Friday, October 31, 2008

La Castanyada

Felipe and I went out today fully decked out in our finest wiggery to confirm reports that Spaniards are quickly catching on to Halloween. We were fiercely stared down by dour Catalans and thoroughly drenched with rain--a punishment by a dour Catalan god, no doubt.

It all makes us think that rumors of Spanish Halloween have been greatly exaggerated. Or perhaps that Catalans remain fiercely anti-Spanish, which in this case may also make them anti-Halloween. Nonetheless, we will venture out again tonight to conduct further investigation. The Gangsters of Love are playing at El Monasterio (Passeig Isabel II, Born) and you might remember their hip swinging, slow drawling, harmonica playing singer from the Got Bail post. I know, I know, I'll be accompanied. But one can always look...particularly when a harmonica's involved.

In any event, that still leaves us with La Castanyada. I really should have mentioned it when I last wrote about panellets, but for sheer laziness I left out that part of the story.

Since we're temporarily trapped at home by the pouring rain, I'll tell you now.

Loosely translated, La Castanyada means something like The Chestnut Season. Strictly speaking, it occurs on October 31 and November 1 when Catalans partake not only in panellets and moscatel wine, but also in roast chestnuts (castanyas in Catalan) and sweet potatoes (boniatos). As such, October not only sees the cookie market flooded with panellets, it also sees the installation of tiny shacks on select street corners where robust, soot covered women (and sometimes men) tend charcoal grills for roasting said chestnuts and sweet potatoes. The women store the chestnuts, once roasted, in giant drawers insulated with the rattiest blankets on God's green earth. And, by golly, they're brimstone hot and diabolically delicious. The chestnuts, not the blankets. The blankets you'll just have to overlook.

You can pick up a packet of 12 chestnuts for about 2.50 euros and a sweet potato for between 3 and 4 euros. Mauri Pastissería has its own chic stand at the corner of Provença and Rambla Catalunya and can also supply you with some tasty panellets. For a more authentic Castanyada experience, however, try a stand that's not a name brand. Central spots include the stand on the southwest corner of Plaça Catalunya and the one on Calle Bailen, a few blocks south of Travessera de Gracia.

But hurry! The shacks disappear soon!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Days of Almond and Potato

Remember last year at about this time? I know, it's asking a lot. I hardly remember it myself. I have the archives for this very aid memory.

My archives tell me that at this very time last year I was writing about Cookies for Saints and Dead People, otherwise known as panellets.

As I recall, I stiffed you on the recipe. You can't blame me, this blog doesn't really pay. However, the Globe & Mail does. So, this year, I developed a recipe for them. Here is a link to the story: All Saints' Day cookies are an almond delight. You are welcome to try the recipe. The photo above is of the finished product.

By the way, my friend Trish tested the Globe recipe out of the goodness of her heart and palate. Click on the link to check out her delicious website, The Seasonal Gourmet.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Cooking for the Financial Crisis

A few weeks ago now, my sister informed me that the world was in a financial crisis. I can't blame her for assuming that I had been in a partial vegetative state since my arrival in Barcelona and therefore unable to access communication media or converse with other humans, it hasn't been a particularly productive year for me after all. However, I managed to put her mind at ease by letting her know that I was on top of the crisis thing-a-magiggy and will now go even further by offering my thoughts on crisis

Luckily, this is a topic I know much about as I have been trying to keep the lid on a personal financial crisis for, well, about a year and a half now. No one's turned off my lights or, God forbid, blocked my internet access, so I do believe I boast about as much success as the US Treasury Department. Perhaps more.

My secret to creative crisis management: the chicken carcass. You'd be surprised the excellent return you can get on a mere skeleton with a few scraps of meat hanging off it. At 50 euro cents a pop, it's really all economic upside.

Actually, it's all about strategically combining the carcass and seasonal vegetables. This week: the pumpkin at 1.50 euros a kilo at the farmers' stalls outside the Boqueria market.

So, to the management. Well, basically, the carcass (two carcasses, preferably) goes into a pot with a good four litres of water and a selection of stock vegetables. (See the Chicken Soup post for additional thoughts on chicken soup--while that post deals with an already cooked carcass and this one with raw carcasses, the technique is largely similar.) This week I used 2 carrots, 1 parsnip, half a turnip, a couple of leaves of cabbage, 1 rib of celery, a leek and some parsley. The whole thing cooks and cooks until it becomes delicious chicken stock--you'll have to skim a little scum off the top when the soup first boils, but once you've reduced the heat to simmer and salted the whole thing well, there's little more to do but wait for the flavour to take. I usually pick the meat off the carcasses and throw it back in along with the carrots and parsnips (chopped up) for a home style chicken soup. I also put the soup in the fridge overnight so that I can skim off the fat the next day, but you can do as you like. If you leave things here, your investment has been approximately 2 euros ($3) and about an hour to an hour and a half of time. Your return: four very healthy and delicious meals for two.

But you can really take crisis management to the next level with the pumpkin and just one litre of the clear stock (i.e. just the liquid, none of the bits). For this, you'll need the following:

1kg pumpkin
1 litre chicken stock
2 tbsp smooth peanut butter
3 tbsp maple syrup
1 400ml can coconut milk
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
cilantro and roasted pumpkin seeds to garnish (optional but delicious)

You first cook the pumpkin, seeds and goo removed, in the microwave for 5-6 minutes to soften so that you can remove the skin more easily and chop it up. Once chopped (coarsely), you toss it into a soup pot with the stock and cook until soft enough to easily mash. You mash (or puree with a hand blender for a smoother soup), add the peanut butter (dissolved in a little of the hot liquid first so that it doesn't clump), maple syrup and coconut milk. Season with salt and pepper to taste and garnish with a little chopped cilantro and roasted pumpkin seeds.

By the way, I found great instructions for roasting pumpkin seeds and general pumpkin manipulation at this site: I tossed my seeds with a little bit of olive oil and salt before roasting and they came out a treat.

Should you be wondering, your additional investment is 2.50 euros ($3.75) or so and you get two to three additional meals for two...well, you reduce the meals with the chicken stock by one or two, but you gain some variety and deliciousness so it's all net profit in the world of nutritional accounting (it's a little Enron-like, the nutritional accounting, you see).

Anyway, that's up to six meals for two for the price of 4.50 euros ($6.75) by my count and don't even get me started on how you can vary, stretch or even freeze the chicken stock--it's a world of infinite possibilities.

I will now sit back and wait for my Nobel Prize in Economics, thank you very much.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Fishies

I wonder sometimes what it would like to be a fishmonger. Spending your days in the pungent world of fish, crustaceans and mollusks. Gutting. Scaling. Filleting. Removing ink sacks. Slicing and dicing. And god knows what other manner of deft knife work. It's a trip to see it all live at a Barcelona market, where fish and their cousins are available at their freshest and only the unworthy open on Mondays. (Everybody knows that there's no Sunday catch to sell so whatever shows up at the market (or on most restaurant menus) on Monday is usually already past its prime.)

I use a two pronged method to choose market seafood: price and lack of overall scariness. Lobster (bogavante) and crayfish (cigalas) generally fall off the list based on the first criterion. Eels (anguilas) and their fanged friends based on the second.

Doradas (gilthead breams) have been reflecting the light off their pale silver scales with an intensity that can only be termed provocative of late. They're a firm fleshed white fish from Atlantic waters and popular choice with Catalans...and, what, they're just 9 euros a kilo (and half that price at the Boqueria market)? A veritable bargain. A healthier, better value lunch or dinner one could not find. (Should you wish further information about this or any other fish (including species vulnerability), check out

The other day, I asked my fishmonger to clean a couple of doradas inside and out and took the little beasts of the ocean home to stuff and roast. Felipe eats the insides of their heads--it's a little Hannibal Lector, I know, but, to amuse us both, I asked that the heads be kept intact. It's not a popular choice, I'm afraid. I personally relish the drama of the intact noggin for presentation purposes (as do most Spaniards), but I have friends who would run screaming after one look at those blank fish eyes. So, follow my example at your own risk.

I turned the oven on to about 200C and made a little stuffing. I grated a carrot and about half a medium onion. I chopped a handful of parsley and another handful of hazelnuts. I mixed it all together with the juice of half a lemon (plus a little of its rind), a tablespoon and a half of olive oil, and pepper and salt to taste. Then after greasing the doradas inside and out with oil and sprinkling them with salt, I stuffed them with my carrot mixture, hollowing them out a little more than the fishmonger had in the process. I baked them in the preheated oven on olive oil greased aluminium foil for about 20 minutes and served with mashed potatoes and tomatoes sprinkled with sugar that I had roasted along with the doradas and dressed with basil, black olives, olive oil, pepper and salt.

My little dorada friends were a smashing success. And I scored a few points when I let Felipe have my dorada's head. I must say, it was no skin off my dorada.

(For a variation on the stuffing, try a handful of chopped pineapple, a handful of chopped cilantro, a handful of chopped tomato and some chopped peanuts mixed with lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper (in the quantities suggested above).)


I have to take a moment to mourn the passing of a couple of favourite spots that perhaps I'd neglected a little in the past few months. For this I feel guilt and remorse and even a little shame. But so it goes in the cut throat world of Barcelona restaurants. Not all survive.

First, Mosquito, of the Hold the Meat post, has given way to La Mosca (Spanish for Fly...insert your own joke). I haven't tried La Mosca, but I will admit that at least it's keeping Mosquito's spirit alive by naming itself after another insect. Unfortunately, it's one that's even less appetizing than the last. Oh well. [P.S. I'm afraid that news of Mosquito's demise has been greatly exaggerated here. It is alive and well in a new location: Jaume Giralt, 53 (Born), tel. 93 315 1744. La Mosca is a sister enterprise, serving French influenced tapas. My apologies for the confusion.] [P.P.S. Mosquito did, in fact, close on July 1, 2009. We are to watch the website, however, for news of future ventures by its]

Second, L'Espigall, the little neighbourhood bar that served me many a manchego cheese sandwich and cafe con leche seems to no longer be opening its doors. If they're just on holiday, which is always possible, I beseach them to put up a sign. [P.S. I have since discovered that L'Espigall opens for the summer tourist season.]

Besides those changes in my food landscape, I was sorely disappointed with dinner at La Candela--see Terrace Days and Personal Best of Barcelona posts--last time I went. Don't get me wrong, the food hit the spot. I was craving a hamburger and, even if theirs is a little unconventional, they serve it topped with some of the most delicious carmelized onions know to man and a healthy slab of goat cheese. Fantastic. The plaza had changed, though. In our couple of hours in the square at the foot of that formerly peaceful old church, we were witness to what appeared to be several drug trades run from a nearby bench, teenage drinkers on the church steps, a couple of untidy construction zones and a steady stream of scooters and other traffic where there had been none before. Presumably, these are in part the effects of police crackdowns on dealers in the centre of town, which have resulted in more activity on the formerly quiet peripheries.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Loose Ends

More than a month without a post. Shameful.

Let this be a warning to all of you singles out there. Get into a relationship and all of a sudden all of the really important things, like your obsession with food and writing about food in a vaguely sexual way, start to take a back seat. Not that I'm knocking relationships--there's a reason the food takes a back seat...well, it bides its time, anyway.

I believe I owe you a few things. Overdue things. Shamefully overdue things.

First, I need to wrap up the ice cream story. Just because I haven't been writing about it, doesn't mean that I haven't been researching it...with gusto. And these October days are just like summer lately so there's really no reason not to get out there for one last cone.

To sum up: Gelaaati! in the Gotico is a big yeees! as Marco said in his comment on the How to Lick an Ice Cream Cone post, mainly because it was the first ice cream parlour where the employees were actually happy. One of them even made a joke. Having had the laughter scooped out of us at every other Barcelona ice cream spot, we just turned away in horror, not knowing how to react to this unprecedented dairy industry faux pas.

We also swooned over Amorino at 53 Gran de Gracia--possibly the creamiest vanilla and most delicious amaretto ice cream in Barcelona.

If you forced me to rank the ones we liked most, I would say it was very close, but that this was my order of preference:

1. Cremeria Toscana (there's also a location in the Born now)
2. Amorino
3. Gelaaati!
4. Gelateria Caffetteria Italiana

Second, you should know that I could now do a full month of seafood stories. Shoals and shoals of fishes and cuttlefishes and their cousins, the crustaceans and mollusks. I have recipes. I won't tell you that they're coming because I wouldn't want to let you down when I fail to post them. Let's just say that I may surprise you with them.

Third, I think we could revisit tapas. There are a hell of a lot of tapas bars in Barcelona and I've been to more of them than I care to mention. But I will mention. That will be the whole mention.

Finally, I've been to a couple of fancy shmancy places of late. Some even on my own dime--a personal failure, to be sure. I will report my travels as fully as possible. The posted pic is a hint.

I hope to be more prolific in the future. But I can't promise.

That is all.