Sweet piquillos

Back at last, and not a minute too soon. I´ve had to give over twenty talks to over one thousand kids. I´m not exaggerating. I had to sign all their books. Gratifying, but after a while I didn´t even recognize my own name on the page. Some of them wanted me to sign their arms, which is pretty weird. I know I should try and enjoy these tiny glimpses into the life of Madonna, but I can´t. I just feel silly.

But anyway, all things come to an end, and here I am. Confronting a fridge containing all sorts of useful things like miso paste, preserved lemons, wasabi, tahini, cassis jelly and lasagna sheets. Nothing much else, though. Yesterday when I finally managed to get off the plane and out of the gleaming and beutiful horror that´s Terminal 4 of our airport, the shops were shut, and this morning I couldn´t face the market on a bustling Saturday morning.

Time to fall back on a tried and trusted store cupboard standby, the piquillo. I don´t think there´s a cupboard in Spain that doesn´t hold at least one jar of these little life savers.

Oil and vinegar, maybe a litle salt, is all you need to make a meal of the sweet and smoky little peppers. If you have a tin of tuna around (I´m sure you do), then we´re in classic tapa territory. With cherry tomatoes the thing rises to heaven.

They´re also a very good option for jazzing up sorry looking jarred pasta sauces. They´ll transform takeaway pizza, boost jars of beans, and put a very different face on leftover chilli or stew. And they nestle very comfortably up to anything you´d think to put in a sandwich, too.

As well as drastically altering the cooking time on all those recipes that begin with "turn up the oven, roast some peppers, peel them, let them cool", which I really appreciate.

What I´ll give you now, though, is in the realm of haute piquillo cuisine. All you need is some sugar and a bit of patience, after which you´ll have a ruby tangle of pepper shreds that will make you swoon, I promise.

Take a jar or tin of piquillos, and a heavy pan, preferably non-stick. Put the peppers from the jar, with their gooey and rather unattractive liquid in the pan. Add sugar at your discretion, but I´d say at least a heaped tablespoonful for each jar. Put the pan over a very low fire, and forget about it. They´ll be done when the liquid has dissappeared. This can take all of three hours or more, so be patient. Try it half way trhough, test for sugar, and add more if you wish.

They are so wonderful that I advise you to do more than you think you´ll need. My aunt Piti, who gave me this recipe, serves them with sirloin steak. I love them on toast, as bruschetta, but they´re delicious on practically anything, as you can imagine.


Arroz con costra

Oh, the joys of WiFi!
Here I am, blogging from a hotel in Alicante. Why am I not out on the town, sampling the crazy nightlife? Because I´ve been going to dozens of schools, talking to hundreds of kids, and signing millions of books. So I´m pretty dead.
We had a very reviving lunch, though, let me tell you. Here it´s all rice, rice, rice. Which is great. Yesterday I had rice, even though my host assured me that that place didn´t specialize in rice, and it was nothing special. As you can imagine, it was miles better than any I´d had in a long while. My host still wagged his head, though, and assured me that today I´d try the Orihuela specialty, arroz con costra.
Rice with a crust? Sounded fine.
So we went today, and there it was, a completely exotic thing which I urge you to try if you ever come here.
The crust, which to my mind suggests something crunchy and crumbly, is nothing like that. They make the rice the normal (that is to say, the very exceptional) way, and once it´s made, they pour beaten egg over it, and bake it until the egg is set, risen, and golden.
Sounds weird? Well, take it from me, it was excellent. Of course it helped that the rice was chock full of goodies, all sort of chicken bits, and two kinds of sausage, one faintly scented with cinammon and one with fennel. I loved it.
There you are. From the frontlines, Ximenita, rice reporter extraordinaire. I intend to eat more rice tomorrow, so stay tuned.


I´m going away for a few days, again.
For some unexplained reason, they love me in the Levante. Either that, or they´ve discovered that I don´t know how to say no. So every year they drag me there, after the manner of wild horses, to talk to kids with the amiable intention of instilling in them a passion for literature.
Since I only have two modes of delivery, rapid-fire speech or total silence, I don´t think I´m a bit hit. But they don´t mind. As long as they can fill slots for Book Day Week, the publisher wallahs are happy. And since we´ve sold 4500 copies of Platero y Yo in Orihuela alone, this year I get a double bill.
If I can find some wi-fi, I´ll blog. I guess I´ll be pretty lonely, so you´ll be subjected to ramblings about hotel breakfasts. Or maybe I´ll delve into the Alicante rice culture. In that case, I promise not to be a total bore and insist on talking about the “paella” and “paellera” thing. Scout´s honour.
What I will try to do is eat as much of it as I can, and maybe conquer my fears enough to try and cook one when I get back.
For now, I´ll cheekily leave you with a link to the only levantine recipe I´ve done here, fideuá . I have to hoard my ideas and string them out, people, for tomorrow the lobstersquad turns ONE, and I don´t want to run out of ideas!


Dia del libro

I´m only just about recovering from the mega-bash that was the wedding last Saturday. Family weddings are great fun, but navigating the potential minefield that is a marquee-ful of aunts while under the influence of a few G&Ts is quite draining. I think I scattered dinner invitations like confetti, and now I can´t scoop the little things up.
I´m still in a rather delicate state of health, so instead of talking about food, I´ll remind you that today is Book Day. In Spain we are being barraged with talk of Cervantes right, left, and centre.
We´ve had lentils for lunch, which nobody had planned, but is actually a very Quixote dish, mentioned on page 1, no less.
In Madrid, bookshops will be open til midnight. Why anyone should want to buy books at 23:45 rather than 11:45 beats me, but there you have it.
If you can´t face the whole culture vulture scenario, here´s a nice little bookish article for cooks, from The New Yorker, direct to your computer.


Life and honey

I´m having one of those philosophical days. Reflecting on Life, no less.
I think Life likes to hand out Nice Surprises, but only if she can follow it with Nasty Shocks.
So it was this morning.
I had toast for breakfast, as usual, and decided to try out the no-drip bottle. I wasn´t too sure about it, because even though Ann enthused about it, I´m still a snob. And the label says "a mix of honeys produced and not produced in the EC". Which is the sort of language I don´t hold with in a label.
Not that it matters. The thing is amazing. I´m hooked. It´s brilliant! It really really doesn´t drip!You know how, when you spread honey on toast, you then think it´s too little, and want some more, but the spoon has been licked clean already, and it´s all just too much at nine in the morning? Well, now you can just add a few drops, no fear. In fact, the thing is quite addictive, so you may find yourself pouring all your honey in little dewdrops, just for fun.
This was my Nice Surprise.
The Nasty Shock wasn´t long in coming. The building on the other side of the street has been in a state of noisy renovation for two years. Today I saw that they were taking down the scaffolding, and rejoiced. Then the thing came down, and I now see what I´ll see every day many times. They´ve painted the thing avocado green.
I wish I could take the people responsible and duck their heads in avocado green paint. I would also make them sit facing a green wall for, oh, I don´t know, five years and a day. Which is what I´ve been condemned to.
The drawing, by the way, is totally pointless, but I rather like it.



The past week has been kind of tough. The crayfish incident gave a chance to my sister for her directorial debut, but I, after Melissa´s comment, had to check under my bed for lurking monsters. Thanks, pal, I hadn´t done that since 1981.
And it only came last in a list of soul-searing experiences. There was the pâté de campagne on Wednesday, which turned out fine, but took its toll. Note to self : don´t grind meat on that otherwise wonderful machine, the Thermomix. Tuesday had me confront a cauliflower I´d overlooked and turn it into a soup that was clearly channeling glue.
One little accident after the other, so yesterday I refused to go into the kitchen. I wanted no truck with a room connected with snapping claws and rags of gristle embedded in rotor blades. J was put in charge of producing banh mi-ish sandwiches with the remains of the pàté.
After a fall, it´s back up on the horse quickly, though. Everybody knows that. So I looked about me for a recipe that wouldn´t try my nerves, with ingredients that wouldn´t freak me out, and, in fact, would fit a "many of my best friends are mosquitoes" mood.
Something important in these moments of post-traumatic disorder. I plumped for granola, for which I´d bought the ingredients and then enver done.
I know it sounds daft, making your own cereal, but, well, here are some reasons, apart from the general deliciousness of the thing:
1-Control. In every commercial granola there´s at least one product you´ll hate. I used to have to pick around the dried banana very carefully. Not any more.
2- Sweetness. Again, I find commercial brands rather too sweet.
3. Interior decoration. Ok, I´m not saying this a good reason, but it´s a reason. Granola looks stunning in a jar on your counter, and if you make your own, it can be customized. I´ve added dried cranberries to my mix, so that it matches the red kitchen wall.
4-Smugness. Ignoble feeling, yes, but who doesn´t like feeling like a competent housewife for once?
5- Aromatherapy. The house smells wonderful with the fumes, all nutty and spicy.
6- Of course I don´t like to point this out, but (whisper) health. Read out the label on a box of Jordan´s Country Crunch and think again.
7. It´s really, really easy to make.

All you do is toast oats and nuts in a low oven with some honey or syrup or both, and once it´s cool, add dried fruits. So it´s not so much a case of giving a recipe as of saying: choose your favourites.

My choice was 500g rolled oats, 1/4 white sesame,1/4 black sesame, 100g flaked almods,1/4 honey, 2 teaspoonfuls of golden syrup, 1/4 a cup brown sugar, a pinch of salt, and a dusting of cinammon.
Later I went with 100g dried cranberries and 100g chopped dried apricots.
I think next time I´ll probably skip the black sesame, which floats to the top and looks like bugs swimming in the milk.


Seriously, dude, call the lobster squad

That scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen throws a hissy fit when confronted by real live lobsters...It´s funny, right? I´ve used it to name my blog, stands to reason I love it.

However, now that I´ve been through a live-crustacean experience myself, I think it has a deep undercurrent of tragedy. Chasing critters around your kitchen is as harrowing to body and soul as breaking up with the love of your life over alfalfa sprouts in a healthfood restaurant. Funny, yes, when told by a master, but ultimately, a nasty horrid thing to happen to one.

I´ll go into the reasons for this at some point, but for now, just know that in a moment of rash professional integrity, when asked to draw crayfish, I didn´t just google them, I bought some to use as models. It´s not easy to draw things that wiggle their claws at you (see video) and climb all over the watercolour box. It´s even harder when your sister decides to treat them as pets, and assign them names and personalities.
Harder still when they come out of the pot, and you can still recognize each and every one of the five.
Ugh. I´m telling you, I feel like I´ve been tried in the furnace. As for the crayfish, well, poor dears...Once they were cooked, they looked so pretty and red, and didn´t move, which made it so much easier to draw them. But so hard to resist peeling them.


Semana Santa and a montadito

I´d forgotten how much I love Semana Santa in Sevilla.
People often think that Holy Week processions are gloomy and spooky, what with the pointy hoods and the crosses (not fiery, though) and the parading of images of torture and death. But somehow it´s not like that at all. Instead, the whole thing feels like a mixture between an ancient festival and an open air opera. The bands play music that is solemn, but is only a couple of cymbal clashes away from being downright jolly. Add to that that the images of the Passion are carried on guilded baroque floats, full of candles, that rose petals are thrown, and that the air is thick with incense and orange blossom, and you have yourself a pretty heady experience.
Hungry work, you can imagine, chasing the different processions all through the old town, dashing from one to the next, slithering through the massive crowds, finding a shortcut that will let you see the first paso of this one in the famous place, and then maybe the second of the other one in the little square with all the trees, and then dash to the bridge to see a third one crossing.
Luckily, unlike other places that shut down completey for Holy Week, Sevilla´s bars are all open, and packed. So don´t be fooled if it looks like we like to celebrate the more harrowing aspects of Christianity. This is as much a party as all the pagan spring stuff, and don´t you forget it. Have a beer, have two. As for food, if you´re mindful of the lenten rules, you´re in a town proud of its fried fish. I´m particulary fond of cazón en adobo, a type of shark marinated in lemon, paprika and herbs and then battered and fried.
If not, the thing to have is a montadito de pringá. This is a small panini type of grilled sandwich, filled with all the meat that´s left over from a cocido.
So next time you do a cocido, cassoulet, bollito misto or cholent, remember this. Even if you only have a few scraps, cut them up, mix them well, drizzle some olive oil inside a bun, and put it inside a sandwich press. Heaven.


Semana Santa

This is going to be one of those random posts. I´m sorry, but I must admit that I´m in a completely lazy moment of my life. Too lazy to emerge from under several rugs and out of the sofa. And never mind that I can hack into some neighbour´s wifi. Too lazy to blog.
Foodwise, I have had a moment of great emotion, in having produced my first ever decent bowl of lentejas. But until I do it a couple more times, I won´t be able to write about it. We also had a romantic candlelit dinner of pizza yesterday. J´s favourite. Spoiled by all the home-cooking, you see, he yearns for the taste of cardboard in his food every now and then, and I´m always happy to oblige.
Also, very exciting, a package arrived from Alburquerque, New Mexico yesterday. Ramona of The Frayed Knot has sent me a breautiful scarf, knitted by herself, that I haven´t taken off yet, it´s so soft and gorgeous. And several bags of chili mixes. I´ve tried one, so far, but it will be really fun to experiment.
For the rest, today for the first time I´ve seen the Semana Santa processions in Madrid. I used to scoff at them, having lived for a long time in Sevilla, where these things are taken very seriously. I must say, though, they were pretty good, considering, and much more comfortable. Less crowded, more friendly.
Soon I´ll be going south for a few days, so let´s hope something blog-worthy happens. I wish we had some sort of chocolatey Easter tradition I could look forward to, but sadly, no.


The wild bunch

This will be Asparagus, take three, and before you groan, let me tell you, these are different from the rest, trigueros, the wild asparagus.
Not that I have any here, since they´re not easy to come by. The beauty of trigueros is to pick them yourself, and for that you need to be in the country. They´re spring´s answer to mushroom hunting, and the reason why, come March, you see people walking slowly in the countryside, peering at all the bushes and tall grasses that grow in roadside ditches. They´ll be clutching what looks like a very straggly bouquet, but will really be a bunch of espárragos trigueros.
Down South you´ll find enterprising gentlemen selling fat bunches of them (and big bags of snails, too) in petrol stations, or outside road bars. But they lack the thrill of the chase. Plus, they´re expensive.
They´re not easy to spot, so you´ll probably find yourself with just a few, and if they are to go around, you must resort to the time honoured Spanish custom : a revuelto. That is, scrambled eggs, popular for dinner any time, and also as a ración to share in a tapas bar. Of course in tapas bars, and mostly everywhere else, they just call thin green asparagus "trigueros", but don´t be fooled. Trigueros are wild, and they are bitter and different from the garden variety. Just so you know.

If you want to do the revuelto, here´s how. We´ll go with the classic, revuelto de trigueros, ajetes y gambas, or asparagus, young garlic and shrimp.

Heat some oil in a skillet (plenty, since we´re dealing with Spanish bar cuisine, and that´s always oily). Throw in your asparagus and young garlic and fry them slowly, with the lid on, til they´re tender. Then add your shrimp, and the second they look like they´re half done, add the beaten egg. Proceed as for scrambled eggs.
Serve with fried (of course) bread.

You can use normal green asparagus instead of wild and normal garlic instead of the young shoots. And I won´t shudder if you use them straight from the jar. Just make sure they´re bottled in Spain, not in China or Perú. The shrimp will of course be frozen, and I really entreat you to use toast instead of picatostes, so I won´t have your digestion on my conscience.