Saturday, June 23, 2012


Salmorejo is gazpacho "cream."
It’s sweltering hot in southern Spain right now. With the first day of summer and the solstice madness of the San Juan festival, it sure seems time for some cool gazpacho. Except I’m loathe to break my own rule—to make gazpacho only with home-grown tomatoes, which are still weeks away. Instead, I’m enjoying some “pre-gazpacho”—salmorejo. Salmorejo is made with more or less the same ingredients as gazpacho—bread, garlic, olive oil, vinegar and tomato—but the proportions are different. More bread, less tomato, no water to thin the puree. I call it  “gazpacho cream.” 

Salmorejo is famous in the tascas of Córdoba, where it’s usually presented in individual ramekins to be eaten with a spoon. Garnished with strips of serrano ham and chopped egg, it serves as a starter, instead of soup, instead of salad, a gazpacho place-holder. A very similar preparation in the town of Antequera (Málaga) is called porra and is a rustic country dish made in an olive-wood bowl.

Salmorejo as a party dip.
Salmorejo is thick enough to serve as a dip. I like to serve it in a bowl accompanied by raw vegetables and breadsticks as dippers. Salmorejo also makes a sauce—spoon it over grilled fish or chicken—or a salad dressing.

Country bread thickens the cream.

Use good country-style bread with a dense crumb as the base for salmorejo. It should be at least a day old. In fact, salmorejo is a great way to use up stale bread. It’s easier to process the bread if it’s first soaked in water to soften it. Squeeze it out really well. The finished cream should be the consistency of thick mayonnaise.

Gazpacho Cream

Serves 10 to 12 as a party dip or 6 as a starter.

12 ounces day-old bread, crusts removed
1 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled and seeded
3 cloves garlic
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon wine vinegar
2 ounces serrano ham, cut in thin strips, to serve
2 hard-boiled eggs, sliced, to serve

Cut the bread into chunks and put in a bowl with water to cover. Let soak until softened.

Cut the peeled and seeded tomatoes into chunks and place in a food processor bowl with the garlic. Process until puréed.

Squeeze out as much water as possible from the bread. Add the bread to the processor bowl. (If necessary, process in two batches.) Process until smooth. With the motor running, slowly add the oil, salt and vinegar to make a thick cream. Chill until serving time.

If serving as a dip, spread the cream in a dish and garnish the top with strips of ham and sliced egg. As a starter, serve the cream in individual ramekins or small bowls, each garnished with ham and egg.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


Garlic = flavor.
Between the olive trees on my terraced hillside are four small garden plots where I grow vegetables year-round —tomatoes, peppers and eggplant in the summer; broccoli, kale and chard in the winter; peas, favas and lettuce in the spring. But one plot yields, not exactly “food,” but flavor. That’s what I’m harvesting this month—flavor—garlic. Enough garlic to flavor my cooking for many months to come.

New harvest garlic.
Spain is one of the world’s biggest producers of garlic. And, the place that claims the title of Spain’s “capital of garlic” is Las Pedroñeras, a village southeast of Madrid, smack in the middle of Don Quixote country. A single growers’ cooperative in the town produces some 20,000 tons of the flavorful bulb in a year.

Most of it is the esteemed ajo morado, purple garlic, a variety of hard-necked garlic that has papery white layers enclosing cloves shrink-wrapped in violet skins. Purple garlic is both sweet and pungent, with a powerful bite. The purple garlic of Las Pedroñeras enjoys its own protected denomination of origin.

Surprisingly, the village doesn’t reek, even at the height of the summer garlic harvest, when bundles of garlic with their straw tops still attached are heaped in fields to dry. Not until some of those cloves of garlic are bounced into a pan of olive oil do they release that special smell.

A basket of garlic bulbs.
Garlic goes into all sorts of Spanish dishes—gazpacho, sofrito, soup, both hot (sopa de ajo) and cold (ajo blanco), sauces (notably alioli, garlic mayonnaise); stews, sautés, salads and more.

To celebrate my harvest, I decided to prepare pollo al ajillo, chicken sautéed with “a little garlic.” Which is tongue-in-cheek for “lots and lots of garlic.”

Pollo al ajillo--chicken sautéed in cazuela with whole garlic cloves.

Chicken Sauté with Garlic and Sherry
Pollo al Ajillo

This is a favorite dish in tapa bars. For tapas, the chicken is cut up into small pieces. I prefer to substitute wing joints, to avoid the bone splinters of hacked chicken. For a main course, I use a cut-up fryer—legs, thighs and breasts—preferably free range. Larger pieces need a longer cooking time than wings. Make this dish also with rabbit.

Whole, unpeeled cloves of garlic are sautéed with the chicken. The skins keep the garlic from scorching and becoming bitter. Serve the garlic with the chicken; guests can decide for themselves whether to partake of the sweet nuggets or push them to the side of the plate.

While dry fino Sherry, manzanilla or Montilla-Moriles is the traditional cooking medium for this dish, I must say that a medium Sherry such as amontillado or palo cortado adds so much mellow flavor.

Serve the chicken with chunks of bread for soaking up the garlicky juices.

Wings serve 12 as a tapa; cut-up chicken serves 6 as a main course.

A tapa dish of chicken wings.
2 pounds wings or cut-up chicken
Salt and pepper
1-2 heads garlic (10-20 cloves)
1/3 cup olive oil
2 bay leaves
Sprig of thyme
½  cup dry or medium-dry Sherry
¼ cup water or chicken stock
Chopped parsley

If using wings, cut off the wing tips and discard (or save for stock). Divide each wing into two joints. Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper and allow to set 10 minutes.

Lightly smash the garlic cloves to split the skins.

Heat the oil in a cazuela or deep skillet. Add the chicken pieces to the oil and fry them slowly, turning to brown all sides. Add the unpeeled cloves of garlic.

When chicken is browned (15 to 20 minutes), add the bay leaf, Sherry and water or chicken stock. Continue cooking until most of the liquid is cooked away and chicken is tender. Serve immediately garnished with chopped parsley.

Pollo al ajillo--chicken with garlic.

Saturday, June 9, 2012


Little fish with big flavor--fresh anchovies--boquerones.

Anchovies? Those salty little fish packed in cans? An ingredient in salads or pizza topping. Hang on, these are different--fresh ones are something else all together. Fresh anchovies, which measure about 5 to 5 ½ inches long, are abundant on the Mediterranean and Bay of Biscay coasts of Spain. The anchovy is a silvery fish with a protruding upper jaw, from whence it gets its Spanish name, boquerón, “big mouth.” (Though, with those great big eyes, maybe it could be called ojón, as well.) In northern Spain, the same fish is called anchoa.

A heap of fried boquerones.
I love fresh anchovies, simply floured and fried. They always come as part of a mixed fish fry so popular on the Costa del Sol where I live. They can also be boned and dipped in a fritter batter before frying. Basque cooks sizzle anchovies in oil with garlic and flecks of chile or combine them with eggs to make an omelette.

And then there’s that favorite tapa bar dish—boquerones en vinagre, fresh anchovies marinated in vinegar. The vinegar cooks the fish—no heat required—somewhat like ceviche. The anchovies are then dressed with olive oil, chopped garlic and parsley.

Boquerón--big mouth, big eyes.
My local fish market usually has two sorts of fresh anchovies. They appear pretty much the same in size and color—but one is considerably more expensive (I paid €8.20 per kilo, or about $4.65 per pound). Juan, the fish guy, said they come from Cádiz—Atlantic port—and are firmer and whiter. The others come from Castellón (Valencia coast, on the Mediterranean). Though absolutely fresh, these looked limp. Juan said the Atlantic ones were best for marinating in vinegar, but the Mediterranean ones were great for frying. I planned to marinate them, so I bought the pricier ones.

Pull out the backbone.

The little fish first have to be filleted—surprisingly easy, so have a go. Serve the anchovies accompanied by bread. Some tapa connoisseurs like to heap the little fish on the bread. Others prefer to eat the anchovies straight up, with a cocktail pick or small fork, then dip the bread in the tangy dressing left on the plate.

Marinated anchovies with garlic and parsley--a favorite tapa.
Fresh Anchovies Marinated in Vinegar
Boquerones en Vinagre

Makes 12 tapa servings.

Anchovy on bread.
1 pound fresh, whole anchovies
1 to 2 cups white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
shredded lettuce, to garnish
lemon half, to garnish
chopped scallion, to garnish (optional)
bread, to serve

To fillet the anchovies: cut off the head and pull out the innards of the fish. Grasp the top of the spine and pull it down across the belly of the fish, then cut off the spine, leaving the fillets attached at the tail.

Rinse the fillets in water, then place them in ice water for 30 minutes to firm them.

Place the anchovies, skin-side down, in a single layer in a non-reactive container (glass, ceramic or plastic). Pour over the vinegar—enough to cover the fish—and the salt. Cover and refrigerate at least 6 hours or up to 24 hours. The fillets will turn white and opaque.

Before serving, drain off all the vinegar marinade and rinse the anchovies in cold water. Drain well and pat dry. Arrange them skin-side down, like spokes of a wheel, on a serving dish. Sprinkle with oil, garlic and parsley. Garnish the dish with lettuce, a cut-lemon in the center, and a little chopped green onion. Serve with bread.

Sunday, June 3, 2012


Fresh tuna--beautiful, but---

Every time I see the glistening slab of fresh tuna at the fish market, I promise myself that this is the last time. I will not buy/eat tuna—a critically endangered fish—ever again. Once again, though, I succumbed. In spite of the guilt, oh my god, but it was delicious. That’s why it’s so hard to quit.

Barry Estabrook, who blogs at, said “There is a strong likelihood that someone in this generation will be the last human to eat a bluefin tuna.” The species, he writes, hovers on the brink of extinction.

And yet. The towns of Barbate and Conil, tuna fishing towns on the Atlantic coast of Cádiz province (Andalusia), have just celebrated their big feria de la almadraba, with bars and restaurants serving up meals and tapas featuring atún rojo—“red” tuna, bluefin tuna.

The almadraba in Spain is a very ancient way of fishing tuna. The Phoenicians, who colonized southern Spain more than 3000 years ago, devised a system of capturing the tuna as they migrated from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. The almadraba nets, forming long chambers, like a series of corrals, are anchored to the bottom. Tuna swimming through on their migration to spawn in the Mediterranean are trapped in the nets. Fishermen in boats pull the nets into a tightening circle, until the huge fish are trapped in the middle. The men gaff them and haul them on board. It is an amazing sight.

The almadraba catch is controlled and subject to strict quotas. The nets allow smaller fish to escape. All this sounds pretty good. But, here’s the problem—very little of the almadraba catch finds its way to the restaurants in Barbate, nor to the market where I shop. The Japanese buy it all. They pay huge amounts of money, freeze the catch, ship it back to Tokyo. Very expensive sushi in the making.

If you want the truth, I’m not sure what I’m buying. It may be yellowfin tuna that comes from northern Spain (and keeps the tuna canneries operational). Or it may be tuna fished much further afield, in unregulated waters by industrial fishing vessels (such as in the Indian Ocean, where a Spanish trawler was taken by Somali pirates a few years ago).

Perhaps you don’t know what you’re buying either. After consciousness raising and conscience pricking, I am looking more closely. Perhaps the next time, I will give the tuna a pass.

Atlantic bluefin tuna—Thunnus thynnus—is known as atún rojo, red tuna, in Spanish. Important to the canning industry is bonito del norte, Thunnus alalunga, which is white tuna or albacore—not to be confused with Thunnus albacares or albacora, yellowfin tuna, also sometimes called albacore (rabil in Spanish).

In southern Spain, where tuna is part of traditional cooking, it is usually cooked in a slow braise with onions and tomatoes slowly reduced. While it’s delicious that way, I wouldn’t dream of long-cooking tuna. I love it, if not raw, then quickly grilled and served medium rare—pink in the middle.

Sliced tuna with sauteed cherry tomatoes.
Here I used a thick slice of tuna, browning it on both sides in extra virgin olive oil. I added sliced onions, garlic, and cherry tomatoes cut in half. Some oregano. I let the tomatoes reduce while the tuna cooked to that perfect point. After the tuna rested for 5 minutes, I sliced it across the grain and served it with the gooey tomato-onion mix and a sauce of olive purée (that recipe is here; another tuna recipe, with onion confit, is here).

Cold tuna in salad with capers.
I used sliced leftover tuna to make a sort of salade niçoise, with tomatoes, potatoes, beans and capers.

I so hope that I am not the last person of my generation to eat tuna. I would hope to enjoy it again. Meanwhile, I’ll be trying some new recipes with sardines and mackerel, two fish not threatened with extinction.