Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Christmas Sweets from the Convent of Las Comendadoras de Santiago

dulces conventuales
In the twilight, the door slowly rotated until it stopped to the impression of weight and age. Blanca timidly stepped forward and said “hola?”*. Silence greeted her from the other side of the door. She knocked once on the door. Again the wood magnified the sound and seemed to mock her paltry efforts to get attention in such an auspicious place of worship. There was still no response. The light was quickly fading, the lights of Granada were streets away and the sound of the evening shoppers was now a distant memory. In this half-light we found a doorbell located to the left of the doorway. Its shrill note seemed out of place in this place of quiet prayer. Momentarily a frail voice came from the other side of the door “que quieres?” (“what do you want?), this greeting sounded more like an accusation to the shoppers.

The torno at the door of the convent.

A month earlier… in November this year, Amanda Hesser wrote an article on the Thermomix for the New York Times. In this she explained the somewhat “counterintuitive” marketing strategy used by the firm. The product is not sold in shops, it is sold through introduction (somewhat like Tupperware) and the US supplier was less than forthcoming with information. To summarise, she thought the service was bad. Up until yesterday, I would have agreed with her that this was certainly unusual customer service.

In Spain, there is a long tradition of nuns producing sweets. The “dulces conventuales”, whilst not specific to Andalucía, are more important here due to the number of convents and range of sweets that are produced. Two historical facts need to be examined in understanding the development of these sweets.

[i] Firstly, Granada was the last Moorish kingdom to be reconquered by the Catholic Monarchs. In order to celebrate this throughout the Christian world, from the moment of the victory both civil and religious authorities worked to Christianise the city. This was to such an extent that a number of years later, the archbishop of Granada had to put a break on the construction of religious communities. Nevertheless, by the end of the 16th century, there was approximately 1 religious person for every 30 inhabitants, or 622 nuns and 585 monks.

A knight of Santiago... a long way from sweet making.

One of the monasteries that was founded was called “El Monasterio de la Madre Dios” (by the full name; Real Casa de la Madre de Dios, de la Orden de la Caballería de Santiago de España; known as El Convento de las Comandoras de Santiago (The Convent of the Commanders of Santiago)). It was opened by Queen Isabella in 1501. The Order of Santiago itself dates back to 1175, when it was founded by Pedro Fernandez de Fuenteencalada whom, along with 12 other knights of the order, wanted somewhere to protect his wife and children whilst he was fighting the Muslims. Today live 20 nuns in the monastery, 11 of whom come from India.

The second fact that must be considered is the [ii] “desamortización” (disentitlement). This is an economic process that ran in Spain from the end of the 18th century and culminated in the middle of the 20th. It consisted of putting on the market, through means of public auction, the non-productive lands and wealth that were in the hands of the “dead hands” (typically the church and religious orders that had accumulated them through donations and wills). The aim of the desamortización was to grow the national wealth and develop a bourgeoisie middle class of landowners.

[iii] The process of desamortización was used to its fullest by Juan Álvarez Mendizábal, the first minister of Isabel II of Spain. Isabel II proclaimed queen at the age of 3 after the death of her father Fernanado VII. Her accession was disputed by her uncle Carlos María Isidro de Borbón, whom, citing the law (Ley Sálica) that there could be no female heir to the thrown, claimed the thrown for himself. During the war that followed; the First Carlist War (1833-1840), Isabell came to represent the liberal, moderate “nuevo orden”, whilst her uncle, the traditional, religious “antiguo orden”. Mendizábal sold many religious lands in order to finance Isabell’s victory. It is said that the loss of these lands and wealth forced many convents into the production of “dulces convetuales” and sowing in order to earn money.

Most of the recipes are egg based. Convents are often donated a large amount of egg yolks from surrounding wine producers who use the whites during the clarifying process. Additionally, Irene tells me that there is a strong tradition in the south of Spain of gifting eggs to the convents in order that they pray for no rain on wedding days. Blancs and I didn’t do this, but it didn’t rain.

dulces conventuales
The nuns of the cloister of Santiago are famed for their candied and preserved fruits. There are no written recipes. The sweets are made from memory, based upon recipes that have been maintained over centuries. There combine a cultural and gastronomic legacy and it is said that only the patience and devotion of the nuns can bring out the flavour of the sweets.

Nevertheless, here is a recipe for “Glorias”…

1 kg ground almonds
1 ¾ kg sugar
Zest of 3 lemons
1 kg Water

Mix the almond, ¾ kg sugar and lemon. Make a strong syrup by heating the water and sugar. Pour into the almond mixture. Beat until the mixture doesn't stick to the side of the dish. Once cool, make into little balls and cook in the oven until golden.

The nuns of Santiago live by a rule that they can not see people; this explains their unique form of salesmanship. At a more secular level, Ferran Adria swears by the Thermomix and there are approximately 200,000 sold every year in Spain and Italy. Whether it’s the mix of religion, history and economic reform or just something in the water… either way both have immense success in Spain.

¡Feliz Navidad!

Vocab builder:
- escarchada – candied
- confitura – preserved
- rosco – ring-shaped cake
- bollos – bread rolls
- erario – treasury
- subasta – auction
- avituallamiento – provisioning
- lote – plot of land
- puja - bidding


[i] Lola Quesada Nieto “Dulces de los Conventos de Clausura de Granada y su Provincia”
[ii] Wikipedia “Desamortización”
[iii] Ramón Tamales y Antonio Rueda “Introducción a la economía española” (26ª edición)

* We have since found out that the traditional greeting is an Ave Maria. This may explain the reception we met.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Pomegranate S.L.

Sea bass in Pomegranate Sauce (Lubina en Salsa de Granadas)

seabass with pomegranate salsa
Never has so much responsibility been placed in a fruit. Pomegranate S.L. is the name of our new company and Granada (where we've moved to) is the Spanish name for the fruit. So, if this whole move to Spain goes wrong at least we’ll be able to blame some other fruit.

Given all of the above, I thought it was time to cook something with pomegranate. This recipe comes from Blanca’s friend, Sofia Craxton’s “The Mexican Mama’s Kitchen: Authentic Homestyle Recipes”.

pomegranate fruit
Along with cactus pear, dates, figs and jujube, McGee[i] defines pomegranate as a fruit from arid climates. It was brought to Spain in the ninth century by the Moors. They named their kingdom after the fruit. Missionaries from Spain introduced the fruit to the Caribbean and Latin America in the 1700-1800’s. Today it is principally found in the Mediterranean and western Asia (with the best said to come from Iran). McGee rattles off a few adjectives in association with pomegranates that, honestly, leave me a little confused:
- very sweet – tasting of sugar
- fairly tart – sharp to the taste; acid; sour
- astringent – chemical substance that tends to shrink or constrict body tissues (incidentally a taste that is not detected by birds)

[ii]Jewish tradition teaches it as a symbol of righteousness due to the fact that it is said to have 613 seeds corresponding to the 613 commandments (mitzvot) of the Torah. It is often eating on Rosh Hashanah (Jewish new year for people, animals and, appropriately, legal contracts).

[iii]In a plot that makes the average Spanish Telenovela look tame, Persephone, in Greek mythology the queen of the dead, was said to have been damned to a month every year in hell for every pomegranate seed she ate. She was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter (goddess of the earth) who was abducted by Hades (god of the underworld). In her grief, Demeter became distracted and as a result life on earth came to a standstill. In order to save the world, Zeus ordered Hades to return his daughter. Before being returned, Hades tricked Persephone into eating 6 pomegranate seeds, thereby being condemned to return to the underworld for the same amount of months every year. For this reason, the earth flourishes with vegetation for the 6 months of mother and daughter unity every year.

I honestly never thought that I would get a picture of a grenade into a blog...

On a rather more prosaic note, the hand grenade gets its name from the pomegranate. The seeds of the pomegranate burst forth with juice in a similar manner to the grenade’s fragments. The juice of the pomegranate stains permanently, whilst the grenade can have similar long-term effects.

One pomegranate myth that is not true relates to the English. Some sources believe that Australians call the English POMS either due to the fact that they have a habit of turning red in the sun or that they came on boats that were also carrying pomegranates. The name in fact comes from Prisoner of Mother England.

pomegranate and baseball
The arils (seed casing) are surrounded by a rind that is rich in tannins and very bitter. So much so that it was once used in tanning leather. Each fruitlet contains one prominent seed which is used “as is” or cooked into a molasses, or fermented into wine. A ripe pomegranate spurts juice as soon as it is pierced, for this reason Blanca showed me the “beat it with a rolling pin” technique. This highly sophisticated method involves cutting the fruit in half and beating each half with a pin in order to dislodge the seeds. Note: a baseball bat could be used for this purpose.

Ingredients (for 4):
2 seabass
1 ½ large pomegranates
1 tsp sugar
Juice of ½ lemon
1 cup basmati rice
½ cup coconut milk
1 cup water
Salt and pepper
Olive oil

Sofia agrees that pomegranates came to Mexico from Spain. They are in season from September to December. This innovative recipe needs only 20 minutes of preparation to produce a really original taste.

Extract the seeds (reserve some for garnish) and blend with the sugar and lemon until pureed. Place the fillets on their own sheets of aluminium foil. Season with salt and pepper. Pour the sauce over and drizzle with olive oil. Close the parcels, ensuring that the edges are well sealed. Bake in a 180 C oven for about 15 minutes until the fillets are cooked.

Pomegranate seeds lose their colour during cooking, it is important to garnish the cooked fillets prior to serving.

Sofia recommends serving this dish with white rice. In Mexico this is a traditional partner for fish dishes. We cooked the lighter version; melt the butter, add the milk and water and bring to the boil. Add the rice, bring back to the boil, cover and simmer for 10 minutes, leaving to rest before serving.

[i] Harold McGee “McGee on Food & Cooking An encyclopedia of kitchen science, history and culture”
[ii] Wikipedia
[iii] Stephanie Alexander “The cook’s companion”

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Sunday, December 11, 2005

Homemade Pasta (not money)

Homemade Pasta

homemade pasta
Within a couple of weeks of moving to Spain, I realised that the civil war is used frequently as a gauge against which time is judged. Comments such as “these windows haven’t been cleaned since the war”, “the electrical wiring in this apartment hasn’t been examined since the war” or “the company that sold you your kitchen went out of business during war” are (depressingly) commonplace. They also go some way to explain why we have been here for 3 months and only now have gotten our apartment working.

The last three days have been spent sorting through boxes of Blanca’s family belongings in storage. In colloquial terms, some of these boxes seemed to have been untouched since the war. Amongst others, the following nuggets of history featured:
- A copy of “El Practicon”, a 1917 cookbook that Ferran Adria cites as being where he learnt to cook.
- Hugh Thomas’s 1961 book on “The Spanish Civil War”. This has now been recommended to me as “optional” reading. Note: yes, I realise that this was written after the war.
- A steel Italian pasta maker still in its original box.

The pasta maker was put into immediate use on our return to Granada this afternoon. This was my first time cooking pasta from scratch. In Spanish, “la pasta” means money. Despite the fact that we have now been in Spain in “business planning mode” for a few months, we are yet to discover the art of making money at home. We’re working on it, but I’m not sure I’ll blog it.

The following instructions come from Marcella Hazan’s “The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking”. Knowing how I love instructions that aren’t exactly correct, Blanca chose to modify these in a few key places along the way. I suffered so that you can have the 100% accurate directions to making pasta in the home...

Ingredients (for 2)
115 g flour
2 eggs (medium)
1 Italian pasta maker (not edible)

The first modification that we would suggest is that the above proportion does not suit conventional soft flour. The ratio could be closer to 4:4 of flour to eggs i.e. 400 g to 4 eggs for approximately 4 people.

Combining the eggs and the flour

Another modification would be to not add all the egg at once, it is best to break the eggs into a glass as this will allow you control the amount that you add to the pasta mixture. Beat them as you would an omelette. Next place the flour in a mound on the worksurface. Hollow a hole in the centre into which you put half of the mixture. Work the flour and eggs together with your fingers and the palms of your hand. You should aim for a smooth mixture that isn’t moist.

Pastry still strikes fear into my heart and it can be quite intimidating at first. Like dogs, it smells fear so don’t be afraid of it. Marcella gives a good tip for when the pasta is ready… wash and dry your hands; press your thumb into the centre of the dough. It should come out clean with no sticky mass on it.

Blanca says that when her class was learning pasta making in Le Cordon Bleu, often they would over flour the dough. It is easier to mix wet into a dough than dry and for this reason the students would wait until the chef’s back was turned, bin their dough and start again. I have this image of students carrying over dry dough into the pubs at night or around in their bags for weeks afterwards.


One of the great techniques of dough making, kneading, focuses on elongating and toughening the gluten strands that have developed within the pasta (combination of the egg and flour protein).

Place the heel of your hand on the top of the dough and push away from you. With your fingertips bring the back of the dough up and over the front. Give the dough a quarter turn. Repeat the process with your other hand. Always ensure that you are rotating in the same direction in order to develop longer gluten strands. Continue the kneading process for about 8 minutes until the dough is very smooth.


We used the pasta machine that we found when digging through the family trove. This is made by Marcato Company of, eh, Italy, who obviously have bought out or scared away all of their competition; it seems to be the only design of pasta maker that you see in books or on the web. This company started “at a craft level” in 1938. Their standard model is the futuristically named “Atlas 150”, I’m not sure about the 149 that went before, but it works very well. I just noticed that the guarantee for our pasta maker expired after 3 years… I guess that covered its first 1/3 of living in a box (I’m a living in a cardboard box). With flavours of its fine Italian heritage, the Atlas 150 has a clamp that locks it to the kitchen table, this is mandatory if your pasta is planning on escaping during the torture.

The instructions are pretty straightforward:
1. Work with a handful of pasta at a time.
2. Set the rollers to their widest width. Flour the dough to ensure that it doesn’t stick. Feed it once through the rollers.
3. OPTIONAL: watch as the handle falls off, pick it up and put it back in the machine.
4. Fold the pasta across its width and repeat the process two or three times.
5. Reduce the separation of the rollers and repeat the process twice for every setting.
6. OPTIONAL: watch as the handle falls off every time you adjust the setting. Bend down and pick it up each time.
Whilst drying, cultured pasta will often admire the view and historical places of interest of the old Jewish quarter of Granada...

7. Leave the pasta to dry on a towel for about 10 minutes, turning occasionally.


This is only going to make sense if you have a cutter on your pasta machine (comes standard with the Atlas 150). We used the narrow cutters for tagliolini (broad for fettuccine). Feed the strips through the pasta cutter. As the ribbons emerge, separate them and spread on a tea towel.

There are over 300 shapes of pasta, for anyone with an interest in learning them all, I found the highly comprehensive (I nearly wrote very interesting) “World Dictionary of Pasta Shapes and Names”.


Notably, above there is no salt included in the pasta mixture. The only salt that you use should be added during the cooking. Boil plenty of water, add salt and return to the full boil. Put all of the pasta in at one go, return to the boil (use the lid to hasten the return) and cook uncovered.

Cook until the pasta is al dente, with bought pasta this is usually signified by the fact that no white remains when you bite into the pasta. For homemade pasta this will not work. The pasta will never be as firm or chewy as bought. When the pasta floats and still offers some resistance, it is ready (2-3 minutes).

Related and next on the cards for pasta making, it’s going to be Japanese Noodle Making…

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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Nearly not a casserole blog

Pollo en Pepitoria (Chicken in egg, almond and sherry sauce)

pollo en pepitoria
“This dish combines all of the ingredients most often associated with Spanish cooking – garlic, saffron, sherry, and almonds – into an unusually savoury sauce” Penelope Casas[i]

Last night we went for a very typical Spanish casserole dish. It is a dish that was frequently served at the Spanish court in the 17th century…

That is at least how this blog could have started. As it turns out, I misunderstood where we were going. Instead of going for a CAzuela, we went to see a ZARzuela. This is basically a Spanish musical; alternating scenes of speaking and singing. It rose to fame in the Spanish courts during the 17th century. We went to see “Agua, azucarillos y aguardiente”, written in 1897 by the composer Federico Chueca.

Anyone who has been to the West End of London will know that musicals are not the hardest to grasp. From what I can understand, zarzuelas consist of Spaniards going to the theatre to see how Spaniards live. We arrived a little late when the cast was dancing and singing, the next scene focused on relationship problems, the next on financial problems, the next on tapas, the next on landlord problems, work problems… As with many things in Spain, the Virgin Mary had a somewhat unorthodox role during the production, she seemed to be there to guard the raffle prizes that were located to the left of the stage during the show. As it turns out my parents-in-law won the prize (ham and wine), so thank you Mary.

"La Mancha" means "the stain"... harsh on the citizens, but that's Spanish politics for you...

I don’t want this to be a “nearly not a casserole blog” so I’m going to loosely define a recent recipe as casserole … pollo en pepitoria. This is a recipe typical to Castillia-La Mancha. One of the 17 autonomous communities of Spain, Castillia-La Mancha is the central community of Spain (excluding Madrid). It is the flat land wherein much of Don Quijote (de la Mancha) is based. It is the 3rd largest community, with 79,463 km square and 9th in terms of population, with 1.8 m people.

Ingredients (for 4):
1 chicken
3 medium onions
3 garlic cloves
½ l of stock
½ cup of sherry or dry white wine
1 laurel leaf
100 g finely ground almonds
2 hard-boiled eggs
Saffron, salt and pepper

sliced onion
For the mise en place, finely slice the onions. I used a mandolin that we got in Japan. Crush the garlic with the fine end of a butcher knife.

pollo dorado
Cut the chicken into portion sized pieces, season and roll in flour. In a large casserole heat the oil and sauté the chicken over a high heat until well brown. In order to maintain the heat of the pan, add only a few pieces at a time.

Sieve the oil so that a good tablespoon of oil remains. Reduce the heat and sauté the onion and garlic until translucent. It is best to leave the lid on the pot at this point as it will build up the heat and effectively steam the onion rather than flame cook it. Stir in the stock, sherry, saffron and laurel leaf. In order to get the strongest flavour from the saffron, it is worthwhile to toast it in tinfoil over a flame.

THE LAID BACK ENDING: There is an option in the recipe now. We followed the low-maintenance route which basically left the casserole to simmer for 1 ½ to 2 hours, until the chicken is bland. 15 minutes before the end we added the finely ground almonds and the chopped eggs.

THE FOOD ACADEMIC ENDING: Penelope Casas recommends a slightly more comprehensive method; simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the chicken and bay leaf to a warm dish. Blend the casserole with the ground almonds. Return all the ingredients to the casserole. Cover and cook at 350 F for 20 minutes adding broth as required. Sprinkle the egg only 5 minutes from the end.

A bit about Saffron[ii]:
Image courtesy of Gernot Katzer’s spice page.

Imparting both an intense yellow colour and unusual flavour to food, saffron is a vital part of many Spanish dishes. It was brought to Spain by the Arabs. The name is actually derived from the Arabic for “thread”. Iran and Spain are the major exporters of the spice today.

It is the world’s most expensive spice. There are 3 stigmata per saffron flower. It takes about 80,000 flowers to produce 5 lb of stigma, which in turn dry down to about 1 lb (450 g) of saffron… this relates to a 1,000 metre square field or, because the stigma are so delicate, 12 days for an experienced picker. All of the stigma must be harvested on the same day that the flower begins to open (typically a busy day in late autumn).

Crocin is the name for the intense colorant in saffron. It is a carotenoid pigment made up of a sandwich of one pigment between two sugar molecules. The sugar is the reason that the usually oil-soluble pigment is actually soluble in water and hence particularly useful in cooking. Alcohol is commonly used in conjunction in order to dissolve additional fat-soluble carotenoids.

The flavour is described varyingly as “notable bitterness”, “penetrating”, “hay-like aroma”, “unique flowery”, “medicinal” or… “subtle”.

Vocab builder:
Trocear – divide
Salpimentar – babelfish defines this as “to salpimentar”; “to season” is somewhat closer
Estofar – sauté

Endnotes and acknowledgements:
[i] Penelope Casas “Food and wine of Spain”
[ii] Harold McGee “McGee on Food & Cooking: an encyclopaedia of kitchen science, history and culture”

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Arroz Negro (Black Rice) and a new Apartment

Arroz Negro (Black Rice with Calamari)

arroz negro
27-Nov-2005 Steve: This blog was written exactly a month ago. Despite the popularity of the dish I had been unable to answer a question that had occurred during the research into Calamar. Finally, yesterday, after unpacking Blanca's cookbooks from London, we found the answer and I could complete the recipe. Read on...

27-Oct-2005 Steve: It has been over a month, but we cooked last night for the first time in our new flat in Granada. In this blog I would like to acknowledge the contribution of various people and professions across the province of Granada to this inaugural meal:

- el notario – the town notary in Guadix
- el estanco – the newspaper stand
- el ayuntamiento – the town hall
- la dueña – the landlord
- la policía – the police
- el banco y el director de la sucursal – the bank and bank manager
- los padres – parents
- los tíos y primos – uncles, aunts and cousins
- el taller – the garage
- el portero – the porter
- la churrería – the churros restaurant
- el fontanero – the plumber
- el toldero – the awning guys
- las mudanzas – the removal company
- muebles morino – the useless kitchen fitters
- el electricista – the electrician
- el pintor – the painter
- la ferretería – the hardware store
- el tapicero – the upholsterer
- el corte inglés – supermarket where we bought the food
- and last, but by no means the least important… el butanero – the gas delivery man

As it was the first night, we wanted to cook something traditional. As we were completely wrecked, we also wanted to cook something simple. Blancs suggested arroz negro. This is a typical Spanish dish, originally from Barcelona and Valencia. With my newfound residence, strictly speaking, I should be boycotting Catalan recipes, but I'm Irish and, more importantly, people have been known to call this the "most delicious rice preparations ever invented"*. Simply put it is paella made with calamar, dyed with its own ink.

dirty calamari
We did the shopping in El Corte Inglés, Blanca left me at the pescadería (fish counter). I managed to navigate my way to buying 3 medium calamar (calamari is Italian). I was quite happy with myself until later when she realised that I hadn’t asked for cleaned ones. Nevertheless, an unexpected techniques session came out of my mis-procurement… how to clean the calamari. This is the technique that Blancs learnt in Blagdens in London.

1. Calamari are shellfish; part of the molluscs family, as distinct from the crustacean decapods. They are cephalopods, meaning ‘head-foot’, mainly due to the proximity of their head and feet. Their sub-family is shared with squid, octopus and cuttlefish. They are the most advanced molluscs and, unlike the rest, they don’t have shells. The ink is used to evade capture… humans have a more mundane use in that it forms colour and flavour for this dish in particular.

2. The cleaning process focuses on the various parts of the body. First you must reach into the head and remove the transparent cartilaginous shield from inside the body. This is the spine and is particular to squid and calamari, the octopus doesn’t have any.
3. Grasp the tentacles and pull firmly to remove. Squid and cuttlefish have 8 ‘arms’ and 2 tentacles. Octopus has 8 tentacles. Note: both Spanish and Catalans have 2 arms and 2 legs.
4. Rinse the body and discard the purplish-black membrane. Calamari have long triangular flaps running along side the body, these are located at the narrow end of the body, cut these off, but save to eat.
5. To ensure that the head is fully clean, wash it inside out.

the beak
6. Next prepare the tentacles. Press the bunch away from you, the 'beak' will pop out. Pull away and discard. Be careful as this can cut you. I innocently thought the beak was something to do with the nose of the fish, I have since learnt it is the anus. I'm not sure how I feel about this.
7. Cut the tentacles just below the ink sac (visible as a purple bulge). Discard the remaining part.

Ingredients (for 2):
3 medium calamari
1 sack of ink (best frozen)
3 tbsp white wine
½ onion chopped
2 garlic cloves crushed
1 cup of medium-grain rice
3 ½ cups of warm fish stock (depends on the rice type)
1 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper to season

The following recipe is, as mentioned above, one that works. It is taken from Penelope Casas's "The Food and Wines of Spain". Heat a pan with oil over the flame. We used a wide, flat paella pan as the cooking method is principally about leaving the rice to settle and absorb the stock rather than stir like a risotto. Add the onion and cook until translucent. Add the squid and sauté 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for a moment. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes.

Add the stock (boiling hot) and rice and stir in the ink and wine. Note, ink is most easily used frozen as it is less likely to stain. Season with salt and pepper. Cooking times vary depending on the rice. We were cooking with Arroz Bomba de Calasparra, this is a medium grain rice from near Murcia. Bring to the boil and cook over a medium high heat, uncovered and stirring occasionaly, for 10 minutes until the rice is no longer soupy, but some moisture remains.

Transfer to a 160C oven. Bake 15 minutes, uncovered until the liquid is absorbed, but the rice not yet done. Remove from the oven, cover lightly with foil and let sit for 10 minutes. It is then ready to eat.

The paella dish is extremely wide, in order to retain the heat and moisture (thereby prolonging the cooking time) traditionally, cooks would often place a newspaper over the pan.


In Spain even the newspapers can cook paella

So what was the reason for the month's delay?
The recipe, as you can see, is pretty straight forward. We actually used a slight variation; sauté vegetables, add the calamar, add the rice. Overall cooking time for the calamar was about 25 minutes as opposed to about 80 minutes above. The flavour was great, but the calamar was quite tough.

As with many things, the problem (but not the solution) was brought to our attention in my research into calamar...

Cephalopods have extremely thin muscle fibres reinforced by about four to five times the amount of collagen in a normal fish. This makes their cooking somewhat unusual. McGee and Stephanie Alexander are adamant that they must be cooked either briefly (2-5 minutes to prevent the muscle fibers being broken down) or for a very long time (over 1 hour in order to breakdown the collagen). “In-between” cooking results in a tough, rubbery texture.

Blanca reckons that Penelope Casas has written "the best book on Spanish cooking by a non-national". She is either making a very subtle point about Catalan independence or is measuring her words. Either way, judging by the fact that she was, so far, the only author that was able to solve our calamar problem... I'm convinced.


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Monday, November 14, 2005

Los Piononos de Santa Fe

Piononos de Santa Fe

You could easily drive through the little town of Santa Fe without realising its historical significance.
- This small town of about 13 thousand (located about 11 km from Granada city) was built in 1490 by Isabel and Fernando as the base camp for their assault on Granada, the last Moorish outpost on the Iberian Peninsula. It was strategically built blocking the Río Genil and hence communication between Granada and North Africa.
- It was here that the monarchs signed “Acuerdos de Capitulación de Santa Fe” (25th April, 1491). This was the truce wherein Boabdil (last Nazarí king of Granada) agreed the handover of his palace and city. Later, whilst leaving the city, Boabdil looked upon Granada for what would be the last time; he began to cry. In what is one of Spain’s most poignant quotes, his mother said llora como una mujer lo que no has sabido defender como un hombre (to cry as a woman for that which he could not defend as a man).
- In what was a busy year, the Monarchs also signed the other “Las Capitulaciones” on 17th April, 1492. These named Christopher Columbus the “Major Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Viceroy and Governor General of the Discovered Lands” and finaly approved the financing of his trip to discover an alternate route to the Indies.

boabdil - called el chico
Besides visiting the town for its historical significance, you can enjoy its culinary achievement; Piononos. This pastry is named in honour of Pope Pio IX (1792-1878); pope for a record 31 years and often lampooned by his Italian name Pio No No (wikipedia explains that he was considered quite conservative).

I had eaten Piononos loads before and never been wowed (upon reading this, local outrage may cutoff my future blog contributions). Their home rightly changed this opinion, but probably means that I’ll only ever eat them in Santa Fe. They are truly delicious; a custard filled pastry topped by burnt sugar.

Double risk on my point… we haven’t yet tried the recipe and it is translated… Blanca explains that this is basically a double recipe; one for pastry cream (creme patissiere) and the other for genoise.

For the pastry cream:
¼ l milk
200 g sugar
2 eggs
40 g soft flour
½ tsp lemon grated
For the biscuit:
3 yolks egg
5 whites egg
60 g sugar
80 g cornstarch
2 sp cold milk
1 cup rum
25 g cinnamon in dust

Pastry cream is a very versatile cream used in many cake and pastries. It is a thick custard cooked on the stove from milk, eggs, sugar, flour and cornstarch (as thickener). For the cream – boil the milk, sugar, cinnamon and lemon. Remove upon boiling. Beat the eggs and flour. Add the boiling milk. Return to a medium-high heat and whisk until it comes to the boil. Cool with a plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming.

For the biscuit – beat the yolks with the sugar and milk. Heat and add the cornstarch. Beat the eggwhites until they peak. Add the eggwhites to the mixture. Pour onto baking paper in a linear fashion (approx 2 inches). Place in the oven for 10 minutes. Make a syrup with water, sugar and soak the genoise. Spread the pastry cream and roll. Sprinkle sugar on top and toast in the oven. Serve cold.

Vocab builder:
Empapar – to soak
Almibar – syrup
Almidón – cornstarch
Canela – cinnamon
Rallar – to grate
Regar – to irrigate
Placa - numberplate (you may well wonder how this made it into the vocab)
Harina pastelera – soft flour
Capitulación – capitulation
Rendición – surrender
Virrey – viceroy

Broadband connectivity in the South of Spain obviously felt that I was a little bit ahead of myself by blogging early last October. This is the reason for my one month absence. Hopefully this blog signifies service recommencing as normal.

------------ STOP PRESS "CASA YSLA Y LOS PINONOS" ------------

I have just been on the web to see if I could find a picture of the pastry shop where we had the famous Pionono. Not only did I find a picture, but a lot more about the Pionono. The pastelería is called "Casa Ysla" and is none other than the originator of the Pionono.

The history is amazing... in 1897 Ceferino Isla González (intern to Manuel “el Gallego”) opened his own store on Calle Real, Santa Fe. He was very devoted to the Virgin and wanted to pay homage to Pope Pius who, in 1854 had issued the infallibly defined the "dogma of the immaculate conception" (essentially that Mary was free from original sin). In this way, he decided to create a new pastry. The aim was to not only carry the name of the pope, but also his likeness; cylindrical and somewhat chubby.

In 1916, the King (Rey D. Alfonso XIII), whilst visiting a friend on a nearby farm, ate some Piononos for his afternoon snack. He was so taken by the delicious flavour that gave the title of official providers to the Royal House to Casa Ysla.

... Spain... go for the pastry and stay for the politico-religious history.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2005

It's a small world afterall...

What are the chances? To be sitting in Andalucía watching a cookery / travel program... the narrator is talking about noodles. In a city of 12 million people, they happen to go into Akasaka Ramen. A ramen store opposite my old work that we would go to frequently.

akasaka ramen
It's a small world afterall....

Respect to:
Canal Viajar
Akasaka Ramen... a good noodle restaurant.

Friday, October 07, 2005

In Season in Spain

Well, it's been a long time. Just over a month. I feel like I'm talking to an old friend that I haven't seen since school. Either way, I'm back on the blog. It's going to be a little intermittent over the next while, we have made the move to Spain, but are still waiting the arrival of our the rest of our flat from London. I managed to forget our camera so this is going to be a pictureless blog.

For this blog, I thought I'd do some Spanish homework at the same time as researching a little bit about the food in season at the moment. The following list is from Simone Ortega's very good "1080 Recetas de Cocina". They are all the ingredients in season at the moment. I have asterisked those that I needed the dictionary to translate...

Verduras (vegetables)

Champiñon de París = button mushrooms
Acelgas = chard or beet*
Zanahorías = carrot
Puerros = leek
Lechuga = lettuce
Cebollas = onion
Cebillitas francesas = shallot*
Remolacha = beetroot*
Coliflor = cauliflower
Espinacas = spinach
Lombarda = red cabbage (based on google image search only)*
Repollo = cabbage*
Apio = celery
Tomates = tomatoes
Pimientos verdes y rojos = red and green peppers
Alcachofas = artichoke
Calabacines = courgette
Berenjenas = aubergine
Judías verdes = green beans
Calabaza = pumpkin ... or "to fail"*

14 of 20 without using the dictionary

Pescado y mariscos = fish and shellfish

Merluza = hake*
Pescadilla = whiting*
Rape = monkfish
Lubina = sea bass
Lenguado = sole
Gallo = rooster* (eh, not really a fish?)
Breca = sea bream? courtesy of via google images Pagellus erythrinus*
Rodaballo = turbot or flounder*
Congrio = conger eel*
Sardinas = sardines
Boquerones = anchovies*
Besugo = sea bream*
Pez espada = sword fish
Calamares = squid
Cigales = crayfish (dublin bay prawn)
Gambas = shrimp
Chirlas = something like baby clams, may not have an English name?*
Langosta = lobster
Langostinos = languistine
Bogavante = hake*
Carabineros = a little crustacean, this is a somewhat vague translation from blancs*
Almejas = clams
Mejillones = mussels
Ostras = oysters

13 of 24 without the use of dictionary*

Frutas = fruit

Piña = pineapple
Manzanas = apples
Peras amarillas = yellow pears
Peras de agua = water pears
Limones = lemons
Naranjas = oranges
Pomelos = a pomelo?*
Melón = melon
Uvas = grapes
Ciruelas = plums
Chirimoyas = chirimoya*
Plátanos = bananas
Membrillos (desde medio mes) = quince (from the middle of the month)
Aquacates = avocado
Kiwis = kiwis

13 out of 15 without using dictionary. Both pomelos and chirimoyas are new to me, but I have eaten both previously... if you know what I mean.

Carnes = meat

Pollo = chicken
Gallina = hen
Conejo = rabbit
Vaca = cow
Ternera = veal*
Cerdo = pig
Cordero = lamb
Mollejas de ternera = fried sweetbreads*
Cochinillo = suckling pig
Perdices = partridges*
Liebre = hare*
Codornices = quail*
Becada = a game bird, but I don't know what the English name is
Faisán = pheasant
Aves acuáticas = aquatic birds?
Venado = veniso*
Jabalí = wild boar*

8 of 17 without dictionary

A few things that the above tells us:
- I understand about 63% of the food in Spain. That makes me a C student, I reckon that is about right.
- I have learnt more fruit and vegetable names over the past years of coming to Spain (87% and 70% respectively). This could either point towards their strong role in the mediterranean diet or, maybe you shouldn't trust my translations.
- Meat and fish let me down (47% and 54% respectively). Alan Davidson would be disappointed. I guess any low cholesterol diet would have mixed feelings on it...

Either way, you can expect the above to feature heavily in recipes over the next month... I'm now going out for something that I can understand; tinto de verano y tapas.

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Monday, September 05, 2005

Gone West... Looking for Gold

Dogs are at the kennels, cat has gone missing, the children off to the local chimney sweep to work... we're off for a week's holiday on the east coast.

We've got the essentials:

book stack1. Coleman Andrews, "Everything on the Table"; Blancs has told me he is one of the best food writers. She reckons I can learn a thing or two from him (I take the subtle hints where I find them..)
2. Notepad for thoughts, poetry, my memoirs etc.
3. Books for Cooks recipes in case we get caught out and need to fend for ourselves
4. James Villas, "Villas at Table" - this one is for Blancs
5. Superdrug's Omega 3 supplement to fight the burgers and large portions that we'll be consuming

Not sure if this is a present or emergency rations for the BA flight:
A Marks & Spencer's hamper;
1. Tea
2. Toffee
3. Shortbread
4. Mustard
5. Pickle
6. Odd looking rhubarb & custard sweets

Friday, September 02, 2005

The Kitchen's Least Wanted

Unreasonable taste, texture and blandness

Known Aliases: Pasta, Shaped Pasta, Orecchiette, Small ear pasta, Puglian pasta

Photograph taken on 1st September 2005, 23:14 BST

One of Orecchiette's common disguises; being cooked with vegetables and chile sauce


Width: approx. 3/4 inch across
Unusual markings: slightly domed, their centers are slightly thinner than their rims
Texture: soft in the middle, chewy on the outside
Cooking time: up to 20 minutes
Disguises: can plump to twice its size when cooked


Orecchiette is currently no longer wanted in our kitchen. It was cooked this evening to go with some vegetables that we needed to finish. The lives of these fine vegetables (shallots, peppers, tomatoes, courgettes) were lost in the fight against this menace of a pasta.

Considered vile and extremely bland. Do not cook under any circumstances

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Was it Mr. Mirepoix in the Kitchen with the Soup?

Catwalk title: “Summer White Bean Soup with Fresh Tomato Salsa”
Steve’s title: “Spicy pasta soup”

is it a soup or is it a pasta?
I may have reached some kind of milestone with all of this cooking. Last night, I prepared a soup from the Books for Cooks back catalogue; myself and Blancs were equally disappointed. OK, whilst this may sound like somewhat of an anticlimactic milestone, the fact that we both agreed on what was lacking is an improvement in itself…

Here’s the recipe… check it out, for theory if not for practice:

Ingredients salsa (for 4)
4 ripe tomatoes, diced
¼ red onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
A handful of basil leaves, cut into strips
Salt, black pepper

4 tbsp olive oil
2 garlic cloves, chopped
½ tsp crushed chilli flakes
125 g cannelloni or haricot beans (soaked overnight and simmered until tender (1 – 1 ½ hours)
90 g small pasta
Salt, black pepper
Grated parmesan to serve

For the salsa, dice the tomatoes (cubes), mix with the onion, olive oil and 1 tbsp of basil leaves. Season as required.

garlic and chile flakes
For the soup, heat the oil and add the garlic, chile and remaining basil. You want to release the flavour. To be honest, I didn’t get a big release of flavour, but the instructions recommended 1 minute. I guess just make sure that you don’t brown the garlic so use a low to medium heat.

beans, beans and more beans
Pour in the stock and beans. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Take out one cupful of beans and liquid and blend until smooth. Add the pasta to the soup and simmer until al dente. I was given a tip recently from Victor a chef at the ElBulli Hotel… bite a single piece of pasta in order to see if it is cooked. The core starch (similar to rice) should have just about vanished.

The recipe recommends serving this as a hot or cold soup. I served it hot.

So, what went wrong? I was eating the soup thinking that there was something missing; texture and flavour. I went along the lines of:
- too much pasta
- too little bean texture
- too bland a flavour; garlic was the predominant flavour

Blancs and I were on the way back from the local this evening and discussed the soup… happily we were both in agreement on the problems. Some solutions recommended:
- use less pasta. It obviously swells up a lot and runs the risk of overwhelming the other somewhat neutral ingredients. I would try maybe 60 g next time.
- use more beans. As the recipe says, this isn’t just a case of not blending the beans… that is needed in order to give body to the soup. I think that you’d need to nearly double the quantity; 200 g?
- regarding the flavour, here was where Blanca revealed some culinary artistry to me… mirepoix.

A chance to research a "classical French cooking technique"... I couldn't resist it. No sooner had I picked up my pen and paper and was approaching the bookshelf, than Blanca suggested that I should blog about some of the books that I reference. I like it... a reference about reference books... circular... a coffee table book that's about coffee table books... you've got to like her style.

I’m still reading my way through the books so couldn’t pretend that I have developed anything but a passing relationship, but here is what I have so far (in order of preference):

1. Harold McGee, “on Food & Cooking“. Any regular reader will know how much I reference McGee... he's gonna chase me for royalties soon. The master of food science, I only respect people with a deep and unfailing love for McGee. He is the only author that manages to cover any topic that I’ve researched.
2. Spaull and Bruce-Gardyne, “Leith’s Techniques Bible”. Great. Blancs is a Cordon Bleu girl so hates the bible (eh, she's Spanish, so not that Bible, the other bible), nevertheless, it’s good for all of the techniques that I don’t understand.
3. Rombauer, Rombauer Becker and Becker, “Joy of Cooking”. Old hat in the US, but still ignored in many parts of Europe. The joy of cooking is the most comprehensive reference and recipe book. It also manages to blend the two very well. My first memory of the Joy of Cooking was seeing it in Blanca's flat in Brussels and getting excited when I thought it was the Joy of Sex... not sure which we would have gotten more use from.
4. Various, “Larousse Gastronomique”. New in (see below) at number 4 and with good potential to move up the charts in the next few weeks.
5. Shirley O. Corriher, “Cookwise” There is something that I don’t like about Cookwise. It falls between the cracks of reference book / recipe book…
6. Stephanie Alexander, “The Cook’s Companion” Not available on I don’t get it (mentally rather than physically). It is really well written, but sorted by ingredient and doesn’t successfully bridge reference and recipes; rarely consulted.

A little bit about Mirepoix

The “Joy of Cooking”, not usually the most poetic of books, evocatively describes the purpose of mirepoix…

“many sauce recipes begin by sautéing a mix of aromatic vegetables… cooking these first in a bit of butter, olive oil, or other fat releases their flavo[u]rs so that as you add other ingredients… the entire sauce becomes infused with the character of the flavour base”… “This universal cooking technique forms the foundation for dishes all across the globe... The French have mirepoix - onions, carrots, and celery cooked gently in butter to bring out their inherent sweetness (a white mirepoix for light-coloured dishes substitutes the white part of leeks for the carrots)”

Well, I can’t really say much more…

Some of the versions are interesting. For example, the Italians sofritto substitutes olive oil for butter (I guess I’m a closet sofritto fan); it can also include fennel, leeks, garlic or chopped herbs such as parsley.

From checking out McGee, it seems to be that celery and fennel are both part of the carrot family. Being stalks rather than roots such as carrot. Leek and onions being both onions (allium). He goes onto say that the Spanish version is called Sofregit.

Until today, the Larousse Gastronomique has only served as a useful stand for my stereo. I must indeed have crossed a significant milestone as Blanca felt it was appropriate to finally include it in my reference material. The LC (as I fondly call it) calls mirepoix a mixture of diced vegetables (carrot, onion and celery). It can be used to enhance the flavour of meat, game and fish, in the preparation of sauces, soups and as a garnish for certain dishes. It is said to have been created in the 18th Century by the chef of the Duc de Levis-Mirepoix in France (ambassador of Louis XV... great grandson to Louis XIV who, according to Dumas, was the brother of the Man in the Iron Mask). OK, too much French for the moment...

The traditional ratio is 2:1:1 onion, celery and carrots. This can of course be varied according to recipe, dish, mathematical ability etc.

----- STOP THE PRESS -----

Blanca has just taken the piss out of McGee and The Joy of Cooking:
- Mirepoix is NOT sofritto. “Mirepoix” can refer to the raw or cooked versions. Sofritto is cooked down vegetables, not just aromatics… it can include, for example, tomatoes
- McGee says that the Spanish version of mierpoix is sofregit… apparently this is Catalan… but I reckon that Blanca is just being anti-nationalist.

I guess that I’m back to square one with my reference book guide… don’t believe anything you read! Or else, Cordon Bleu has put the fear of God into Blanca and she is not willing to discredit the French…

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Monday, August 22, 2005

Sopa de Tortilla

Sopa de Tortilla

If our tomato and ginger soup could be termed a “classical European soup” (classical being the standard prefix for European food), there is perhaps no better contrast than this spicy tortilla soup from Mexico (spicy being the standard prefix for Mexican food). This is a rough and ready soup; a sieve would get the crap kicked out of it if it came within a ladle’s reach from the pot. I first had it about 5 years ago; it has been a hit with everyone that we’ve made it for, even those guests that protest “I don’t like too much spice in my food…”

Ingredients for 6
1 tbsp corn oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
4 ripe vine tomatoes, chopped
1 dried ancho chilli, de-seeded
2 ¼ pints stock
30 corn tortilla chips (real tortillas, fried, or bought chips)
2 avocados, peeled, pitted and sliced
110 g feta cheese
110 g crème fraiche
½ bunch coriander, chopped
4 limes, halved

As it is with the best traditional Mexican recipes, you can never find good versions in books. This recipe comes from Blanca's friend Sofia Craxton. It is her family recipe. She has just published "The Mexican Mama's Kitchen"... from a marketing point of view I guess I should strike my previous comment.

Ancho chilli (“wide”) is a broad, flat, heart-shaped dried pod of the poblano chilli (“of the village” and of Puebla in Mexico). These are relatively mild (1,000 to 1,500 Scoville Units or 3 on the Heat Scale). The chilli can be sold fresh, often stuffed with meats and cheese (chilli relleno) or dried for food colouring or sauces, in particular moles.[1]

Soak the chilli in 150 ml pint boiling water for 5 minutes (until soft). Add the soaking water to the stock. Chop the chilli.

Heat the oil in a pan; add the onion, then garlic, chopped tomatoes and chilli. Saute for 5 minutes. Add 2 tbsp of stock; blend all the ingredients. Return to the pan, add the remainder of the stock and simmer for about 20 minutes. Add the chips and simmer until soft. Serve with avocado, feta cheese, crème fraiche, coriander and a squeeze of lime. Add a half of lime to each bowl.

One issue I had with this soup was the amount of cooking and degradation of the nutritional value of the tomatoes. From consulting Cookwise, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that tomatoes degrade very little during cooking. For baking, boiling and stewing 0% of minerals are lost and only 5% of vitamins.

[1] Dave DeWitt and Nancy Gerlach “The whole chile pepper book”

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Thursday, August 18, 2005

Todo sobre su espuma (all about his foam)...

Spanish Tortilla… deconstructed

The intermediate term in the kitchen has started with a bang! Blancs and I have been playing around with some of Ferran Adría’s cooking books lately. I think that this is either Blanca’s way of improving my Spanish or scaring me out of the kitchen. Given that she did a stage before at El Bulli Hotel she has a bit of an advantage, but I have sheer bald-faced stupidity on my side.

When dealing with such a superstar chef, where better to start than with one of his iconic dishes. Ferran has made his name as the king of all things "unusual" in the kitchen. He is credited with bringing the foam (espuma) into the commercial kitchens. Methinks with an ironic style, his books attempt to bring the foams into domestic kitchens. Whilst Blancs prefers his classic (and very much out of print) “Concinar en 10 Minutos”, we cooked from “El Bulli: 1998 – 2002”. This is the dark hardcover book that you will find in good bookstores.

There are a few things to understand before we get into the recipe.

What is deconstruction?
In what I believe to be his best book; “Los Secretos de El Bulli”, Ferran explains the prior to 1993, 3 techniques were used to create meals: adaptation, association and inspiration. After 1993 he focused on deconstruction. Basically, it ”uses (and respects) the harmonies already known, transforming the textures of the ingredients, such as form and temperature”. It should retain the ingredients and flavours, but change the textures. Typically, the name of the dishes will remain the same.

What’s an example of deconstruction?
Well, we’re about to look at an example of deconstruction. Everyone knows the classic Spanish omelette; eggs added to olive oil fried potatoes and onion and served upside down. Ferran puts a spin on this, he foams potato mash and layers this over onion and a sabayon of egg yolks.

What’s the deal with foams?
Foams is one of the techniques that allows Ferran produce different textures and techniques. It is an extension of the mousse, with the basic difference that cream and eggs are not necessarily required. Ferran appears to have shares in iSi; he takes every opportunity to recommend their siphon to achieve a pure flavour of foam. He lists the benefits of foams as follows:
- More flavour. As mentioned above, with less lactic products and eggs, the foams hold only the main ingredient flavour.
- Better health value. All fruit or vegetable vitamins and proteins are served intact. There are no additional fats.
- Lighter. The pressured incorporation of air (nitrous oxide) produces a lighter end product.
- Better conservation. The siphon is hermetically sealed and thus preserves food better.
- More economic. Eh, this is kind of questionable. Ok you don’t need extra eggs and cream, but you do need to buy a fairly pricey siphon and gas refills.
- More creative. Also questionable, but undoubtedly, the foam is somewhat more flexible than traditional mousses.

Ingredients for Potato Foam(including mistakes… for 1 very relieved person)
1 iSi siphon
250 g potato
100 ml water from boiled potatoes
3 tbsp olive oil
100 ml cream

Bring the potatoes to the boil and simmer until cooked. Decant 100 ml of the boiling water before discarding the remainder. Briefly mash the potatoes. Put all the ingredients into a container for blending. Blend until creamy. Season according to taste (we also added pepper).

Sieve in order to remove any lumps that could block the siphon. Be careful here not to press too hard.

Pour the sieved mash into the siphon while still hot. Charge the siphon with nitrous oxide gas. Upturn once or twice after charging. We actually used 3 charges of gas, but, depending on the age, you should get away with 2.

Place the siphon in a bain marie at a similar temperature until ready to use.

Ingredients for Onion and Sabayon
2 medium onions
2 egg yolks
1 black truffle
Olive oil

Cut the onions as fine as possible. I used a mandolin for the first time; definitely worthwhile.

Put into an olive oil pan over a low heat and cook until well golden. Note: you can add water / salt in order to prolong the cooking without drying out the onions too much.

Create an emulsion of egg yolk by adding 2 tbsp of warm water and beating until it holds small channels for a short period of time.

To serve
Cocktail glasses are best, but I discovered that all of ours are broken. Wine glasses are best. Put a little of the onion at the bottom of the glass. Put the sabayon on top. Gently apply the foam. This was tricky; it relies on the sabayon being firm enough and the foam being light enough. It is best to hold the nozzle vertical and release the foam until it is at an appropriate level. Top with finely sliced truffle.

The verdict… I’ve had a yoghurt foam before and that was incredible. I wasn’t astounded by the tortilla, but it definitely was different. It lacked a little flavour and I probably used an olive oil that was too cheap (the taste was quite strong). Either way, definitely worthwhile and something that I will try and do a variation on in the future.

I’m thinking deconstructed Irish Stew…

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Unusual Food Photos: Name the Fruit

I'll be blogging the recipe later.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Logistically Challenged and Misunderstood: Our Modern Day Tomato Soup

Tomato and Ginger Soup

tomato and ginger soup
I came into some flak recently for suggesting that I didn’t like one of the soups that we had cooked. How could I have been so naïve as to criticise a dish while Blanca still had a knife in her hand? In order to avoid A&E we decided to, as with all great workmen, blame our tools. We looked at the pale, tough tomatoes that had just gone into our soup with and found our scapegoat.

Ripeness… what’s a guy gotta do these days? Short of growing and picking your own tomatoes, how can you get good fruit?

Ever since reading Jeffrey Steingarten’s “The man who ate everything”. I have been more aware (and more disappointed) by the ripeness of fruit in our supermarkets. The trend that we are all familiar with is that the ever successful supermarkets claim that the consumers are driving more diverse product ranges. As a result, the wholesaler to retailer distribution channel has to cope with greater distances. Greater centralisation and consolidation of stores results in greater quantity being pushed through these already tired channels. All of this has driven the requirement to pick more robust, durable fruit in order to survive the trip to the store. Unfortunately, durability is seldom analogous with fruit flavour.

Fruits live to ripen, this is what guarantees future generations. If fruits had their own reality show, all they would do is sit in the sun and wait for reproduction (eh, they may have their own show already). The process generally takes place during maturity and decline. Typical changes include colour, taste, aroma, size, weight, texture and nutritional content. Change in taste is what we're interested in here. The process entails the conversion of starch into sugar (sweeter and more desirable). Unfortunately, many fruits convert the starch from the plant (i.e. they don't have starch stores) and therefore will not get any sweeter once they are picked.[I]

The tricky part is that not all fruits are affected in the same way by this cutoff of sugar. As long as you shop in large supermarkets (we avoid them for fruit) you need to be aware of the risks that you are taking. That being said, being “forewarned is forearmed”, Steingarten categorises fruit according to their likelihood to ripen and improve off the vine:

Never ripen after pickingsoft berries, cherries, citrus, grapes, litchis, olives, pineapple, watermelon
Ripen only after pickingavocados
Ripen in colour, texture, but not sweetnessapricots, blueberries, figs, melons, nectarines, passionfruit, peaches
Get sweeter after pickingapples, kiwi, mangos, papayas, pears
Ripen in everyway after pickingbananas


Category One receive all of their sugar from the parent plant. They may decrease in acidity, but will never get sweeter once off the vine. Category Two plants send a chemical that actually inhibit ripening, the fruit must be removed in order to stimulate the process. Category Three contain no starch, once off the vine, they will not create sweetness. These must be bought physically mature. Category Four have large supplies of starch, they improve in sweetness even off the plant. Category Five converts nearly all of its ample starch to sugar.


The tomatoes; snipers snipe that they try a little too hard when dressing for comic relief

Depressingly for us, no one actually classifies tomatoes in the above matrix. From reading McGee, they seem to be a cross of Categories Three and Four. They do store starch in their wall tissue, but not as much as, say, apples. The rule of thumb should be to allow them ripen fully on the vine in order to have the fullest flavour[III]. This is sadly at odds with commercial reality. One tip that may help us; store tomatoes at about 10 C in order to maintain their flavour (due to a critical flavour compound, (Z)-3-dexenal, which disappears when chilled).

northcote food market
Northcote Rd. food stall; the future of fruit shopping?

Our story ends well. We took at trip to Northcote Food Market and got some great plum tomatoes; red, meaty and perfect for cooking. Our second attempt at the soup was far more successful. It is taken from Celia Brooks Brown’s “Vegetarian Foodscape”.

Ingredients (for 4)
1.25 kg fresh, ripe tomatoes
1 pint (600 ml) Vegetable stock
30 g Ginger, peeled and chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
1-2 tbsp muscovado sugar (depending on the sweetness of the tomatoes)
Salt and pepper to taste
Chopped parsley to garnish

The sweet, meaty plum walls balance the more acidic (citric and malic) flavours and aromas of the jelly and skin. You don't need to peel. Additionally, don't worry about the loss of nutrients; almost 0% of minerals and about 5% of vitamins are lost during cooking tomatoes. Bring the tomatoes to the boil in the vegetable stock. Leave to simmer for 10 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and simmer for 20 – 30 minutes. Puree the soup. Pass the whole thing through a sieve and serve.

Second time around, this was a fantastic soup. Really luxurious and smooth. I recommend plenty of pepper.

[I] Shirley O. Corriher "Cookwise"
[II] Jeffrey Steingarten "The Man Who Ate Everything"
[III] Harold McGee "Food & Cooking"

Note: This blog comes partly inspired by the UK's best food programme; “Full on Food”. Anyone who hasn't had the chance of seeing should watch it.

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