Saturday, March 2, 2024


Salt-cured sardines, three for one Euro in today's market.

One million eight hundred thousand (1,800,000) kippered sardines were purchased in a single day, February 8, 1434, the beginning of Lent, in the city of Barcelona, according to tax records*. These were salt-cured sardines shipped overland from Galicia. 

Over the centuries the Catholic Church, with its many days of abstinence when meat is proscribed, has been the best promoter of eating fish. In the days before refrigeration, people who did not live near the shores where fresh fish were available depended on salt fish of many kinds.

In present times, bacalao, salt cod, is the most prevalent, but those salt sardines are still produced, still sold. Give them a try! It turns out, those stiff, smelly sardines are delicious and ever so versatile.

In Spanish, these are called sardinas arenques or “herring-sardines.” They are not herrings, but they are cured similarly. The word “kippers” usually designates smoked fish, but it actually means fish that is salt-cured and either air-dried or smoked. These sardines are not smoked.

My pueblo fish vendor always has a wooden tub of them, three sardines for one Euro. (In the 15th century, they were three for one maravedi, or approximately 10 centimos.) Felix, the fish seller, said he himself had never eaten a salt sardine! Some of his customers told me how to prepare them. They said that, in order to loosen the flesh from the skin and spine, people used to wrap the sardines in parchment, place them in the door jamb, and slam the door. Pepe said he had never tried that. His directions, “just put them on the plancha (grill) for a minute.”

That´s what I did. A quick turn on a grill just to soften the small fish. Then it was easy to pick the flesh off the bones. 

I tasted a piece of the sardine. Salty, yes, but, like anchovies, it had a umami whammy, that yum factor that’s exactly what’s needed to add pizazz to pizza. 

Once warmed, easy to pick flesh from bones.
To prepare kippered sardines: Unlike salt cod, salt sardines do not need to be soaked. Nor do they need to cook. Heat them in a heavy skillet (be sure to turn on the extractor fan). While they are still warm, cut off the heads and tails. Use a spoon to scoop out the desiccated innards and the skin and scales. With a knife tip, lift the fillets off the spine. 

Here are some traditional recipes for using the filleted kippered sardines.

Málaga Salad with Oranges, Potatoes and Cod. (Swap sardines for the salt cod.)

Catalan Flatbreads with Mushrooms (Coca). (Substitute salt sardines for the sausage.)

"Cobblestones" Bean Salad (Empedrat). Use sardines in place of cod. 

Traditional pan con tomate: toast rolls or slabs of country bread, scrub them with cut tomato, sprinkle generously with extra virgin olive oil, add toppings such as fillets of salt sardines.

Pasta with Sardines (Pasta con le Sarde)
Pasta con Sardinas, Pasas y Piñones

The salty umami sardines turn a simple pasta dish into spectacular. This version has spinach, raisins, pine nuts and sprigs of fresh wild fennel.

This is a Spanish adaptation of a Sardinian (Italian) recipe. The salt sardines can be replaced with canned or fresh ones. 

Per 1 serving:
1 teaspoon raisins
Pinch of saffron
2 tablespoons hot water
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon pine nuts
1 tablespoon chopped onion
1 clove chopped garlic
1 cup chopped spinach
Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
2 ounces spaghetti
1 sprig fennel or slice of fennel bulb
3 cleaned and filleted sardines
1 tablespoon toasted bread crumbs

Place the raisins and saffron in a small bowl and add the hot water. Let them soak 5 minutes. Heat the oil in a skillet and fry the pine nuts until golden. Skim out the pine nuts and reserve them. Add the onion and garlic to the pan and sauté on medium for 5 minutes. Add the spinach and the raisins, saffron and water and cook until the spinach is wilted. Season with salt and pepper.

Cook the spaghetti in boiling water with the sprig of fennel. Add ½ cup of pasta water to the pan with the spinach. Drain the pasta. Break the sardines into 2 or 3 pieces and mix them with the sauce in the pan. Add the pine nuts and the spaghetti. Heat thoroughly. Serve the pasta and sauce into a bowl and top with the crumbs.

*The information about commerce of salt sardines in Barcelona comes from this paper   EN TORNO AL COMERCIO DE PESCADO ATLÁNTICO IBÉRICO EN EL MEDITERRÁNEO CATALANOARAGONÉS  by Roser Salicrú i Llunch IMF- CSIC (Barcelona)

Saturday, February 24, 2024


 “It’s all about the light,” Joanna said. “Watch, when I move the whiteboard, how the shadows on the meatballs change,” She shifted the board so the reflected light brightened the dark side of the meatballs.  “Can you see it?” 

When I started blogging about Spanish food (November 2009) I took snapshots of the food I was writing about to illustrate the posts. Photographer friends gave me some picture-taking tips. Over the years, setting up recipes and shooting the results in my kitchen, my photos have improved, but are still pretty amateurish. 

When one of those photographer friends was visiting recently, I asked her for some coaching. Joanna Butler, retired photo-journalist and an active fine-arts photographer (she has shown her work in Spain, Norway and America), agreed to spend a morning shooting in my kitchen and stay for lunch. 

For our photo workshop in my kitchen, I had ready a heap of nicely browned meatballs in one bowl,  the almond sauce in a pan to be heated. I set out several platters to choose from. I had an array of props. As almonds are an important ingredient in the sauce, I gathered a few almond blossoms from the trees in my garden. I put out almonds in their shells, some skinned ones, some fried ones. Saffron, nutmegs, olive oil and a leafy bouquet of parsley. A loaf of bread. A bowl of cooked rice as a side dish. 

Once we were satisfied with the lighting, we arranged the meatballs on a mosaic platter with just a few almonds around it, nothing more. Here we go. Click, click, click.

No pop at all to this first shot. Where did the golden saffron sauce go? 

Out of focus!

We compared shots on her iPhone and my camera. When enlarged, we could see that my photos were blurred, hers were sharp. “Maybe, use a tripod because your hand is moving too much. Or, raise the ISO so you can use a faster shutter speed.” Joanna encouraged me to trade in my camera for an iPhone, but I am used to a compact camera and mobile phones frustrate me. 

We switched the platter of meatballs to a new surface with a different light source and shot some more. We placed the food on the floor, right in a sunny window. Joanna stretched a gauzy cloth across the window to filter the harsh light. 

“Now, let’s put the meatballs on another platter and do it again.” We didn’t fiddle with styling too much or use any of the props I had on hand. Knowing what to put in or take out of a picture requires a whole different skill set. The goal of this workshop was just to make a picture of meatballs that looked good enough to eat. 

We tried different light and different angles. Joanna used a step stool to get an overhead shot of the platter on a dark wood background. She made another at table level, as a diner might view the meatballs. Which is best, the white or dark background? 

My best shot, but the color still is not right. Some editing needed, but I will leave that to the pros.

Is this the beauty shot? Those meatballs look good enough to eat! (Photo by Joanna Butler)

Meatballs for lunch! The professionals may not eat what they shoot, but I do.

By lunch time we each had 20 or more pictures in the can. I scooped meatballs onto two plates. “One more shot,” I said, “and we eat.” I set the plates on the table. “So, what do you think of the meatballs, the spicing?,” I asked.

“Oh, I didn’t tell you. I can’t taste anything,” Joanna replied. “I lost my sense of taste when I had Covid! But, I still like sitting down to eat with friends.” 

Fork and phone, Joanna reviews the meatball photos.

Thanks, Joanna, for your coaching. I learned a lot. Let’s see if I can put some of it into practice. (See below for one of Joanna's recent photos.)

Here is the recipe for the Meatballs in Almond-Saffron Sauce pictured.

More versions of albóndigas, meat-, chicken-, fish- and bread- balls:

Photo by Joanna Butler

Saturday, February 17, 2024


The Spanish have a name for it, la comida de cuchara, “spoon food,” that genre of comfort food that’s soupy, stewy, saucy, slow-cooked deliciousness. It’s heart-warming food that also warms up the kitchen. These include potajes and cocidos, pots of legumes plus veggies plus meat, but also estofados and guisos, two words for stews, these usually without legumes.

While slow-cooked stews are perfect for chill February days, hints of spring (almond trees in bloom, daffodils poking up through damp soil) suggest a switch to new-season vegetables—artichokes and peas go into this beef stew. 

This stew is different from the old-fashioned one my mother made. The gravy is thickened with ground almonds instead of flour. The almond sauce, sometimes known as pepitoria or ajopollo, is equally good with meatballs, with vegetarian dishes such as potatoes, with chicken and fish. 

A heart-warming beef stew for February. Artichokes and peas give a hint of spring.

Serve red wine with this stew.

Spoon food! With bread, of course. 

I used cabezal de lomo, a cut of beef from the top of the loin. Chuck is the best equivalent. Also good are brisket, beef cheeks or shanks. They have enough collagen and fat to keep the braised meat juicy. Lean beef cooks up dry. Pork or lamb stew meat can be cooked using the same recipe. For a vegetarian version, use mushrooms instead of beef, vegetable stock, and add quartered hard-boiled eggs to the finished stew.

Beef Stew with Artichokes
Guiso de Ternera con Alcachofas

If using whole spices, crush them in a mortar then add them to the bread and almonds in the blender. Add ground spices directly to the blender.

Serves 4.

1 ½ pounds stewing beef
Freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves peeled garlic
1/3 cup blanched and skinned almonds
1 slice bread, crusts removed
½ cup white wine
Pinch of saffron threads
½ teaspoon coarse salt
¼ teaspoon black peppercorns
1 clove
1 red onion, julienned
2 ½ cup meat or chicken stock
1 bay leaf
2-inch cinnamon stick
2 large artichokes (1 ¼ pounds) 
3 carrots, cut in 1-inch pieces
Lemon juice
1 cup shelled peas, fresh or frozen

Cut the beef into spoon-size (1-inch) chunks. Sprinkle them with salt and pepper. Let the meat come to room temperature.

Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a stew pan or deep skillet. Add the garlics. When they begin to sizzle add the almonds and slice of bread. Fry them, turning, until they are golden. Skim them out and place in a blender. Add a sprig of parsley and the wine. Let these ingredients soak until the bread softens.

Add remaining 1 tablespoon of oil to the stew pan. On medium heat sauté the onions until they begin to brown, 8 minutes. Turn up the heat and add the cubes of beef. Let the meat brown on one side. Turn it and continue browning. Add 2 cups of the stock, the bay leaf and cinnamon stick. Simmer, covered, 30 minutes.  

While beef is cooking, place the saffron in a mortar with the coarse salt, peppercorns and clove. Crush the spices and add them to the blender with the fried bread. Blend to make a smooth paste. Set it aside.

Scoop out choke.
Add the carrots to the pan with the meat. Strip the artichokes of outer leaves, cut off and discard the top 2/3 of the leaves, leaving the bottoms only. Cut the bottoms into quarters. Use a melon ball cutter to scoop out the fuzzy chokes. Drop the artichoke pieces into water with lemon juice.
Simmer until beef is tender.

After the beef has simmered 30 minutes, add the carrots and artichokes to the pan. Stir in the paste of almonds, garlic, and fried bread. Add remaining ½ cup of stock. Cook, uncovered, until the alcohol cooks off, 2 minutes. Taste for salt and add more if needed. Cover the pan and simmer until beef is very tender, 30 to 60 minutes more. Add the peas 2 minutes before removing the pan from the heat. Discard the bay leaf and cinnamon stick. Let the stew settle 5 minutes before serving. Garnish with chopped parsley.

More stews: