Monday, December 31, 2012


Look what I’ve got! An ibérico ham. Time to invite some friends over to share this deliciousness.

 Using the lavishly illustrated book, Slicing Spanish Ham by Pilar Esteban, as reference, my son, Benjamin Searl, broaches the ham, a pure ibérico de bellota (acorn-fed) from Los Pedroches (Córdoba) with more than 36 months curing time.

The ham is sweet and nutty; the fat is soft and melting.

For my Sunday afternoon Open-House-with-Ham party I made a pot of black-eyed peas to get a jump on good luck for the New Year. That recipe is in my January 1 blog last year. And, hot from the oven, a cazuela of patatas a lo pobre, potatoes cooked with onions, peppers and tomatoes in wine (recipe).

Also on the buffet table, a bright winter salad of cauliflower with capers instead of the olives shown in the photo (recipe),

I also made olivada, a garlicky olive paste, good with quail eggs or bread sticks for dipping. I bought a heap of empanadillas de batata, little fried pies filled with sweetened sweet potato paste, and made a batch of carrot-raisin-apricot-fig cupcakes to serve with mandarins from my trees.

How many guys to turn a ham?

With good ham, I love fino Sherry. I also served red and white wine and beer. Most guests seemed to favor beer for an afternoon gathering. The sun was shining and we all sat on the terrace until sunset. Glorious winter day.

Olivada is a garlicky olive dip.
Olive Spread

My home-cured and pitted manzanilla olives lost their crisp texture, so I turned them into this tasty spread. Serve it as a dip, sandwich spread or sauce to accompany hard-cooked eggs, roast lamb, fried fish or sliced tomatoes.

Makes  ¾ cup.

1 cup drained and pitted olives, black or green
½ cup fresh breadcrumbs
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 shallot, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons dry Sherry
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

Combine all the ingredients in a blender or food processor. Blend until smoothly pureed. Serve cold or room temperature.

New Year's luck--black-eyed peas.


Saturday, December 22, 2012


Walnuts, some still with outer husk.              

Usually at this time of year, I’m cracking almonds to make a holiday dessert. But this year a friend gifted me with a heap of walnuts from her trees. These may be the first Spanish walnuts I’ve ever had. The ones I buy at the market are from California—one of few American food imports.

Galletas Marías--plain cookies.

So this year I’m making a walnut torte for Christmas dinner.  The torte is made with fine crumbs from galletas Marías, plain, not-too-sweet cookies. These cookies, typically, are served with desayuno, breakfast, to be dipped in coffee, tea or cocoa. The crumbs are combined with coarsely chopped walnuts and egg whites. Ever so simple, but a delicious dessert served with a dollop of whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Walnut torte makes a delightful holiday dessert.

Torta de Nueces
Walnut Torte

Serves 6.
Coarsely chopped walnuts.

1 ½ cup cookie crumbs
1 cup sugar
1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
4 egg whites

Powdered sugar to garnish

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Oil a 9-inch pie pan.

Combine the crumbs, sugar, baking powder and walnuts. Add the vanilla. In another bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Fold in the crumb mixture.

Spread the mixture in the pie pan and bake until golden, about 25 minutes. Allow to cool. Sprinkle with powdered sugar before cutting.

Walnut torte is best with a dollop of whipped cream.


Saturday, December 15, 2012


I’m like a kid on the night before Christmas, excitement mounting, as I await delivery of my Spanish ham.

Not just any ham, but for the first time ever, a certified ibérico de bellota ham, made from the esteemed ibérico breed of pig that is raised free-range and fattened on acorns.

While waiting, I am boning up on how to slice ham with the sumptuously illustrated book,   
SLICING SPANISH HAM—Mastering the Fine Art of Slicing Spanish Ham, by Pilar Esteban Odorica.

I did the translation for the English edition of Pilar’s book, which takes you through every step, using photographs of master ham slicers to demonstrate the procedures. The photos (both serrano and ibérico hams are pictured) will have you drooling.

Pilar studied design, graphic arts and photography in England, then settled in Marbella (Costa del Sol) where she built a professional career with clients in the hotel and tourism sector. I met Pilar back in the 1980s when she was art director for Lookout Magazine, where I was a regular contributor.

“During the preparation of this book,” Pilar says, “I spent many hours watching professional slicers work. I photographed them slicing whole hams while they explained, step by step, details that otherwise I would never have known.  As the knife's edge separated slice after slice, the blade became covered with fat. The fingers of the maestro, sometimes unconsciously caressing the sides of the ham, took on a sheen as if they were covered with a film of fine silk. Truly, there are many sensory nuances involved in the slicing of a whole ham. Watching from behind the camera lens, I felt like a voyeur peeping through a keyhole, discovering the secrets of this art.”

SLICING SPANISH HAM is available in the US from Kitchen Arts and Letters , in the UK from Spanish Ham Master or from the author, Pilar Esteban, at

If the pictures whet your appetite for authentic Spanish ham, you can order one, either serrano or ibérico, in the US from La Tienda , The Spanish Table or De España .

While I locate a ham stand and sharpen my knives, I am planning who to invite over to share my wonderful ham. Maybe Pilar will come and give me some expert tips.

Saturday, December 8, 2012


This cookbook's a classic!
It’s that time of year again, when newspapers, magazines, websites and opinionated bloggers publish their lists, Best Cookbooks of 2012. Cookbooks are big for the holiday season, both for gift-giving and for consulting recipes for holiday parties. So, let me tell you about a special cookbook, a real keeper.

2012 marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of my first-ever cookbook, COOKING IN SPAIN, still going strong after all these years!

COOKING IN SPAIN was published in 1987 by Lookout Publications. The book and recipes grew out of a monthly cooking column that I wrote for Lookout, an English-language magazine published in Spain. (I wrote food and other features for 30 years, until the magazine eventually folded.) Lookout Publications morphed into Santana Books, the current publisher.

I wrote COOKING IN SPAIN with expats like myself in mind, for people who needed to find their way around Spanish markets—what is that weird fruit? how do you cook that kind of fish? what are all these cheeses? sausages?—and, having tasted Spanish food in restaurants and tapa bars, wanted to try some of the dishes in their own kitchens. A Spanish-English glossary of ingredients, a cook’s tour of regional cuisines, shopping tips and more than 400 recipes made this the “bible” of Spanish cooking.

Years back, COOKING IN SPAIN was one of the very few books about this, at the time, almost unknown cuisine. Although the book was never distributed in the US, American tourists in Spain bought it to take home. It's a real pleasure to meet people, both here and in the US, who tell me how much they love the book and to talk to Spaniards who marvel that a "foreigner" could possibly know so much about authentic Spanish cuisine.

New edition, new look.

The new edition, which came out in 2006, has all the market and kitchen info of the original edition, but with a fresh format and new color photographs by Jean Dominique Dallet and Jerónimo Alba. You can order the new edition of this book, shipped direct from the publisher, Santana Books.

People frequently ask me, “what is your favorite recipe?” I couldn’t possibly pick just one! But, over many years of sampling Spain’s regional cooking, I have several recipes that I return to over and over.

Berza--vegetable pot (Photo by JD Dallet)

Quite a few of these have already appeared in previous blogs: berza (Andalusian vegetable and sausage stew); gazpachuelo (Mediterranean seafood chowder); meatballs in almond sauceFideuá (seafood pasta paella). Here’s another of my favorites, Basque-style hake. I love the simplicity of the dish—garlic, olive oil and wine complement the delicate fresh fish.

Merluza a la Vasca, Hake, Basque Style
Merluza a la Vasca
Hake, Basque Style

Hake is a wonderful fish, flaky and delicate in flavor. (Restaurant critic Jeffrey Steingarten once called it “rich-man’s cod.”) For this dish it’s important to use fresh, not frozen, fish. Fresh cod or haddock might be substituted if hake is not available.

Serves 6.

Hake steaks.
3 pounds hake, cut into 6 crosswise steaks 1 ½ inch thick
2 tablespoons flour
1/3 cup olive oil
6 cloves garlic, sliced crosswise
2/3 cup white wine
1 dozen clams (Manila or littlenecks)
1 dozen small peeled shrimp
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
6 cooked or canned spears of asparagus

Salt the fresh fish steaks and let them sit for 15 minutes. Pat them dry and dust with the flour.

Heat the oil in a cazuela or skillet. Add the garlic and the pieces of fish. Let them cook, without browning for 2 minutes on each side. Sprinkle with any remaining flour. Then add the wine, ½ teaspoon salt, clams and shrimp.

Cook the fish, shaking and rocking the casserole, until the fish is just flaky and clam shells opened, 10 to 12 minutes. The sauce should be slightly thickened.

Add the parsley and asparagus. Serve in the same cazuela.

Saturday, December 1, 2012


Fresh goat cheese.
I’ve just made fresh goat cheese, start to finish. I attended a workshop where a master cheesemaker showed us all the steps, from curdling the milk to pressing the curds.

Well, everything but the goat. The cheesemaker, Juan José Ocaña Mateo of Quesos Sierra Crestillina ( , brought 31 liters of fresh, pastereurized goat’s milk from his dairy farm in the Sierra Crestellina, near Casares in Málaga province (southern Spain).

My little cheese is a bit lumpy, but it tastes wonderful. Fresh and sweet, with just a light salting. It keeps up to two weeks, refrigerated. I love fresh goat cheese for breakfast, with toast “buttered” with olive oil, maybe a slice of tomato. It’s also delicious drizzled with honey and sprinkled with walnuts as a dessert.

I learned a lot about the cheese making process and about how different types of cheeses are made.

Fresh cheese is made with pasteurized milk to insure that it has no nasty bacteria (such as brucellosis, a disease that can be transmitted in raw milk). Pasteurization also destroys good bacteria, those that give matured cheeses their particular aroma and flavor. For cheeses that are to be aged, various fermenting agents and molds are reintroduced to the milk. For our fresh cheese, no additions are necessary.

Juan José Ocaña, master cheesemaker.
Juan measures out a tiny amount of liquid cuajo, rennet, a substance taken from the stomach of suckling animals. The type and quantity of rennet influence the cheese’s characteristics. Diluted with distilled water, the rennet is stirred into milk that has been warmed to 38ºC (100ºF).

Then we wait, about an hour and a half, while the milk curdles. Juan shows us a Power Point presentation about the dairy and cheesemaking. It is a family business going back several generations. He describes himself as a cabrero, a goatherd, but, in fact, he does everything from milking goats to marketing cheese. The family has 450 goats of the Payoya breed, autochthonous to the Sierra. A goat produces an average of 1.8 liters (just under 2 quarts) of milk daily, but not all are producing milk at a given time. Pipes carry the milk directly from the milking barn to the cheesemaking facility.

Cutting the curds with a lyre.
We return to our cheese making. After everyone washes hands, Juan tests the curds by cutting them with scissors. Then we take turns cutting the curds with a lira, a lyre-shaped paddle. Clumps gradually separate into smaller and smaller “beads.”

The suero, or whey, is drained off, leaving the curds. On the farm, the whey is fed to pigs that are raised for meat or made into requesón—ricotta cheese—by heating the whey until the protein coagulates into a smooth cheese.

Next step, to mold and press the curds. Cheesemakers, both artisanal and industrial, today use hygienic plastic forms, but in former times, they used strips of woven esparto grass to shape the cheeses. That’s what we are using for this workshop.

We twist the strips into small circles and place them on top of a grooved cheese board that allows the whey to drain into a bucket. Using our hands, we fill the molds with milky curds and gently press and compact them, gradually tightening the cinch. When the cheese holds its shape, it’s ready.

 Cheeses to be cured are submerged in salmuera, a brine, for a period of time. Ours are lightly sprinkled with salt, wrapped and ya está—ready to eat.

Semi-cured goat cheese.

Our workshop finishes with a cata, a tasting, of aged cheeses from the Sierra Crestellina farm. The semi-cured (aged two months) is creamy with a mild lactic tang, a natural rind, perfect for a cheese sandwich. Juan said it’s a good melting cheese. 

Good melting cheese.

The cured cheese is matured five months. It has a stronger aroma, is fattier and drier in consistency. The third cheese is a raw milk añejo, aged eight months. (Raw milk cheeses aged more than 60 days are safe.) It has a thick moldy rind, is saltier, drier, more pungent than the less mature cheeses. It is my favorite. It seems to be calling out for a copita of fino Sherry.

Raw milk añejo cheese has a thick rind, sunken shape.