Thursday, September 27, 2007

Campbell's Gazpacho

The baby, its mom and I are in the south of Spain, birth place of the Spanish Inquisition, bullfighting and gazpacho.

The baby appears partial to the gazpacho. On the subjects of the Inquisition and bullfighting, the baby keeps its feelings to itself.

The baby's preferred gazpacho comes in a glass, is the colour and consistency of Campbell's tomato soup and is flavourful like no gazpacho ever made in Canada. It tastes strongly of garlic and sugary tomatoes. Its consistency comes from day old bread soaked in water and seasoned with sherry vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper.

In the heat, you can knock one back easier than you can a mojito, especially if you're a baby.

Saturday, September 22, 2007


There's a baby staying with me this week. It came with its mom.

So, I haven't been able to write much. You know how babies are--small, of varying smells, egocentric and extremely time consuming. Babies seem not to drink much alcohol or eat octopus. They also don't appear to enjoy smoky bars. They hate it when you sit at your computer typing. Apparently, that's not entertaining.

Maybe next week.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Perfect Mojito

In order to make the perfect mojito, you first need to spend a lifetime developing a career as a star of stage and screen. In Cuba, of course. Nowhere else. You might end up an actress when you're done. Or you may develop a strong singing voice. Either way, you'll have a presence and a little bit of seed money.

Next, you'll need to take the seed money overseas. Set up a little bar off the beaten path. Don't worry if you don't get much traffic at first. They will come.

Hire a hot bartender half your age (by now you'll be in your sixties). Teach him the ways of Cuba and the world. Make him wear a pony tail and a well tailored shirt.

When you've built up a good clientele--preferably of young Spaniards, who are scantily dressed and just a little sweaty because your bar doesn't have air-conditioning--you'll need to set up an assembly line.

Line up eight tumblers. (You can't truly enjoy a mojito on your own.) Put several sprigs of fresh mint in each. Then, a table spoon of sugar. Add an ounce of lemon syrup and mash with a pestle. Get the eager young bartender to help. Tell him to put a little muscle into it. Once the mashing is done, fill the glasses to the top with crushed ice. Top with three different types of rum (in equal parts); start with a young rum and work your way up to one that's quite mature. Make sure the glasses are full by the time you've added the third rum. Swirl a little grenadine on top with a sexy flourish. Stir. Serve. Drink. Sing along to the Cuban rythms filling your bar. Enjoy life. Repeat.

For further instruction in mojito making and life, proceed to Elsa Bar along C/ Del Torrent L'Olla in Gracia.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Even Food Girls Get the Blues

It's been a little rainy in Barcelona and, from time to time, drizzle makes a girl a little melan-choly, thinking of lost loves and such. The melancholy, very quickly, turns to thoughts of food. Comfort food to be exact. Food from home, the ultimate source of comfort and a cure for most things that ail a melancholy girl, at least for a moment.

While home for me is Canada, Canada is not my food home. My food home is Poland. My Polish grandmother made perogies that would make you think you had died and gone to heaven sealed in the perfect Polish dumpling. My mother, as her mother before her, rolls cabbage in the most supple and succulent ways. And for dessert, and sometimes breakfast, I still dream of nalesniki, crepes stuffed with home-made yogurt cheese flavoured with vanilla and studded with plump raisins.

If I were to create a hierarchy of Polish foods, mushrooms would be right up there--the viceroys of Polish cuisine (serving King Potato and Queen Cabbage, with the greatest dignity): mushroom stuffing, mushroom sauce, mushroom pickle to accompany almost any variety of food, mushrooms.

Mushrooms at their best are self-sourced. That is, to get the best mushrooms, you really have to pick them yourself. Until last month, when I was visiting relatives in Poland, I hadn't been mushroom picking for at least 15 years. My uncle, an expert mushroom gatherer, took me out with him, liability though I was to his efficient progress through the forest.

Chanterelles, or "kurki" (little hens) as they're called in Poland, were most plentiful. In the forest, the chanterelles peek out at you from underneath thick layers of moss or needles, a coy game of hide and seek. Their circular growth patterns make them more predictable and easier to find than other species. As it happened, even though the forest had been picked over by earlier risers, we were awash in chanterelles (our bucket pictured above).

My aunt had washed her hands of the whole business so, when we returned, my uncle did all the dirty work. He cleaned the mushrooms and pickled them himself. I tasted a few before I returned to Barcelona, but luggage weight restrictions prevented me from bringing a jar back.

To my delight, a week or two ago, chanterelles started to appear in my local food market. Nice ones, at that. In my lowest moment, I bought a half pound. I wasn't about to stuff perogies with them or make cabbage rolls. Even a simple sauce was beyond me. None of these would have been suitable for the hot and humid Barcelona days, in any event.

So, I made a salad. I sauteed the chanterelles in olive oil over a high flame; added papery slices of garlic, one clove to be exact; and seasoned with coarsely ground salt and pepper. Then I tossed the mushrooms on top of arugula, seasoned with balsamic and a tiny bit of olive oil, topped with thin broad shavings of manchego and said a little prayer. It was enough to bring comfort back for the night.

Now, who am I to say that more comfort could not have been gained from tossing the chanterelles with some fresh pasta and olive oil or perhaps overtop of some potato pancakes. These are personal choices, eschewed by those who are still contending with bathing suit season.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Pepe's Paella

One of my favourite Spanish names is undoubtedly Pepe. Pepe is short for Jose, a variant of Josep (Joseph). As my friend Pepe tells it, historically, Spanish and Italian paintings featuring the biblical Joseph (husband of Mary) were initialled with the letters "P.P." for "padre putativo", or putative father (of Jesus, of course, whose true or non-putative father was God, so we're told). The initials P.P. eventually morphed into the nickname Pepe, which in Spanish is pronounced identically to the pair of letters.

I haven't investigated any of this so take it for what it's worth. It could be a well-conceived fabrication, which wouldn't surprise me coming from Pepe.

In addition to elaborating with erudition on the subject of his name, Pepe has imparted various other pieces of valuable information, not the least of which is his recipe for paella. This recipe was handed down to me one Sunday afternoon at my friend David's place, to which I had been invited to sample the famous paella. David provided a chicken; Pepe took care of the rest.

Now, before I give you the recipe for Pepe's paella, you should know a few things. First, this is an authentic paella recipe from the land of paella, Valencia. Valencia's marshy coastal regions are ideal for rice growing and rice, in all its forms, is a staple of the Valencian diet. According to Pepe, Valencians enjoy great health as a result. Second, it is possible to further pinpoint the origin of Pepe's paella to Pepe's pueblo, Castellon, each Valencian pueblo enjoying a distinct version of paella. For example, south of the city of Valencia, fiddleheads are added to paella, which Pepe confirms is quite delicious. Elsewhere you might taste snails, ones you yourself find in the fields; a rare commodity to be sure.

Finally, there are three secrets to paella making. First, the ingredients must always be fresh-issimo. As Pepe warns, do not allow yourself to be cheated by a dishonest food merchant. Always demand the best. Second, your reason for making paella, or the "purpose of the paella", must be pure. You cannot cook paella for people you dislike or whilst in an irritated mood--claro que no. Third, paella must be made with cariño. Cariño is a sort of corporeal tenderness that you might show a timid lover. Paella, above all, needs cariño.

Now, if you are prepared with a noble purpose, cariño in ample quantity and the personal resources to demand the best from potentially unscrupulous food merchants, you are ready to make Pepe's paella. This is the recipe. It serves approximately 4 hungry paella eaters. I might observe that, as Pepe's instructions were somewhat fluid, the quantities are approximate and you may need to adjust the amount of water needed to complete the cooking process.

1. Cover the surface of a flat bottomed, high sided frying plan with olive oil. Don't skimp; paella needs a good amount of fat. If you happen to have a paella pan, dig it out from the bottom of the closet; it is time for it to prove its worth. If not, a large frying pan will do.

2. Turn the heat to high and allow the oil to get hot. Add a finely chopped clove of garlic or two and season the oil with a teaspoon or so of salt.

3. Add half a chicken and about half a pound of rabbit, each divided into approximately four pieces. If you like, you might at the same time add about a quarter pound of pork rib, also in four parts. We didn't have the latter and it didn't appear to hurt the paella so do as you will.

4. Cook the meat on high heat until well browned on all sides (about 10-15 minutes).

5. Lower the heat to medium and, along with about a teaspoon of sweet Spanish paprika, add the following vegetables, chopped into bite sized pieces unless otherwise specified:

1 large tomato with all its juice
1-2 bell peppers (preferably red, though green will do)
1/2 lb of green beans, broad beans or white kidney beans
1 artichoke, quartered, well trimmed and cleaned with lemon to avoid colouring the rice

You might also add some fresh rosemary or thyme to flavour the paella. We didn't have any. Their absence was not felt by a first time eater of Pepe's paella.

6. Sautee for another 10 minutes until the vegetables begin to soften.

7. Add about 1 litre of water (1 cup per person) and a pinch of saffron. Simmer for about 20 minutes until the meat is cooked through and has flavoured the stock.

8. Taste the broth for seasoning. Add salt and pepper as needed, being careful not to oversalt.

9. Add 2 cups of short-grain rice (1/2 cup per person) and cook uncovered for about 15-20 minutes or until just tender. The liquid should be absorbed at this point; you might need to sprinkle in more water if all the liquid has evaporated, and the rice is still hard. The goal is to achieve "el grano suelto", which is a closed, but flavourful grain of rice. If the rice is overcooked, the grain opens and, well, "el sabor se va."

10. Turn off the heat, cover and allow to sit for about 10-15 minutes.

We consumed our paella with several bottles of cava and a salad of avocado, tomato, onion and olives. Lunch lasted approximately 6 hours. Needless to say, it was delicious.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

To Hell for a Hotdog

In case you are ever in need of some oven mits or a bed frame while in Barcelona, the nearest IKEA is at Europa Fira station. From the subway stop at Plaza Espanya, you take the L8 train heading in the direction of Moli Nou. It's all very well marked, really, as I discovered on my third attempt to get there.

In my short time in Barcelona, I have been to IKEA approximately 5 or 6 times, each more resigned than the last. There are, however, two rewards awaiting me as I leave the store. The first is lingering damsel in distress validation, to increase which I always wear my lowest cut tops and make reasonably believable attempts to hoist 70 kg boxes into my cart within arm reach of some hot young guy or at least a dirty old man. My other reward is the IKEA hotdog, identical in Barcelona and Canada and no doubt the world over. Admittedly, the hotdog is a little limp and tired with a somewhat unappetizing hue. It's really impossible to do without condiments. It is, however, an improbably satisfying ending to a thoroughly trying day--a cheap thrill at the end of a root canal.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Breakfast at Barclays

The main Barcelona branch of Barclays Bank sits on the most famous block of the most prestigious street in Barcelona--the Manzana de la Discordia of Paseo de Gracia, where flamboyant modernista mansions vie with each other for a visitor's attention. Barclays itself is unprepossessing on the outside, imposing and somewhat splendid on the inside, as well befits a venerable financial institution. For better or worse, Barclays is now my bank.

When I first arrived in Barcelona, I visited Barclays almost every morning, sometimes for hours at a stretch. Not for some perverse diversion, mind you, but to arrange financing for an apartment. In Barcelona, particularly as a foreigner, a girl has to all but give up her first born to secure an apartment.

When I found my place, I was still naive enough to believe that I could be living in it the very next day. It was empty, after all. I had hauled an air mattress all the way from Canada for this very purpose. What else could be needed?

Apparently, what was needed in addition to the first month's rent and the agent's commission were four additional months of rent: two to be held by the landlord as a damage deposit and two to be held by my (Spanish) bank as a guarantee in the event of non-payment, a so called "aval bancario". Batting my eyes was apparently not an acceptable substitute. This I had not prepared for and arrangements had to be made.

The agent, sensitive to my total ignorance of all matters financial and Spanish, put me in the hands of a friend of his at Barclays, Aurelio*. Aurelio immediately passed me off to his co-worker, Utz*. Aurelio and Utz quickly became, for me, the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of the banking world.

Aurelio, possessed of all the information supplied by the agent, perpetually had the look of someone who had just jumped onto a fast moving train, having first chased it for several blocks. He was forever late, never returned my calls (hence the need for personal visits), and only occasionally delivered what he promised. However, he always apologized with passion and presented me with alternatives as to where to lay the blame for whatever had not come to pass (por supuesto, the blame never lay with Aurelio himself).

Despite his short-comings, Aurelio was really quite likable, as was Utz. Aurelio's opposite in every respect and undoubtedly of German parentage, Utz was neat, pink and unfailingly correct in all matters professional and social. Utz was the structure to Aurelio's storm and was charged by Aurelio with shepherding me along.

Between the two of them, what in Canada would have taken a day, Aurelio and Utz accomplished in just two short weeks and only hours short of my total nervous collapse.

To fortify myself for, or sometimes to decompress from, a morning at Barclays, I usually headed to one of the terraces on the nearby Rambla Catalunya (pictured above). The Rambla Catalunya (not to be confused with the chintzy chaos that is Las Ramblas, further to the south) is a leafy escape from the suffocating crowds of Paseo de Gracia, a street thoroughly inconducive to eating or relaxation of any sort despite the countless cafes lining its sidewalks. Admittedly, the Rambla Catalunya is full of over-priced touristy restaurants with mediocre food, but the relative peace and excellent people watching are usually worth the price. In any case, a glass of wine is never more than 2 or 3 euros away.

For a cheap breakfast or lunch (all my wallet could stand at the time), the best place was El Fornet d'en Rossend (Rambla Catalunya, 80), a Barcelona chain of French-style bakeries. Don't sit on the terrace and wait for someone to serve you, as I did for a good half hour. The service in Barcelona is of the "unexpected" variety and I have over-adapted to the point of no longer being able to discern when there isn't any. Eventually, the girl cleaning the tables put me out of my misery by indicating that you order at the back of the shop and bring a tray out to the terrace.

With a little more time and cash, you can have a much-better-than-average lunch at Taller de Tapas (Rambla Catalunya, 49-51,, an often recommended Barcelona restaurant. Don't be alarmed if the waiters don't smile at you. Despite my efforts, they didn't smile at me either. This did not affect my enjoyment of the food.

(*The names Aurelio and Utz are a fiction, but I like to think that they retain all the flavour of the actual names of my friends at Barclays.)