Happy New Year

Back once again, loaded with all sorts of citrus fruits, and even a few good intentions. All that will be written about at some other time, since tonight´s the night for grapes.

Whatever else there is for dinner, they´re the one thing that won´t be missing from any table. We eat one for each chime of the clock at midnight. It´s not a very old custom, but it´s firmly rooted, and here´s how it goes.

The clock has to be the one in Puerta del Sol in Madrid. That´s unless you´re in whatever big square with a clock you want elsewhere, live. Most people watch it on TV. Even though we´re late diners in this country, by midnight everyone will have finished, and had a few drinks, and feel a little sluggish, but things get lively as people scramble for position in front of the TV, and slowly count their plates of grapes to make sure there are twelve.

As the clock begins to chime, there´s a confused babble, as everybody shouts that these are just the cuartos, ignore them. This done, the actual twelve begin to sound, and you pop one grape for each. It´s not easy to gobble them up fast enough, and you´re bound to end with at least six in your mouth by the end.
Once swallowed, you then step into the new year with your right foot, and start kissing people and toasting and what not.

In my family, we like to do it standing on our left leg, to make sure that the first step is with the right foot. Making life more interesting, you see. Also, we put a coin in our right shoe, and gold in the champagne. Not materialistic, oh no.

Please note that peeling and de-pipping grapes beforehand is for wimps and small children. Likewise, eating the grapes after the clock has finished.

If you want to take it up, be warned that choking is part of the fun, and that I will in no way be responsible for any harm incurred during frantic back slapping.


Just a quick post to say a few things.

One: we didn´t win the lottery. I´m sure you guessed. Better luck next time, but it was fun playing with all of you.

Two: thanks to everyone who bid for my prizes on the big Menu for Hope III auction. You saved me from having to bid on myself to avoid embarrassment, and together we´ve raised almost 60000 USD, which is amazing. Thank you.

Three: I´m going down south to see my in-laws , so I´ll be off blogging duties for a few days. Back for New Year.
I have a pretty long train ride ahead, to be enlivened by several books, a few DVDs, and one of the best things about Christmas : the Sandwich. Stuffed turkey on white, with mayo and some of that spicy chutney. Definitely recommended.


The food chain

It´s a very curious thing, the Christmas basket phenomenon. I don´t know if it happens everywhere, but here, it´s crazy.

You´d think in a sane world a person would just be rated according to their looks, charm, money and cars. Not so. The status symbol is the Christmas basket, which literally shows your place on the food chain.

I have seen friends climb from the tiny three item basket to the lofty heights of a ham. I have also seen people demoted from the ham to the stick of caña de lomo, and oh, the anguish.

Others, like José , don´t know where they stand. He´s a lecturer at a public university, which makes him a funcionario. These peope live in some odd little parallel Chekhovian universe all their own. I always think that J is a higher minded soul than all that, and that he cares more about the environment than departamental backstabbing. Not so. For days, J has been fretting that everyone in the department has received a cheese, except him. He´d suddenly say, a propos of nothing, "I bet the thief is that geeky guy from the Chemistry department". Talk about who ate my cheese, uh? Then yesterday he arrived with a single bottle of wine, a cheese (well, it all happens in La Mancha, what do you expect?) and a stick of salchichón ibérico. Last year it was two bottles of wine and a cheese. He´s now worried wether that´s a step up, or down.
Tricky. Myself, I´ll take salchichón ibérico over a bottle of fair-enough tinto any day, but he´s still pondering the question.

Since I´m a lowly freelancer all I get is a book from one of the publishers I work with, and a panettone from my agent. Not for me the ultra luxurious, tall-as-a-man four storey monster, trailing masses of ribbon, and always, no matter what, a jar of peaches and a tin of asparagus. I always wonder wether those two are relics of the post war hungry times, when they´d have been the height of luxury.

Whatever they are, I do think it´s the best present you could hope to get. I´ve never heard of anyone going back to the shop to change a ham because it didn´t fit them. It´s the only thing that makes me wonder if I´d like to work in a big office.


El Gordo.

In the previous posts I have asked you to hand out the ready, to give, part with your cash. But not now. Armtwisting isn´t over ( go on, now, donate!), but here I just give, out of the gladness of my heart, in the grand old tradition of the Gordo de Navidad. This, which could be loosely translated as the Christmas fat guy, is the big draw of the national lottery.

Everyone plays. Everyone. If you don´t buy a whole ticket, you´re bound to buy bits of ticket from your office, football club, breakfast bar, dentist or fire brigade. And if you don´t do that, you´ll still be given free snippets of tickets, participaciones, by most of your neighbourhood shops. Five cents from the cheese stall, ten from the dry cleaner´s, five from the butcher, and come the 22nd of December, you´ll have a shoebox full of bits and pieces, and an eye on the Tv.
The annoying warble of the children who sing out the prizes will be all over. And at some point in the morning, people will say, exctedly "it´s out". The Tv will switch to pictures of smiling people shrieking and opening bottles of cheap cider, somwhere other than where you bought your lotery. Heads will be shaken goomily, and then they´ll say, "oh, well, at least we´ve got health". Except my mother, who´ll say, "dammit, I hate those people, turn it off".

So here it is, then, your participación from the Lobster Squad lottery, number 35213. All you have to do is leave a comment, and 10 cents of this number are yours. Chill the champagne and get ready to do precious little work on Friday.

Le petit print: if you don´t have a blogger account, leave your name inside the comment when you sign up as "anonymous". If we win the first prize there should be enough for a lobster and a couple of bottles of champagne. If we win a lesser prize I think you´ll have to excuse me, but it may be that the cost of sending the money will be more than the actual prize, so I´ll let that pass.
I will contact you if we´ve won.
Fingers crossed from now util Friday.


Quick asparagus lemon soup

This is a quick soup that looks elegant, is warming and fresh tasting, and feels quite light, which makes it the perfect dinner after a heavy festive lunch, or a welcome partner for leftover sandwiches.

It´s made of basic ingredients I always have around, and if I don´t, the corner shop will. Onion, stock, parsley, lemon and eggs, and the star of the show, a jar of white asparagus.

These babies can be quite expensive, but for soup the thin ones are more than fine. Or maybe you´re a bit of a sucker, like me, and have a couple of jars of what look like finest thick asparagus from La Rioja but turn out on closer inspection to have come from Peru. I have no qualms about throwing these in the pot.

So here´s how it goes. You sweat an onion in olive oil, maybe a little butter, and let it stew gently without colouring. Meanwhile, chop up a fistful of parsley leaves, drain the 525 gr. asparagus jar or tin, reserving the liquid, and chop them into small pieces. Sepparate the tips, they´re very soft and will have to be added at the very end.
When the onion is well cooked, add the chicken stock, about one litre, the water from the asparagus jar, and the asparagus. Simmer for five minutes, taste for salt, and then turn off the fire.
Put two egg yolks in a bowl, add some of the soup, mix well, and add to the rest of the soup, stirring well so that it thickens and turns a beautiful cloudy Naples yellow. Add the asparagus tips, parsley and some pepper.

This is how I was taught to make it by Esperanza, a dinamite cook. I am not so talented, and found it a little bland, so I added the zest of a lemon and the juice of half, and it was lifted into a thing of beauty inmediately. This is my official version from now on.
Serves four.


Menu for Hope update

The prizes are even juicier, people!

Susie, of Bluebird Blogs , has very generously bumped up my prize with her own proffessional services. You can now win a complete new look for your blog ( blogger and wordpress only).
If you want my illustration as the header, fine, if not, don´t worry, just find a deserving friend who needs a blog makeover ( and don´t we all?) and ask for my illustration for whatever else you want.


Birthday blues

It´s my birthday. I don´t mind getting older at all, far from it, and everyone has been perfectly sweet and celebratory and I have received presents.

I´m just pretty hopping mad because I can´t eat cake. I´m ill. How much does that suck? After all tuesday sipping a vile drink made of glucose and salts, I graduated to white rice and apple compote yesterday. Today, as a great concession, I´m told I may have a boiled egg.

Well, my plans for today involved eggs, certainly, numbering six, in the batter of a cake, and another six to be turned into wattle-seed custard.

Also, my father was to have given me one bottle from his precious stash of 1948 Marqués de Riscal Rioja. The best harvest of the century, he says, smugly (he was born that year). We´d been discussing for weeks what to pair the wine with, and now look at us, both ill, both sipping chicken broth.

And you know the worst? If I think of the custard I feel something between indifference and nausea. Is this how thin people feel? Intriguing thought.

So anyway, I´m holding off all celebrations til the weekend, or next week, even.
But what the hell, I think I´ll be wild and crazy and steam some courgettes for dinner, one doesn´t turn 31 every day, after all.



Menu for Hope

Here it is again, the great Menu for Hope III. It all started at Chez Pim a couple of years ago, and last year they raised 17000 dollars for Unicef. Which I think is amazing, and a pretty hard act to follow. This year it´s going to the UN ´s World Food Program.

Look at her site and see all the prizes you can bid for. There´s plenty of amazing stuff, and all can be yours for a 10$ raffle ticket, during the days of 11 to 22 of December.

Here are the two prizes from Lobstersquad.

The first, code EU23, is an original watercolour, size about 23 by 32 centimetres. It appeared in the food section of Metaphore magazine, and now you can see what a terrible state I´m in, when I confess, I don´t remember what the text was about. It may have been Asian food, but then again, it may not, since I was given a pretty free rein in that magazine, which may or may not have resulted in its dissappearance last year.

You can have a piece of that Titanic of the presses, by a paltry 10$ raffle ticket. This is a great opportunity not only because it will come tastefully framed and show off your walls to advantage, but because I never sell original illustrations. This is a once in a lifetime occasion.

The other prize, code EU29, is the offer of my professional services. Your tickets will give you the chance to order me about and comission one piece, whatever it is you want. For bloggers, it can be a header, like Neil´s here. Non bloggers, or everyone, really, may prefer a letterhead, invitation or even a screensaver. Bid and I´m all yours for this one piece that will change your graphic life. Check out my website for all the dizzying options you may have for the clicking of a finger.

Now, here´s the serious stuff. The region of Europe is being hosted by David Leibovitz, and very big thanks for that. You can see all the prizes for the region on his site, here . This is particulary interesting because some of the prizes are dinners, or blog events, or meetings with famours bloggers. It may be that you´re a travelling gourmand, and will want those far away prizes. For that you go to Chez Pim´s site.

Here's what you should do...

1. Go to the donation page at First Giving
2. Make a donation! Each $10 will give you one raffle ticket toward a prize
of your choice. Please specify which prize or prizes you'd like in the
'Personal Message' section in the donation form when confirming your
donation. Do tell us how many tickets per prize, and please use the prize
code-for example, a donation of $50 can be 2 tickets for UW01 and 3 for
If your company matches your charity donation, please remember to check the
box and fill in the information so we could claim the corporate match.
3. Please also check the box to allow us to see your email address so that
we could contact you in case you win. Your email address will not be shared
with anyone.
4. Check back on Chez Pim on January 15 when we announce the result of the
raffle. The drawing will be done electronically. Our friend the code wizard
Derrick at Obsession with Food is responsible for the application that will
do the job.

Thanks for your patience, and I hope we can raise the bar on last year´s record.


It´s beginning to look like hot chocolate

The Christmas decorations at my parents´ house went up yesterday. We always do it on the 8th, a national holiday, and a very good day to start spreading the Yuletide spirit.

Chez moi all you will see are a couple of rows of small twinkly lights, but my mother´s approach is of the take no prisoners sort. There´s a tree, several kilometers of garlands, mistletoe, and of course a sprawling Nativity scene with at least a hundred figures. There´s a dancing Santa Claus, ribbons for the front door, an advent calendar, and for some reason a pink fish and a glittery monkey have joined the throng.

The thing to do is to listen to silly music, fight over who gets to put the star on top of the tree, and decide who´s luckier, according to the importance of the Nativity figures we pull out first. Then, after all the pieces of newspaper, stray bits of ribbon, broken figurine arms and tiny plastic pigs have all been put in the trash, it´s time for a cup of hot chocolate.

The Spanish version, as sold in bars and chocolaterías to accompany a side of churros is a thick sweet gloop, eaten with a spoon, and tasting only remotely of cocoa. When you buy a bar of chocolate "a la taza" you´re buying something that has a lot of flour or cornstarch, or both. Which is why I advise you to stay clear of the chocolate a la taza bars, and go instead for Lindt´s cooking chocolate, or Valrhona, if you can find it.

I make a frenchified version, made with 1250 ml of whole milk, 250 gr of 70% chocolate, a teaspoonful of cornstarch ( I am a Spanish, after all), a piece of cinammon, and no sugar.
It´s dark, velvety and strong, perfect for dunking sweet cake, biscuits, churros or even roscón. If you have a plateful of migas to go alongside, then you will be very close to heaven.


Faro sketches

I love Portugal, I just do. I get the feeling when I go that I´m seeing a parallel universe, almost like a version of Spain in which trees haven´t been cut down, where everything is greener, and men sport moustaches.

I said, in my previous post, that I meant to spend a lot of time browsing supermarket shelves. That seemed odd to a fair few, I bet, but I´ll explain.

Graphic desing is everywhere, in a way that great art may not be. Even if Faro only has a small old centre, and no world famous monuments, there´s penty to look at in the way of signs and labels. The best and the worst of are instantly available, and to me, it is particulary absorbing, because I feel I can tell all I want to know about a country from it. Or something like that.

Faro is very like southern Spain in many things. The climate, obviously, the whitewashed buildings, a lot of the architecture. The inside of the museum could be the inside of any museum in Spain. A Roman mosaic, a few shards of Islamic pottery, a few medieval headstones, a welter of baroque religious pictures. So far, so similar.
But step inside a supermarket, and the differences jump at you. What´s that misterious julienned vegetable labeled "caldo verde"? How about the five different pre-prepared mixes of vegetables for soup (we have one, at most)? Unfathomable cuts of meat. Five unknown types of Knorr stock cubes. Sausages in tins with the most lurid 70´s design!

All very fascinating to me. And when you get to the actual market, the real fun begins. There´s a swanky new building, all glass, very spruce, opening in a few days. I´ve been lucky to witness the last days of the old one, and I´m sure everyone will be pleased to see it go, because it´s dark, uncomfortable, and not very beautiful. But what atmosphere, my friends...

Being a sea town, the fish was so fresh you felt you might be slapped in the face by a sea bass any minute. It was also very cheap, and it was very hard not to buy a whole shoal to take home. I held myself in, and tried to sublimate the crazy cosumerism by just drawing (as shown). They had several little fish I didn´t recognize, and there was a stand wholly dedicated to moray eels.Sea monsters!
I didn´t even know they were edible. I couldn´t find any in a restaurant, sadly, so that´s one more incognita in my life.

I stocked up on things that weren´t heavy, since we only had one suitcase between us. Bunches of wild oregano, wooden spoons, little bottles of chili sauce, a mysterious condiment for roast chicken, and the ubiquitous sardine paste. I collected a fair amount of labels, from beer bottles, chocolate milk powder, pastries and sugar packets.

I also ate an eel, snakey weird looking animal, loved it, and took a boat that nearly sunk in a howling storm (well, ok, I may be exaggerating a little, but give me a break, I´m a complete landlubber).

The most exotic thing was some fudge I picked up at the airport, thinking it would be mint. It turned out to be flavoured with rosemary, very confusing, but not bad.

And that´s all. I have masses of oregano, so if anyone can think of a recipe other than pizza I can use it on, I´ll be much obliged.



I´m going to Faro for a couple of days. José has some congress , and Ryanair advertises flights from Madrid for €0.02, so off I go. While he hobnobs with all his planet-saving friends, I´ll amble around, look at the waves, read, sketch, and generally laze around.

I have high hopes about the fish market, and grocers in general. They´re very similar to ours, except that the Portuguese seem to have much better taste. Things are stacked more prettily, and the graphics are to die for.

Last time I didn´t have time to browse at leisure, but now, since I´ll be on my own most of the time, I can stare at sardine tins as long as I like. Great.


Nutella vs. Nocilla vs. The Other One

When I did that post about the Thermomix book, it was quite hard to find a link in English among all the millions of pages in Spanish.
I chose this one over others because I was intrigued by what they said about it being so hard to find, the hokey-pokey commercial methods, the cultishness of the whole thing.
Well, ok, so it is cultish. It really really is. I don´t care.
As of today, you may call me the Tom Cruise of Thermomix.
For the past hour I´ve been jumping up and down on the sofa, screaming " I´m in love".

Why now, after all those soups, doughs, sauces? After two years?
Because of the Nutella recipe you´ll find if you scroll down in that post.

Why make your own chocolate spread, you´ll say? Well, it only takes three minutes with the machine, and that includes the time you take unwrapping the chocolate and licking your fingers afterwards. And add to that that the ingredients list reads like the old familiar litany...leche, cacao, avellanas, y azúuuuuucar..of the Nocilla jingle, I just had to try.

In my mind there is a constant battle going on between Nutella, Italian and nutty and rather sophisticated, and Nocilla, the national product, the taste of all my afternoon snacks back in the early Eighties. Under torture, I might admit that I prefer Nutella, but Nocilla will forever remind me of grazed knees, the torn hem of my school uniform, and Espinete . And that´s priceless.

This third contender, of course, is nothing like either, and more like the inside of a fancy Belgian chocolate. Unsuitable for a small child´s merienda, but perfect for serving to dinner guests with a clutch of grisini.

When I made it, I was so enthusiastic that I bet my neigbours thought something far more interesting was goign on. I used 70% cocoa Lindt chocolate, a little less sugar than was indicated and...well, the rest is just drooling. I literally don´t know what to tell you , other than, make this out of earshot of anyone who might be offended by high pitched moaning.

Home made Nutella

If you own a Thermomix, go here. If not:

100 gr chocolate
100 gr milk
100 gr icing sugar( I used 90 grams)
100 gr ground hazelnuts
(they must be really ground, not pasty-buttery. If your processor can´t handle that, buy them ready ground)
70 gr. butter

Mix the icing sugar and the hazelnut meal. In a bain marie, melt the chocolate and the butter, add the sugar and hazelnuts, and when it´s folded in, add the milk and stir until it´s a gorgeous dark brown sauce. It will harden to spreading consistency as it cools. Keep it in the fridge.
If you can.


Diet is a four letter word

Since a sizeable proportion of the world as I know it is about to embark on a crazy eating binge any minute, I want to get this off my chest now:

I don´t care if you´re on a diet.
I don´t care if you mean to go on a diet soon.
I´m not interested in the latest wonder-diet your cousin has told you about.
I don´t care if your zip doesn´t do up.

So you feel guilty about eating. SO WHAT?

If you don´t want to eat, fine.
If you want to spend january fasting, fine.
If you want to jump out of a window, go ahead and be my guest.

Just don´t, please, please, moan about the cream and the butter and the chocolate and the almonds, while stuffing your face.

Also, don´t imply I´m stupid by telling me how many calories are in a bite of turrón. I KNOW.

You only make the food turn to ashes in my mouth, and you make me want to drown you in the punch bowl.
And this is supposed to be the season of good cheer and goodwill, after all, so I´d really appreciate it if you´d just shut up and be a good guest.

There. Aren´t I quite the little ray of seasonal sunshine?


The NOT gazpacho tomato soup

Last week, when I posted about tomato soup, I think I inadvertently caused some confusion. I said, when I mentioned it, people made "yuk" noises and said "hot gazpacho?". That´s because gazpacho is so famous that it has overshadowed sopa de tomate (also from Andalucía, featuring mint and bits of bread floating about) and any hot tomato soup is almost unthinkable now in Spain.

This led some to believe that I meant to post about hot gazpacho, which I don´t. Not at all. My tomato soup is a variation on that classic, cream of tomato soup, as brought to you by Mssrs. Wharhol and Campbell.

It´s just a basic elemental, comforting, savoury and very satisfying bright orange creamy wonder. A serious contender for the number one slot in "favourite dinners", if it´s accompanied by something doughy and hot, preferrably some freshly baked biscuits , or a cheese muffin. I usually make it when José has been away, because I think it´s the most welcoming dinner, homely yet interesting.

It would be silly to give a recipe for it, since it´s just tomato sauce with stock and milk. And everyone knows how to make a tomato sauce, and how they like it, and no two are alike. Plus, being a soup, the variations are endless. Sometimes I make it spicy , others I don´t add milk, or I go crazy and add cream, or make it with piquillo peppers, or pumpkin. When I said it was a good fridge clearing soup, I meant it.

My favourite combo is this : one stick of celery, one carrot, one onion, one leek, one clove of garlic, one kilo tin of whole plum tomatoes, one stock cube, one big glass of water, one small glass of milk. More or less, and more or less in that order. And the family secret, a good splodge of ketchup.

The important thing is to make sure the sauce tastes good in and of itself. I like to add sugar to it, plenty. Be careful not to let the milk boil. If it´s too thick, add water, and if it´s too thin, add cooked rice, or rice cakes. Don´t serve it piping hot, wait a little. I think extreme heat takes away some of the flavour in this case.
A dollop of cream looks pretty, once the thing is in the bowl. Chili oil might be good too, or grated cheese, but for my money, pesto is the best.
That´s it.


A most unsual gin

Friday is the night for well-deserved relaxation and cheerfully tinkling glasses with ice and hard liquor, wouldn´t you say? We had two guests for dinner, and since they are as worshipful of a good gin and tonic as myself, I decided to honour the occasion with a bottle of the gin du jour.

This Hendrick´s is the bottle you see everywhere lately. The first time I had it, somebody had brought it to a dinner, and we had it like always, with lemon, and said, this is some seriously good gin.

The second time I was in Embassy, and they brought it with all the flourish that only old-fashioned places full of G&T-drinking grandmothers can achieve. It came in a baloon glass, with plenty of ice and a slice of cucumber. Anywhere else I´d have complained, "oh, puh-lease, this is a cocktail, not a salad". But at Embassy you have to be careful, because you never know where a close and dissaproving relative may be lurking. So I sipped, and my eyes opened wide, and I thought, you´re kidding me.

Honestly. How is it possible that a slice of cucumber can transform a whole glass? And that it doesn´t taste cucumbery so much as fresh and aromatic and cool? If I had a poetic bent I´d start going on about meadows and fresh grass and dewy mornings, but thankfully I´m not.

The best thing about is the marketing device. They write on the label "it is not for everyone", and so of course inmediately everyone, that is, every fool with a bit of disposable income, rushes to the shops. It costs 10€ more than a normal good gin, but that´s fine, because not only is it so good, but the bottle is gorgeous, and justifies the price, all by itself.

The dinner was also pretty good. Chicken curry, spicy creamed spinach, rice with toasted almonds, raita, and the remains of some banana bread I´d made on Thursday. We drank G&Ts all through the dinner, which is an unlikely pairing, but really rather good, in a British Empire kind of way. Loved it.

A god beginning for a week-end.


Happy Thanksgiving?

Why do I even notice Thanksgiving? Well, there´s a certain buzz in American food blogs, naturally. And also, Hespen&Suarez, the deli down the road, is having a special takeout on Thursday, turkey in a box. Also, I did a little  illustration for Belly du jour.

Apart from that, I only know Thanksgiving from movies, and from the Norman Rockwell painting. In the movies, everyone wrangles, fights, says mean things as they pass the cranberry sauce, and slags off the Normal Rockwell painting.

So I´d think that the thing we in Europe have to give thanks for is not having Thanksgiving. Except that of course I don´t beleive movies are strictly true. If I did, I´d also have to think that half the population of the US are cops, and that only New York and California are inhabited, except for a few people with chainsaws in the Midwest.

Food blogs, as ever, have quite saved the day and banished lingering doubts. American food bloggers are limbering up for some very scrumptious feasts, by and large everyone sounds excited and happy to stuff a turkey, and I´m jealous.

I really love this recipe of Julie´s for artichoke soup. I´d love to make Molly´s cranberry chutney, except we have no fresh cranberries here. You can find dried, though, so I´ll try these cookies of Louisa´s. And I´m quite curious to see what people will come up with in the way of leftovers.

So over there, have a great holiday. Over here, there´s a rock/reggae concert in benefit of GuinéBus, a charity that mantains a fleet of school buses in Guinea Bisau. That´s at Art Deco, c/ María de Molina 50, jueves 23, 21:00 h, 25€.
See ya.


Fridge clearing day

I laughed so much over breakfast this mornign with an article by Zoe Williams. Usually she writes about stuff I know nothing about, mostly to do with British Tv and such stuff, but today her dilemma is what to do with the stuff that turns up in her organic box. Read it . It´s very funny, and has good recipes, too.

I have nothing so sophisticated happen to me, but I do end up buying more vegetables than I should, because I just can´t help myself. But hey, if it was shoes, I would be broke, so it´s not too bad.

I shop erratically. Maybe I go to the market for some ginger I need for a particular recipe I just read about. Then I see some broccoli, and think, oh, that´s always useful. And then I pass by the fishmonger´s, say, and see some fresh cod roe, and buy it, and cook it for dinner, and forget about the broccoli and the ginger.
Next day, I walk into the market on the way home from the video store, and I´m thinking about apples, but then remember we were out of onions, or nearly, and since by now I´m carrying a big bag, what the hell, I buy leeks and a bunch of spinach too, and a quarter of wild mushrooms, why not?
And then José comes home and says, oh, I just happened to stop by the pizza place, and guess what, somehow I ordered this really sweet smelling thin crust marvel, topped with pepperoni and peppers, just how you like it. Funny, that.
And next day we have a dinner, and after that we go away for the weekend. And on Sunday I come back too tired to care, and just eat crackers and a bowl of yogurt.
Which means that Monday finds me looking at the fridge and shaking my head at my silly ways.
Opperation Clean Slate begins, and it can go the way of vegetable risotto, of pisto, of curry, but mostly it ends up as soup.
Today, I have a piece of celery, two leeks and a carrot. I also have soome rather good looking tinned tomatoes I bought in La Rioja a couple of weeks ago, so tomato soup it is.
And tomorrow I can go to the market with a tranquil conscience, which is even better than the soup itself.

I will post the recipe soon, for the benefit of all my Spanish friends who screech " HOT gazpacho, ew, gross!", and then scrape the bowl and ask for seconds.


What did the Caspian Sea?

Imagine an Edwardian England suspended in time, where it´s always five o´clock, and the butler seems permanently poised to bring the tea tray out into the lawn. Imagine the bread-and-butter, the cucumber sandwiches, the fruit cake, the scones. Imagine a bunch of corseted ladies in lace, gentlemen with stiff shirtfronts, children in velvet knickers, spaniels at their heels.

Now imagine a tiger has been let loose among them.

That, more or less, is what Saki stories are like. If P.G.Wodehouse is a bubbly gin and tonic, Saki is a very dry martini. One story will exhilarate, two will make your head swim, and by the third you´ll be tottering a little from all the epigrams. He is best read in bed, one or two stories at a time, never more.

Many of them feature food, which is why I bring him up. Most of the time the Cushatt-Prinklies and Van Tanhs are delivering witty one-liners as they drink consommé, spoon caviar, or top brown bread and butter with whitebait. Murderous cooks are aided and abetted, disrespectful diners´ heads are plunged into hot soup and peaches are exchanged as tokens of affection. Tea , Filboid Studge, The Blind Spot, The Byzantine Omelette, The Phantom Luncheon, A Bread and Butter Miss, all these, and many more, have food as a central theme.

He died ninety years ago yesterday, a private soldier in the British Army during World War I. After spending a lifetime writing about waspy duchesses and effette young men, it was a very unlikely end. He was only 44.

Which is very sad, but let´s not be gloomy. Genius lives forever, after all, and one unquestionably good thing about it is that his works are in the public domain, and so you can read them  here. That has all the stories. This has only the Clovis stories, but is easier to navigate, and Clovis is the best, anyway, so start with them.

I recommend him thoroughly. They say there is no better compliment to be paid to the right kind of friends than to hand them Saki without comment.


La ruta del gourmet

Just a quick note to anyone who´s in or around Madrid this weekend.
Seven really great food shops, all around where I live, and all very much my favourites, have set up a tempting little activity, the Ruta del Gourmet, for next Saturday, November 18th.
There´ll be free tastings, and while you try this and that, and buy some tea and maybe a little fresh pasta, you´ll have a lovely walk, too. Great idea.
Pick up a flyer at any of these:
Deli Panific
Tea Shop
La abeja egipcia
La flor de Castilla
Cacao Sampaka


Check this out.

Isn´t it great?
Neil´s blog, Food for thought, is now  At my table. Part of the phoenix-from-the-ashes thing was to change the look, and he asked me for a drawing to put in the header.

I was very flattered, and of course delighted to work on such a lovely project. It´s been great workng with Neil, easy and fun and completely unfussy. I could only wish all clients were like that!

For a start, he knew very well what he wanted, and gave me a detailed brief. I love that. There´s nothing more irritating than a difuse, vague idea thrown at your head, in the expectation that you´ll come up with something brilliant and clear the fog in the client´s mind. That type always thinks they can get away with a jumble of words like "fresh" and "young". Once, I was told to make a piece on perfume for a fashion magazine "noiseless". Of all the...

There´s quite a lot going on here, as you can see, but I´ll leave Neil to explain all that. All I do is put the client´s wish on paper.

I will give you a little peek into my working method, for a change from food.

The first thing I do is read a brief through a few times. Then I usually try to put it at the back of my mind. Sometimes I can´t, if the work is urgent, but I beleive in "marinating" stuff.
I really think that not thinking about it makes ideas bubble up. And if I´m stuck, or anxious, I find that there´s nothing better than to go for a walk, or better yet, into the kitchen. It´s the sort of mindless activity that really clears my head.

At that point, I go to the drawing board, and do a quick layout sketch in pencil. Then I take a clean sheet of paper, and start drawing. I use an old fashioned pen with a nib, and a pot of waterproof Indian ink.

The trick here is not to stop, so if I don´t like something, I just go on, and do it differently on the side. If you look closely, you´ll see bodies without heads, and surplus heads floating around. Also lots of lines that are subsequently cleaned up.

Photoshop allows me to keep things fresh ( great for the "fresh" clients). I send that line, corrected and with new heads on cleaned up shoulders. This is the best time to make changes, if any, as at this stage it´s all pretty simple.

The client has to be imaginative, and see in his mind how it will look in colour. Not everyone can do this, but luckily most people are game.

Then I colour, and that´s it. Simple, no? Thanks to the magic of the web, everything goes from Madrid to Victoria in seconds.

As for the material rewards, well, I do enjoy getting checks in the mail, but it doesn´t compare to the  box of goodies that made its way all over the world.


Verdi salad

The Music is back in my kitchen.

The radio cassette that had been there for four years, and previously six at my former studio, and before that an unspecified number of years in my room at my parents´house. I was attatched to it, but the cd broke, and then the tape deck, and for years I´ve had to rely on the whim of radio djs for my music.

I´m very lazy about home improvement, but finally I dragged myself to Fnac, and elbowing my way past the throngs of ipod and mini-camera buyers, managed to bring home a new radio cassette. I know it´s something of an anachronism, but it does read Mp3 files.

I couldn´t be happier. At last I can chop mushrooms in time to Elvis, stir soups with Eartha Kitt, and wait for stock to bubble away while Batisti throbs his heart out.

One of my favourite kitchen tasks, and one that lends itself to silly arm waving and keeping time to music, is drying salad leaves in the spinner. I loathe a limp, wet lettuce, and since I think a salad spinner is a lot of fun, I insist on keeping it always to hand.

I also like to keep my salad colour coded. Green or red, but not both, which clashes with the Spanish culture of "ensalada mixta". I do love to mix different greens, though, in what I like to call, in a very dorky homage, Verdi salad. It´s not an every day salad, but one worthy of your most honoured guests.

Lettuce, preferably trocadero, although normal is fine, lamb´s lettuce, maybe one of those dark "oak´s leaf", and possibly a few spinach leaves. Ruccola, depending on what it´s going on the side of. I´m not crazy about frisé, but feel free.
The pièce de résistance is an avocado, ripe and buttery, almost dissolving into the dressing and giving the thing an unctuous kick.

I wash, shred and mix the leaves well beforehand, with the music blaring, of course. Since it´s Verdi we´re with, let´s have the bit in La Traviata where Alfredo crashes the party. That´s always a show stopper.

By the time the guests have arrived, I´ll have some adequate background music for the first drinks.
Then, when everyone´s at the table, I slice the avocado, douse the whole with my favourite vinaigrette, mix thoroughly, serve, and prepare to receive the compliments like a proper prima donna.



It´s a beautiful Saturday. The best kind, shiny and bright, crisp with sunshine and a hint of cold to come, but mild as yet.

If you can, you should go mushroom hunting. In Madrid, that means finding a good market stall and buying a couple of huge boletus like these. I drew my phone next to them so you can get a feeling of the size ( that´s what being married to a scientist will do to you).

These met a well deserved end yesterday, a la plancha.

Today, I´m blogging very little, just enough to tell you that I´m about to pack a picnic, a freesbee, a waterproof blanket and the dogs. There´s a park we like where you can sit in an almond orchard and almost forget you´re in the city.

Enjoy your weekend.


A recipe you can´t refuse

You may or may not have noticed that I´m somewhat of a movie nut. It runs in the family. People who don´t watch movies a lot find it hard to follow a conversation at our table. The references are usually to stupid films, and if you haven´t seen them, then you won´t know why we whinny every time my father says he wants to have a dog called Blücher.

I usually take it one step further, and make life altering decisions based on movies. And they´re not even good movies, half the time, which makes it something I probably shouldn´t confess in public. I cut my hair to resemble Demi Moore´s after seeing Indecent proposal. I bought a Powerbook after seeing Forces of nature. I painted my kitchen red after seeing Amelie. Embarrassing, I know, but the haircut was nice.

It makes perfect sense, then, that the first recipe I tried out for company in my spanking new red kitchen, quite a few years ago, should be what is generally referred to as  Godfather spaghetti sauce.

I´m sure you all remember the scene where Clemenza shows a nervy young Michael the ropes of cooking for a crowd. Coppola insisted on inserting it in the film. He said that if it sucked, at least people would have learnt something.The humility of true genius.

Hopefully you won´t be called upon to feed a tribe of assassins after your brother is murdered, but other than that, it´s a really useful recipe to have up your sleeve.
However, it requires time and love. When I don´t have time for that, I do a version that, while nowhere nearly as good as the original, is still pretty good.
I call it The Godfather part III sauce.

It´s very much like  this one, but mine is even simpler, and can be done while the pasta cooks. Quantities are vague. This is not about precision.

Put a pan on the hob with some water, and the rest in the kettle, to speed things up. Chop a small onion very very finely. Sautee it in olive oil over a high fire. It won´t catch if you´re stirring vigorously, so it´s maybe best if somebody else does that, while you break two or three fresh butcher´s sausages from their casings, and crumble the meat with your hands. Ask that other helpful person to put the pasta in the pan while you brown your mince well. Add a jar of tomato sauce.

Up to this point, activity is furious, but now, with the pasta safely in the pan for at least 8 minutes, and the sauce almost done, you can realx, taste, and see. It´ll probably need a bit of sugar, maybe a shake of Tabasco.

While pasta cooks and the sauce splutters, you can have a beer, lay the table, take out the parmesan, the pepper grinder and relocate the microplane. Don´t even bother with the salad.
I´ve never seen a wiseguy tucking into his greens.


Justin Quek again

A few posts ago I wrote about Justin Quek´s book. I did so in a bubbly, overexcited way, and so of course forgot to say a few very important things. I just said it was a chef´s book. Which it is, but I forgot to say what sort of chef. He´s a real chef, a master, not some wacky talkative guy with a white jacket who blabs around on TV. He has one of the best French restaurants in Taipei, and before that he made Singapore a hot destination for roaming gourmets.All this is vouched for by a bunch of exalted people, the likes of Ferrán Adrià and Pierre Hermé.
So ok, I kind of messed up there, but thankfully,  other, better  people are writing about it in the buzzy blogosphere, so you probably know all that by now.

Now, we all know that in any cookbook you´ll only use a fraction of the recipes. That´s a given. The important thing , for me, is wether the book has a voice. When that happens, when I see the structure of someone´s cooking, and get a feeling of their personality, that´s when I find it really useful. Because then I can relate it to my way of doing things, and compare, and see what I can use, and how I can adapt it.

This has just that. It´s full of seemingly impossible things that make me dream about travelling East just to try. Which on closer reading turn out to be doable, certainly not every day, but that´s the whole point of special food like this. It´s full also of things that I´ve made already, and will make again, like vodka cream for smoked salmon, and squid ink risotto, and mushroom capuccino. I didn´t bother to froth it, sorry, I´m just not like that, but who cares? It was a beautiful, delicate soup, and that was more than enough for me.

This book is written so it can be used, not in the spirit of some demigod descended to earth to patronize the hell out of us. Plus, it makes for good reading, wether you cook or not.

So there, I hope I havent´forgotten any crucial bits of information now. Since I probably have, just check out the book, if you can.


A (virtual) dinner for bloggers

Julie has tagged me for this meme : Which Menu Would You Serve Blogging Friends For A Welcome Dinner Upon Their First Visit to Your Home? It was created by Angelika of The flying apple, and a very good idea it is.

My big quandry is, would I give my food blogger friends what I give my friends from Madrid? My failsafe options are curry, or tagine, or bottarga, or Nigella´s ham in Coca-Cola. Or else I cook a big pot of soup, bake biscuits or focaccia, and plump everything on the table, just like that.
Hardly what you´d give someone from abroad, who´s in Spain for just a few days.

Thinking hard, I´ve finally hit on this solution. I haven´t cheated. I could have taken cover under the virtual screen, and told you I´d make an entire menu from Justin Quek. But this is a dinner you might truly have chez moi, Scout´s honour. It´s ethnic, it´s pretty darn delicious, and it keeps to my rule of “make as much as you can the day before”.

We eat in the kitchen, if we´re less than six, so you´ll be sitting at the table, sipping whatever you want to drink, and while I get everything more or less ready, you can start on the aperitivo. This is a prize for the puntual people. In Spain it´s still considered rather dashing to be late, so somebody will turn up 30 minutes after everyone else.

The latecomer will miss it, and will be sorry later when he learns that I gave you the best jamón from Malandares, some pretty awsome olives I buy in bulk from the market ( I think today I´ll go with Camporeal, from Madrid itself) and boquerones en vinagre from the fish store. I drizzle some good olive oil and fresh parsley on these, and they´re as good as home made.

Then we´ll have marmitako. I love this dish for many reasons, but one of them is that it´s perfect make-ahead food. I´ll just warm up the potatoes and cook the fish in five minutes just as we´re all sitting down.

I´ll give you crusty bread, and some green salad, to lighten up.
Normally I wouldn´t make a pudding, because a carefully chosen bowl of fruit is so good. But since you´ve come from so far away, I might just go crazy and give you a beautiful glossy tarte tatin. Or I might make hot chocolate pots. Or maybe I´ll just open a tub of agujeros de Filipinos, an addictive little biscuit thing.

We´ll all end up sitting on the floor in the living room, sipping a late drink and annoying my neighbours. Isn´t that a lovely dinner for blogging friends around the world?

This is open to all comers, and as Julie says, I can´t think of anyone I wouldn´t have. But I´ll pass the torch on, just in case, to a few people, all around the globe.
That´ll be Guru in our own Canary Islands, Neil in Australia, Julie in Florida, Stephanie in NYC, Carolyn in Zimbabwe, and Mixirica in Brasil. Can´t wait to see what thye´ll give us.


Buñuelos for All Saints

Sitemeter informs me that only 15% of my hits come from Spain, so I thought it´d be nice to write a little ethnographic post, in the manner of the Discovery channel, so that you´d know what goes on here for Halloween.

We call it Todos los santos, or All Saints. And it´s all about honouring your dear and departed, so cementeries are chock-full of visitors. Nothing like Mexico, don´t be imagining any graveside picnics. People take flowers, and clean up the gravestones, lest the neighbours ( or the departed ) think them slatternly, but that´s it.

The food is eaten at home, buñuelos de viento, a fried dough with a sweet filling, being very typical. You can find them all year round in some places, but huesos de santo are strictly seasonal. This delicacy are little tubes or marzipan with various fillings, and look quite pretty.

I don´t really know much about All Saint´s day, to tell you the truth. I´ve never been to visit the graves of any family member, and I´ve never had a hueso de santo, so if I complain about people embracing the Jamie Lee Curtis version of Halloween, I don´t do so from a deep-seated love of our own tradition, but because I´m grouchy.
I just think it´s silly to have left out the trick or treating, which, along with Disney´s Sleepy Hollow, seems to me the best part about the thing. They´ve just concentrated on dressing up like extras of Thriller, but hey, whatever rocks your boat, and I suppose that´s fun, even without the sweets.

To keep the thing on a Spanish tune, I´ll give you a recipe for salty buñuelos. I never make it, myself, since you know I don´t fry , but everyone loves them, so I give it out a lot, in the hope that somebody will make them, and invite me over.

For a kitchen soundtrack, I suggest Mozart´s Don Giovanni. It´s appropriate, having a back-from-the-dead dinner guest, and is a version of the play old fashioned theaters always run for All Saints, Don Juan Tenorio.

(salt cod fritters)

serves 4. If people hover around you while you cook, nothing will get to the table, because they are very very good straight from the pan while you blow on your fingers.

250 gr. Salt cod, soaked and desalted,cut in little pieces, like a chocolate chip. You can also use raw prawns.
1 bottle beer ( you won´t need it all, so make sure it´s chilled and you can enjoy drinking it)
250 gr. flour
1 tsp. baking powder or soda
salt, maybe,depending on the saltiness of the fish
1 egg
1 clove garlic, chopped
chopped parsley
chopped onion ( I often leave it out)

Mix the flour, baking soda, egg, parsley and garlic. Add the fish. Mix well, make sure there are no lumps. If it´s too thick, add a glug of beer. You´re after a honey-ish consistency, thick but pourable.

Fry in small batches in hot olive oil, until they´re puffed up and golden. The oil has to be hot, or they won´t puff up. They cook very quickly.

J likes to drizzle them with honey. I go for that really delicious sweet/sour/hot Thai sauce in the big bottles.


My Magic Pudding Moment

Do you know The Magic Pudding, that treasure of a children´s book? It´s an Australian classic, and one of my most ever favourite books. It lives on the shelf beside my bed.
That´s where I keep a stash of books I love more than the others. So that if I can´t go to sleep , or wake up in a frazzled state of mind, or have the flu, I just have to reach out to feel jes´ fine.

So anyway, this magic pudding is the sweetest book you´ll ever read, about a set of carachters with names like Bunyip Bluegum, and Watkin Wombat. Don´t you want to read it already? And when you know that it´s about a Magic Pudding that´s a pie, except when it´s something else, like a steak, or a jam donut, or an apple dumpling, or whatever its owner wants it to be? And it never runs out? See, I can tell you´re amazoning the thing like crazy already.

All this is by way of introducing what I like to thing as My Magic Pudding Moment. Last week I received a parcel from Australia, from Neil of Food for thought . We´d done a little transaction you may know about soon, concerning some changes to Neil´s blog, and this was my material reward.

My very own food blogger parcel, and a magic pudding of sorts. For a few days now we´ve been dipping into it and drawing out something wonderful and different each time.

First to fall, spectacularly, torn apart by various overexcited family members, where a chocolate Torcik wafer cake, and Sliwki, chocolate coated prunes (a lot of the stuff is Polish, courtesy of Neil´s wife). Then there were the oh-so-moreish tins of Watrobki Tybne, cod liver in oil (absolutely, one just isn´t enough). There are a bunch on instant soups and sauces that I haven´t tried yet, and some lovely blueberry jam. A packet of Australian spices, and some wattle seed, which I´m finding very fascinating. The bottle of Tokay I haven´t opened yet, even though there were strong suggestions that we all toast Australians in general and all Neil´s family in particular. I´m saving that for a special moment, and for now we´ll stick to the various flavours of tea, also in the parcel.
The beautiful tea towel with Mae Gibbs illustrations has pride of place in the kitchen , and I´ve been studying Bill´s kitchen closely. It´s a great book, and I can tell it´s going to jump straight into the list of favourites.

There´s also Tasmanian honey, which I requested after reading Jenjen´s post , and some Red gum honey, which Neil prefers. I´ve tried both, on toast with butter, two mornings in a row, and can´t make up my mind.

Unlike the Magic Pudding, it will run out, eventually, but still, it´s quite magical, in its way, the whole blog thing.
Thanks so so much, Neil, and I´m really lookign forward to your revamped blog.


A shortcut to mushrooms

I have so many posts due. I have been tagged by Julie for this lovely meme . Then, there are my experiments with Justin Quek´s ´s book, and my new found love of all things Thermomix. I have a new machine in the kitchen. And most exciting of all, yesterday I received a parcel from Australia.
Just too many things. So for now, I´ll go with the shortest path.

It´s been raining hard for over a week. Some people complain; some, like J, skip about like spring lambs on crack; and some, like me, wait it out with a rug around their knees and a firm hold on the remote.

One thing you´ll never hear me complainin of is what has to be the best possible offshoot of rain.

My neighbourhood market isn´t one of the luxurious ones, and doesn´t have much expensive stuff, but one stall stocks mushrooms in season. It´s right by the door, so I can´t help but stop, every time, just for a handful.

Yesterday they had four types of wild mushroom to choose from. I went with these, níscalos, or lactarius deliciosus, which sounds like dog latin but is the real thing, I promise. They´re the most popular wild mushroom in Spain, easy to spot nestling under a pine tree, all sunny bright orange, and impossible to mix up with poisonous varieties. Not that I go mushroom picking, having far too much respect for my liver ( no Gin&Tonic jokes, if you please).

There are many ways to do these, but I like to sautée them in a little olive oil, and sprinkle them with Maldon salt. They can´t be beat that way. No garlic, no parsley, no eggs, just that crunchy floppy woodsy golden marvel. Make sure you don´t crowd the pan, and don´t shake them about too much at first, so they have time to brown a little. Oh, and I´ve read in several very authoritative places that it´s fine, you can wash mushrooms. They´re all water anyway, it´s all an urban myth about their becoming waterlogged. No more of that nasty crunching teeth on gravel.

If you can´t be bothered to stay in now that the sun is finally out, go to El Cisne Azul, c/ Gravina. It looks grubby, but has the best selection I know, and they grill them to perfection, alongside an egg yolk. Very fascinating. Be sure to rob a couple of banks on the way, though. They don´t take credit cards, and they ain´t cheap.


Nothing lost in translation.

I´ve spent all day traslating some abstruse scientific-legal text for J, who´s doing some course, and has no time. Since I know nothing about science, less about law, and so can´t understand a single word of what I´m reading in Spanish, my rendering into English will be pretty disastrous. I guess.

It´s got me thinking that maybe the translators of cookbooks aren´t incompetent. Maybe they´re just very busy, and farm out the stuff to their poor wives, and here we all are, screaming in frustration every time we read something like chile de bonete escocés.

Which brings us to today´s topic, another book review, of a Spanish book, which makes it all so easy. No having to guess just which cut of meat they mean, or where to find what spices. No fruitless search for rhubarb, no hassle over pomengranate molasses.

I´ve illustrated it myself, and that´s always fun. Every time I´m wandering aimlessly and end up, somehow, in the cookbook section of Fnac, I can spend a profitable five minutes rearranging the stuff so that my books are all over the place. I´m so popular with the sales workforce.

The book is Cocinar con Thermomix. It´s written by Gabriela Llamas, who is, among other things, my aunt. And if this looks like nepotism, I promise you, it´s nothing but demographics. I have so many aunts it was just a question of time before one of them wrote a book. But this aunt happens to really know her business, and she´s made a book that will make a big splash, I bet.

It´s meant to complement the users´manual that comes with the Thermomix , so I´m not sure just how wide the audience is for it. It´s selling very well, and is already on the second printing, so I guess more than one would think. Thermomix is very popular in Spain.
As a machine it´s not heartstoppingly beautiful, like the KitchenAid, but it has a lot more uses. You can live a long and happy life without it, but once you´ve tried it, you´re hooked forver. I love mine so much, it´s embarrassing.

You see, the Th. is not very cool. It´s the height of boring bourgois-ness, and associated with the most retro kind of food. The sales pitch, too, is straight out of the Sixties, very redolent of Tupperware parties, with demonstration parties and all. The manual that comes with it is full of fascinating nuggets of information, but they have to be weeded out from pages and pages dedicated to piped canapes decorated with capers. It´s not so chic, no matter how many chefs, Adriá included, reputedly use them in their kitchens.

This book is meant to dispel all that. Forget the goshawful photos, bring on the sleek, suave, sophisticated illustrations ( well, whadyawant me to say?). Never mind the recipes for salmon roulades and "exotic pineapple". Yep, it´s a prawn cocktail inside a hollowed pineapple, what else?
Welcome instead the satay sauce, the roast tomato crumble and the gazpacho jelly.

Th. users are divided into the ones who slavishly follow recipes and cook everything with it, and foodie types, who make flavoured hollandaises and weird chutneys. Both types will find plenty to suit them, and more.The recipes are fun, varied, a good mix of good old fashioned Spanish stuff and more exotic fare, and they work.

I thoroughly recommend the book . I have no royalties on this one, mind, so it all springs from the goodness of my heart, in an effort to improve your lives.

Cocinar con Thermomix. Gabriela Llamas. El Pais Aguilar. ISBN84-03-50411-X . 21€ (ouch!)


Justin Quek´s new book

My favourite celebrity couple used to be Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, but they have fallen from grace. The new couple on my personal pedestal are Aun and S., of Chubby Hubby.
Sure, Tim and Susan are pretty cool, and commited, and I liked the age difference, and the films they do. But do they cook? Do they have a gorgeous blog that makes me want to apply for Singaporean citizenship every week? Have they sent me a beautiful book to review? The answers are ; Maybe, I don´t think so, and Hell, no!

When Aun asked me if I´d like to receive a copy of Justin Quek, passion and inspiration, I instantly yelled YES (does anyone ever say no to something like that?). But then a few doubts started to worry me. It´s a chef´s book. I love chef´s books, but they´re the ultimate food porn. If I cook maybe 20% of Nigella´s recipes, but my coffee table copy of Ferrán Adrià´s testament is still untouched, what can I do with something as slick and sophisticated as this promised to be?

So after the first initial bubbling over excitement on opening the package ( very cool Singaporean packaging. Seriously, I´m emigrating the minute I can) I started on the book with some trepidation.

Aun said it´s meant for easy entertainment, but I hadn´t believed him for a second.It may be easy for some, but I still can´t crack eggs without getting bits of shell everywhere.
But you know what? I needen´t have worried. It really is well thought out, and seriously meant for home cooks. Sure, home cooks who like spending time in the kitchen making lobster bisque herb soufflé, so no dumbing down, but you know what I mean. There´s not a single syphon in the whole thing, and whatever is foamed is foamed with a good old stick blender.

The greatest thing is that it´s a memoir, too. A very heartfelt one, that explains everything about the evolution of Justin Quek , how his art developed. Passion and inspiration is about right. And he comes accross as such a nice guy, too. By the end, your stomach will be growling, but mostly you´ll just want to give him a great hug.

The text is great, the photos are beautiful, and the whole thing is just perfect, that rare breed, a gorgeous-looking coffee-table book that will more than likely end up splattered in sauce while you cook from it.
It´s sitting here beside me now, bristing with post-its, but it´s already begun some kitchen duty, and you´ll be hearing more about it soon.

I don´t know when it´ll be available in Spain, but they had it in Books for cooks in London, so not long, I hope.


Rainy day soup

Well, what do you know. When I left the country a week ago it was sunny and mild. People thronged to the beaches, and you could find peaches in the market.
Five days later I came back to a different place. Mists and mellow fruitfulness seem to have swept the board.
I´d go out with a wicker basket and stock up on pumpkins and ceps, except that it´s raining pretty hard, and I can´t be bothered. I can´t even be bothered to go to my mother´s for lunch, even if tortilla de patatas is promised. I´ll stay in. A quick rummage in my freezer has given me a spicy tomato soup.
Just the thing to eat hunkered deep in the sofa, while I watch "The searchers". Nothing like a golden orange western and soup to neutralize the blue rain outside.
I can´t remember very well what there was in it, or I´d give the recipe. I suspect it´s a basic elemental onion-garlic then cumin and coriander, then a couple of carrots and a tin of tomatoes plus stock and a dried chili. Maybe thickened with some rice, and blitzed to a creamy consistency.
And if not, that´d be a good soup too.


More London adventures

I go to the UK quite a lot. More than to any other foreign country, and plenty more than to many places in Spain. So I think I know it pretty well. But of course I don´t.
This time round, I decided to go to places I´d never seen before. It meant that I couldn´t see  my favourite picture in the whole world, or watch the street hockey in Kensington Gardens. But I saw Highgate cementery, a romantic place, straight out of Edgar Allan Poe. Primrose Hill, which is so pretty and perfect and untouched by any sort of commercial chain that you begin to wonder if you´ll bump into the complete cast of "Love, actually". Hampstead Heath, which is beautiful but freaked me out. I didn´t see one single person in the course of a twenty minute walk, and that´s pretty spooky in a city of many millions.

I won´t pretend, though. When I´m in England it´s the bookshops that lure me in. Especially the second hand ones. I can (and do) spend hours rifling through old stuff, completely lost to the world, loving the musty smell and the quiet.

I like new books very well, too, and there´s no lack of choice there, either. A particulary dangerous place is  Books for cooks . I managed to come out with only three volumes in my hand, which is not so much restrained as downright puritanical. It must be the Plymouth air.

I bought "The Alice B. Toklas cookbook". I´ve heard so much about it, and it looks like something I´ll enjoy a lot, wether I cook from it or not.

"Don´t sweat the aubergine" is a whole book of tips and explanations about techniques. It may sound dull, but I don´t think it is. I hope not, anyway. I havent´realy had time to look at them properly.

The third is called "No place like home". I know nothing of the author, Rowlye Leigh, but he has a chatty, no nonsense air about him. The recipes I probably have already, since they´re basic things, but I love the layout. It´s beautifully illustrated with drawings by Lucinda Rogers.

Just opposite Books for cooks is The Spice Shop. It smells heavenly, is wonderfully stocked, and beautifully decorated it.
I managed to flummox them completely by asking for the one single thing they didn´t have "bak kut teh". It´s an ingredient for a duck soup from  Justin Quek´s amazing book, of which more shortly. I´ll have to do it without this mysterious aromatic.

Nearby was the hummingbird bakery. That´s a dangerous place, too. I wanted everything. In th end, I was saved by the amount of choice. It was impossible to choose, so I settled for the nearest morsel, a pink cupcake. I was so happy on the way back, hugging my new books and wondering if I had icing on the tip of my nose.



I´m a bit aghast at the amount of emails on my inbox, and the millions of deadlines I have to meet for Friday. So before I´m sucked into the maelstrom, I just want to say I´ve had a great time. Unlimited supplies of salt and vinegar crisps, double decker buses, and a Hockney exhibition, who could ask for more?
There have also been pints and shooting pool, walks by the sea, lots of browsing in second hand bookshops, and yes, fish and chips. Dinner with friends, crab cakes, sausages for breakfast, and delicious crispy apples munched in the park. I really don´t know why England has such a bad reputation when it comes to food.
More tomorrow,


Hold the sea bass

We´re flying off tonight.
Nopisto informs me that I´d better not be expecting much from the seafood in Plymouth. Never mind. I never make it to the good restaurants when I´m England. I´m too much in love with their bread.
I start off with toast for breakfast, and a couple of sausages with jam, to be on the safe side, because tourism really takes it out of you.
I´m pretty quick to adapt to local times, and am ravenous by one. Sandwich shops lure me in with their mindboggling array of fillings and breads and pasties. And by five o´clock, well, it would be flying in the face of providence not to have a couple of finger sandwiches and a scone, right?
So who cares about fish restaurants? I won´t be wanting seared scallops on a bed of mesclun. I´ll settle for fish and chips, lots of malt vinegar, sitting on the pier. And maybe a couple of apples, and a Double Decker bar.

I´m back on Wednesday, but maybe I´ll be able to dash off a quick post at some point.


Restaurant recommendation

Let me say, first off, that I have no idea what the food is like in this place. I think it´s probably quite ok, in a cafeteria style ham and egg sandwich way.
Not that it matters. The view´s the thing. If you can get one of the tables by the windows, you won´t care much if it´s ashes and soap on your plate.

Madrid isn´t one of your famously picture pretty cities. I think that´s mostly because it´s hard to get a clean view. You´re always on the ground, looking up at buildings that are too close. Of course, you can cross the so-called river and get a fine view of the Palace, and there´s las Vistillas, and the stunning mirador de Moncloa. But you have to go out of your way for them.

This is right in the hub of the action.
Next time you´re on Gran Vía being jostled to death while you queue for cinema tickets, or wait for a cab, wheighed down by your shopping, remember me. Stop complaining about the noise, the traffic and the fumes, and go up to the cafetería in the Corte Inglés de Callao.
You´ll have a clear view of the whole southern skyline, a roof over your head, and coffee. It will make you appreciate the beauties of Madrid.
I think so , anyway.


Biscuits as madeleines

Whenever my father talks about his grandmother´s house in Las Arenas, his eyes mist over slightly. Ours tend to glaze over. Sometimes there´s even an eye-roll, and an impatient supressed groan.

The stories are all about a lost world of nannies in starched aprons overseeing millions of cousins playing cowboys and indians. Of my grandmother´s Balenciaga frocks, of slow dancing to Françoise Hardy, and everything smelling of beeswax.
All very nice, no doubt, but too Natalie Wood-ish for me. Lacking in drama and verve, you could say.Plus, we´ve heard it a few times by now.

My interest only perked up when food was mentioned. Surprised? No? Ok, so the food my father most talked about was something called "bísquetes". He´d smile when he talked about them, freshly made, somewhere between bread and cakes, hot for teatime. It was rumoured that one of my aunts had the recipe, but she never actually gave it when asked.
The house is now a hotel, the dresses are in a museum, the bísquetes seemed to be lost to history, and that was that. Life goes on.

Then the internet came. And with it, food blogs.
I usually read them in the morning, when my brain is still a little foggy. One day the Amateur gourmet was going on about some biscuits, and Atlanta. I struggled to understand.
I learnt to speak English in England, you see, and there a biscuit is crisp and thin, and may or may not be  dunked in tea. This thing of the A.G. seemed different, and yet somehow familiar.
I read on, and then it hit me. Bísquetes! Of course! Biscuits, pronounced with a Basque accent. Wonderful.
I tried them at the earliest opportunity, and folks, the smile on my father´s face...These celestial little biscuits have now more than made up for all the eye-rolling and the "oh, God, not another Ariatza story". I rule.

Apart from bringing back my father´s childhood, in a Proust-sur-Bidasoa way, it´s been a life changing recipe. I make them all the time. As Laurie Colwin says, everyone who walks into a kitchen should know how to bake a biscuit. They´re so good and so easy and so versatile. You´ll end up memorizing it and it will pay you back a thousand times. Apart from tea and breakfast, they´re also great with soup, or for pies. They´re the perfect thing to make when you´re a house guest. The ingredients are probably to hand, and you´ll get so many kudos for producing these babies.

The recipe is  here , with pics and Adam´s deathless prose. I, myself, use one cup mixed yogurt and milk, and two tsp baking powder. No processor needed, either. You can also use this other one, from Laurie Colwin´s  More home cooking . These will be more crunchy, and better suited to rolling out and cutting into shapes, or using as a pastry case.


Away again

I´m going to England on Friday.
I end up going at some point every year, for some reason or other, and I love it.
This time José going to show me around Plymouth for the first leg of the trip. I´ve never been so far west, and he promises me I´ll swoon several times over the fish, the crabs, and maybe the natural beauties of Dartmoor.
After that, I´ll go to London. I was there in March this year, but only had time for a beautiful walk before J whisked me off to Oxford. He hates big cities, what can you do?
This time, I´ll leave him in Plymouth, and I´ll be free to roam around tranquilamente.
I mean to see both Hockney exhibitions, and to have a grand old time at the so amazing Books for Cooks. Other than that, I´m free as a bird, so if anyone wants to suggest things I shouldn´t miss, I´ll be very much obliged.


Sushi per tutti

José has been away over a week, working in England.
I´ve been pretty busy and had lots of things to do, so it hasn´t all been moping around waiting for him. My subconscious mind thought otherwise, though. I´ve been listening to Madama Butterfly non-stop for days. At first I thought this was just one of those things, but thinking on it a little more, it became obvious why it was Butterfly and not some other opera.
The abandoned wife thing, you see, waiting by the window for the errant husband to come back. I have a very dramatic subconscious, it would seem.
J is back tonight. Since the subconscious has done the leap from me to the Japanese theme, now, naturally, it´s jumped to sushi.
J´ll probably be too tired to want to go out tonight, but I´m already dreaming of the big tray I´ll have tomorrow for lunch.
 Kawara is my favourite Japanese restaurant in Madrid. It´s unfussy and unpretentious and unexpensive, unlike most of the others, and just the place for a relaxed Sunday lunch. My favourite is really the bento weekday lunch special, but there´s no way I´m waiting so long.


Balsamic rage

Last week José asked for fried eggs with chanquetes in a very basic elemental place in Sevilla. The egg came dribbled all over with balsamic glaze.
J, a calm fellow, just shrugged and dunked his bread in the yolk.
I am all rage, and strong arms had to forcibly restrain me from throwing those eggs at the cook´s head. I´d ordered the rice, it wasn´t my problem, but really, in what stupid parallel universe does anyone think a fried egg is improved by a brown squiggle?

This has got to stop. I will now be beaten into submission by this stupid fad. I´ve had it.

Listen: balsamic vinegar is not a neutral ingredient. As well as acidity, it has a bunch of other flavours (wine vinegar, grape must, sulphites E22o, caramel colouring E150D, anyone?).
It should not be thrown about any old how. It can be a wonderful product, but it can also be pretty intrusive and pointless. If I had my way, I´d forbid the wanton use of this substance to all except
A. Italians. they invented the thing, they know what to do with it
B. good chefs. Ditto about knowing

I also think it´s fine to carry a small quantity for personal use at home.

Otherwise, people opperating bars or restaurants, de-glue your hand from the neck of that bottle with the Duke of Modena on it. Morever, don´t, I repeat, DO NOT, reduce it to a syrup and doodle on plates.
If you´re artistic, or think you may be, ask for help. There are other substances for you to try out, like charcoal and paper. Hopefully, you won´t expect us to eat those.

The worst thing is, we have excellent vinegars here. We should be selling them to the world, bottled prettily and labelled with the Countess of Chinchón, or whatever, and spending the hard cash on Ferraris. Instead, where are we? Buying stupid cheap balsamic from those clever fellows in Modena, who already have too many Ferraris anyway.

So listen, keep to Sherry vinegar. It´s the best we have to offer, and understandably, it´s the one best suited to traditional Spanish cuuisine. Anything else is pure daftness.
If you must waive your kids´ college education and spend millions on cute little bottles, then go for PX vinegar. It´s Made from Pedro Ximénez, a generous dessert wine made from raisins. It´s good, it´s pretty, it´s expensive, it´s sweet and heady and I daresay it may even reduce marvelously well. Just the thing for you arty types.

And now, enough ranting. I´ll give you my recipe for a killer vinaigrette, so we can all compare notes.
If anyone makes this with so much as a drop of balsamic, I´ll combust, die, become a ghost, and hide in your store cupboard, howling forever. Be warned.

Take an empty, clean jam jar. Put a heaped teaspoonful of Dijon mustard, and another one of honey. Mix well, maybe even put it a few seconds in the microwave. Add vinegar, the good stuff, from Jerez, to double the volume of mustard and honey. Add salt. Be generous. Now add olive oil, also the good stuff, to double the volume of vinegar.
Add a good pinch of cumin (this is optinal, but excellent if you´re serving your salad with cheese) and a couple of spoonfuls of water.
Screw the jar tight, and juggle it vigorously until it looks creamy and perfect.
This vinaigrette will keep for weeks in the fridge, and will truly make your salad preparations a thing of minutes.


Heartburn: the book, the movie, the carbonara

I don´t know if you´ve read Heartburn , but if you haven´t, do, because it´s a very funny book about a cookbook writer. The thing is chock full of food, and even has a few recipes. It was written before the Craze That Swept The World, and isn´t self-conscious in its foodiness.
Plus, it has the über foodline "pesto is the quiche of the eighties", later used in When Harry met Sally, to great effect.

I´ve had the book for ages, but it wasn´t until I came across a reference to the film in Nigella´s Feast that I even knew the film existed. A quick Imdb search, and I saw that it was made by Mike Nichols 1985 with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, music by Carly Simon. I was intrigued. Why wasn´t it more famous? Was it one of those overlooked masterpieces, like Love in the afternoon, or Soapdish? Or one of those good-on-paper, bad-in-bed star vehicles like About a boy?

It´s neither. An ok film, but nowhere near the book. It has carbonara, though, which the book doesn´t.

The first time they sleep together, Meryl cooks spagetti carbonara and takes it, in the pan, with two forks, to Jack, who´s still in bed. He wiggles his eyebrows in that wicked way of his, and she says, very indignant, "Usually I never cook on the first date, you know"

In her recipe for carbonara, Nigella writes about this scene, and then blithely gushes about " a panful of hot pasta, to be taken back to bed and sharingly slurped". Which is all very well, but I´m too bourgeois not to worry about my nice sheets. And judging from the mess José makes eating at a normal table, I shudder to think what he might do in bed with a bowl of pasta. We wouldn´t be married now, so it´s good news that I don´t cook on a first date, either.

I´ll spare you the writing of another carbonara recipe. You probably have one you like already, right? If not, here´s one . I do it like that, minus the garlic, and adding a splash of vermouth to the bacon and then reducing it to a fatty caramelized jus.

You don´t have to eat this in bed, of course, but it does lend itself to lazy times. I suggest the sofa, deep bowls, and maybe even Heartburn, the movie, which won´t distract you from the pasta.