Friday, March 28, 2008

No Excuse

I've been delinquent. There's no excuse. The least I could have done was send a note to let you know I was still alive.

I'm a heel and I know it. But I promise I'll make it up to you. Just not yet. Give me a week and I'll tell you all about it.

Friday, March 7, 2008


Barcelona really feels like spring lately. Even though most of the winter here is warmer than a Canadian May, there is a marked difference between the seasons. The first signs of change are in the light and the air and the sound of the birds. And the artichokes.

Artichokes originated in the Mediterranean, of course, and were brought by Spanish settlers to America, where they've firmly taken hold. Why, even Marilyn Monroe was once crowned Artichoke Queen by Castroville, California. Perhaps not her greatest claim to fame.

For the past couple of weeks, artichokes have been available in Barcelona markets for next to nothing. Normally, I'm a little loath to take the plunge with artichokes because of all the trimming and fussing that's involved, but Yukiko set me straight. Because these artichokes are young and beautifully tender, trimming is easier and you don't need to worry about the choke (the thistly interior).

This week, on Yukiko's recommendation, I bought a few. Then I incorporated them into a Spanish-style rice. Here's more or less how to recreate it:


3-4 young artichokes
1/2 lemon
1/2 pound of mushrooms, quartered
1 onion, diced
4 cloves of garlic, slivered
6 tbsp olive oil
2 cups Spanish short grain rice
small handful of chopped fresh thyme, parsley or oregano (optional)
2 bay leaves
1 tsp sweet paprika
4+ cups chicken or pork stock (I confess I used an oxo cube and didn't overly regret it; veggies, feel free to substitute a meatless stock)
salt and pepper to taste

Trim the base off the artichokes, remove the bottom 3-4 layers of tough leaves, and slice off the tops. Cut each artichoke into eight wedges and rub all over with the lemon to prevent browning, squeezing the juice into the artichokes as you go. (You can remove the choke by scraping it out, but I didn't bother.)

In a paella pan or large frying pan, sautee the onion and garlic in hot oil until golden (about 5 minutes). Add the artichokes and mushrooms and sautee for a further 3-5 minutes, browning the vegetables slightly. Season with salt and pepper and add the rice and herbs to the pan, combining well with the vegetables. Cover the mixture all at once with hot stock and leave to simmer, uncovered, for approximately 20 minutes until all the stock is absorbed. Taste and adjust the seasoning as you go. You may need to add more stock (feel free to use water) as the rice cooks if the stock is evaporating too quickly. Do not stir. Once all the stock is absorbed (the bottom should be lightly browned and just beginning to get crispy), turn off the heat, remove the bay leaves and let sit for a few minutes before serving.

Try it with a crisp white wine like a Spanish Rueda and a dish for discarding any tough artichoke bits that remain. I promise you'll feel the imminence of spring even though you may still be stuck in drifts of snow.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Night Classes in Geography

The other night David and I wandered over to one of his many locals--another Cuban place in the back streets of Gracia (Raim, c/ de Progres).

We were already three sheets to the wind when we found ourselves at a table with two Argentinians, one of whom was wearing a fedora and claimed to be a psychiatrist. Not a bearded, pipe-smoking Sigmund Freud type but an if-they-need-a-replacement-at-Seattle-Grace-they'll-call-him type.

I believe David had asked for the stir sticks from their mojitos so that I could take them home along with the three half dead roses that David's friend, the rose seller, had left on our table. The stir sticks are a fine move, Ladies. Commit it to memory.

As it turns out, the Argentinian, despite his supposed psychiatric training or perhaps because of it, was one cocky cabrón and decided to start an argument about the continents--as in, the large land masses into which we divide the world. His opening gambit was four; mine was seven, which is what they taught me in grade school. Before we knew it, half the bar was in on the action and we had additional bets of 5, 6 and 8--though the last originated from a miscount and was not taken seriously.

Contrary to my Argentinian friend's claims, the idea of continents and their number is one of convention, not definition. If you consider the world in terms of four, you might believe in Afro-Eurasia, America, Australia and Antarctica (though these were not the ones the Argentinian himself listed). If five, then you might split Africa off from Eurasia or you might split Afro-Eurasia into three and forget about Antarctica because there's too much ice and not enough land. If six, then suddenly Europe and Asia are distinct, despite the absence of any physical separation between them. And, if seven, well, you're as nit-picky as they come and it's North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and Antarctica, all separate and apart. Australia and area, by the way, are sometimes referred to as Oceania around these parts--an ill defined region which purports to encompass a variety of islands in the general area of the Pacific and which quite frankly does not fit into the unified land mass theory of a continent.

Interestingly, the Olympic rings are something of a red herring as they omit Antarctica--the penguins aren't much for sporting competitions, though they do have some excellent uniforms--and consider the Americas as a single region.

The upshot is that, by the end of the evening, the Argentinian had me so riled up that I forgot my stir sticks and my roses when I left the bar in a huff. A good lesson about keeping my priorities straight next time.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Lent Lunch

So, I decided to try it out. You know, Cuaresma. Why not? I can abstain with the best of them (for short periods and when large quantities of food are available).

I bought a book: La Cocina de Cuaresma (The Cuisine of Lent), Raquel F. Moran. It's from the same series as The Cuisine of the Nuns, if you must know: a little murky on the details, but altogether a fine source of ideas.

This Friday, I invited Yukiko, an accomplished cook in her own right, to try my Lenten creations. The imagined menu was a salad of some sort to start (I had an eggplant in my fridge so it was going to feature); Arroz de Cuaresma (Lenten Rice); a seafood item; Judias Verdes con Pimientos (Green Beans with Peppers); and, for dessert, Bollos de Semana Santa (Easter Rolls), a traditional Lenten sweet containing no less than half a litre of olive oil.

Predictably, and despite my best intentions, the last two items were dropped due to time contraints. Let's face it, the beans would have been excessive. And we were really much better off going for a coffee and buñuelos at Forn de Sant Jaume (Rambla Catalunya, just south of Arago), one of my favourite places for fresh buñuelos (bunyols, in Catalan) and outdoor people watching. Buñuelos, by the way, are delicious balls of fried and sugar coated dough and are also typical of Lent.

The on-the-fly eggplant salad went a little something like this: on a bed of mizuna, a.k.a. Japanese mustard greens (could have been arugula), I arranged three slices of eggplant (brushed with olive oil and roasted the night before in a 220 C oven for half an hour, flipped once), a piece of fresh goat cheese (could have have been ricotta, queso fresco or another mild, soft cheese), and the honeyed walnuts I had purchased at the Santa Maria del Pi market a few weeks ago. I drizzled the whole thing with balsamic cream, which is easily found here, but which could substituted by a good balsamic reduction where it's not available. And presto: simple, beautiful, scrumptious.

In contrast, the arroz (think of it as a vegetarian paella) was complicated. But I decided to follow the recipe to the letter this time--more or less. Here's the tweaked version.


For the stock:
1/2 kilo sardines
2 onions
2 bay leaves
6 cups of water

For the rice:
1 large red pepper
1 medium onion
3 tomatoes
1 green pepper
3/4 cup fresh or frozen peas
2 cups short grain rice
6 tbsp of oil
pinch of saffron
1 finely chopped garlic clove
handful of chopped parsley
salt and pepper

First, prepare the fish stock (caldo)--The recipe doesn't give instruc- tions, but I used sardines (any cheap and flavourful fish will do--Spanish markets have inexpensive "pescado de sopa" or "pescado de roca" which will remind you a bit of the fish you used to have in your aquarium, but which are perfect for stock), quartered onions, bay leaves and salt (as above) covered with about 6 cups of water. Bring to a boil then simmer slowly for 30-40 minutes. Strain out the solids and keep warm. (Actually, I give you permission to use a pre-packaged stock--fish, chicken or vegetable--if you want to save yourself the hassle and your home the smell of boiled sardines.)

While the fish stock is simmering, roast a large, red pepper (I halved it and left it skin side up in a 220 C oven for 30 minutes). Remove from the oven, peel and slice into thin strips. (If you don't want to fuss with the roasting, just slice the red pepper and add it at the same time as the green pepper.)

Also by way of preparation, finely chop the onion; peel and chop the tomatoes (score them on top and immerse in boiling water for 30 seconds to peel); cook the peas; and slice the green pepper into strips.

Once everything is ready, heat two table spoons of oil in a large paella pan or wide bottomed, high sided frying pan. Add the onion and sautee until soft (about five minutes). Add the chopped tomatoes and cook until they start to take on a sauce like consistency. At this point, remove from the heat and, according to the recipe, puree the whole thing and set aside. (I pureed half because I have a crappy manual press and it was proving too frustrating a process. I believe the rice would be just as good if you didn't puree at all.)

Add another 3-4 tbsp. of olive oil to the pan and sautee the green pepper until soft. Add the rice and tomato puree. Shuffle the whole thing around in the pan for a bit then pat down evenly and add the stock along with a bit of salt and pinch of saffron. You'll need about twice as much stock as rice (you can play with the rice and stock quantities and add more stock through the cooking process if it's evaporating too quickly). Allow to simmer for about 20-25 minutes until the stock is fully absorbed by the rice. Do not cover. And be careful with the heat: it needs to be high enough to keep the pan simmering, but not so high that it burns the bottom of the rice (my perennial mistake).

Do not stir. This is not risotto.

About 10 minutes in, add the roasted red pepper, peas, and the parsley and garlic moistened with 2 tbsp. of warm stock. Now you can stir. When everything is incorporated, distribute the rice evenly around the pan again and pat down. If you need to add more stock, this is a good time to do so. It's also a good time to check the seasoning and add more salt if necessary.

Cook on low heat until all the stock is absorbed. When done, set aside to rest for a few minutes and take the opportunity to make the chipirones (baby squid).

I picked up the chipirones the day before at the Boqueria and cleaned them ahead of time by rinsing under cold water and pulling out the crystalline spines.

I had no particular recipe so I sauteed a finely chopped garlic clove in 2 tbsp of hot olive oil for a minute or so, tossed in the chipirones (about 1/2 to 3/4 pound) for 2-3 minutes (until just firm) and sprinkled with half a handful of fresh, chopped tarragon and some salt about a minute before I turned off the heat. The tarragon gives them a delicate sweetness and they are great alongside the rice. They're also a quick and easy tapa.

You can serve all of this with cava (Catalan sparkling wine, comparable to champagne), as I did, or maybe sauvignon blanc (I like the ones from New Zealand).

And, if you're not as much abstaining as indulging, no one will be the wiser.