My workshop in Sicily


may 1 may 6 2017


A week spent sketching in the Sicilian hills, the better to take in all the beauty and inspiration.

We will cook and we will walk, and travel and eat and sit around in a beautiful garden. And all the time we will be keeping a sketchbook. Because everybody can draw, even if they think they can't. I will be there to nudge and encourage and advise, and it doesn't matter if you are a professional illustrator (like me) or somebody whose last drawing was handed in at the end of the 8th grade.

Sketching is a wonderful way to make the most of travel. It is a way to stay in the moment, to look around, to absorb, to sit still and really see what is in front of you. Call it mindfulness or call it therapy or just plain pottering around, it feels good to sketch. We will not concentrate on the result but on the process,  because it doesn't matter how each individual drawing turns out.  This will be just plain fun.


Ximena Maier is a Spanish illustrator. She works with the main publishing houses and magazines in Spain, both in children's and general books, including many on food. In 2006 she began "Lobstersquad, a food blog with drawings".
She is passionate about sketching and is often to be seen insisting that everyone around her take up pencil and paper too, and have a go.



Cooking for crowds

My cookbook collection grows. When we moved into this flat four years ago, I brought with me a desert island stash. The bare minimum of books I needed for comfort and sustenance. Yes, you can look up the quantities for anything you want on the web, and this blog serves as my own aide memoire. But curling up with a cookbook is different. And then of course I bought a few, and then a few more, and there were so many finds at charity shops and book fairs, and that pesky free super-saver delivery. And they pile up. Literally. They are all over the house. And that’s all right. Right?

I used to justify a cookbook if I used three recipes. Then I whittled it down to one. Now I’m fine if I find a sensible tip, and fine, too, if I just enjoy reading it.  The right kind of cookbook gives you a window into other lives, like any other good book. I like the kind of books that make me feel as if I’ve been taken to somebody’s house, allowed to roam the kitchen, open the cupboards, rummage in the drawers, see the photos on the fridge, lift the lid on what’s cooking. And this I like to gather from the text, not from the photos. Most of my favourite cookbooks have no pictures, maybe a few elegant black and white illustrations. 
Right now, in order to qualify for staying on my bookshelves, I mostly have to like the author, and everything follows from there, because a likeable author will make me like the food in the book, and nudge me into trying something new, or making something old again.

Recently I was given a copy of Cooking for crowds, by Merry White, the 40th anniversary edition of the 70’s original. And it ticks all the boxes. The recipes look great, but mostly the author sounds like somebody I’d love to have dinner with. There are no photos, which is more than fine, as it has lots of sweet black and white drawings by Edward Koren.

As with all cookbooks, there is more than a touch of the aspirational. In this case, be the sort of (supercool) person who has 50 guests and is ready to cook for them. Wouldn’t you love to be that person? Not only do you have fifty people around, but you are unflappable enough to serve them big, generous bowls of homstyle, yet sophisticated fare. And if you burn the borscht? Call it Smoked Borscht.

It’s a wonderful book for building confidence. Cooking for crowds, White insists, is not more difficult, just more time consuming, so there’s no excuse. Even better, if you do not have to, or want, to cook for fifty, the recipes come with different quantities. For 5o, for 25, for 12, for 6. See how easy 6 sounds? Anyone intimidated by cooking for 6 will have to admit it’s not that big a deal, compared with lugging sacks of potatoes that will feed 50.


A sandwich

You know how sometimes you have to call a friend, and you keep putting it off, for good reasons, then bad reasons, then no reasons other than the thing is spiralling out of control, and you end up resenting this person you’re not calling? So it was with lobstersquad. I was looking for something I really wanted to blog about, and not really finding it, but then, reading the Wednesday Chef, I was led to a flummoxing article.
And then I thought, you know what, I might as well write something after all.

That post, which you can read here if you like, is about someone who has decided not to cook because she forgot to put salt in some galette she was making. The galette came out fine, but it was not the galette to end all galettes, and she had failed to make all her friends wither away in envy of her Instagram feed, and so she’s going to live on olives and prosciutto for ever and ever amen.

I can’t even begin on how crazy I find that. Instead, I will tell you about the lunch I made on Saturday. I, too, had decided not to cook, but just for that morning. But because I am the boy scout of fridge maintenance, and have become, now that I live in the North Pole, an avocado curator, I knew that a world class sandwich was within reach.

First I had to go to the shop and buy some fresh bread. Not mindblowing artisanal bread, of course. Supermarket mini ciabattas, of the sort that look a bit rubbery but come to life with a couple of minutes under the grill.

That, filled with thinly sliced leftover steak, wedges of avocado, pickled cucumber, a squirt of lemon and a dash of hot sauce, was all. A bag of salad was emptied onto a bowl, and dressed with the last of a bottle of vinaigrette I make in batches.

It was very quick, it was beautiful, and it made perfect sense, and if it wasn’t cooking, it wasn’t turning my back on it, either.

So there you are. 


A summer salad

You hear so much about  summer cooking, but over time,I’ve come to see that summer is as summer does. In Scotland, you can fire up the oven to cook aubergines and take a hamper full of porra on a picnic. And sit in a cold drizzle while you dip prawn crackers, and wonder, what, exactly, you were thinking about.

But now I’m in Madrid, and summer in Madrid is not kidding around. There is no turning on of ovens, and stoves, as little as possible, thank you. Gazpacho, wether real or Alvalle, is consumed by the gallon. Fruit is delicious and plentiful and so cheap it leaves me aghast, used as I am by now to the highway robbery up north. There are all sorts of lovely tins. And if you want anything else, there are plenty of bars and restaurants. 

So there you are. Where there is summer, there is no cooking, and vice versa.

Sometimes I go beyond slicing a few of the beautiful tomatoes. Here’s a salad I like. It’s the cocarrois insides salad, minus the pimentón, and it goes like this:

Chop some cauliflower, small, into bits the size of a chickpea. A lot of the florets will crumble into smaller pieces, which is a good thing.
Chop spring onions, very small. In Spain spring onions are huge, unwieldy things, and only the white bit is eaten, but you go ahead and use the green if it’s dainty enough.
Now dice a tomato or two, and add some chopped flat leaf parsley. You want a good mix of color.

Dress with salt, olive oil and vinegar. 

(The illustration is from a t-shirt I've done for Tío Pepe)



I won't bore you with all the million reasons that have kept me from blogging. It was nothing bad, just a classic case of freelancer's "all the buses coming at the same time" kind of thing. Plus, you know, Life.

So anyway. Here's to spring, which seems to be around the corner, with buds and flowers and birds building nests and all those pretty things, and a thing I've discovered. If you spread toast with peanut butter and honey, it tastes just like the praline paste nutellaey-thing they have in Le Pain Quotidien. Which is handy, seeing as how there is no LPQ in Aberdeen, and how you save approximately millions of pennies using this mix instead of the other stuff.
So all thanks to my son Pepe, who would be happy to live exclusively on this, dunked in milk.

And let's hope once I meet all the lots and lots of deadlines pending over my head, I'll get back to blogging.


A lazy post

Here's the thing. I have a million things to do, and it's cold and grey and gloomy and it's January and that mostly sucks. And soup makes it better. And I admire all those bloggers who write three new recipes a week, but the thing is, I make the same soups all time. More or less. They are never exactly the same. I might use sweet potato instead of carrot in a lentil soup, or add a spoonful of miso to some borscht, but that would not justify my calling something "Miso Borscht".
So I'm just going to link to the tag "soup" and you can browse it because, really, there is some very good stuff there.



Despensa, originally uploaded by Lobstersquad.

Enjoying our time with friends and family, of course. But the food...oh, the food. The constant parade of fantastic things I would never in a million years cook myself, the occasional walk in the olive groves to work up an appetite, lounging in the sunshine with a glass oloroso, and all those dolce far niente things.
Happy New Year, everyone.


Merry Christmas, everyone

I love Christmas Eve. It's the one day of the year when I can embrace my kitchen geekiness. Food crazies are in the mainstream for a day, so, rejoice!
There is a lot going on today. We stuffed our bird yesterday. It had apparently been deboned with a sledgehammer and had to be sown with extra care. For the first time my daughter took part in the proceedings, pointing out where feathers had to be pulled out, and cutting the thread. We made a pot of stock, for the gravy, and in case anyone wants a cup of broth at some point.
I also made jelly with some tangerines my father brought, sent from Valencia and picked that very morning.
This morning it's been custard, to top the jelly, and two batches of the pearl (onion) jam. Done in a bit sautee pan this time and much better for it.
Dried chestnuts have been simmered in syrup. Apples were supposed to be made into sauce but I forgot about them and they are now caramelized (ahem).
We only have to roast the bird and then the potatoes. There is a jar of goose fat waiting.
And because the kitchen is run over, lunch is every man for himself. Anyone not going out for tapas can find ham hock rillettes in the fridge, made last Sunday.
And now, if you'll excuse me, I have some cañas to catch up on.
I hope you have a lovely holiday, rain or no rain.


Chicken skin

Some months ago I wrote about the contents of my freezer, listing among them chicken skins. Someone asked me in the comments if they were for my cats. I felt too sheepish to answer. The truth is, I don't have any cats, and if I did, I would certainly not share the chicken skin with them. I could have shouted it out from the rooftops, though, because it seems chicken skin is The New Bacon.

Cooked chicken skin can be flabby, slippery and rather gross. Even if you take care to brown your chicken pieces, after braising the whole thing goes soft, and what's the point of that? I don't usually bother to brown anything, anyway. And please, don't talk to me about Maillard reaction. Bla bla bla whatever. 

I cook chicken without the skin, at least for everyday chicken things like rice or soups or a sandwich. But because I now live the suburban life of the supermarket chicken thigh package, I have had to learn how to deal with the skin myself. A deft pull and you have your skinless thigh. A few inept wiggles and cuts and it is now boneless. 
The meat for whatever dish I'm making, the bones for stock, and the skin? It pains me to say that I used to toss it. No longer. 

Now the skin goes, salted and cut into small strips, into a non-stick pan on a low flame. And if you have one of those things that look like the child of a strainer and a ping-pong paddle, put it over.
Leave it on its own while you make whatever else you're making. It starts to change colour, spitting a little, shrivelling and crisping and after a few more minutes and a bit of turning becomes crunchy and golden and irresistible. Properly irresistible. It is the most delicious thing, and I can't think of any chicken dish it doesn't improve. Sandwiches, soups, noodles, rice, anything, really. 

If you don't want to use it right away you can leave it in the fridge, and use it to enliven leftovers. My favourites: crisp some to crumble over soups of the heartier variety, like black beans. 
Let them cook til golden and use the rendered fat to cook fried rice, or to make a hash with cooked potatoes, or for the most heavenly ropa vieja.
Add them to poached chicken for  the whole foods, beak-to-tail answer to the Club Sandwich.

You can think of it as kosher chicharrones and serve it as a snack, but that is something I have never got round to. To me, they are simply a very handy way to make sure that I have the best of both worlds, crisp chicken skin and juicy, flavourful meat.


A review of Puro Fairtrade Coffee

Disclaimer: I have never in my life written a review, and it's been keeping me awake and away from the blog. But I said I would so now I have to write a coffee review.

Well. Not "have to" so much as "have to". I mean, I want to do it, but it's given me a bad case of blogger's block, and if I don't get it out soon it's going to dry up lobstersquad completely. Not that anyone would care, but still.

The thing is, a couple of months ago (!) I received a sweet email from someone who not only gave me a really good recipe for cabbage salad but also offered to send me some samples of Puro Fairtrade coffee to review.
And I blithely said "yes".  Like I had any idea how.

And have I enjoyed it? Of course I have. Of course. It really is lovely coffee. Fairtrade is really the only quality that I can't ruin with my coffee making methods, which are on the rough and ready side. The whole Puro coffee story is wonderful, and you can check it out on this video, which tells you the whole story much better than I could.

The best news in all this? Puro Fairtrade coffee only sells to coffee shops and other professional outlets. So it's not up to me (or you?) to ruin a good cup . I have recently found that a small café in my neighbourhood serves it, so I can get my fix in a much more convenient and delicious way.

I wish I could make an informed critique of the differences between the different coffees I received. The thing is, I like coffee very well, but I tend to think of it the Spanish way. For us "un café" is as much about the social occasion as about the drink. You can meet friends "for coffee" and end up drinking Coca-Cola, orange juice or hot chocolate, and nobody is a bit surprised. And at home I usually drink tea. So it isn´t up to me to detect how Puro Organic, with its 100% Arabica content, has a touch of citrus. I have never, ever, not once, detected a touch of citrus in anything other than oranges and lemons. Sad, but true. (Are you thinking about pearls and swine by now? I'm not surprised)
Likewise, Puro Fuerte, is a dark roast and makes me think that Puro Noble  is "medium" in this whole new universe. Like Tall Grande and Venti, except, of course, NOT, because in every way superior to that chainy mermaidy stuff.

There was also a sachet of hot chocolate that my children pronounced top notch. They are actually conoisseurs and can tell Cola-Cao from Nesquik a mile away. Perhaps they should have done the whole review?

So there you are. Watch the video, browse Puro Fairtrade Coffee, save the rainforest, see if you can find a place nearby that serves it because it really is good in every possible way.
And if you're really good and I get permission one day I'll post the recipe for the cabbage salad.