Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Ready, set, bake...

YAY.. happy today, apart from arriving home knackered from a busy weekend visiting the folks back in Ireland, my new oven and hob have arrived!!

After many months complaining about my non-functioning oven (it's all or nothing, baby) our new Siemens oven has arrived! Unfortunately for the bank balance, since the last one was integrated with the gas hob, we've had to change that too. So ended up converting over to a induction plate hob from Balay
Just waiting for some lovely man to come and install it.. Hoping he comes in time for me to make scones for the weekend

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Daring Cooks' Challenge November '09 - Sushi

The November 2009 Daring Cooks challenge was brought to you by Audax of Audax Artifex and Rose of The Bite Me Kitchen. They chose sushi as the Challenge.
According to their brief, Sushi is much appreciated for its delicate taste and exquisite appearance. Sushi actually means vinegared rice, which is the essential ingredient in every sushi recipe. Sushi is simple and cheap to make at home, needs no special equipment and is an excellent way to use left-overs.
Although sushi in various forms has been around for fourteen centuries, the modern version was invented in Japan where a 'hand-formed' sliced fresh fish and vinegared rice ball was eaten as a snack food. Nowadays, sushi is made with various seafood, meats and vegetables, raw and cooked. The challenge is in four parts

Part 1: Making proper sushi rice you will wash, rinse, drain, soak, cook, dress, and cool short grain rice until each grain is sticky enough to hold toppings or bind ingredients. Then you will use the cooked rice to form three types of sushi:

Part 2: Dragon sushi roll, an avocado covered inside-out rice roll with a tasty surprise filling

Part 3: Decorative spiral sushi, a nori-coated rice roll which reveals a decorative pattern when cut

Part 4: Nigiri sushi, hand-shaped rice rolls with toppings

I don't think I was 100% motivated and focused on this challenge as E was diagnosed with Bell's palsy a few weeks ago (after an eventful weekend spend at the hospital. When it first started, they weren't too sure what it was. So they decided to admit him to hospital to run more tests (in case it was a stroke or something similar).. After a day, they detected that it was centralised to his face (i.e. didn't affect the rest of the left side of his body) so they put him on steroids and told him to be patient, that he would eventually recover movement.

Patient is not a word in E's vocabulary, so as you can imagine it's been a trying few weeks. I've had him kicking around the house for the last few weeks on sick leave, impatient to start moving the muscles in his face and the relief is now he's almost able to close his eye and can now move his cheek a little.

So as you can imagine, the Daring Cook's challenge was the least of my worries (especially as I've been inundated with translation projects recently, meaning that I spend my time in front of the computer all day - adding to E's boredom). When I finally found a free minute to think about sourcing the ingredients, I had a tag-along.. (E just can't understand my preparation before cooking, and the lack thereof this time round caused numerous heated discussions between us).. Anyway, enough about that..

The sushi ->
Part 1. Sushi rice.. meh, easy to make (except when you don't read the labels of the bottles and end up with pre-sweetened sushi seasoning instead of rice vinegar). Ok, so I cheated but I have to say I didn't notice any difference in the rice..
Part 2.
Dragon roll with smoked herring (I do know where to get eel here Terres de l'Ebre, but didn't have time to go there) and courgette (no cucumber either) - the only thing I got right was the avocado!

Part 3.
Spiral roll with herring, courgette and fresh tuna. I know, there was supposed to be 6 ingredients, but couldn't think of anything else that wouldn't kill the flavour of the fish. As it was, I went overboard with the rice (as usual - it's the second time that I've made sushi and I had the same problem), so they were more sushi balls than sushi rolls.

Part 4.
Nigiri with fresh tuna, pan-fried calamar and monkfish. Okay, so these turned out a little better except I discovered that when I returned home with the rest of the ingredients that I hadn't any wasabi paste left.. Improvise.. so we added dijon mustard! It was, well, *interesting*. E liked it but I wasn't convinced.

Anyway, another challenge done and dusted.. I suppose I should be happy with the result (given the circumstances) but being a perfectionist, it's a lot to ask. I've got high standards but in some ways that's a good thing as maybe the next time round it will be even better..

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Daring Cooks' Challenge October '09 Part 2- Dessert Wonton

This month's Daring Cooks' Challenge consisted of two different parts. The second part of the challenge hosted by Jade of Steamy Kitchen was to make wontons, but on the condition that they had to be sweet. The filling could be anything, as long as it could be served as a dessert.

Hmm.. interesting challenge. The question, what to stuff them with? The basic recipe given by Jade was for chocolate, which got me thinking. Chocolate, the darker it is, generally is served as a sweet, but it can also be used in savoury recipes (think, Mexican mole). So vice-versa, probably other 'traditionally' savoury dishes could be used in sweet dishes.

It's an element that has been proved by numerous chefs as often sweet elements bring out the flavour in more salty dishes. Inspired by the range of gastronomic chocolates created by Cacao Sampaka (which includes or included dark chocolate truffles with parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, chili, black olive), I decided that the same goes for wontons..

Sticking to the basic recipe for chocolate wontons, E & I (well mainly E under instructions from the head chef) created a selection of wontons, each with their own individual flavour. Just like we tend to do when serving a box of Cacao Sampaka chocolates, we mixed up the wontons (although accidently this time) and were left to trying to identify the flavour by its taste.

The spices we used included: freshly ground cardamon, sweet chili sauce, curry, rosemary and more common, cinnamon; however I reckon the sky's the limit with this - pink peppercorns (whole), coriander, ginger, wasabi. As E started getting more enthusiastic about the idea, he made a few just for him: chocolate, banana and sweet chili sauce (well if they serve strawberries with pepper, why not banana with chili?).. According to him they were amazing - I'll take his word for it! I'm not going anywhere near bananas!

The result.. An interesting experiment, although I think it's only for the adventurous and for people who really like dark chocolate. I don't think my neighbours were too enamoured with the result.

The Recipe
Preparation time: 15 minutes + 15 minutes cooking time (for 12 wontons)
Servings: Makes 12 wontons.

1 large egg
1 tbsp. water
12 wonton wrappers, defrosted (keep wrappers covered with damp towel)
12 pieces or nuggets of chocolate (use any type of chocolate you like)
High-heat oil for frying (i.e., vegetable oil, corn oil)
Confectioners’ sugar (icing sugar) for sprinkling

In a small bowl, whisk together the egg and water to make an egg wash.
On a clean, dry surface lay 1 wonton wrapper down with a point toward you, like a diamond.
Place 1 piece of chocolate near the top end of the wrapper.
Brush a very thin layer of the egg wash on the edges of the wrapper.
Fold the bottom corner of the wrapper up to create a triangle and gently press to remove all air from the middle. Press the edges to adhere the sides. Make sure the wrapper is sealed completely.
Repeat with the remaining wrappers and chocolate pieces.
Keep the folded chocolate wontons covered under plastic wrap or a damp paper towel to prevent them from drying.
In a wok or medium pot, pour in 2 inches (5 cm.) of high-heat oil.
Heat the oil to 350º F (180º C) and gently slide a few of the chocolate wontons into the hot oil. Make sure you don’t crowd the chocolate wontons.
Fry the wontons for 1 ½ minutes, then flip over and fry another minute until both sides are golden brown and crisp.


Daring Cooks' Challenge October '09 Part 1- Chicken Pho

This month's Daring Cooks' Challenge was proposed by Jade of Steamy Kitchen. So what is Vietnamese Pho? It's a noodle soup.. but, in Jade's words "What makes Pho so different than any other type of noodle soup is the spices that go into the simmering broth. Warm spices like coriander, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, fresh ginger transform an ordinary broth into a very authentic Vietnamese Pho."

Mmm.. the combination just sounds wonderfully warming, especially now that we're into the Autumn days where it's darker when you get up, and darker in the afternoon.. I don't know what it is, but suddenly my body has kicked into hibernation and is warmed by the idea of steamy soups and broths.

Jade recommended charring the onion and ginger beforehand to fully release the flavours and I think that's the key. I'd made noodle soups previously with similar spices but they never turned out as fragrant as this one. But I think the best thing about Pho is that it isn't at all spicy (unless you added dashings of Sriracha sauce, of course).

Having toasted all the spices on a griddle pan and charred the onion and ginger (unpeeled) under the grill until the edges were black, it's just a case of chucking all the ingredients into a saucepan and bringing to the boil. The
traditional recipe calls for stock made from chicken bones but since I was short for time to complete the challenge (we have had something on every weekend up until now), I took for the short cut, using a tetrabrik of chicken stock..
One thing that must be said, if it starts to form lumps - don't freak out! It's the normal process when boiling chicken.. It needs to brought to the boil (rapidly bubbling) in order to remove the 'bad' fats from the chicken. It's just a case of slowly skimming off these lumps and you'll end up with a completely clear broth. Amazing, especially since the stock used was cloudy! :-)

The rest of the process is a cinch.. I used vermicelli rice noodles, soaked previously in hot water until soft, but I reckon thinner, ordinary noodles would work much better (otherwise, it ends up that there's more noodles than actual stock).

As regards the accompaniments, I don't think they're really necessary.. The only one which I'd recommend is the Sriracha sauce (a Chinese/Vietnamese/Thai chili sauce).. a few drops just to give it a bit of a kick without being overpowering.

All in all, a success - toasting the spices is a bit time-consuming and requires organisation, but it's definitely worth the effort as it 'softens' the ginger so that it doesn't overpower the anise/coriander/clove combination.. And as you can see, the end result didn't turn out half bad.. Good start to the first of many challenges, although I know E is quaking in his boots - he hates when I start experimenting with new dishes and techniques.

The Recipe
Preparation Time: 45 cooking time + 15 minutes to cook noodles based on package directions
Servings: Makes 4 servings

For the Chicken Pho Broth:
2 tbsp. whole coriander seeds
4 whole cloves
2 whole star anise
2 litres store-bought or homemade chicken stock
1 whole chicken breast (bone in or boneless)
½ onion
1 7.5 cm chunk of ginger, sliced and smashed with side of knife
1 to 2 tbsps. sugar
1 to 2 tbsps. fish sauce
1 lb. (500 grams/16 ounces) dried rice noodles (about ¼ inch/6 mm wide)

2 cups (200 grams/7 ounces) bean sprouts, washed and tails pinched off
Fresh cilantro (coriander) tops (leaves and tender stems)
½ cup (50 grams/approx. 2 ounces) shaved red onions
½ lime, cut into 4 wedges
Sriracha chili sauce
Hoisin sauce
Sliced fresh chili peppers of your choice

To make the Chicken Pho Broth: heat a frying pan over medium heat. Add the coriander seeds, cloves and star anise and toast until fragrant, about 3-4 minutes. Immediately spoon out the spices to avoid burning.
In a large pot, add all the ingredients (including the toasted spices) and bring to a boil.
Reduce the heat to medium-low and let simmer for 20 minutes, skimming the surface frequently.
Use tongs to remove the chicken breasts and shred the meat with your fingers, discarding the bone if you have used bone-in breasts.
Taste the broth and add more fish sauce or sugar, if needed. Strain the broth and discard the solids.
Prepare the noodles as per directions on the package.
Ladle the broth into bowls. Then divide the shredded chicken breast and the soft noodles evenly into each bowl.
Have the accompaniments spread out on the table. Each person can customize their own bowl with these ingredients.


Tuesday, 6 October 2009

End of the wedding season...

Last weekend we were at the last of the weddings this year down in Tortosa.. The last of five.. Joana & Paco, a cousin of E's dad... (there was 7 brothers and sisters in his granmother's family so there was a big difference between the oldest and the youngest - Joana's my age).

Regrettably, what was looking to be a fun event (was really looking forward to it - the reception was at Les Moles in Ulledecona), turned into One Wedding and a Funeral. E's granny fell into a coma on Friday night (passing away in the early hours of Sunday morning) so we were no more in the humour for going to a wedding the next day..

That being said, it was a wedding to remember - the food lived up to be everything that everyone said it would be..
Catering for large numbers tends to be a recipe for disaster - sorry folks, cooking fillet steak with foie gras for 200 people is just not possible. The steak most probably has been cooked at 9am that morning, so the probability that it will be as tough as boots is extremely high!

Joana & Paco got it 100% right - apart from the appertif hors d'oeuve, which were select and good quality, but pounced upon the moment the waiters loomed into view (it WAS 3pm, so obviously people were hungry), the rest of the meal made up for it..

Simplicity was the key, taking good ingredients and presenting them simply. It was certainly an example of a traditional Spanish wedding fair - the sign of a good wedding is the number of prawns/langoustines etc. that you get presented with! And this one, certainly turned up trumps..
Here you can see the Pumpkin soup, served separately (plated poached egg and langoustine, and then the pumpkin soup poured over the top)..

Dinner was topped off with a visit from Quico el Célio, el Mut i el Noi de Ferreries, a traditional band from the Terres de l'Ebre region, whose speciality is the traditional Jota originating from Tortosa. Joana's mother joined in to give her own ad-lib version dedicated to the couple (one of the features of the Jota is that people make up the lyrics as they go along, adapting them for the occasion).
They even played my favourite De Roquetes Vinc which has a special meaning for E's family, as it's a song that his Alzheimer-inflicted grandmother (Joana's aunt) still sings to this day on her more lucid days..

En fin.. a new beginning for some, a ending for others.. And so the circle of life goes on...


Here's the full line up:

Star-anise scented crisps
Iberian ham
Marinated anchovy and herring toast
Vegetable and foie gras coca pastry
Red pepper and courgette mousse cone
Langoustine and bacon brochette
Iberian ham croquettes
Griddled prawn brochette

Grilled langoustines
Pumpkin soup with langoustines and poached egg
Sea bass with calamar 'eel' and calamar ink 'caviar'
Blood orange and strawberry sorbet
Duck confit with muscatel and cinnamon scented apple purée
Textured rice pudding (with rice crispies!)
Wedding cake - Individual chocolate mousse cakes

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Food and celebrations

There's something about celebrations that brings the need to share it over food. Food and celebrations are so interlaced that it's like the event didn't even happen, if some bread hasn't been broken. Take Christmas, part of the thrill for me is the food that I associate with it..
The same goes for weddings. Although most people won't have clue what they ate on the day, part of the feeling that they take home from the wedding is created by the food they ate. Even to this day, we've had people commenting with mixed opinions about the dessert at our wedding (Blue cheese ice cream with figs) - foodies absolutely loving every minute, and the rest noting the wedding for strange contrasts - the Catalans thinking it was an Irish tradition, and the Irish thinking that it must another one of those strange napkin-swinging Catalan traditions..

This weekend we went to the wedding of our best friends, Raül and Carmen in Sant Vicenç de Moltalt. E has known Raül all through college (he was the year ahead in Hotel Management), had worked with him in his first job after college (the Hotel Campus in UAB where E worked as Receptionist and Raül as Maitre D) and ran into him again when they both went to work as consultants in CCS for a hotel ERP software program (without even knowing that the other was applying). Since then, their friendship has been constant - always finding a companion to comment Barça's latest trials and tribulations, and an accomplice to try out the latest restaurant or other culinary experience.
So as you can imagine, Raül finding a suitable girlfriend was going to be subject for scrutiny..
When we met Carmen, we both breathed a sigh of relief.. No one could be more perfect, more fitting than Carmen, with her instantly fitting in and becoming part of the group as if we'd know her for decades..

As you can imagine, when they announced that they were taking the plunge we were all over the moon, and started rubbing our hands just thinking about the wedding banquet. Knowing Raül & Carmen, friends after our own hearts, the outlook was promising!
And boy did it fulfill! The couple chose Turó del Sol, a restaurant about 20 minutes outside Barcelona for the location of their civil wedding. It was the most appropriate and well-organised setup we've seen in a while, which made everything run to plan..

The food was simple but extremely well executed. But the excitement of the day - seeing how much our two best friends beamed (Carmen must had a sore face the next day from so much smiling), that I only remembered half way through that I hadn't taken any photos to document the event..

So you'll just have to imagine that the food was brilliant (a massive chunk of hake, cooked to perfection; followed by a sirloin of pork with a wine jus; and a plate of Leches (milk pudding, milk custard, rice pudding), and I'll leave you with the happy face of the novios!

P.S. Will try and root out the menu, it's around here somewhere - I never throw anything away from the weddings I've been at..

P.P.S. Found the menu.. Here it is:

Centre of hake in a garlic shoot cream
Fillet of Iberian Pork with a red wine jus
Milk puddings platter
Wedding Cake (Strawberry mousse tart)

Monday, 24 August 2009

Daring Cooks' challenge - Gnocchi de mató

Since I've signed up for the Daring Cooks' challenge, I thought it might be a good idea to practise with previous recipes. So to start off slowly without trying anything too complicated, I opted for May's recipe - Ricotta Gnocchi.

First problem, source Ricotta. When checking out what exactly Ricotta was made from, to my delight I discovered that it was just the Italian version of requesón or mató as it is known here in Catalunya. Mató (known as brossat in Tortosa and a main ingredient for passissets - more about them later) is a main ingredient here, used much like ricotta in both sweet and savoury dishes. Grand, main ingredient easy to find and the other ingredients are more everyday stuff (eggs, flour).

As instructed, I strained it overnight in the fridge (mató tends to be quite liquidy) and proceeded to make the gnocchi. They turned out to be easier than I thought in making.. Didn't even fall apart on my first attempt!

I decided to go with the basic recipe - just a dash of nutmeg and plenty of parmigiano. The trick is to handle them as little as possible to ensure a fluffy filling that is quite different to the more common gnocchi de patate but still as deceptively filling.
According to my official taster (E), they passed the test although he suggested the next time they should 'accompany' something else (i.e. I'm still hungry) and that I should try a wild mushroom sauce made with ceps (porcini). So I guess, round one passed. Will I make them again? Probably - they were a lot easier to make than I thought - the most time consuming moment, forming the gnocchi (trying not to make them too big nor too small) but I definitely think I'll try E's suggestion in the Autumn (when there's fresh ceps around).

Thursday, 20 August 2009

The Daring Kitchen

Have been toying with the idea of joining the Daring Kitchen's baker's challenge for quite a while but have been put off since my oven does all or nothing (so I discovered one Christmas when trying to make my first Christmas fruitcake - Crispily black on top and gooely, uncooked mixture inside - lovely!). Why do things by half? It can just about cope with a pizza although it complains every so often, overheating its electric circuit and shutting completely off while giving a *lovely* aroma of burnt plastic. It's on the books for a change, but it's a matter of E and I seeing eye to eye about roller-drawer or hinged oven doors, and changing the hob as well (E wants vitro, I love gas) so I think it's going to be a while before we change it.. Anyway, so I reckoned that the world was not ready for my experiments as a baker (I don't think E was either as he openly discourages me from baking cakes etc!).
Thankfully I've found another challenge to keep me occupied that doesn't necessarily require an oven. Here's hoping that I can encourage E to help out since he likes me blogging and the like. He's an extremely good cook. I suppose it's his training (he did a degree in hotel management which included stints in the kitchen) but he's more a case of open-the-fridge-and-see-what-I've-got-to-make-dinner type of chef, not a fan of following recipes at all.. So it's going to be a push to get him to stick to the text. Don't you just love a challenge?

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Food for thought

Found an interesting article in the Guardian entitled Everyone's a Critic which discusses the idea of educating kids' palates. It talks about a trip with a crowd of two-year old's to Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck..
Wow, Imagine feeding green tea and lime foam to a two-year old! - Would have liked to be in their shoes!

P.D. Was discussing the whole idea with E afterwards, and he came up with a very good point.. For kids, every taste is new to them, so in some ways the finer qualities of foie or oysters would be lost on them until they have sufficiently developed their palate to know what they do and don't like. He has a point; especially when we think that there's many adults out there that haven't developed their palate either, turning their nose up at a lot of things without really trying them

Monday, 20 July 2009

Age-old cycle of the seasons

Found a rather interesting site just now, recommended by a friend of mine. Eat the Seasons reminds us of the benefits of eating when fruit, veg and fish are in season.
  • it reduces the energy (and associated CO2 emissions) needed to grow and transport the food we eat

  • we avoid paying a premium for food that is scarcer or has travelled a long way

  • it helps support the local economy

  • it helps reconnect with nature's cycles and the passing of time
They're rather important reasons for going seasonal, apart from the all important "it tastes better" too! Overall they have most of the fruit and veg seasons, right (apart from artichokes, better to leave them until January/February in my opinion).

It's funny how we've gone a complete circle again, returning to the ideas that originally appeared in Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, published in 1861. According to Mrs. Beeton, currently in season we have:

FISH.—Carp, crayfish, dory, flounders, haddocks, herrings, lobsters, mackerel, mullet, pike, plaice, prawns, salmon, shrimps, soles, sturgeon, tench, thornback.
MEAT.—Beef, lamb, mutton, veal, buck venison.
POULTRY.—Chickens, ducklings, fowls, green geese, leverets, plovers, pullets, rabbits, turkey poults, wheatears, wild ducks (called flappers).
VEGETABLES.—Artichokes, asparagus, beans, cabbages, carrots, cauliflowers, celery, cresses, endive, lettuces, mushrooms, onions, pease, radishes, small salading, sea-kale, sprouts, turnips, vegetable marrow,—various herbs.
FRUIT.—Apricots, cherries, currants, figs, gooseberries, melons, nectarines, pears, pineapples, plums, raspberries, strawberries, walnuts in high season, and pickled.

Although here in Spain, we tend to think the best time to eat shellfish (marisco) is the months that contain an R - January, February, March, April, September, November, December; but I suppose the season may be much longer in colder waters/climates (i.e. for artichokes). Having been used to having everything that we want, when we want, I think it's kind of nice tasting the 'first of the season'. The wait for the mandarin oranges or sweet, juicy nectarines makes them all the nicer.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Fishy wisdom

We Irish have a special relationship with salmon; it is probably the only fish that is full accepted in the Irish diet (despite being an island). There isn't a house in Ireland that doesn't whip out the smoked salmon and brown bread at Christmas, weddings, funerals and christenings! Maybe it's Fionn's blood in us all.

Here in Spain, there isn't as much furor for salmon, sadly being over looked for other more meaty fish like monkfish and cod. Having been here 6 years now, I'm beginning to understand their liking for cod. In Ireland, I tended to avoid it like the plague, as it was insipid and bland. The cod here is different, probably because it's
salted, which is good in some ways as it gives more flavour to an otherwise unappetising fish. The downside is if you don't soak it enough, you'll end up drinking water for the rest of the afternoon, so we've discovered on numerous occasions.. 48h hours is just not enough!

Shopping today I came across some lovely looking whole salmon, at only 5.95€ a kg - not bad. Despite being farmed, which usually means that it's rather fatty, it wasn't the case this time; it turned out a lovely fish. Rather than having the supermarket butcher it (and I mean mutilate it with a knife), I decided to take it home whole and wrestle with ourselves. E wasn't too enamored with the idea, as he says it's a great way of blunting knives, but then again, isn't that what they're for? Personally I always prefer to buy a full fish, having always seen mum and dad filleting fish at the kitchen sink, rather just asking for cuts to be cooked the same day - it's a fish that freezes well and is rather versatile.

The fish came in under 3 Kg, so there was plenty of fish to work with. In the end we took one full side and pan-fried it whole for a recipe I found in Arabesque (Barbecued Salmon and Aubergine Terrine). It starts off by lining a terrine with oven-roasted, ruby-red peppers, then sprinkling some crumbled, salty feta. On top of that, along one side, it layers poached leeks and on the other, some peeled, roasted aubergine. We placed half of the fillet (which had been panfried with a little garlic) in the centre and sprinkled it with some crushed coriander seeds. Then another layer of feta, more aubergine and leeks and the remaining salmon. Finally we topped it off with the rest of the peppers, and a layer of clingfilm. We've put some TetraBrics of stock on top to weight it. E was a bit skeptical about whether it would compact, but so far, the liquid seems to be dripping out. We'll have to wait until tomorrow to see the result.

The trimings along the backbone are going to be used for E's salmon tartare, a real treat where he mixes roughly diced fresh and smoked salmon with minced onion, gherkins, capers, hard-boiled egg and a dash of mustard and oil. A great temptié or a meal in itself (it's rather rich, so best to share - no worries here!).

I cut the other side into smallish darns and popped them in the freezer, to be salvaged another day when I'm homesick. Nothing like some panfried salmon and spuds to reminisce about moist lush Ireland!

Monday, 6 July 2009

Grocery shopping, the same all over the world, or is it?

Yeah, I know. A mind-disengagingly, boring task anywhere. Well for most people anyway.

E and I seem to get a kick out of it. It's a first stop-off, no matter where we go. I say that you can always tell how a country is by its supermarkets or lack-thereof.. and Spain is a food lovers paradise, so go figure that it would be instant gratification for us just doing the weekly shop.

Well, that was how it was until our busy lives caught up on us, forcing one or the other to do it alone. Not as much fun, alone.. I'm mean, somethings are meant to be done together. A long list of things comes to mind.. Yet, it ended up either being a) a strange guiri dashing through the aisles with her yellow-luminous post-its, hell bent on doing it as fast as possible (yep, my record was 34 mins for a full shop) or b) a tired-Spick whose face would light up with all the food that wasn't on the efficiently e-mailed shopping list or that already could be found in the laden shelves at home. Definitely not fun.

So where did the fun go? Most probably when the whole convenience food came..
When I arrived here, I would spend hours on end wandering around supermarkets mesmerized by the different food brands and lack thereof (I still can't stop giggling when I see Bimbo bread and reckon that Cif should still be Jif). I simply couldn't understand why their milk was on shelves and not in the fridge and why most supermarkets were rather empty of food and variety. For students in those days, it was hell. On earth.

Later, I discovered that supermarkets were not the places that the *real* people in Spain shopped. Heaven forbid if you even considered buying meat in the supermarket. For fresh stuff like that, you had to go to the market. The idea of convenience food was pizzas, chinese noodles and a millions of types of croquettes. Convenience it wasn't - rather *sin*venience - too much hassle and oil for a student.

So what happened? Globalisation, I guess. Or one rather smart market analyst who saw a gap market and a growing trend. I suppose it goes to figure, since the average working week is a minimum of 40 hours, and food customs (main meal in the middle of the day, and evening meal at 22h) meant that no one has enough time to go to the market (generally closed before 20h, unlike the supermarkets that open until 9 or 10 at night), let alone cook anymore. So it's a case of cartons of ready-made gaspazcho, cellophaned torillas, even callos a la abuela (tripe in a murky looking sauce that looks like anything but home-made by your granny - she'd turn in her grave, she would). The markets are fighting back, trying to employ celebrities to advertise the advantages of going local (better quality, fresher produce) but who can fight against price given the current aroma of the economic crisis?
It's one of the changes in Spain that I don't like at all. That's why going to Tortosa with its local market (with produce that has just hopped off the field) makes my mouth water for the fresh crunchy greens. Yet, there's other days (when I couldn't be bother to cook - yep, it happens to me too) that I'm glad I've got a tin of tuna in the house..

I guess it goes without saying that if a sign of a country is its supermarket (in my eyes), it won't be long before we all speak Spanglish.. :-/

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Mackerel, just like when I was a kid in Barley Cove

Sunny hot summer days are finally here..
Somehow my appetite has gone haywire. With all the heat, the thoughts of eating anything hot during the day turns my stomach. These days I've been craving refreshingly cold Niçoise salads; Capreses with juicy, meaty tomatoes, drizzled in sunshine gold olive oil; tart, creamy potato salads with lashings of astringent plump capers.. So it goes without saying that at some stage I'd delve into the comfort foods of when I was child.

Today I started thinking about Mackerel.. A seriously under-rated fish in some countries - I don't think many people in Ireland have even tasted mackerel, let alone see a whole one, head and all. As a child I used to sit on the edge of a rock in Barley Cove while I'd watch my uncle Bobby trying his hand in enticing a shoal to his hook. Some days we'd be bathed in lovely afternoon sunshine, but mostly we'd be sitting there in raincoats until we got too cold and gave up.
He never gave up, rain, hail or shine.. Actually he was quite good at it (yet he could never understand my dad's patience to fish in boat in the middle of the lake), so there was many occasion that we would be faced with mackerel for tea, making the caravan smell for the whole weekend after..
Since then, it's kind of evolved for me, mackerel, learning different ways to cook it but I think deep-down i still prefer it the old way - straight off the pan with lashings of butter and black pepper..
E tends to prefer it Catalan style - escabetx or poached slightly/marinated in vinegar and oil. Wasn't too keen on it as first as vinegar was a big no-no for me, but over the years that I've been here (6 already), it's slowly growing on me.
It's rather simple to prepare: 1 part wine vinegar, 2 parts olive oil and some water to cover, a bay leaf and some black peppercorns. Place the gutted and de-headed mackerel in the liquid and bring to the boil. When it starts to boil, remove from the heat and leave to cool in the liquid. Once cold, transfer to a small casserole dish and cover completely with virgen olive oil. Not only does the oil 'soften' the taste of vinegar and mellow the flavour of the fish. E prefers to leave out the oil -just using vinegar and water, but it makes it too vinegary for my liking.
The great thing is it keeps really well in the fridge (or on the countertop if you don't live in hot Spain -it's currently 29º) for a few days. Mmm.. My mouth already starts to water as if it were a bag of salt and vinegar crisps..

Friday, 5 June 2009

To La Rioja or to not La Rioja, that is the question..

It's official. E and I have been married for a year now.. So to celebrate, the lovely folk at F&G where we held our wedding last year gave us a night in one of their hotels for our first anniversary.

Where to go was the question - the only solution being to Logroño, heart of the La Rioja district so as you can imagine, we forcibly went.. Imagine, a *whole* weekend tasting wine - you'd have to like it a bit for a start, and then somehow manage to find your way to a restaurant to eat something to soak up all that wine.. A difficult task was at hand..

Well, in Logroño they've got that under control, you just stagger
along. The weekend we were there it was the festival of the Laurel district meaning that everyone was out on the street eating pintxos, but unlike Bilbao the bars *ONLY* did one pintxo each.. To be honest, I'm not sure which one out of all the different ones we tried (yes another pub crawl was in order) was the best.. it's a toss up between the Triple-tiered garlic button mushrooms, where the liquidy, pungent juice sank into a day old piece of bread (Garlic mushrooms and garlic bread in one bite!) or maybe the gula or saltcod scramble roll (gulas are a delicacy of Spain - originally the young baby eels before they were nearly fished out of extinction, nowadays made from a fish paste but still in th
e form of tiny slivery, worm-like eels).. Sounds ucky but the scramble was just at that point between cooked and slightly runny that it made it a marvellous bite..
Anyway, getting back to the real motivation for the trip - the wine, and oh so much of it! Everywhere, of every type, and for every pocket (imagine €0.70 for a shot of wine!). I don't think I really *got* wine, until going to New Zealand but now, it seems that E and I are somewhat experts, well if you can compare us to the other visitors to the area who didn't have much of a clue (why go to visit Bodegas if you don't even like wine??¿¿!)

E had done some thorough research beforehand, checking out the best wineries to go, which I goes to figure since he couldn't let the Spanish side down after all that fabulous tasting in NZ.. And he didn't let the side down.
The first stop-off was in CVNE's Viña Real, half way between Logroño and Laguardia, heart of the Rioja district. What can I say, we arrived at a great time - winery to ourselves, just one group of girls with us as we toured around the facilities (state of the art and the flagship of CVNE now) and proceeded to taste the standard samples and then some.. We stumbled across the real reason why Corona beer isn't called Corona in Spain (it's Coronita) as CVNE makes an incredible sweet wine called Corona - definitely a must-try.
I could go on and on about that winery and their other one in Haro (La Rioja Alta) .. but then, the best way to know what I mean is to go there as they're so well set up that visitors can even look around during harvesting, which is totally unheard of here in Catalunya (our viniculture friend Ramon disappears off the space of the earth during September and October).
Other great finds were Bodegas Bilaínas and La Rioja Alta, each so completely different, with totally different philosophies but the same basic processes. And yes, the car did come back a few cases heavier... You can't go and not bring souvenirs for everyone! :-)

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

What do the Aussies put in their fish?

One of our major "must do" things while we were in Australia is to check out their fish market.
Ever since my Mum visited my aunt and uncle in Sydney, I'll never forget her talking about the fish market - how they'd buy some fish and eat it there in the same place. Will it really live up to our high expectations given that we're used to see great markets like La Boqueria?
The answer was sort of..

The variety was amazing, a lot of varieties of fish that we know back home but different - like New Zealand green-lipped mussels (mmm, go figure that I'd be interested in them!), Sydney bay oysters and a number of different catfish and snapper. However, what shocked us more than anything was the price - how can monkfish be selling at $27 a kilo, that's just €13.50! Our prices start around 27€, so there must be a catch.

We couldn't help but wondering why, if the fish is so cheap, don't the Aussies spend all there time at the fish market (it was empty apart from the usual Japanese tourists)? The place had a run-down feeling and my uncle told us that they weren't quite sure what to do with it, as
it was outdated now, they had problems keeping the fish during their summer with its high temperatures, and it seemed that no one (apart from the Japanese who would go wild over the tuna - every fish stand served ready-to-eat sushi) went there to buy.

There doesn't seem to be much clue about how to cook fish (especially in our Aussies' house - fish is "ew, yuck, it smells so fishy" word). E couldn't understand why anyone would want to serve mussels in coconut cream.
So the challenge for us was to present it so that even my picky cousins would try it. Tough challenge, given the variety of fish, but we reckoned that we had to narrow it down to the more meaty fish - Monkfish, cuttlefish, fresh red tuna, and some of the Sydney bay oysters just for us, as it was unlikely that any one else would try. My uncle was delighted at the thought that someone else would encourage the rest of the family to try new things.
As usual, E donned his chef's hat and started preparing the perfectly cleaned fish (no heads or bones here!) - the plan was simple: grilled tuna with a dash of salt and pepper, deep fried monkfish, beer-battered cuttlefish and oysters au naturel.
I think the fact of seeing someone *cooking* in the kitchen made my cousin take on an adventurous spirit and he even tried an oyster although wasn't too enamoured although the comment was "it's not bad..". First, challenge past with success.
How about the rest of the family? Well, I won't bore you with the details but I think it went down well, even with my extremely picky aunt (it's not surprising that the rest of the family as turned out suspicious of new food!). There's nothing that gives me more satisfaction than when we convince someone to try something new that they've never ventured to try before and find that they actually like it!

Getting back to the fish - we found out why it was so cheap. It's not that it's bad fish, just rather insipid when you compare it to Mediterranean fish (which has a higher salt content). So no wonder everyone dares to spice it up with chilli (chilli squid, chilli fish, chilli mussels - everything gets a health dose of chilli)!

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Australia, the land of hope, opportunities and Vegemite

We're about to head off to Australia and New Zealand in a few weeks for my brother's wedding in Queen Charlotte Inlet, Marlborough Sounds, so have been checking out what's typical to eat in both places..

In Australia, since we'll be staying with my aunt and uncle, we're sure to try their barbie at some stage or another (from what my mum tells me, they're not motivated cooks!) but hoping to try some meat pies (good recommendation from Glynn), kangaroo meat (E's choice since we've already tried croc and ostrich) and their shrimp since I've already tried Vegemite and wasn't too fond of it! And of course, some macadamias will be coming back to Spain!

As for New Zealand, their lamb is infamous all over the world and there's apparently a variety of mussels that sound really good! Let's see what comes up.. :-)
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