brown. Green and fresh,  it feels light, although who are we kidding?

Some crisps/chips, for crunch. And if it´s cold, have a cup of the broth, well salted and spiked with Sherry.


Gnocchi di ricotta

One thing that immediately strikes one on arriving in Italy is that everyone is beautiful. And nobody is fat. How is this possible, in the land of gnocchi (not to mention dried pasta, and pizza, and ice cream, and every other damn thing)?
Well, the answer, as you might expect, is that, A/ they eat small portions of pasta as a primo, and B/They take a lot of excercise, much of it in the shape of dodging Vespas and waving their hands.
This quantity makes a starter for four. You don´t want to gorge on gnocchi, just to have a small bowlful and then go on to something else. Just make sure that the something else is wonderful, because these babies are a pretty hard act to follow.

As taught by Fabrizia at the Anna Tasca Lanza school, they seem a little bit intimidating. For starters, the day begins with a morning trip to see the ricotta being made. A sheep farm on a hillside, bees buzzing, almond trees in bloom, sheep and lambs milling about, and, once inside, the shepherd, in pristine white,  stirring a cauldron of whey and milk. Milked that very morning.
A spoonful of that stuff will quickly convince you that nothing you have ever had before is ricotta, if this thing is ricotta. And these gnocchi are mostly ricotta, so it seems a no go.

Well, despair not. I have made these with the so-called sad supermarket ricotta available in Aberdeen, and I can assure you, they are beautiful. 
You can also try them with requesón, as made with this recipe. It´s not ricotta, but it´s a fresh  cheese that everyone is calling ricotta, so why not?

So anyway, the way to make them is to mix 250 gr. of ricotta with an egg, two tablespoonfuls of grated Parmiggiano and 3 tablespoonfuls of plain flour. This makes a paste that looks delicious but you doubt will ever hold any shape. But it will. I am very clumsy, and my sous chef is three years old, and yet we make very passable gnocchi.

Now put a big pan of water to boil.

The thing to do is sprinkle your work surface with flour, and put a spoonful of the mixture on it. Roll it to make a long shape, then cut it into gnocchi. Lay them aside on a floured clean kitchen towel, and work quickly to make the rest. 
Then put them gently into the boiling water and wait for them to start floating up. When you can fish them out from the surface, they´re cooked.
Douse with herbed butter, or tomato sauce, and eat straight away.

If it seems to you that I have been a bit cavalier in my explanation, let me point you towards Nicky and Oliver´s blog. They have photos, and you can see the whole process very well. Or, take a look at Béa´s. Not that her food is ever less than spectacularly pretty, but it might help.

I promise, it´s very easy and much quicker than you´d think.


Just to say, I will be posting a new recipe soon. It´s been a week of work, and play, and some sunshine and some snow, a new box of pastels and another of charcoal bars, and there were expeditions to buy rabbit and snails for paella, and for a beautiful new desk for the kids. Blogging fell by the wayside but it will be back.


What I have learnt (a bit, anyway)

A friend asked me the other day, so, how was Sicily? And I was happily babbling about the place and the landscape and the weather and the food and the wine, when she interrupted me and said, ok, but what have you learnt? It was a course, right? You must have learnt something?

I was a bit nonplussed at that, because "what have you learnt?" is one of those questions, like "are you happy?" that aren´t as simple to answer as they are to ask.

I don´t count recipes. Recipes can be picked up from a cookbook or a website, but watching someone cook, and hanging out in their kitchen, and peeking into the spice cupboard to see how it´s organized, and noting what small utensils make it into the all-important top drawer, that´s where you learn the useful stuff, the things that you take with you into your every day cooking.

So here, in no particular order, are a few of the tips, factoids and tricks recently incorporated into the messy space at the back of my brain.

1- Sicilian cooking uses very little garlic. Remember that scene in Goodfellas? That´s New Jersey, not Sicily.

2- Vegetable oil for deep frying is perfectly ok, no, it´s better than olive oil. Less strong, doesn´t burn easily. Not that I fry, myself, but it´s good to hear it said out loud without all the establishment raising a hue and cry.

3-Starting dishes with chopped onions in cold oil. The onion scent seeps into the oil, and the onions cook later, with all the rest of the stuff.

4- Meyer lemons are not all they´re cracked up to be.

5- Anything going by the name of ricotta is but a sad, sorry travesty of the heavenly stuff we consumed in great quantities at Case Vecchie.

6- Valentina of Chez Munita showed me the sound a loaf of bread makes when it´s ready. This is beyond my writing ability to reproduce, but she assures me the internal temperature should be 100ºC., and now that I´ve heard the noise, I will have no more stodgy, unfinished loaves.

7- And since we´re on noises, a perfectly finished, ready sponge cake makes a squidgy, irresistible sort of noise when you squeeze it. 

8- To poach eggs, crack them into a ladle, and then into the water. It´s tricky to balance the ladle at first, but then much easier to slide them into the hot water.

9- The Italian word for lizard is lucertola. To me it sounds more like a mezzosoprano with lots of pearls, but that´s Italian for you. I learnt this after many a sun-drenched siesta in a spot much favoured by lizards.

10- It is possible to have eight people cooking at once, each a different dish, and have the outcome be a balanced, beautiful menu.

That´s it, for. I´m having another gnocchi session on Sunday, and by then I hope to have practiced well enough to write the recipe here. Until then, Happy Easter. You can while away the wait by having some torrijas, which are very like French toast, and typical at this time of year. Just deep fry the bread after soaking, and dust with cinammon and white sugar.


Food blogger heaven

One day I will tell you about the gnocchi that float like clouds on a  pool of herbed butter. But today, I want to look back on the Sicilian days and think about the company, not just the food.

You see, all my life has been a food talk desert of sorts. Chez nous, one doesn't talk about food at table, thank-you-very-much. Yes, you may say "this is very good", but actually, it's always very good, so why would you? Signify your approval by asking for seconds, take your plate to the kitchen, and now let's have some coffee and Cifras y Letras.
In my family we even have a running joke about people who ask about empanada fillings, the gist of which is to signify how utterly lame it is to talk about such things as empanada fillings.

Which is to say, I could not have been happier during that week, sharing a table with a set of people who, apart from being very talented cooks, photographers, writers and what have you, are above all a magnificent bunch of  food geeks. It was heaven. Imagine coming back from a beautiful twilight walk in the countryside, being given a chilled glass of wine, an apron, and sitting around while dinner is made. Fabrizia presides over the assembly, cooking, explaining, chatting, and handing out small jobs (chop this, sift that, go look for some mint in the garden, please). There is a relaxing background noise of cameras snapping, and a constant stream of talk. About the food here, there, everywhere. About utensils, ingredients, restaurants, methods, history, whatever. I do a drawing, nibble on some fritters (Sicily is big on fritters, bless it), have some more wine, and think, well, well, I can´t think of anywhere I´d rather be.


Sicilian orange and fennel salad

I'm having a slight case of blogger's block. I want to write about my trip to Sicily, but it's hard to know where to start. I´m still taking it all in, and somehow homesick. It sounds silly, since it´s not my home, but we were make  so welcome by Fabrizia that it felt like it.

I thought I would mention a few dishes, and maybe round it off with one of the recipes, but I couldn´t choose. We went through such a whole lot of stuff, from deceptively simple fried vinegary sardines to the baroque multilayered fantasy of cassata to potatoes in saffron that were just like the papas en amarillo I know from home. Every kind of food, in every note accross the scale. What would I write?

Then it occurred to me that a common theme in all those meals was the salad. There was always a salad of some sort, served on a moon shaped plate. We never had the same salad twice, I'm pretty sure,  but the point of them was always the same: to provide a  crunchy, fresh, almost discreet relief from the fireworks in the main, round, plates. Like the clowns in the circus,  coming between the high wire acts.

Of course these salads were all made from whatever there was in the kitchen garden. Right now, in early spring, that means fennel, frisée, wild radish greens, perhaps, and citrus: oranges, or some special salad lemons, or both.

Now, I live in Aberdeen, which puts me very, very far from that horticultural idyll. When I say "whatever I can find"  I don't mean whatever there is in the garden, but whatever they have in the supermarket. And let me tell you, that can often mean, "not much".

So when I made myself a salad of just oranges and fennel, with some some parsley leaves added for colour, I though, this is never going to cut it . But you know what? It was beautiful. Fresh, and sweet, and crunchy and yes, it took me straight away to Sicily. So if you'll forgive me resorting to the clichéd quote, it was a case of changing things so they would stay the same, and it worked.

I will be blogging more about our trip to the Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school, but also be sure to check out what Béa, Nicky and Oliver, Melissa, Keiko and Chika post. Prepare to swoon at the pictures, and to develop strong cravings for ricotta in all its forms.

Nostalgic Sicilian salad, for one

Half a fennel bulb
One orange
A few parsley leaves
Olive oil, salt, pepper

Shave or slice the fennel as thin as you can. Cut the orange over it, so not a drop of juice is lost. The shape doesn't really matter (to me, anyway , since I have the advantageof drawing my food). Leave the parsley leaves whole.
Now sprinkle with salt, drizzle with oil, crack a bit of black pepper and that's it.



I´m still adjusting to real life after my week at the Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school. It was so good.
For now, I´ll leave you with this drawing of Case Vecchie from the garden.
More soon, I promise.