Saturday, November 18, 2017

GOLDEN SAFFRON, THE NOVEMBER SPICE


La Mancha where saffron is grown.

In La Mancha, the upland plateau region of central Spain, early November is the season for harvesting saffron flowers. Saffron, the spice, consists of the dried stigmas of a small, mauve-colored, autumn-blooming crocus. The plant originated in the Middle East and was introduced into Spain by the Moors in the ninth century. Saffron became the flavor of status in medieval cuisine. It has been grown in Spain’s La Mancha region ever since.

Autumn-blooming saffron crocuses.

The three orange-gold stigmas of each flower are extracted by hand.


Saffron, of course, is essential to real paella. It also goes into other rice dishes and some stews such as gallina en pepitoria, chicken braised in almond-saffron sauce. I’m making a Manchegan rice dish that combines the two—stewed chicken and rice. This is caldoso or "soupy" rice, not dry like paella.

Golden rice with chicken stewed in almond sauce.

This is a real farmhouse dish, where a free-range barnyard fowl might be used. Use a smaller “fryer” (3 ½ pounds) instead. It cooks in water or stock until completely tender before the rice is added.

Vegetables can be included—green beans or artichokes being the most common. I’ve added sliced butternut squash.

To extract all the flavor and color from saffron, first crush the wispy threads in a mortar. Place the saffron in a cup and pour over hot liquid. Let the saffron infuse at least 5 minutes and up to 30 minutes.

Use Spanish “round,” medium-grain, paella rice for this dish, preferably the variety called Bomba. Bomba rice is preferred for caldoso dishes as it doesn’t “flower” when cooked with lots of liquid.

I started with a whole chicken, cut into joints. With the breast cut into four, this made eight serving pieces. I separated out the bony back, neck and wings and used them to make a light stock. You can use store-bought stock or just plain water. If using water, be sure to add plenty of salt to taste.

The chicken liver gets fried and mashed up with almonds and garlic to thicken the cooking liquid slightly. If you don’t have a liver (or prefer to put it on toast and eat it straight up), fry a slice of bread to mash.

How soupy is soupy rice? You’ll need at least four times the volume of liquid to rice, i.e., 2 cups rice and 8 cups water or stock. You will be surprised how much liquid the rice absorbs in the five minutes settling period after you remove it from the heat. So a total of 9 or 10 cups liquid is better if you’re aiming for “soupy.”

Vegetables can be included--here, butternut squash and green beans.



(Free-Range) Chicken with Soupy Rice
Pollo de Corral con Arroz Caldoso


Serves 6

Bomba variety is best for caldoso rice.
2- 2 ½ pounds chicken pieces
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Thyme
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 chicken liver, cut in 3 or 4 pieces, or 1 slice bread, crusts removed
¼ cup blanched and skinned almonds
6 cloves garlic
½ cup chopped onion
½ cup grated tomato pulp
½ teaspoon saffron threads
1 clove
¼ cup hot water
1 tablespoon chopped parsley plus additional for garnish
¼ cup white wine
2 bay leaves
9-10 cups water or chicken stock (or a combination)
2 cups medium-grain rice, preferably Bomba variety
Sliced butternut squash (optional)
Cut-up green beans (optional)


Sprinkle the chicken with salt, pepper and thyme and allow it to come to room temperature.

Heat the oil in a large pan or cazuela. Fry the chicken liver (or bread), almonds and 2 whole cloves of the garlic until they are lightly browned. Remove and reserve. Set a few toasted almonds aside to garnish the finished dish.

Add the chicken pieces to the pan and brown them on medium-high heat, 10-12 minutes. Remove.

Chop 2 cloves of the remaining garlic and add to the pan with the chopped onion. Sauté several minutes, then add the tomato pulp. Continue frying until tomato cooks up somewhat.

Meanwhile, crush the saffron and clove in a mortar. Place the spices in a small bowl and add the ¼ cup hot water. Allow the saffron to infuse 5 minutes.

Place the chicken liver, almonds, fried garlic and 2 cloves of raw garlic  in a blender with the wine. Blend to make a smooth paste.

Stir the paste into the pan. Add the saffron-clove mixture and bay leaves. Add 4 cups of the water or chicken stock. If using water, add 1 teaspoon of salt. Chicken stock may not need additional salt.

Return the chicken pieces to the pan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer the chicken, uncovered, turning it once or twice, until tender, about 40 minutes if you started with a 3-pound “fryer,” longer for a larger, free-range chicken.

Add about 5 cups additional water or stock to the pan. Add more salt to taste. Bring to a boil and stir in the rice. Add the pieces of squash and beans, if using. Cook, uncovered, on high for 5 minutes. Reduce heat so liquid bubbles gently. Cook 10 minutes longer and remove the pan from the heat. Allow the chicken and rice to set for 5 minutes before serving. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and the reserved toasted almonds.

Caldoso rice is "spoon food." Chicken should be falling-off-the-bones tender.

La Mancha, processing saffron by hand.

More recipes with saffron:

Saturday, November 11, 2017

LIVE IT UP!



Celebration! Chocolate birthday cake, bubbly cava and friends.

With a major birthday this week, a date that also marks the anniversary of the day I quit smoking (32 years ago), plus the eighth anniversary of starting this blog, I was all set to live it up. I would bake myself a sugar-free chocolate birthday cake, regale myself with flowers, invite some friends over and pop open a bottle of bubbly cava.


Birthday bouquet.


Not enough candles for my cake.

The taste test--- (Cake is topped with whipped cream sweetened with stevia.)

The gala event went sort of according to plan. The cake, which I photographed earlier in the day, looked gorgeous. But I noticed that the friends politely pushed the cake aside. I tasted. The cake was awful! A disaster.

My idea was to use pureed prunes to stand in for sugar and to use dark (85%) chocolate sweetened with malitol and stevia plus unsweetened cocoa in the cake batter. Oh, and also to sub olive oil for butter. Prunes would point up the fruitiness of chocolate. A hint of coffee would also deepen the chocolate. A shot of Sherry vinegar, conversely, to emphasize the sweetness of prunes and stevia. (The recipe was based on one for Chocolate Prune Cake in Joy of Cooking.)

The cake didn’t rise. It tasted great--a deep, bittersweet chocolate. But it was dense and heavy as lead. Inedible. The cava went down nicely. The friends were fun, the pressies nice.

I couldn’t give up on the cake. A couple days later I made a second one, using more liquid to make a lighter batter. It rose nicely. Full of optimism, I spread a chocolate ganache on the top.

The second cake, topped with ganache.

Alas! The texture was horrid, dense, sort of like steamed pudding. “Throw it out,” said my son Ben. “Too chocolate-y,” said grandson Leo.

I know that sugar in baking does more than just sweeten. It gives texture and volume as well. And I know that creaming butter with sugar creates a cakey texture that olive oil can’t match.

I’m just now googling sugar-free cake entries. Perhaps I’ll have another try for the next celebration. But, this week you get no blog recipe, just some pretty pictures.

It's my party and I'll cry if I want to! Just pour me another cava, please.


Other (successful) recipes for sugar-free desserts:
Sugar-Free Almond Torte.
Date Bars.
Apricot Mousse.

More recipes for baking with olive oil:
Apple-Almond Crumble.
Olive Oil Carrot Cake.
Fig Pudding.
Zucchini Chocolate Cake.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

PHOTO TOUR TO MOROCCO

“I’m interested in where you put your eye,” said Antonio, as he downloaded my nearly 800 photos onto a pen drive. Antonio Martín led a landscape photography tour to Merzouga, in the south of Morocco. We were eight people on the tour—Antonio and his wife, Martina Reich, three Spanish guys and three American women—traveling in two four-wheel drive vehicles from southern Spain.


Where I put my eye seemed to be mainly on food! In kitchens, in markets, food on the hoof and fruits on the tree. I recorded every meal we ate on the eight-day trip, from Tangier to Azrou to Merzouga and return via Midelt, Moulay Idriss and back to the port of Tangier. 

One of our photo group has climbed part way up the Great Dune to capture the sunrise.

My eye also took in ravishing landscapes, from the escarpments and gorges of the High Atlas Mountains to golden dunes, from rocky desert to lush oases of date palms. Antonio took us on night photography expeditions and showed us how to photograph sundown silhouettes of a camel caravan. (Photos and recipes are in the previous five blogs.)


Bread and Pastries


Three kinds of breads served at breakfast with honey, fruit jam and olives. (Dar Zerhoune guest house in Moulay Idriss.)

Layered flat bread called rghaif, baked on a griddle. It is made with a yeast dough, folded and brushed with oil. (Kasbah Asmaa Hotel, Midelt.)


Fried cruller, for breakfast.
Flat bread rolled with spicy onion, sliced and fried.













Moroccan bread, baked in a round loaf, accompanies every meal.

A selection of Moroccan pastries. These were served on the breakfast buffet. (Hotel Les Dunes d'Or, Merzouga.)

Food Vendors and Markets


We buy apples from a roadside vendor.


Dried figs strung together at a stall in the souk of Moulay Idriss.

Sheep market at the big souk in Rissani. Lamb is slaughtered for special festivals and for wedding feasts.
Spices, grains and legumes at Rissani market.

Grilled brochettes in Rissani.

People of the Erg Chebbi Desert






"Farmyard" in the desert.

Open-air kitchen in the desert.

Antonio, a superb portraitist, delivers a photo he made last year to this elderly desert man. A gregarious, exuberant and always curious human being, Antonio makes friends with people everywhere he goes. He took us along to visit people of the desert whom he had met and photographed on previous trips.

The ceiling in the elderly man's desert home. Note the light switch and bulb, powered by solar panel outside.

Berber Villages


Hospitality--always a pot of mint tea. We leave our shoes at the door and are seated on carpets on the floor. The large room has no furniture other than the low table, a few cushions and a large flat-screen TV.

Seated outside her home, this woman cleans and sorts dried herbs.

All dressed up for a Berber wedding.


Antonio Martín--photographer, galleryist, biker, horse guy, world traveller. (http://antoniomartin.com/)

The Morocco trip was a privately organized tour with experienced guides, Antonio and Martina, who have been traveling in Morocco for many years. They usually make two photo tours each year for small groups. For more information, contact martina@antoniomartin.com.

Leaving Moulay Idriss, we needed three donkeys to transport luggage from the guest house to the cars.