Diet is a four letter word

Since a sizeable proportion of the world as I know it is about to embark on a crazy eating binge any minute, I want to get this off my chest now:

I don´t care if you´re on a diet.
I don´t care if you mean to go on a diet soon.
I´m not interested in the latest wonder-diet your cousin has told you about.
I don´t care if your zip doesn´t do up.

So you feel guilty about eating. SO WHAT?

If you don´t want to eat, fine.
If you want to spend january fasting, fine.
If you want to jump out of a window, go ahead and be my guest.

Just don´t, please, please, moan about the cream and the butter and the chocolate and the almonds, while stuffing your face.

Also, don´t imply I´m stupid by telling me how many calories are in a bite of turrón. I KNOW.

You only make the food turn to ashes in my mouth, and you make me want to drown you in the punch bowl.
And this is supposed to be the season of good cheer and goodwill, after all, so I´d really appreciate it if you´d just shut up and be a good guest.

There. Aren´t I quite the little ray of seasonal sunshine?


The NOT gazpacho tomato soup

Last week, when I posted about tomato soup, I think I inadvertently caused some confusion. I said, when I mentioned it, people made "yuk" noises and said "hot gazpacho?". That´s because gazpacho is so famous that it has overshadowed sopa de tomate (also from Andalucía, featuring mint and bits of bread floating about) and any hot tomato soup is almost unthinkable now in Spain.

This led some to believe that I meant to post about hot gazpacho, which I don´t. Not at all. My tomato soup is a variation on that classic, cream of tomato soup, as brought to you by Mssrs. Wharhol and Campbell.

It´s just a basic elemental, comforting, savoury and very satisfying bright orange creamy wonder. A serious contender for the number one slot in "favourite dinners", if it´s accompanied by something doughy and hot, preferrably some freshly baked biscuits , or a cheese muffin. I usually make it when José has been away, because I think it´s the most welcoming dinner, homely yet interesting.

It would be silly to give a recipe for it, since it´s just tomato sauce with stock and milk. And everyone knows how to make a tomato sauce, and how they like it, and no two are alike. Plus, being a soup, the variations are endless. Sometimes I make it spicy , others I don´t add milk, or I go crazy and add cream, or make it with piquillo peppers, or pumpkin. When I said it was a good fridge clearing soup, I meant it.

My favourite combo is this : one stick of celery, one carrot, one onion, one leek, one clove of garlic, one kilo tin of whole plum tomatoes, one stock cube, one big glass of water, one small glass of milk. More or less, and more or less in that order. And the family secret, a good splodge of ketchup.

The important thing is to make sure the sauce tastes good in and of itself. I like to add sugar to it, plenty. Be careful not to let the milk boil. If it´s too thick, add water, and if it´s too thin, add cooked rice, or rice cakes. Don´t serve it piping hot, wait a little. I think extreme heat takes away some of the flavour in this case.
A dollop of cream looks pretty, once the thing is in the bowl. Chili oil might be good too, or grated cheese, but for my money, pesto is the best.
That´s it.


A most unsual gin

Friday is the night for well-deserved relaxation and cheerfully tinkling glasses with ice and hard liquor, wouldn´t you say? We had two guests for dinner, and since they are as worshipful of a good gin and tonic as myself, I decided to honour the occasion with a bottle of the gin du jour.

This Hendrick´s is the bottle you see everywhere lately. The first time I had it, somebody had brought it to a dinner, and we had it like always, with lemon, and said, this is some seriously good gin.

The second time I was in Embassy, and they brought it with all the flourish that only old-fashioned places full of G&T-drinking grandmothers can achieve. It came in a baloon glass, with plenty of ice and a slice of cucumber. Anywhere else I´d have complained, "oh, puh-lease, this is a cocktail, not a salad". But at Embassy you have to be careful, because you never know where a close and dissaproving relative may be lurking. So I sipped, and my eyes opened wide, and I thought, you´re kidding me.

Honestly. How is it possible that a slice of cucumber can transform a whole glass? And that it doesn´t taste cucumbery so much as fresh and aromatic and cool? If I had a poetic bent I´d start going on about meadows and fresh grass and dewy mornings, but thankfully I´m not.

The best thing about is the marketing device. They write on the label "it is not for everyone", and so of course inmediately everyone, that is, every fool with a bit of disposable income, rushes to the shops. It costs 10€ more than a normal good gin, but that´s fine, because not only is it so good, but the bottle is gorgeous, and justifies the price, all by itself.

The dinner was also pretty good. Chicken curry, spicy creamed spinach, rice with toasted almonds, raita, and the remains of some banana bread I´d made on Thursday. We drank G&Ts all through the dinner, which is an unlikely pairing, but really rather good, in a British Empire kind of way. Loved it.

A god beginning for a week-end.


Happy Thanksgiving?

Why do I even notice Thanksgiving? Well, there´s a certain buzz in American food blogs, naturally. And also, Hespen&Suarez, the deli down the road, is having a special takeout on Thursday, turkey in a box. Also, I did a little  illustration for Belly du jour.

Apart from that, I only know Thanksgiving from movies, and from the Norman Rockwell painting. In the movies, everyone wrangles, fights, says mean things as they pass the cranberry sauce, and slags off the Normal Rockwell painting.

So I´d think that the thing we in Europe have to give thanks for is not having Thanksgiving. Except that of course I don´t beleive movies are strictly true. If I did, I´d also have to think that half the population of the US are cops, and that only New York and California are inhabited, except for a few people with chainsaws in the Midwest.

Food blogs, as ever, have quite saved the day and banished lingering doubts. American food bloggers are limbering up for some very scrumptious feasts, by and large everyone sounds excited and happy to stuff a turkey, and I´m jealous.

I really love this recipe of Julie´s for artichoke soup. I´d love to make Molly´s cranberry chutney, except we have no fresh cranberries here. You can find dried, though, so I´ll try these cookies of Louisa´s. And I´m quite curious to see what people will come up with in the way of leftovers.

So over there, have a great holiday. Over here, there´s a rock/reggae concert in benefit of GuinéBus, a charity that mantains a fleet of school buses in Guinea Bisau. That´s at Art Deco, c/ María de Molina 50, jueves 23, 21:00 h, 25€.
See ya.


Fridge clearing day

I laughed so much over breakfast this mornign with an article by Zoe Williams. Usually she writes about stuff I know nothing about, mostly to do with British Tv and such stuff, but today her dilemma is what to do with the stuff that turns up in her organic box. Read it . It´s very funny, and has good recipes, too.

I have nothing so sophisticated happen to me, but I do end up buying more vegetables than I should, because I just can´t help myself. But hey, if it was shoes, I would be broke, so it´s not too bad.

I shop erratically. Maybe I go to the market for some ginger I need for a particular recipe I just read about. Then I see some broccoli, and think, oh, that´s always useful. And then I pass by the fishmonger´s, say, and see some fresh cod roe, and buy it, and cook it for dinner, and forget about the broccoli and the ginger.
Next day, I walk into the market on the way home from the video store, and I´m thinking about apples, but then remember we were out of onions, or nearly, and since by now I´m carrying a big bag, what the hell, I buy leeks and a bunch of spinach too, and a quarter of wild mushrooms, why not?
And then José comes home and says, oh, I just happened to stop by the pizza place, and guess what, somehow I ordered this really sweet smelling thin crust marvel, topped with pepperoni and peppers, just how you like it. Funny, that.
And next day we have a dinner, and after that we go away for the weekend. And on Sunday I come back too tired to care, and just eat crackers and a bowl of yogurt.
Which means that Monday finds me looking at the fridge and shaking my head at my silly ways.
Opperation Clean Slate begins, and it can go the way of vegetable risotto, of pisto, of curry, but mostly it ends up as soup.
Today, I have a piece of celery, two leeks and a carrot. I also have soome rather good looking tinned tomatoes I bought in La Rioja a couple of weeks ago, so tomato soup it is.
And tomorrow I can go to the market with a tranquil conscience, which is even better than the soup itself.

I will post the recipe soon, for the benefit of all my Spanish friends who screech " HOT gazpacho, ew, gross!", and then scrape the bowl and ask for seconds.


What did the Caspian Sea?

Imagine an Edwardian England suspended in time, where it´s always five o´clock, and the butler seems permanently poised to bring the tea tray out into the lawn. Imagine the bread-and-butter, the cucumber sandwiches, the fruit cake, the scones. Imagine a bunch of corseted ladies in lace, gentlemen with stiff shirtfronts, children in velvet knickers, spaniels at their heels.

Now imagine a tiger has been let loose among them.

That, more or less, is what Saki stories are like. If P.G.Wodehouse is a bubbly gin and tonic, Saki is a very dry martini. One story will exhilarate, two will make your head swim, and by the third you´ll be tottering a little from all the epigrams. He is best read in bed, one or two stories at a time, never more.

Many of them feature food, which is why I bring him up. Most of the time the Cushatt-Prinklies and Van Tanhs are delivering witty one-liners as they drink consommé, spoon caviar, or top brown bread and butter with whitebait. Murderous cooks are aided and abetted, disrespectful diners´ heads are plunged into hot soup and peaches are exchanged as tokens of affection. Tea , Filboid Studge, The Blind Spot, The Byzantine Omelette, The Phantom Luncheon, A Bread and Butter Miss, all these, and many more, have food as a central theme.

He died ninety years ago yesterday, a private soldier in the British Army during World War I. After spending a lifetime writing about waspy duchesses and effette young men, it was a very unlikely end. He was only 44.

Which is very sad, but let´s not be gloomy. Genius lives forever, after all, and one unquestionably good thing about it is that his works are in the public domain, and so you can read them  here. That has all the stories. This has only the Clovis stories, but is easier to navigate, and Clovis is the best, anyway, so start with them.

I recommend him thoroughly. They say there is no better compliment to be paid to the right kind of friends than to hand them Saki without comment.


La ruta del gourmet

Just a quick note to anyone who´s in or around Madrid this weekend.
Seven really great food shops, all around where I live, and all very much my favourites, have set up a tempting little activity, the Ruta del Gourmet, for next Saturday, November 18th.
There´ll be free tastings, and while you try this and that, and buy some tea and maybe a little fresh pasta, you´ll have a lovely walk, too. Great idea.
Pick up a flyer at any of these:
Deli Panific
Tea Shop
La abeja egipcia
La flor de Castilla
Cacao Sampaka


Check this out.

Isn´t it great?
Neil´s blog, Food for thought, is now  At my table. Part of the phoenix-from-the-ashes thing was to change the look, and he asked me for a drawing to put in the header.

I was very flattered, and of course delighted to work on such a lovely project. It´s been great workng with Neil, easy and fun and completely unfussy. I could only wish all clients were like that!

For a start, he knew very well what he wanted, and gave me a detailed brief. I love that. There´s nothing more irritating than a difuse, vague idea thrown at your head, in the expectation that you´ll come up with something brilliant and clear the fog in the client´s mind. That type always thinks they can get away with a jumble of words like "fresh" and "young". Once, I was told to make a piece on perfume for a fashion magazine "noiseless". Of all the...

There´s quite a lot going on here, as you can see, but I´ll leave Neil to explain all that. All I do is put the client´s wish on paper.

I will give you a little peek into my working method, for a change from food.

The first thing I do is read a brief through a few times. Then I usually try to put it at the back of my mind. Sometimes I can´t, if the work is urgent, but I beleive in "marinating" stuff.
I really think that not thinking about it makes ideas bubble up. And if I´m stuck, or anxious, I find that there´s nothing better than to go for a walk, or better yet, into the kitchen. It´s the sort of mindless activity that really clears my head.

At that point, I go to the drawing board, and do a quick layout sketch in pencil. Then I take a clean sheet of paper, and start drawing. I use an old fashioned pen with a nib, and a pot of waterproof Indian ink.

The trick here is not to stop, so if I don´t like something, I just go on, and do it differently on the side. If you look closely, you´ll see bodies without heads, and surplus heads floating around. Also lots of lines that are subsequently cleaned up.

Photoshop allows me to keep things fresh ( great for the "fresh" clients). I send that line, corrected and with new heads on cleaned up shoulders. This is the best time to make changes, if any, as at this stage it´s all pretty simple.

The client has to be imaginative, and see in his mind how it will look in colour. Not everyone can do this, but luckily most people are game.

Then I colour, and that´s it. Simple, no? Thanks to the magic of the web, everything goes from Madrid to Victoria in seconds.

As for the material rewards, well, I do enjoy getting checks in the mail, but it doesn´t compare to the  box of goodies that made its way all over the world.


Verdi salad

The Music is back in my kitchen.

The radio cassette that had been there for four years, and previously six at my former studio, and before that an unspecified number of years in my room at my parents´house. I was attatched to it, but the cd broke, and then the tape deck, and for years I´ve had to rely on the whim of radio djs for my music.

I´m very lazy about home improvement, but finally I dragged myself to Fnac, and elbowing my way past the throngs of ipod and mini-camera buyers, managed to bring home a new radio cassette. I know it´s something of an anachronism, but it does read Mp3 files.

I couldn´t be happier. At last I can chop mushrooms in time to Elvis, stir soups with Eartha Kitt, and wait for stock to bubble away while Batisti throbs his heart out.

One of my favourite kitchen tasks, and one that lends itself to silly arm waving and keeping time to music, is drying salad leaves in the spinner. I loathe a limp, wet lettuce, and since I think a salad spinner is a lot of fun, I insist on keeping it always to hand.

I also like to keep my salad colour coded. Green or red, but not both, which clashes with the Spanish culture of "ensalada mixta". I do love to mix different greens, though, in what I like to call, in a very dorky homage, Verdi salad. It´s not an every day salad, but one worthy of your most honoured guests.

Lettuce, preferably trocadero, although normal is fine, lamb´s lettuce, maybe one of those dark "oak´s leaf", and possibly a few spinach leaves. Ruccola, depending on what it´s going on the side of. I´m not crazy about frisé, but feel free.
The pièce de résistance is an avocado, ripe and buttery, almost dissolving into the dressing and giving the thing an unctuous kick.

I wash, shred and mix the leaves well beforehand, with the music blaring, of course. Since it´s Verdi we´re with, let´s have the bit in La Traviata where Alfredo crashes the party. That´s always a show stopper.

By the time the guests have arrived, I´ll have some adequate background music for the first drinks.
Then, when everyone´s at the table, I slice the avocado, douse the whole with my favourite vinaigrette, mix thoroughly, serve, and prepare to receive the compliments like a proper prima donna.



It´s a beautiful Saturday. The best kind, shiny and bright, crisp with sunshine and a hint of cold to come, but mild as yet.

If you can, you should go mushroom hunting. In Madrid, that means finding a good market stall and buying a couple of huge boletus like these. I drew my phone next to them so you can get a feeling of the size ( that´s what being married to a scientist will do to you).

These met a well deserved end yesterday, a la plancha.

Today, I´m blogging very little, just enough to tell you that I´m about to pack a picnic, a freesbee, a waterproof blanket and the dogs. There´s a park we like where you can sit in an almond orchard and almost forget you´re in the city.

Enjoy your weekend.


A recipe you can´t refuse

You may or may not have noticed that I´m somewhat of a movie nut. It runs in the family. People who don´t watch movies a lot find it hard to follow a conversation at our table. The references are usually to stupid films, and if you haven´t seen them, then you won´t know why we whinny every time my father says he wants to have a dog called Blücher.

I usually take it one step further, and make life altering decisions based on movies. And they´re not even good movies, half the time, which makes it something I probably shouldn´t confess in public. I cut my hair to resemble Demi Moore´s after seeing Indecent proposal. I bought a Powerbook after seeing Forces of nature. I painted my kitchen red after seeing Amelie. Embarrassing, I know, but the haircut was nice.

It makes perfect sense, then, that the first recipe I tried out for company in my spanking new red kitchen, quite a few years ago, should be what is generally referred to as  Godfather spaghetti sauce.

I´m sure you all remember the scene where Clemenza shows a nervy young Michael the ropes of cooking for a crowd. Coppola insisted on inserting it in the film. He said that if it sucked, at least people would have learnt something.The humility of true genius.

Hopefully you won´t be called upon to feed a tribe of assassins after your brother is murdered, but other than that, it´s a really useful recipe to have up your sleeve.
However, it requires time and love. When I don´t have time for that, I do a version that, while nowhere nearly as good as the original, is still pretty good.
I call it The Godfather part III sauce.

It´s very much like  this one, but mine is even simpler, and can be done while the pasta cooks. Quantities are vague. This is not about precision.

Put a pan on the hob with some water, and the rest in the kettle, to speed things up. Chop a small onion very very finely. Sautee it in olive oil over a high fire. It won´t catch if you´re stirring vigorously, so it´s maybe best if somebody else does that, while you break two or three fresh butcher´s sausages from their casings, and crumble the meat with your hands. Ask that other helpful person to put the pasta in the pan while you brown your mince well. Add a jar of tomato sauce.

Up to this point, activity is furious, but now, with the pasta safely in the pan for at least 8 minutes, and the sauce almost done, you can realx, taste, and see. It´ll probably need a bit of sugar, maybe a shake of Tabasco.

While pasta cooks and the sauce splutters, you can have a beer, lay the table, take out the parmesan, the pepper grinder and relocate the microplane. Don´t even bother with the salad.
I´ve never seen a wiseguy tucking into his greens.


Justin Quek again

A few posts ago I wrote about Justin Quek´s book. I did so in a bubbly, overexcited way, and so of course forgot to say a few very important things. I just said it was a chef´s book. Which it is, but I forgot to say what sort of chef. He´s a real chef, a master, not some wacky talkative guy with a white jacket who blabs around on TV. He has one of the best French restaurants in Taipei, and before that he made Singapore a hot destination for roaming gourmets.All this is vouched for by a bunch of exalted people, the likes of Ferrán Adrià and Pierre Hermé.
So ok, I kind of messed up there, but thankfully,  other, better  people are writing about it in the buzzy blogosphere, so you probably know all that by now.

Now, we all know that in any cookbook you´ll only use a fraction of the recipes. That´s a given. The important thing , for me, is wether the book has a voice. When that happens, when I see the structure of someone´s cooking, and get a feeling of their personality, that´s when I find it really useful. Because then I can relate it to my way of doing things, and compare, and see what I can use, and how I can adapt it.

This has just that. It´s full of seemingly impossible things that make me dream about travelling East just to try. Which on closer reading turn out to be doable, certainly not every day, but that´s the whole point of special food like this. It´s full also of things that I´ve made already, and will make again, like vodka cream for smoked salmon, and squid ink risotto, and mushroom capuccino. I didn´t bother to froth it, sorry, I´m just not like that, but who cares? It was a beautiful, delicate soup, and that was more than enough for me.

This book is written so it can be used, not in the spirit of some demigod descended to earth to patronize the hell out of us. Plus, it makes for good reading, wether you cook or not.

So there, I hope I havent´forgotten any crucial bits of information now. Since I probably have, just check out the book, if you can.


A (virtual) dinner for bloggers

Julie has tagged me for this meme : Which Menu Would You Serve Blogging Friends For A Welcome Dinner Upon Their First Visit to Your Home? It was created by Angelika of The flying apple, and a very good idea it is.

My big quandry is, would I give my food blogger friends what I give my friends from Madrid? My failsafe options are curry, or tagine, or bottarga, or Nigella´s ham in Coca-Cola. Or else I cook a big pot of soup, bake biscuits or focaccia, and plump everything on the table, just like that.
Hardly what you´d give someone from abroad, who´s in Spain for just a few days.

Thinking hard, I´ve finally hit on this solution. I haven´t cheated. I could have taken cover under the virtual screen, and told you I´d make an entire menu from Justin Quek. But this is a dinner you might truly have chez moi, Scout´s honour. It´s ethnic, it´s pretty darn delicious, and it keeps to my rule of “make as much as you can the day before”.

We eat in the kitchen, if we´re less than six, so you´ll be sitting at the table, sipping whatever you want to drink, and while I get everything more or less ready, you can start on the aperitivo. This is a prize for the puntual people. In Spain it´s still considered rather dashing to be late, so somebody will turn up 30 minutes after everyone else.

The latecomer will miss it, and will be sorry later when he learns that I gave you the best jamón from Malandares, some pretty awsome olives I buy in bulk from the market ( I think today I´ll go with Camporeal, from Madrid itself) and boquerones en vinagre from the fish store. I drizzle some good olive oil and fresh parsley on these, and they´re as good as home made.

Then we´ll have marmitako. I love this dish for many reasons, but one of them is that it´s perfect make-ahead food. I´ll just warm up the potatoes and cook the fish in five minutes just as we´re all sitting down.

I´ll give you crusty bread, and some green salad, to lighten up.
Normally I wouldn´t make a pudding, because a carefully chosen bowl of fruit is so good. But since you´ve come from so far away, I might just go crazy and give you a beautiful glossy tarte tatin. Or I might make hot chocolate pots. Or maybe I´ll just open a tub of agujeros de Filipinos, an addictive little biscuit thing.

We´ll all end up sitting on the floor in the living room, sipping a late drink and annoying my neighbours. Isn´t that a lovely dinner for blogging friends around the world?

This is open to all comers, and as Julie says, I can´t think of anyone I wouldn´t have. But I´ll pass the torch on, just in case, to a few people, all around the globe.
That´ll be Guru in our own Canary Islands, Neil in Australia, Julie in Florida, Stephanie in NYC, Carolyn in Zimbabwe, and Mixirica in Brasil. Can´t wait to see what thye´ll give us.