Thursday, April 28, 2005

10 years on a plate

Salmon, Spinach with Tomato and Mint Salsa

it may take me some time to get to the point so, in the meantime, enjoy the end product

I’m finding a curious trend in the books / movies that I’ve encountered of late:
- The life and death of Peter Sellers ~ the biography of a man obsessed with his on screen character to the detriment of his life.
- Supersize Me ~ a month in the life of a guy who forces himself to eat only McDonalds in order to prove a point.
- Round Ireland with a Fridge ~ the story of Tony Hawks travelling around Ireland over the course of a month with only a fridge (and national radio) as a companion.
- The Know it All ~ tracking the author’s attempt to read and digest the encyclopaedia britanica.

These have helped me reach a few conclusions:
- Peter Sellers may be my favourite actor
- Geoffrey Rush may be my favourite actor
- I must watch more Peter Sellers or Geoffrey Rush movies
- I need to explain the thread behind this blog fast …

These 4 books / movies (what's a good term for these .. media?) all of these reveal an odd similarity in their subject; a single-minded determination in the part of the hero to explore a theory or idea at the expense of everything else. It’s all method acting of a kind. Stressful stuff... the blog was in danger of becoming a similarly all consuming affair lately. I've decided to limit myself to a blog per week ~ increase the quality, lower the frequency (don't laugh).

To get away from the deadline stresses of blog writing, I recently went to have my cholesterol read (it’s cheaper than seeing a psychologist and, for me at least, I hoped that it would be more revealing). A week after the reading, upon contacting the doctors’ surgery for the results, Blanca was told that they could not give the results over the phone and wondered if I would come in person.

We went together. I fearing the worst … and Blancs wanting to grab a coffee (sometimes you need support no matter what motives it has). The doctor greeted me with an ominous “Hello Mr. Cooper, please come in and take a seat”. My life flashed before my eyes; all that cheese, all those steaks, why didn’t I just ease off a little. How could I have done this to my body … would I even make it to the seat without collapsing?

My fears were relieved when she followed with “How can I help you today?” Bless the NHS; the cutback in financing of the healthcare in the UK has at least ensured a certain lack of sentiment behind any life altering news that you may be delivered. I assumed that they wouldn’t tell me over the phone on the off chance that the worry and apprehension would cause a heart attack and allow them give my place to someone else in the queue.

The verdict was far more positive than I had anticipated. The result was a “moderately high” reading. Not bad considering that I have a moderately extravagant diet. It was a lower reading than 3 years ago (when I went to visit a similar psychologist). All in all I took it as a vindication and general thumbs up on my lifestyle.

The doctor was completely unwilling to give any creative advice on lowering my cholesterol other than getting it checked every 6 months and considering cutting out butter, salt and mussels. I tried to explain that I was married to a chef, she was Spanish and I had at least one blog reader to think about … but this seemed to fall on deaf ears (or at least hard of hearing, professional ears). It seems that in the UK it is better to die from dietary boredom than heart disease.

For this reason, I have decided to pursue a diet styled upon the great actors and authors of our time. Over the next 6 months (or week), I will become a “method actor” of nutritious diets. I will not sacrifice the salt in my soup, the saturated fat in my steak; but I will look at creative means to boast the chances I have of eating well and, according to some eager sources, adding 10 years to my life.

It turns out that I already eat well (there goes the quick wins). Our post-visit celebration meal serves as an indication of how easy it is to eat your way to health. In writing the analysis below, I have used the fascinating WHF website as source and explanation of various ingredients’ benefits.

- Salmon fillets
- Mint leaves
- Tomatoes
- Spinach
- Salt & pepper to season
- Olive oil & balsamic vinegar

As with the healthiest foods, the instructions are very simple. This also ties in nicely with my abilities as a cook. Starting with the tomato, slice it from the base. Cut the slices both horizontally and vertically in order to cube the fruit. For the mint, a new technique that I learnt (... uh, I've also forgotten the name, but will find out again and update). Roll a few leaves and slice finely in order to produce long cuts of the herb. Mix with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, season with salt and pepper as per your preference.

Fry the salmon in a pan with olive oil. Steam the spinach. For this we used a new steamer that I brought home from Japan, but any steamer will do. Really you are just trying to cook with the vapour in order to keep as many nutrients in the vegetable as possible.

Serve immediately with the salsa on top of the salmon.

So, why so healthy?

Harvested in March to May. Apparently, calorie for calorie, spinach provides more nutrients than any other food. It has antioxidants that fight cancer, it builds strong bones, it combats heart disease with vitamin C and magnessium. It also aids eyesight.

Slightly out of season, but still juicy. Antioxidants (lycopene) helps protect against oxygen damage and is protective against many types of cancer. What immediately strikes me is that tomato is extremely high (57%) in Vitamin C. This is apparently the most beneficial vitamin for fighting the hardening of veins. Interestingly, scurvy (lack of VC) is thought to produce what is called “leaky arteries”; allowing nutrients to be lost from the blood flow. Cholesterol is actually the bodies attempt to dam these leaks. Therefore, Vitamin C can fight leaky arteries and produce longevity and suppleness in arteries. OK, I’m sold.

Here’s the king of healthy eating. Cold water fish are a rich source of Omega 3, an essential fatty acid. This fat is required to keep the body in good working order. It is thought that it actually rectifies imbalances in the balance between the cholesterol types in the body. This theory extends to the reason why the Japanese and Mediterranean diets are (were) so successful for long lives. Omega 3 is something that I am going to continue my research on. It hasn’t been recommended by the doctor or by anyone that I know who has high cholesterol, but various articles and research sources talk about it. I am going to take supplements over the next few months and see the end effect on my cholesterol levels.

That’s all I have at the moment – I’m feeling weak right now. I’m going off to find a tomato eating salmon who has a spot in their schedule for lunch.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

R is for Mussels

Creamy (distinctly not cholesterol friendly) fish pie

I went for a cholesterol checkup a few days ago. In preparation I was to feast ... sorry, I mean FAST ... for the evening. For a kind of send off, and knowing that this is last month that we can have mussels, we had some delicious fish pie last night.

It's April, so, in theory, the last month to enjoy good mussels until October. This is based on the Month with an R rule. The reason for this old adage is simply that this group of shellfish tend to spawn thereby losing succulence, relatively empty etc. Steingarten, in his great essay, “Hot Dog” mentions that one in every two thousand servings of raw molluscs is likely to cause illness. Limiting consumption to the R months reduces the likelihood of Vibrio Vulnificus infection (exaggerated by warmer water).

I cooked from Nigel Slater's Appetite.

The ingredients (for 4-6) as follows:
-smoked haddock
-cod (little addition here – I’d been recommended to use white fish to balance the smoked haddock)
-white wine
-milk (500ml)
-butter (50g)
-plain flour - 4tbsp
-parsley - chopped
-potatoes for mashing
-salt and pepper

The directions are fairly straightforward. Cover the mussels with wine and bring to the boil. Let them steam for one or two minutes until all the mussels are open. It is best to cook them shallow (in a single layer on a shallow pan) in order to pick cooked ones out from the rest. Sieve the wine to collect it and make sure there is no grit in the sauce. Take the mussels from their shells.

Bring the haddock and cod to boil in milk (with as much water needed to cover the fish). Leave to simmer for a few minutes until the fish comes away from the skin easily. Take the saucepan off the heat.

Make the mash (see cottage pie), use some of the haddock liquor to the mash.

Make a roux with the butter (melted) by adding flour and stirring over a moderate heat until it is biscuit coloured and nutty. The addition of the mussel and 500ml of the haddock milk will convert this from a roux to a veloute. Leave to simmer; stirring over 10 minutes to ensure it doesn't stick.

Skin the fish and add to the sauce with the mussels and parsley (chopped). Season this with pepper and salt. Put all of this into a dish and put the mash on top (don't worry if it sinks a little - that's life).

Preheat the oven to 200c and heat until the top is crusty and the sauce bubbling up around the edges. You'll need a spoon to serve!

creamy fish pie and some nice product placement - i wonder when i'll get my first sponsorship deal?

I was a little disappointed just now to read in Leith's techniques bible that crustaceans have very high cholesterol and are best avoided by those with hereditary conditions ... oh well, you can't have everything. From now on I’ll just look for the crustaceans that lead a healthy life and eat those.

Naturally, this will be my excuse if the results come back high.

Monday, April 18, 2005

heating olive oil

Following on from a debate with friends the other night - does anyone know of the impact of heating on olive oil?

Being married to a spaniard, this is something that I would have thought that we had the answer to immediately, but I'm struggling. From looking around the web; olive oil source and tertulia online, it seems as though heating does not negatively affect the nutritional benefits ... but, you never can trust the web ...

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

yakult - the elixir of life?

curious “fever prevention” broth

No visit to Japan would be complete without a blog about yakult. The little drink is as much an icon of the society as noodles, fish and slurping...

Yakult was developed by Dr Minoru Shirota in Kyoto, Japan in the 1930s. It is what is called a probiotic; containing "friendly bacteria" thought to counter the "dangerous bacteria" that can cause disease. There is much debate as to whether the bacteria in probiotic drinks actually survive the digestive system in order to provide any substantial benefit. This is not a time for scientific debate; this is a time to celebrate a cultural oddity...

bottles of yakult admire the view whilst on a date

some facts about Yakult:

- the company is called yakult honsha
- Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota is the highly concentrated bacteria found in the drink
- In Japan, yakult costs 370 yen for a 5 pack - approximately £4.92 per litre. In the UK it costs £5.91 per litre.
- they sell approximately 15m of the little bottles 23 countries annually
- Danone owns 19% of the company
- a hong kong paper published an article stating the yakult could help prevent SARS. panic buying ensued (yakult started selling approx. 1m bottles a day in HK and east asia) until the company was forced to announce that, whilst it will "keep you healthy and less prone to getting the virus", there was no studies to support the fact that yakult could actually prevent or cure SARS. note: whiskey and cigarettes were also rumoured to have beneficial effects on SARS
- in 1998 the chairman and vice-president resigned over losses of $800m due to speculative trading
- the company owns an appropriately named baseball team "yakult swallows"
- the brand is hailed by academics as a leading example of education marketing - building awareness through first-hand contact with consumers; sampling, seminars and trademarked packaging
- there is a direct to consumer distribution channel in japan (much like newspapers and milk in the west). this is called the "unique yakult ladies system of door-to-door distribution"

the "unique yakult ladies" work on a commission basis ~ they can earn upto £50k pa; good reason to smile

- yakult has been found to relieve ulcerative colitis, decrease risk of bowel and colon cancers, cut cholsterol levels. A Swedish study connected it to reduced risk of asthma and allergies in babies... they may also help elderly people as the levels of good bacteria decline with age...

- many western scientists call yakult a "novel food"; being unsupported by clinical trials. whatever about the longterm benefits, there is general agreement that yakult induces bowel movement... hmm.

recipe for "fever prevention":
to try and keep somewhat the food blog theme; yakult recommend a natural prevention for colds and fevers:

- 1 drop lemon juice
- 1 drop eucalyptus oil
- 1 drop tea tree oil
- yakult
- hot water

mix in a bowl. place a towel over your head and inhale the vapours... good luck.

visiting kyoto with mr. steingarten - day one

In his book "the man who ate everything" jeffrey steingarten brilliantly recounts his visit to and awe of kyoto cuisine. I read this on my last flight from tokyo and vowed to myself that i would go to Kyoto and retrace his steps; a culinary pilgrimage. My preparation for the trip involved photocopying the chapter. We neglected to read any guidebooks, this was going to be a spiritual journey to the spiritual heart of Japan.

Taro and myself started out on friday at midnight with a night coach from shinjuku, tokyo. Mr. steingarten arrived at kyoto on a luxury cruise ship after travelling around the southern half of japan. I should point out that this was going to be a budget remake of his trip. The night bus was quite a curious thing; similar to lying in a coffin on top of a speeding flying carpet. "Fitful" best describes the night's sleep; "relieved" best describes my mood on arrival.

Kyoto was japan's capital city for just under 1100 years. It is still the emotional capital of the country and home to many temples. We arrived at 7am. Knowing that it would be height of glutony for us to start eating immediately, we got the bus to the golden pavilion (Kinkajuji). This is a UNESCO world heritage site with a garden that remains as it did hundreds of years ago. I don't want to appear unimpressed by the temples of Kyoto, they are truly magnificent. My personal view is that I would rather get away from the crowds of tourists, the flash of the camera and experience the real life of the city ~ I'll leave it at that.

the pond is called kyoko-chi (mirror pond) ... i wonder why

Now that we had done the "intellectual" part of the trip, we decided to get onto the subject of our visit... la comida...
An unexpected hanami party on the philosopher's walk led us to the ginkakuji temple. Somewhat controversially we performed a deft left turn and (in order to see the view and build our appetite) climbed the Higashiyama Mountain. We arrived to the top sweating and gasping with heart palpitations. It was quite a humbling experience to find about 100 pensioners who apparently had made the trip earlier, faster and with picnics (no wonder Japan has the longest life expectancy of any country in the world). There was only one thing for this ... revenge through eating...

We went to Kawaramachi, the main food and shopping district for okonomiyaki. This is in fact an Osakan specialty, but as we were only half an hour away we didn't feel much remorse. Okonomiyaki is a thick savoury pancake that contains shredded cabbage and diced seafood or meat. It is most often topped with tonkatsu sauce, mayonnaise / mustard, tempura crumbs, green onions and bonito flakes. It is cooked much like Teppenyaki, on a grill in front of the diner. The food is then moved to the cooler, diner side, of the grill to be eaten. It is not exactly healthy, but is really delicious after a climb. It calms bruised egos.

As you can probably tell, the whole weekend hadn't exactly been planned up to this point. Having had our first meal, we were at a cross roads, a moment that would most likely shape the remainder of the weekend and perhaps my memories of this part of Japan. We had two options - get a hotel in Kyoto or go to Osaka to meet Jumpei, an old friend of Taro's. Given that we had no hotel booking and that all seemed to be full, we decided that we really did want to head to Osaka.

Osaka is Japan's second most important city and the third largest. If that doesn't give you enough of summary, you can find the city's fy2005 budget proposal here. After only one night there I can say that its population of 2.5m are nearly all mad! This was a ... varied night; I'm going to give you the edited highlights.

JS mentions the ongoing debate as to whether Osaka or Kyoto have the best cuisine in Japan. I'd have to go with Osaka in this debate (mostly because the great cuisine of Kyoto; kaiseki ryori was somewhat too expensive for this weekend). Jumpei explained to us over dinner that the Osakan philosophy of food is ruled by a continuous quest for improvement. They are passionate about food. The local word "Kuidaore" probably best describes this; "to eat oneself bankrupt".

The other thing that you may do in Osaka is "eat yourself dead". As we all know, the best way to do this is with blowfish. For this reason (and to my eternal surprise) we went to a blowfish restaurant. Before you think this was crazy, my arm was twisted by Taro and Jumpei saying that more blowfish is eaten in Osaka than anywhere else in Japan. They insisted that the death "rumour" is vastly overblown (hah) and, more importantly, the fish is extremely good. The liver is the dangerous part of the fish; chefs will train for years to prepare the food. I was going to post instructions on how to cut it, but i don't want to be sued. I will mention that the kanji for blowfish is 河豚 (river-pig; obviously because a: it's not a pig and b: it comes from the sea) ...

would you trust either of these two? i can't believe i did ...

My first bite was the most difficult, but thereafter this was an incredible meal. The meat is actually quite delicate and when cooked reveals a surprisingly chickeny flavour. You are supposed to get a tingling sensation, especially on the lips, but I have to be honest and say that I didn't. The beer did give me a drunken sensation.

We ate a very traditional meal including:
Fugu skin - blanched in boiling water and eaten with ponzu sauce (soy sauce and citrus juice)
Fugu-sashi - thinly sliced raw fugu, basically sashimi
Fugu-chiri - similar to a chanko-nabe; vegetables and fugu cooked in dashi soup in a large pot
Fugu Kara-age - floured and deep fried
Fugu testicles - unsurprisingly soft and, my dignity would say, not the tastiest part of the meal

Investigations on the web have since revealed:
- there are 100 deaths a year caused by blowfish; this has been contradicted by another source quoting only one death
- blowfish is the only delicacy that is not permitted to be served to the emperor
- tip from lonely planet "make sure the local emergency number is plugged into your mobile. Given that mine doesn't work in Japan I didn't feel so aggrieved about not obeying this recommendation
- it is the only species of fish that can close its eyes

Given that I had lived through the experience, we went out to celebrate for the evening. This culminated with checking into a capsule hotel at 5am ... Mr. S never told me about this.

Next on zarzamora - getting out of Osaka alive, getting sidetracked by more food and a visit to THE food market.

Friday, April 08, 2005

the gluten line - from pastry to gnocchi

gnocchi with pesto sauce

patriotic potato dumplings arrange themselves an the italian style ...

this is a blog about a failed recipe and the key to success that was provided through science. for that reason, i'm going to turn the game around and consider the science behind gnocchi before we look at the recipe. the science is pretty straightforward (although i know that only now) ...

we are basically making the gnocchi from starch. in this case, we are using the starch of the potato (its energy stores) as the supply. we obviously need something to hold the starch together into little dumplings. we use flour to provide gluten (you will recall that the egg also acts as a toughener). essentially, the process going on here is very similar with the process involved in short-crust pastry. the secret to great tasting gnocchi is therefore in balancing the tougheners (flour, egg white and water) with the tenderisers (fat and egg yolk) ...

there are many types of gnocchi; potato (most starchy vegetables), flour, semolina ricotta, spinach or breadcrumbs. potato are the most traditional and the type that we make here. the recipe that we used was as follows (i'm not going to credit this source as later i discredit it):
- 225g plain flour
- 2 small eggs
- 900g potatoes
- sea salt
- 55g butter
- parmesan

the instructions are deceptively simple...
cook the potatoes in boiling water. peel and rice when cooked. sieve the flour and mix the egg from within a well. add the potato and knead until soft. roll into a cylinder about an inch thick. cut into 1 inch long pieces. use your finger to fold towards you so that the gnocco can hold the sauce. cook approx 20 at a time for approximately 2-3 minutes. serve immediately.

so, where did it go wrong? i had quite a few problems with the above method. the dough turned out to be quite sticky. as a result we had to add extra flour. rolling was still difficult, but somewhat more manageable. when cooked the dumplings turned out quite hard and tasted a little too floury.

claudi roden, in the great "the food of italy" says that she found gnocchi difficult to make at first. often they fell apart when cooking or tasted of flour (bells ring). she gives a different recipe:
- 800g potatoes
- salt
- 2 egg yolks
- 100g plain flour

you can immediately see that there is less flour and only egg yolks used here. how does she do this? well, she selects and cooks the potatoes in such a way as to ensure that the minimum amount of toughener is required ...

- mature baking potatoes (e.g. russet) should be used. these are more mealy than waxy; dryness and starch increase with aging. they have less water and more flour & starch; hence less flour required.
- she recommends baking the potatoes for an hour rather than boiling. the reason for this is to minimise the amount of water that is incorporated into the potato. again, less flour is required and as a result less gluten is formed and the dumplings will be more tender.

there are some other techniques that may be employed aimed at ensuring that as little moisture remains in the potato as possible:

- don't peel or cut the potatoes
- rice the potatoes in order to let the moisture escape

a perfect outcome of the above is that the egg may not even be required (removing another toughener). you will end up with gnocchi dough that is neither sticky nor floury and will make natural tasting dumplings.

... not that i was out of the woods with the above, blanca gave me my first "free cooking" test. basically, putting together pesto without any instructions. the recipe that we used was:
- 4 cloves of garlic
- pinenuts
- basil
- olive oil
- pepper & salt
- parmesan

pesto is really just a vegetable puree. it was traditionally made in a mortar and pestle (hence the name). i used the magimix for my attempt. it worked out quite well although the taste of basil was somewhat diminished. this may be due to the fact that the leaves will lose their taste the smaller they are chopped (perhaps i should have used a pestle?), but i need to verify this ... for another day ...

Thursday, April 07, 2005

hunting for hanami

before i last left tokyo i was told that i would be returning during the hanami (literally flower viewing) festival. i did some investigation before coming back so that i would be up to speed. it is true, this week is the best for cherry blossom in tokyo. i'm fortunate, this is a pretty spectacular cultural phenomenon. it not only marks the beginning of spring, but also the beginning of the academic and fiscal year (it strikes fear into the hearts of young and old equally) ...

there is a website dedicated to "how to do hanami", here is a brief excerpt ...

"Cherry blossom viewing is easy: Simply enjoy the intensity of the many blossoms by looking at a single tree or a group of trees. From a distance, the trees appear as beautiful clouds, while the beauty of single blossoms can be enjoyed from a close distance."

this site goes onto say that blossom is especially beautiful when viewed with a castle, temple or shrine. in addition to philosophical help, the fledging viewer can also get meteorological aid; there are forecasts published to help people plan when and where to see the best blossom.

given this wealth of information we went out well prepared this lunchtime to experience the blossom. tokyo, it seems, is a big city, with a lot of concrete and many trees. unfortunately, like most things, it's only when you start looking for a cherry tree that you can't find it.

eventually we found a cherry blossom behind a large wall, but couldn't get to it.

in order to build some energy for climbing the wall we decided to make a quick stop for lunch. it is possible during the festival to reserve spaces in the big parks and have a picnic. we were a little less prepared, after rejecting subway, we went for another traditional dish; chinese takeaway. we had rice porridge, tantanmen and marbled tofu.

a typical food during hanami is dango, a sweet rice dumpling on skewer. there is an expression in japan; "hana yori dango" meaning "i would rather eat dango than view cherry blossoms" ... seems unduly harsh.

disappointed that i hadn't seen hanami we started back to the office. upon turning a corner we stumbled across a mini-hanami party. i believe that this group of people had read the recommendations from above and taken almost all of them on board, although, they have sensibly substituted the back of the ana hotel in roppongi for a temple or shrine.

if you want to experience your own virtual hanami you can download the screensaver. enjoy the intensity of many blossoms by looking at your pc monitor ... yeaaaah ...

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

cordoba - go for the salmorejo, stay for the ajo blanco

ajo blanco

last summer i spent 4 weeks at spanish school in sevilla. it was a great time; blanca was doing work experience at ferran adria's second restaurant - el bulli in hacienda benazuza. i was able to regress for the month, forget london and working life. the first day, i arrived at school certain of my bohemian credentials - extended vacation, shorts everyday, i didn't have my duffle coat because it was too hot ...

i quickly realised that the school had an ongoing exchange program with many european schools and that the majority of my colleagues were 19 year old philosophers and dreamers. despite being only 29, i was soon revealed to be the oldest in the school. matters got worse during the open sessions where we would talk about ourselves in spanish. my demographic facts were drastically at odds with my bead wearing colleagues ...

- not only had i contemplated a job, but i'd actually gone out and got one
- i had in fact held onto that job for 8 years
- i owned an apartment in london (i didn't mention the mortgage)
- i was married
- i supported franco (this isn't the whole truth, but to the eyes of a student, i think this is how i seemed)

i was given up as a lost cause when, one day, i had to make a presentation on spanish life. i came to the part where i would talk about food ... my professor, a born and bred sevillana, sat forward eagerly waiting to hear of my love for their food. she was, shall we say, disappointed when i contrasted it to the rest of spain; i confidently stated that andalucia was the worst and that the restaurants were over priced and unexciting. if you have been to the south, you may feel that this is unjustified, but there are elements of truth ...

- the best food in the south of spain is to be found in homes, not in restaurants.
- the best food outside of the home is the tapa. for variety, use of local produce and ingenuity they are unsurpassed. the southern style of "comer de pie" (eating on foot) is the real reason that there are not many "classical" restaurants.
- and, if i'm honest, after 4 weeks in sevilla, it is true that we were a little bored with just good tapas and were thirsting for some other food*.

ever since our gastro experiences in sevilla, we have been eager to take any opportunity to search out the great food of the south. with this in mind we took a daytrip from guadix to cordoba to have lunch with one of blanca's cousins; antonio-luis. this is a 400km roundtrip and may seem a little extreme, but cordoba is the renowned home of salmorejo (thick tomatoe soup) with which i had fallen in love with last year in sevilla. the city is a world heritage site with a beautiful mosque / cathedral (mezquita) and jewish neighbourhood (la juderia). we went to the incredible bodegas campos restaurant. this is one of the best restaurants i've been to in spain.

in writing this blog, i am using as reference "gazpachos, sopas y ajos blancos" (enrique mapelli lopez), my spanish isn't perfect, but i think this means "gazpachos, soups and ajos blancos". i am conscious of the fact that i am reading a spanish book to write an english blog as i sit on a train in tokyo, but hey, i won't let the details get me down.

three soups, based around the gazpacho concept, form the trinity of cold andalucian soups. they share the same core ingredients; bread crumbs, garlic, olive oil, water and salt. if anyone gets the chance, read the chapter that breaks down each ingredient, it is the closest thing to culinary poetry that i have ever read (mostly because i don't understand a lot of it). i will attempt to summarise.

each ingredient brings its own specific attributes to the soup. their history in combination goes back as far as the roman legions and columbus who all carried similar provisions. white bread for sweetness, thickening, energy and digestibility. garlic for flavour and medicinal properties (i.e. working as an antiseptic). olive oil for flavour, texture and health benefits. water as these soups serve the purpose to rehydrate and refresh from the hot andalucian sun. salt to bring out the flavour, replace lost body salt and build the appetite for the next course.

typical gazpacho andaluz contains:
- 100g bread crumbs
- 4 teeth of garlic
- 2dl olive oil
- 2dl vinegar
- salt
- 100g cucumber
- 100g green pepper
- 250g tomatoes
- some cumin
- 1l to 1.5l of cold water
in a mortar mash the bread, garlic, cumin, salt and olive oil and leave to absorb for 30 minutes. add the remaining ingredients and water to taste. for garnishing use 100g cucumber, 100g green pepper, 100g tomatoes and 100g crudités all chopped. this recipe is somewhat vague, but, in spain there is a saying; there are as many gazpachos as there are gazpacheros. i'm not going to be too anal about the details here.

salmorejo is made all over spain, but heralds from cordoba. a typical recipe contains:
- 10 red tomatoes
- 1 slice of bread
- 4 teeth of garlic
- 0.5l olive oil
- 1 egg yolk
- salt
- 0.25l of water
mix all in the blender and serve with an egg in quaters and some olive oil drizzled on top. you could also serve this with ham or orange slices on top.

ajo blanco (white garlic) most likely originates in malaga.
- 200g almonds
- 4 teeth of garlic
- 2 slices of bread
- 0.5dl of olive oil
- 0.5kg of ice
- salt and pepper
scald the almonds in hot water to get rid of the skin. grind all the ingredients together. pass through a colander and add water to thin. for garnish, 20 pealed grapes and 20 balls of melon. cordoba has a reputation for serving with apple slices. the ajo blanco in cordoba had shrimp ... this was the best that i've ever had!

* i don't want to give anyone the impression that there is no good food in sevilla or andalucia. in fact, 90% of the fun is in finding the great places. for anyone visiting sevilla i recommend bar eslava it saved us more than once!

Monday, April 04, 2005

mariscos en la playa

gambas a la plancha

from the 4am coolness of london we spilled out into the midday andalucian sun. pale, tired and shrinking from the sun we stumbled around the airport looking for our friends. out of the bright light appeared fernando and valerie; tanned, tall and healthy after a week scuba diving in san jose. they led us by the hand to their car. they had suggested that we stop over for an evening and go for some mariscos (shellfish) by the sea upon arriving. this wasn't merely food, this was a mission of mercy.

there are meals that are emblematic of a place, it becomes impossible to think of one without the other. i think of new year 2004 and oysters from the english market in cork, a yuacatan road cafe for empanadas and eating sukiyaki with taro's family in tohyama. this lunch has entered the list as representative not only of great food, but also of southern spain. we went to alquean (el merendero de la playa) [note: i'm not all that sure if this was truly the name of the restaurant. in fact, in the spanish way, i'm not sure if it even has a name. it could have been valerie just appeasing my anal city need for details and names]. to call it a restaurant is probably an overstatement, it is more of a surf shop from the outside. along the seafront is a thin line of fishermen boats. the owners will go out every morning to catch the days fish. these are served throughout the day only 20m away in the merendero. food doesn't come any fresher than this.

you enter the restaurant through a plastic covered outdoor section. a dark bar leads you to the fish counter. from here you choose the fish that you wish to eat. considering our state of sunshock, fernando and valerie took the initiative and ordered a suitable range of shellfish; gambas (shrimp), cegala (see below ... it is a crustacean; shrimp on steroids), concha dulce (similar to clams), pulpito (octopus), huevas de pescado (deep fried fish eggs), boquerones fritos (deep fried anchovies). the suitably crusty cook / waiter / owner (?) willingly took the order and gave us a ticket to claim our food.

we quickly moved to the table, all of the usual icons of spanish seafront dining were present; paper tablecloth, napkins in alcohol sponsored plastic dispenser, ashtrays and lemon wipes. we quickly added the obvious ones; basket of bread, borrowed cigarette, bottles of beer. at this point fernando was probably surprised that i started photographing the most unusual things. considering the beautiful surroundings, i seemed intent on photographing only the food that was served to us. in addition to this, i was still hungover from the preceding night and still don't speak excellent spanish, this has all probably reinforced the impression of me as being a bit of a simpleton ... well you have to admit that some meanings cross cultural boudaries with amazing clarity.

we started with an typical andaluz dish; migas. this consists of breadcrumbs fried with chorizo sausage. it's been a favourite of mine since i first stated going to the south.

next came the gambas rojas (red shrimp). there are many different ways to cook shrimp; boiling and frying among the favourites. despite the fact that blanca has a massive amount of spanish cook books, it is amazing how little reference there is to this most traditional dish.

i found some interesting information at grupo gastronomico gaditano (a cadiz based site). this site has a particulary nice scientific approach:
- it recommends shellfish outside of the months may to august (the month with R rule) during which the reproductive cycle takes place. shrimp will lose their weight, flavour, texture
- boiling is recognised as the best form of cooking with some "simple techniques" required...
- the water used to boil should be at the salinity of the sea.
- most interestingly (really only applying to the larger crustaceans), as a rule, add live shellfish to cold water and bring to the boil. add dead shellfish to boiling water. this fairly cruel approach ensures that the shellfish do not "release their legs", meaning that they will actually loose their legs and hence flavour / meat (this took some time to translate; the only other similar quote on the web relates to jumping kangaroo, but i don't think the spanish typically cook this on the seafront in salted water)
- for duration, it recommends that gambas are put into boiling water and once it returns to the boil they are ready.

... ironically and perhaps to the disgust of the good people of cadiz, we had gambas a la plancha (literally on the iron) with salt. they are fried in olive oil and salt for about 2-3 minutes. valerie taught us how to eat shrimp heads with style.

and ... excuse the pun; just when i thought it was safe to get back in the water, came another gastro mystery ... the next dish came; cigala; impressive, but slightly overcooked. after quite some time searching i eventually found a translation ... cigala meaning crayfish in english. blanca wasn't convinced and whilst the wikepedia photo seemed like a good match, she recommended that i consult the oracle of all things fishy; alan davidson's north atlantic seafood.

a cigala realises that i can't translate its and decides to made a bid for freedom ...

he settled the debate in favour of, oddly enough, the dublin bay prawn. in appearance this matches the cigala from spain; the crayfish, or spiny lobster, does not have the large front claws of our cigala (wikepedia has the wrong photo) ... alan mentions that the dublin bay prawn gets its name from the fact that irish fishermen, having accidentally caught the prawn, would sell these on the black market (not being regulated like normal fish) to vendors such as molly malone ... say no more.

last came the house specialty; deep fried anchovies (boquerones fritos). these were excellent and we agreed the best dish of the day. most simply brushed with lemon juice and dusted with flour. fried for a couple of minutes until well golden.

Friday, April 01, 2005

3 ways to eat a shrimp's head

first i must thank two people for making this blog possible; valerie who showed us the 3rd and by far more glamorous way, and blanca who gave me the incentive by saying "the head of shrimp is the only thing that steve is afraid of eating". pride is a terrible thing and the shrimp have suffered all the more for it. second, i must urge only intrepid eaters to continue, this is not for the faint hearted ...

as a shellfish (mariscos), the shrimp is a crustacean (as opposed to molluscs; mussels, clam, squid etc.) and shares this family with lobsters and crabs. they date back 200 million years so we should at least understand something about them before we eat their heads...

shrimp in the natural spanish habitat; the seafood counter ...

they are what we call a "decapod" (well, what i now call a decapod) meaning they have 5 pairs of legs. like the rest of the crustaceans, they have a forward part (head or cephalothorax) and the rear portion (tail or abdomen). the head is actually quite a bit more than just a head, it also includes the main digestive, circulatory, respiratory and reproductive systems. mcgee likens it to the equivalent of our head and trunk put together. the tail is basically a swimming muscle that moves the back end plates. all of this means that whilst i was originally turned off by the idea of eating a shrimp's head, i'm horrified by the idea of eating their head and all essential organs ... good.

many people will never be served a shrimp with a head on. the reason for this is that the liver (digestive enzymes) are contained here and breakdown quickly once the animal is killed. this spoilage can be reduced by removing the head or keeping the shrimp on ice. basically, the further away from sea you are the less likely you are to get a shrimp with head attached. this part of the body is also the richest in flavour and therefore considered the best part of, especially, lobsters and crabs.

i had my first plate of real 'mariscos' (shellfish) at a wedding in spain. as an irishman it was odd enough to be eating fish, let alone having to peel their shells from their backs and eat them. i was quite proud of myself as i ate through the plate. strange thing that i noticed was that despite not eating the heads, there was no pile building up on my plate. i looked around and noticed that blanca was hoovering all the heads from the plates around us. with her lips pursed against the "neck" of the head and a sharp intake of breath, she was sucking the insides out. i'm not going to expand on this further; it was a bad to witness as it was to recall and write. samcooks has written a good article on the joys on "sucking shrimp head".

in spain it is very difficult to find a shrimp (gamba) served to you without its head on. the main reason for this is that the head will retain much of the flavour of the shrimp whilst being cooked. even in spain, a land dedicated to eating seafood, it is not completely normal to eat the head of shrimp. spain is the second largest consumer of fish in the world. i have had the pleasure of eating fish in japan; the largest consumer of fish...

at the end of 2004 we were with some friends in a sushi restaurant in tokyo. when it came time for the heads of the shrimp to be addressed, the chef thankfully took the burden of choice away from us. he grilled them in a mini oven at the side of the kitchen. he then opened the heads and served them to us outside of their shells.

valerie recently showed us the french way of eating shrimp head. as it is french, it far more delicate and refined. i have now adopted it as my chosen method of eating shrimp head ... i call it the grasp and pull technique:

step 1 - the "grasp". take the hands of the shrimp (what i fondly call the “hands”; the 5 pairs of crawling appendages on the head), hold the nose (the hard nub of exoskeleton above the eyes)

step 2 - the "pull". pull the lower portion of the head from the hard upper shell. the inner organs will be revealed. eat in the manner you see fit …

note: shrimp are categorised as warmwater, coldwater or freshwater. we were eating warmwater mediterranean red shrimp (gambas rojas). many shrimp died in the writing of this blog, i owe them all a debt of gratitude.