Saturday, October 25, 2014

FLYING THE FLAG--AT THE DINNER TABLE

Spanish national flag, la roja y gualda.

Spaniards love their national flag--la roja y gualda--the red and yellow (except, that is, for die-hard republicans who add a band of purple and for Catalan separatists who add an inset of a lone star on the red and yellow bars). The national flag waves at World Cup soccer matches and basketball championships, at the Olympics, at tennis tournaments when Rafael Nadal is playing.

Even at the dinner table Spaniards are said to love the roja y gualda. Foods colored red with pimentón or yellow with saffron are amongst the nation's favorite dishes.  La comida amarilla--the yellow meal--so appreciated everywhere in Spain, is best represented by paella, but there are many more yellow dishes. While the orange-red of pimentón is appreciated in many regions, it seems to be a basic color of life in Galicia.

Saffron is a spice of the Old World, known to the Romans and re-introduced to Europe by the Moors, who brought it to Spain. Pimentón, the dried and milled capsicum pepper, is a spice of the New World, discovered by Columbus who was after a fast-track to the Spice Islands.


About saffron. Saffron (azafrán) is like gold--precious and expensive. It's expensive because it takes the tiny stigmas of 75,000 crocus sativus to make a half-kilo of the spice. They come from a mauve-colored crocus that's blooming now, late October into early November.  The finest saffron comes from La Mancha (where it has denominación de origen) and Murcia, but cheap saffron from Iran is imported, packaged in Spain and marketed globally.
Denominación La Mancha.

Because it is so valued, saffron has long been an ingredient in special foods, those served on fiesta days, for weddings and baptisms. But for ordinary cooking, la comida amarilla is made with artificial yellow coloring.
Artificial yellow coloring.

The powdered yellow coloring is widely called azafrán, although it is not, or else by the most popular brand name, Aeroplano. Many bright-yellow paellas served up in ordinary bars and restaurants contain not a wisp of true saffron. Not to be substituted, however, is turmeric, another yellow spice, which has a powerful aroma of its own, used in many curries.

Real Spanish saffron is sold in natural threads (hebras) in sachets or plastic packets, weighing from a half-gram to two or three grams. One-half gram, about a teaspoonful of threads, is enough for two or three meals, whether paella, bouillabaisse or risotto. The good stuff has an aroma of honey, sweet hay, a little medicinal. It's color intensifies the longer it is soaked in hot liquid.

Store saffron in a dry place, protected from direct light. The threads should be pulverized before using in cooking. If they are crisp and dry, that's easily done in a mortar or in a teacup, using the butt-end of a knife. If the saffron wisps are limp, wrap them in a piece of foil or parchment and toast them in a frying pan for a minute. Then crush them.

Dissolve the crushed saffron in a little hot liquid--stock, water, milk--and allow to infuse for 10 minutes. Then add the saffron liquid to the food to be cooked. For a sumptuous gilding to a finished dish, scatter  a few wisps of saffron on top.



Pimentón de la Vera, smoked paprika from Extremadura.

Two types of capsicums dried for grinding into pimentón, choriceros on the left, and ñoras.


About pimentón (paprika). Not just a colorful sprinkle on the top of a dish, pimentón is used lavishly for both color and flavor. It is, arguably, the most important spice in the Spanish repertoire.

In Spain there are at least two types of pimentón--pimentón dulce, sweet paprika, and pimentón picante, piquant paprika, with a bite, but not as hot as cayenne.

There are further distinctions. Several regions of Spain are renowned for the quality of their pimentón--Navarra, Extremadura and Murcia, in particular. Some even have denominación de calidad--a designation of quality.

One of these is Pimentón de la Vera, paprika from the La Vera region of Extremadura. Sweet and piquant peppers are slowly dried in oak-fired kilns, which give them a wonderful ruddy color and dusky, smoky flavor.

Pescado en Amarillo
Fish in Saffron Sauce
Sea bass fillets en amarillo, in a saffron sauce.

Use a solid-fleshed fish in this dish. Good choices are grey mullet (lisa), conger eel (congrio), monkfish (rape), cuttlefish (sepia), dogfish (cazón), sea bass (lubina) or swordfish (pez espada). The sauce is usually thickened with bread and/or ground almonds. Potatoes may be cooked right in the sauce. Any dish cooked en amarillo, yellow, is usually garnished with green peas and parsley. 

 I didn't thicken the sauce, but reduced it. I used sea bass fillets, pan-frying them separately and placing them on top of the sauce. 

4 (6-ounce)fillets of sea bass
Salt and pepper
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, crushed
1/4 cup hot water
2 tablespoons olive oil plus more for frying the fish
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 cloves chopped garlic
1/4 cup chopped tomatoes
1 teaspoon flour plus more for dredging the fish
1/4 cup white wine
1 1/2 cups fish stock
Cooked potatoes to serve (optional)
Cooked peas or broccoli florets, to serve
Chopped parsley to garnish

Sprinkle the fish with salt and pepper and let it stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Place the crushed saffron in a small bowl and add the hot water. Let it steep for at least 10 minutes.

Heat the oil in a skillet and sauté the onion and garlic until softened, 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and fry a few minutes longer. Stir in the teaspoon of flour. Add the wine, fish stock and the saffron water. Simmer the sauce, covered, for 20 minutes. Puree in a blender and, if desired, sieve it (to remove any tomato seeds or skin). Return the sauce to the pan.

Dredge the fish fillets in flour and pat off excess. Heat oil in a large skillet to a depth of 1 inch. Fry the fish, flesh side down, until golden. Turn and fry, skin side down, until golden. Remove and keep warm.

Reheat the sauce. Divide it between four dishes and top with the pieces of fish. Add cooked potatoes and peas or broccoli. Garnish with parsley.

Pescado en Pimentón
Fish in Pimentón Red Sauce

Chunks of fish cooked in a red pimentón sauce. The recipe is here.


Cazuela de Patatas (Rojas y Gualdas)
Potato Casserole, Red or Yellow

Potatoes--rojas (pimentón) y gualdas (saffron).

This cazuela dish can be cooked red or yellow. At the Spanish table, it might be served as a first course, instead of a soup. It's also good as a side or, add meat, fish, shellfish or poultry and serve it as a main dish.

The yellow version is especially good with the addition of fish (even canned sardines or tuna), clams or mussels. It can be thickened with ground almonds. Again, green peas, peppers and parsley are usually added, but other green vegetables are fine. 

The red pimentón potatoes make a great side with grilled or roasted meat. Add mushrooms, bacon or ham to ramp up the flavor. I used a mixture of pimentón--1 teaspoon hot (picante) pimentón, 1 teaspoon smoked pimentón de la Vera, and 1 teaspoon ordinary sweet pimentón. 

Use "baking" potatoes, such as russets. They soak up the flavors of the sauce.

2 pounds potatoes, cut in 1-inch dice
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, not peeled, lightly crushed to split them
1 small green pepper, chopped
1/2 cup water or stock
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Bay leaf, thyme or rosemary
Pinch of ground cumin
For the yellow potatoes:
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, crushed
1/4 cup hot water
For the red potatoes:
1/2 cup chopped tomatoes added to the sofrito of onions and peppers
4 teaspoons pimentón (sweet, hot, or smoked)

If preparing the potatoes in advance, cover them with water until ready to cook. Drain them before adding to the pan.

If preparing the yellow potatoes, place the crushed saffron in a small bowl and add the hot water.

Heat the oil in a cazuela (earthenware casserole) or heavy skillet. Sauté the onion, garlics and green pepper for 5 minutes. Add the potatoes and fry 5 minutes longer. (If preparing the red potatoes, add the tomatoes too.) Add the water or stock, salt and pepper, bay, thyme or rosemary and cumin. (If preparing the yellow potatoes, add the saffron water.)

Bring the liquid to a boil, cover and reduce to a simmer. Cook, stirring frequently, until potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. Allow to set 10 minutes before serving.

Cazuela patatas en amarillo.



Cazuela de patatas en pimentón.



Just for fun, la roja y gualda, made with potatoes.


Saturday, October 18, 2014

NOSTALGIA FOR GOURMET MAGAZINE



Chiles en Nogada, a recipe from Gourmet magazine.

I  miss Gourmet magazine. The food magazine ceased publication a few years ago, financially challenged in a digital age. I miss the terrific photo spreads, the recipes, of course, and even the ads. I liked opening up each new issue (living abroad, they arrived late in the month) and deciding which recipes I would try in my kitchen.

I never clipped recipes. I saved all the back issues. About 30 years worth. Until finally, I had to unload them to make room for other things. But first I leafed through them all, rereading some articles, clipping and saving only those marvelous “centerfold” menus for parties, holiday dinners, brunches, picnics. What a record of how menus and food styling have changed! When did tobacco ads disappear? From 1987, a “movie night” photo spread depicts those old clunky videos. In the 1970s, still determinedly French, aspics and quiche appeared over and over.  By the mid-80s, there were dozens of chocolate mousse recipes, but now there is hummus, bulgur, arugula, kale, pine nuts and the food processor.

Some of the pre-digital camera and pre-PhotoShop pictures would never make it today on FoodGawker.com ! But I loved the styling, the exuberant textiles, china, glassware, whether it was for a “formal Thanksgiving,” a “Victorian Christmas dinner” or a “weekend in the country.”

Gourmet was an inspiration to me as a food writer, too. For 30 years I wrote a monthly cooking column about Spanish food for an English-language magazine in Spain. I often borrowed seasonal ideas, ingredient themes and holiday lore from Gourmet, adapting them for Spanish recipes.

Now, as I cull the remainder of the Gourmet stash and all those centerfold pages, I am cooking through some of them before they go.

One is a whole menu for “A Beach Weekend,” from August 1987. I prepared the Pan-Grilled Salmon with Olive Oil and Basil; Summer Squash with Lemon; Barley, Bell Pepper, and Corn Salad, and Frozen Nectarine Mousse with Raspberries.

Cooking the "centerfold"--pan-grilled salmon, barley salad, summer squash.

Barley salad hardly needs a recipe--cooked barley, chopped red bell pepper, corn, chopped parsley, vinegar and olive oil.

Salmon, summer squash, barley salad--recipes from Gourmet.

The other is a recipe for the Mexican dish, Chiles en Nogada (Stuffed Poblano Chiles with Walnut Sauce and Pomegranate Seeds), from an article about chiles from September 2006.

The photo from Gourmet is--surprisingly--not so good. Still, I tried to copy the colors.

The chiles are roasted and skinned, stuffed with a mixture of braised pork, tomatoes, cinnamon, allspice, peach, dried apricots, raisins and pine nuts, sauced with a sweetened cream of ground walnuts and almonds, and served sprinkled with ruby-red pomegranate seeds. (The recipe can be found  on the database at Epicurious.com .


I have peppers in the garden—not actually poblano chiles, but similar—as well as pomegranates, almonds, walnuts.

Filling with pork, fruit, tomatoes.
Chiles are stuffed, ready for the oven.
What a ravishing dish!


Saturday, October 11, 2014

TWO CHEFS COME TO LUNCH

Here’s how I came to make lunch for two American chefs. An old friend, Gerry Dawes, got in touch, saying he was taking two young chefs around western and southern Spain on a mission to explore regional Spanish cooking. One of them, Ryan McIlwraith, will be the executive chef for a new, Spanish-inflected restaurant  in San Francisco (at 888 Brannon), part of the Absinthe Group (name and opening date still not announced). The other, Joel Erlich, will be the executive sous chef there.

Lunch at my house: Chef Ryan McIlwraith (left) and Gerry Dawes, gastronome.
I know Gerry from way back in the 1970s, when he lived in the same village where I live. Now he’s  an expert on Spanish gastronomy, wine and travel, who does specialized custom tours for culinary luminaries.

Gerry said they would be traveling from Sanlucar de Barrameda via Ronda to Málaga and would like to stop off in Mijas so he could introduce the chefs to me and to my cookbooks.

Sure, I said, come for a late lunch.

Ohmygod. Whatever will I cook for a couple of chefs? This would be Ryan’s third culinary trip to Spain, so he was no novato. He was previously chef de cuisine at Michael Chiarello's  Coqueta (San Francisco) where he garnered experience working with Iberian-inflected cuisine.

“What do you know about gazpachuelo?” Gerry asked me. “Ryan wants to try a version of that while we’re down there.  Is there any place we can have it?”

Gazpachuelo--Mediterranean seafood chowder.
Gazpachuelo, although it sounds like “gazpacho,” is not a cold soup. It’s a hot soup, typical of the traditional Málaga kitchen. The simplest version is made with nothing more than egg, olive oil and potatoes, although refined versions usually include fish and shellfish, ham and a bit of Sherry as well.

So, it would be gazpachuelo for lunch. As starters, I added another village dish, calabaza frita, sauteed pumpkin (I just happen to have a pile of pumpkins from the garden), and a salad of oranges, onions, olives and salt cod, called salmorejo in my village (yes, salmorejo is something entirely different in Córdoba).

Calabaza frita, pumpkin sautee, for a starter.

Another starter--salmorejo--salad with oranges, onions, olives and salt cod.



Chefs Joel Erlich (left) and Ryan McIlwraith in my kitchen.
Chef Ryan serves the soup.

Ryan and Joel joined me in the kitchen as I finished off the soup, poaching chunks of hake in fish stock, whipping up olive oil mayonnaise (Hojiblanca varietal oil, so typical of Málaga) and whisking it into the hot soup. Pros that they are, the chefs served the soup.

What did they think?

“I enjoyed it very much,” said Ryan. “Sure, my chef brain kicks in and starts reworking every morsel I put in my mouth. That just comes naturally after awhile. A little more salt and umami (ham bones, mushrooms in the stock, more Sherry) would have elevated the dish pretty quickly.

“I'm also always looking for acid, texture, and freshness. Would herbs or spices make this dish more exciting for American palates?  What about a topping of crispy potatoes or leeks?  What seasonal Californian vegetables would have brought texture and freshness to the dish—radishes, beets, cardoons, watercress, sun chokes—maybe all of the above,” he laughed.

“What local fish would work best? Lingcod, black cod, or petrale sole maybe. Maybe a finishing oil of chive or sorrel oil would give it punch and break up the flavors on the palate.  And, because we always eat first with our eyes, what dish would it be best served in? Some sort of local ceramic pottery or classic Spanish cazuela.”

“Wow!” says I. A glimpse inside the mind of a chef. I will definitely think about Ryan’s ideas next time I make gazpachuelo. My rendition absolutely needed  more salt and I completely forgot to add the lemon juice to the mayonnaise. Ham bone in the fish stock is a great idea. Crispy leeks would be fine. But, no, no, no beets in it! Don’t go there, Ryan!

Chef Ryan is not saying whether gazpachuelo will be on the menu of the new restaurant, nor revealing anything else on his menu yet. It's all still top secret.

The point of Ryan and Joel’s trip (Madrid-Ávila-Segovia-Sevilla-Sanlucar-Granada-Córdoba), planned by Gerry Dawes, who knows everybody in Spain who is part of the gastronomy world, was to familiarize themselves with regional dishes, with an emphasis on Andalusian-style tapas and dishes with Moorish and Jewish roots. 

“We visited all four of the ibérico ham regions,” said Ryan. “In California, we buy Cinco Jotas, so it was amazing to see their new facility and all of the history and science that goes into preserving the true Iberian pig.” They also spent time with Florencio Sanchidrian, a master ham cutter, to learn the art of slicing jamón ibérico.

“We’ve met so many outstanding people on this trip,” said Ryan. “One is Javier Hidalgo of Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana (Sanlucar de Barrameda).  He gave us a tour of his family’s bodega and a great education in Sherry.  We had lunch with him at Casa Bigote and went to the market with him in Sanlucar.  He is also a biologist and horse jockey, what a smart and interesting individual.

“Almost every morning for breakfast we had café con leche, fresh squeezed OJ, and pan con tomate with ibérico de bellota ham.  I would attack each day with a smile if that was my breakfast every day for the rest of my life.”

Ryan noted the absence of eggs for breakfast in Spain, with egg dishes appearing throughout the rest of the day.

“I’m a huge fan of eggs with dinner,” he said. “Fabulous scrambled eggs with wild asparagus for lunch or Spanish-style fried egg on top of vegetable and ham dishes are some that won’t leave my taste memory anytime soon.”

“Why a Spanish-themed restaurant in San Francisco?” I asked Ryan.

“Small plates with bold flavors, shared amongst friends—it’s my favorite way to dine," he replied.  "Spain has such a rich history of undiscovered gems that you find in all the different regions.  As a chef, studying Spain and Spanish food continues to drive me forward."


In my kitchen with the chefs--video by Gerry Dawes.


MEDITERRANEAN SEAFOOD CHOWDER
GAZPACHUELO


This is the recipe for gazpachuelo that I served to the chefs. Following their suggestions, I’ve added more olive oil and Sherry to the recipe. Oh, yeah, and salt. Important to taste! The fish I used was merluza (fresh hake). I used the head, bones and trimmings to make a fish stock.

Serves 6.

1 egg, room temperature
¾ extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
8 cups fish stock
1 ½ cups diced potatoes
¼  cup shelled peas, fresh or frozen
1 ½  cups boneless chunks of white fish
¼ cup chopped serrano ham
1/3 cup peeled shrimp (3 ounces)
Roasted red pepper, chopped (optional)
½ cup Sherry (fino or amontillado)
Salt, to taste


Place the egg in a blender container. With the motor running, add the oil in a slow stream until it is emulsified. Blend in the lemon juice and salt. Set aside.

Put the fish stock in a soup pot and bring to a boil. Add the potatoes and simmer, covered, 10 minutes. Add the peas and cook 5 minutes more.

Then add the chunks of fish, ham, shrimp and Sherry. Bring the soup to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.

With the motor running, ladle some of the hot soup into the emulsion in the blender. Remove the soup from the heat and whisk the emulsion into the soup. Serve immediately. The soup can be reheated, but do not boil.

Orange and Cod Salad
Salmorejo

In my village this salad is called salmorejo. But in Córdoba and Sevilla salmorejo is something else altogether, a thick gazpacho. The salad, also known as remojón or ensalada malagueña (Málaga salad) sometimes includes potatoes as well as oranges.

The cod is scattered on top almost like a seasoning. Chunks of canned tuna, drained; cooked shrimp, or strips of serrano or ibérico ham can be substituted for the dry salt cod.

4 ounces dry salt cod (bacalao)
4 oranges, peeled and pith removed
6 scallions or 1 small red onion, thinly sliced
10 green or black pitted olives
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon Sherry vinegar
Red pepper flakes (optional)


Place the cod in a bowl and cover with water. Soak it, changing the water once, for 12 hours. Rinse, squeeze out water, then pat dry on paper towels.

Toast the salt cod under over a gas flame or under the broiler until it is lightly browned. Shred or chop the cod, discarding any skin and bones.

Slice the oranges or else separate them into segments and cut the segments in half to make bite-sized pieces. Arrange on a serving plate. Scatter sliced onions on top. Arrange the olives on the oranges.

In a small bowl combine the minced garlic, oil, vinegar and red pepper flakes. Scatter the bits of cod over the salad and drizzle with the dressing.

The recipe for calabaza frita (pumpkin sauté), pictured above, appears here.