Saturday, December 24, 2011


Serve marzipan figures after Christmas dinner.

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the casa, all the creatures were stirring, even the niños. Even at midnight. Of course, the babes don’t have to tuck in early in hopes that St. Nick soon would be there. That’s because he isn’t expected tonight—his Spanish rendition is the Three Kings, who bring gifts to good girls and boys on January 6, the Twelfth Day of Christmas.

The sumptuous supper on Nochebuena, Christmas Eve, usually begins with shrimp and other shellfish, proceeds through a whole, baked fish, and continues to roast baby lamb. With a dozen or more family members in attendance, dinner reaches the high point of the evening with the appearance of a silver platter with delicacies of marzipan and other sweets. There are sips of sweet Málaga wine, anisette liqueur or brandy to accompany them. Some of the family will  go off to church for midnight mass celebrating the birth of the Christ child; others to the discoteca to dance until dawn, while the youngest may, finally, head to bed.

Marzipan figures.

Marzipan (mazapán in Spanish) is a paste made by grinding and kneading sweet almonds with sugar. It is shaped into charming figures, glazed and decorated.

Marzipan devolved from an Arabic sweetmeat, much like halva, for the Arabs introduced the cultivation of both almonds and sugar to Spain after their early domination of Iberian lands in 711.

After the Reconquest of Spain, the art of confecting marzipan was kept alive in convents in Toledo, a medieval city southwest of Madrid.  Cloistered nuns prepared the sweets as gifts to their benefactors or, in another legend, as a substitute for bread in a time when invading troops had destroyed wheat fields. Mazapán looks a lot like bread dough: masa—dough—and pan—bread. Several convents in Toledo are, even today, known for their marzipan.

(Photo by J.D. Dallet.)
On the edge of the old Jewish quarter, on the street of Santo Tomé, is Obrador de Mazapán Santo Tomé, Toledo’s oldest established confectionary (since 1856). Showcased in the shop’s window is a scale model of the interior of the monastery of San Juan de los Reyes, entirely sculpted in marzipan! The workshop makes dozens of different marzipan confections.

A master pastelero rolls out a slab of marzipan—50% almonds, 50% sugar—breaks off little pieces and, with sleight of hand, a sculptor’s nimble fingers, shapes them into tiny mice, snails and swans. With a tiny hooked knife, he incises eyes, noses, scales, tails. Once dried, they will be glazed with colors.

(Photo by J.D. Dallet.)
Then he moves on to larger works—the anguila or eel, sometimes called a serpent, the most typical marzipan confection of Toledo. He starts with a simple spiral pattern. The marzipan paste is shaped and cut to fit the pattern. He dimples it with his fingers. The filling is spread on top—half “angels’ hair,” a sweet pumpkin jam, and half yema, candied egg cream.

Two varieties of sweet almonds are used, the oval largueta, which contributes intense aroma, and the round marcona, exceptionally rich in oil. Spanish marzipan does not contain bitter almonds. As almonds are a fresh and perishable ingredient, artisanal marzipan should be consumed within a month of purchase. Although sugar helps to conserve it, the high almond-oil content makes it susceptible to spoilage. Marzipan may be frozen.

In Toledo marzipan is everywhere and to be found in shops year-round. Yet the massive production for the holidays primarily comes, not from the artisanal obradores, but from big marzipan factories in surrounding towns in the province of Toledo. In particular, Sonseca, just a few miles south of Toledo, is a center.

Here one of the biggies is the company Delaviuda, which in a recent year turned out 1,090,000 kilos (just under 2,400,000 pounds) of marzipan products. They don’t even fire up the ovens until early in October. As the holiday season approaches, the marzipan museum, displaying tools and artifacts used in making marzipan, some several centuries old,  opens to the public and the factory store does a land-office business.

In industrial production, almonds still must represent a minimum of 50 percent of content, with sugar approximately 45 percent and preservatives such as citric acid the rest. (Production is regulated by the official board “Mazapán de Toledo,” I.G.P. (Indicación Geográfica Protegida or Protected Geographic Name). Industrial marzipan has a longer shelf life than artisanal marzipan.

Besides enjoying marzipan during the twelve days of Christmas, served whenever guests drop in or as the sweet finale to holiday meals, you can use it in various confections. Balls of marzipan make a delicious stuffing for dried apricots, prunes, figs, walnuts; a filling for ice cream bombe or layer cake, combined with cream to make a luscious sauce for fruit.

Layer Cake with Apricots and Marzipan
Bizcocho de Toledo

One of my blog readers asked how to make marzipan at home for use in a layered sponge cake from Segovia (his question is in comments here). This recipe, taken from my book COOKING FROM THE HEART OF SPAIN—FOOD OF LA MANCHA, comes from Toledo.

This very fancy cake puts together layers of simple sponge with apricots, cream filling, and a topping of almond marzipan. In the original, the filling for Toledo cake is made with yema, an egg-rich cream consisting of a dozen egg yolks!  In my modification, the cream filling requires only a modicum of eggs.

Almond marzipan is simple to make at home. Ideally, you start with freshly shelled almonds, blanched and skinned, then ground. Use a food processor, blender, coffee grinder, spice grinder, or grain mill to grind the almonds with sugar to make a paste that—with the addition of egg white or a little water—can be kneaded and molded. You won’t need all of the almond paste for the cake, so call in the kids, who will enjoy shaping this sweet almond play-dough.

The cake is finished with a criss-cross decoration made by caramelizing sugar with red-hot rods. Use metal skewers heated over a gas flame. Carefully lay them across the surface until the sugar bubbles. If this seems like too much trouble (or danger), simply serve the cake without this flourish.

You will have more syrup, marzipan, and cream filling than you need for one cake.

Serves 12.

For the sponge cake:
1 cup cake flour
4 large eggs at room temperature
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest (optional)

Preheat oven to 350º. Butter an 8-inch springform mold, dust it with flour, and tap out excess flour.

Sift the flour into a bowl.

Place the eggs in a large mixing bowl with the sugar and beat at high speed until the mixture thickens, becomes very pale in color, and more than doubles in volume, about 6 minutes. Beat in the lemon zest, if using.

Sprinkle ¼ cup of flour over the egg-sugar mixture and fold it in with a rubber spatula. Continue adding flour by quarter-cup measures until all is incorporated.

Pour the batter into the springform mold and bake until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Cool the cake on a rack.

For the apricot-brandy syrup:
1 ½ cups dried apricots (12 ounces)
1 cup sugar
Strip of lemon zest
3 tablespoons of brandy

Chop the apricots coarsely. Rinse them and reserve.

Combine the sugar and lemon zest with 1 cup of water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer for 2 minutes. Add the apricots and simmer for 10 minutes.

Pour the apricot syrup through a sieve into a heatproof bowl. Discard the lemon zest and reserve the apricots. Add the brandy to the syrup and set aside.

Makes 1 cup syrup, of which ½ cup is required for the cake (save remaining for another use).

For the marzipan topping:
2 cups blanched and skinned almonds (about 10 ounces)
1 ¼ cups sugar
1 egg white, lightly beaten
1 egg yolk, combined with ½ teaspoon water

Grind the almonds with the sugar until the consistency of very fine meal (see recipe introduction). Place in a mixing bowl and combine with the egg white. Turn out onto a pastry board and knead the mixture until smooth, 2 minutes.

Preheat oven to 500º.

Roll out the marzipan on plastic wrap to a thickness of ½ inch. Cut an 8-inch round to fit the top of the cake. Place it on baking parchment on a baking sheet. Use the remaining marzipan to mold flowers, rabbits, mice, etc., to decorate the cake. Or save it for another use.

Brush the marzipan round and any molded pieces with the egg yolk. Place in preheated very hot oven for 3 minutes. Remove and let the marzipan cool.

For the cream filling (crema pastelera):
2 cups milk
1 strip of lemon zest
1/3 cup cornstarch
2 egg yolks
1 whole egg
½ cup sugar

Place 1 ½ cup milk in a saucepan with the strip of lemon zest and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and discard lemon zest.

Combine the cornstarch with remaining ½ cup milk, stirring until smooth.

Beat the yolks and egg in a heatproof mixing bowl with the sugar. Add the cornstarch and milk mixture.

Whisk the hot milk into the egg mixture. Strain into a clean pan. Place over a pan of boiling water and cook the egg mixture, whisking constantly. It will thicken in about 2 minutes. Continue cooking and whisking for 3 minutes more.

Remove the pan from the heat and whisk occasionally as it cools, for 10 minutes. Spread the filling while warm.

Makes 2 cups of cream filling, of which 1 cup is required for this cake. The cream filling may be frozen. After thawing, blend it smooth in a blender before using.

To assemble the Toledo cake:
2 teaspoons powdered sugar

Remove sponge cake from springform cake pan. Use a serrated knife to split the sponge cake in half horizontally. It helps to mark the half-mark by sticking toothpicks into it as a guide for the slicing knife.

Place bottom half of the cake on a serving plate. Spoon over it ½ cup of the apricot-brandy syrup. (Reserve remaining syrup for another use.)

Spread the bottom layer with 1 cup of the cream filling. (Reserve remaining cream filling for another use.) Spread the reserved apricots on the cream filling, reserving a few for garnish.

Place the top of the sponge cake over the cream filling.

Top the cake with the round of marzipan. Spoon powdered sugar in a grid across the top of the marzipan.

Heat steel pokers or metal skewers red hot. Lay them across the surface of the marzipan to caramelize the sugar and create a criss-cross pattern. Let the cake cool. Use a brush to remove any excess sugar.

Decorate the cake with the marzipan flowers, mice, rabbits, and pieces of apricot.

Christmas Almond Soup
Sopa de Almendras para Navidad

Sopa de almendras--sweet almond "soup."

In Toledo and Madrid, this divine dessert is traditional for the Christmas Eve family dinner. The soup is a thick cream while hot. Cooled, it is of custard consistency. This recipe makes 4 generous servings, but, if part of a copious holiday meal, it could be divided between 8 small pudding bowls instead of soup bowls.

Almond paste can be purchased ready to use. The paste consists of almonds ground with an equal weight of sugar. Should you wish to make it in the home kitchen, combine 4 ounces sugar (1/2 cup) with 4 ounces ground almonds (1 1/3 cups) in a blender or processor. Grind them. Add 1 tablespoon of water to make a paste. The paste can be stored in the refrigerator up to 2 weeks or in the freezer up to 3 months.

Serves 4.

4 thick slices brioche
8 ounces sweetened almond paste
4 cups whole milk
Strip of orange or lemon zest
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
Whipped cream to serve (optional)

Preheat oven to 350ºF.

Place the brioche slices on a baking sheet. Bake them 8 minutes. Turn the slices and bake 6 to 8 minutes longer, or until golden-brown on both sides. Remove from oven and place a slice in each of 4 shallow soup bowls.

Cut the almond paste into chunks. Dissolve it in 2 cups of milk. (This is quickly accomplished in a blender.) Place the dissolved almond paste in a saucepan and stir in the remaining milk. Add the orange zest.

Place on a high heat, stirring frequently. When the soup begins to foam up, turn the heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, 15 minutes. The soup will thicken to the consistency of heavy cream. Discard the orange zest.

Ladle the soup over the toasted brioche. Sprinkle the cinnamon on top of the soup. Serve hot or room temperature, accompanied by whipped cream, if desired.

© Text, recipes and photos Janet Mendel

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Tortillitas of spinach are a Spanish take on latkes.

After I light the first Hanukkah candle at sundown, I won’t be serving potato latkes. I will be frying Spanish tortillitas, vegetable fritters, a Sephardic recipe that also belongs to today’s Spanish cooking.

I have long suspected that traditional Spanish cooking includes many dishes that derive from Spain’s Jewish heritage. While the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, many of them stayed on as converts to Christianity. They may have abandoned the kosher food laws, adding pork to the Sabbath stew pot, but kept many beloved dishes.

In Spain these fritters—always fried in olive oil—are called tortillitas if they are more like little pancakes or buñuelos if they are puffy balls. They are served as a light supper dish, perhaps with a salad. I like them as a side with a meat dish or as a lunch or brunch entree.

Olive oil lights.
I love Hanukkah, “The Feast of Lights”—so appropriate on a dark winter solstice evening to light up the room with candles and good food. I sometimes use old-fashioned olive oil lights on my dining table. These are cups partially filled with water and topped with about a finger’s depth of olive oil on which floats a tiny wick, called in Spain a mariposa, “butterfly.”

Tortillitas de Puerros
Leek Pancakes

This version of tortillitas includes cheese. Use semi-cured Manchego or any not-too-hard grated cheese. This can be made with grated zucchini in place of the leeks.

Fry the pancakes in batches, keeping them warm in a low oven until they are all prepared.

Makes about 15 small pancakes.

Leek fritters.
4 cups chopped leeks (about 1 pound)
3 tablespoons olive oil plus more for frying
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 eggs, beaten
½ cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup grated Manchego cheese
¼ cup chopped parsley
Pinch of dried thyme

Sauté the chopped leeks in 3 tablespoons of oil until they are very tender. Season with salt and pepper.

Put the sauteed leeks in a bowl with the eggs, flour and baking powder. Stir to combine well. Stir in the grated cheese, parsley and thyme. (The batter can be prepared 2 to 3 hours before cooking.)

Place oil to a depth of ¼ inch in a heavy skillet and heat on medium fire. Add spoonfuls of the batter to the pan. Smooth them lightly to make discs and allow to cook until golden on the bottom. Turn the pancakes and brown them on the reverse side. Remove and drain on absorbent paper. Continue frying the pancakes, adding more oil to the skillet as needed. Serve hot.

Tortillitas de Espinacas
Spinach Fritters

These fritters can be made with either spinach or chard. I used chard from my garden, both stems and leaves. Cook them until tender so they are easily pureed. Drain well before combining with the other ingredients.

Makes about 20 small pancakes.

Spinach fritters.
2 cups cooked spinach or chard
2 eggs, separated
1 clove garlic
1 cup flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons water
Pinch of cumin seed
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
Olive oil for frying

Place the spinach, egg yolks, garlic, flour, baking powder and water in a blender. Blend until fairly smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Place in a mixing bowl.

Beat the egg whites until they hold stiff peaks. Beat in the vinegar. Stir a quarter of the egg whites into the spinach mixture and combine lightly. Then fold in the remaining whites.

Heat ¼ inch of oil in a heavy skillet. Drop spoonfuls of batter and flatten them slightly. Let brown on the bottom, then turn and cook reverse side. Drain on absorbent paper. Continue frying fritters, adding more oil to the skillet as needed. Serve the fritters hot or room temperature.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


Brown rice and vegetable paella.

I’ve been trying to cut down on consumption of meat and seafood (for both health and environmental reasons). But I am discovering that it is ever so hard to be vegetarian and still cook Spanish.

The traditional Spanish kitchen uses meat sparingly--a quarter of a stewing hen cooked in a cocido with garbanzos and vegetables feeds a family of six. But ham bone or sausage inevitably turn up even in vegetable, legume and grain dishes, if just for flavor. And, bacalao, salt cod, is a favored addition to vegetable stews for church abstinence days.

So, I have had to do some adapting to turn my favorite recipes into vegetarian fare. Here’s one that has been a great success—vegetarian paella made with brown rice. It’s full of flavor, ever so satisfying. Just right for a (meatless) Sunday lunch. Lunch, because the Valencianos, inventors of paella, say you never, ever eat paella at night! But, that’s your call.

Brown Rice Paella with Vegetables

Flavoring the rice: stock. If you are not a strict vegetarian, you might use a chicken or shellfish broth to cook the rice in. But, I wanted to avoid them. To suggest the flavor of the sea, I used kelp in the water for cooking the rice. I think kombu or wakame would work best, but all I had was nori.

Bring 5 cups of water to a boil with 1 teaspoon salt, 1 bay leaf and a slice of onion. Add 2 sheets of nori or a few strips of kombu. Return to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat and allow to set 5 minutes. Strain the water, discarding the kelp.

Medium, short-grained rice for paella, white and brown.
Brown rice: Use medium-short whole grain—“round”—rice for paella. It will take about twice as long to cook as white rice. I decided to parboil the rice before adding it to the paella pan.

Bring the flavored water to a boil. Add 2 cups of brown rice. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to stand 15 minutes. Drain the rice. Leave it in a colander to dry.

The vegetables. An authentic Valencian paella usually contains big butter beans called garrafón, as well as flat romano green beans, artichoke and peas and the usual green pepper and tomato. Other vegetables that would work well are asparagus, fava beans, lima beans, cauliflower, pumpkin, zucchini.

Trim 8 ounces romano beans and cut into short lengths. Cook in 5 cups boiling salted water until crisp-tender, about 6 minutes. Drain, saving the cooking water. Refresh the beans in cold water and drain them.
Have ready ½ cup fresh or frozen shelled peas, 1 whole artichoke, 1 cup cooked butter beans, 2 cloves chopped garlic, 1 chopped green pepper and 1 cup peeled and chopped tomato.
The pan: I use a non-stick paella pan instead of the traditional rolled steel pan. No, you won’t get that (desirable) crunchy soccarat on the bottom of the rice. But neither do you have to worry about the pan rusting. A 14-inch pan fits about right on a stove burner and will serve 4 to 6 persons. No paella pan? Use a large skillet or a flat-bottomed wok.

Creating flavor: the sofrito: The sofrito is the mixture of sautéed ingredients that flavors the rice. Olive oil is the essential starting point of a good sofrito.

Heat 5 tablespoons olive oil in the paella pan. Add the chopped peppers and garlic. Snap off a few outer leaves of the artichoke and cut it into quarters, if small, or eighths if very large. Nip out the fuzzy choke with a knife point. Add the artichoke directly to the oil. (It does not need to be rubbed with lemon.)

Add the chopped tomato and continue frying on a medium heat. Heat the reserved bean liquid.

Crush saffron and steep in hot water.
Seasoning and coloring: Use real saffron, if possible, for inimitable aroma and color. But, if not available, use yellow coloring and/or additional pimentón (paprika). Use a sprig of rosemary to mimic the herbal bouquet of snails in the authentic version of paella. Be sure to taste the cooking liquid for salt. Add more if needed. Salt brings out the flavors.

Crush ½ teaspoon saffron in a mortar. Add ¼ cup hot water and let it infuse 10 minutes. Crush 10 peppercorns in the mortar with coarse salt. Add 1 teaspoon sweet pimentón (paprika, not smoked).

Stir the partially cooked rice into the pan. Sauté the rice 2 minutes. Add the saffron water and ground pepper and paprika. Stir in the peas, cooked butter beans and a sprig of rosemary. Add 3 cups of the hot bean liquid. Stir to combine all the ingredients.
Bring the rice to a boil. Cook, uncovered, on a medium heat for 12 minutes. Stir in the reserved cooked green beans. Add 1 cup more of the cooking liquid. Bring again to a boil, then reduce heat to low.

Cook 10 minutes more, without stirring. Rotate the pan over the heat occasionally. Remove from heat. Cover with foil or a cloth and allow to set 10 minutes before serving. If desired, garnish the top of the paella with strips of roasted red peppers and lemon wedges. Serves 4 to 6.

Vegetarian paella with brown rice.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


Potato tortilla--a favorite in every region.
Ever wondered what’s cooking in Catalonia? What’s best of Basque or cool in Castilla? I recently wrote an article for U.K.-based magazine, FINE FOODIES (check it out on-line here), with a regional round-up of everything good to eat. Here is part of that article, providing some culinary geography, a cook’s tour of Spain.

Olive variations.
Taste: An olive, a slice of salt-cured ham, a sweet, briny prawn. Sip a little wine. Taste some more: sunny paella, chilled gazpacho, hearty ox-tail stew, fish crisply fried in olive oil. Spain offers a wealth of vibrant flavors.
Regional Roundup

Regional Spanish cooking is best characterized by the old Spanish saying, referring to both summer weather and cooking techniques: “In the east you simmer; in the south you fry; in the center you roast, and in the north you stew.” This broad generalization provides some clues to cooking styles around Spain.

What Simmers in Catalonia

Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, the region on Spain’s eastern Mediterranean coast that borders on France at the north and historically includes Valencia to the south and the Balearic Islands to the east.

What simmers in Catalonia? Perhaps a kettle of fish--suquet--a seafood stew with potatoes, tomatoes and ground almonds; or rabbit slow-cooked with a herbal bouquet of snails; or arros negre, rice tinted black with squid ink.

The Catalans are famed for their sauces--alioli, garlicky olive oil mayonnaise, served with grilled meat and vegetables; picada, a pesto of almonds or hazelnuts, saffron and sometimes a touch of chocolate, added to chicken or meat stews, and romesco, a deeply flavored mixture of ground nuts and dried sweet red peppers. Romesco is sensational with grilled prawns.

In Barcelona and environs you can expect to find lots of variations on the salad theme. One Catalan salad, amanida, starts with a bed of greens onto which are spread celery, tomatoes, roasted peppers, olives, sliced sausage and strips of anchovy. Another, xató, includes salt cod.

Valencia and True Paella

South from Catalonia, you come to the Levante, or “east,” made up of the Valencia Community plus Murcia. Valencia, where rice is grown, is the home of paella.

If you learned to love paella as made anywhere else in the world, you might be surprised to find that the authentic Valencia version contains no seafood. That’s right--no prawns, no lobster, no mussels or clams. No squid. No sausage nor strips of red pimiento.

Paella on its home ground has beans and snails, rabbit or chicken. The rice is colored a sunny yellow by saffron. Nevertheless, popular paellas everywhere in Spain are made with a mixture of chicken and shellfish. Paella rice, by the way, is a medium-short grain, somewhat like Italian arborio rice.

Navel oranges are in season.
The Levante also is known for its citrus groves (look for luscious navel oranges and Clementines in this season) and market gardens. This is a great place to eat your vegetables--maybe prepared in a tortilla, a fat omelet incorporating potatoes or aubergine and courgette.

In the South, You Fry-- in Olive Oil

Following the Mediterranean coast south you enter the large region known as Andalucia, which includes eight provinces (Almería, Granada, Málaga, Cádiz, Huelva, Sevilla, Córdoba, and Jaén). Of these, five have sea coasts (Mediterranean or Atlantic); one has a river port with sea tides, and only two are landlocked. The coastal regions are famous for their seafood and the inland ones for their olive oil (Jaén has more olive trees per square mile than anywhere else in the world).

Fried rings of calamares.
Remember? In the south you fry. In olive oil, obviously. Fried fish is tops. Little fish such as fresh anchovies (boquerones) or rings of squid, lightly floured, come out of the bubbling oil golden and crisp. Or, try them in a mixed fish fry with a few prawns, a fillet of a larger fish.

Andalucia’s famous contribution to world gastronomy is gazpacho, a word that has entered the lexicon as any cold soup. Actually, gazpacho is your original peasant food, a very simple concoction of fresh, raw tomatoes, bread, garlic and olive oil. With accompaniments of chopped green pepper, cucumber, onion, tomato, croutons, gazpacho is a great way to celebrate summer.

Moving up the western boundary of Spain, bordering Portugal, you pass through the region of Extremadura, especially famous for its hams from a special breed of pig, called ibérico. If prosciutto rates a nine on a scale of 10; ibérico merits a 15. It’s that good. Oh, by the way, it’s very expensive, served on special occasions.

Big Roast Country

The central high plateau comprises the autonomous regions of Castilla y León, Castilla-La Mancha and Aragon. The capital of Spain, Madrid, is in the center. When wool was an important export, huge herds of sheep moved across these lands, from north to south, mountain to lowland, and back again with the seasons. It is still sheep country--famous now for its sheep’s’ milk cheeses, such as Manchego, and for baby lamb roasted to a turn in old-fashioned bread ovens.

Suckling pig, cochinillo, also emerges crackling and succulent from wood-burning ovens. Not all pigs wind up in the oven at a tender age. Many grow up to be the sausages for which the region is famous. The most outstanding sausages are red chorizo, flavored with garlic and paprika, and morcilla, blood sausage spiced with cinnamon and cloves.

Saffron from La Mancha.
Precious saffron, essential for paella, grows in La Mancha. Saffron is the stigma of autumn- blooming crocuses.

The region is renowned for its small game. Partridge is cooked in a vinegar marinade, while wild rabbit and hare go into robust hunter’s stews. It’s also known as Spain’s breadbasket, for the vast stretches of wheat fields that produce much of the country’s cereals. In Spain you can expect to find very serious bread, freshly baked every day.

Cocido--a one-pot meal.
While every region of Spain has some version of cocido, a meal-in-a-pot, Madrid’s is exemplary. Into a big soup pot go chicken, ham, beef, chick peas, sausages, meatballs, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, turnips and onion, all to simmer until succulent. First the broth is served with soup noodles. Platters of meats and vegetables follow. A real feast.

The Green North

The top of Spain, from Galicia in the west, through Asturias, Cantabria, Basque Country, Rioja and Navarra, is frequently called Green Spain. Open to storms and mists from the Atlantic and Bay of Biscay, it is rolling country of green meadows and lush pastures where dairy cattle (and dairy goats, too) thrive. Some of the country’s best cheeses come from the north. Try Cabrales blue cheese; smoky Idiazábal; sharp Roncal; buttery Tetilla.

Caldo gallego--Galician stew.
Now, about those stews. The most famous one is fabada, a hearty bean and sausage stew from Asturias. In Galicia, white beans are stewed with ham, potatoes and greens. Seafood stews, calderetas, appear too, usually with potatoes, fish and shellfish. 

Seafood, often very simply prepared, is superlative along these northern coasts. In the Basque Country,  txangurro, a crab gratin laced with brandy; chipirones en su tinta, squid cooked in their own ink, and merluza a la vasca, fresh hake in a white wine and parsley sauce, are outstanding. Of special note are dishes made with dry salt cod. One of the best is bacalao al pil pil with lots of garlic.

Cod pil-pil on toast.
The inland provinces of La Rioja and Navarra are famed for their wines and for their piquillo peppers. Small red peppers, slightly piquant, piquillos are  stuffed with fish or prawn and gratined with a creamy sauce. Look for tinned piquillos at your favourite food shop.

Sweet Stuff

Spanish bake shops proffer a tantalizing array of small cakes and pastries. In Spain they are served with coffee, tea or sweet wine. Here is a list of some you might enjoy sampling: almendrados, almond cookies; brazo gitano, which means “gypsy’s arm,” a filled cake roll; coca, a Catalan pastry topped with candied fruits; ensaimada, from Mallorca, a spiral bun, good for breakfast, or with cream filling, as a dessert; torta de Santiago, rich almond torte; yema, egg yolk candy.

(Photo by Jerónimo Alba.)
Special for the Christmas holidays are a trio of anise-scented biscuits from Andalucia—mantecados, roscos and polverones; marzipan from Toledo, and turrón, almond nougat candy, both a hard type studded with whole almonds and a soft brown, fudgy sort, from Jijona (Alicante).

Such varied and vibrant flavours, and yet so easy to translate to your home kitchen.

¡Que aproveche! Enjoy!

Tortilla de Patatas
Potato Tortilla

If there is a single dish without boundaries, popular all over Spain, it’s the famous tortilla, the round, flat potato and egg cake. It’s served in tapa bars and in homes from one end of the country to the other.

Makes 12 tapas or 4 main dishes.

120 ml / 4 fl oz / olive oil
1 kg / 2 ¼ lb potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped onion (optional)
6 eggs
1 teaspoon salt

Heat the oil in a no-stick or well-seasoned frying pan (24-26 cm / 9-10 in). Add the sliced potatoes and turn them in the oil. Let them cook slowly in the oil, without browning, turning frequently. If using onions, add them when the potatoes are partially cooked. The potatoes will take 20 to 30 minutes to cook.

Beat the eggs in a bowl with the salt. Place a plate over the potatoes and drain off excess oil into a small heatproof bowl. Add the potatoes to the beaten eggs and combine well.

Add a little of the reserved oil to the frying pan and pour in the potato-egg mixture. Cook on a medium heat until set, without letting the tortilla get too brown on the bottom, about 5 minutes. Shake the pan to keep the tortilla from sticking.

Place a flat lid or plate over the pan, hold it tightly, and reverse the tortilla onto the plate. Add a little more oil to the pan, if necessary, and slide the tortilla back in to cook on the reverse side, about 3 minutes more. Slide out onto a serving plate.

Cut into squares for tapas or slice in wedges as a main dish. Serve hot or cold.

©text and photos Janet Mendel

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Patatas fritas--olive oil fries.

I’ve just come back from the mill with a 5-liter jug of fresh extra virgin olive oil, fruit of my labor—I picked 60 kilos (132 pounds) of olives. I’ve still got more to pick, so, hopefully, I’ll earn another 5 to 10 liters, enough for all my cooking for about nine months.

Olive oil from the mill.
I use olive oil exclusively in my kitchen—to “butter” the toast, to baste a turkey, drizzle on green beans, dress a salad, sautée and stir-fry. I don’t do a lot of “deep” frying, not because olive oil is not suitable, but because of calorie considerations.

But today I’m making a pile of fries, Spanish fries, olive oil fries. Fried potatoes are a wonderful flavor-test for new oil. I thick-cut the potatoes, heat the oil to about 360ºF—only about 2 inches of oil, enough to barely submerge the potatoes. At that temperature the oil is shimmering, not quite smoking. —and let them fry until tender, lightly crusted and golden. This takes 10 to 15 minutes.

Potatoes frying in olive oil.
Drained on paper towels and sprinkled with salt, they are ready to eat. These fries are not crisp. If you want them crisp, more like “french” fries, reheat the oil and return the potatoes to the pan until browned. They will emerge from the second frying with a crunchy exterior.

When the oil is cool, I strain and reserve it. Olive oil can be used three or four times for frying. (Unlike other oils, which break down with repeated use.) Maybe some croquettes or boquerones, fresh anchovies, will be next.

Whatever you’ve heard about olive oil not being suitable for deep frying is a myth. What can be said is that, because the fruity olive aromas are lost at high temperatures, frying is not what you want to do with your very pricey, delicate olive oil. My extra virgin oil, straight from the mill, is relatively cheap. I can afford to use it for frying. If cost is an issue, you can use non-virgin olive oil (simply labeled “olive oil”), for frying.

To accompany my patatas fritas, fried potatoes, I made some piquillo pepper garlic mayonnaise, also using the new oil. Really good slathered on a burger, too.

Olive Oil Mayonnaise with Garlic and Piquillo Peppers

Makes about 1 cup.

1 to 2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 egg, at room temperature
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice or 2 tablespoons vinegar
2 canned piquillo peppers, well drained, or roasted red peppers

Put the garlic and egg in a blender and pulse until garlic is finely chopped. With the motor running, pour in the oil in a slow trickle, allowing it to be absorbed by the egg before adding more. Blend in all the oil. The sauce will emulsify and thicken. Blend in the salt and lemon juice. Add the chopped piquillo peppers and blend until smooth.

The sauce will keep, refrigerated, for up to 2 days.

Fries with piquillo alioli.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Partridge shoot in Toledo.

Los Yébenes  spreads out on the flanks of a long ridge, where a pair of 16th century windmills rides the crest. The village, south of the medieval city of Toledo, about 90 kilometres from Madrid, is known as the hunting capital of the highland Montes de Toledo. Hare, rabbit, deer, and boar are abundant, but it is the native red-legged partridge that is the delight of both hunter in the field and gastronome at table.

I went to Los Yébenes a few years ago when I was working on a book about the food of La Mancha. I was tracking partridge from hillside to dinner, so I visited during the open season for partridge shooting (October to February) and went along on a cacería de ojeo, an organized hunt.

In the Field

It was a nippy winter’s day, with clouds hanging over the hilltops, when we met at a hunting lodge not too distant from Los Yébenes. The group of hunters gathered over steaming cups of coffee to draw lots for the puestos, blinds, that they would occupy on the hunt. Some of the hunters came from abroad and were staying at the lodge. Others, like Teodoro, a well-to-do businessman, drove down from Toledo for the day, bringing dogs and gear.

Partridge country.
The hunters (a few women among them) moved out in SUVs, bumping along rutted dirt tracks and fording a small stream. Leaving the vehicles, they trekked cross-country to the first shooting site. Sun broke through the cloud cover, glinting on flat outcroppings of shiny granite. Tramping boots released the powerful scent of wild thyme, marjoram, and red lavender.

Teodoro, dressed in cropped breeches with gaiters and loden green jacket, was flanked by a loader, who kept his guns ready to fire, and a secretario, who spotted and recovered the downed birds. Teodoro tethered his one-year old Labrador retriever to a stake.

The hunters with their entourages spread along the ridge, taking up ten blinds. The ojeadores, beaters, announced the start of the hunt with a blast on a conch shell. They moved along the ravine’s embankment, thrashing the bushes, banging, and yelling, “vamos, vamos”.

The first shots rang out, followed fast by many more. The beaters continued towards our blind, flushing birds before them.  Suddenly, with a rush of wings, a covey of partridge lofted skyward. They seemed to scatter in the air, some soaring high, others dipping towards the next ridge. Teodoro shot in rapid succession. One bird fell very near the blind, causing the dog to snap to attention.

When the beaters reached the end of the line, they signalled the end of the shoot with a horn and everyone scrambled to find the downed birds. The Labrador excitedly worked the hillside, retrieving partridge one after another to Teodoro. The secretario strung them on leather thongs and hitched them to his belt. The whole hunting party walked overland to another line. A light snow began to fall.

 At the end of the second shoot (typically, there are four or five lines in a day of hunting) the secretarios spread all the birds in a clearing on the ground, arranging them in braces. There were 126 partridge. Teodoro, the best shot, claimed 28. Some he would take home with him. He said his mother prepares them en conserva, packed in jars in a mild escabeche.

Behind the hunters came the pollero, poultyman. He buys the birds from the organizer of the hunt and hauls them to a processing plant, where they are cleaned and plucked, ready for sale.

In the Kitchen

 In the kitchen of Casa Apelio, a small hostel and restaurant sandwiched between the stone walls of two 16th century churches in the centre of Los Yébenes, three women were processing 600 partridge from several different shoots. The birds had to be singed, one by one, over a gas flame, chilled, and packed for freezing. According to Apelio García, the third generation to run Casa Apelio, his restaurant is one of the few in Spain that serves wild, native red-legged partridge. (Most buy farm-raised birds.)

In the dining room we sat at a table before the hearth, where a roaring fire toasted our toes. The room is hung with deer heads and racks of antlers (Los Yébenes has four working taxidermists). Caged partridge (they are used for hunting al reclamo, as decoys) cackled and called from a shelf on one side of the dining room,

To start, we savoured partridge pâté with toast. Next was a partridge salad featuring tender, boned partridge in a mild escabeche heaped on top of sliced tomatoes, sprinkled with oregano, and generously drizzled with the local extra virgin olive oil with denomination Montes de Toledo. We shared an order of beans stewed with partridge. A partridge feast, with a smooth reserva La Mancha red wine to accompany it.

Partridge with Beans
Judías con Perdiz

Partridge stewed with beans.
Beans stretch the servings of partridge, so a single bird, split in half, might serve two. If you choose to serve half a partridge, split the birds after cooking. If partridge is not available, use cornish game birds or turkey thighs. I prefer to cook the beans separately from the partridge, as beans can take well over an hour to cook. You could use canned cannellini beans (2 15-ounce cans). If using dry ones, put them to soak at least 6 hours before cooking.

Serves 4.

2 cups dry cannellini beans
1 head garlic
2 bay leaves
Sprig of rosemary
¼ onion
1 whole tomato or 2 sun-dried tomatoes
2 teaspoons salt
2 to 4 partridges (about 12 ounces each)
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup olive oil
2 cups chopped onion
2 cloves chopped garlic
1 teaspoon sweet pimentón (paprika)
2 tablespoons wine vinegar
1 cup white wine
10 peppercorns

Soak the beans in water at least 6 hours or up to 24 hours. Drain and place them in a pot with water to cover. Bring to a boil and skim off froth.

Slice the top off the head of garlic and place the whole head in the pot with the beans. Add the bay leaves, rosemary, onion, tomato, and 1 teaspoon of salt. Cover and simmer the beans 30 minutes. Add ½ cup cold water, bring again to a boil, and simmer until beans are very tender, 30 to 60 minutes more.

Sprinkle partridge with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large cazuela or deep skillet. Brown the partridge very slowly. After turning them, add the chopped onion and garlic to the cazuela. Continue sautéeing until partridge and onions are golden.

In a small bowl mix the pimentón with the vinegar. Add to the partridge with the wine and 1 cup of water. Add the peppercorns and 1 teaspoon of salt. Cook at a gentle bubble for 30 minutes. Turn the partridges and simmer 30 minutes more.

Drain the beans, reserving the liquid. Discard the bay leaves and rosemary. Add the beans to the cazuela with the partridge. Slip the skin from the tomato and break it up into the cazuela. Squeeze the cloves of garlic into the partridge. Add 2 cups of the bean liquid. Simmer all together for 30 minutes.

Hillside castle in Toledo province.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


Some of my favorite Spanish tapas.
Got a question about Spanish cooking? Looking for a recipe? Need some tips on paella making? Searching for instructions to prepare bacalao? Ask me! I’m the expert on Spanish cooking. Just leave your question in the COMMENTS.  I’ll either reply in the comments or, if it’s an inspiring question, write a blog posting about it.

Garlic Soup
Recently a fellow-American living in Spain, Ansley Evans, an instructor of English at the University of Murcia, asked me a bunch of questions, about me, about Spanish food. The interview was an assignment for an online Food Writing course she is taking. She asked some very good questions.

She posted the interview on her blog (read the whole interview here). Here are some excerpts.

Ansley: When I first moved to Spain nearly three years ago, I had done very little Spanish cooking. As is the case with many foreigners who land here, it didn’t take long before I was enamored with the food. I soon found myself wanting to learn as much as I could about Spanish cuisine from a range of perspectives, which led me to American journalist and cookbook author Janet Mendel.

Stuffed olives.
Mendel’s Traditional Spanish Cooking was the first Spanish cookbook written in English I bought. I loved how she captured the essence of simple, flavorful and seasonal village cooking from across Spain. The delicious simplicity of the dishes Mendel includes helped me understand why tradition remains so strong in Spanish kitchens today.

I have been inspired by Mendel’s work, and was thrilled when she agreed to answer my questions.

AE: One thing I appreciate about your books and blog is your voice. The stories you tell are just as welcoming and giving as all those cooks who have invited you into their kitchens. I particularly feel this in your cookbook My Kitchen in Spain (which is really part memoir, as well). While reading the stories and recipes within, it is as if I have been invited into a Spanish home. I get the sense it hasn’t just been the recipes and flavors that have inspired your writing, but also the generous spirit of all the people you’ve broken bread with in Spain.

Revuelto--eggs and vegetables.
JM.You’re absolutely right. In the first place, seeking out recipes was a way to get to know people—village housewives, the guys in the market, the butcher, the baker, the basket maker. Talking about food gained me entry into homes—and hearts—of the people I was living amongst. Maybe it’s because I am, not a culinary professional, but a reporter. I like telling people’s stories, and those stories often revolve around food.

AE: I find that Spain sparks the imagination of foreigners (such as myself) more than many other countries, with its fiestas, boisterous bars, flamenco and siestas. While you have lived here for many years and are a true local, your voice remains one of enchantment with the country and its cooking. I really appreciate that. How do you keep the spark alive?

Salad with oranges, olives and shrimp.
JM. Perhaps it’s because there are always new “sparks”—a new region to visit (I first visited the Sierra de Aracena, where Jabugo ham comes from, last year and was enchanted by the region); a new food; a new perspective (I enjoy watching Un Pais para Comerselo or José Andres Made in Spain because they give different perspectives); etc. Spain continues to amaze and enchant with the diversity of landscapes, monuments, cuisines.

Migas--fried bread crumbs.

Thank god, Ansley never asked the dreaded question, “What’s your favorite Spanish dish?” Which, of course, I could never answer. But the pictures on this page suggest at least some of the answer.

You can read more about me here and more about the cookbooks I’ve written here. I look forward to hearing from you, fielding your questions about Spanish food.

Fried calamares.

Monday, November 7, 2011


Pasta with sofrito and chorizo.

I still have late-crop tomatoes ripening in the garden. I’ve been blanching, skinning and bagging them for the freezer—a great asset for winter’s soups and sauces. But today I was inspired to make a batch of  sofrito, some to use immediately and some to freeze.

Late-crop tomatoes from the garden.
Quite a lot of mystique accompanies sofrito, considered the “mother” of all sauces. Sofrito means “fried gently.” Sofrito is the first step in many recipes. It is, basically, a mixture of sautéed ingredients that gives depth of  flavor to many dishes in Spanish cooking, from paella to stew, vegetables to pasta. It’s a procedure, a technique and a sauce.

The essential ingredient in sofrito is olive oil. First, onions, garlic and green pepper are sautéed slowly in the oil. Then skinned and chopped tomatoes are added and allowed to reduce. Sometimes browning meat or chicken is part of the procedure. Sometimes the onions are allowed to nearly caramelize in the oil.

Peeled tomatoes.
Often the sofrito serves as a cook-in sauce, added to foods, usually with additional liquid such as wine, to continue cooking until done. In the case of shellfish, this is a matter of minutes, whereas stewing beef or lamb might take an hour or more and require additional liquid. Herbs and spices are added, depending on what is being cooked in the sofrito.

To peel tomatoes: Remove cores. Immerse the tomatoes in boiling water for about 1 minute. Drain and cool. Slip off the skins.
Chopped and ready to cook.

 If a larger quantity of tomatoes is used, the sofrito becomes tomate frito, a basic tomato sauce. It can be left chunky or sieved to make a smooth sauce. Chicken, pork or meatballs that have been first browned in oil are added to it to finish cooking. The sauce can be served over cooked pasta.

Tomato Sauce
Salsa de Tomate Frito

This is a basic tomato sauce that can be served as an accompaniment to cooked foods such as pasta or as cooking medium for foods such as meatballs (see the recipe for meatballs here). You can vary the flavor of the sauce by adding other herbs or by using smoked pimentón. Use the sauce chunky or puree it in a blender. If desired, the sauce can be sieved as well (removes all tomato seeds).

Makes 2 cups sauce.

Chunky tomato sauce.
3 cups peeled and chopped tomatoes
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
½ cup chopped green pepper
2 cloves chopped garlic
Sprig of parsley or oregano
Red pepper flakes (optional)
1 teaspoon sweet pimentón (optional)
Pinch cumin
1 bay leaf
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat oil in a saucepan and sauté the onion, peppers and garlic until onion begins to turn golden, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the parsley or oregano and red pepper flakes and pimentón, if using. Stir over medium heat 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes, cumin, bay leaf, salt, and pepper.

Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer until tomatoes are thickened, 30 minutes.

Use the sauce as is or puree in a blender.

Serve the sauce hot or room temperature.

 Penne with Sofrito and Chorizo
Macarrones con Chorizo

Pasta with chorizo and tomato sauce.

This is a wonderful every-day way to prepare pasta. Chorizo adds a flavor “package” to a basic sofrito. You can use either hard, slicing chorizo or soft cooking chorizo. Cheese on top is an option.

Serves 4.

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped green bell pepper
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup diced zucchini
1 clove chopped garlic
1 ½ cups diced chorizo sausage (6 ounces)
1 ½ pounds tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
Pinch of oregano
Freshly ground black pepper
½-pound package penne
Grated Manchego cheese to serve (optional)

Heat the oil in a deep skillet or cazuela and add the green pepper, onion, zucchini, garlic, and chorizo. Sauté on high heat for 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes, oregano, pepper, and salt. Cook until slightly reduced, about 20 minutes longer.

Cook the pasta in boiling water until al dente (about 8 minutes). Drain the pasta and combine with the sauce. Serve with grated cheese, if desired.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


The Great Pumpkin, aka Calabaza.

Before I came to live in Spain (more than 30 years ago), I had never seen pumpkins, except the snaggle-toothed jack-o-lantern sort, nor eaten them, except baked in a pie shell with lots of sugar and spice. In Spanish markets I was amazed to find giant pumpkins (calabaza), dark green and grooved on the outside, bright orange flesh on the inside.

Market vendors carved off thick slabs to sell to individual shoppers. It would take a week or more to sell off a whole pumpkin.

I asked my neighbors how they cooked the pumpkin. Some of the replies: Added to a berza (stew with chickpeas, vegetables and sausages); in boronia, a vegetable stew; cooked with sugar and spices to make a thick marmalade to use as a filling for empanadillas (aha! Spanish pumpkin “pie”); “fried” with a touch of vinegar and oregano; candied in grape syrup.

Nowadays, pumpkins seem to come in smaller dimensions, rather like pie pumpkins. And butternut squash is also grown locally and used interchangeably for true calabaza.

 Pumpkin Sauté
Calabaza Frita

Fried pumpkin == calabaza frita.

“Fried pumpkin”  is the sort of frugal dish—pumpkin, bread and olive oil—that can be stretched to feed a family. Bread thickens the cooking juices, making a tasty sludge. Vinegar and oregano punch up the flavors. I have adapted the traditional recipe, using the bread to make crisp croutons to toss with pumpkin.

This makes a great side dish with roast turkey or grilled sausages. Leftovers can be pureed for a soup.

Serves 6 as a side.

2 pounds pumpkin
3 slices bread, crusts removed
5 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon Sherry vinegar
½ tablespoon oregano
¼ teaspoon hot pimentón
½ cup water
1 inch piece of lemon peel, minced
½ teaspoon salt

Remove seeds and peel the pumpkin. Cut the flesh into 3/4-inch cubes. Cut the bread into ½-inch dice.

Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a cazuela or deep skillet. Fry the bread cubes and the whole garlic cloves. Remove them when toasted and golden. Reserve the toasted croutons.

 Place the garlic in a blender with the vinegar, oregano, pimentón and water and blend until smooth.

Add remaining oil to the pan. Add the cubed pumpkin to the oil and sauté it for 3 to 4 minutes, turning to brown the pumpkin lightly. Add the lemon peel, salt and garlic-vinegar mixture from the blender. Reduce heat, cover the pan and let the pumpkin cook slowly for 10 to 15 minutes, until tender. Add additional water if needed so the pumpkin is juicy.

Immediately before serving, toss the pumpkin with the crisp croutons.

 Fruit Compote in Grape Syrup with Pumpkin

Pumpkin compote in wine syrup.

In wine producing regions, such as La Mancha, a very old way to preserve fruit is by cooking it in grape must (the juice extracted from grapes in the first step of wine making, before fermentation takes place). The must is boiled to a thick syrup, then fruits such as quince and apples and vegetables such as pumpkin, eggplant and sweet potatoes are cooked in the syrup.

This recipe is an adaptation. It is not a preserve, so refrigerate and use within a few days. It’s gorgeous with a dollop of crème fraîche or Greek yogurt to top the compote.

Use white or red grape juice with no sugar added. You can also use wine, but then you will need to add sugar.

Arrope is a wine syrup with fruits.
I used 4 cups of red mosto (grape juice); 1 cinnamon stick, 2 or 3 cloves; 1 slice orange, 1 slice lemon, 1 quince, 1 ¼ pounds pumpkin (about 3 cups cut up); ¼ pound figs.

Put the juice or wine in a pot with the orange and lemon, cinnamon and cloves. Bring to a boil, then simmer until reduced by half. While it is cooking, peel the quince, cut out the core and cut the fruit into bite-size cubes. Add to the grape juice.

When juice is reduced, add the pumpkin, cut in bite-size cubes, and the figs. Simmer until pumpkin is just tender, about 10 minutes more.

Discard orange and lemon slices, cloves and cinnamon. Cool the fruit, then store, covered and refrigerated.

©text, recipes and photos Janet Mendel