Apricots!

This time of year, we literally get to enjoy the fruits of my husband’s labor. He is 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 are not an apricot fan, it may be because you have 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 cannot remember any apricot before this time that left any impression on me at all besides the “Apricot” doll from the Strawberry Shortcake collection. Even though I have accumulated far more delicious apricot memories in the nine 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, do not 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 eight 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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Spanish Food Idioms in Don Quixote – En todas partes cuecen habas

For fans of 17th century literature April 2016 is a seminal month, for it marks 400 years since the death of two literary giants: William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes. Although it is commonly thought that both men died on the same day (April 23, 1616), Spain and England used different calendars at the time (Gregorian and Julian, respectively), so the two men’s deaths were actually 11 days apart. Still, the coincidence is striking.

In honor of this anniversary, today’s post looks at a Spanish food idiom that was famously used by Cervantes in his classic work, Don Quixote. This 17th century novel, considered by many in the know to be one of the greatest works of fiction of all times, follows the tragicomic quest of a nobleman steeped in knightly romances to revive chivalry in what he sees as a depraved world.

January-March 2010 091 (2)Click here for an introduction to the Spanish Food Idioms series.

Literal and Figurative Meaning

En todas partes cuecen habas literally translates as “they cook beans everywhere.”*

Yet figuratively, this expression means that everyone, everywhere has problems, no matter what their circumstances. In other words, “it’s the same the world over.”

Why beans? And why habas (fava beans) in particular? In the past, and certainly in Cervantes’ lifetime, fava beans and other such legumes were a major component of poor people’s diets in Spain because they were inexpensive and easy to find. The act of cooking beans like favas thus had negative connotations, representing hardship and the daily grind.

*As translated by Edith Grossman in her contemporary English version of Don Quixote (Second Part, Chapter XIII, page 536).

In context

Today’s expression and similar variations are commonly used in the Spanish-speaking world, often by journalists and politicians in the context of corruption. Just look on Google. En todas partes cuecen habas = there is corruption everywhere.

I liked the contexts given in this article in the Spanish daily El País: “This saying comes in handy when you go abroad and see something that could happen in Spain. For example, when you see a story of corruption on TV, when someone tries to cut ahead of you in line while you’re waiting to enter a cathedral, and, of course, when someone cooks a stew with beans.”

Yet it was Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s faithful “squire,” who uttered perhaps the most famous version in a comical conversation with another squire about the ins and outs of their jobs and masters:  “en todas casas cuecen habas; y en la mía, a calderadas,” which literally translates as, “they cook beans everywhere, but in my house they do it by the potful.”

In the second part of  the expression, “in my house they do it by the potful,” Panza is of course claiming that his house has more problems than the rest.

Shakespeare, a master of universal truths, would certainly have found good use for today’s expression.

To conclude

Besides having died on nearly the same day and (purportedly) penned some of the most influential works of literature in history, Cervantes and Shakespeare share other commonalities. For example, due to gaps in their biographies, both men are infinite sources of debate and speculation. There are even theories that hold that Francis Bacon was the real author of both men’s works.

Theories aside, the genius of Don Quixote and Shakespeare’s plays is undeniable.

Such works are like an “open sesame” into the culture and language in which they were written. Just check out this list of 45 Everyday Phrases Coined by Shakespeare in the English language, and consider the Bard’s ongoing influence on popular culture.

Can we survive without knowing such cultural references? Of course. But in my perspective, life is much richer when we can recognize these connections to the past.

Shakespeare and Cervantes may be long gone, but we can rest assured that wherever we look there will always be a pot of beans on the fire.

Empanada murciana – Fiesta food

Like every Spanish city and town, Murcia has its own annual fiesta rooted in local traditions: the Bando de la Huerta. This day-long celebration pays homage to Murcia’s agrarian roots, its huerta, the cultivated lands within and surrounding the city once renowned as the huerta de Europa (the market garden of Europe).

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The Bando de la Huerta takes place every year on the Tuesday after Easter as part of the week-long Fiestas de Primavera, heralding spring’s arrival and offering a popular antidote to the (relatively) solemn activities of the Semana Santa, or Holy Week, before. On the day of the festival, the people of Murcia descend upon the city center by the thousands, most dressed in traditional clothing. The men are known as huertanos and the women huertanas.

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The centerpiece of the fiesta is a parade that brings Murcia’s past to life with period costumes and floats demonstrating time-honored huerta activities. On one float, ladies knead and shape dough, which they place in a working, dome-shaped adobe oven to produce Murcia’s signature round loaves. On another float, young girls dance a jota in a bin of grapes, celebrating the local wine-making tradition.

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The most anticipated floats come at the end: tractor-drawn, open-air replicas of the typical homes of the huerta, barracas, complete with thatched roofs and loops of sausage hanging from the rafters. All along the parade route, riders toss out products from the huerta, like lemons, the aforementioned sausages and even small bottles of wine.

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Sharing from the huerta is not only true of this annual parade, but remains a strong aspect of daily life in Murcia, where the idea of actually paying for local products like lemons is unthinkable to many locals. Despite the fact there isn’t nearly as much huerta as there used to be, the generous landscape that has fed families for centuries continues to give. This generosity is the heart of Murcia.

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Historical traditions aside, the Bando de la Huerta is first and foremost a party. An article on this year’s Bando in the local paper described the scene perfectly: “The people of Murcia celebrate the most ‘huertano’ day of the year eating and drinking in every corner of the city.”

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Instead of fighting the crowds in packed restaurants, many locals opt to bring their own provisions to the party. Since the streets are closed off to traffic, any place is good for a picnic.

We have set up shop with friends and family in the same spot for the last several years, so other friends know where to find us if they want to stop by for a beer and bite to eat. The sharing principal of the huerta extends to the partying, as well.

Typical foods at our potluck-style picnic include general Spanish favorites like marinated olives and tortilla de patatas as well as snacks with a huertano twist like Murcian longaniza (sausages cured with pimentón), potato chips drizzled with fresh lemon juice, and savory pastries like the empanada murciana, packed with tuna, eggs and tomato.

IMG_2006 Even Mateo is in on the fun, enjoying the rare chance to drink Fanta.

I usually bake American-style cookies for the picnic, which are much appreciated, but this year I decided to make an empanada murciana for the first time to share a taste of Murcia and its fiesta with family and friends on this blog. This nourishing savory pie pairs perfectly with ice-cold beer, and, an important consideration, keeps the effect of the beer in check. Spanish fiestas take stamina.

If you, too, choose to make an empanada murciana, in the spirit of the city, be sure to invite your friends. Cheers! ¡Salud!

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Empanada murciana

In her cookbook The Food of Spain, Claudia Roden writes, “Empanadas, large savory pies, are a symbol of Galicia, while empanadillas, small turnovers, are a specialty of the Balearic Islands and Valencia.” To which I ask, “Hey, what about Murcia?” Both empanadas and empanadillas are specialties here, too! Murcia often gets left out like this.

Yet the empanadas and empanadillas in Murcia are some of the best I have had anywhere, and they are among the foods I crave when I have been away for any length of time. The main ingredient that sets the empanada murciana apart from similar pastries in Spain is the sweet pimentón in the dough, lending it a more intriguing flavor and a deep golden hue. The traditional filling has just three simple ingredients that are pantry staples in Spain: eggs, olive oil-packed tuna and tomate frito, a sweet and jammy tomato sauce.

These are the basic building blocks, yet every empanada murciana is slightly different, depending on the cook’s preferences. The dough can be made with or without a leavening agent, and the proportions and textures of each ingredient in the filling vary. Some like their tomato sauce chunky, while others like it smooth. In some cases, the sauce oozes out, and in others, there is just enough tomato to hold the other ingredients together. My favorite empanada murciana has flaky shortcrust pastry and a balanced blend of fillings.

This is a recipe for the most basic, traditional version of the empanada murciana. Feel free to adapt the filling to your tastes. Some people add roasted red peppers and even peas to the mix, for example. I like to keep it simple.

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Make ahead: The tomate frito (recipe follows) and two hard-boiled eggs can be prepared up to several days in advance. The dough needs to rest for one hour before it can be rolled out.

Special equipment: parchment paper and an 11- by 15-inch cake pan

For the tomate frito:

In Spain we can buy good canned tomate frito, which makes assembly quick and easy.  My favorite brand is the Murcia-made Sandoval. I have not tried this recipe with jarred tomato sauces in the US. I have used canned whole tomatoes here because I like to control the size of the chunks, but you can also use diced or crushed tomatoes, as well. If you have good fresh tomatoes, by all means use them. You can make the tomate frito up to several days in advance and store it in the refrigerator. It also freezes well.

  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 28-ounce cans of whole peeled tomatoes, drained and with any bits of skin and the core ends removed (about 4 pounds fresh tomatoes, peeled and diced)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
  • 1 tablespoon sugar, plus more to taste

Combine the olive oil, tomatoes and one tablespoon of sugar (plus 1 teaspoon of salt if using fresh tomatoes) in a deep saucepan (I use a Dutch oven – this sauce likes to spatter). Stir while you heat the sauce over medium heat until it bubbles.

Leave the pan uncovered and reduce the heat to low to maintain a gentle simmer for 45-50 minutes, stirring occasionally so that the sauce does not stick and burn. If you have used canned whole tomatoes, break them up with the spoon as you go. The final sauce should be reduced, jammy and sweet. Add more sugar and salt to taste.

Allow to cool and use immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to several days or in the freezer for up to several months. Makes about 1 1/2 cups. I use this amount for my empanada.

For the dough:

Empanada dough is relatively easy to make, based on a simple ratio: equal parts olive oil and white wine, a bit of salt and pimentón, and as much flour as you need for the dough to come together (“lo que admita,” as my friend Inma says, “as much as it takes”). The empanada murciana has two traditional shapes: rectangular and circular. My first attempt turned out somewhere between a rectangle and an oval, which wasn’t noticeable once we cut it up. Nevertheless, the aesthetics need some work. You can also make empanadillas, small pies, with the same dough and filling, which will be tackled in another post.

  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • 3/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sweet pimentón (Spanish paprika)
  • About 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 egg for brushing on the dough before baking

Whisk together the olive oil, wine, salt and pimentón together in a large bowl until the seasonings have dissolved. Add the 2 1/2 cups of flour and mix well with a wooden spoon or your hands, being careful not to overmix. The dough should hold together easily and be smooth to the touch. If it seems too sticky, add more flour as needed a tablespoon at a time. Allow the dough to rest at room temperature for at least one hour in a bowl covered with a clean dish towel or plastic wrap.

For the filling:

  • 1 5-ounce can of tuna packed in olive oil, drained
  • 1-2 hard-boiled eggs, diced to your liking
  • tomate frito to taste (I used 1 1/2 cups)

There are different approaches to making the filling. You can either mix all the ingredients together in a bowl first or place each ingredient separately onto the dough. I take the first route for a more homogeneous texture, which is more to my two-year-old son’s liking. Big chunks of anything tend to get spit out. I break up the tuna, mix it with the tomate frito and then stir in small bits of egg.

Assembly and baking:

Line an 11- by 15-inch cake pan with parchment paper and preheat the oven to 350ºF. Divide the dough into two pieces, one slightly larger than the other, then roll out the larger piece of on a clean surface until it is 1/4 inch thick. The base should be nearly as large as your pan. You shouldn’t need to use flour as this is an oily dough that doesn’t tend to stick. Carefully transfer the dough by rolling it up onto your rolling pin and then unrolling it into the parchment-lined pan. Alternately, you can roll out the dough directly on the parchment paper on the counter and then transfer both carefully to the pan. Cover the base with the filling, leaving about a one-inch border.

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Roll out the second portion of dough to the same thickness, so that it is big enough to cover the filling. Transfer the dough using your rolling pin as above and carefully unroll it over the base. Fold the bottom edges of the dough over the top and crimp together. Pierce the top of the dough in various places with a fork to allow steam to escape.

Brush the surface of the dough with beaten egg, then bake for about 30 minutes until golden.

Cut into squares before serving hot or at room temperature with an ice-cold lager.

Yield: Serves a crowd.