New blog header

Take a look at this. Another blogger has kindly asked me to do an illustration for a header, and I´m really pleased with the result.
It´s a lot of fun to work outside the usual books/magazines. And I discovered her blog , which I didn´t know before, so, great.


Madrid 36 hours

The NYT did a piece on my city, beginning with "Poor Madrid, stuck in the middle of Spain". Dammit.
Calls us a provincial sister of Barcelona? Argh! Not that I have a chip on my shoulder about Barcelona, oh no. Except that I somehow can´t seem to move my neck.

Now I´ve stopped foaming at the mouth, I´ll say that the rest of the article is pretty good, manages to mention Hemingway only twice, and does highlight some out of the way favourites like the Descalzas Reales or Fundación Caja Madrid. So here´s a link, if anyone´s interested.


My basket

Here´s a look at what I´ve bought today. It´s been  Rachel´s idea to ask around, poking into people´s shopping baskets. Very fascinating. Post here, and roundup in a couple of days. I´m making the deadline, only just.
It´s not a representative basket at all, because I´m running crazy with all the work, and I haven´t been able to do a proper shopping trip. Here goes, anyway.
Beers, numbering 18 bottles. White sugar. One free range chicken. A box of Campo Real olives. Four greek yogourts. Butter. Frozen petit pois. A bag of frozen pearl onions. White sandwich bread from the good bakery in Santa Engracia. Mushrooms, red cabbage and a pineapple. Also parsley, but since that´s always free, I haven´t drawn it. I bought part at the supermarket, the chicken and veg at the market, and the frozen stuff at a specialist shop nearby. The total at the greengrocer came to 6,66. Funny, no?
I´ve made a dinner for five; chicken and mushroom pot pie, minted peas and sweet red cabbage. I thought we´d have the pineapple, but we didn´t, in the end. Plenty of beer to wash it down, as you can see.


Short orders

1- The very few leftover beans of the last post made a really tasty bruschetta that night, on toast with plenty of olive oil. I righted the wrong done to my national cuisine and chose a mollete as bread, and of course the olive oil was Spanish. I know that if I use Italian oil I´ll burn in hell, and serve me right.

2- Following Guru´s instructions, I put commercial fried onions in my home-made biscuit mix and o dear sweet angels of mercy. They were awsome.

3- Our Penélope is making history, and I wish her well. It´s now going to be quite fun, seeing all the tiresome pundits who spend their time moaning that Hollywood is a vile industry that sucks the minds of our young and spits them out. Theye sure love Hollywood when they hand out prizes, don´t they just?


Unpatriotic bean soup

Bean soups are the true staple of the spanish kitchen. Don´t be fooled by books on tapas or Ferran Adria´s bubblebath creations. When push comes to shove, it´s beans you´ll be given. If you´re not given garbanzos or lentils, that is.

I used to hate the bean soup at school, a pale, lumpy gloop with small slices of orange chorizo floating wanly around, so for years I never ate it, never mind cooking it. But by and by the memory of the horrible versions began to fade, and I had occasion to try some very good bean soups, fabadas and such.

However, reading the literature, it was clear to me from the beginning that making your own pot of fabada makes no sense. What with locating the fabes, soaking them, simmering them while standing anxioiusly over the pot, ready to break the boil with cold water every now and then, it adds up to many hours. You might as well drive to Asturias and back. At least the scenery´s pretty.

I tried the dried bean thing a couple of times, but you know what? I´ve decided it´s environmentally unsound to waste so much fuel. Beans for twenty, yes, but for two? Five hours of fire? No way. Plus, it´s a complete pain in the neck.

Enter the jar of beans. The so excellent jar of beans. I don´t know how the case may be elsewhere, but here we have beans of great quality, lots of choice, and a great price. A lowly jar will cost almost nothing, and a gourmet version, organic, preservative free, not much more.

A basic 500 gr. jar makes a beautiful pot of soup for two in less than half an hour, and is a good way of getting rid of any floating population of vegetables you may have around. There are many ways to go with this, but I usually veer towards the Italian in my bean soups. Doubtless to stray as far as possible from the kind I ate (or didn´t) at school.

Deeply unpatriotic bean soup

Start off with a sofrito. Actually, let´s not even pretend, and call it sofritto. Put a chopped onion in olive oil, and when it´s softened, add garlic, carrot and celery, chopped as fine as you like (panceta or bacon are very good here, and there´s nothing to stop you from frying some good chorizo at the beginning, and letting the whole thing take on a golden tint. You´d better add some pepper, then, green for true Spanishness). Sweat it for then minutes or so, and then add grated tomato, if fresh, or squashed tomatoes from a tin. A couple will do.

Leave that for five more minutes, and then add a jar of beans, white, brown or black. Today I used pochas, from La Rioja. If they´re good beans, the liquid in the jar will be the water they were boiled in, and taste very good. If it doesn´t then just drain, and add a little stock to the pot, about a cup, and a bay leaf.

I used to add a stock cube, but I´ve lately learnt a rather shocking trick, here. A splash of barbecue sauce. I know, it sounds gross, but I promise, it gives an undetectable but really really good kick, smoky and sweet.

Leave to simmer for ten minutes, and then see how you go about the texture. With so little liquid, it´s quite thick, what we call a potaje, but you may want to add more water and make it soupy.

Add quite a lot of fresh chopped parsley, serve in deep bowls, drizzle with chili oil, and dust with grated parmesan (there I go again).


Some more sesame

I´m still on a toasted sesame seed roll (so to speak).
I used to buy my sesame pre-toasted, but now that I´ve discovered the joys of toasting my own, it´s crazy. Since some people have asked the baffling question, where do you use them ( where don´t you would be quicker), I´ll list a few favourites:

Number one, the best: white bread toast with butter, maldon salt, honey, and sesame seeds. A breakfast fit for the Queen of Sheba.

Number two
: a yogourty sauce to use as a dip for crisps, or alongside a curry or tagine,salmon or anything else really: greek yogurt, grated and squeezed cucumber, salt, chopped mint, and sesame toasted along with some cumin seeds(this is a bastardized version of both raita and dukkah, but works a treat)

Number three: the ultimate sesame slurp-fest, courtesy of the Domestic Goddess and one of my top-five store cupboard dinners.

Number four
: any other noodles

Number five: this Japanese rice , of which more some other time.

Number six: a salad to serve with spicy food : grated cucumber, grated carrot, splash olive oil, splash vinegar, salt, tiny dash of sugar and a good sprinkling of sesame seeds, black for effect.

Number seven
: in biscuits, cheese muffins, or any bread you´re baking.

Number eight
: with granola type cereal.

Number nine: with steamed spinach, or green beans, wether in a soy sauce-sesame oil dressing, or in a vinaigrette.

Number ten: not that you´d be so rag-mannered, but licking them off your finger is pretty darn good too.


San Antón

I´m terribly busy these days, which is all to the good of my mortgage but not so good for my social life or my absentmindedness or my blogging. I totally forgot to check who had won my prizes of the Menu for Hope III. Luckily the winners did, and so, excuse me please and many congratulations,Star and Magda, and thanks again to everyone who took part in this wonderful event.

I´d meant to post about sesame seeds today, but that will have to wait because today is San Antón, the patron of domestic animals (and butchers and basket weavers, apparently). There´s a church nearby dedicated to him, and a colourful little procession.

San Antón is celebrated in many villages around the country, and there it´s all bonfires and high jinks and lots of food. Here it´s not so gastronomic, but still, at la Duquesita, in calle Fernando VI,2 they have the special sweets of the day, roscos del santo I think they´re called, in several pretty colours. No idea what they are, but there was a long line, and now they´re not picking up the phone. I´m a terrible front line reporter.

Our tradition is to go to the church with your dog, cat, parrot, piglet or whatever and have it blessed. You then pick up some pan del santo. And in the afternoon there´s a procession of Madrid´s Finest animals. That is, police horses and dogs, and a squad of carrier pigeons from the Air Force.
There´s a band, they cut the traffic, and it´s all a pretty surprising thing to see in the middle of a working day, so if anyone´s around, I suggest you come here.
Pets welcome.


Feelin´the love

I don´t know if I came off sounding a little jammy in the last post. I didn´t mean that at all. I just meant to take a little dig at people who think things are useful only if they produce monetary results.

That´s the only way some are going to understand why anyone would take the time and the trouble to blog. There´s no way you can explain to them that actually, you´d do it even if it cost money ( well, you Typepad people would know). That just writing something, and trying to make it make sense is a pleasure. And tracking a drawing in a sketchbook from three years ago is going to bring a whole rush of pleasant memories, and you´ll end up just reading it from cover to cover before you remember what you wanted.

And I doubt if they´ll understand about the wonderful people. I mean, it does sound a little odd, and I can hear their brains (stunted little brains) whirring and thinking "antisocial geeks". You just can´t explain it, but there it is. Someone leaves a comment, I feel very happy. I read in the stats a digit, and I don´t see lurkers. What an ugly word. I just see readers, and am amazed that someone in Australia knows what I like for breakfast. If someone links to my blog, I feel a buzz that lasts for days.

And every now and then, you start a flurrying correspondence with someone, and end up putting a face to a name. By and by this person is not just your friend, but a friend of the family ( we´re a blogging family, as you can see here and here and here ), and you meet them for lunch, since they´re in town for Christmas, and it´s as if we´ve been having lunch forever.

Wonderful. Not that you can say this out loud, in public, so I´m telling you. Starting this is the best idea I ever had, and I want to thank you all so much, and wish us all a happy year of blogging, reading, eating and drawing.


New site launch

People often ask me, oh, this blog of yours, yes, very nice, but what´s the use?

Well, I say, I write down things, and that means my friends and family don´t have to listen to me boring on and on about them. That´s pretty useful.

I also say I happen to find it fun, which is met with the kind of indulgent look you´d give to a puppy chewing a slipper.

And, it´s actually being a source of really fun work. Real live work, from clients who pay. These people tend to shut up at this bit.

First there was  Belly du Jour . Then there was  At my table . I have three other projects on the hob that sprang from people who saw this, and one of them is an actual whole cookbook, to be illustrated by yours truly and written by two of my personal food heroes. Too exciting.

And now there´s  Culinate . I´ve been involved in that from its beginning, even if only in my tangential, decorative, far away way. But still, proud.
It´s a great site, dedicated not just to cooking, but to all sorts of food related topics. As they say themselves, some´s humorous, some´s serious, but it´s all thought-provoking. And if you click on the  Sift section, you´ll see my drawings, which makes the whole experience estratospherically amazing, frankly.

Have a look, go on, do.


Sesame seeds

This is just to say I had something of a kitchen epiphany yesterday. For the first time, I toasted sesame seeds. What took me so long? It stands to reason that something you´ve just toasted yourself, this minute, has to be much better than anything you buy. I mean, really, duh.
I feel humble, and sorry that I haven´t been doing this for years, but very happy because, dammit, those tiny toasty seeds are good!
That´s all. Short post, big flavour. And a recommendation : if you haven´t, try them.


Sopa de fideos for virtue and good health

That´s it. It´s over. Last of the roses, roses, flung riotously before the throng, check. Empty champagne bottles dutifully recycled, check. Dry and hard remains of roscón binned after (brief) contemplation of making crumbs and freezing, check. Sliver of smoked salmon eaten for breakfast, check. Lights packed away til next year, check.

All done, in fact. So begins the month of virtue. Unlike the other month of virtue, this has less to do with swimwear, and more with a certain hankering for the basic, simple, healthy food we imagine our grandmothers may have made.

The kitchen calls. It´s cold outside, and dark, and you want to eat. But you don´t really want to bake, and the idea of heavy food is even a little bit unsettling. So of course, you decide to make a big pot of stock, the perfect thing to make because it´s undemmanding, warming, filling, and light. And it will make you fell so pleased with yourself.

There seem to be a lot of rules about stock. Some are true for everyone, some are true for top of the line restaurateurs, and some are just written down to scare people off. Which is silly, because there´s nothing easier than filling your biggest pot with chicken bones, a carrot, an unpeeled onion, the green bits of a couple of leeks, parsley stalks, and a stick of celery, plus a bay leaf and some peppercorns, maybe some thyme, covering with water, and waiting for it to boil away a couple of hours.

I´ve always ignored instructions to clear consommés with egg whites, and to not cover the pan. My sieve often touches the strained liquid, and I´ve never lined it with cloth. I´ve been out of peppercorns or bay leaves, and it hasn´t been a big drama. Over time, I´ve decided that I don´t like garlic in the stock, or cloves, but maybe you do. Who cares?

I do think some things are essential, though.

One: Skimming is important. The thick grey froth is gross, full of impurities, and quite fun to take out with a espumadera ( it´s not only for frying eggs, you know). It´s as satisfying as waxing your legs, minus the pain.

Two: add a couple of pieces of serrano ham bone. They give the finished product a definitely velvety oomph. The only trouble is that they are full of fat, which leads us to

Three: always make this the day before you want to use it. Anything else is cheating yourself of the best end product. Let it cool before straining it, put it in the fridge, and have a second satisfaction-no pain removal of unsightly stuff. If you eat it on the day, no matter how careful you are, you´ll end up with thick round fat bubbles on the surface.

The quivery, jellified beauty will be easy to ladle into freezer bags. I make bags of one and a half cups for a single serving, 3 for two, and 4 for soup or risotto. If seeing them all lined up doesn´t make you feel smug, I don´t know what will.

It´s wonderful on its own with a drop of dry sherry, but even better as sopa de fideos.

Its very simple, but you can´t get away with cubes or Bovril for this one. Just heat up your broth, and simmer very thin fideos ( a tight-fisted handful per person, no more ) until they are just al dente. Don´t, for the love of all that´s holy, let them become mushy and cloud the consommé. Turn the heat off, put a few fresh mint leaves in, and leave them in the pot for a minute before serving.

Have that for dinner, with an orange, for a couple of days, and you´ll be forgetting your seasonal excesses in no time.


Roscón de Reyes

Roscón is such an insipid and uninteresting pastry that it has to offer a bribe in order to be eaten.Discuss.

This is a remark I often make around this time every year. I like to fling it like a cat among the pigeons when conversation lags at the kind of party one finds oneself inevitably attending. Because the Holidays ain´t over here, not til Sunday they ain´t.

It usually causes some debate. People are divided over the issue. Roscón is eaten on the day of the Epiphany, a big day in the Spanish calendar, when children receive their Christmas presents, courtesy of the three Wise Men, or Kings, who come from the east in camels, and cut the traffic on the 5th with the big parades.

Myself, I think roscón sucks, and that it only passes muster because people are distracted by the whole Reyes palaver. On a normal day it would be rejected with scorn.

What is it, you´ll ask? It´s a cake/bread, shaped like a big oval ring, scented with orange blossom, and decorated with sugar and glazed fruits. Somewhere in its folds there is a prize, a small toy or a coin, or a bean, depending in which part of the country you are.

It´s a very old recipe, made with yeast, the way things used to be before the invention of baking powder not so long ago. In the old days, all cakes were like this. Let us all now raise our hands in silent prayer of thanks, and may the descendants of whoever invented baking powder be blessed and people the earth.

Lots of people actually love this thing, but then, lots of people love Julio Iglesias, and Charles Manson receives fan mail. Human nature is an odd thing.
Other people hedge the issue, and say things like "oh, it´s quite good with whipped cream". Annoying remark, because bootlaces are good with whipped cream.

I have always disliked Reyes, because I had my presents for Christmas, and 6th of January only meant I had to go back to school. These days, that threat is thankfully over, but I still resent the thing a little. Leaving the house on the 6th is dangerous. The streets are thronged with parents who beam fondly as their adorable offspring fling their new bycicles at my ankles.

The roscón thing is just the last straw. Mercifully, the thing is served with hot chocolate, which goes a long way towards restoring my peace.

If you want to try it, then you have a recipe in Like water for chocolate, which I´m sure graces your bookshelves, since you´re such dedicated foodies. But frankly, you´d be better off just toasting some bread.


Organic lunching

Here´s a scene for you. Madrid, January 3rd, 3 pm. Five thirty-something friends sit around a table, discussing the food scene. They grumble. What´s with all the phony lemongrass, they say? Why can´t you find a decent croqueta for love or money in the old centre? Is everyone stupid, on a diet, or don´t they care?

Head wags all around the table. Meanwhile, the three cakes they´ve been sharing are reduced to a sprinkling of crumbs. One of the five, let´s call him J, is eating those, and looks like he´ll have to be forcibly restrained from licking the plate clean.

Hardly a sign of bad food, you´ll say. And you´ll be right.

This was at  Pausa . And Pausa, mercifully, isn´t one of your faux-fusion, balsamic-doodling, totally clueless houses of hunger. Neither is it one of your fake-regional, done up in plastic wood, who do you think you´re fooling with all that talk of "grandmother´s style" horrors. No sir. Pausa´s only fad is a belief in simplicity, and you can hardly call that a fad.

It´s the only place in town where every last thing is organic. Not a fad. They´ve sourced beers, coffe, wine, juices, sugars, you name it. They bake their own bread every morning. The food, while healthy, has no smack of self-righteousness, and no lurking veganisms of the soy bacon type. Here bacon is bacon, from pigs of the best families, and if you don´t want that, there´s plenty of garbanzos to choose from. Just the attitude. And it tastes really good, too.

There are so few places where you can eat a bowl of soup and a made-to-order focaccia sandwich, quickly. And sit in actual chairs, at real tables, not on barstools, facing a wall. And they have free Wi-Fi. The perfect lunch spot, in short. And if you´re rushed, they do takeaway, too.
Just my luck that it´s a tad far away from my flat. I never thought I´d say this, but those masses of office workers around Plaza de Castilla have all the luck.

Pausa. C/ Estébanez Calderón 3 . 91 425 18 87