Sunday, January 29, 2012


Here I am in my kitchen in Spain. The video clip comes from a TV program, Diez Razones Para Ir a Mijas (10 Reasons to Go to Mijas), that aired recently on Canal Sur television in southern Spain.

I am reason number eight. Well, not me exactly. I along with two other expats (a Swiss and a Japanese) represent the village’s resident foreigners. I am preparing ajo blanco con uvas, white gazpacho with grapes, (the recipe is here) to serve to my guests. We expats sit around the kitchen table and talk about what we like about life here in Andalusia and what we like to eat. It’s all in Spanish!

In another segment on the show, a cook in a local bar prepares salmorejo, a favorite tapa, a salad of oranges, salt cod, onions and olives.  (A recipe for that salad is here. In my version, also called ensalada malagueña, I swapped shrimp for the salt cod.)

Reason Número Uno? The famous Burros Taxis that carry tourists on a loop around the plaza get first place. Should you wish to watch the whole program (about 30 minutes), the link is here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Moros y Cristianos--black beans and rice.
Moros y Cristianos—Moors and Christians. An unlikely name for a pot of beans and rice. But these are black beans—the Moors—and white rice—the Christians. In Spain, they have a long history of dueling it out. (Clue: the Christians win.)

A moro in Spanish is an Arab, a Muslim, a Berber, a dark-skinned person, an invader, a pirate (as in, hay moros en la costa). To this day, it is insulting to call someone the M-word. Maybe not as vile as the N-word in English, but definitely not polite.

The rancor began some 1300 years ago. In 711, the Moors swarmed across the Straits of Gibraltar, swashbuckling their way across most of the country, as far as the French border, claiming the land for the caliph of Damascus. Their dominion over parts of the country was to last for almost 800 years.

The Reconquest by Christian armies began almost immediately. The shifting frontier between Moorish and Christian lands went on until the taking of the last Moorish kingdom of Granada by Ferdinand and Isabella at the end of the 15th Century (1492, to be exact).

The long struggle of the Reconquest is still commemorated with festivals reenacting famous battles between Moors and Christians, replete with costumes, trumpets, swords, charging horses.

This dish of black beans and rice, another reminder of that past, curiously, seems to have been adopted by Cubans. My version is vegetarian, but the bean pot could include chorizo or longaniza sausages. To confuse the racist plot, let me add that the dried beans are black before they are soaked and cooked, but dark brown after cooking.

Because I have extremely hard water, I always add a pinch of baking soda to the soaking water, so the beans soften more readily.

Black beans and White Rice

Serves 6.

1 pound black beans, soaked 
8 cups water
1 onion
1 carrot
1 stalk celery
10 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon pimentón (paprika)
1 teaspoon smoked pimentón
1 teaspoon hot pimentón
6 tablespoons olive oil
3 teaspoons salt
Chunks of pumpkin (optional)
1 orange
½ cup chopped onion
1 ½ cups long-grained rice
3 cups water
Sliced spring onion for garnish
Sliced orange for garnish

Drain the soaked beans. Put them to cook in the 8 cups of water with the quartered onion, sliced carrot and celery, crushed garlic and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, skim, then simmer, partially covered, until the beans are nearly tender, about one hour.

Mix together the three kinds of pimentón, 3 tablespoons of the oil, 2 teaspoons of salt and pepper and stir into the beans with the pumpkin, if using, and the juice of one orange. Cook until beans are tender, about 30 minutes more. Let the beans sit for 15 minutes. Ladle them with a skimmer into a serving bowl.

While the beans are cooking, heat the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil in a pan and sautée the chopped onion until softened. Stir in the rice and sautée it until translucent. Add the water and 1 teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce to a simmer. Cook until rice is tender, about 15 minutes. Allow to set 5 minutes, then fluff with a fork.

Pack the rice into an oiled bowl or ring mold or individual molds. Unmold the rice onto the black beans. Garnish with parsley, sliced onion and orange.

Friday, January 6, 2012


Pan de higos--fig roll spiced with anise and sesame seed.
How do you say “Bah, humbug!” in Spanish? By the Twelfth Day of Christmas, I’ve had enough! Too much festive season, too much eating and drinking. I’m looking forward to getting back to hum-drum routines.

The final day of Christmas, Epiphany (January 6), in Spain is known as Los Reyes, Kings’ Day, when the three kings come from Belén (Bethlehem) bringing gifts for children and grownups too. Such excitement as they proceed through towns and villages the night before, throwing out caramelos (candy) and waving to the kids. And such ilusión, excited anticipation, as the little ones tuck into bed, visions of dolls, bicycles and computer games dancing in their heads.

This year the holiday falls on a Friday, allowing kids a whole weekend to enjoy their new toys before returning to school.

Traditional for Kings’ Day is the roscón de reyes, a cream-filled and fruit-studded ring cake. Not actually a cake, the roscón is a sweetened brioche yeast bread. I looked them over in the bakery section of El Corte Ingles department store where I was shopping yesterday, but decided against indulging. Nor did I see any good reason for yet another photo of the famous roscón—my Googled search turned up 3,990,000 entries!

Besides, I still have some holiday sweets left to enjoy on this last festive day. Among them is pan de higos, which translates as “fig bread.” It’s not really bread at all, but ground figs, spiced with anise seed and shaped into a compact loaf. The rolls are rather like fig newtons without the cookie.

I used to help a neighbor make dozens of these fig rolls. She would grind the spices in a mortar. She also added a little melted chocolate to the mixture, her secret ingredient, not found in traditional fig rolls. Now I buy the fig rolls in local shops. Sliced, they go nicely with dessert wine or, topped with serrano ham, as an aperitif.

Dried figs.
Fig Roll
Pan de Higos

The village where I landed back in 1966 was not undiscovered. The benign climate, brilliant light, beautiful landscape and, then, low cost of living attracted artists, writers and many retired British, who built villas in the environs. Promoting such development was an architect who built many of the first villas. His houses had some signature details--copper-clad fireplace chimneys, terra cotta floor tiles, and fig presses converted to plant stands.

Fig presses are, indeed, beautiful objects, consisting of a wooden frame threaded with a thick wooden screw, hewn from hard holm oak. The presses were used to press dried figs.

Fig trees grow everywhere, even springing up wild in rock crevices. In former times the fruit was far more important than it is today, providing a source of sweetener in place of honey or sugar. What wasn’t consumed by humans made good animal fodder.

Ripe figs, picked in late summer, are spread to dry on a ground cloth in the sun. When fully dried, they are packed into a serete, a woven straw basket, and cinched tightly closed. The baskets are placed in the press and winched down. Once pressed, the figs are impervious to insect infestation and will keep for months.

Makes 4 (6-inch) rolls.

2 pounds dried figs, stems removed
¼ cup powdered sugar
1 cup blanched and skinned almonds
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon aniseed, ground
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
grated lemon peel
3 squares semi-sweet chocolate, melted (optional)
¼ cup sweet anise liqueur, brandy or sweet wine 
3 tablespoons sesame seed, toasted

Sprinkle the figs with half of the powdered sugar. Put the figs through a food grinder (or chop them in a batches in a food processor). There should be about 6 cups of pulp. Place it in a bowl.

Put aside 16 almonds. Chop the rest and add to the figs.

Mix the remaining powdered sugar with the cinnamon, aniseed, pepper, ginger and lemon peel. Sprinkle over the fig mixture and mix it in.

Add the melted chocolate, if using, and the anisette liqueur, brandy or sweet wine. With the hands, knead the mixture to blend well.

Divide the fig mixture into four equal portions. Roll each into a log, about 6 inches long and 1 1/2 inch thick.

Spread the toasted sesame seed on a sheet of waxed paper. Roll the fig logs in the sesame, patting to flatten the logs slightly. Press 4 reserved almonds into the top of each of the fig rolls.

Let the rolls dry for 12 hours, then wrap them tightly in plastic wrap.

To serve, cut the rolls crosswise into disks and place on a candy dish.

End of the festive season--view from my terrace with North Africa on the horizon.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


Black-eyed peas, the Spanish way.

Happy New Year, everybody! ¡Feliz Año Nuevo!

I missed my chance to lock in good luck for the coming year, Spanish style, by eating one grape on each bong of the midnight bells. Years ago, standing in the village plaza as the church clock chimed, I choked trying to swallow all 12 grapes on top of a quantity of cava (bubbly). Since then I avoid the grape ritual, either by surreptitiously eating them in advance of midnight or, like last night, just forgetting to buy any grapes.

But, a bit of superstition lurks, so today I am cooking black-eyed peas, the favored dish in the American South for New Year’s Day.

(For a traditional Spanish morning-after cure, have a look at the garlic soup recipe in this blog posting.)

The Spanish way with black-eyed peas is not so different from the southern one. The legumes are especially delicious cooked with fatty pork, pork belly or sausages. Nevertheless, if you prefer a vegetarian version, just omit the meat and add additional olive oil.

Add vegetables, as desired, to the pot—carrots or pumpkin, chard or cabbage, cut-up potatoes.

Char-roasted garlic cloves.
The black-eyed peas have a whopping whole head of garlic, but it is char-roasted before adding to the pot. This technique makes it easy to peel the individual cloves and gives the garlic a mild, nutty flavor.

Black-Eyed Peas with Tomato Sofrito
Potaje de Carillas con Sofrito

Serves 4.

2 cups dried black-eyed peas (14 ounces), soaked in water 8 to12 hours
½ cup sliced leek
1 cup sliced carrots or pumpkin
2 bay leaves
1 head garlic, char-roasted (see instructions below)
Pork, pork belly or ham hocks
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped green bell pepper
Red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon pimentón de la Vera (smoked paprika)
1 cup peeled, seeded, and chopped tomato
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cumin
¼ teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Pinch of ground cloves
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon wine vinegar

Drain the soaked black-eyed peas and place them in a pot with 6 cups of fresh water. Bring to a boil and skim off the froth. Add the leek, carrots, bay leaves, cloves of char-roasted garlic and pork or ham hocks. Cover and simmer the peas 30 minutes.

Heat the oil in a skillet and sauté the onion and pepper 5 minutes. Stir in the red pepper flakes and pimentón and immediately add the tomato. Season with salt, cumin, oregano, parsley, cloves, and pepper. Cook the sofrito 8 minutes.

Add ½ cup cold water to the black-eyed peas. Bring again to a boil and stir in the sofrito. Cover and simmer until peas are very tender, 60 to 90 minutes.

Stir in the vinegar and cook 5 minutes longer.

Char garlic over flame.
To roast a whole head of garlic: Spear the head of garlic on a fork or grasp  it with tongs and hold over a gas flame (or put under the broiler), turning, until it is charred. Peel the garlic cloves, rinse in running water and add them to the stew.