Saturday, November 30, 2013


Níscalos--a wild mushroom found in autumn.

This week I bought wild mushrooms at my local village market. They were níscalos, Lactarius deliciosus (saffron milk cap), a distinctive orange-fleshed wild mushroom found in many regions of Spain after fall rains. Their heady, forest aroma reminded me of the time I went wild-mushroom-hunting, many years ago.

Our expedition was to a small pine forest right off the main coastal highway (southern Spain). The previous week, my foraging companions had picked four different kinds of mushrooms here.

On this particular autumn day the sandy soil was soft underfoot from rains a few days before. We started off into the woods, adults and children. Within seconds, Salvador, head of the expedition, had pulled up two, three, four, five boletos (one of the boletus varieties). He stopped long enough to show them to me and off he went.

The smallest were twice the size of ordinary cultivated mushrooms, with a tawny cap and an underside of a decidedly poisonous yellow. Broken open, the mushrooms revealed a pale, creamy-yellow flesh.

I headed off slowly, eyes on the ground, dodging low-hanging pine branches which snagged my hair and scarf (a case of not seeing the forest for the mushrooms.) The eye is at first too quick, too far-ranging to spot these sly, secret growths. It takes a certain myopic concentration to begin to apprehend their mysterious presence.

Stopping to turn and search under each pine, I saw right at my feet, a rise in the thick springy carpeting of pine needles. I brushed off the needles and there it was, a big boleto. I squatted beside it, pondering its awesome, underworld power. Gestating in darkness, it chooses its particular moment to push up through heavy, damp earth and dense layer of pine needles to shine in the light of day, as if to take a look around. Unlike other plants, fungi contain no chlorophyl, and are not nurtured by the process of photosynthesis. Light and air are, to them, a mere curiousity.

I suspect them of ulterior motives. It is as if they wait until they hear you coming to reveal themselves. Pockets here and there in the forest covering indicated the ground was well picked over. But this one, my first mushroom, had waited for me.

I picked it and wandered on, farther and farther from the group, holding my talisman before me. After a while that little piece of pine forest, within earshot of the highway, seemed to become enchanted. A heavy silence swallowed the sounds of traffic. At one point, just as a light rain began to fall, I could have sworn I saw an elf, some tiny being sitting on one of those toadstools. I did, for certain, see a rabbit and a snake.

The boletos were not the only mushrooms I discovered. There was an incredible variety—tiny, tiny white ones, like underground pearls, popping up through the pine needles to encircle a tree. Brown, shiny ones, like chocolate drops, and amongst them, pale, beige and white “flowers,” presumably the same mushroom fully opened, a delicate spiral that looked as if it would waft away in a breeze, until I touched it and found it had the same spongy density as its neighbors.

I left undisturbed the many varieties I couldn’t identify. Even armed with a book, which provided descriptions and photos, I felt a little chill of terror at the thought of confusing a possibly deadly poisonous fungi with the edible ones.

When we regrouped, the morning’s catch was spread out on a big tarp for inspection. They were all boletos this time, except for a few big white field musrhooms, which looked just like the cultivated ones at the grocery store. They were of all sizes, the biggest as broad as a six-year-old’s face. Salvador, his hands black from picking them, sorted through the mushrooms and pitched the wet and soggy ones, a rotting stew of spores. The rest were cleaned of dirt and pine needles, then divided among three families.

At home, I sautéd the mushrooms with olive oil and garlic, parsley, salt and pepper, and, once they had exuded all their liquid, some dry Sherry.

They tasted only vaguely like cultivated mushrooms. The texture was like a cross between snails and raw oysters--chewy and slippery at the same time. The flavor was darker, duskier, muskier, woodsier, the opposite of ethereal. An appealing taste, evocative. Elves and fairies, cushions of pine needles, raindrops, teardrops, sighing winds, downy blankets made of mist, and the smell of damp earth. All mushrooms are a little magic.

Meaty mushrooms and potatoes.
 Today, in the kitchen, although I missed the thrill of the hunt, I was delighted to be cooking wild mushrooms. The níscalos are an exceptionally meaty mushroom and inspired me to make a guiso de patatas y níscalos, a mushroom and potato stew.

White cultivated mushrooms in Spain are known as champiñones. Edible wild mushrooms in general are called setas. Hongo means fungus and can be applied to edible mushrooms as well as toadstools or even fungus infections.

A few tips for cooking with mushrooms: Place mushrooms in a basket or loosly wrapped in paper until ready to use. Don’t wrap them in plastic or refrigerate or they will begin to get slimy. Use a damp cloth or soft brush to clean the mushrooms. Don’t wash them in water. Cut them or pull them into segments immediately before cooking.

Wild mushroom and potato stew, a delicious fall dish.

Guiso de Patatas y Níscalos
Potato and Wild Mushroom Stew

To serve 2:

½ pound wild mushrooms such as níscalos
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ cup chopped red bell pepper
½ cup chopped green pepper
½ cup chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon pimentón (paprika)
Crushed red pepper (optional)
¾ pound potatoes, cut in pieces
¼ cup white wine
½ cup water or stock
½ teaspoon salt
Sprig of thyme or rosemary (optional)
Chopped parsley to garnish

Use a damp cloth to clean the mushrooms. Cut or tear them into pieces. Heat the oil in a pan and sauté the red and green pepper, onion and garlic until softened. Add the mushrooms and continue to sauté until they lose some of their liquid and begin to brown. Stir in the pimenton and red pepper flakes, if using.

Add the potatoes, wine, water, salt and thyme or rosemary. Cover and simmer until potatoes are very tender, about 30 minutes.

Serve hot, garnished with parsley.

"Grow bag" with oyster mushrooms.
The wild mushrooms whetted my appetite for more funghi. A few days later, at a local garden shop, I spied a mushroom “grow bag,” (filled with mulch and straw, it is inoculated with mushroom spores) already sprouting oyster mushrooms. I couldn’t resist bringing it home and harvesting a pile of them to cook with regular cultivated white mushrooms.

Mushrooms sauteed with garlic, a favorite tapa dish.

Champiñones al Ajillo
Mushrooms Sautéed with Garlic

This is a favorite tapa in Spanish bars. Some tapa bars specialize in seasonal wild mushrooms—chanterelles, boletus and more. The recipe can be adjusted to use any wild or cultivated mushroom, although the timing will differ depending on the variety. For instance, boletus give out a lot of water and need longer sautéing than cultivated white mushrooms.  Serve the mushrooms as a tapa, with bread or heaped on toasts; or as a starter, piled into vol-au-vent pastry shells, or as a side dish (sensational alongside steak). Leftovers? Add cream, reheat and serve with rice or pasta

Makes 6 tapas or sides.

2 pounds mushrooms
6 tablespoons olive oil
6 cloves garlic, sliced crosswise
2 ounces chopped bacon or fatty serrano ham
Red chili flakes (optional)
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup dry Sherry
½ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

Clean the mushrooms immediately before cooking. If they are large, cut them in half through the stems, then slice them thickly. Very small mushrooms can be quartered.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan. Add the garlic, bacon or ham and chili and sauté 2 minutes. Add the mushrooms and continue sautéing, about 6 minutes. Add the salt and Sherry and cook 6 minutes longer. Stir in the parsley. Serve the mushrooms hot.

Freshly "harvested" oyster mushrooms.

Saturday, November 23, 2013


Two kinds of sweet potatoes, orange and white.
In the US, Christmas has to wait, at least, until after the Thanksgiving holiday. In Spain, without that cut-off date, Christmas decorations and foods begin to appear early in November. Already the boxes of special sweets are stacked in shops, hams (serrano and ibérico) are stocked and awaiting the buyers, glittery decorations and lights gleam in shop windows. And, my village neighbors are already making empanadillas—fried turnovers with sweet potato filling, a Christmas treat.

Sweet potatoes, grown in southern Spain (called batata or boniato), appear in the market in time for All Saints’ Day (November 1), when they are roasted and eaten with chestnuts, and last through Christmas. (Sweet potatoes are not yams. Real yams, ñames, a starchy root, somewhat resembling sweet potatoes, are grown and eaten in the Canary Islands, much the same as in West Africa.)

Both orange-fleshed and white sweet potatoes are found in Spanish markets. The orange ones are sweeter and have a more pasty flesh; the white ones are mealy, somewhat like regular potatoes.

My kids, when they were in primary school in the village, ate lunch with a Spanish family (no school lunchroom in those days). This time of year, they often had boiled sweet potato for dessert or snack—no added sugar, just the sweet flesh spooned out of the skin.
Although I’ve lived 40 years outside of the United States, I still like to celebrate Thanksgiving, an occasion for feasting, for getting together with friends and family, for enjoying harvest foods.

Jugs of new olive oil.
This week I am celebrating the bringing home of the new olive oil! I took five sacks of my olives to the mill and came home with 10 liters of extra virgin olive oil. (I picked all those olives, with help from my son Ben, who cut down high branches for me.)

As it happens (once in a thousand years or so), this Thanksgiving (Thursday, November 28) is also the first night of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, when it is customary to eat fried foods. So. Let’s bring this all together now! Sweet potatoes, olive oil, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah! Good times! Celebrate!

Frying caramelizes the sugars in sweet potatoes.

Sweet Potato Fries

Serve these sweet-savory fries alongside a hamburger dolloped with some harissa-ketchup. Or, how about a turkey-burger and cranberry ketchup for a casual take on traditional Thanksgiving foods?

Burger and sweet potato fries.

Peel the sweet potatoes, cut them as for “french” fries. Heat olive oil in a skillet to a depth of 1 ½ inches. Fry the potatoes until they are golden-brown and tender (about 8 minutes). Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and ground cumin.

Fried turnovers are filled with sweet potatoes.

Turnovers with Sweet Potato Jam
Empanadillas Rellenas con Batatas

These small fried pies could definitely fill in for good-ole pumpkin pie. And, take a flavor hint—aniseed, clove and cinnamon are marvelous with sweet potatoes.

Makes about 28 small turnovers.

Spread filling on dough.

1 recipe for dough for fried pastries (below)
1 ½ cups sweet potato jam (recipe follows)
Oil for deep frying (olive or sunflower)
2 tablespoons sugar

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

Working with one disk at a time, place a spoonful of 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 toweling. Sprinkle them with the sugar.

Filled turnovers are fried in oil.

Dough for Fried Pastries
Masa Para  Empanadillas

¾ cup olive oil
1 strip lemon 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

Heat the oil in a small skillet with the lemon peel. Remove from heat, cool for 1 minute. Remove and discard the lemon 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 very thinly (less than 1/8th inch) on a lightly floured board. Shape and fry as in the following recipe.

Fried pies are filled with sweet potatoes and sprinkled with sugar.

Sweet Potato Jam
Polvo de Batatas

This sweet paste, used to fill the turnovers, can also be rolled into balls and served as a “candy.” You will need about 2 ½ pounds of sweet potatoes to obtain 2 cups of cooked pulp. Cook them until tender, drain well, then mash or put through a sieve. Pumpkin or other squash can be used instead of sweet potatoes.

Makes about 2 ¾ cups of jam.

2 cups sweet potato purée
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 with a wooden spoon, 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. Keeps for several weeks.

Saturday, November 16, 2013


Mano a mano.
Years ago, before my kids were born, I lived in a rustic mill house in the country, with no electricity and no running water. Or, I should say, the running water came from a rushing stream, carried to the house in buckets. When I eventually built a new house in a small olive grove, I installed both water and electricity. No more kerosene lamps! No bucket showers!

I immediately went out and bought myself an electric blender, a Braun Minipimer. A hand-held immersion blender, it was at that time a “revolutionary” new design.

After twenty-five years—and much gazpacho, baby-food purée and mayonnaise—my blender finally gave out. I was right in the middle of testing gazpacho recipes for the cookbook, My Kitchen in Spain. So I went right out and got another, basically the same Braun blender, 300 watts. But this one came with an additional attachment—a mini-processor for chopping.

I found I used that chopping gadget quite a lot—much handier than pulling out the food processor (Moulinex, 400 watts). In fact, in 13 years, I seem to have used it so much that I eventually wore out the gears or whatever it is that  connects the motor to rotate the blade. The blender still works, although it’s making a funny buzzing noise when it’s in operation. (A blender in Spanish is a batidora; a food processor is called a robot de cocina.)

Meanwhile, my good friend Charlotte was having her own blender dilemma. She was devoted to an old Osterizer (600 watts), brought from the US and run with a transformer on Spanish current. When the glass container broke, she was devastated. She had a practically new Braun immersion blender hanging in her kitchen. Even though I raved about it, she resisted using it, claiming nothing was as good as the Osterizer.  

So I went blender shopping. I found a new Osterizer for Charlotte, manufactured for European current. Although she was heard to say, “well, they don’t make them the way they used to” (plastic where the old one had metal), she seems delighted.

My new kitchen tool--a Bosch blender and mini-processor.
And, for myself, I found on sale a Bosch combo immersion blender, mini-processor/chopper plus whip attachment. With a whopping 750 watts, it will even grind ice.

I’m putting the new tool through it’s paces—blending last week’s pumpkin soup (see that recipe in the previous blog post); finely chopping onions for meatballs; making a quickie basil-walnut pesto using the chopper;

Puréeing beans for bean-kale soup.
puréeing beans for Tuscan bean-kale soup (the recipe by Nancy Harmon Jenkins is on the Saveur web site); coarsely chopping nuts for a cookie recipe;

Mini-processor for chopping nuts.

Puréeing mangos with yogurt for ice cream.
 puréeing mangos with yogurt for “ice cream” (recipe).

I still haven’t tried out the whipping attachment. Are meringues coming up next? Oh, in my appliance nook are also a standing mixer, a Sunbeam Mixmaster that is more than 40 years old, which I pull out whenever a birthday cake is on the horizon, and a hand-held mixer which I never use.

I’m pleased with my new equipment, although I don’t really need such high wattage (300-400 watts is adequate for making gazpacho and most purées).

Shredded zucchini for savory flan.
So, it looks like it’s retirement for the good old Braun. But, the old Moulinex processor, with its cracked food bowl repaired with strapping tape, stays, as I like the grating disk—perfect for shredding zucchini and grating cheese for a zucchini flan (recipe ).

Zucchini flan.

I’m hoping that the life expectancy of the new blender is at least as long as the one it replaces. In my kitchen, it gets almost daily use. Or, is there a Thermomix in my future?

Sunday, November 10, 2013


Pumpkin soup with chopped apple.

A plethora of pumpkins! I’ve got some green pumpkins with orange flesh raised in the garden by son Ben and grandson Leo and some butternut squash brought to me by my gardener, Juan. So, I’m flipping through my files, searching for pumpkin recipes.

Leo with pumpkins.

Some I will steam until tender, then puree and freeze the flesh for making pumpkin pie and pudding for holiday meals. I’ll be making some more alboronía, a pumpkin and chickpea stew (that recipe I posted only a few weeks ago). And, calabaza frita, “fried pumpkin,” an old-fashioned Andalusian recipe.

But, here’s a great rendition of pumpkin soup. This recipe is adapted from one given to me by Carlos Falcó, Marqués de Griñón, who makes superlative vino de pago, single-estate wine, at Dominio de Valdepusa, in Toledo province.

The Marqués pours wine at lunch.
A few years ago when I was researching the foods and wines of La Mancha (central Spain), I had the good fortune to be invited by Don Carlos to a wine tasting and lunch at the estate on the first day of the vendimia, or grape harvest. (My interview with him about wine appears in COOKING FROM THE HEART OF SPAIN, FOOD OF LA MANCHA; William Morrow, 2006.)

This soup makes an elegant starter for a holiday dinner. You can change its basic personality by swapping the finishing garnishes. Add color with a swirl of red pepper puree. Add  texture with pomegranate seeds or toasted almonds. Make it richer with a dollop of Greek yogurt or cream. Turn it into a delightful vegetarian main-course meal by adding cooked brown rice and grated cheese.

Swirl cream into the pumpkin puree.

Red pepper puree and chopped chives to garnish the soup.

I used butternut squash for the soup. Squash, carrots, red bell pepper and leeks make a very sweet soup. A touch of Sherry vinegar balances the flavors. Homemade chicken stock is best, but canned broth can be substituted. My stock was made with the addition of a chile pepper, which, I must say, added a lot to the finished soup. How much salt you will need depends on how much salt in the stock.

Roasting the pumpkin and bell pepper before incorporating them in the soup adds an extra dimension of flavor and makes it easy to peel them. This step is optional.

I use an immersion blender to purée the soup. Passing the purée through a chinois sieve makes it especially smooth and creamy.

Pomegranate seeds add color and crunch to a smooth soup.

Cream of Pumpkin Soup
Crema de Calabaza

Serves 6.

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 leek, chopped
1 diced carrot
1 ½ cups chopped red bell pepper
2 cloves chopped garlic
1 ¼ pounds pumpkin, peeled, seeded and cut in 1-inch cubes (2 ½ cups)
1 medium potato, diced
5 cups chicken stock
1 tablespoon Sherry vinegar
1 strip orange zest
Sprig of fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
Dash of cloves
¼ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon salt or to taste
1 cup milk or light cream (optional)
Diced apple to garnish

Heat the oil in a soup pot and sauté the leek, carrot, and pepper on medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and pumpkin and sauté 5 minutes more.

Add the potato, stock, vinegar, orange zest, thyme, bay leaf, cloves, cumin and salt. Bring the soup to a boil, cover, and simmer until pumpkin is very tender, 25 minutes.

Remove the orange zest, thyme and bay leaf. Purée the soup in a blender. Sieve it, discarding any solids. Taste for salt. If desired, thin the soup with milk or cream.

To serve, reheat the soup without allowing it to boil. Garnish with diced apple.

Saturday, November 2, 2013


My birthday is coming up next week. I’ll be dining in, me, family, a friend and a leg of lamb. I love lamb. It’s my favorite meat of all. So, that’s the most special meal I can imagine.

Spain is big sheep country. According to the Foods From Spain web site , Spain has more than 24 million sheep.

Every year a picture appears in the newspapers of flocks of sheep being driven through the Puerta del Sol in the center of Madrid. In times past, when the wool of merino sheep was a source of wealth, the Mesta, a sheep owners’ guild, controlled migratory routes. Vast herds of sheep were moved from northern Spain to southwestern Spain and back again, with the change of seasons, in the trashumancia or transhumance from summer to winter pastures.

With the decline in the wool business, since the 17th century, fewer herds cross the country and most of them are transported by truck or train. In fact, many of the routes have been closed off by fences--or paved over as national highways.

Nowadays, sheep are raised, not for their wool, but for milk (several of Spain’s best-known cheeses, such as Manchego, are made with sheep's milk) and for meat. Lamb from several regions has protected denominations. They are Cordero Manchego, Lechazo de Castilla y León, Ternasco de Aragón, Cordero de Navarra, Cordero de Extremadura and Cordero de Pais Vasco.

The meat is marketed as milk-fed baby lamb, cordero lechal, butchered before 2 months; recental or suckling lamb that has begun to graze, butchered from 2 to 4 months,  and spring lamb, cordero pascual, butchered from 4 to 12 months.

I love baby lamb, split and roasted in a wood-fired oven, in the Castillian manner. I love lamb chops on the parilla, grill, with nothing more than alioli, garlic mayonnaise, to go with them. I love the many lamb stews from every region of Spain.

Birthday present to myself, no need for ribbons. My whole leg of lamb weighs 4 pounds 14 ounces. In the US, a whole leg will be marketed considerably larger, from 6 to 7 pounds.

But, for my birthday leg of lamb, I am roasting it, French style, not Spanish. That is to say, I don’t want a slow braise, I want the meat still pink and juicy. I don’t want gravy or sauce. I want to taste the lamb, herb-inflected.

No recipe is required—just fresh thyme and rosemary, garlic, salt and pepper and, most important of all, an instant-read meat thermometer. That roast comes out of the oven when the meat reaches an internal temperature of 135ºF.

Meanwhile, I have been honing my love for lamb by trying other cuts, such as lamb ribs. Like pork ribs, lamb riblets are really fatty. But, if you love lamb as I do, this is good, as the fat conveys the lamb flavor and makes the meat especially succulent and juicy.

Lamb riblets with garlicky sauce.

Lamb Riblets with Garlic Sauce
Costillitas de Cordero al Ajillo

Spanish style, this dish is accompanied by patatas fritas, fries. However, the ribs are also good with rice or cous cous alongside for soaking up the sauce.

Serves 4.

Racks of ribs, cut into segments.
2 ½ pounds lamb riblets (2-3 racks of ribs)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 peeled cloves of garlic + 6 unpeeled cloves garlic
1 slice bread, crusts removed
1 sprig parsley + more for garnish
½ tablespoon pimentón (paprika, not smoked)
1 tomato, peeled and quartered
1 teaspoon oregano
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ cup wine vinegar
1 cup water

Cut the racks into segments of 2 or 3 ribs. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and allow to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Heat the oil in a deep skillet. Fry the 2 peeled garlic cloves, the bread and sprig of parsley. Remove when garlic and bread are golden.

In the same oil, brown the lamb riblets. With the side of a knife, crush the unpeeled garlics. Add them to the pan with the ribs.

In a blender or food processor, combine the fried garlic, fried bread, fried parsley, pimentón, tomato, oregano, cumin and vinegar. Process to make a smooth paste.

Add the paste to the ribs with the water and ½ teaspoon salt. Cover and simmer until the ribs are fork-tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Serve hot garnished with chopped parsley.

Succulent lamb ribs with garlic sauce.