Monday, February 25, 2013


Juicy slices of Ibérico pork, larded with herbs and spices.
I was needing to replenish my supply of Ann Larson’s luxurious cardomom-scented, olive-oil-based body lotion ( ) and, for that matter, some of her extra virgin olive oil too. So, in company of Lars Kronmark, a chef-instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, St. Helena, California, who was visiting southern Spain, I made a trek to Ann and husband Kenton’s mountain village, Yunquera.

Lars teaches about charcuterie at the CIA, so he was interested in visiting a producer of Ibérico pork. Ann took us to the guy where she buys her Ibérico ham, Miguel Merino Ruiz of Ibéricos Yunquera Miguel produces Ibérico ham, sausages and fresh pork from his own pigs.

Miguel Merino shows us a loin of Ibérico pork.
Ibérico pork, fresh and cured, comes from animals of the Ibérico breed.  What distinguishes this breed from regular porkers (such as Large White, Landrace and Duroc) is that they are very slow to mature, never reaching the size of hogs destined to be pork chops. The Ibérico breed, as it adapted to its habitat, acquired the unique characteristic of storing fat infiltrated in the flesh. The marbled meat is what makes it so juicy.

The pigs that Miguel Merino raises are Ibérico breed—but not finished on bellotas, acorns, which distinguishes the very finest Ibérico hams. These pigs are grain-fed. But, because they are Ibérico breed, they still have the intense marbling that makes the meat so fabulous.

The pluma, from the side of the loin.

Fresh Ibérico pork meat comes in a variety of cuts with curious names like secreto, pluma, presa—“secret,” “feather” and “prize”. Miguel, the pork butcher, also makes Ibérico sausages and some vacuum-packed ready-to-serve meats such as cerdo mechado, a herb-inflected pot roast of pork shoulder that can be served hot or cold.

I bought a hunk of fresh Ibérico pork shoulder to cook at home, using an Andalusian recipe for carne mechado. I also bought some pluma—a thin cut from the side of the loin, perfect for the grill—to stash in the freezer.

Pork shoulder, marbled with fat.
Yunquera is situated in the Sierra de las Nieves, the "snow mountains," and, true to form, it had snowed the previous day, covering the mountain tops with white. We all went to lunch at a restaurant in Yunquera, where a gorgeous olive-wood fire warmed the room, and ate pluma “steaks,” grilled medium-rare. Ibérico pork is more like really good beef, juicy, mouth-filling, than it is like pork. Lars described it as “sweet.” 

Grilled pluma, or "feather."
Fresh ibérico pork cuts are available in the US from 

Carne de Cerdo Mechado
Larded Pork Pot Roast

Mechar means to “lard” a piece of meat. In the French manner, a larding needle is used to thread a piece of fat through a cut of meat. The fat helps keep the meat juicy while cooking. In the Spanish home kitchen, I watched village cooks “lard” a pot roast by cutting slits in the meat and inserting strips of salt pork with spices and herbs.

If using Ibérico pork, the natural marbling provides the juiciness. Instead, the pot roast is “larded” with flavor—garlic, spices and herbs. If you are not using Ibérico pork, you may wish to use strips of salt pork to lard the meat, so it stays juicy as it cooks.

Use a boneless blade roast, Boston butt or picnic ham in this recipe. Shoulder roasts have a lot of connective tissue that cooks up tender with slow cooking.

Slices of pork with sauce.

2 pounds boneless shoulder pork roast
1 clove
10 peppercorns
1 teaspoon coarse salt
3 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Sprigs of fresh thyme
2 teaspoons olive oil
Strips of salt pork (optional)
2 tablespoons olive oil or pork lard
½ cup Sherry or white wine
¾ cup stock or water
2 tomatoes, quartered
1 onion, quartered
4 carrots, halved
1 head garlic, char-roasted (see below)
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper

In a mortar, crush the clove and peppercorns. Add the salt, garlic, parsley and a few thyme leaves. Crush to a paste. Mix with 2 teaspoons oil.

With a sharp knife cut deep gashes into the piece of meat. Use the knife blade or fingers to push some of the paste into the slits. If using, plug the slits with  strips of salt pork. Continue, spacing the gashes regularly on the meat’s surface. Tie the meat with twine, giving it a good shape.

Heat the oil or lard in a pan big enough to hold the piece of meat. Brown the meat, very slowly, on all sides. Add the onion, carrot, tomatoes, and roasted garlic cloves. Put in the bay leaf, a sprig of thyme, Sherry and stock. Cook the meat very slowly until fork-tender, about 1 ½ hours.

Remove the meat to a cutting board.  Discard the string, and slice the meat. Sieve the sauce, pressing on the solids, and spoon the sauce over the meat.

Char-roasted head of garlic.
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.

Pork pot roast with vegetables.

Saturday, February 16, 2013


Stuffed apples are baked in sweet Málaga wine.
I’ve got a sweet secret ingredient hiding in my wine cellar. It is Málaga dulce,  sweet wine, a dark nectar that tastes like liquid raisins. Made from muscatel and Pedro Ximenez grapes that are sun-dried before vinification, it is a gorgeous dessert wine. It also goes well with toasted nuts and with salty aperitifs such as sliced sausage.

Málaga wine, a sweet nectar.

Málaga wine makes a superb cooking wine, adding both sweetness and fruitiness to a dish. Baste a roast chicken with it or pour it over sliced sweet potatoes before baking.

The natural raisiny, figgy flavor of sweet Málaga is a natural with baked apples stuffed with nuts and figs. The wine turns syrupy, glazing the apples. This is an easy dessert that can bake alongside a roast for a lovely winter’s dinner.

Apples are stuffed with figs and walnuts, baked in sweet wine.

Manzanas Rellenas Asadas con Vino de Málaga
Stuffed Apples Baked with Málaga Wine

Use any favorite apple variety. Firm Granny Smith apples keep their shape best. Fujis add a spicy touch. The baked apples are good served with a dollop of creamy Greek yogurt.

Serves 6.

Stuffed and ready to bake.
6 apples
½ cup coarsely chopped walnuts
½ cup chopped dried figs
Grated orange zest
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Grating of fresh nutmeg
Pinch of ground cloves
2/3 cup sweet Málaga wine
1/3 cup boiling water

Preheat oven to 350ºF.

Peel a strip around the stem of the apples. Use an apple corer, melon baller or spoon to scoop out core and seeds. Set the apples in a baking pan.

In a small bowl combine the walnuts, figs, zest, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Fill the hollows of the apples with the fig mixture. Pour over the wine and the boiling water.

Bake until apples are tender when pierced with a knife, about 1 ¼ hours. Remove the apples from the oven two or three times during baking and spoon the wine juice over them.

Serve hot or cold.

Wine becomes a sweet syrup for the baked apples.

Sunday, February 10, 2013


Chocolate-covered figs, a sweet treat for Valentine's Day.

With Valentine’s Day coming up, everybody is writing about chocolate this week. It’s a good enough excuse for me too. Chocolates make a wonderful gift. Chocolate is reputed to be aphrodisiac. Chocolate, usually, is sweet, as in “sweetheart”. No matter if it’s only a marketing ploy, chocolate is worth the celebration.

Spain has a very special chocolate connection, dating back to 1502 when Columbus first discovered cacao beans in what is today Honduras, on his fourth trip to the Americas, and sent some back to Spain.  But it was not until Hernán Cortés tasted chocolate in Mexico (around 1521), where the Emperor Moctezuma served it flavored with vanilla in cups of gold, that Spaniards took notice of the beverage.

The Spaniards added sugar to the bitter brew and, after that, chocolate became all the rage with the Spanish nobility. From 1521 until 1600, Spain had a virtual monopoly on the trade in cacao from the New World. Only after that did the British, Dutch and French expand cultivation of the treasured cacao in other parts of the world (Indonesia, Africa, West Indies). 

Chocolate was originally consumed by the Mayans of Central America. The Aztecs discovered cacao when they took control of Mayan lands in trade expansion. Known as “food of the gods,” it became so valued that only the nobility was allowed to partake of it.

Chocolate mona de pascua in a Barcelona shop.
In Spain, chocolate was deemed by the Catholic church to be an acceptable potion to be imbibed during Lenten fast days, when many foods were forbidden to the faithful.  Perhaps this is why chocolate is especially beloved during the Lenten season. Chocolate eggs, bunnies and chicks symbolize the springtime festival.  In Catalonia, the custom reaches extravagant proportions with the confection of monas de pascua, richly decorated chocolate delicacies consumed on Easter, when more than 300,000 of them are sold. 

I find it fascinating that, to this day, Spain favors drinking chocolate (see the recipe for chocolate a la taza  here) and has never really developed a repertoire of desserts such as chocolate mousse, chocolate cake, fudge, chocolate ice cream, brownies.

Nevertheless, artisanal products such as chocolate-covered figs, a product of Extremadura, are an exquisite rendition of the chocolate arts. (Order them here from La Tienda .) Or, make these bonbons yourself for your sweet love.

Hand-dipping candied orange peel.
I didn’t make the chocolate-fig bonbons pictured in the photo at the top. I purchased them at a local artisanal chocolate factory called Mayan Monkey Mijas. In the photo to the right, a chocolate artisan at Mayan Monkey dips candied orange peel in dark chocolate.


Chocolate-Fig Bonbons
Bombones de Higos

These figs have a chocolate cream filling and are bathed in bittersweet chocolate. Don’t worry if your hand-dipped bonbons don’t have a slick professional finish—they will still taste wonderful.

A thermometer is useful in tempering the chocolate coating for the bonbons. You don’t need a candy thermometer, as the chocolate never heats more than120ºF. Use a dairy thermometer.

Makes 75 bonbons.

1 pound small dry figs
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
3 cups water
¼ cup brandy
16 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped or grated
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup boiling water

With a sharp knife cut a slit in the bottoms of the figs, leaving the stems intact.

Combine 1 cup sugar and 3 cups water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Cook 3 minutes. Add the brandy, bring again to a boil, and stir in the figs. Remove the pan from the heat and let the figs macerate 15 minutes.

Drain the figs in a colander, saving the brandy sugar syrup for another use. Spread the figs on a rack and allow to dry in a well-aired place for 2 hours.

Prepare the chocolate cream filling. In the top of a double boiler over boiling water melt 4 ounces of the chocolate. Stir in the olive oil, 2 tablespoons of sugar, and the boiling water. Place the pan over medium, direct heat and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes. Scrape into a heatproof bowl. Cool the chocolate, then refrigerate.

To stuff the figs with the chocolate cream filling, poke a finger or wooden dowel into the slit to make a hollow and use the tip of a small knife to push about 1/8 teaspoon of the chocolate cream into the center. Place each fig on a tray as it is filled. (You may not need all of the chocolate cream. Reserve unused chocolate for another use.) Set aside in a cool place (not refrigerator) for at least 30 minutes or up to 6 hours.

Place the remaining 12 ounces chocolate in the top of a double boiler. Position a thermometer in the top section of the double boiler. Place over boiling water and melt the chocolate, stirring, until it reaches 125ºF.

Remove the chocolate from the heat and allow to cool to 85ºF.

Heat the water in the bottom of the double boiler to 90ºF and maintain this heat. Place the chocolate over the water again and let it warm to 90ºF.

Dip the figs, one by one, into the melted chocolate. Use 2 forks to remove them, letting excess chocolate drip off, and place the figs on a rack lined with waxed paper. Let the figs dry in a cool place for 3 hours.

 Place the figs in individual bonbon papers or in a box lined with waxed paper. They are ready to eat immediately, but may be kept, refrigerated, for up to 1 month.

Saturday, February 2, 2013


Chard leaves and stems.
Chard is such a satisfying vegetable because, with the leafy green tops and substantial stems, it adds up to much more than spinach. In Spanish dishes, often the green tops and white stalks are cooked separately. Two for the price of one.

Two different ways with one vegetable.

I grow chard (also known as Swiss chard or white beet, acelga in Spanish) in the garden from autumn through to spring. It’s a good veg to have on hand for soups, stews and stir-fries. Because I pick it so frequently it never gets really big. But the chard I buy in local markets is often huge, with leaves like palm fronds and stems as broad as pork chops.

Leafy green chard tops can be cooked in any way suitable for spinach. Thick stalks need to be stripped, like celery, of strings. Then they can be added to stews (see the recipe for berza) or boiled until tender and then batter-dipped and fried or covered in a sauce and gratineed.

Chard leaves cooked with raisins, pine nuts and garlic.

Chard with Raisins and Pine Nuts
Acelgas con Pasas y Piñones

This is sometimes called “Catalan style,” because in Catalonia it’s a traditional dish, and sometimes called “Málaga style,” because it’s usually made with plump Málaga muscatel raisins. Málaga raisins need to be seeded, or substitute any seedless dark raisin. (More about pine nuts here.)

Serve this as a side dish with roast pork, chicken or turkey. Spinach can be substituted for chard.

Serves 6 as a side dish.

1 ½ pounds fresh chard leaves, washed, trimmed and chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 cloves chopped garlic
1 tablespoon chopped tocino (ham fat) or bacon (optional)
¼ cup seeded raisins
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a deep skillet and fry the pine nuts for a few seconds until they are toasted. Remove skillet from heat and skim them out and reserve.

Add the garlic to the pan with the tocino, if using. When garlic begins to turn golden, add the chopped chard. Sauté the chard for 5 minutes.

Add ½ cup water, the raisins, salt and black pepper. Cook, covered, for 10 minutes. Remove cover and cook another 5 minutes until most excess liquid has evaporated. Sprinkle with the pine nuts.

Chard stems are filled with cheese and ham, then fried.
Stuffed and Fried Chard Stems   
Pencas de Acelgas Rellenas

My grandson named these “lasagne sandwiches.” They are rather fiddly to make, I think, because the “sandwiches” don’t hold together easily while dredging in flour and egg. I saw a TV chef wrap each package in a blanched chard leaf before flouring. But then, you would not get two for the price of one.

Serves 6.

12 stems of chard, 4 ½ inches long and at least 1 ½ inches wide
½ cup grated cheese
6 slices cooked ham
½ cup flour
1 egg, well beaten
Olive oil for frying

Trim the chard stems of strings and cook them in boiling salted water until tender, about 8 minutes. Drain.

Place 6 pieces on worktop. Spread each with a spoonful of grated cheese. Roll the sliced ham and lay it along each chard stem. Top each with another piece of chard and squeeze the edges together slightly, sandwiching in the cheese.

Place the flour in a shallow bowl. Place the beaten egg in another bowl. Dip the pieces of chard first in flour, then egg, then again in flour.

Heat sufficient oil to cover the bottom of a skillet to a depth of ¼ inch. Fry the floured pieces of chard until browned on both sides.

Drain briefly on paper toweling. If desired, cut the pieces in half. Serve hot.