Happy New Year

Back once again, loaded with all sorts of citrus fruits, and even a few good intentions. All that will be written about at some other time, since tonight´s the night for grapes.

Whatever else there is for dinner, they´re the one thing that won´t be missing from any table. We eat one for each chime of the clock at midnight. It´s not a very old custom, but it´s firmly rooted, and here´s how it goes.

The clock has to be the one in Puerta del Sol in Madrid. That´s unless you´re in whatever big square with a clock you want elsewhere, live. Most people watch it on TV. Even though we´re late diners in this country, by midnight everyone will have finished, and had a few drinks, and feel a little sluggish, but things get lively as people scramble for position in front of the TV, and slowly count their plates of grapes to make sure there are twelve.

As the clock begins to chime, there´s a confused babble, as everybody shouts that these are just the cuartos, ignore them. This done, the actual twelve begin to sound, and you pop one grape for each. It´s not easy to gobble them up fast enough, and you´re bound to end with at least six in your mouth by the end.
Once swallowed, you then step into the new year with your right foot, and start kissing people and toasting and what not.

In my family, we like to do it standing on our left leg, to make sure that the first step is with the right foot. Making life more interesting, you see. Also, we put a coin in our right shoe, and gold in the champagne. Not materialistic, oh no.

Please note that peeling and de-pipping grapes beforehand is for wimps and small children. Likewise, eating the grapes after the clock has finished.

If you want to take it up, be warned that choking is part of the fun, and that I will in no way be responsible for any harm incurred during frantic back slapping.


Just a quick post to say a few things.

One: we didn´t win the lottery. I´m sure you guessed. Better luck next time, but it was fun playing with all of you.

Two: thanks to everyone who bid for my prizes on the big Menu for Hope III auction. You saved me from having to bid on myself to avoid embarrassment, and together we´ve raised almost 60000 USD, which is amazing. Thank you.

Three: I´m going down south to see my in-laws , so I´ll be off blogging duties for a few days. Back for New Year.
I have a pretty long train ride ahead, to be enlivened by several books, a few DVDs, and one of the best things about Christmas : the Sandwich. Stuffed turkey on white, with mayo and some of that spicy chutney. Definitely recommended.


The food chain

It´s a very curious thing, the Christmas basket phenomenon. I don´t know if it happens everywhere, but here, it´s crazy.

You´d think in a sane world a person would just be rated according to their looks, charm, money and cars. Not so. The status symbol is the Christmas basket, which literally shows your place on the food chain.

I have seen friends climb from the tiny three item basket to the lofty heights of a ham. I have also seen people demoted from the ham to the stick of caña de lomo, and oh, the anguish.

Others, like José , don´t know where they stand. He´s a lecturer at a public university, which makes him a funcionario. These peope live in some odd little parallel Chekhovian universe all their own. I always think that J is a higher minded soul than all that, and that he cares more about the environment than departamental backstabbing. Not so. For days, J has been fretting that everyone in the department has received a cheese, except him. He´d suddenly say, a propos of nothing, "I bet the thief is that geeky guy from the Chemistry department". Talk about who ate my cheese, uh? Then yesterday he arrived with a single bottle of wine, a cheese (well, it all happens in La Mancha, what do you expect?) and a stick of salchichón ibérico. Last year it was two bottles of wine and a cheese. He´s now worried wether that´s a step up, or down.
Tricky. Myself, I´ll take salchichón ibérico over a bottle of fair-enough tinto any day, but he´s still pondering the question.

Since I´m a lowly freelancer all I get is a book from one of the publishers I work with, and a panettone from my agent. Not for me the ultra luxurious, tall-as-a-man four storey monster, trailing masses of ribbon, and always, no matter what, a jar of peaches and a tin of asparagus. I always wonder wether those two are relics of the post war hungry times, when they´d have been the height of luxury.

Whatever they are, I do think it´s the best present you could hope to get. I´ve never heard of anyone going back to the shop to change a ham because it didn´t fit them. It´s the only thing that makes me wonder if I´d like to work in a big office.


El Gordo.

In the previous posts I have asked you to hand out the ready, to give, part with your cash. But not now. Armtwisting isn´t over ( go on, now, donate!), but here I just give, out of the gladness of my heart, in the grand old tradition of the Gordo de Navidad. This, which could be loosely translated as the Christmas fat guy, is the big draw of the national lottery.

Everyone plays. Everyone. If you don´t buy a whole ticket, you´re bound to buy bits of ticket from your office, football club, breakfast bar, dentist or fire brigade. And if you don´t do that, you´ll still be given free snippets of tickets, participaciones, by most of your neighbourhood shops. Five cents from the cheese stall, ten from the dry cleaner´s, five from the butcher, and come the 22nd of December, you´ll have a shoebox full of bits and pieces, and an eye on the Tv.
The annoying warble of the children who sing out the prizes will be all over. And at some point in the morning, people will say, exctedly "it´s out". The Tv will switch to pictures of smiling people shrieking and opening bottles of cheap cider, somwhere other than where you bought your lotery. Heads will be shaken goomily, and then they´ll say, "oh, well, at least we´ve got health". Except my mother, who´ll say, "dammit, I hate those people, turn it off".

So here it is, then, your participación from the Lobster Squad lottery, number 35213. All you have to do is leave a comment, and 10 cents of this number are yours. Chill the champagne and get ready to do precious little work on Friday.

Le petit print: if you don´t have a blogger account, leave your name inside the comment when you sign up as "anonymous". If we win the first prize there should be enough for a lobster and a couple of bottles of champagne. If we win a lesser prize I think you´ll have to excuse me, but it may be that the cost of sending the money will be more than the actual prize, so I´ll let that pass.
I will contact you if we´ve won.
Fingers crossed from now util Friday.


Quick asparagus lemon soup

This is a quick soup that looks elegant, is warming and fresh tasting, and feels quite light, which makes it the perfect dinner after a heavy festive lunch, or a welcome partner for leftover sandwiches.

It´s made of basic ingredients I always have around, and if I don´t, the corner shop will. Onion, stock, parsley, lemon and eggs, and the star of the show, a jar of white asparagus.

These babies can be quite expensive, but for soup the thin ones are more than fine. Or maybe you´re a bit of a sucker, like me, and have a couple of jars of what look like finest thick asparagus from La Rioja but turn out on closer inspection to have come from Peru. I have no qualms about throwing these in the pot.

So here´s how it goes. You sweat an onion in olive oil, maybe a little butter, and let it stew gently without colouring. Meanwhile, chop up a fistful of parsley leaves, drain the 525 gr. asparagus jar or tin, reserving the liquid, and chop them into small pieces. Sepparate the tips, they´re very soft and will have to be added at the very end.
When the onion is well cooked, add the chicken stock, about one litre, the water from the asparagus jar, and the asparagus. Simmer for five minutes, taste for salt, and then turn off the fire.
Put two egg yolks in a bowl, add some of the soup, mix well, and add to the rest of the soup, stirring well so that it thickens and turns a beautiful cloudy Naples yellow. Add the asparagus tips, parsley and some pepper.

This is how I was taught to make it by Esperanza, a dinamite cook. I am not so talented, and found it a little bland, so I added the zest of a lemon and the juice of half, and it was lifted into a thing of beauty inmediately. This is my official version from now on.
Serves four.


Menu for Hope update

The prizes are even juicier, people!

Susie, of Bluebird Blogs , has very generously bumped up my prize with her own proffessional services. You can now win a complete new look for your blog ( blogger and wordpress only).
If you want my illustration as the header, fine, if not, don´t worry, just find a deserving friend who needs a blog makeover ( and don´t we all?) and ask for my illustration for whatever else you want.


Birthday blues

It´s my birthday. I don´t mind getting older at all, far from it, and everyone has been perfectly sweet and celebratory and I have received presents.

I´m just pretty hopping mad because I can´t eat cake. I´m ill. How much does that suck? After all tuesday sipping a vile drink made of glucose and salts, I graduated to white rice and apple compote yesterday. Today, as a great concession, I´m told I may have a boiled egg.

Well, my plans for today involved eggs, certainly, numbering six, in the batter of a cake, and another six to be turned into wattle-seed custard.

Also, my father was to have given me one bottle from his precious stash of 1948 Marqués de Riscal Rioja. The best harvest of the century, he says, smugly (he was born that year). We´d been discussing for weeks what to pair the wine with, and now look at us, both ill, both sipping chicken broth.

And you know the worst? If I think of the custard I feel something between indifference and nausea. Is this how thin people feel? Intriguing thought.

So anyway, I´m holding off all celebrations til the weekend, or next week, even.
But what the hell, I think I´ll be wild and crazy and steam some courgettes for dinner, one doesn´t turn 31 every day, after all.



Menu for Hope

Here it is again, the great Menu for Hope III. It all started at Chez Pim a couple of years ago, and last year they raised 17000 dollars for Unicef. Which I think is amazing, and a pretty hard act to follow. This year it´s going to the UN ´s World Food Program.

Look at her site and see all the prizes you can bid for. There´s plenty of amazing stuff, and all can be yours for a 10$ raffle ticket, during the days of 11 to 22 of December.

Here are the two prizes from Lobstersquad.

The first, code EU23, is an original watercolour, size about 23 by 32 centimetres. It appeared in the food section of Metaphore magazine, and now you can see what a terrible state I´m in, when I confess, I don´t remember what the text was about. It may have been Asian food, but then again, it may not, since I was given a pretty free rein in that magazine, which may or may not have resulted in its dissappearance last year.

You can have a piece of that Titanic of the presses, by a paltry 10$ raffle ticket. This is a great opportunity not only because it will come tastefully framed and show off your walls to advantage, but because I never sell original illustrations. This is a once in a lifetime occasion.

The other prize, code EU29, is the offer of my professional services. Your tickets will give you the chance to order me about and comission one piece, whatever it is you want. For bloggers, it can be a header, like Neil´s here. Non bloggers, or everyone, really, may prefer a letterhead, invitation or even a screensaver. Bid and I´m all yours for this one piece that will change your graphic life. Check out my website for all the dizzying options you may have for the clicking of a finger.

Now, here´s the serious stuff. The region of Europe is being hosted by David Leibovitz, and very big thanks for that. You can see all the prizes for the region on his site, here . This is particulary interesting because some of the prizes are dinners, or blog events, or meetings with famours bloggers. It may be that you´re a travelling gourmand, and will want those far away prizes. For that you go to Chez Pim´s site.

Here's what you should do...

1. Go to the donation page at First Giving
2. Make a donation! Each $10 will give you one raffle ticket toward a prize
of your choice. Please specify which prize or prizes you'd like in the
'Personal Message' section in the donation form when confirming your
donation. Do tell us how many tickets per prize, and please use the prize
code-for example, a donation of $50 can be 2 tickets for UW01 and 3 for
If your company matches your charity donation, please remember to check the
box and fill in the information so we could claim the corporate match.
3. Please also check the box to allow us to see your email address so that
we could contact you in case you win. Your email address will not be shared
with anyone.
4. Check back on Chez Pim on January 15 when we announce the result of the
raffle. The drawing will be done electronically. Our friend the code wizard
Derrick at Obsession with Food is responsible for the application that will
do the job.

Thanks for your patience, and I hope we can raise the bar on last year´s record.


It´s beginning to look like hot chocolate

The Christmas decorations at my parents´ house went up yesterday. We always do it on the 8th, a national holiday, and a very good day to start spreading the Yuletide spirit.

Chez moi all you will see are a couple of rows of small twinkly lights, but my mother´s approach is of the take no prisoners sort. There´s a tree, several kilometers of garlands, mistletoe, and of course a sprawling Nativity scene with at least a hundred figures. There´s a dancing Santa Claus, ribbons for the front door, an advent calendar, and for some reason a pink fish and a glittery monkey have joined the throng.

The thing to do is to listen to silly music, fight over who gets to put the star on top of the tree, and decide who´s luckier, according to the importance of the Nativity figures we pull out first. Then, after all the pieces of newspaper, stray bits of ribbon, broken figurine arms and tiny plastic pigs have all been put in the trash, it´s time for a cup of hot chocolate.

The Spanish version, as sold in bars and chocolaterías to accompany a side of churros is a thick sweet gloop, eaten with a spoon, and tasting only remotely of cocoa. When you buy a bar of chocolate "a la taza" you´re buying something that has a lot of flour or cornstarch, or both. Which is why I advise you to stay clear of the chocolate a la taza bars, and go instead for Lindt´s cooking chocolate, or Valrhona, if you can find it.

I make a frenchified version, made with 1250 ml of whole milk, 250 gr of 70% chocolate, a teaspoonful of cornstarch ( I am a Spanish, after all), a piece of cinammon, and no sugar.
It´s dark, velvety and strong, perfect for dunking sweet cake, biscuits, churros or even roscón. If you have a plateful of migas to go alongside, then you will be very close to heaven.


Faro sketches

I love Portugal, I just do. I get the feeling when I go that I´m seeing a parallel universe, almost like a version of Spain in which trees haven´t been cut down, where everything is greener, and men sport moustaches.

I said, in my previous post, that I meant to spend a lot of time browsing supermarket shelves. That seemed odd to a fair few, I bet, but I´ll explain.

Graphic desing is everywhere, in a way that great art may not be. Even if Faro only has a small old centre, and no world famous monuments, there´s penty to look at in the way of signs and labels. The best and the worst of are instantly available, and to me, it is particulary absorbing, because I feel I can tell all I want to know about a country from it. Or something like that.

Faro is very like southern Spain in many things. The climate, obviously, the whitewashed buildings, a lot of the architecture. The inside of the museum could be the inside of any museum in Spain. A Roman mosaic, a few shards of Islamic pottery, a few medieval headstones, a welter of baroque religious pictures. So far, so similar.
But step inside a supermarket, and the differences jump at you. What´s that misterious julienned vegetable labeled "caldo verde"? How about the five different pre-prepared mixes of vegetables for soup (we have one, at most)? Unfathomable cuts of meat. Five unknown types of Knorr stock cubes. Sausages in tins with the most lurid 70´s design!

All very fascinating to me. And when you get to the actual market, the real fun begins. There´s a swanky new building, all glass, very spruce, opening in a few days. I´ve been lucky to witness the last days of the old one, and I´m sure everyone will be pleased to see it go, because it´s dark, uncomfortable, and not very beautiful. But what atmosphere, my friends...

Being a sea town, the fish was so fresh you felt you might be slapped in the face by a sea bass any minute. It was also very cheap, and it was very hard not to buy a whole shoal to take home. I held myself in, and tried to sublimate the crazy cosumerism by just drawing (as shown). They had several little fish I didn´t recognize, and there was a stand wholly dedicated to moray eels.Sea monsters!
I didn´t even know they were edible. I couldn´t find any in a restaurant, sadly, so that´s one more incognita in my life.

I stocked up on things that weren´t heavy, since we only had one suitcase between us. Bunches of wild oregano, wooden spoons, little bottles of chili sauce, a mysterious condiment for roast chicken, and the ubiquitous sardine paste. I collected a fair amount of labels, from beer bottles, chocolate milk powder, pastries and sugar packets.

I also ate an eel, snakey weird looking animal, loved it, and took a boat that nearly sunk in a howling storm (well, ok, I may be exaggerating a little, but give me a break, I´m a complete landlubber).

The most exotic thing was some fudge I picked up at the airport, thinking it would be mint. It turned out to be flavoured with rosemary, very confusing, but not bad.

And that´s all. I have masses of oregano, so if anyone can think of a recipe other than pizza I can use it on, I´ll be much obliged.



I´m going to Faro for a couple of days. José has some congress , and Ryanair advertises flights from Madrid for €0.02, so off I go. While he hobnobs with all his planet-saving friends, I´ll amble around, look at the waves, read, sketch, and generally laze around.

I have high hopes about the fish market, and grocers in general. They´re very similar to ours, except that the Portuguese seem to have much better taste. Things are stacked more prettily, and the graphics are to die for.

Last time I didn´t have time to browse at leisure, but now, since I´ll be on my own most of the time, I can stare at sardine tins as long as I like. Great.


Nutella vs. Nocilla vs. The Other One

When I did that post about the Thermomix book, it was quite hard to find a link in English among all the millions of pages in Spanish.
I chose this one over others because I was intrigued by what they said about it being so hard to find, the hokey-pokey commercial methods, the cultishness of the whole thing.
Well, ok, so it is cultish. It really really is. I don´t care.
As of today, you may call me the Tom Cruise of Thermomix.
For the past hour I´ve been jumping up and down on the sofa, screaming " I´m in love".

Why now, after all those soups, doughs, sauces? After two years?
Because of the Nutella recipe you´ll find if you scroll down in that post.

Why make your own chocolate spread, you´ll say? Well, it only takes three minutes with the machine, and that includes the time you take unwrapping the chocolate and licking your fingers afterwards. And add to that that the ingredients list reads like the old familiar litany...leche, cacao, avellanas, y azúuuuuucar..of the Nocilla jingle, I just had to try.

In my mind there is a constant battle going on between Nutella, Italian and nutty and rather sophisticated, and Nocilla, the national product, the taste of all my afternoon snacks back in the early Eighties. Under torture, I might admit that I prefer Nutella, but Nocilla will forever remind me of grazed knees, the torn hem of my school uniform, and Espinete . And that´s priceless.

This third contender, of course, is nothing like either, and more like the inside of a fancy Belgian chocolate. Unsuitable for a small child´s merienda, but perfect for serving to dinner guests with a clutch of grisini.

When I made it, I was so enthusiastic that I bet my neigbours thought something far more interesting was goign on. I used 70% cocoa Lindt chocolate, a little less sugar than was indicated and...well, the rest is just drooling. I literally don´t know what to tell you , other than, make this out of earshot of anyone who might be offended by high pitched moaning.

Home made Nutella

If you own a Thermomix, go here. If not:

100 gr chocolate
100 gr milk
100 gr icing sugar( I used 90 grams)
100 gr ground hazelnuts
(they must be really ground, not pasty-buttery. If your processor can´t handle that, buy them ready ground)
70 gr. butter

Mix the icing sugar and the hazelnut meal. In a bain marie, melt the chocolate and the butter, add the sugar and hazelnuts, and when it´s folded in, add the milk and stir until it´s a gorgeous dark brown sauce. It will harden to spreading consistency as it cools. Keep it in the fridge.
If you can.