Florida Memories: Gator Tales II

GATOR TALES PART II:

Withlacoochee Gator

Ever since I read about Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s Florida adventures in Cross Creek last spring (recounted in this blog post), I was determined to make a pilgrimage to the author’s former Central Florida home, now a state park bearing her name. Plans began to take shape from Spain through Skype calls with my mother, who shared my enthusiasm. Together, we began to hatch a plan for an Old Florida excursion.

“Then we can go to Stumpknockers and catch a boat down the Withlacoochee River,” added my mom, casually, “and spend the night in Yankeetown.”

“Can you repeat that?” I asked, taken aback, jotting down the words that felt more foreign in my mouth than Spanish.

Throughout the months leading up to my trip, the words Cross Creek, Stumpknockers, Withlacoochee and Yankeetown continually circulated through my mind, and, like a magical incantation, conjured up the essence of Florida.

Lurking in these visions was the gator.

Part of this vision was culinary— I imagined I would certainly have another chance to eat gator after my dashed hopes on the shores of Lake Jesup (see last post). Yet the gator in my mind was not at all how one might envision the lobster, for instance, on an impending trip to Maine.

While this makes me think I should learn more about the lobster, and should make the effort to be in awe of all animals that end up on my plate, it also highlights the fact that it takes no effort to fear the gator.

Let’s face it – the gator is first and foremost a potential predator. Growing up in Central Florida, surrounded by lakes, I learned early on that even land is not safe, as gators can overcome humans both in and out of water. From an enclosed back porch, I’d spend hours watching for and often spotting the many resident gators in the lake behind my father’s house. I admittedly never felt entirely secure in the backyard pool.

At this time, gators were on the list of Endangered Species but steadily recovering, and my childhood was marked by their increasing presence rather than decline. They were removed from the list in 1987, when I was 13. This likely explains why I don’t have any early memories of eating gator, and helps to explain why food is often the last thing I think of when considering this imposing reptile.

With all these former gator impressions swirling around in my head, I set off with my mom on our two-day excursion into Old Florida. The mosquitoes tried hard to get my attention, but the gator remained the ever-present, true protagonist of the journey.

A photo tour of our trip:

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings House

The Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home in Cross Creek. Rawlings, known for her culinary skills, was particularly proud of her gator tail steaks.

The Yearling Restaurant

The Yearling Restaurant in Cross Creek, named after Rawlings’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, opened in 1952 while the author was still alive. Some of her specialties and favorite dishes are on the menu, like sour orange pie, prepared like the key lime version but with local sour oranges instead.

Cracker Platter

I didn’t have to wait long to get my chance to eat gator, which was featured, no surprise, on the Yearling menu. We ordered the Cracker Platter, which included fried gator bites as well as fried green tomatoes, frog legs and, rather mysteriously, portobello mushrooms. Conclusion: I cannot fully refute the common perception that gator tastes like chicken, although the psychological effect of knowing it is not chicken undermines the comparison in my opinion.

Withlacoochee River

A view of the Withlacoochee River from our riverside efficiency in Yankeetown. This close to the Gulf of Mexico, the river maintains a steady flow in one direction or another depending on the tides. Wildlife abounds along this largely undeveloped river and swampy stretch of Gulf coast. From the back porch, I heard constant splashes from jumping fish and spied one midsize gator zipping by on a current.

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Despite the beauty of the surroundings, the interior of our riverside lodgings reminded me that “Old Florida” is not all charm, which is part of the adventure.

Rainbow Springs

A refreshing dip in the 72 ºF headwaters of Rainbow Springs

Rainbow Springs

…without forgetting who’s around.

Capt. Mike's

We picked up Captain Mike’s Lazy River Cruise after a lunch of perfectly cooked peel-and-eat Gulf shrimp, meaty conch fritters and peanut butter pie at Stumpknockers Restaurant on the Withlacoochee River (these words maintain their magic even if they now roll off my tongue with ease). Captain Mike has been guiding pontoon boat trips down the tranquil and largely undeveloped Withlacoochee for fifteen years, leaving what he refers to as the St. Petersburg, FL “rat race” far behind.

He is fine-tuned to any movement along the banks, and his commentary draws from a deep well of tales and facts about human and natural history along the river. We saw egrets, ibises and immature blue herons, and learned how tree frogs lay their eggs on the tips of leaves so the they fall into the water as they hatch. Our hopes for seeing a big gator were thwarted by two roaring airboats piloted by teenage boys, rupturing the evening calm. But Captain Mike, well-aware of his guests’ anticipations, knew all the spots a gator might be.

Withlacoochee Gator

On the home stretch of the cruise, Mike spotted this young gator sunning in the diffused evening light. The gator did not seem fazed by the paparazzi-worthy eagerness of the eight camera-wielding passengers, striving with our lenses to capture the spirit of Florida.

Florida Memories: Gator Tales I

Cypress Trees along the Withlacoochee River

I’m back! Back to the blogosphere, back to Spain! Yet as I look out my window at the bright and dusty landscape of late summer Murcia, I long for a few more breaths of swampy, tropical Florida.

Out of Gator

GATOR TALES PART I:

A brief flashback to 2009…

My first adult hopes for eating gator were dashed by this hastily written sign, “We are currently out of GATOR. Sorry for any inconvience [sic].” I grumbled, and then I laughed.

Life is full of subtle ironies, but this was blatant. For right behind us was Lake Jesup, one of the most gator populated lakes in the state. And the restaurant’s gator-themed setting had only served to increase the anticipation.

The Tables Are Turned

Yet, in spite of the gator hunting bravado of the decor, the hunt-to-table movement had yet to arrive to these here parts.

While disappointed, my mom, brother and sister-in-law and I were also hungry. There wasn’t much else around in any case, and we certainly weren’t prepared to catch a gator ourselves.

We settled on chicken fingers, which my brother quipped tasted like gator. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help wishing the greasy, battered, gator-like bites I was popping into my mouth were the real thing, even if I likely wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between the reptile and the fowl in a blind test.

These days, gator is a pretty common item on menus around the state, particularly at establishments next to lakes and rivers. There’s even a gator-centric food truck that cruises the streets of Orlando.

Yet I hadn’t set the intention to try gator again until my most recent visit this summer as my mom and I planned a trip into rural Florida. As our itinerary took shape, memories of the time I almost ate gator sprang to life.

The story continues in Gator Tales Part II.

Black Hammock Adventures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monas de Pascua

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

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

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

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

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

For the dough:

80 ml. (1/3 cup) warm milk

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

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

¼ teaspoon salt

140 g (1 cup plus 2 tablespoons) sugar

3 Eggs, plus one more, beaten, for glazing

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

Zest of one lemon

½ teaspoon orange blossom water

For the topping:

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

Granulated sugar for sprinkling

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

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

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

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

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

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

  One a penny, two a penny… 

HAPPY EASTER!

The Venta – Roadside Comfort Food in Spain

Venta Magdalena

In the three plus years I have lived in Spain, I have come to love a good venta. Ventas are rural establishments scattered along lonely stretches of highway throughout Spain, where travelers between destinations can find hearty plates of local food and sometimes lodging.  Such restaurants are roughly the Spanish equivalent of independent American roadside diners, where even if you are far from home, you can find comfort. The Venta Magdalena, a mom-and-pop establishment in rural Murcia, is a perfect example.

Like most ventas I have come across, the Venta Magdalena has easy access off the regional highway and ample parking for weekend warriors. Good ventas, you see, are often destinations in and of themselves for in-the-know locals from nearby cities and towns.

Venta Magdalena

At the Venta Magdalena, you really do have to be in the know to guarantee yourself a serving of the restaurant’s specialty, its arroz (rice). If you don’t call in ahead to place your order, you might be out of luck (although the delicious grilled lamb chops help ease the blow). Such need for forethought may be frustrating for those who prefer spontaneity. Yet, in my experience, knowing a good arroz awaits greatly enhances the morning and fuels any distance that must be traveled.

The restaurant doesn’t look like much from the outside (and there’s not much else around, either, minus a building with a flashing neon heart just on the other side of the highway, a beacon in the night for travelers with another kind of hunger). Yet on the inside, the Venta Magdalena feels like a country home, with wood paneling, dark wooden beams and walls decorated with rural landscapes, still lifes, ceramic plates and antique ladles. The day’s news flickers on a TV propped up in the corner, typical decor in a venta. You enter the restaurant through the bar, where, if you have to wait, a draft beer and a plate of locally cured meats help pass the time.

The arroz here is cooked over a wood-burning fire and served in well-blackened pans fresh off the flames. (Similar dishes are often called paella in Valencia to the north and in more touristy zones throughout Spain, but here in Murcia, a rice dish is almost always referred to as an arroz, a title which is modified with additional ingredients.) The most typical versions at the inland Venta Magdalena are arroz con conejo, rice with rabbit (pictured below), or arroz con conejo y caracoles, rice with rabbit and snails.

Arroz con conejo

I took my first spoonful right out of the steaming pan, burning my tongue. Our waitress set down a plate with lemon, the only condiment befitting an arroz, which I squeezed over the dish, adding lively acidity to the smoky, tomato-based broth. The grains were just right — not too firm and not too soggy, either — the equivalent of pasta al dente. The rabbit was lean yet tender, and both Manolo and I picked up the little pieces with our hands to get all the meat off the bones with our teeth. A quick look around the dining room confirmed that we weren’t the only ones licking our fingers. Towards the end, we sparred with our spoons over the crispy, toasted rice stuck to the bottom of the pan.

It was after 3 pm on a Friday afternoon, and the dining room was just about full, with men far outnumbering women (in contrast, on weekends, the Venta Magdalena tends to fill up with families). At one table, a group of casually dressed businessmen raised glasses of local red wine to greet a colleague from out of town. At another, a quartet of silver-haired men, all with a few extra pounds around their waists, had opted for beers instead. Like me, these men eschewed their plates, digging their spoons right into the common pan of arroz that just about took up their whole table.

In fact, everyone in the restaurant was having arroz, and I imagined that all of us had come with visions of this savory golden dish in our heads, leading the way. And here our visions had been realized, which is all this hungry traveler could ask for.

Venta Magdalena
Carretera Mula. Pj. Morata 67
Los Baños – Mula
Telephone.: +34 968 660 568

Do you have a favorite venta?

Florida Memories: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her Sweet Potato Orange Baskets

Sweet Potato Orange Basket

The name Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings has loomed large in my imagination for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Central Florida, I heard many tales about this independent-minded author who moved from the urban North in the 1920s to the rural hamlet of Cross Creek, not far from my home town, Winter Park.

Rawlings lived in and wrote about her beloved adopted community for decades, and her most lauded work was based on her experiences there, like the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Yearling (1938).  Yet beyond her legacy in print, Rawlings left a legend that remains strong in Central Florida lore, particularly, I think, for little girls. I, for one, was fascinated and awed by this pioneer who left northern city life behind to live in untamed Florida, thick with vegetation, rattlesnakes and moonshiners.

Wanting to know more about the person beyond the myth, I recently bought a copy of Cross Creek (1942), Rawlings’s non-fiction account of life in the rural community. Far from my original home, I also longed to immerse myself in Rawlings’s Florida, which many call the Real Florida.

My nostalgia was satisfied through Rawlings’s descriptions of the Florida landscape, which conjured up vivid images of hammock and pine and oak scrub forests dense with palmettos and underbrush. I could clearly see the old farmhouse Rawlings lived in surrounded by tranquil orange groves with scattered rays of sunlight peeking through the leaves.

It is true that certain aspects of the Rawlings legend in my mind were confirmed as I read, like the Marjorie who knew how to use her gun and occasionally made blackbird pie from birds she had shot herself (which she later found out was illegal). And the Marjorie who knew how to cook alligator to perfection and who preferred fried soft-shell cooter (turtle) to fried chicken. This was the intrepid, eccentric Rawlings of my imagination.

Yet the more pages I turned, the more I connected with Rawlings. In my adopted home of Spain, I could relate to her reflections on seeking a sense of place in a foreign environment. And through her affinity for Florida, I felt an affinity for her.

I also felt closer to Rawlings through her passion for cooking, which fully blossomed at Cross Creek. I devoured the chapter entitledOur Daily Bread,” in which she traces her path from aspiring to accomplished and intuitive cook, aided by Fannie Farmer. (Rawlings’s  mother, a gifted if reluctant cook, apparently did not consider it worthwhile to pass on culinary skills to her daughter.)

In her Cross Creek kitchen, Rawlings found inspiration in a variety of influences from her present and past, both cosmopolitan and down-home. She showed a particular fondness for local Florida ingredients and dishes, like cornpone, mayhaw jelly, alligator-tail steak and anything made with cream from her cow Dora.

Thankfully, readers at the time requested recipes for the dishes in Cross Creek, prompting Rawlings to publish a compilation, Cross Creek Cookery (1942). Through the descriptions and instructions, we get to hover over Rawlings’s shoulder in her farmhouse kitchen, admiring her bravery with the gator and peeking into casseroles simmering with love for Florida.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s Sweet Potato Orange Baskets Adapted from Cross Creek Cookery

“Food imaginatively and lovingly prepared, and eaten in good company, warms the being with something more than the mere intake of calories.”  Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings – from the introduction to Cross Creek Cookery

This recipe intrigued me, even though I was not sure what to expect from the combination of sweet potato, honey, egg, cream and bitter orange zest and rind. Before taking my first bite, I hoped for the best, and then struck gold. The soufflé-like potatoes were fragrant and enticing – bitter, sweet, savory and floral with a hint of clove. The warm colors reminded me of sunshine.

I was also drawn to this recipe because of the simple fact that oranges are a link between my original and adopted homes, Florida and Spain. In fact, the groves on Rawlings’s property were originally planted by Spaniards.

I ate my sweet potato orange basket with a green salad for a light lunch, but can easily imagine them with roast duck, as Rawlings served them. If you’re feeling ambitious, you could complete the Rawlings dinner party menu with the following dishes: “fried finger-strips of grits;…small whole white onions, braised; hot sherried grapefruit; tiny hot cornmeal muffins; a tossed salad of endive dressed with finely chopped chives, marjoram and thyme and French dressing made with tarragon vinegar,” and, “for dessert, grape-juice ice cream” (Cross Creek 249).

2 medium oranges

1 cup mashed boiled sweet potato (See note)

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 tablespoon heavy cream

1 tablespoon honey, preferably orange blossom

Grated rind of 1 small orange (about ½ loosely packed teaspoon)

A dash of ground clove

¼ teaspoon salt, or to taste

Fresh-ground pepper

Butter

Chopped parsley for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 ºF.

To make the “orange baskets,” halve the oranges and either juice them or scoop out the pulp (which Rawlings suggested using for a fruit cup or salad – I myself downed the fresh juice).

To make the filling, mix the mashed sweet potatoes, egg, cream, honey, orange rind, clove, salt and pepper until smooth. Fill the empty orange baskets to the rims with the sweet potato mixture and top each with a pat of butter. Bake until the surface is lightly golden, about 30 minutes. “Handles may be made with orange rinds if one wants to be very fancy,” wrote Rawlings.

NOTE: I followed Deborah Madison’s technique for boiling sweet potatoes from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. Scrub the potatoes and leave them whole, with the skin on. Cover them with cold water and bring to the boil. Then reduce heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender and easily pierced with a fork. I used 2 medium sweet potatoes to get a bit over 1 cup mashed.

Almejas a la marinera – Clams marinière

Almejas a la marinera

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

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

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

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

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

Almejas a la marinera – Valen’s recipe

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

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

Clam size

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

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

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

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

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 medium tomatoes, grated (* See note)

1 medium onion, finely diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons water

½ cup white wine

Salt and fresh-ground pepper

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

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

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

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

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

Almejas a la marinera 2

Spanish Food Idioms – Con las manos en la masa

Introduction to the Spanish Food Idioms Series:

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

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

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

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

Let’s dig in!

Today’s expression: con las manos en la masa

Con las manos en la masa

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

A Welcoming Trail of Stews

This is a tale of a village and a spoon, which to me perfectly reflects the spirit of the season.

Cehegín

The village in question, Cehegín, appears in the photo above. I had often admired this perched vista from the highway that connects the city of Murcia with the rugged northwest corner of the region. But until recently, I had never stopped to explore.

And here’s where the spoon comes in. Much to my delight, the day I picked to visit Cehegín, there also happened to be a culinary event, the Puente del Puchero, or Bridge of Stews.

The idea was similar to that of the itinerant Tapas Routes I wrote about several weeks ago. But this time, instead of small plates, participating bars and restaurants were serving mini portions of traditional soups and stews, all dishes meant to be eaten with a spoon, hence the tagline (which I adore), ¡¡Viva la Cuchara!!, Long live the Spoon!

This praise for a simple, comforting and nourishing way to eat seems a perfect slogan for for the times. I chanted these words in my mind (and sometimes out loud) throughout the day, imagining all the bottomless pots of stew gurgling on stove tops throughout the village. This made the quiet streets feel more welcoming and took the chill out of the wind.

Brochure

A bit of history

I love this part of the region of Murcia, both for the striking landscape and for the evocative human history. Cave drawings thought to be over 4,000 years old have been found in the area, as well as traces of Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, and, of course, Catholic conquerors. All of these peoples had their reasons for staking a claim on this land, like its geographical advantages (protected caves and extensive lookout possibilities) as well as its strategic importance in terms of religion and politics (often one in the same).

As far as I can gather, none of these people had it easy. Throughout this long history, not only were there marauders and rivals to contend with, but also indiscriminant diseases like the Plague. Nonetheless, the will to survive has left a rich legacy in Cehegín, whose old center was declared Historic-Artistic Site by the Spanish Ministry of Culture in 1982.

Today, tourism is key to the survival of local monuments and traditions, not only in Cehegín, but also in much of rural Spain, which, for me, was extra reason (as if I needed it) to grab a spoon and dig in.

Without further ado, here is our day on the Trail of Stews in Cehegín:

Alubias con perdiz

Our first stop was the no-frills Bar Fernando, which was quiet minus a few regulars who’d stopped by for an aperitivo. We were the only out-of-towners there, but this didn’t seem to make a difference to anyone, and we took a place at the bar without any obvious turned heads. In fact, it took several minutes for the owner to take our order, as he was busy chatting politics with the man next to us who had dropped by alone for a beer and a snack of several fat anchovies drizzled with olive oil. We eventually got to order our puchero, and were served alubias con perdíz, a vibrant stew of white beans, partridge and a good dose of pimentón. The little ceramic bowls made for the occasion were perfect for warming cold fingers.

Olla de cerdo

Our second stop, La Bodeguica (“the little bodega” –ica/-ico is a common diminutive in Murcia, often used instead of the –ita/-ito predominant in the rest of Spain), was more modern in decor than Bar Fernando and also had a younger crowd. An array of creative canapés – mini slices of baguette topped with different meats, cheeses and spreads – displayed on the bar caught our attention, but we decided to stick with the spoon route and were served Murcia’s traditional olla de cerdo, a pork-laden stew which literally (and understandably) translates as “pig pot.” In spite of the small dish, the portion (as you can see), packed with meat, garbanzos and bits of celery, was far from skimpy. I followed Manolo’s lead and stirred the morcilla in with the rest, which gave each spoonful a warm hint of cinnamon and clove.

Cocido con pelotas

We decided we had room for one more stew, so made or way to the Bar-Terraza Cine Alfaro, a little place on the Plaza of the same name in the historic center. We grabbed two stools at the bar, which gave us a direct view into the kitchen and of the walls plastered with photos of the Real Madrid soccer team over the years. Here, they were serving cocido con pelotas, a meatball stew. As evident in the photo, they did not skimp on the goods here either, and loaded our bowls with tender meatballs, chicken, garbanzos, carrot, turnip, potato, and yes, a bit of broth, too. By now, the chill I had felt before my first spoonful of the day was a distant memory.

Tired façade

In between bowls of stew, we visited historic Cehegín, where restoration is a work in progress. Several crumbling corners serve as a reminder that this part of Spain was largely isolated and poor in the grand scheme of history.

Yet thankfully, there are many signs of a growing determination to preserve the town’s architectural heritage, like the lovingly restored 17th century Council Chambers and 18th century Fajardo Palace, which house the Archaeological Museum of Cehegín, pictured below. Here you can see remnants and objects left behind by the different peoples who have called this land home.

Archaeological Museum of CehegínArchaeological Museum of Cehegín 2

These buildings and the display below from the 19th century are evidence of more prosperous times in Cehegín, when certain tables were set with china and silver according to the dictates of royal etiquette. Apparently, all these knives, forks and spoons were for one diner.

Aristocratic dining

The craftsmanship was admirable, yet I found myself asking, who needs all those utensils when all you really need is one big spoon?

Alubias con perdiz 2

Happy Holidays to everyone! Eat lots of soup, and savor tradition, wherever you are!

The Basics:

  • When: This was the second annual Puente del Puchero, and hopefully there will be many more to come. The event takes place around the 8th of December, a national holiday, which, when it falls on a weekday, typically turns into a long weekend, as folks “make a bridge (puente)” to Saturday and Sunday.
  • Where: This event is a joint effort between several villages in Northwest Murcia, so you could easily spend a whole weekend trying different stews. This year, the following villages participated: Cehegín, Moratalla, Mula and Pliego.
  • How: Pick up an event map/guide at a local tourist office or at any of the participating bars, which tells you who’s serving what. This year, the price was 2.50 € for a serving of stew and a drink, which is quite a bargain considering the amount of hearty ingredients that get packed into those little bowls.

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

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

Guiso de trigo de Murcia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the stew:

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

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

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

10 cups water

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 medium onions, diced

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

Salt to taste

1 heaping teaspoon sweet pimentón

A pinch of saffron threads (optional)

1 clove garlic (optional)

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

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

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

Salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint, plus more for serving

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

1 clove garlic, roughly chopped

A pinch of fine sea salt

Several chunks of cooked pumpkin from the stew

A swirl of olive oil

For the stew:

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

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

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

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

For the squash aioli (ajo calabaza):

Ajo calabaza

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

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

  • Yield: Six to eight servings.

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

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

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

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

Berenjenas fritas con miel de caña

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

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

Dark cane syrup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 medium eggplant (about ¾ of a pound)

1-2 cups milk for soaking

All-purpose flour for dredging

Salt

Olive oil for frying  **SEE NOTE

Dark cane syrup (or a flavorful honey)

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

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

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

Line another plate with paper towel for post-frying.

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

Frying eggplant

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

Draining eggplant

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

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

¡BUEN PROVECHO!

Berenjenas fritas con miel de caña