Thursday, January 31, 2008

Fat Thursday

Fat Thursday (Jueves Graso) has started off Carnaval en España. In Barcelona, a traditional tasting of butifarra de huevo (along with tortilla) was held and a parade satirizing the fiasco of the construction of the highspeed train between Madrid and Barcelona wound its way to Sants station. Other than that, it's not the crazy celebration that you might imagine in the city. Sitges, down the road, is reputedly much more raucous. I'm heading there on the weekend and will send a report. I will also no doubt attend the traditional burial of the sardine on Tuesday or Wednesday. Yes, a sardine. Yes, a burial. And yes, apparently it's a big deal.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

What to Eat When You Feel Like a Farmer

Do you ever feel like a farmer? I know. Me too. All the time. I mean, without the hard work or the early mornings or the government subsidies. (I'm working on the latter, actually.) But exactly like a farmer no less.

Just the other day, I woke up with an overwhelming urge to eat like a farmer or a lumberjack or some other human doing hard physical labour outdoors. What would a Spanish farmer eat, I asked myself as I charged down the street to the market (sadly, not a farmers' market) for something that would satisfy my farmerly needs.

Let me tell you, when it comes to a farmerly appetite, there's a lot to choose from at a Spanish market. What caught my attention on that particular morning was butifarra. I know, it sounds vaguely obscene, doesn't it? But I assure you, it's a legitimate meat, an "embutido", or sausage, to be exact.

Butifarra comes in permutations for every possible mood, including the farmerly. Butifarra blanca, for those days when you're feeling fresh and clean and like curing all the world's ills, is made of lean minced pork. Butifarra negra, for days when you're nasty and out for revenge, is pork both lean and fat mixed with hog's blood. Butifarra de huevo, for when you feel repentant (perhaps for your more blood thirsty moments) and like you want to hang out in a chicken coop, is a mixture of egg in good portion along with other edible things and is typical of Lent and Semana Santa, which are coming right up.

On this day, I stopped at butifarra de huevo, even though more butifarra choices presented themselves. I took it home and fried it up in slices along with some onions and white beans (not an atypical Catalan accompaniment to butifarra) and served it with a farmerly bread. Then, I thought about going out to the fields for a little ploughing or sowing or some such sort of thing, but I was feeling a little sleepy from all that farmerly eating so I took a nap instead. And that put an end to all my farmerly aspirations, at least for the day.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Alex Cobb's Biscuits

It is 11am on a grey Toronto Sunday morning some weeks ago and I'm invited to the Cobbs' for brunch. The entire rear end of the Cobb house is these days swathed in construction plastic and the kitchen has been relegated to the dining room in a state that can best be described as ramshackle. Alex Cobb, barely greeting me as I enter, seems impervious to all this and I believe could exist amid construction chaos in perpetuity. With the foresight of a hardened pessimist, he's timed brunch precisely to coincide with my half hour late arrival.

What I have to hand to Alex, besides the claim to a first name that is next to impossible to say without tacking on the surname Cobb, is that (and I'm sorry for being compelled to say so, Ronni*) he's a sexy cook. You know, in the way men can be. It's in his slowness about the task. I mean, he's wearing wool socks and sandals, is hunch shouldered, sleepy eyed and laconic as all hell. But somehow it works for him in the kitchen.

It doesn't hurt that the results of his efforts are pretty darn exciting. On this day, he's created a gourmet Egg McMuffin: a piping hot homemade biscuit layered with a poached egg of the perfect consistency (outside firm but tender, middle slightly oozy), cambozola (substituted by cheddar for the kids) and prosciutto. The combination is fantastic, but the indubitable star of the sandwich is the biscuit. Salty, moist, crumbly biscuit. (I'm sorry I didn't take a picture of you, biscuit. You would have been well worth displaying on the web. Well worth.) We can't resist seconds and fleetingly fantasize about thirds, but eventually content ourselves with strawberries and cream for dessert. Even the kids approve.

Pleased with himself, and rightly so, Alex Cobb provided me with this biscuit recipe should you care to replicate the McCobb (as I like to call it):

3 cups all purpose flour
4 tsp baking powder
1-2 tsp salt
(No sugar, but if you insist on sugar, reduce the salt and add 1 tbsp.)
3/4 tsp cream of tartar
3/4 cup butter (cold)
1 1/4 cup buttermilk

Mix the dry ingredients. Grate or cut in cold butter and mix with a fork or pastry cutter until the whole resembles coarse bread crumbs. Pour buttermilk into a well in the centre of the crumbly mixture. Stir until curds form. Mash down with your fists (Alex Cobb demonstrated this with vehemence; apparently, it brought him some satisfaction). Empty out onto a wooden surface. Knead until the dough holds together but is still sticky. Don't overdo it. Roll out to 1/2 to 3/4 inches of thickness. Cut out rounds with a biscuit cutter, the top of a glass, a compass, what have you. Bake on a non-stick baking sheet for 12 minutes in a 450 F oven. After cooling just a little, set on the table in a covered bamboo steamer or some other porous and mysterious container to tantalize your guests while you take care of the rest of the fixings. Keep an eye on the guests to ensure the biscuits are not compromised.

Try to enjoy while grimacing to complete the experience and make Alex Cobb proud.

*Ronni is Alex Cobb's wife. She's sexy in and out of the kitchen.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Mystery of the Melted Chocolate

I had a post ready about Alex Cobb's biscuits before I left Toronto. The biscuits are good. So is the post. But it had to pre-empted so that I could bring you the news of my return to Barcelona. I'll write about the biscuits another day.

You will undoubtedly be disappointed to know that I spent my first two days back in Barcelona in bed. Recovering. I'm no longer used to the amount of human contact that I had in Toronto and it left me completely sapped. A little isolation was an apt remedy. So much so that by the third day I was desperately lonely and forced to leave the house in search of someone who would swap a few Spanish phrases with me.

In the end, I wended my way down to Carmelitas (c/ Doctor Dou 4), a very good coffee shop in the Raval. There, I had some bread with chocolate, olive oil and salt, as evidenced by the photo above, and two cups of cafe con leche--that is, one cup too many.

The bread with chocolate was frustrating in its simplicity. Just when I felt like I had the bread, olive oil and salt part down (toast sliced baguette well, brush with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with a few grains of coarse sea salt), I found myself confounded by the chocolate. The chocolate pieces were dark and of good quality, about an ounce each. That much was clear. When served, the squares were intact, but spreadable. How did Carmelitas soften the chocolate without it losing its shape? If they just zapped it in the microwave, how did the bread stay crunchy? And if they put it under the broiler, how did the heat not burn the top? Perhaps there was a transfer of sorts, but it did not appear so.

I'm committed to resolving the mystery by trial and error. Somehow, just asking them doesn't seem fair.

In any case, if you can figure it out, it's a simple and deeply satisfying dessert and, I imagine, not a bad breakfast, if you're into that kind of thing.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Here Piggy, Piggy, Piggy

So, I'm still in Toronto. I know, I know, you were expecting me to be back in Barcelona already, rolling around in a bathtub filled with tortillas and chorizo. Or maybe that was just me.

Well, I'm not back until next week. We're all just going to have to accept that and I'm going to have to clean out the drain at my dear friends' Martha and Jeremy's--they've been kind enough to put me up for the next week.

On the up side, I have been keeping myself busy with social engagements and what not. And I'm as delighted as ever with the number of terrific restaurants in Toronto, though sad to see a couple of favourites close (Sugar, Xacutti).

Last night, a couple of generous, well heeled friends took me for dinner at Lucien (36 Wellington, where Pravda used to live). To my great excitement, Babe three ways (belly, crackling and what can only be described as juicy middle) was on the menu, served over a cassoulet. Soo-wee, he was delicious.

I had two bites of crackling left when the waiter tried to remove my plate. I smacked his hand away and said, I'm still working on the crackling. Oh, he said, fear flashing across his face. Don't stand between a girl and her crackling, said my friend Doug. Yeah, I said, making my eyes into tiny little slits. Don't. I finished the crackling and licked my lips with menace.

That pig never stood a chance.