Painssaladière – Recycled Bread & Onion Tart

Beyond breadcrumbs

Despite my best intentions to keep bread fresh, I sometimes wait too long to make French toast or freeze it, and it’s beyond pleasantly crisp. This often happens with supermarket baguettes, which are irresistible when recently baked at midday, but rubbery by the evening and hard enough to break teeth by the following day.

I usually toss such bread into a cloth bag in my kitchen to make bread crumbs “someday.” But, admittedly, these hard bits often end up in the trash can, eventually, in moments of clutter-clearing frenzy.

At least they used to, for I’ve recently discovered a new favorite way to use bread that is past the French toast window—the painssaladière.

Like the pissaladière, the traditional Provençal tart, this version consists of a thin crust topped with heaps of sweet, slow-cooked onions and briny olives and anchovies. But in the case of the painssaladière, the crust is made with recycled stale bread (hence the French word for bread, pain, in the name).

Now I keep all of my odd bits of stale bread until I have enough to make a painssaladière.

A second life for unsold baguettes

More than a revelation and waste-saving measure in my home kitchen, this recipe also reflects a growing trend in France, where bakers are joining efforts to reduce boulangerie waste.

In this episode of the recommendable French food podcast, On va déguster (where I discovered the painssaladière), journalist Estérelle Payany reports on initiatives to reduce the over 50,000 tons of unsold bread destined for the trash heap in France every year.

The Kolectou project, for instance, has recuperated nearly 30 tons (and counting) of unsold bread via TADAAM, a cake mix of sorts made with ground recycled bread for professional and home bakers alike.

Expliceat, another French zero-waste initiative, has recycled countless baguettes with its patented bread-recycling machine, le Crumbler (love it). Around France, a growing number of bakers are turning their unsold bread into cookies, muffins, tart crusts, and new breads—converting literally tons of would-be waste into an income source—thanks to le Crumbler. “It’s the best investment I’ve made in my thirty years in the profession,” says one happy baker.

I think about these bakers and le Crumbler as I grind up stale bread for my painssaladière and can’t help but smile.

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Painssaladière – Recycled Bread & Onion Tart

Adapted from On va déguster.

This recipe invites improvisation with different types of bread and cheese in the crust, which is tender and somewhat spongy, depending on how thick you make it (feel free to experiment with different pan sizes to find your perfect thickness). I've recently been tossing herbs into the crust batter for extra flavor, and particuarly like herbes de Provence with the onion topping.

I’ve only made the onion version so far, because I love it, but can imagine endless possibilities for the toppings, too. I always add anchovies (after baking), but, as you can see in the photo, I keep half anchovy-free for my son.

Excellent warm or at room temperature, the painssaladière, like the coca, is great for picnics.

Ingredients

For the onions

  • lb. (1.5 kg) yellow or white onions
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Extra-virgin olive oil (optional)
  • Leaves of 3 sprigs thyme and 1 sprig fresh rosemary, finely chopped (see Notes)
  • 3 anchovy fillets, finely chopped, or 1 tbsp colatura di alici (optional)

For the crust

  • oz. (125 g) stale bread (see Notes)
  • 1 cup (250 ml) whole milk or water
  • 3 tbsp (30 g) flour
  • ½ cup (50 g) grated hard cheese (see Notes)
  • 1 tsp herbes de Provence or another herb (optional)
  • 1 egg

For the topping

  • Black olives, pitted or not
  • Drained anchovy fillets (optional)
  • Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
  • Salt and pepper

Instructions

Prepare the onions

  1. Thinly slice the onions.

  2. Place the onions in a Dutch oven with the bay leaf, a few pinches of salt, and a generous drizzle of olive oil, if you like (see Notes). Cover and cook over very low heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, jammy and lightly golden, 1-2 hours (depending on the burner strength). Uncover toward the end of the cooking time to allow excess liquid to evaporate. (Don't reduce too much, though, as the onions will continue to cook in the oven.)

  3. Stir in the herbs and season with salt and pepper.
  4. Stir in the anchovies or colatura di alici, if using.

Prepare the crust

  1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC) and grease a 12-inch (30-cm) tart pan with parchment paper. (I tried greasing the pan with oil as per the original recipe, and the tart stuck to the pan).

  2. Cut or break the bread into big pieces and soak it in the milk for 15 minutes, until more or less softened. Stir and break up the bread more as necessary to ensure even soaking.

  3. Drain any excess liquid (I’ve never had any), then process until smooth in a food processor or blender.
  4. Stir in the flour and grated cheese until well incorporated. Add the herbes de Provence, if using. Taste for salt, then stir in the egg.

  5. Spread the batter across the base of your tart pan in a more-or-less even layer with the back of a spoon or by pressing with plastic wrap—the batter is quite sticky.
  6. Blind-bake the crust for about 15 minutes, until completely set and lightly golden around the edges.

  7. Remove from the oven and cover with the onions.
  8. Arrange the olives over the top. If you’re using anchovies, you can add them here, too—I personally prefer to add them after baking.

  9. Bake for 30–40 minutes, until the onions and crust are golden.
  10. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Recipe Notes

  1. The times I’ve made this tart, I haven’t had the fresh herbs on hand, so have used about 1 tsp of herbes de Provence with good results.
  2. I suppose you could use all shades of stale bread here, from slightly stale to hard as a rock. I’ve always used the latter. And I’ve only used French-type breads in the recipe, rather than sandwich bread, but it’s worth a try. Combinations of white and multigrain breads work well, too.
  3. As for the cheese, I’ve always used Parmesan, because that’s what I typically have on hand, but the original recipe suggests cheeses like Cantal, Salers and sheep’s milk Tomme.
  4. The original recipe says to cook the onions in their own juices without adding oil, but I always add a good drizzle.

Coca – Spanish Flatbread

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Like many of you around the world, I’ve baked more bread since March than ever before in my life*. Out of the infinite breads to choose from, I’ve felt most drawn to those that require no or minimal kneading. Although I feel the romantic tug of sourdough love stories, the reputation of this ancient bread-making technique has thus far deterred me. Words like high-maintenance and fickle come to mind—two adjectives I’ve had enough of over the past year.

This make-ahead, slow-rise and nearly-no-knead coca is, too me, a perfect bread for these troubled times. The antithesis of high-maintenance and fickle, this recipe produces consistently excellent results with minimum effort, as long as you plan ahead. It is also versatile (another adjective I value more than ever these days) and welcomes improvisation with any toppings you have on hand.

Let’s talk cocas

Also known as tortas, cocas are the Spanish take on flatbread. They come in countless sweet and savory forms throughout Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, Valencia and Murcia. Some cocas are sponge cakes, some are flaky and crisp, and others, like this recipe, are akin to their more famous Mediterranean cousin, the pizza. In fact, according to the Mercado Little Spain website (the José Andrés project), “cocas are the original pizza.” Of course José Andrés would say that.

Although it’s impossible to know which really came first, the history of the coca and pizza are undoubtedly intertwined in the ancient Mediterranean past.

Cocas, like pizzas, are an ingenious combination of basic ingredients abundant in the region: wheat flour, olive oil, salt and seasonal produce. Although there are traditional cocas (like the coca de trempó, coca de recapte and coca de San Juan), there is no single authentic recipe, and certainly no international regulations like those of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. The coca is unpretentious, whatever you want it to be.

While I see this humility as a strength (there is no holy grail like the New York or Neapolitan pizza hanging overhead as you make a coca), José Capel, the food critic for the Spanish daily El País, laments that this “jewel” of Spanish cuisine has been eclipsed by the pizza. He lauds efforts like those of chef Pep Romany in Alicante to honor the coca by making it a star in local haute cuisine.

“Will Spanish cocarías (coca shops) take off in the future?” Capel asks in this 2017 article, “or will we continue to speak only of pizzas and never of cocas?”

While I can’t imagine Spanish cocarías supplanting New York pizzerias any time soon, I’m all for championing the coca movement from my home kitchen.

I invite you to join me.

*According to NPD BookScan, bread cookbook sales in the US alone grew by 145% in the first three quarters of 2020*.

Coca—Spanish Flatbread

I discovered this coca recipe in El Comidista, the always entertaining and inspiring food section of the Spanish daily newspaper El País. Spanish cooks use a variety of leaveners to make their cocas rise, ranging from sourdough to beer. This recipe uses a small amount of yeast and a long rising time (at least overnight) in the refrigerator, resulting in excellent flavor and texture. It is based on Spanish bread guru Ibán Yarza’s genius Unidad Basica de Masa (Basic Dough Unit), a simple, versatile dough. The opposite of high-maintenance.

As for the toppings, the sky’s the limit. I’ve provided some ideas below, but feel free to improvise with what’s in your fridge.

Excellent warm or at room temperature, cocas are a good make-ahead option for a picnic or tapas spread.

Ingredients

Makes 2 cocas

For the dough

  • Scant 1 cup (240 ml) water
  • cups (350 g) all-purpose or bread flour, or 2 cups (250 g) all-purpose or bread flour + 1 scant cup (100 g) spelt or whole wheat flour (I love the spelt version.)
  • tsp (7 g) salt
  • 3 g fresh yeast or ⅓ tsp (1 g) instant yeast

Topping ideas

  • Escalivada (my favorite), with or without anchovies (see Notes)
  • Roasted red peppers, with or without sardines
  • Caramelized onions, with or without pine nuts
  • Sobrasada
  • Thinly sliced veggies like zucchini, onions and tomatoes, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt
  • Tapenade and goat cheese
  • Anything else that strikes your fancy
  • Extra-virgin olive oil, sugar and pine nuts

Instructions

A day ahead

  1. Place the water in a large bowl or dough tub, add the yeast and swish to dissolve. Add the remaining ingredients and stir until just blended. Cover and let rest for 10 minutes.

  2. Without removing the dough from the bowl, flatten it into a rough rectangle with your fingertips. The dough will be very shaggy and sticky (as you can see in the first photo in the original recipe). Fold the dough in three, business letter-style, then flatten and fold it in three once more.

  3. Let the dough rest, covered, for 15 minutes, then flatten and fold in three twice more as above.

  4. Cover well and refrigerate overnight (or up to 2 days).

The next day

  1. Scrape the dough onto a well-floured surface and divide it into two equal pieces. With your fingertips or a rolling pin, flatten each piece to a thickness of about 1/4 inch. You can make any shape you like—circles, ovals and rectangles are all common coca shapes. To fit two on the same baking sheet, I like making long, narrow ovals, measuring roughly 13 x 5 inches each. If the dough shrinks back easily, let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes and try again.

  2. Transfer the dough to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and cover loosely with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap. Let rise for 1–1½ hours, until puffy.
  3. Preheat the oven to 475°F (250°C). Brush the entire surface with a thin layer of extra-virgin olive oil and cover with your topping(s) of choice. Less is more here—if the toppings are too dense, the crust underneath will remain soggy.

  4. If you are making a sweet coca, use your fingertips to make dimples in the dough, then sprinkle it with sugar.

  5. Bake for 10–15 minutes, until the coca is golden.
  6. Enjoy warm or at room temperature.

Recipe Notes

Click here for an escalivada recipe I published on this blog a while back. I like to add the anchovies after baking so that the flavor melts into the coca, but the anchovies do not disintegrate.

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Apricots!

This time of year, we literally get to enjoy the fruits of my husband’s labor. He’s an apricot breeder, which means that throughout the short and intense season in May and June, quickly ripening apricots overtake our kitchen counters and refrigerator shelves and drawers. We eat them fresh, of course, but there are so many that we also make tarts and jams and share bag-loads of apricots with anyone willing to take them. If you lived nearby, I would share apricots with you, too. I hate to throw them away.

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If you’re not an apricot fan, it may be because you’ve never had a great one. Even in Mediterranean climates, where apricots thrive, good ones can be hard to come by. They do not tend to travel well, and if they don’t turn mushy in the trunk of your car on the way home, one day in a warm kitchen will do the trick.

But if you can get your hands on a great apricot, and you are not already an apricot fan, one bite may convert you as it did me. A great apricot threatens to overpower the senses—the charming red blush on the skin, the sunny orange flesh, the floral and sweet yet enticingly tart aroma and flavor. I discovered this fact relatively late in life, after moving to Spain. In fact, I don’t recall any apricot before this time that left any impression on me at all besides the “Apricot” doll from the Strawberry Shortcake collection. Although I’ve accumulated far more delicious apricot memories in the years I’ve lived in Spain, I nevertheless think of Apricot every time I step into my kitchen this time of year. What did they ever put in her hair to make such an indelible scent?

For my son, it will be a different story. Apricot was one of his first fruits, and his papá’s apricots will be one of his earliest food memories. Perhaps someday he’ll long for this taste of his youth.

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I hope you can sink your teeth into some great apricots this season. And if they ripen a bit too much, don’t fret, make a tart! The tart pictured below, Verlet’s Apricot Tart from Patricia Wells, is one of my favorite ways to enjoy and share the season’s bounty. This is of course a French tart—in Spain, the most traditional way to eat apricots is the way you see my son eating his in the photo above. But since I began making it twelve years ago, Verlet’s tart has become a perennial crowd favorite among my Spanish family and friends.

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Baking intensifies the tartness of the apricots, which complements the sweetness of the buttery crust. With a dash of almond extract and a sprinkling of ground almonds, this pastry also takes brilliant advantage of the affinity between apricots and almonds, two stone fruits in the same genus (Prunus).

With so many new memories, the scent of apricots in my kitchen grows richer every year, evoking so much more than a fragrant childhood doll.

Verlet’s Apricot Tart from The Food Lovers’ Guide to Paris by Patricia Wells

Since I follow the online recipe more or less to a tee, I have provided a link rather than writing up the recipe here. The only modification I make is that I do not add almond extract to the filling, because I find the bitter almond taste stands out too much. But I do love the subtle flavor that the ground almonds add to the cream. If you cannot get good fresh apricots, this tart is also delicious with peaches.

What are your favorite apricot recipes? I’m always looking for more ways to use them ;).

Sustenance – Orange olive oil cake with whole wheat flour

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This cake has become a lifeline for me in the long stretches of time between breakfast and lunch and lunch and dinner in Spain. With 50% whole-wheat flour and no refined sugar, it is a slightly healthier take on the classic Spanish bizcocho, or teacake, made with olive oil, yogurt, orange juice and orange zest. The cake is luxuriously moist and packed with bright citrus flavor. With a cup of coffee and a square or two of dark chocolate, it has gotten me through many mornings and afternoons.

On the surface, I have adapted to the late lunch and dinner times in Spain. Unless we want to eat alone, we must adapt to the local rhythm, wherever we are. But I realize that I still see the Spanish mealtime hours with foreign eyes, particularly now that I have a child. Trying to feed my fussy two year old his “early” dinner at 8 pm, for instance, I daydreamed about my friends in the States who had their children in bed by this time, cutting the witching hour short.

Now that my son is four—and more Spaniard than American—the hours have gotten easier. He no longer melts down during our (early) 8:30 pm weeknight dinners. In his perspective, this is dinnertime on school nights—any earlier would mean less playground time. And 2 pm, when he gets out of school, is, for him, a normal time for lunch. In his second year of the infantil cycle—for children aged three to six—his school day starts at 9 am and ends at 2 pm, without a lunch break! (My need to add an exclamation point here betrays my lingering outsider perspective…)

With such late meal times, snacks are vital, especially for children. The mid-morning almuerzo and the mid-afternoon merienda have to be substantial enough to sustain energy and keep melt downs (my son’s and my own) at bay.

Rather than a lunch, I pack a snack for my son in his school bag, following guidelines from his teacher (see the chart below) that encourage variety and discourage too many convenience foods. (As in many industrialized countries, childhood obesity is on the rise in Spain, which is a whole other topic.) So it’s a sandwich on Monday, cookies or homemade bizcocho (quick bread or teacake) on Tuesdays, fruit on Wednesdays, cereals and grains on Thursdays and dairy on Fridays.

This orange olive oil cake, which I pack along with nuts and dried fruit, has become one of my staples for my son’s Tuesday snack. It has also become one of my own snack-time staples.

With an olive oil cake on the counter, the Spanish mealtime hours do not feel so foreign. I am at home.

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Orange olive oil cake with whole wheat flour

I make this cake in my Thermomix, the do-it-all kitchen appliance from German engineers, although you could, of course, also use a stand mixer, another type of food processor or mix the batter by hand. The recipe is adapted from a Spanish Thermomix recipe and calls for grinding the sugar into superfine crystals, which in theory makes the cake more tender. I haven’t yet tried making the cake without the grinding step, so can’t vouch for the results.

I love the crisp edges the day the cake is made, but think the flavor is even better after a day, covered, on the counter.

  • 1 ¼ loosely packed cups (180 g) unrefined brown sugar
  • The zest of 1 orange
  • 3 eggs
  • ½ cup (120 g) plain or Greek-style yogurt
  • 100 g mild-flavored extra virgin olive oil (*see notes)
  • ¼ cup fresh-squeezed orange juice (from about ½ orange)
  • 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder (*see notes)
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¾ cup (100 g) all-purpose flour
  • ¾ cup (100 g) whole wheat flour
  • A pinch of salt
  • Confectioners’ sugar (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350ºF and butter and flour a 9-inch round cake or springform pan.

Grind the brown sugar into very fine crystals in a food processor. Add the orange zest and pulse several times to grind the zest and evenly distribute it throughout the sugar.

Add the eggs to the sugar and mix on low speed until pale and frothy.

Add the olive oil, yogurt and orange juice and mix until blended.

Sift in the flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt and mix on low speed until just blended.

Pour the batter into the greased pan and bake until the cake is golden and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean, about 30 minutes.

Allow the cake to cool in the pan for 10 minutes and then remove it to a cooling rack. Serve once the cake is completely cool. If you like, you can dust it with confectioners’ sugar for decoration.

This cake keeps beautifully on the counter, covered, for several days.

* Olive oil: Be sure to choose an olive oil whose flavor you enjoy, because you will taste it in the cake. If you cannot find a mild extra virgin olive oil, try “light” olive oil US, which has been refined and is not as pungent.

* Baking powder: If you have access to Royal baking powder, you can use one 16-gram packet in place of the baking powder and baking soda.

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Early spring stew with fava beans, artichokes and serrano ham

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If I had to capture early spring in Murcia in just a few words, fava beans would have to be among them. In the markets, woven baskets overflow with tangles of bright green fava bean pods. Shelled, the beans make their way to the table in a variety of traditional dishes, from omelets to stews to sautés.

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Many locals like to snack directly on the raw beans, which are firm and slightly bitter. This time of year, it is not unusual for restaurants to drop a handful of pods on your table to peel and enjoy like peanuts.

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Growing up in Florida, fava beans were not on my culinary radar. But since I moved to Murcia nearly a decade ago, I have come to love this legume—among the most ancient Mediterranean crops—in all of its guises. Every year, I particularly look forward to making this early spring stew, inspired by a similar recipe in one of my favorite Spanish cookbooksThe New Spanish Table by Anya von Bremzen.

The stew is loaded not not only with fresh fava beans, but also artichokes, another of my favorite vegetables at their prime in early spring. Sherry and serrano ham give the dish a decidedly Spanish flair. As the name “stew” suggests, this is not a flash-cooked affair. Instead, the vegetables simmer until tender with garlic and onions in a rich, ham-infused broth. Raw garlic and parsley pounded to a paste and stirred in before serving add bright speckles of spring green and a lively garlic kick.

Happy spring!

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Early spring stew with fava beans, artichokes and serrano ham, adapted from The New Spanish Table by Anya von Bremzen

When using fresh fava beans and artichokes, this is not a quick recipe—there is a lot of paring and shelling to be done. But your time will be rewarded. If you have young children in the house, shelling fava beans is a perfect task for little hands. In fact, my four-year-old son loved the work so much that he got mad at my husband for shelling too quickly and claimed the final handful for himself! I haven’t actually tried the stew with frozen artichoke hearts and fava beans, but I’m sure that’s delicious, too, if you cannot get the ingredients fresh. Von Bremzen suggests fresh or frozen peas or soybeans as a fava bean substitute.

Von Bremzen’s recipe also calls for green beans and potatoes, but I wanted to focus on my favorite ingredients, so used more artichokes and fava beans and left these other vegetables out. She has you do all of the prep work in advance, but I like to prepare the artichokes while the onions are slowly cooking with the ham to streamline the process a bit and to give the onions richer flavor.

Enjoy this early spring stew as a tapa, side dish (it’s excellent with fish) or light meal, with bread, of course!

  • 2 cups shelled fresh fava beans (about 2 pounds/1 kilogram unshelled)
  • 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 1  thick (1/4-inch) slice serrano ham or proscuitto, about 1.5 ounces (40 grams), diced
  • 6 medium artichokes
  • 1 lemon
  • 4 large garlic cloves, minced and divided
  • 1/3 cup dry sherry
  • 1 1/2 to 2 cups chicken broth, plus more as needed
  • 2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley

Cook the shelled fava beans in a pot of salted boiling water until they are just tender, about 4 minutes, depending on their size. Drain the beans and run them under cold water to stop the cooking process. Once the fava beans are cool enough to handle, gently press them between your fingers to pop the tender green centers out of the skins. Set the beans aside.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large pot. Stir in the onions and diced ham and reduce the heat to low. Let the onions slowly cook, stirring occasionally, while you prepare the artichokes. Reduce the heat to very low if the onions begin to brown.

Fill a medium bowl with water and squeeze in the juice from the lemon. Clean and quarter the artichokes (here are some excellent instructions), dropping the quarters into the bowl to prevent browning. Since the stems are also delicious when cooked, I like to peel them and leave a 1- to 1 1/2-inch tail.

When the artichokes are ready, the onions should be soft and beginning to turn golden (it took me nearly 30 minutes to prepare the artichokes – I’m slow). Stir in half of the garlic and the artichoke quarters. Reduce the heat to low, partially cover the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until the artichokes have begun to soften, about 10 minutes. Add another tablespoon of olive oil if the pot seems dry. Pour in the sherry and increase the heat to high. Cook the sherry for about 1 minute, allowing it to reduce slightly.  Add enough chicken broth to just cover the vegetables and bring the liquid to a simmer. Cook the stew over low heat, partially covered, until the artichokes are completely tender, about 20 to 30 minutes, depending on their size. Add more broth as needed to keep the artichokes barely covered. Once the artichokes are done, add the fava beans and cook until they are tender, about 5 more minutes.

Place the parsley and remaining garlic in a mortar and pound them into a paste using a pestle. A pinch of salt can help. Stir the paste into the stew and cook for another minute to allow the flavors to blend. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve warm.

 

Oven-roasted escalivada

IMG_4957Spring in Murcia has begun with a cold north wind, but I still feel summer breathing down my neck. Come April, suffocating heat could appear any day, robbing us of a proper spring. It happens every year. The pressure is on to crank up the oven and bake and roast as much as I can while I still appreciate the added warmth in my kitchen. This is a perfect time to make escalivada, one of my favorite foods in Spain.

Simple, versatile escalivada—a roasted Mediterranean vegetable dish of Catalan origin—is cherished throughout the country. It can be a salad, a side dish or a condiment, and it pairs perfectly with other Spanish favorites like jamón and tortilla de patatas. The exact composition can vary, but most versions of escalivada (sometimes spelled escalibada) contain roasted red peppers, eggplants and onions; tomatoes and garlic are other popular additions.

In Catalan, the name escalivada means cooked over a flame or embers, the traditional means of making the dish. In fact, purists argue that the only way to cook escalivada is over fire, and that the dish is missing something essential without the smoky flavor the flames impart, although many home cooks make a respectable escalivada in the oven. As an apartment dweller myself, I say that a delicious oven-roasted escalivada is far superior to no escalivada at all.

One of the best things about escalivada is that it is a cinch to prepare. To make an indoor version, you simply place your vegetables in a hot oven on a baking sheet and forget about them for an hour or so, removing them when the heat has done its work to make them ultra-tender and sweet on the inside. The hardest part (let’s not get too lazy here) is peeling the vegetables once they are cool enough to handle, removing any seeds and tearing the tender insides into thin strips. Minimal dressing is all you need to enhance the natural flavors—a sprinkling of fine sea salt and a generous drizzle of the most flavorful extra virgin olive oil you have.

The result is a jammy escalivada that you can eat throughout the week in a number of different guises, if you make a large enough batch. Alone, escalivada is excellent with fish or meat (or jamón) or simply for dunking bread. You can also eat it as a main-dish salad, topped with fillets of high quality olive-oil packed tuna and some black olives. Or use it on flatbread or pizza, or chopped up and mixed with eggs to make a veggie-packed Spanish omelet or scramble. You get the idea. One of my favorite ways to eat escalivada is on toasted country bread with anchovies, whose saltiness beautifully complements the sweet vegetables.

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If only I’d made more….Well, there’s always next week, as long as the north wind continues to blow.

Oven-roasted escalivada

I have come across two different approaches to roasting the vegetables for escalivada in the oven—the minimalist approach, i.e., roasting the vegetables uncovered on a baking sheet (parchment-lined or not) and the slightly-more-involved approach, i.e., brushing the vegetables lightly with olive oil and wrapping them individually in aluminum foil before placing them on the baking sheet. I have tried both and have to say I like a blend of both methods. I preferred the red peppers and eggplants roasted uncovered and the onion brushed and wrapped, because the onion gets tender more quickly this way. I have written the recipe accordingly, but I recommend trying the different methods yourself to see which you prefer.

The quantities are also subjective. I particularly love the sweetness of the red peppers in this dish, so used three big ones, but, of course, feel free to adjust the amounts according to your taste, what looks good at the market and how much space you have on your baking sheet (my oven in Spain is smaller than most ovens in the US). When adding garlic, keep in mind that the flavor will intensify over time if you have any escalivada left over.

As for the sizes of the vegetables, I like to use smallish eggplants, which I find have a sweeter flavor, and small to medium onions, which don’t take forever to roast.

  • 3-4 red peppers
  • 2-3 small to medium eggplants
  • 2 small to medium onions
  • 6 tablespoons flavorful extra virgin olive oil (or more to taste)
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, sliced in half lengthwise
  • Salt

Preheat the oven to 400ºF (200ºC). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Rinse and dry the vegetables. Place the red peppers on the baking sheet whole. Pierce the eggplants with a fork and place them on the baking sheet. Lightly brush the onions with olive oil, wrap them in aluminum foil and place them on the baking sheet.

Bake the vegetables until they are collapsed, completely tender (check the eggplant and onion by piercing with a fork) and charred in places. In my oven, this took about 45 minutes for the eggplants and peppers and about 1 ¼ hours for the onions. When you remove the peppers from the oven, place them in a covered bowl or in a sealed plastic bag for 15 minutes to allow them to steam, making it easier to peel them later. When the peppers are cool enough to handle, peel them, remove the seeds and cut or tear the flesh into thin strips, working over a bowl to catch the juices. Peel the eggplants and cut or tear them into strips similar in size to the pepper strips. Finally, peel the onions and slice them into strips.

Arrange the vegetables in a single layer on a serving plate, either by type or alternating rows. Tuck the garlic slices between the layers, drizzle everything generously with olive oil and season with salt to taste. Allow your escalivada to rest for 30 minutes at room temperature so the flavors can develop. If you store your escalivada for any longer, be sure the vegetables are covered with olive oil, cover the dish and place it in the fridge. Allow the escalivada to come to room temperature before serving.

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Aletría – History in a pan

Stopping to look, I find traces of Murcia’s history everywhere—in crumbling bits of medieval wall around the city; in ruins beneath the cathedral; in my husband’s black hair and olive skin; in my son’s deep-as-midnight eyes; and, especially, in local foods like aletría.

Aletría—saffron-seasoned pasta cooked in the same pan with short ribs, artichokes, tomatoes, red peppers and potatoes—reveals layers of the past just as an archaeological excavation would.

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The name aletría comes from an Arabic word for dried pasta, iṭriyah, and the dish is very similar to ittrilla, which appears in an anonymous thirteenth century cookbook from Al-Andalus. In the medieval version, noodles simmer in a broth made with fat-rich cuts of meat and seasonings like salt, pepper and coriander; before serving, the dish gets sprinkled with cinnamon and ginger.

Today, the foundation is the same—you cook the noodles in a flavorful meat broth—but the dish has dropped most of the Moorish seasonings and taken on ingredients that reflect new rulers, like pork, and New World discoveries, like tomatoes.

I found myself thinking about the layers of aletría on a recent visit to my favorite museum in Murcia, the Museo de Santa Clara, which provides another way to look at the city’s strata.

The museum is part of a working convent, where a handful of elderly nuns continue to live in their cloistered community. Like many religious buildings in Murcia, the convent was constructed on top of Moorish remains, in this case a luxurious palace to different Arab rulers in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

On the ground floor, devoted to Murcia’s Islamic past, I gazed upon remnants of the palace and reconstructions of intricate archways and a Moorish garden with a reflecting pool. Upstairs, I soaked in the history of the convent and its patron, Saint Clare of Assisi.

As I looked at the layers, I could see all of the forces that had shaped the city, and dishes like aletría, more clearly.

Here were the foundations of my son’s gaze and the basic building blocks of this stew that has nourished Murcia for generations.

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Aletría

To make aletría, you follow the same basic techniques used in making paella – the pasta cooks in the pan with the vegetables and meat, soaking up flavor of the broth – but this dish is more forgiving, because it is easier to overcook rice than pasta.

A similar dish minus the bell peppers, artichokes and potatoes, called fideos a la cazuela, is made in other parts of Spain.

The final amount of water you need depends on many factors, such as the speed of the boil, the surface area of your pan and the exact amount of pasta you use. Add more hot water as needed to keep the ingredients just barely submerged. The final dish should be nearly dry rather than soupy. The cooking times are approximate, too. It may take more time, for instance, for the meat to become tender and the potatoes to cook.

  • 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, divided (plus more as needed)
  • 1 red pepper, cut into thick strips
  • 2-3 artichokes, cleaned and quartered
  • 1 medium or 2 small potatoes, peeled, cut into 1-inch cubes (not so little that they’ll disintegrate into the stew), then rinsed in water until the water runs clear
  • ½ kilo (1 lb) short ribs, cut into 1 ½-inch lengths
  • 2 tomatoes, cut crosswise and grated down to the skin using the large holes of a box grater
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 pinch saffron
  • Powdered yellow food coloring (optional – see notes)
  • 1 lb (500 g) thick fideos (see notes)

The first step is to sear all of the ingredients separately to concentrate the flavors. Heat 2 tbsp oil over medium-low heat in a heavy casserole or deep skillet. Add the red pepper strips and a pinch of salt. Cook the peppers, turning them frequently, until they have softened and are lightly brown on both sides, about 10 minutes. If the peppers brown too quickly before softening, lower the heat. Remove the peppers from the skillet and set aside.

Raise the heat to medium, add another tablespoon of olive oil, the artichoke quarters and a pinch of salt. Sauté the artichokes until they are lightly browned on all sides and begin to soften, about five minutes. Remove the artichokes with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add another tablespoon of olive oil if necessary, the cubed potatoes and a pinch of salt and sauté until lightly golden on all sides. Remove and set aside.

Generously season the ribs with salt and pepper. Once again, if there is not much olive oil left in the pan, add another tablespoon and increase the heat to medium-high. Sauté the ribs until they are nicely browned on all sides, turning frequently. The idea is not to cook the ribs, but to sear them and seal in the juice and flavor.

Once the ribs are browned, reduce the heat to medium, stir in the minced garlic and cook for a minute or two until the garlic is fragrant. Add the grated tomato and cook, stirring frequently, until the tomato has lost much of its water, about five minutes. Cover the meat with water (about 2 cups/500 ml) and stir in the pinch of saffron and powdered yellow food coloring, if using. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat until the water simmers steadily. Cook uncovered until the ribs are nearly tender, about 20 minutes, then add the artichokes and potatoes. Add more water to cover if needed and more salt to taste. Continue simmering until the potato is half-way cooked (about 10 to 15 minutes).

Add another 2 cups/500 ml of water to the pan and bring to a boil. Stir in the pasta and red pepper and reduce the heat to a steady simmer. Taste the broth for salt, adding more as needed. Cook the pasta uncovered until it is al dente (about 11 minutes – follow the instructions on the package). Add more hot water as needed as you cook to keep the ingredients submerged. The final stew should not be soupy, but it should have a bit of broth. Remove the pan from the heat and let it sit for about 5 minutes before serving.

Notes: In Spain, use No. 2 fideos, or break long, thin pasta such as spaghetti into one-inch (2.5-cm) lengths. My mother-in-law adds a handful of pasta per person plus an extra handful “for the pot”.

Since saffron is a luxury ingredient, many home cooks in Spain rely on a sprinkling of powdered yellow food coloring to give dishes like paella and aletría a desirable sunny color that would take far too much of the exquisite spice to obtain.

Ensalada murciana – A tomato salad for all seasons

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In many places, tomato salad is a symbol of summer—of warm, sunny days and cool, refreshing meals. But in Murcia, tomato salad is a year-round treat. And I do not mean salad made with the nondescript, greenhouse-produced tomatoes that can be found in Spanish markets even in winter. I’m talking about the ensalada murciana (Murcian salad), yet another genius combination of Mediterranean pantry staples that is made, not with fresh, but with canned tomatoes, which are tossed together with oil-packed tuna, onions, hard-boiled eggs, cured olives, and, of course, a good glug of extra virgin olive oil.

Why Murcian salad? As is the case with many local dishes, it is impossible to pinpoint the exact origin, but the salad has been ubiquitous for long enough to take on the name of the city itself. This makes sense, because tomatoes (both fresh and canned) are emblematic of the huerta, the fertile lands within and surrounding Murcia that have long been recognized for their agricultural potential—traces of Roman irrigation systems have been discovered in the area, which were expanded and improved upon by the Arabs who founded and ruled the city for centuries. Tomatoes of course came later, brought back from the Americas in the 16th century. Tomatoes thrive in Murcia’s huerta, so it is logical that canning eventually became an important local industry, too.

I love the tomato-packed ensalada murciana because it is easy to make and can be thrown together in any season. Served chilled in the summer, it refreshes like gazpacho, and at room temperature in winter, it adds a splash of sun and sea (and Murcia) to the table.

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Ensalada murciana

This salad can be served as a tapa or side dish, or as a light dinner or lunch. It improves as it sits, so should be made at least an hour (and up to a day) before you plan on serving it.

Most home cooks and bars toss all of the ingredients together, which of course helps the flavors meld. Yet some high-end restaurants artfully arrange their top-quality tomatoes, tuna, olives and eggs on a plate and then sprinkle them with sea salt flakes and drizzle the olive oil over the top. This is a good option for luxury canned tomatoes and tuna, where you really want each ingredient to shine.

The steps here are just basic guidelines, because it really doesn’t matter what you add first (or how much you add) to the bowl. Feel free to improvise as they do here in Murcia, as all of the quantities can be adjusted according to your preferences or what you have on hand.

For 4-6 people:

  • 1/2 – 1 small onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 28-ounce can of good quality tomatoes, drained
  • 1 5-ounce can of tuna packed in olive oil, drained
  • 2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
  • 1/2 cup small black olives (such as Niçoise – see note)
  • Extra virgin olive oil, to taste (start with 2 tablespoons and add more as you like)
  • Salt, to taste

Soak the thinly sliced onion in a bowl of ice water for ten minutes to make it easier to digest. Drain and set aside.

Roughly chop the tomatoes (I do this right over the bowl) and place them in a large bowl along with their juice. Break up the tuna and add it to the bowl. Stir in the onions, chopped eggs and olives. Add salt to taste (I don’t tend to add much, since the tuna, tomatoes and olives already contain salt). Drizzle as much olive oil as you want over the salad and then toss everything together. Cover and chill for at least one hour before serving for the flavor to develop.

Remove the salad from the refrigerator at least 15 minutes before serving (depending on the season) so that it is not ice cold (which dulls the flavors). In fact, in the winter, I prefer to eat ensalada murciana at room temperature. Serve with plenty of bread for dipping.

Notes: The traditional olive used is a small, black (and brine-cured) Spanish variety called cuquillo. If you cannot find cuquillo olives, Niçoise olives are a good substitute.

Tostada con tomate – Spanish breakfast

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Tostada con tomate – toasted bread with fresh tomato, olive oil and salt – was one of my son Mateo’s first foods. With his teeth barely poking through his gums, he would nibble away at bits of tomato toast while perched on his tita’s (aunt’s) lap in our neighborhood café, golden olive oil trickling down his chin.

Look around any café in Murcia in the morning and you will find that tostada con tomate is what most people are having with their coffee. Here, toasted baguette is served with a ramekin of grated fresh tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil and salt on the side, so you can add as much of each as you like. With so much greenhouse production in Spain, we actually get tomatoes (and hence tostada con tomate) year-round, but nothing beats toast made with summer garden tomatoes.

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This popular breakfast and mid-morning snack (also known as pan con tomate) can be found throughout Mediterranean Spain in a variety of guises. The “best way” depends on whom you ask and where they first tasted the four basic ingredients together.

Many Catalans are sure to tell you their version is the best, and the original. In Catalonia, toasted bread with tomato is known as pa amb tomàquet, which, more than a dish, is a symbol of Catalan identity. Indeed, a Catalan writer was the first to mention the preparation in writing in the 1880s, which many consider as proof of its Catalan origins.* Pa amb tomàquet is traditionally made by cutting very ripe tomatoes in half and rubbing them flesh side down onto toasted country bread (sometimes with garlic), which is then drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt. For many Catalans, this is the only way to eat bread with tomato.

Both the Catalan and Murcian versions (and Valencian and Andalusian takes, too) are beloved local traditions, so does it really matter which came first?  I, personally, love them all, especially in the summer when tomatoes are at their best.

For my son, however, born in Murcia, this will likely always be the best way to eat pan con tomate:

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Murcian-style tostada con tomate

As with any dish that has so few ingredients, quality makes a big difference in the results. It’s best to use a good baguette that won’t turn instantly soggy, the summer’s ripest tomatoes, fruity extra virgin olive oil and fine sea salt. This recipe is even a good way to use up tomatoes that may be just a little too ripe for salads. The olive oil should not be so strong that it overpowers the tomato flavor.

Have the grated tomato, olive oil and salt ready on the table so they can be added soon as the toast is done.

If you’d like to add protein, top with a thin slice of cured Spanish ham (or prosciutto – I feel my husband cringing – if you cannot find a Spanish brand).

The quantities below are for two servings, but they can easily be multiplied or divided.

  • 1 very ripe large tomato
  • 1 six-inch piece of baguette, sliced lengthwise
  • Fruity yet mild extra virgin olive oil, in a recipient that makes it easy to drizzle
  • Fine sea salt
  • A few thin slices of cured Spanish ham (or prosciutto, optional)

Cut the tomato in half and grate each half over a shallow bowl using the large holes of a box grater (press the cut side of the tomato into the grater and rub with a flattened palm until you are down to the skin).

Toast the bread enough that it has some good crunch to it. Use a fork to prick the surface of the toasted bread to help the other ingredients seep in.

Top the toast with an even layer of grated tomato (thick or thin according to taste – I personally like a lot of tomato). Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with salt. You can always adjust and add more as you eat. Top with ham if you like.

Enjoy!

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* An interesting twist: in researching the origins of this simple dish, I came across a legend that holds that it was actually workers from Murcia who introduced pan con tomate in Catalonia when they headed north to help build the Barcelona metro in the 1920s. The legend persists, even though it has been debunked by the famous Spanish food historian and gastronome Néstor Luján based on the 1880s description by a Catalan writer mentioned above. Luján believes that pa amb tomàquet originated in the Catalan countryside as a means to add moisture and flavor to dried out bread. The rest, as they say, is history ;).

Peace, love and carrot cake

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It wasn’t until I became a foreigner that learning to cook well became urgent. Part of this was selfish – I had no other choice but to cook when I could no longer buy my favorite granola, when there was no Cuban restaurant nearby to satisfy my ropa vieja cravings, when mediocre carrot cake wouldn’t do. These foods may sound trivial, but the familiar flavors provided direct comfort amidst my exciting yet often exhausting first months living in Avignon, France (a new job, new colleagues and friends, a bare-bones apartment that wasn’t yet home, maze-like streets to find my way through…).

Yet as I cooked, I shared, and what began as a means for me to taste home evolved into a way to deepen connections with my new friends in Avignon from France, England, Italy, Germany, Spain and even Mongolia. We shared stories as we cooked and ate our favorite dishes from home together, foods that will always remind me of my now dear friends, like Irene’s gorgonzola gnocchi, Paqui’s ensaladilla rusa and Khosko’s buuz (Mongolian dumplings).

If I am remembered for one food by my foreign friends, it may be “my” carrot cake. I love carrot cake, yet had never attempted to make one myself before I moved abroad in 2006 (first to France and then to Spain, where I have lived for seven years and counting). For ten years prior to the big leap, I lived in Portland, Oregon, where some of the best bakeries in the world turn out the carrot cake that haunts my dreams. Why would I need to make it at home?

Yet in France, despite the equally craving-inducing (and memory-haunting) pastries, I longed to eat a satisfying slice of carrot cake. So I began experimenting with different recipes I found online (many thanks to the generous bloggers and magazine websites that share their content for free, you are lifesavers, and ambassadors, too, as you will see). Some cakes were too dry, some too chunky and distracting. My ideal carrot cake, I decided, has no nuts, raisins, pineapple or coconut, just sweet carrots and spice. After a handful of disappointing results, I finally found The One: Lisa Schoenfein’s carrot cake from the Saveur magazine online archives.

What do I love about this cake? It is packed with carrots so is unfailingly moist, the spices are warming and enticing yet not overpowering, and, best of all, it lives up to my carrot cake dreams.

I say best of all, although even better are the memories this carrot cake has given me. It is by far my most requested recipe here in Spain, and I have made it for countless parties, including my own wedding. Much more than a means to satisfy my own cravings, the cake has become a symbol of friendship across cultures. It starts conversations and makes people happy. This is what cooking well is all about.

Lisa Schoenfein’s Carrot Cake, adapted slightly from Saveur

The most time-consuming part of making this otherwise easy cake is grating the 1½ pounds of carrots called for in the recipe, which is more than I have seen elsewhere. This amount ensures the cake is moist and naturally fragrant. I usually enlist my husband.

The original frosting recipe calls for 3 cups of confectioners’ sugar, which I find way too sweet. I usually start with 1 cup and then add more by the tablespoon until I like the results. Between 1 and 1 ½ cups is enough for me.

This recipe makes one 8” stacked, round cake. For parties, I double the recipe and make a single-layer sheet cake (no need to double the frosting quantities).

For the cake

  • 1 ½ cups (170 g) flour
  • 1 cup (200 g) sugar
  • 1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon ground cloves
  • ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon ground allspice
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2/3 cup (160 ml) vegetable oil (such as canola or sunflower)
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 ½ pounds (600 g) carrots, peeled, trimmed and grated on the large holes of a box grater (approx. 4 cups)

For the frosting

  • 12 oz. (335 g) cream cheese at room temperature
  • 7 tablespoons (100 g) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup (110 g) confectioners’ sugar, plus more to taste

To make the cake

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F and butter and flour two 8-inch round cake pans (or one 11 x 15 inch sheet pan if doubling the recipe).

Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt and spices in a large bowl. Add the oil and eggs and whisk or stir until you have a smooth batter. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the carrots until just blended. They will release their juices as you stir, easing the process. Divide the batter between the two cake pans. Bake until the surfaces of the cakes are deeply golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, around 30-35 minutes (the original recipe calls for 25 minutes, although I have found this to be too short – with so many carrots in it, the cake has never dried out on me). Allow the cakes to cool on racks and then, in the case of the round cakes, remove from the pans. The sheet cake can be frosted directly in the pan once it has cooled completely.

To make the frosting

The original recipe says to use a high speed mixer to beat together the cream cheese, butter and vanilla extract until smooth and then to reduce the speed before adding the sugar. I have not always had a mixer, so have done this process both by hand and using a hand mixer. When mixed by hand, the frosting can be a bit lumpy, but still tastes great. I now use my Thermomix, which is akin to a super-powered blender, on a medium speed and get silky results. Too much speed can turn the frosting into liquid, which I discovered on the day of my wedding party.

To assemble to cake

If you are making a stacked round cake, place one of the rounds on a large plate and top with about one-third of the frosting. Spread the frosting into an even layer. Top with the second cake round and finish icing with the remaining frosting.

If you have doubled the recipe and are using a sheet pan, once the cake has cooled completely, spread the frosting across the top in a smooth, even layer.

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