Monday, December 28, 2009


You may already be taking down the tree, deciding what to wear on New Year’s Eve and getting the kids ready to go back to school. But, in Spain, Christmas is just getting started! The twelve days of Christmas begin on December 25 and finish on the eve of January 6, the holiday of the Reyes Magos, when the three kings arrive from Bethlehem bringing gifts for good children.

And, on the fifth day of Christmas, only FIVE GOLDEN RINGS remain of the dozens of roscos made by my friend Antonia. Cherished at Christmas, homemade roscos are somewhere between a cookie and a doughnut. Typically, they are served with aguardiente, anise liqueur, brandy and sweet wine.

Antonia lives in the village, but frequently spends weekends on the farmstead in the country where she grew up. During the holiday season, she and friends fire up the horno de leña, the old wood-burning bread oven, to make roscos de huevo, egg doughnuts, enough to last the twelve days of Christmas.

Antonia prepares a dough using a dozen eggs, a kilo (2.2 lbs) of sugar, a cup of honey, grated lemon zest, baking soda, about 2 cups of oil (olive or sunflower) and flour, about 3 kilos (about 6 ½ lbs). The eggs are separated and the whites beaten stiff, then folded into the dough to lighten it. She rolls out ropes of dough, pinches them into rings.

The roscos bake in the residual heat of the brick oven, initially fierce, then slowly cooling. They’re not overly sweet, have a subtle smoky flavor. Sometimes they are dipped in a honey syrup, but they are delicious unadorned for dipping into sweet Málaga wine or Sherry.

Other typical homemade Christmas sweets come not from the oven but the frying pan. Such are the empanadillas, little fried turnovers, that Carmen makes. She prepares a soft dough using olive oil, white wine, sweet Málaga wine, cinnamon, a bit of sugar and flour. She rolls out circles of dough and  places a spoonful of sweet potato filling on each. The filling she made earlier—sweet potato puree cooked with an equal weight of sugar, flavored with cinnamon and aniseed. She folds the dough over the filling, making half-moons, and crimps the edges. The empanadillas are lined up on a tray as she heats the oil in a deep frying pan. For the frying, she prefers sunflower oil. Olive oil, she explains, turns them darker.

Carmen fries up dozens of the little turnovers. She drains them on paper towels, then sprinkles them with granulated sugar. Many are special-ordered for family gatherings during Christmas. The rest are sold by her daughter who has a stall at the local market.

My recipes, below, for roscos and empanadillas, while not identical to Antonia’s and Carmen’s, are traditional homemade Christmas goodies. By the way, those fried turnovers would be ideal for Chanukah, so save the recipe for next year! 

Cinnamon-Wine Rings
Roscos de Vino

Makes 24 rings.

3 ¼ cups flour plus more for board
3 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup mild-flavored olive oil
½ cup white wine
¼ cup sugar
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon sesame seed, toasted
Pinch of salt
Confectioner’s sugar for dusting (about 1/3 cup)

Preheat oven to 350º.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, and cinnamon. Combine the oil, wine and sugar in a mixing bowl and whisk to blend. Add the zest, sesame seed, and salt. Stir in the dry ingredients to make a soft dough.

Turn the dough out on a lightly floured board and knead until the dough is shiny, about 4 minutes.

Divide the dough into 24 walnut-sized balls. Roll each ball into a cord, about 6 inches long and ½ inch thick. Pinch the ends together forming a ring. Place the rings on baking sheets lined with parchment.

Bake in the middle of the oven, changing position of sheets once, until rings are lightly golden, 40 to 45 minutes.

Cool the rings on a rack. Sift confectioners’ sugar over them.

Fried Turnovers with Pumpkin Filling
Empanadillas de Calabaza

Makes about 28 small turnovers.
¾ cup olive oil
1 strip orange peel
1 tablespoon sesame seed
1 tablespoon aniseed
½ tablespoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
½ cup white wine
1 tablespoon brandy or anise brandy
2 tablespoons orange juice
¼ teaspoon salt
3 ¼ cups all-purpose flour plus additional for flouring board
1 ½ cups pumpkin jam (recipe follows)
Vegetable oil for deep frying
2 tablespoons granulated sugar

Heat the oil in a small skillet with the orange peel. Remove from heat, cool for 1 minute. Remove and discard the orange peel. Then stir in the sesame seed and aniseed. Pour into a mixing bowl and allow to cool.

Add the cinnamon, cloves, wine, brandy, orange juice and salt to the oil. Using a large wooden spoon, stir in the flour to make a soft dough. Turn out on a lightly floured board and knead very briefly, just to combine well.

Let the dough rest, refrigerated, for at least 1 hour or up to 12 hours.

Roll out the dough thinly on a lightly floured board. Prick the dough all over with a fork. Use a 4 ½ -inch cookie cutter to cut circles.

Working with one disk at a time, place a spoonful of pumpkin jam on one half. Moisten the edges of the dough with water, then fold the circle in half, enclosing the filling. With fingers or the tines of a fork, crimp the edges together firmly to seal the turnover. Place on a tray. Continue filling and shaping the remainder of the dough.

Heat oil in a deep skillet to a depth of at least 1 ½ inches. Fry the turnovers, four or five at a time, until they are golden brown on both sides. Remove and drain on paper towelling. Dredge in sugar while they are still hot. Let the turnovers cool completely.

Pumpkin Jam
Dulce de Calabaza

Make this jam also with sweet potatoes. Use it with breakfast toast or as a filling for pastries.

Makes about 2 ¾ cups of jam.

You will need a small pumpkin or other winter squash weighing 2 ½ -3 pounds, to obtain 2 cups of cooked pulp. Steam it until tender and drain before pureeing.

2 cups pumpkin purée, well drained
2 ¼ cups sugar
1 teaspoon minced lemon peel
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
3-inch cinnamon stick

Place the purée, sugar, lemon peel, cloves and cinnamon in a heavy pan. Place on heat, partially covered to prevent splattering, until mixture is bubbling. Reduce heat and cook, stirring frequently, until the purée is thickened to jam consistency, 20-25 minutes. (A heat disperser is useful to prevent the purée from scorching.)

Place in clean jars and seal. Cool completely, then refrigerate. Use within two weeks.

©Janet Mendel

Thursday, December 17, 2009


At my house in southern Spain, holiday cheer is an evergreen tree glowing with bright golden ornaments. That would be the clementine tree on my patio, or the lemon tree on the edge of the vegetable garden or the neighbor’s pair of orange trees right above me. In Spain, citrus trees laden with fruit herald the winter holidays.

The gorgeous fruit finds its way into capacious Christmas stockings, into bowls, and onto festive holiday plates. Fresh-squeezed orange juice is pure bliss for a holiday breakfast or combined with bubbly cava for parties.  Big kids and little kids adore the juicy clementines, those easy-to-peel tangerines, with their tangy-sweet flavor. My son Ben, home last weekend with an incipient cold, ate about a dozen of them (and seems to have beat the flu bug, though the big dose of vitamin C did not protect him from injuring his knee while surfing).  

Last year I spent the holidays with my other son, Daniel, and his family in Atlanta. At a nearby supermarket, I found boxes of Spanish clementines at a great price. We went through crates of them before the stocks disappeared.

I go way back with my “orange Christmas.” Years ago, when I lived in a ramshackle village house, every winter I made marmalade with the bitter Seville oranges that grew in the back garden. Marmalade making was a three-day procedure, allowing the sliced oranges to soak, cook, and soak again in order to develop the pectin. I gave marmalade away as gifts and sold jars of it from my house.

I’m posting two citrus recipes. One is an adaptation of a salad found in tapa bars in southern Spain (called remojón, salmorejo or ensalada malagueña, depending where you are). The traditional recipe calls for bacalao, salt cod, which is toasted and shredded, topping the oranges. My version uses shrimp and I serve it as a starter for Christmas dinner. The other is also a salad, a contrast of juicy clementines, crisp fennel and smooth sweet potatoes. It makes a fine side dish on a buffet table. I took it to a brunch while visiting friends in Seattle last New Year’s.

Ensalada Malagueña
Málaga Salad with Oranges and Olives

A photo of this salad (by Michelle Chaplow) appears on the front cover of my newest cookbook, TAPAS—A BITE OF SPAIN (see the column to the left; click to order the book from Santana Books).

Makes 12 tapas or 6 starters.  

Salad greens
4 oranges, peeled and pith removed
1 small red onion or 6 scallions, thinly sliced
10 green or black pitted olives
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon Sherry vinegar
Pinch of red chile flakes
18 cooked and peeled shrimp

Arrange salad greens on individual salad plates.

Slice the oranges and cut into bite-sized pieces. Arrange them on the greens. Scatter the onions on top. Arrange the olives on the oranges.

In a small bowl, combine the garlic, oil, vinegar and chile.

Scatter the shrimp on top of the oranges. Drizzle with the dressing. Allow to stand 30 minutes before serving.

Salad of Sweet Potatoes, Fennel and Clementines

Serves 6 as a starter or side.

1 pound sweet potatoes (2 medium)
¼ cup red wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large bulb of fennel (about 8 ounces)
3 clementines (about 10 ounces)
1 tablespoon finely chopped shallots
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon honey
1 tablespoon Sherry vinegar
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Salad greens (optional)
½ red onion, thinly sliced
toasted almonds (optional)

Peel the sweet potatoes and cut them into ¾-inch cubes. Cook in boiling salted water until just tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Drain, refresh in cold water and drain again. Place the sweet potatoes in a bowl and add the wine vinegar, ¼ teaspoon salt and pepper. Cover and allow the potatoes to marinate at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours.

Trim the fennel of stalks, saving sprigs of the green fronds for garnish. Quarter the bulb, then thinly slice crosswise. Add to the sweet potatoes.

Remove skin and white pith from the clementines. Chop them and add to the sweet potatoes.

In a small bowl combine the shallots, mustard, honey, Sherry vinegar and ¼ teaspoon salt. Stir in the oil until dressing is smooth. Gently stir the dressing into the sweet potatoes. (Salad can be dressed up to 2 hours before serving.)

Place salad greens on plates. Scoop salad on greens. Scatter sliced onions and hazelnuts, if using, over the sweet potatoes. Garnish with sprigs of fennel greens.


Thursday, December 10, 2009


A few weeks ago I wrote about the big, fat Spanish olives that I pick from my trees, put to soak until they are sweet, then cure in garlic-seasoned brine. I said I’d report back on the success of the various batches. So, here are the season’s tasting notes, plus, I am re-posting the original article, as it had code embedded in the text.

I made three jugs of olives, all of the large Manzanilla variety. The olives in the first were rayadas, incised with a blade, then soaked in water for about three weeks. I prepared a brine according to my own directions below—7 tablespoons salt for every 4 cups of water. The olives turned out nice and crisp—but they’re quite salty. Now I’m diluting the brine and placing the olives in smaller jars.

The second batch I prepared in the traditional manner—smacking them with a stone to split open the flesh. I used less salt, only 5 tablespoons for every 4 cups of water. These olives are soft, a little mushy. I think the cracking technique is better suited to a firmer variety of olives.

For the third jug, I used a tool to pit the olives. Picked green, they are firm enough to stand up to pitting. They needed less than two weeks in water to sweeten and they have a great texture. Plus, now I can stuff them with strips of piquillo pepper, anchovies, pickled garlic.

 (originally posted November 7)

I like to tell my guests that the olives they are nibbling come from the tree they’re sitting under. But, no, don’t reach up and pluck one! Straight from the tree, they are impossibly bitter and astringent. Olives need a curing process to make them edible.

That’s what I’m doing this week, picking, sorting, cracking and soaking olives that will become table olives, eating olives. They are picked green—soon after the first fall rains soak the parched earth and plump up the olives.

Most of my olive trees are varieties usually pressed for oil. But I have several Manzanilla trees that produce big fat, fleshy olives, the same kind you usually find in jars at the supermarket. But the home-cured ones are very different from commercial olives. Commercial olives are soaked in an alkaline solution (lye) to remove the bitterness. The home-cured ones require nothing more than water and salt, plus seasoning.

I prepare my olives in the Andalusian style that I learned from local country people many years ago.

First, the olives must be cracked with a stone or small hammer to split them open. This allows the soaking liquid to quickly penetrate to the pit. Uncracked olives require months to sweeten; split ones take about three weeks. I wear old clothes because smacking olives splatters oil everywhere. I’ve also tried the method from Extremadura, where olives are rayado, incised with a sharp blade. (I resisted buying a rough wooden tool that had both a clapper for splitting open the olives and a hole with blades for slitting them.) As an experiment this year, I used a little gizmo, like a hole-punch, to remove the pits from some of the olives. (I’ll report back on whether this was successful or not.) 

I place the olives in small earthenware jugs, orsas.  I cover them with water. Just water at this stage. I use non-chlorinated well water. It’s extremely hard water (high in calcium, demonstrated by limescale on my kettle), which I think may help keep the olives crisp. I drain off the water and refresh it every two or three days until, when tasted, the olives are no longer bitter. Defining bitter is definitely subjective. I bought some cured olives at the market a few days ago that I would say were still really bitter. It’s a matter of taste. I let mine soak, changing the water every few days, until they are really sweet. That takes about three weeks. 

The olives are then immersed in brine, where they continue to cure, as well as take on flavor. Years ago, I learned that the brine should be strong enough to float an egg. Believe me, that can vary depending on the freshness of the egg! Optimal measures: measure the water required to cover the olives. Use 7 tablespoons of kosher salt or any non-iodized salt for every 4 cups of water. (Or less—see tasting notes above.)

Now comes the flavoring. In my village, traditional flavoring for olives  includes quartered lemons, unpeeled cloves of garlic, sprigs of thyme and flowering bracts of fennel. Elsewhere in Spain, I have sampled olives flavored with strips of red pepper, chile, oregano, vinegar.

Although the olives are ready to eat in a few days, flavor develops as  fermentation continues. After about a month, I pack the olives into clean jars and refrigerate them. Without conservatives, they last for many months.

That is, they last if I haven’t given them all away by Christmas.  Friends say they are the best olives they have ever tasted.

You can buy home-cure style olives from open stock at many markets in Spain. They are dipped into plastic bags along with some of the brine. Olives travel well—drain off the brine, then put them in a fresh brine when you get them back home.

You can add flavor to bottled, store-bought olives. Buy unpitted Seville olives (big Manzanillas). Drain them and rinse well. Marinate them for two days with slivered garlic, salt, sprigs of fresh or dried thyme, a sliced lemon and a little extra virgin olive oil.

In Spain, olives are enjoyed as a tapa and alongside meals. They top typical salads, from mixed greens to exotic orange, onion and salt cod. They are used rarely in cooking, although duck with olives is a Seville classic. Olivada is an olive pâté, sensational spread on toasts.

Green Olive Spread

This is best made with home-cured brined olives (squeeze them to remove the pits), but pitted olives from a jar can be substituted. Serve this olive purée as a dip, sandwich spread or sauce to accompany roast lamb, grilled fish or boiled potatoes. The spread keeps, refrigerated, for a week.

Makes 1 cup spread.

1 ½ cups drained and pitted green olives
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 shallot, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons dry Sherry
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

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

Sunday, December 6, 2009


Like a busy squirrel, come fall I scrabble about in the dry leaves, pocketing handfuls of almonds that have fallen from the trees above my property. High winds and rain bring them down onto the narrow terrace where I hang out my laundry on a line stretched between two old olive trees.  

Even though I’ve still got a basketful of almonds left from last year, I can’t seem to restrain myself from gathering more. The delight of searching for them and the pleasure in eating them make me a little obsessed. Now, with heaps of them to crack and shell, I spread out a newspaper on the floor and work on them while watching the news on TV.

Almond gathering begins as early as August, when the fresh nuts are perfect for crushing to make garlicky white gazpacho, ajo blanco, a specialty of Málaga province where I live. Served chilled with sweet moscatel grapes as a garnish, it’s a marvelous contrast of flavors.

Lightly toasted in olive oil and sprinkled with a touch of salt (I add a pinch of cumin as well), almonds make a near-perfect aperitif with dry fino Sherry.  They also are blanched, skinned and crushed with garlic and saffron to make an outstanding sauce for chicken, fish or vegetables. And, famously, almonds are the prime ingredient in Spanish turrón, nougat candy, and marzipan, both essential for the holiday season. 

Toledo is especially famous for its marzipan confections, sculpted into tiny swans or rabbits, big spirals known as eels, little cakes with egg cream filling. Artisanal marzipan is made from two varieties of sweet almonds, the oval largueta, which contributes intense aroma, and the round marcona, exceptionally rich in oil. Spanish marzipan does not contain bitter almonds.  Spain is the second largest producer of almonds, after California. But it uses so much in confectionary that it imports almonds as well.

This recipe for melindres is a simple marzipan—really just ground almonds and sugar. It makes a delightful Christmas cookie. If you grind your own almonds, after blanching and skinning them, toast them briefly in the oven to dry them thoroughly. You can substitute unsweetened almond meal. Add only enough water to make a mixture that sticks together—very little in the case of fresh almonds, more for floury almond meal.

Almond Ring Cookies     

One egg white makes enough glaze for a double batch of cookies. If preferred, use ½ egg white, ½ cup confectioners’ sugar, and ½ tablespoon lemon juice for the glaze.

Makes 35 2-inch rings.   

2 ½ cups blanched and ground almonds or unsweetened almond meal
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 egg white
1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Combine the almond meal and granulated sugar in blender or processor and grind until very smooth. Add water, one teaspoon at a time, processing until the almond mixture forms a smooth mass that sticks together. You will need 8 to 10 spoonfuls of water. Turn the almonds out onto a marble slab and knead briefly.

Preheat oven to 300ºF.

Divide the almond mixture into balls about the size of a pecan. Roll each one into a cord, 4 ½  inches long and about 3/8 inches in diameter. Bend the cord to make a circle, pinching the ends together. (If almond mixture breaks, just pinch together the broken bits.) Place the rings on a baking sheet lined with parchment.

Bake the rings 10 minutes. Cool them on a rack.

Combine the egg white and sifted confectioners’ sugar. Beat at high speed for 3 minutes. Add the lemon juice and beat 2 minutes longer.

Dip the rings into the egg white glaze. Use a skewer to drag the rings through the egg white. Lift the rings out and let excess drip off. Place them on a baking sheet and return to the oven for 8 minutes. Remove and cool the rings on a rack.

Almond blossoms in February.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


From my kitchen window I look over the tops of olive trees, down a long arroyo, across rolling hills to the Mediterranean sea. My house is tucked in a small olive grove in southern Spain, where I’ve lived for more
than 30 years. From my window, I often watch a herd of goats traversing the hillside or hear partridge call at the bottom of the arroyo.  

I’m not Spanish. I grew up in midwest America, land of corn and soybeans, got a degree in journalism and worked as a reporter in the Chicago area before coming to Spain. I arrived to spend a year or two abroad—and never left.

During my first year living in a Spanish village, shopping and cooking were a daily adventure. I learned Spanish cooking in  village tapa bars, where I migrated to the kitchen. Intrigued by all kinds of wigglies, squigglies, uglies and unmentionables (squid, octopus, snails, baby goat, bulls’ testicles and more), I tackled the kitchen with the zeal of the investigative reporter. 

What impressed me about Spanish food when I first came here to live was the freshness of it—the  immediacy of fish just hours from the sea, eggs still warm from the hen, milk from the neighbor’s goat, tomatoes fragrant from the vine, oranges I picked in the back garden. Even the meat--pork chops that a day before I watched go squealing and grunting into the butcher’s back patio.

I loved discovering new produce. I had never seen artichokes growing nor cooked fresh ones. Had never tasted a cherimoya. I couldn’t even identify chard for the longest time. For someone used to reaching for powdered garlic salt, real garlic was a revelation. The variety of glistening fresh fish and shellfish astounded me.      

I collected recipes from Spanish neighbors and, on travels elsewhere in Spain, from restaurant chefs and from just about anybody willing to talk about cooking. With an index file of hundreds of authentic recipes and a passionate desire to stay in my little white-washed village in Spain, I pitched a cooking column to the editor of a locally-published English-language magazine.

Inspired by the fried calamares served in tapa bars, I wrote my first article titled: “The Squid in the Kitchen”. Squid was about as exotic as anything I could imagine in those days. My first line read “Don´t be scared. The squid really won´t squirt ink in your eyes nor the octopus entwine you in a wet embrace.” I  went on to tell readers how to clean and cook squid and octopus. In 30 years of writing the monthly column, I told expats
about unusual produce in the markets; what was seasonal, specialities of the regions, holiday foods, wines to drink with the meals, all accompanied by recipes. I became the expert in Spanish cuisine.

My first cookbook, COOKING IN SPAIN, grew out of those articles. Since then I’ve written several more books about the food of Spain (titles: MY KITCHEN IN SPAIN; COOKING FROM THE HEART OF SPAIN—FOOD OF LA MANCHA; TRADITIONAL SPANISH COOKING, and, the newest book, TAPAS—A BITE OF SPAIN). I continue to write about food and travel in Spain for web, magazines and newspapers worldwide.

I pick my own olives and cure them (here’s how). Although I’m not much of a gardener, I love picking seasonal vegetables from small plots on my terraced hillside.  In summer, I have tomatoes for gazpacho; in fall, chard and cabbage for rustic Spanish potajes (soups and stews); then menestra, a spring medley of artichokes, fava beans and peas.

I have two sons who were born in this olive grove and grew up with this food. Grown men now, they come home with their children, my grandsons, to help me pick olives and join me at the kitchen table.

This is a blog about Spanish food and home cooking, live from my kitchen and garden. I’ll tell you what I’m eating, where I’m eating and how to cook it—with  Spanish style. Let me know what you think—we cooks love feedback!

 To read more about the cookbooks I've written, follow the  link (below) to another post. 

Follow this link to see a video clip of me and friends in my kitchen in Spain. The video appeared on a Spanish television program.

And, here's a gazpacho recipe and a video clip of me with Padma Laksmi in my kitchen in Spain  

Come Cook With Me

Join me in my kitchen in Spain.

Want to learn to make paella? Do you dream about perfecting the tricky Spanish potato tortilla? Or, would you like to be able to put together a tapa party? Enjoy a vacation in Spain and come cook with me. I’ll show you how to make authentic Spanish food—in my kitchen in Spain!  

Follow this link to find out more about private cooking classes with me: 

Friday, November 27, 2009


I  first posted this green bean story early in November, before I had figured out how to format a blog. Readers told me they were seeing code mixed into the text. So, I will try posting it again. By now, the garden beans are finished and I’m delving into my cache in the freezer.

I’ve been eating lots of green beans from my garden. Southern Spain has a year-round growing season, so this is the second planting. The first, harvested in early summer, were wide, flat romano beans. The second crop, just finishing, are skinny haricot beans.

Last week when my son, Ben, and grandson, Leo, were visiting, I got them to help me pick the last of the beans. My six-foot tall son easily reached the ones at the top of the poles that had eluded my stretch. I sent the five-year-old scooting between the rows to pick those hiding at the very bottom. Then, off to the kitchen to cook a heap of beans.

Earlier in bean season, I rarely did anything more complicated than blanch the beans and dress them with extra virgin olive oil. I love green beans fresh from the garden so much that I enjoyed them in solitary splendor rather than as a side dish. Although, heaped beside grilled fresh tuna and sliced tomatoes, an Andalusian take on niçoise salad, they were outstanding.

But these end-of-season beans needed a little more cooking. Some were even mature enough to shell, discarding the leathery pods. I turned to my all-time favorite Spanish vegetable recipe—verduras salteadas con jamón, vegetables sautéed with serrano ham. This is a great way to prepare almost any vegetable, alone or in  combination. Besides green beans, asparagus, fava beans, artichokes, chard, broccoli and  peas are great choices. So, this is a recipe for all seasons.

American friends who visit me in Spain often complain that Spanish meals, at least in restaurants, are short on vegetables. Markets are heaped with fresh produce, but vegetables, other than potatoes, don’t turn up on the dinner plate as a side with an order of meat, poultry or fish. However, menus often list vegetable dishes along with salads, as starters. This one is a traditional favorite.

I serve these sautéed beans as a starter or, with the addition of quartered hard-cooked egg, as a main dish for lunch or a light supper. The diced serrano ham (vegetables, yes, but not vegetarian) serves as seasoning. You could use (unsmoked) pancetta if serrano ham is not available. The beans need to be par-boiled before sautéeing—a short minute for tender, baby beans or as long as five minutes for older ones.

So, it’s hasta la vista, beans. A great finale. But, I’ll be seeing them again soon, as I’ve packed enough in the freezer to last me through the winter. While frozen ones don’t have the lovely texture of fresh beans, they will be just perfect in this sauté recipe.

Green Bean and Ham Sauté    
Habichuelas Salteadas con Jamón

Serves 1 as a main dish; 2 as a starter; 4 as a side.

1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, sliced crosswise
¼ cup diced serrano ham (1 oz)
2 cups cut-up, par-boiled green beans
2 tablespoons chopped red pepper
crushed red chile flakes (optional)
salt and pepper
chopped parsley
hard-cooked egg (optional)

Heat the oil in an earthenware cazuela or skillet. Add the garlic and ham and sauté until the garlic begins to turn golden. Stir in the beans, red pepper, chile, if using, and salt and pepper. Sauté on a medium heat 5 minutes.

To serve, sprinkle with chopped parsley and garnish with quartered egg, if desired.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Happy Thanksgiving from Spain. I’ll sieze any excuse for a feast! Though I live in Spain, where Thanksgiving Thursday is not a holiday, I enjoy having  friends and family over for a special dinner. For me, Thanksgiving is a harvest celebration, so I usually incorporate foods from my garden. I like the traditional menu—turkey (must be special-ordered from the butcher at this time of year), stuffing, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie—but often give it a twist, such as a Spanish-inflected stuffing with chorizo.

Last year, the pumpkin pie came up for redefinition.  I had a bumper crop of spagetti squash in my garden and scrambled to find some new ways to cook them. Spaghetti squash (which my Spanish gardener had never seen before) has an identity problem. Vegetable or noodle? The flesh cooks up into skinny strands, or “spaghetti”. Thus, its identity problem. And, also its versatility. I decided it could go either way.

I took my spaghetti squash around the globe. Starting in Spain, I used it in one of my favorite vegetable preparations. I prepared a quick “dressing” of slivered garlic, flecks of chile and serrano ham sautéed in olive oil with the addition of smoked Spanish paprika and tossed it with the cooked strands of spaghetti squash. It made a great vegetable side with roast turkey, pork chop or grilled salmon.

Looking to Italy, I tossed the cooked squash with a garlicky pesto sauce and lots of grated cheese. Texturally speaking, lightly cooked spaghetti squash easily subs for shredded cabbage in slaw. With a hint of ginger, the slaw pairs with simple grilled chicken breast or goes nicely alongside a juicy burger on a bun.

A squash is a squash is a pumpkin. Using that logic, I decided to substitute spaghetti squash for smooth pumpkin puree in a pie. The result is a pie with traditional flavor plus lots of texture. “Very unusual,” said one guest. “I love it!,” said another. “Better than yucky pumpkin,” said one of the kids.

How to prepare spaghetti squash
    Use a sharp knife to cut the squash in half lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds and discard them. Place one half, cut side down, in a microwave-safe container with 1/4 cup water. Microwave on high (full power) for 5 minutes. Turn the squash cut side up. Microwave on high for 5 minutes. Allow the squash to stand 5 minutes. (For a crunchier texture, microwave 4 minutes on each side.)

Repeat the procedure with the remaining half. Use a fork to scoop out the strands of squash. Squash may also be steamed until tender.

A squash weighing 1 3/4 pounds yields about 2 cups cooked and shredded flesh, serving 4 as a side dish.


Spaghetti Squash Pie
Honey replaces sugar and yogurt stands in for evaporated milk in this pie. The yogurt is drained to thicken it. Non-fat yogurt will work in this recipe. To pour honey easily, lightly oil the measuring cup.
For the crust
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
½  teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 large egg

Combine the flour, salt and sugar in a food processor. Add the butter and pulse until mixture is crumbly. Add the egg and process just until mixture forms a soft dough.  

Using floured fingers, press the dough onto the bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie pan. Chill the dough 30 to 60 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350º. Line the crust with foil and fill with pie weights. Bake 20 minutes. Remove foil and weights and allow the crust to cool.

For the filling
1 cup plain, unsweetened yogurt
2 cups cooked and shredded spaghetti squash
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, grated
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
3 large eggs
1/2 cup honey
1 tablespoon flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

Place the yogurt in a fine sieve and allow to drain for 30 to 60 minutes.   

Preheat oven to 400º.

Place the squash in a mixing bowl. Add the ginger and orange zest and toss. Combine drained yogurt, eggs, honey, flour, cinnamon, cloves and salt in a blender and blend until smooth. Pour the mixture into the squash and combine well. Fold in the walnuts.
Ladle the squash mixture into the partially-baked pie crust. Bake 20 minutes. Lower oven heat to 350º. Bake until a skewer comes out clean, about 30 minutes longer.
Cool the pie on a rack. Serves 8.


Saturday, November 21, 2009


When I spotted the packet of piquillo pepper garden seeds, I thought it seemed a brilliant idea—plant a whole field of peppers and enjoy them fresh instead of buying them in cans.

Piquillo peppers are those flame-red peppers you buy in jars in the gourmet section of the grocery store. Chefs and food magazines rave about them for their complex sweet and piquant flavor. Once an artisanal product from Navarra, where they are grown in the area around Lodosa in the Ebro valley (and where they enjoy PDO—protected denomination of origin—status), in the last 20 years their fame has spread far and wide. Piquillo peppers are roasted over coals, peeled and packed in cans or jars. Beyond trendy, they have become an emblematic and essential ingredient. 

That’s why I thought growing them would be a dream-come-true. I would roast them myself and conserve them in olive oil. I was already planning to serve a starter of tiny piquillos stuffed with shrimp for Christmas dinner. Their gorgeous red color makes them perfect for festive meals.

Well, I have to confess, my piquillo dreams were dashed. Oh, I picked my peck of piquillo peppers, all right. They were beautiful specimens, crimson in color, small (3 to 4 inches) triangular peppers with tips like little curved beaks (piquillo means beak). I picked peppers from September till November.

The first thing I learned is that the skins of fresh piquillos are like leather. Whether green or red, raw or cooked, the skins are too tough to chew. Which explains why the only way you ever find these peppers is roasted and skinned, in conserve. 

So I started roasting them. I tried charcoal, gas flame and broiler. I baked them, I steamed them. But after hundreds of peppers passed through my home processing, I had not a single whole one suitable for stuffing. The flesh was so delicate it ripped into shreds or had to be scraped from the tough skin. Perhaps this was due to lack of some nutrient or insufficient water in my terroir. Instead of meaty little whole peppers, I had a quantity of piquillo pulp. This I packed in small containers and put in the freezer, an ingredient for a sensational sauce.

The next thing I discovered when I went to the supermarket to buy canned piquillos for the beauty shot is that they are imported from Peru! I did find the “real” ones, with the seal of PDO Piquillos de Lodosa, at El Corte Ingles, the department store that is Spain’s equivalent to Nieman Marcus.

About that sauce. If you have a can or jar of piquillos in the cupboard, you have the makings of a fabulous sauce. Serve it with grilled foods, as a dip or as a dressing for vegetables or shrimp. All you have to do is open the can, put the piquillos in a blender with some extra virgin olive oil, salt and a touch of vinegar (Sherry vinegar preferred). Garlic is fine too, or a pinch of thyme or cumin or chopped chile. If you want a sauce to serve with hot foods, just heat the sauce gently in a small saucepan.

You can also confit the peppers—whole or in strips—in olive oil until they are soft and silky and serve them as a side dish. But, best of all is stuffed—with seafood, goat cheese, boned quail. The classic filling is bacalao, salt cod, a version that I’ve sampled in the taverns of San Sebastian (Basque Country). My favorite recipe is piquillos filled with shrimp and topped with cheese.

Pimientos de Piquillo Rellenos con Gambas
Piquillo Peppers Stuffed with Shrimp

The traditional way to prepare the peppers calls for an extra step—before baking with sauce, the peppers are coated in egg and quickly fried, giving them a sort of outer skin that holds peppers and stuffing together. But then you don’t see the luscious red color until you cut into them.

Makes 6 tapas or 4 starters.

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon dry Sherry
1 cup less 1 tablespoon milk
½ teaspoon salt
6 ounces uncooked, small, peeled shrimp
20 piquillo peppers, drained (2 jars)
4 tablespoons white wine
Flour for dredging peppers
1 egg, beaten
Olive oil to fry the peppers
2 ounces grated cheese

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a saucepan on medium heat. Sauté the onion and 1 clove of the garlic, 2 minutes. Stir in the flour and cook 1 minute. Whisk in the Sherry, milk and salt. Cook, stirring constantly, until sauce is thickened, 5 minutes. Stir in the shrimp and cook 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.

Select 12 of the drained peppers. Carefully spread them open and spoon shrimp filling into them. Place them in a single layer on a shallow pan or tray. When all are filled, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour to allow the filling to thicken.

While the shrimp mixture is chilling, prepare the sauce. Combine remaining 2 tablespoons oil, 1 clove of garlic, white wine and remaining piquillo peppers in a blender and blend until smooth.

Preheat oven to 350ºF.

Place flour and beaten egg in two shallow bowls. Heat oil in a skillet on medium heat. Dip the open end of the stuffed peppers into flour, then dredge the peppers in flour. Roll in beaten egg and fry until lightly golden. Remove the peppers from the pan and place them in a baking dish or individual cazuelitas. Spoon the sauce over the peppers and top with grated cheese.

Bake the peppers until cheese is melted and sauce is bubbly, 15 minutes. Serve hot or room temperature.