Saturday, February 27, 2016


On a chilly Saturday afternoon (snow dusts the nearby mountaintops!), nothing is quite so comforting as a pot of beans simmering on the stove. 

Pinto beans cook with ham bone, carrots and potatoes.

Legumes—dried beans, peas and lentils—are a mainstay of Spanish cooking. In village homes, stews, soups and potages made with legumes might be served several times a week, year-round.

Legumes are an excellent source of dietary fiber and protein and are very low fat. However, in Spanish dishes, they are frequently combined with small quantities of fatty meats and sausages, which add much flavor. But beans and chickpeas also show up for Lenten meals, cooked with salt cod or completely vegetarian.

Dried beans (alubia, habichuela, judía, bolo, lingote, fabe, fesol, fríjol, fréjol, frisuelo, pocha, mongete) come in many colors and sizes. The most common is a large white kidney bean, somewhat similar to a cannellini bean. The judión or fabe is an even bigger white bean, prized for cooking the Asturian bean dish, fabada. In Valencia, dried lima beans or butter beans, called garrofón, are an essential ingredient in authentic paella. They may be white or white tipped in brown. The speckled Tolosa red bean, which has a wonderful creamy consistency, is much used in Basque dishes.

Dried beans are usually soaked 8 hours before cooking. Hard water toughens legumes in cooking. If you have very hard water, try soaking and cooking them in bottled or filtered water. They will cook tender much quicker. My well water is extremely hard, so I add a pinch of baking soda (bicarbonate) to both the soaking water and cooking water.

Beans are somewhat less gas-producing if you drain off the soaking water and put them to cook in fresh water. Cooking them long and slow is the best method.

Put the beans to cook in cold water. Cooking time varies with the variety--anywhere from one to three hours. (A pressure cooker is fine for cooking legumes because it shortens the cooking time.) Spanish housewives say you should asustar the beans--give them a "scare" while they cook—when they are partially cooked, add a half-cup of cold water to “shock” them. Always keep beans barely covered with liquid so their skins don’t split.

If I’m cooking beans, I cook twice the amount as called for in the recipe, removing half of them when partially cooked to store in the freezer for another day. They are a good starting point for a pot of chili

Today I'm cooking pinto beans with a ham bone and a few vegetables. La Mancha style, these are served with a garlicky ajiaceite sauce.

Spoon creamy garlic sauce over the beans. Add pickled peppers and onions.

Pinto Beans with Garlic Sauce
Bolos con Ajiaceite

This is a recipe from La Mancha (central Spain), where pinto beans are favored. It can be prepared with any dried beans.

Ham bone for flavor.
A chunk of serrano ham bone adds a huge amount of flavor to the beans. (Pictured is a whole ham hock, which is sawed into four or five pieces.) However, the cooked meat is stringy and not very palatable. So I add a piece of fresh pork, pancetta, smoked pork or sausages to the beans along with the bone. To make a vegetarian version, simply eliminate the meat and add olive oil and a teaspoon of smoked pimentón (paprika).

This garlic sauce, known elsewhere in Spain as alioli, adds a sumptuous touch to ordinary beans. Spoon some of the sauce over the cooked beans and let each person stir the sauce in. The sauce is also delicious as a dressing with cooked vegetables.

Serve the beans with pickled onions and guindillas, mild green chiles, on the side.

Serves 4-6.

1 pound pinto beans (2 ¼ cups), soaked in water to cover for 8 hours
1 pound meaty ham bone or pork hock
½ onion
1 stalk celery, sliced
2 bay leaves
Sprig of thyme
2 ½ teaspoons salt
2 carrots, sliced
2 medium potatoes, quartered
1 egg
2 cloves garlic
½ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon vinegar
Pickled onions and peppers, to serve

Drain the beans and place them in a soup pot with 6 cups of water. Bring the beans to a boil and skim off all the foam that rises to the surface.

Add the ham bone, onion, celery, bay leaves, and thyme. Bring again to a boil, reduce the heat, cover, and simmer the beans 1 hour.

Add 1 cup cold water to the beans and bring them again to a boil. Add 2 teaspoons salt and the sliced carrots. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook beans until tender, about 1 hour more.

Add the potatoes to the beans. Cover and cook until they are very tender, 30 minutes.

Skim out 2 chunks of potatoes. Keep beans warm on a low heat.

Place egg and garlic in a blender and blend until smooth. Add the 2 chunks of potatoes and blend. Blend in the oil to make a thick sauce. Blend in remaining ½ teaspoon salt and the vinegar.

Place the beans in a large serving bowl. Separate the meat from the ham bone and add to the beans. Spoon some of the garlic sauce over the beans. Serve remaining sauce separately. Serve pickled onions and peppers on the side.

More recipes for beans, chickpeas and lentils:

Saturday, February 20, 2016


Fifty years ago this month I arrived in the village of Mijas. A rickety-old taxi deposited us in the plaza where we unloaded bags and a steamer trunk packed with typewriter and books. We (my then-husband and I) had come to southern Spain to spend a year, exploring, writing, reading. Fifty years later I am still here.

We stayed in a small pension while we searched for a place to live. At midday we usually ate at a local bar, where I became acquainted with the glories of Mediterranean fish. We soon met a Canadian couple, also house-hunting. They were staying at a family-run hostal on the central plaza that also had a restaurant. We joined them there for lunch one day.

Restaurant Mirlo Blanco in the 1960s.
Over the years, that restaurant, the Mirlo Blanco—“white blackbird"—became our favorite place for any special occasion—birthdays, anniversaries, visitors from abroad. The menu featured traditional Basque cuisine, as the family that ran the restaurant was from the Basque Country.

The service was impeccable—my ex and the Canadian writer, channeling  Hemingway, called the maître d’ “el gran maestro.” On one of my first meals there, the maître brought to the table for inspection a whole, glistening-fresh hake, about 1 ½ feet long, before returning it to the kitchen to be cooked a la vasca, Basque style, with white wine, asparagus, clams and parsley.

I hadn’t been back to the Mirlo Blanco in quite a few years—I rarely eat out except when I am travelling. But this week, what with that 50th anniversary and some friends visiting, it seemed like a good occasion.

Mirlo Blanco today. The restaurant is located in the central plaza of the village.
The Mirlo Blanco has changed very little in all those years. The matriarch, Doña Pía (from whom I cajoled recipes many years ago) is gone, as is el gran maestro. The second and third generations of the Auzmendi family run the establishment. The current maître, who, besides serving our lunch, kept a cozy fire burning nicely in the hearth, has been with the family for 38 years.

With some seasonal additions, the menu, too, was basically the same! The wonderful Basque fish soup (perfect on a chilly February day), merluza a la vasca, squid in black ink sauce, braised ox-tail, soufflé Gran Marnier, and, one of my favorite dishes, txangurro, a crab gratin served in the crab shell.

Crab meat with brandy-inflected sauce is baked in the crab shell.

Crab Gratin, Basque Style
Txangurro a la Vasca

Txangurro is the Basque name for spider crab (centolla in Spanish). It’s a good-sized crab whose shell is covered with knobby protuberances. One crab doesn’t really provide a lot of meat. So I use frozen or canned crab to extend the quantities. The recipe is my adaptation of the one I got from Doña Pía of the Mirlo Blanco. It’s baked in the crab shells (you can recycle shells). If you have not got shells, bake in individual ramekins.

Serves 4

¼ cup olive oil
2 ½ cups chopped onions (2 medium onions)
1 carrot, diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
3 cups diced tomatoes
¼ cup brandy
½ cup dry Sherry
¼ cup crab broth
½ teaspoon pimentón (paprika)
Pinch of cayenne
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 bay leaf
2 cups drained, flaked crab meat
1 ½ cups day-old bread crumbs
1 tablespoon butter

Heat the oil in a deep skillet and sauté the onion, carrot and garlic for 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook at a high heat 5 minutes more.

 Add 3 tablespoons of the brandy, Sherry, liquid drained from the crabs, pimentón, salt, parsley and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then simmer the sauce for 40 minutes.

Discard the bay leaf. Purée the sauce in a blender, then sieve it. Return the sauce to the pan and stir in the crab meat. Add remaining brandy. Cook 5 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400º.

Spoon the mixture into the crab shells or oiled ramekins. Sprinkle the tops with bread crumbs and dot with butter. Bake until the top is lightly golden, about 20 minutes.

Chef Lars Kronmark samples Orange and Cod Salad, an Andalusian entree on the menu.

Mirlo Blanco web page here.

Other recipes:
Basque-style hake:
Basque fish soup:
Squid in its own ink:
Orange-cod salad:

Sunday, February 14, 2016


Mira, que fresco,” said my favorite fishmonger, pointing to a slimy heap of octopuses on the counter. “Están casi vivos.” They’re almost alive. She pointed out the fresh-from-the-sea color, a mottled dun. Did the beast just blink?

“So, how do I prepare it?” I asked. Best way, she said, is to put it in the freezer for three days. Thaw, then wash well and cook in a big pot of water. Remove the innards from the creature after it’s been cooked.  OK, I can do that. I brought home a specimen weighing almost 1 ½ kilos (3 pounds).

Pulpo--fresh, uncooked octopus.

Octopus can be tough and rubbery. That’s why, freshly caught, it’s customary to beat it against the rocks to tenderize the flesh. Freezing breaks down the tissue fibers in the same manner—an easy tenderizing process.

And, cooking  before removing viscera avoids the “yuck” factor. Before cooking, the thawed octopus should be thoroughly washed in running water, paying special attention to cleaning grit out of the suckers.

Oh, by the way, the octopus has eight “arms,” not tentacles. Arms have suckers on their whole length, tentacles only on the ends.

The octopus has all its stuff—brains, heart(s), stomach, gonads—inside the globular head. This can be cleaned out either before or after cooking.

I cooked the octopus in the Spanish way—lowering it into boiling water three times before dropping it into the pot to cook. The initial hot water dip causes the appendages to curl and the skin to tighten so that it is less likely to split during cooking.

Figure about 10 minutes per pound cooking time. Test after 20 minutes by probing the thick part of a tentacle with a skewer. The octopus is done when the skewer easily pierces the flesh. If not tender, cook 5 minutes more and test again. My 3-pounder needed 25 minutes.

Remove the pot from the heat and leave the octopus in the cooking liquid for 20 minutes before draining. (If desired, the flavorful cooking liquid can be stored in freezer for other uses, such as cooking rice or fish soup.)

Cooked octopus. Eight "arms" and a globular head. Hole in the middle is its mouth.

When the octopus is cool enough to handle, use kitchen scissors to cut off the arms/tentacles. Cut them into bite-sized pieces. Cut out the eyes and discard them. Remove the beak—a hard bit in that hole in the center of the arms (yes, that’s its mouth). Turn the head inside-out. Discard all the viscera inside the head. If desired, pull off the outer skin and gelatinous layer just beneath the skin of the head pouch and discard them. Cut the flesh into bite-sized pieces.
Use scissors to cut into bite-size pieces.

The octopus is now ready to prepare in any recipe. It can be sautéed, grilled, stewed, mixed in a salad such as Andalusian pipirrana. I usually make a simple Galician dish with pimentón (paprika), olive oil and potatoes boiled in the cooking water.

But today I made pulpo in the manner I learned from my consuegra, Juana, my son Daniel’s mother-in-law. It’s one of our grandson Lucas’s favorite dishes.

The pulpo is cooked in a thick tomato sauce with finely chopped onions and peppers and seasoned with a Venezuelan spice blend called adobo. Adobo contains garlic, turmeric and oregano. Juana serves the octopus with white rice. It’s also good with potatoes cooked in the sauce. I’ve even made it with chunks of zucchini added to the sauce.

Tender pieces of octopus finish cooking in a tomato sauce.

Rice is a good side with the saucy octopus.

Juana’s Octopus with Tomato Sauce
Pulpo al Estilo de Juana 

Serves 4-6.

1 whole octopus, about 3 pounds, washed
16 cups water
4 bay leaves
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 ½ cups finely chopped onion
1 ½ cups finely chopped green peppers
3 cloves chopped garlic
3 cups peeled and crushed fresh tomatoes (about 2 ¼ pounds)
1 teaspoon oregano
¼ teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon pimentón (paprika)
Freshly ground black pepper
Chile (optional)
Chopped parsley
Rice as an accompaniment

Wash those little suckers well!
Wash the octopus well in running water.

Bring water to a boil in a large pot with 2 teaspoons of salt and 3 bay leaves. Holding the octopus by the head, dip it, tentacles first, three times into the boiling water. Then lower it into the water to cook, covered. After 20 minutes, test for doneness by probing with a skewer. If not tender, cook 5 minutes more and test again.

Remove the pot from the heat. Leave the octopus in the cooking water for 20 minutes. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking liquid.

Heat the oil in a pan and sauté the onion, peppers and garlic until softened, 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, oregano, turmeric, pimentón, pepper, chile, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 bay leaf. Cook, partially covered, 20 minutes.

Add the cut-up octopus to the sauce with the 1 cup of reserved cooking liquid. Cook 20 minutes more.

Serve garnished with chopped parsley and rice on the side.

Galician-style octopus--pimentón, olive oil and salt.
A recipe for octopus Galician style can be found here. 


More tentacle adventures (squid):

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Chicken Breast, Inspired by a Chef

Toledo cathedral.

In the shadow of Toledo’s grand Santa María cathedral is the eponymous restaurant of Chef Adolfo Muñoz, passionate proponent of everything gustatory. 

Adolfo has one of the finest wine cellars in the country, situated below street level in an excavated house dating back to Toledo’s  medieval Jewish quarter. He produces his own “garage” wine, Pago Del Ama Colección, from grapes grown on his estate, cigarral, within the municipality of Toledo. He’s a television chef and an enthusiastic promoter of La Mancha’s great products, such as saffron, partridge and olive oil. (Toledo is the capital of Castilla-La Mancha in central Spain.)

This recipe is adapted from a dish I savored at Restaurante Adolfo, where it was prepared with squab breast cooked very rare. Not being able to lay my hands on squab (although, I am occasionally tempted to net a couple of the wild doves that drink from the water bowl on my patio), I have substituted chicken breasts.

Chicken breast with crunchy vegetables and rice.

Chicken breasts should be more thoroughly cooked, but take care not to overcook them. They should still be tinged with pink in the center. I used two enormous chicken breast halves, to serve 4 persons. But you could use 4 individual-sized breasts. The vegetables should be slightly crunchy and the rice al dente.

I’ve given a recipe for making your own chicken broth. The broth flavors the rice and goes into the chicken pan juices. Freeze what’s left to use as the starting point of any soup.

Diced vegetables are lightly cooked. Rice is toasted before adding broth.

Chicken Breast with Crunchy Vegetables and Rice
Pechuga de Pollo con Arroz y Verduras Frescas

Serves 4.

For the broth
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound chicken carcass or wings
½ onion, sliced
¼ cup white wine
1 tomato, quartered
1 carrot
1 stalk celery
Pinch of thyme
Bay leaf
Sprig parsley
1 teaspoon salt
6 cups water

Heat the oil in a heavy pot and brown the chicken carcass or wings with the onion until flecked with dark brown.

Add the wine, tomato, carrot, celery, thyme, bay, parsley, salt, and water. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer 1 hour.

Strain the broth, pressing hard on the solids. Discard solids. Let the broth stand 20 minutes. Skim off and discard fat that rises to the top. Set aside 3 cups of the broth to cook the rice and chicken. Reserve the remainder for another use (it can be frozen).

For the chicken breasts, vegetables, and rice
2 pounds boneless chicken breast halves, with skin (2, 3 or 4)
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil plus additional for brushing grill
1 ½ cups long-grain rice
1/3 cup diced carrots
1/3 cup diced leeks
1/3 cup diced red bell pepper
1/3 cup diced mushrooms
½ cup diced asparagus
¼ teaspoon saffron threads, crushed
3 cups broth
¼ cup white wine
Sprig of thyme or pinch of dried thyme
Sprig of rosemary or pinch of dried rosemary

Sear chicken on ridged grill pan.
Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper. Heat a ridged grill pan and brush with oil. Sear the chicken breasts, skin-side down, about 1 ½ minutes. Turn them crosswise and grill 1 minute more. Turn them over and repeat the turns. Remove the breasts to a skillet big enough to hold them in one layer.


Dry-toast the raw rice.

In a heavy, dry skillet toast the rice over medium heat, stirring, until it is golden and toasted, about 8 minutes. Reserve.

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a saucepan. Add the carrots and leeks and sauté 3 minutes. Add the peppers and sauté 2 minutes. Add the mushrooms and asparagus and sauté 1 minute. The vegetables should be crunchy.

Add 2 tablespoons hot water to the saffron and allow to infuse.

Add 2 ½ cups of broth to the vegetables. Add additional salt to taste. Bring to a boil. Add the toasted rice and saffron infusion. Boil 3 minutes. Remove from heat, cover tightly, and let the rice set 10 minutes. The rice will be al dente.

Add the wine, thyme, and rosemary to the chicken breasts with ¼ cup of the chicken broth. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer until they are cooked through, turning once, 10- 15 minutes, depending on thickness. (Add additional broth, if necessary.)

Slice the chicken breasts on the diagonal. Serve with the rice and vegetables.

Bring the remaining pan juices in the skillet to a boil and spoon it over the chicken, rice, and vegetables.

Chef Adolfo Muñoz, Toledo.

Have a look inside the kitchen at Restaurante Adolfo in Toledo.