Friday, December 21, 2007

Christmas Guilt

I had good intentions, as we all do. I was going to post several times before Christmas. I had plans for a mazapan post, maybe something about almendritas, a bit about los tres reyes. All Navidad related.

But I got waylaid. I flew to Toronto. A storm hit. Thirty centimetres of snow fell in one day. I got distracted.

Now, in Calgary, I'm helping my mom prepare dishes for a traditional Polish Christmas Eve. Pierogies, cabbage rolls, borscht. I'll tell you more about that, but first I have to work myself out from under the piles of cabbage and mushrooms.

In the meantime, I'm going to post some photos of the Christmas lights in Barcelona by way of apology.

Feliz Navidad!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Christmas Scenery

The weather has been beautiful in Barcelona. Upwards of 18 degrees (that's Celsius) and dazzlingly sunny. The boys are out with their hola guapa's as if it were the middle of summer. Perfect for Christmas shopping and general holiday related perambulating.

The Old Town feels particularly atmospheric of late. The Christmas lights have been up for a couple of weeks now. Every second tienda is selling Navidad sweets. The Feria de Santa Lucia gives the cathedral square a carnival like feel. And they've finally unveiled the creche in Plaça Sant Jaume.

The creche had been hidden for several weeks behind tall fencing, like the fencing around construction sites, the kind that helps build anticipation. Unveiled, it's quite lovely, even though so much religiosity doesn't always agree with me.

This year, the creche is an intimate thicket bisected by a path. In between the poplars and shrubs are carved wooden lambs, shepherds, Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Behind them, in a nod to modernity, are chicken wire crates of varying sizes containing natural materials native to the Mediterranean coast: evergreen boughs, grasses, rocks, shells. These are not containers of left over greenery not yet disposed of by the normally efficient Barcelona clean up crews, as I originally thought. They're intentional, in fact. The display is meant to call attention to the intersection of modernity and tradition, the urban and the natural. That's what it says on the Catalan only plaque explaining the scene, in any case. Well, that and no dogs allowed.

Walking through the creche might actually have evoked a "communing with nature" effect were it not for the throngs of others also making their way through. I suppose that's the interactive "urban" portion of the display. And what's December without a little thronging? Really, it helps build up that healthy misanthropy that Christmas dinner was created to dissipate.

Sunday, December 9, 2007


You would be forgiven if you mistook peladillas for tiny Easter eggs. They have that look, particularly in their pink, white and blue incarnation. It's a little confusing to have them around at Christmas time, in my humble opinion. But a Christmas sweet they are. There's no arguing that.

Peladillas are almonds with a hard sugar coating. They're sometimes accompanied by piñones, which are pine nuts with a hard sugar coating. They're crunchy and delicious. They're manufactured by the same folks who bring you turrones (the ones pictured above are from La Campana, see No Ordinary Nougat). And they're the third part of the plate of sweets, along with turrones and polvorones, that's traditionally served during Navidad. That's really all you need to know.

Oh, and don't stick them up your nose. No good can come of that.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Will It Poo on Christmas?

Warning: This post is the opposite of appetizing.

My Spanish teacher Marta, in her endearing way, has been warning us for months that the Catalans* are a scatological people. That is, they are obsessed with number two. Apparently, as far as humour goes, the brown is to a Catalan what Jerry Lewis is to a Frenchman: a laugh riot.

In Catalunya, dropping the kids off at the pool has even infiltrated holiday tradition. In the days leading up to Christmas, you can witness this for yourself at the Feria de Santa Lucia (Fira de Santa Llucia in Catalan), which takes place outside of Barcelona's cathedral.

During the Feria, endless stalls fill the cathedral square, each one selling a different type of Navidad related item: some have Christmas trees, some nativity scenes, some Christmas lights, some mistletoe, some pine cones, some holly, some religious icons. There's a lot to look at. For my money, however, the two most interesting objects are figures representing the caganer (pictured above) and the caga tió.

Linguistically, the caganer and the caga tió share the same root: cagar. Or, as we say en inglés, to poo. The caganer, in Catalan, is literally "the one who poos". His squatting figure (now sometimes in the form of a famous or infamous personage) is placed alongside Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the nativity scene. Actually, traditionally, the caganer is hidden behind a tree, as is appropriate for one doing his business in the presence of divinity. Just so no one misses the point, however, the caganer's squishy gift is fully rendered and ready for burial under a pile of leaves (the leaves are my wishful thinking and are not actually depicted).

So why represent the crassest of bodily functions on the holiest of Christian holidays, you might ask. Is it sheer irreverence and affinity for all things dookie? Probably not. As I understand it, the explanation can be found in Catalunya's agrarian roots: specifically, the caganer symbolizes the return to the earth of everything that comes from the earth; his impressive heap is a symbol of fertility. This I was told by the vendor who sold me one of the pooping figurines for my private collection.

The caga tió, on the other hand, is itself a log. A literal log that drops figurative ones in the form of Christmas presents. Specifically, the caga tió is a round piece of tree trunk with a painted face and a traditional red hat. On Christmas Eve, in lieu of leaving milk and cookies out for Santa Claus, eager Catalan children tap the caga tió with a stick and ask it to defecate gifts from under its mantle. The children sing a song that, loosely translated, goes a little something like this: Caga tió, hazelnuts and turrones, don't caca herring, which are too salty, caca turrones which are are more tasty. Thus encouraged, the caga tió lays it down Navidad style.

All in all, the whole thing gives a new dimension to the phrase crappy Christmas gifts.

I regret to tell you that I will not be in Barcelona to witness the caganer and the caga tió in action on Navidad itself. I will, however, do what I can to bring you as much Navidad related fun as I can before I head back to Canada for the holidays, whether it involves taking the Browns to the Super Bowl, eating dust based desserts or sacrificing myself at the altar of the turrones.

* I may not have mentioned this before, but Barcelona is located in the heart of Catalunya, a region in the north of Spain. The people of Catalunya (Catalans) speak their own language (Catalan) in addition to speaking Castellano (the Spanish dialect that is spoken in Spain and Latin America) and have a culture and traditions distinct from those in other regions of Spain. While many of my posts refer to customs and traditions common to Catalunya and elsewhere in Spain, those described in this post are Catalan alone.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Tapas Episode

My friend Stephen is in town. He's an old friend and I love him a lot. When he visits and I make dinner, we do a cooking show in my kitchen. He's the host and I'm the guest chef. We're really good. Stephen points the fake microphone like nobody's business and his banter is super frothy. I, on the other hand, know my ingredients and am handy with a knife. I can't believe we haven't been snapped up by Food Television.

Today's show was about tapas. We started it off with a trip to the market. Wide angle shots of teeming aisles and close ups of fish on ice. Cutaway to the two of us feeling fruit at one of the stalls. (That's actually not allowed, but they'll let you do anything when you have a camera crew in tow.) Ingredient selection is key to tapas preparation, I tell Stephen while groping some tomatoes. Freshness and quality are crucial. Our goal at the market is to choose wisely and be inspired.

And inspired we are. Montage of us pointing at fresh prawns, pimientos de padron, tomatoes, potatoes, garlic, onions, eggs, anchovy stuffed olives and a baguette, then walking out smiling, bags in hand. Fade out. Commercial break.

Welcome back. We're in the kitchen and ready to cook. Stephen kicks us off while I'm peeling the potatoes and putting a pot of salted water on to boil. Today we're going to show you how to put together a meal of traditional Spanish tapas. And it's going to be easy peasy. Food Girl, tell us what you're going to cook for us. Well, we're going to start off with a traditional Spanish tortilla. Is that anything like a Mexican tortilla? Not at all, Stephen. A Spanish tortilla is actually an egg and potato omelette. Very interesting. What else? We're also going to make pimientos de padron. What are pimatos de padron? Pimientos. Right, pimatos. Pi-mien-tos. Pi-mien-tos, what are they? Pimientos de padron are small green peppers. Most are mild, but every batch has a few that are extremely hot. The surprise is part of the fun. Ooh, can't wait! What else? We're also going to do pan con tomate, which is a Catalan version of bruschetta, and langostinos con ajo, or garlic prawns. Sounds fantastic! Doesn't it?

Let's start with the tortilla. We'll need 4 large potatoes. We've already peeled and quartered them and have thrown them into a pot of salted water to boil until just tender. Cutaway to shot of potatoes cooking. Cutback to me. While the potatoes are cooking, we're going to prepare the eggs. We'll need six. I break the eggs into a bowl and whisk them efficiently. The eggs should be well seasoned with salt and pepper. I use about a teaspoon of salt and a little ground pepper. You can use your discretion here. We set the egg mixture aside for now and sautee the onion. I pour two tablespoons or so of olive oil into a medium sized frying pan and let it heat while I chop a large onion. Don't cry, Food Girl, don't cry. Don't worry, Stephen, I put the onion in the fridge to prevent it from releasing its juices. Great trick! I swirl the oil so that it covers the bottom of the pan and slides up the sides. I toss in the onion and give it stir. Stephen, can you check on the potatoes? Almost ready. Once those are done, can you drain and slice them? Done and done. How thinly do you want them sliced? We want them as thin as possible, but we don't want them falling apart. It's a fine line. Stephen slices a piece a little less than a quarter inch thick. Perfect. Stephen puts the potato slices into a large bowl. I continue stirring the onion. When Stephen is finished slicing, I slide the now browned onions into the potatoes and pour the egg mixture over top. I stir gently. Then I carefully pour the whole mixture back into the frying pan from whence came the onion. I lower the heat to medium low. Now we wait. Fade out and commercial break.

We're back. While the tortilla is cooking, let's prepare the other tapas. Stephen, I'm going to get you to help me with the pan con tomate. I'm yours. It couldn't be simpler. The truth is that, in most tapas places, pan con tomate is just a piece of sliced bread, neither toasted nor dried, rubbed with a bit of fresh tomato. It often comes out soggy and tasteless. So, what we're going to do is start by toasting the baguette. Cutaway to shot of baguette popping out of toaster. Cutback to me. Once the baguette is toasted, we rub it with a little garlic (the cut side of half a clove) and drizzle with olive oil. Then we cut a tomato in half crosswise, and rub it firmly on the bread so that the flesh and juice soak into the bread. And that's it. We can season it with a bit of salt to taste. It's so simple, even I can handle it, says Stephen, taking over the pan con tomate preparation.

The pimientos de padron are also extremely simple to prepare, I say pouring two or three tablespoons of olive oil into a large frying pan and putting the pan over a high flame. Once the oil is hot, we throw the whole pimientos de padron into the pan and make sure to stir them frequently so that they soften and brown evenly. They take 3-5 minutes to cook and can burn quickly if left unattended. Stephen, can you keep an eye on these while I check on the tortilla.

The tortilla has firmed up nicely on the sides and bottom and comes away easily from the sides of the pan. I slide a spatula around the tortilla to ensure it's not stuck anywhere. It isn't. It is ready to be flipped, I say. The top and middle are still a bit runny, but that's to be expected. In fact, we want it runny now; if it isn't, the finished product will be too dry. Flipping is the toughest part of the tortilla process, I continue, sweating it. In order to flip the tortilla we need a large plate or a flat pot lid large enough to hold the whole tortilla. I prefer to use a pot lid because the handle on top makes it easier to manoeuvre. I place the pot lid over the tortilla and hold my breath. It flips out easily onto the lid. As soon as it's out, I slide it back into the same pan, bottom up. Now we need just a minute or two to cook the other side.

I think the pimientos de padron are done, says Stephen. And so they are. I grind in an ample amount of rock salt and give them a last stir around. I set them aside and keep warm.

I go back to the tortilla. Contrary to your instincts, the ideal way to serve a tortilla is at room temperature after it's had a chance to sit and cool. I turn off the heat under the tortilla in the frying pan and pull out a plate with a perfectly formed, already cooked tortilla. This is one that we made yesterday. Today, it's going to be perfect. I cut two wedges out of the tortilla and place them on a large plate with the pan con tomate that Stephen has just finished preparing.

And now for the final dish, langostinos con ajo. We have a clove of garlic, already chopped that we're going to drop into tablespoon of olive oil mixed with a tablespoon of butter that we've heated in a large flat bottomed frying pan. We stir that for 30 seconds and throw in the langostinos (about half a pound). They've been washed, but we've kept them in their shells for maximum tenderness and flavour. We sautee them for 3 to 4 minutes. You know they're ready when they curl up and turn entirely pink.

We slide the langostinos onto the plate with the pan con tomate and tortilla. We arrange the pimientos de padron on the other side of the same plate. In the middle, we make a little pile of olives stuffed with anchovies because they're delicious and we just can't help ourselves. Cutaway to overhead shot of the plate (pictured above). And there you have it, quick and easy tapas.

I carry the plate to the table, while Stephen opens a bottle of Rioja. Stephen and I dig into the food with approving grunts and murmurs. The credits roll.

[P.S. For more on tapas, check out June Is Tapas Month.]

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Dustiest of Desserts

Dust. It's everywhere: your house, the atmosphere, the cosmos. According to Wikipedia (or, as I like to call it, the word of God), household dust is comprised primarily of dead human skin cells. Appetizing? Not particularly. But if you're Spanish, I suspect that your answer might be, is it ever!

The Spanish have invented a cookie called a polvorone--polvo meaning dust. The polvorone is a holiday classic, originally hailing from the dry and dusty region of Andalucia in the south of Spain. In the days leading up to Christmas, polvorones are available in giant bags in supermarkets across Barcelona and, in superior artisanal form, in many Barcelona bakeries.

Contrary to popular belief, polvorones are actually made of flour, almond meal and lard, not dust. However, they are undeniably dusty. So much so that, in order to prevent total disintegration, they come individually wrapped and must be squeezed with some force into a cohesive ball before being unwrapped and consumed. Eating them also provokes the same parched sensation that you might develop on a trek through the desert. The desert is actually more sandy than dusty, I would think. But that's neither here nor there. Suffice it to say that you need to be well kitted out with liquids before attempting either of a desert trek or a dessert polvorone.

Polvorones are traditionally served as part of a Christmas plate containing turrones (see No Ordinary Nougat) and peladillas (coming next week). Really, with a good cup of tea or coffee or a glass of liqueur, they're not half bad. Better than fruitcake, in any event.

(Disclaimer: I have never trekked through the desert.)