Category: Spanish Food

Pan de Calatrava – Calatrava Bread Pudding

Pan de Calatrava

This simple dessert, a hybrid of bread pudding and flan, combines the wisdom and thrift of centuries of cooks. As I stir together sugar, milk and eggs and pour them over day-old bread, I think about all the hands that have done the same in the past. In these movements, as clever as they are common, practical ingredients are transformed into a dish that not only nourishes but also gives pleasure. A slice of pan de calatrava is optimism, a reminder that even with little, good can be made.

—–

I discovered the joys of pan de calatrava in a restaurant shortly after I had arrived in Murcia, where it is considered a local tradition. After a few bites of the silky, cinnamon-infused custard, I would never forget what the words pan de calatrava meant, at least on modern menus.

From then on, I have ordered the dessert every time I get the chance. I only recently decided it was time to learn to make it myself. But before I get to that point, a historical diversion….Throughout my brief personal history with pan de calatrava, I have also been intrigued. Why was this bread from Calatrava typical in Murcia, I wondered? And where was this Calatrava in the first place?

Starting with these questions, I did some preliminary research. My first conclusion is that one resource leads to another, and that the exact origins of the dish will likely remain a mystery. Nonetheless, some aspects of the pan de calatrava story have come into focus, forming a loosely spun narrative in my mind. I am not sure how or even if the dots connect, but here is what I have found so far.

The fact that pan de calatrava can also be found today in parts of Castilla La Mancha, just to the north of Murcia, was the first trail I followed (virtually-speaking). This led me to the historic Calatrava itself, once a strategic settlement along the often-shifting border between Christian and Muslim lands in medieval Spain. Here, in the 12th century, the Order of Calatrava was founded, a military limb of the Cistercian Order that remained active well into the 15th century. The name Calatrava itself, however, has been traced even further back, to the Arabic Qal’lat Rabah, meaning “fortress of Rabah.” This referred to the 8th century nobleman who once held sway here.

Even though I find it hard to imagine warring knights savoring pan de calatrava, it takes no effort to picture a similar dessert on medieval monastery and convent tables, where priests, monks and nuns were not known to abstain from good food. To give an example, based on evidence from 15th century monastery account books from Toledo, Clifford Wright observes in A Mediterranean Feast, “When and if the poor ate meat at the monastery, it was always boiled and tough meat, while the friars enjoyed veal and partridges and chickens stuffed with eggs, saffron, cinnamon, and sugar.”

In that list, we have several ingredients often found in medieval Spanish monastery cooking, three of which – eggs, cinnamon and sugar – very easily could have been transformed by some religious order – and perhaps even the Cistercians of Calatrava, too – into a dessert resembling the pan de calatrava. This would have been a variation on other flan-like puddings in history. Flans, both savory and sweet, have been documented in the Mediterranean as early as Roman times and were also found in Moorish traditions. All of these influences have undoubtedly contributed to the pan de calatrava.

Another mystery is how this dessert “from Calatrava” ended up in Murcia, although the process could have easily involved the convents and monasteries, which have spread many recipes throughout Spain. Murcia, like Calatrava, was long hotly contested territory on the frontier between Catholic and Muslim lands. Not coincidentally, a sanctuary in the northwest corner of Murcia became an important Christian pilgrimage site, where members of different religious orders have often shared tables over the years.

Images of all these people and places from the past now flicker through my mind as I stir milk and eggs together for pan de calatrava. Knowing more about the evocative title certainly flavors the dish. Nonetheless, I am particularly thankful for all the anonymous hands that have continued to repeat this practical and giving bit of history, blending traditions along the way.

Pan de Calatrava – Calatrava Bread

Recipes for pan de calatrava range from the simple – coat the bottom of the loaf pan with a store-bought caramel syrup for flan, mix the rest of the ingredients together and pour them on top and bake – to the slightly more complex – make your own caramel, infuse the milk and assemble the ingredients in layers.

I am going with the slightly more complex version here, because I think it is a few notches better, although the other is good in a pinch. The main inconvenience is that you have to use (i.e. wash) several different pots and pans in the process. (One thing many of those cooks in the past had more of, in addition to time, was hands in the kitchen.) Once it comes out of the oven, pan de calatrava must be chilled for at least several hours and up to a day before serving, which provides plenty of cleanup time.

Serves 6-8

For the caramel: Adapted from Claudia Roden’s flan recipe in The Food of Spain

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup water

For the rest:

4 1/4 cups milk (1 liter)

1 cup sugar

1 cinnamon stick (If you don’t have one on hand, add a dash of cinnamon to the milk instead.)

1 strip lemon peel (about the size of your thumb)

Day-old bread (something like a baguette), crust removed and cut into 1-inch cubes (enough to form a compact layer in the pan you are using – I used about 3 packed cups)

6 eggs

Baking dishes and pans needed:

1 9-by-5-inch glass or metal loaf pan (This is the most traditional shape in Murcia, but if you do not have a loaf pan, any shape will work as long as it can hold 2 quarts. And the wider the base, the more bread you’ll need.)

1 9-by-13-inch baking dish for the water bath for baking

1 small heavy saucepan for the caramel

1 medium heavy saucepan for heating the milk

To prepare the caramel:

Have the loaf pan handy so you can pour in the caramel as soon as it is ready.

Heat the water and 1/2 cup sugar together in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring frequently until the sugar dissolves and the liquid turns amber in color, like maple syrup. Allowing the amber to deepen too much can result in a bitter caramel. Very quickly pour the hot caramel (before it hardens) into the loaf pan and immediately tilt to coat the bottom of the pan and partway up the sides, too.

To prepare the rest:

Preheat oven to 350 ºF.

Combine the milk, remaining sugar, cinnamon stick and lemon peel in a saucepan and heat over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally until the sugar has melted and the milk rolls to a boil. Remove from heat, fish out the cinnamon stick and lemon peel and allow to cool for at least 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat 4 cups of water, which you will need for baking.

Place cubed bread in the pan on top of the caramel, making a compact layer. (I have seen recipes that skip this step, instructing instead to stir the bread in with the milk and eggs, which in a way makes sense, as the bread will rise to the top when you pour in the custard. I like packing in the bread first, however, as this helps me know how much bread to use.)

Lightly beat the eggs in a large bowl, then gradually beat in the cooled milk. Pour over bread in the pan. (Like I said before, the bread will rise to the top here, forming what will be the base when you later invert the pan.)

Set the loaf pan into a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Pour in the hot water until it comes halfway up the sides of the loaf pan. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the custard is set and the top layer is golden (a knife inserted comes out clean). Remove the loaf pan from the water bath and allow to cool for 1 hour at room temperature before placing in the refrigerator to chill thoroughly before serving (ideally at least 3 hours and up to a day ahead).

To serve, run a knife along the edge of the pan to loosen the custard. Place a serving dish (deep enough to catch the caramel) over the top of the loaf pan and with a swift movement turn upside down. Carefully lift off the pan. If the custard does not fall onto the plate, gently encourage it with a knife. And, of course, pour any remaining caramel over the top.

Many restaurants in Murcia serve slices of pan de calatrava garnished with whirls of whipped cream from a can, but I prefer it plain and simple, allowing history to speak for itself.

Crisis Cooking

Why frugal cooking now feels imperative in Spain.

Migas

At a market showcasing culinary traditions in Murcia, a man tends to a pan of migas, a filling dish made with flour, salt, olive oil and garlic, judiciously flavored with bits of fresh sausage and chorizo (more or less, depending on the budget). Such frugal meals born of necessity survive in part because of nostalgia, and also because they make economic sense.

Back home in the States, one hears very little good news coming out of Spain, soccer victories notwithstanding. On my most recent trip to Florida, I was often asked if I had noticed the effects of the economic crisis in Spain. Sort of, I would reply, but the quality of life remained. I thought of the countless times I had been with friends in Murcia walking through downtown past bustling restaurants and bars, so packed that patrons spilled out onto plazas, filling the streets with spirited conversation. “Crisis?” someone would inevitably ask rhetorically. “¿Qué crisis?”, “What crisis?”

But upon my return to Spain in August, I have to say that I can really feel the impact now. Until recently, I personally hadn’t noticed so many specific manifestations. Yet I am beginning to sense more shadows creeping into the good life, cast by growing dark clouds of uncertainty and insecurity.

Now, people in my immediate circle are losing jobs, the stores where they work are closing, they have been forced to go to court to demand late payments from their employers who are months behind. Last week, a friend’s home in a modest neighborhood was broken into. The thieves took everything in gold they could find, worth precious little compared to the sentimental value of the objects.

Just about everyone, it seems (minus those soccer stars, perhaps), has similar stories to tell about someone they know. I hear it in the news, in conversations in markets and on the bus. Spain is a talkative place, and I sometimes wonder whether all these words and stories told again and again might actually be contributing to the dark cloud. And here I am, telling the story.

The truth is that the feelings matter and carry real weight once they are heard and spoken. And as of yet, there is no clear silver lining. I have heard and even said time and time again, “We’ll see what happens…,” as if we are all waiting.

This is not to say you won’t find the bars packed on a Friday or Saturday night. But the uncertain climate permits fewer nights on the town.

These circumstances make me particularly appreciate the frugal ingenuity of traditional Spanish home cooking. The fact that Spain is no stranger to hard times* is reflected in the seemingly endless variety of nourishing and inexpensive dishes made from stretching out the ingredients at hand.

Cooking frugally feels like one way to defy the current crisis. There will be no cloud at my table, but rather a reminder that Spain can indeed pull through.

See some of my past examples of frugal traditional cuisine in Murcia:

Guiso de Trigo – Wheat Berry Stew

Olla Gitana – Gypsy Stew

Michirones – Fava Bean Stew (as with the migas in the photo at the top of the post, the amount of meat added to the beans can be adapted to one’s budget.)

Morcilla de Verano – Eggplant Caviar

And stay tuned for my next post about a thrifty yet rich local dessert.

*For an excellent, in-depth analysis of contemporary Spanish history, I highly recommend Ghosts of Spain by British journalist Giles Tremlett.

I would love to hear your reflections and observations.

One a Penny, Two a Penny… Monas de Pascua!

[Murcia’s] unique Holy Week…is made up of little gestures and familiar movements, of the comings and goings of the nazarenos (penitents) dressed in red or purple (the nazareno colorao or the nazareno morado), who step out from under the floats they carry, momentarily passing the weight to their friends, to place a beautiful mona de pascua in the trembling hands of a child.

These words penned by Murcian author Juan García Abellan in his ode to the city and its food, Murcia, entre bocado y trago (1965), resonate for anyone who has been to a Holy Week procession in Murcia. Here, the pace and drumbeat of the daily marches leading up to Easter are as solemn as in other parts of Spain, yet a festive ambiance reigns at several of the city’s most celebrated processions. This is particularly true for children, who, like the child in the quote, gaze up in awe and expectation at the hooded nazarenos. Local children know – and have known for generations – that the striking robed figures, many with their faces covered, are not to be feared, for they come bearing gifts – candies, eggs, and for the lucky few, monas de pascua.

This penitent (a nazareno morado) is not as fat as he looks – most of that bulge hanging over his belt is in fact space for treats like candy and goody bags, often containing mini monas, to be handed out along the procession route.

The mona de pascua is an Easter pastry found in several regions of Spain, most notably in Cataluña, Valencia and Murcia. (In these areas, the mona is as typical as hot cross buns, hence the title of this post.) In its most traditional version, the kind typically found in Murcia, the mona de pascua is a sweet bread roll (not dissimilar from hot cross buns, in fact) topped with a hard-boiled egg, itself topped with a cross shaped from dough.

Traditionally, the mona de pascua was eaten on Easter Sunday or the following Monday, marking the end of Lent. In the past, eggs, considered akin to meat, were among the forbidden foods of this period of abstinence. Eggs – representative of fertility, birth and resurrection – are also, of course, a powerful symbol for this time of year. It’s no wonder that eggs (especially hard-boiled – a means to preserve the inevitable yields in the henhouse) play such an important role in many Easter customs around the world.

Certain communities in and around Murcia still refer to the Monday after Easter “el día de la mona,” Mona Day, and many families ritually take to the countryside on this day for a picnic starring monas de pascua. Yet the mona has become a common treat to be enjoyed throughout the entire week leading up to Easter. Monas – either full-size with a chicken egg or mini with a quail egg – are a favorite snack for the lengthy Holy Week processions, welcome fuel for spectators and marchers alike.

As is the case with many long-standing food traditions, the mona de pascua in and of itself has become an essential symbol of the season, and not just for religious reasons. It also represents the generosity of spring, reflected in Murcia’s giving Holy Week processions.

Monas de Pascua

This is my fourth Easter in Murcia, and I have begun to feel twinges of nostalgia for this seasonal pastry, meaning Semana Santa is just not complete without a mona de pascua. This is the first year I decided to make them myself, wanting to share with friends and family near and far the spirit of the season in Murcia.

Monas really do remind me of hot cross buns in flavor and texture, and the dough is actually quite similar, although monas in Murcia are typically made with a mild-flavored olive oil instead of butter and contain a hint of orange blossom water, like a southern breeze.

The resulting pastry is characteristically dry, perfect for dunking. The recipe writers on the Region of Murcia’s website offer the following solution: “As the dough is a little dry, some kind of liquid accompaniment is appropriate. This could be mistela (a sweet wine like muscat) for adults and milk for children. Adding a bit of chocolate makes the monas irresistible.”

I found many slightly different variations on this recipe, which invites tinkering in the search for a favorite texture and flavor. So far, I have tried two different versions, one with a blend of bread and all-purpose flours and one with bread flour only. Both were good, but I preferred the denser texture of the all-bread-flour mona.

Whether you make larger, oblong-shaped monas with hard-boiled chicken eggs, mini monas with quail eggs, or skip the egg altogether, the procedure is basically the same, although the baking time will of course vary slightly.

For the dough:

80 ml. (1/3 cup) warm milk

25 g (≈ 0.9 oz.) compressed (fresh) yeast

500 g (≈ 3 1/2 cups *SEE NOTE) bread flour

¼ teaspoon salt

140 g (1 cup plus 2 tablespoons) sugar

3 Eggs, plus one more, beaten, for glazing

80 ml. (1/3 cup) mild-flavored olive oil

Zest of one lemon

½ teaspoon orange blossom water

For the topping:

Quail eggs, hard-boiled, as many as you want (Optional)

Granulated sugar for sprinkling

Stir yeast into warm milk. Let stand for 5-10 minutes.

Sift together the flour and salt together in one bowl. In another bowl, mix the eggs with the sugar. Stir in the yeasted milk. Then add the olive oil, orange blossom water if using and the lemon zest, stirring just until well blended. Gradually stir in the flour until a dough is formed. Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead until dough is smooth and elastic, adding more flour by the tablespoonful as needed (the dough should be moist and slightly tacky, but not sticky). Transfer dough to a large oiled bowl and turn it to coat. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 ½ – 2 hours (it may take longer, depending on factors like ambient temperature).

Divide the dough into 12-14 equal pieces on a floured surface. Roll each piece into a ball, then flatten slightly with the palm of your hand. Arrange 1 ½ inches apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover loosely with plastic wrap for a second rise of about 45 minutes.

Towards the end of the second rise, preheat oven to 350ºF (180ºC).

Brush monas with egg glaze. If you are using hard-boiled eggs, make indents in the center of the monas with your fingers, creating a nest for the eggs. Sprinkle monas generously with sugar. Bake until golden, about 15-20 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool.

*NOTE: I measured out the cups, but have not tested this recipe with the standard American measurements, so have put an approximate amount here. If using cups, I suggest starting with this amount of flour and adding more by the tablespoon as needed to get the consistency indicated in the recipe.

  One a penny, two a penny… 

HAPPY EASTER!

One a Penny, Two a Penny… Monas de Pascua!

[Murcia’s] unique Holy Week…is made up of little gestures and familiar movements, of the comings and goings of the nazarenos (penitents) dressed in red or purple (the nazareno colorao or the nazareno morado), who step out from under the floats they carry, momentarily passing the weight to their friends, to place a beautiful mona de pascua in the trembling hands of a child.

These words penned by Murcian author Juan García Abellan in his ode to the city and its food, Murcia, entre bocado y trago (1965), resonate for anyone who has been to a Holy Week procession in Murcia. Here, the pace and drumbeat of the daily marches leading up to Easter are as solemn as in other parts of Spain, yet a festive ambiance reigns at several of the city’s most celebrated processions. This is particularly true for children, who, like the child in the quote, gaze up in awe and expectation at the hooded nazarenos. Local children know – and have known for generations – that the striking robed figures, many with their faces covered, are not to be feared, for they come bearing gifts – candies, eggs, and for the lucky few, monas de pascua.

This penitent (a nazareno morado) is not as fat as he looks – most of that bulge hanging over his belt is in fact space for treats like candy and goody bags, often containing mini monas, to be handed out along the procession route.

The mona de pascua is an Easter pastry found in several regions of Spain, most notably in Cataluña, Valencia and Murcia. (In these areas, the mona is as typical as hot cross buns, hence the title of this post.) In its most traditional version, the kind typically found in Murcia, the mona de pascua is a sweet bread roll (not dissimilar from hot cross buns, in fact) topped with a hard-boiled egg, itself topped with a cross shaped from dough.

Traditionally, the mona de pascua was eaten on Easter Sunday or the following Monday, marking the end of Lent. In the past, eggs, considered akin to meat, were among the forbidden foods of this period of abstinence. Eggs – representative of fertility, birth and resurrection – are also, of course, a powerful symbol for this time of year. It’s no wonder that eggs (especially hard-boiled – a means to preserve the inevitable yields in the henhouse) play such an important role in many Easter customs around the world.

Certain communities in and around Murcia still refer to the Monday after Easter “el día de la mona,” Mona Day, and many families ritually take to the countryside on this day for a picnic starring monas de pascua. Yet the mona has become a common treat to be enjoyed throughout the entire week leading up to Easter. Monas – either full-size with a chicken egg or mini with a quail egg – are a favorite snack for the lengthy Holy Week processions, welcome fuel for spectators and marchers alike.

As is the case with many long-standing food traditions, the mona de pascua in and of itself has become an essential symbol of the season, and not just for religious reasons. It also represents the generosity of spring, reflected in Murcia’s giving Holy Week processions.

Monas de Pascua

This is my fourth Easter in Murcia, and I have begun to feel twinges of nostalgia for this seasonal pastry, meaning Semana Santa is just not complete without a mona de pascua. This is the first year I decided to make them myself, wanting to share with friends and family near and far the spirit of the season in Murcia.

Monas really do remind me of hot cross buns in flavor and texture, and the dough is actually quite similar, although monas in Murcia are typically made with a mild-flavored olive oil instead of butter and contain a hint of orange blossom water, like a southern breeze.

The resulting pastry is characteristically dry, perfect for dunking. The recipe writers on the Region of Murcia’s website offer the following solution: “As the dough is a little dry, some kind of liquid accompaniment is appropriate. This could be mistela (a sweet wine like muscat) for adults and milk for children. Adding a bit of chocolate makes the monas irresistible.”

I found many slightly different variations on this recipe, which invites tinkering in the search for a favorite texture and flavor. So far, I have tried two different versions, one with a blend of bread and all-purpose flours and one with bread flour only. Both were good, but I preferred the denser texture of the all-bread-flour mona.

Whether you make larger, oblong-shaped monas with hard-boiled chicken eggs, mini monas with quail eggs, or skip the egg altogether, the procedure is basically the same, although the baking time will of course vary slightly.

For the dough:

80 ml. (1/3 cup) warm milk

25 g (≈ 0.9 oz.) compressed (fresh) yeast

500 g (≈ 3 1/2 cups *SEE NOTE) bread flour

¼ teaspoon salt

140 g (1 cup plus 2 tablespoons) sugar

3 Eggs, plus one more, beaten, for glazing

80 ml. (1/3 cup) mild-flavored olive oil

Zest of one lemon

½ teaspoon orange blossom water

For the topping:

Quail eggs, hard-boiled, as many as you want (Optional)

Granulated sugar for sprinkling

Stir yeast into warm milk. Let stand for 5-10 minutes.

Sift together the flour and salt together in one bowl. In another bowl, mix the eggs with the sugar. Stir in the yeasted milk. Then add the olive oil, orange blossom water if using and the lemon zest, stirring just until well blended. Gradually stir in the flour until a dough is formed. Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead until dough is smooth and elastic, adding more flour by the tablespoonful as needed (the dough should be moist and slightly tacky, but not sticky). Transfer dough to a large oiled bowl and turn it to coat. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 ½ – 2 hours (it may take longer, depending on factors like ambient temperature).

Divide the dough into 12-14 equal pieces on a floured surface. Roll each piece into a ball, then flatten slightly with the palm of your hand. Arrange 1 ½ inches apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover loosely with plastic wrap for a second rise of about 45 minutes.

Towards the end of the second rise, preheat oven to 350ºF (180ºC).

Brush monas with egg glaze. If you are using hard-boiled eggs, make indents in the center of the monas with your fingers, creating a nest for the eggs. Sprinkle monas generously with sugar. Bake until golden, about 15-20 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool.

*NOTE: I measured out the cups, but have not tested this recipe with the standard American measurements, so have put an approximate amount here. If using cups, I suggest starting with this amount of flour and adding more by the tablespoon as needed to get the consistency indicated in the recipe.

  One a penny, two a penny… 

HAPPY EASTER!

Almejas a la marinera – Clams marinière

Almejas a la marinera

This classic Spanish tapa of clams simmered in a garlicky broth of white wine, olive oil and tomato brings the Mediterranean to your table. In each bite, you find brine from the sea and vibrant ingredients from the sun-soaked land.

Almejas a la marinera, either with or without tomatoes, are served in coastal regions throughout Spain, including, of course, Murcia. Here, thanks to a long stretch of Mediterranean shore, fish and seafood figure prominently in regional cuisine. Marisquerías – bars and restaurants specializing in seafood – line the streets of Murcia’s beachside towns and are an essential part of urban food culture, too.

On Fridays and Saturdays at midday, the best marisquerías fill up for the aperitivo, a serial feast of fish, prawns, calamari and various bivalves – think mussels, cockles and razor clams – either fried, steamed or seared a la plancha. Simple seasonings include olive oil, salt, pepper and perhaps a squeeze of lemon. Cold lager, the favored beverage, flows in an endless stream from tap to pitcher.

At such gatherings, I always order almejas a la marinera, which are served in a communal dish, placed where everyone at the table or bar can reach. A film of the scene would capture a blur of hands picking up clams and dipping bread into the fragrant broth. In the background, we’d hear lively conversation, the crinkling of those thin paper napkins ubiquitous in Spain and the occasional rattle of empty clam shells hitting the floor.

To me, this convivial way of eating almejas a la marinera is as important as the ingredients. Sharing the dish completes the recipe, merging the flavors and culture of the Mediterranean.

Almejas a la marinera – Valen’s recipe

Manolo’s mother Valen often prepares these clams as an appetizer for family lunches on Sundays. She serves them in a shallow dish, communal of course, and we all gather around the table and reach in. With pieces of bread, we make savory barcos (boats) by scooping up onion, garlic and broth.

Mediterranean clams are small, slightly bigger than a one euro coin or quarter. I recommend using the smallest clams you can find for this recipe.

Clam size

I have come across several slightly different methods for removing grit from the clams before cooking them. Here, I have included Valen’s method, which you will need to start about 30 minutes before cooking the clams.

You can make the sauce in advance and then reheat it and cook the clams at the last minute. This recipe can easily be doubled.

And, of course, be sure to have plenty of good bread on hand for dipping.

1 lb (≈ 500 g) clams, soaked and rinsed (* See first step in recipe)

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 medium tomatoes, grated (* See note)

1 medium onion, finely diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons water

½ cup white wine

Salt and fresh-ground pepper

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

To remove grit, place clams to soak in a bowl with salted cold water about 30 minutes before cooking. Change the water three times, lifting clams out with a slotted spoon to prevent them from taking in any of the sand they have just expelled. Give clams a final rinse before adding them to the sauce.

Heat olive oil in a skillet large enough to hold the clams in a single layer over medium heat. Add tomato and cook, stirring occasionally, until it begins to reduce, about 5 minutes. Add onion, garlic and ¼ tsp of salt and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion has softened and the tomato has lost most of its liquid, another 5-7 minutes. Stir in the flour and cook for another minute. Add water and white wine and simmer, stirring frequently, until the sauce has thickened (it will become more broth-like once the clams are added). Taste for seasonings, keeping in mind that the clams will add saltiness and depth of flavor. Add clams and cover, cooking over medium heat until they open, about 3 to 5 minutes. Discard any that remain closed. Stir in the parsley, then pour into a shallow serving dish. Serve immediately.

YIELD: Serves 3-4 as a tapa and 2 as an appetizer

NOTE: Grating is a quick and easy way to peel tomatoes, and is a favorite method of many Spanish cooks. Cut the tomato in half and gently grate over a bowl, flesh side-down, using the large holes of the grater. The tougher outer skin will not pass through the holes.

Almejas a la marinera 2

Spanish Food Idioms – Con las manos en la masa

Introduction to the Spanish Food Idioms Series:

Inspired by the “Edible Idioms” in French series on Clotilde Dusoulier’s blog Chocolate & Zucchini, I have decided to start the New Year with a new a series on food idioms in Spanish. My focus will be on food idioms used in Spain, where I live and where I have been learning the Spanish language. I would love to hear others’ experiences with food idioms in Spain and in different Spanish-speaking countries, as well.

I find idioms in general fascinating, especially as a learner of a foreign language. In my experience, beginning to understand the colloquial expressions of a place is an essential part of feeling more integrated in the culture. Grasping the figurative meaning of the words in an idiomatic expression is like sharing a wink with the speaker – you are on the inside.

I find culinary idioms particularly fascinating (surprise, surprise), and see these expressions as a means to more deeply understand the history, culture and emotions connected with different foods in Spain.

There is of course another leap to take between understanding idioms to actually using them correctly, and the process can lead to some funny mistakes. This series will thus be a (potentially treacherous) adventure into the figurative realm of the Spanish language through idioms involving food.

Let’s dig in!

Today’s expression: con las manos en la masa

Con las manos en la masa

The phrase literally translates as, “with your hands in the dough.” If you catch someone con las manos en la masa, it is similar to catching them “red-handed,” or, to use the culinary equivalent, “with their hands in the cookie jar.” In all cases, someone has been caught in the act of doing something, usually bad to a greater or lesser extent, at least in the context.

“Imagine a baker we surprise at work. Could he deny he was making bread?” asks Alberto Buitrago, professor of Spanish at the University of Salamanca, in his Diccionario de dichos y frases hechas (2009). The proof, as they say, is in the pudding (once you get started, it’s hard to stop…).

As is the case with the equivalent English expressions, con las manos en la masa is often used in the context of crime. For example: “El ladrón fue pillado con las manos en la masa.” “The robber was caught red-handed.”

However, the expression has come full circle and is also frequently used in culinary contexts in Spain, in which it is both literal and figurative at once (though your hands may be literally covered in dough, the figurative connotation that you are up to something is always present). I think of all the times Manolo has surprised me in the act of making yet another batch of buttery cookies, a guilty pleasure, con las manos en la masa.

In an Internet search for different uses of this expression, I came across a popular cooking show called Con las manos en la masa that ran on Spanish Public Television (TVE) between 1984 and 1991 and is considered a forerunner of the genre in Spain.

When I mentioned this cooking series to friends In Spain, several for whom the 1980s were formative years spontaneously started singing the eponymous title song, a rousing ode to traditional Spanish food performed in duet:

 

The woman’s opening line sounds like a confession, largely due to our expression of the day: “Siempre que vuelves a casa / me pillas en la cocina / embadurnada de harina / con las manos en la masa.” “When you return home / you always catch me in the kitchen / covered in flour / con las manos en la masa.” We get the sense that she’s up to something other than just making an ordinary loaf of bread.

This hunch is confirmed in the man’s response, which tells us the woman has been experimenting with nontraditional cuisine, which is a tad unsavory in the context: “Honey, I don’t want refined dishes, I’m coming from work, I don’t feel like Chinese duck. How about some gazpacho, with cucumber and garlic….” It turns out she’s been taking classes at…gasp!… the Cordon Bleu.

This exchange might sound questionable through a feminist perspective, but ultimately, the mood is lighthearted and that craving for tradition speaks to both men and women, which for me comes through in the joined voices of the chorus, an impassioned list of favorite traditional Spanish dishes: “Papas con arroz, bonito con tomate, cochifrito, caldereta, migas con chocolate, cebolleta en vinagreta, morteruelo, lacon con grelos, bacalao al pil-pil y un poquito perejil….” No fancy dishes for us!

All of these references belong to the connotations of the expression con las manos en la masa in Spain today. I am beginning to feel more complicit already.

Guiso de trigo de Murcia – Murcia’s Wheat Berry Stew with Squash Aïoli

El guiso de trigo es humilde y sencillo, una muestra más de lo mucho que puede lograse disponiendo de poco. (Murcia’s wheat berry stew is humble and simple, yet another example of how much can be achieved with little at hand.)  From Gastronomía Regional Murcia, a newspaper supplement published in the mid-1980s.

Guiso de trigo de Murcia

Like many expats and emigrants, I often rely on foods from my past to nourish connections with people and places far away. This is why, for example, I always have  homemade granola in the cupboard and enough butter and brown sugar to whip up a batch of cookies when a longing for home swoops in. Yet over time, I have also come to crave local foods in Murcia, which I see as a sign of rootedness and contentment in my relatively new home. As the days turn colder and my third winter here begins, I find I am hungry for traditional Murcian stews like the guiso de trigo.

This hearty (and meatless) stew with wheat berries, vegetables and beans is one of Murcia’s staple dishes, whose ingredients reflect the city’s agricultural heritage. For centuries, Murcia has been a center of fruit and vegetable production in Spain, which has resulted in a vegetable-rich cuisine out of necessity.

For me, the guiso de trigo is a perfect example of local culinary thrift, of coaxing maximum nutrition and flavor out of available raw materials. One trick is the sofrito, a building block in many dishes in Murcia as well as in the rest of Spain. By sautéing the onions and tomatoes in olive oil in a separate pan with salt and sweet pimentón – instead of just throwing everything uncooked into the pot with the beans and wheat – you significantly multiply the flavor potential.

A sprinkling of mint, dried or fresh, contributes a cooling contrast to the warming pimentón, which stimulates the senses. Saffron threads, if you have them, are like red lipstick, adding a touch of color and intrigue.

The squash aïoli is a stroke of genius. With four thrifty ingredients – squash (of course), garlic, salt and a ribbon of olive oil – you get a luxurious condiment. Swirling in a spoonful not only adds zing to the stew, but also lends a touch of sophistication, proving that frugal does not have to mean austere.

Even though far more ingredients are available today in Murcia than in the leaner times when the guiso de trigo became a local tradition, the stew remains popular. It can be found on weekday lunch menus in long-established bars and restaurants throughout the city, and commonly appears on grandmothers’ tables. In both settings, it is typically served in wide soup plates with country bread on the side for dipping and soaking up the last traces of broth.

On a cool day like today, when the sun probably won’t quite make its way through the clouds, it is easy to imagine adults and children throughout Murcia hovering over steaming bowls of guiso de trigo. This satisfying stew is not only nourishing and economical, but also familiar and comforting.

I, too, will be having bowl of guiso de trigo today, enjoying the warmth and flavors which root me in Murcia.

Guiso de Trigo de Murcia – Murcia’s Wheat Berry Stew with Squash Aïoli

Adapted from two principal sources: A recipe in the cookbook Memorias de la cocina murciana, written by Carmen Peréz, and a recipe from the Hotel Rosa Victoria in Murcia as seen on the national TV program España Directo in 2009 (you can watch the video here) .

I’ve doubled the quantity of pumpkin in order to make the aïoli and because I love pumpkin. (In other words, the exact vegetable quantities are a matter of taste.)

As the guiso de trigo is a classic peasant dish, real saffron, an expensive ingredient, is not always included, and that is why I say it is optional. Many locals use a natural yellow food coloring, commonly used in paella, because the result is warming and visually appealing. Yet I find that the pimentón and golden olive oil lend sufficient color if you do not use the saffron. The saffron threads of course add complexity to the dish, and I have included them, toasted and mashed with garlic, according to the recipe in Memorias de la cocina murciana.

The key factor in drawing full flavor from the ingredients is time, and all the little steps do make a difference.

For the stew:

1 ¼ cups (250 g) wheat berries, soaked for 24 hours

3/4 cup (150 g) garbanzos, soaked overnight

3/4 cup (150 g) white beans, soaked overnight

10 cups water

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 medium onions, diced

2 medium tomatoes, peeled and diced or grated (*See note)

Salt to taste

1 heaping teaspoon sweet pimentón

A pinch of saffron threads (optional)

1 clove garlic (optional)

1/3 pound (150 g) Italian flat beans, cut into 1-inch pieces measure for cups

1/2 pound pumpkin or other orange-fleshed winter squash like butternut, peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks

1 medium potato (a waxy or “in-between” variety would work best – see Cook’s Illustrated Potato Primer)

Salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint, plus more for serving

For the squash aïoli (ajo calabaza): (Make about 10 minutes before the stew is ready.)

1 clove garlic, roughly chopped

A pinch of fine sea salt

Several chunks of cooked pumpkin from the stew

A swirl of olive oil

For the stew:

Place the soaked and drained wheat berries, garbanzos and white beans together in a large soup pot (I used a 6-quart pot) and add water. Bring to the boil and skim off any foam, reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for about 1 hour. The beans and wheat berries should be partially tender at this point.

While the beans and wheat berries are simmering, prepare the sofrito and the saffron, if using. For the sofrito, heat the 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat and add the onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and just beginning to turn golden. Add tomatoes, bring to the boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thickened, about 25-30 minutes. Add salt to taste toward the end, since the flavor becomes more concentrated as the sauce cooks down. Add pimentón and sauté for another minute. Remove the sofrito from the heat and set aside.

To toast the saffron threads, warm a small, dry skillet over low heat. Add threads and stir frequently so they do not burn. Once the color has deepened and the threads are aromatic, remove from heat. Then pound the toasted threads in a mortar with a clove of garlic. (See here for more information about toasting saffron.)

Add the sofrito and saffron to the pot with the partially cooked wheat berries and beans (after the first hour of cooking), then add the green beans, pumpkin and potato to the broth, which is now a vibrant red color. Season with salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste. (If you are using dried mint, add now as well.) Bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until the wheat berries, beans and vegetables are fully tender and the broth has slightly thickened, about 45 minutes. If you are using fresh mint, add it now, and adjust seasonings as necessary. Allow to sit off the heat for 5-10 minutes before serving.

For the squash aioli (ajo calabaza):

Ajo calabaza

About ten minutes before the stew has finished, mash a clove of garlic in a mortar with a pinch of salt to make a smooth paste. Remove half of the cooked pumpkin or squash from the pot and pound to a purée with the garlic in the mortar. Stir in a swirl of extra virgin olive oil.

Serve the stew in soup plates garnished with a sprinkling of fresh mint. Add squash aïoli until your bowl has as much garlic flavor as you like.

  • Yield: Six to eight servings.

* NOTE: Grating is a quick and easy way to peel tomatoes, and is a favorite method of many cooks I know in Murcia. Cut the tomato in half, and gently grate over a bowl, flesh side down, using the large holes of the grater. The tougher skin will not pass through the holes, and you will be left with a tomato purée perfect for sautéing in this recipe.

Soaked Wheat Berries  Soaked Beans  Local Pumpkin Pumpkin Chunks Flat Green Beans Organic Sweet Pimentón from Murcia

A Recipe Worth Frying For: Berenjenas fritas con miel de caña – Eggplant Fries with Dark Cane Syrup

This post is dedicated to my friend Nacho, who inspired me to try this recipe, and who probably thought I had forgotten his request, as well as the jar of cane syrup his sister brought me from Córdoba (jar pictured below). Nacho – you will see why it has taken me so long. Thank you for the syrup, and the inspiration!

Berenjenas fritas con miel de caña

These addictive eggplant fries with Moorish roots are most commonly served in Andalucía. They appear in different guises (round and/or battered), but the basic premise is the same, and each enchanting bite is crisp, tender, salty and sweet all at once. The dark cane syrup, akin to molasses, has a slightly bitter edge, which keeps the sweet interesting.

Manolo and I quickly devoured this plateful as an accompaniment to roasted fish for a non-traditional Thanksgiving feast, and boy was I thankful I had dared to try the recipe. This was a test, you see, for my newfound frying mettle.

Dark cane syrup

The truth is, I used to be afraid of frying. My family never did much if any, and as a result, the process seemed mysterious and challenging. How much oil should I use? And how would I know when it had reached the proper temperature? Recipes with instructions to use a thermometer only upped the anxiety. This made frying sound so technical, and, as a result, even more intimidating.

Yet in Spain, frying is a basic technique for most home cooks I know, which has helped make the process seem far less mysterious. By now, I have watched Manolo’s mother Valen fry potatoes countless times, gleaning a bit of the frying intuition she has acquired through years of experience. She has never used a thermometer, and instead, relies on the look and smell of the oil. It’s ready, she says, when the surface begins to stir and the oil is fragrant and just starting to smoke.

Sensing I didn’t fully trust my eyes and nose, Valen also taught me a local trick to test the oil’s temperature, using a curl of lemon zest. When the zest sizzles and begins to brown, she told me, the oil is hot enough for frying. I find this thermometer-free approach gives me confidence.

It will be a while before my inner sensor is as reliable as Valen’s, but it has definitely matured. And as they say, the proof is in the pudding, or, in this case, in the eggplant fries.

Berenjenas fritas con miel de caña – Eggplant Fries with Dark Cane Syrup

I consulted a number of recipes in both English and Spanish to write this version, and am particularly indebted to Claudia Roden for her Eggplant Fritters with Honey in the  The Food of Spain, as well as to Anya von Bremzen for her Eggplant “Fries” in  The New Spanish Table.

Several recipes I read suggested soaking the eggplant for one hour before frying to minimize absorption of oil. I tried soaking in beer, as recommended here, and in milk, as Roden recommends. I preferred the milk. The beer-soaked fries seemed slightly more bitter (but still a delicious vegan option), although I did use different eggplants, so my results are far from scientific. First dredging the eggplant in flour also reduces oil absorption.

And the frying itself? Well, knowing what to look for and trusting your senses, there’s really nothing to be afraid of.

In the tapas spirit, you can serve these fries with just about anything. I think they go particularly well with roasted meats, like chicken and lamb, or fish. Add a green salad, and you’ve got what I’d call the perfect meal.

The quantities here are for two people, but the recipe can easily be doubled.

1 medium eggplant (about ¾ of a pound)

1-2 cups milk for soaking

All-purpose flour for dredging

Salt

Olive oil for frying  **SEE NOTE

Dark cane syrup (or a flavorful honey)

Cut the eggplant, peeled or unpeeled, into slices (about 2 1/2” long and 1/3” thick).

Soak the sliced eggplant in a bowl of milk (or beer) for 1 hour. Weight slices down with a plate so they are fully submerged.

Meanwhile, place a generous amount of flour (about ½ – ¾ cup) on a dinner plate and mix with a pinch or two of salt. When you’re ready to fry, drain the eggplant slices and dredge them in the flour, shaking off any excess (I did this with my hands, letting the flour fall between my fingers back onto the plate). Set the floured slices aside on a separate plate.

Line another plate with paper towel for post-frying.

Heat oil, poured to a depth of about 1 inch, in a deep skillet over high heat. (I used a 9-inch skillet and fried in three batches.) When the surface of the oil begins to quiver and starts to smoke, test a floured eggplant slice. If the oil sizzles right away, that means you’re ready to fry. Add a batch of eggplant slices, being careful not to overcrowd the pan, and fry, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 3-5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-high if the eggplant is browning too quickly.

Frying eggplant

Remove with a slotted spoon and place on the paper towel-lined plate to eliminate excess grease. Sprinkle with fine sea salt to taste.

Draining eggplant

Place on a serving plate and drizzle with fine ribbons of cane syrup or honey.

**NOTE: While you can use your choice of oil for frying (like canola or sunflower), the authentic recipe of course calls for olive oil. (See Janet Mendel’s comment on this post).

¡BUEN PROVECHO!

Berenjenas fritas con miel de caña

Wisdom from a Spanish Kitchen: A Conversation with Journalist and Cookbook Author Janet Mendel

Journalist and Cookbook Author Janet Mendel

Photo courtesy of Janet Mendel, http://mykitcheninspain.blogspot.com/

Introduction: When I first moved to Spain nearly three years ago, I had done very little Spanish cooking. Yet, as is the case with many foreigners who land here, it didn’t take long before I was enamored with the food. I soon found myself wanting to learn as much as I could about Spanish cuisine from a range of perspectives, which led me to American journalist and cookbook author Janet Mendel.

Mendel’s Traditional Spanish Cooking was the first Spanish cookbook written in English I bought. I loved how she captured the essence of simple, flavorful and seasonal village cooking from across Spain. The delicious simplicity of the dishes Mendel includes – from satisfying stews like the Asturian bean fabada to classic tapas like clams simmered in garlic-infused sherry – helped me understand why tradition remains so strong in Spanish kitchens today. I was far from the only one to be impressed. In 2010, the UK daily The Guardian selected Traditional Spanish Cooking, published in 1996, as one of the “50 Best Cookbooks of All Time.”

Mendel has lived in a village on the Costa del Sol in Andalucía since 1966, which gives her a true insider perspective. From the beginning, the food – its flavors and stories – caught her attention. On the Profile Page of her recipe-packed blog, My Kitchen in Spain,  she writes,

“During my first year living in a Spanish village, shopping and cooking were a daily adventure. I learned Spanish cooking in  village tapa bars, where I migrated to the kitchen. Intrigued by all kinds of wigglies, squigglies, uglies and unmentionables (squid, octopus, snails, baby goat, bulls’ testicles and more), I tackled the kitchen with the zeal of the investigative reporter.”

In Mendel’s many books, and now on her blog, she takes us along on this journey into Spanish culture and cuisine, giving us a glimpse into the kitchens she visits as well as her own accomplished kitchen.

As you can tell, I have been inspired by Mendel’s work, and was thrilled when she agreed to answer my questions. The interview was done via e-mail, with a follow-up phone conversation. My questions are in bold. Where Spanish words appear in italics, I have provided a translation in parentheses.

AE: One thing I appreciate about your books and blog is your voice. The stories you tell are just as welcoming and giving as all those cooks who have invited you into their kitchens. I particularly feel this in your cookbook My Kitchen in Spain (which is really part memoir, as well). While reading the stories and recipes within, it is as if I have been invited into a Spanish home. I get the sense it hasn’t just been the recipes and flavors that have inspired your writing, but also the generous spirit of all the people you’ve broken bread with in Spain.

You’re absolutely right. In the first place, seeking out recipes was a way to get to know people—village housewives, the guys in the market, the butcher, the baker, the basket weaver. Talking about food gained me entry into homes—and hearts—of the people I was living amongst. Maybe it’s because I am, not a culinary professional, but a reporter. I like telling people’s stories, and those stories often revolve around food. Isn’t that wonderful?

AE: I read that you moved to Spain in 1966, and have lived in a village on the Costa del Sol in Andalucía ever since. This means you have witnessed and experienced breathtaking changes in the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy, from a largely poor and rural nation to a first world economy. Yet, in My Kitchen in Spain, in 2002, you wrote that, minus a few new time-saving methods and innovative flourishes, cooking in village homes had changed surprisingly little. What is your outlook on the future of local food traditions in Spain?

Your question inspires me to talk to some of the young mothers in the village. I’ll ask them what they serve their families for dinner, Monday through Friday. My guess is that, although they definitely throw in some of those frozen lasagna or pizza meals, the usual fare is what their mothers served—potaje con garbanzos, lentejas, puchero, pescado frito, sopa de pescado (various soups and stews with legumes like garbanzos and lentils, or fish dishes, like fried fish or fish soup).

There is enormous pride in the local culinary traditions. Excellent bread. Good olive oil. Wonderful fruit. Ham, sausage, cheese. Fresh fish. A wider market for Spanish food means that these products will endure beyond local consumption.

Nevertheless, as people have more spending power, I see that they consume more calories, more sugar-laden foods. Kids used to go off to school with a desayuno (breakfast) of a sandwich with sliced chorizo or potato tortilla. Now the snack might be packaged (sweet pastries or fatty chips). At the same time, there is a lot of current info on TV about good nutrition, so maybe, gradually, bad habits will change.

AE: You have also traveled extensively in Spain, collecting recipes in kitchens throughout the country. I imagine you have spent a fair amount of time visiting the big cities like Madrid and Barcelona, as well. Yet how has living in an Andalusian village in particular shaped your perspective on food and cooking in Spain? 

The Andalusian village kitchen—which I got to know quite intimately—has definitely shaped my perspective on food and cooking. The culinary traditions of other regions I have had to learn on visits. I learn by tasting, first, talking to people, visiting markets.

I am an avid collector of cookbooks in Spanish. They sometimes help to fill in the blanks when I am researching the culinary traditions of regions that I’m less familiar with. I test all recipes in my kitchen and I acknowledge any help I’ve gotten from other cookbooks.

AE: I find that Spain sparks the imagination of foreigners (such as myself) more than many other countries, with its fiestas, boisterous bars, flamenco and siestas. While you have lived here for many years and are a true local, your voice remains one of enchantment with the country and its cooking. I really appreciate that. How do you keep the spark alive?

Perhaps it’s because there are always new “sparks”—a new region to visit (I first visited the Sierra de Aracena, where Jabugo ham comes from, last year and was enchanted by the region); a new food; a new perspective (I enjoy watching Un Pais para Comerselo or José Andres Made in Spain because they give different perspectives); etc. Although the coastal areas (where I live) are overbuilt and congested, Spain continues to amaze and enchant with the diversity of landscapes, monuments, cuisines.

AE: What inspired you to start your blog?

The blog was a way to keep me involved in tasting, traveling, talking to people, trying recipes, exploring food traditions while I was between writing assignments. I was reading other food blogs and realized that there were virtually no blogs (in English) about Spanish food. I’ve got a wide knowledge of Spanish cooking, a huge recipe file and a voice. I hope that the blog generates interest in my cookbooks.

AE: In My Kitchen in Spain, you wrote that patterns of immigration helped to explain why Spanish food was so little known in the United States compared to other foods, such as Italian, French and Chinese. Since then, Spanish food has been steadily growing in popularity in the U.S. On the one hand, there has been all the buzz about Ferran Adrià and Spanish haute cuisine. Yet traditional foods, particularly tapas, have also grown in allure, with advocates such as José Andrés, who has championed Spanish traditions alongside his more avant-garde creations. And then there is Claudia Roden’s new tome, The Food of Spain, an homage to traditional cooking, which has been greeted with critical acclaim in publications like the New York Times. What is your take on this rising popularity of Spanish cooking in the U.S.?

I can only say, it’s high time! Because there was not an immigrant population that opened restaurants, bringing familiarization, Spanish cooking was way behind Italian or Chinese or Mexican. Even now, though Spanish food is growing in popularity, it’s still not widely known. And, even people who buy Manchego cheese at their local deli (I say Manchego is the new Gruyere—the go-to cheese for everything), they may not have the slightest idea that it comes from Spain, from La Mancha.

AE: To wind down, what are some of your favorite kitchen tools? Out of curiosity, do you have a Thermomix?

I don’t actually. Do you? My favorite tool may be a Braun immersion blender. I used it for baby food (38 years ago!) and mayonnaise and gazpacho. I use it almost daily for one thing or another. (Just blended some mangos with non-fat yogurt to make “ice cream.”)

AE: I read in your interview with andalucia.com that you were particularly proud of mastering the bacalao al pil-pil in the process of writing Tapas – A Bite of Spain. That is impressive (the emulsified sauce is notoriously difficult to make)! I’m still taking baby steps with paella. What recipes you are working on now?

Meatballs. Albóndigas en salsa de almendras. I was working on an assignment about Spanish food for a British magazine, with three tapa recipes. One was meatballs. The editor asked if I had any photos, and I realized that I hadn’t made meatballs in years, had no photos in my files. They were delicious, too. Reminds me of what I love about Spanish food—the subtle spicing, use of ground almonds, wine in a sauce. Meatballs will be the next blog.

Don’t be intimidated by paella making! Once you’ve assembled the right ingredients and done the prepping, the cooking is really easy. Remember, the chicken and shrimp are to make flavorful rice. Add boiling stock or water to the rice in the pan and cook on a medium-high heat for the first 8 minutes or so. Don’t stir the rice! Lower heat and cook till rice is tender. Allow to set at least 10 minutes before serving.

AE: What else are you working on at the moment? Do you have any new cookbooks planned?

I’m working on a couple of cookbook proposals, but don’t know if they will come to fruition. Fewer cookbooks are being published. Readership has declined. We shall see. I still love reading cookbooks (yes, Claudia Roden’s is marvellous), but many people look up recipes on the internet rather than in a book.

Thank you so much, Janet!

A Day on the Tapas Route

In my last post, I ran through the basics of the organized Tapas Route phenomenon in Spain (the where, what, when, why, how). Here, with a preface, is a sample day on the Tapas Trail in my neighborhood.

IMG_0040

Preface: Right around the time I started writing this post, I read Friday Night Supper, an essay by the late novelist and food writer Laurie Colwin in her endearing collection, Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (1988). Friday Night Supper, for those of you who haven’t read it, laments the decline of the hearty, leisurely meal with family and friends. This emphasized for me what is different about eating in Spain, where time during weekend meals with friends is but a hazy backdrop. Colwin’s essay begins:

“We live in a decade that worships speed: fast food, one-minute managers, sixty-minute gourmets, three-minute miles. We lace up our running shoes and dash off to get on the fast track.

These days we are surrounded by overabundance but admire the minimal: cuisine minceur, high-tech deign, thinness. We are far too busy to linger over a long, languid meal. Instead, we bolt a pint of yogurt and suit up for a five-mile run or a corporate takeover.”

As I read this passage, I could feel two phases of my life in parallel. I recognized the fast-paced world Colwin described, and in the past, would have fully felt a part of that collective “we.” Yet I realized I no longer fully belonged in this “we” after three years of living in Spain.

Here, I have learned, it’s best not to have afternoon or even evening plans when meeting with friends at 1 pm for an “aperitivo,”  an “appetizer,” which tends to prolong itself into lunch, coffee and drinks. And then, what do you know, it’s time for dinner again (I’m talking 10 pm). Dinner in this case is often improvised at a friend’s home, like thin slices of pork loin a la plancha, a salad and wine.

As I wrote in my last post, on days such as this, I have been learning to ignore “that little internal voice suggesting perhaps I’d had enough.” I do still have that little voice, a bit of Colwin’s “we.” But the Spanish we is different, and, the good thing is, it’s not exclusive. Anyone can join, the more the merrier.

Meals in Spain are not necessarily the languid affairs Colwin wrote about, especially when they involve tapas. Lively would be a better word. But boy can they be long, but who’s counting? No corporate takeovers or five-mile runs for me (i.e. us), at least not on meal days with friends.

A Day on the Tapas Route

At 2 pm, my friends and I enter our first bar on the Route and seize the only remaining elbow space at the chrome counter. We must yell our order to be heard over the din. Here, we begin our day with a literal bang, biting into queso explosivo (pictured at the top of the page), a thick wedge of mild, fresh goat cheese dipped in an “explosive” batter loaded with snap-pop candies and deep-fried. The mini combustions in my mouth surprise, yet the syrupy sweetness of the quince marmalade leaves the final impression. I would have appreciated more salty contrast in the batter, but nonetheless enjoy this playful version of fried cheese on a stick.

We order another tapa that catches our eye at the bar, tender pulpo al horno, oven-roasted octopus, which is entirely savory minus a tart squirt of lemon.

Fried ham and cheese rolls

At the next stop, we are lucky to snag an outdoor table. The tapas here are more standard and set the themes we’ll encounter throughout the day – fried finger food and canapés, various toppings on thin slices of baguette.

The crisp crepe wrapped around the fried ham and cheese rolls crackles as we bite in. What could be better than flavorful ham and melted cheese?

The pork tenderloin canapés with salty, tangy roquefort and sweet roasted green peppers quickly disappear. In fact, my two beers have outlasted the two-bite tapas and time pressure creeps in (I tend to be a sipper, not a guzzler), if only to catch up with my friends. Due to the itinerant nature of the organized Tapas Route, time is more of the essence than in other meal situations. There are so many bars to try, and so many stamps to get on the Tapas Route passport (see last post). Yet these are only immediate pressures, for the end of the day is nowhere in sight.

The next tapa, which we eat standing, is my favorite on the Route – a canapé spread with zarangollo, Murcia’s sweet zucchini and onion scramble, topped with local fennel-flavored sausage.

After another stop not worth mentioning (every Route has a dud or two – this one involved a long wait, an unapologetic staff and a forgettable tapa), we meet up with more friends at Carmica, a creative neighborhood restaurant, which isn’t on the official Route, but has joined in spirit with a 2 euro tapa and drink menu.

Carmica is serving canapés with international flavors, topped with bite-size slices of tender beef filets in a creamy sauce with hints of Worcestershire and curry.

My first glass of wine is served in a plastic cup, much to the horror of a nice gentleman (a friend of a friend’s cousin – everyone’s a friend here) who later buys me another wine, this time in a glass. There always seems to be someone making sure your hands are not empty on the Tapas Trail. And I’d just told myself I’d had the last.

It’s nearly 8 pm, six hours after we began. So much for ultimatums. The corporate takeover, so to speak, will have to wait.