Saturday, August 25, 2012


Sole food.

My grandson, Leo (he's eight), declares he doesn’t like fish. But, when I challenged him with learning to bone out a whole sole, all by himself, he stepped up and had a go. After careful work and much concentration, he had four perfect fillets. Scooping up the bone-free morsels of sweet fish, he said sole was his favorite fish of all. So, we’ve eaten it three times this week!

The challenge: Leo and a whole sole.

 This takes focus--pull away the edges with all the little fin bones and separate them to another plate..

Cut down the center and pull the first fillet off the bone. Yes! 

 Cool! The center spine pulls free.

 Did it!

Sole is my favorite fish, says Leo.

 Sole, also known as Dover sole, solea solea, lenguado in Spanish, is a dextral flat fish (has eyes on the right side) with an elongated oval body rimmed by fins. The skin color varies from dark brown to olive-drab to grey. It has irregular splotching. The underside is whitish.

Wild sole, sometimes of enormous size, are still to be found in Spanish markets (very pricey). But, most of what is commercialized come from fish farms. They are marketed, whole, at between 7 and 8 ounces. One fish is an individual serving. The fish vendor is always happy to skin them for me.

I cook the sole in the Cádiz style—soaked briefly in milk, dredged in flour and pan-fried in olive oil.

Leo is a purist—he likes his sole with only salt and a squeeze of lemon. While I am in complete agreement, I still like to make a sauce of some sort, because it goes so well with the accompanying boiled potatoes. This time it was a sort-of tartare. I whisk together mayonnaise and plain yogurt; blend in chopped scallions, chopped parsley and dill, grated lemon zest and a spoonful of capers.

The remains.

Saturday, August 18, 2012


Summer coolers--leche merengada and horchata.
Stop at an heladería—ice-cream parlor—anywhere in Spain to find all the usual options—helados (ice creams) in dozens of flavors, sorbetes (sorbets) and granizados (granitas or slushy ices). Cold and sweet, they are summertime treats.

But, in Valencia, beautiful port city in eastern Spain, besides heladerías, you can enjoy some different summer coolers at an horchatería, where horchata and leche merengada, meringue milk, are served.

Chufas (photo courtesy of La Tienda).
Horchata is an exotic summer drink that makes me think of Arabic souks and cushioned harem rooms. This is the orgeat of the Moors, originally sweetened almond milk. Today it is made with the chufa, tigernut. (The word, orgeat, derives from the word for sweetened barley water. Horchata in Mexico is processed from rice or different seeds, not tigernuts.) The sweet, milky drink has a pleasant flavor of coconut, tropical nuts and lemon. It’s commercially  bottled, but can easily be made at home with either chufas or almonds.

Tigernuts, also called earth-nuts, are not actually nuts, but the tubers of a kind of sedge (Cyperus esculentus), a plant introduced to the Valencia region, along with rice, by the Moors. Like potatoes, chufas grow underground. After digging, the chufas are washed then dried. The desiccated  nuts, about the size of almonds, are hard and dark brown. (Photos of chufas growing in the fields and being processed can be viewed on the web site of Chufa de Valencia

Icy-cold horchata, made from chufas.
To process for making horchata, the chufas are first soaked in purified water for 24 hours to rehydrate them. They are then ground with fresh water, allowed to soak briefly, and pressed through a fine sieve. The resulting “milk” is sweetened with sugar, sometimes aromatized with lemon, and thinned with cold water.

The chufas, once soaked and softened, can also be eaten as snack food. They are often sold at ferias, alongside sliced coconut, as street treats. They have a crisp texture, somewhat like raw almonds.

A recipe for preparing horchata appears on the La Tienda   website, where you can order the authentic chufas, imported from Valencia.  

Horchata is served icy-cold as a drink; partially frozen and blended, as granizado, slushy ice, or soft-frozen as ice “cream”.

The other Valencian cooler is not nearly as exotic as horchata, yet still has the inimitable Spanish flavors of cinnamon and lemon. Leche merengada, or meringue milk ice, like horchata, can be served as a cold drink or soft-frozen. In restaurants, I have tasted rich versions of leche merengada, in which the milk is reduced by half, then enriched with cream. But, it’s delicious without the enrichments.

Soft-frozen meringue milk ice.
Meringue Milk Ice
Leche Merengada

My original recipe for meringue milk (in MY KITCHEN IN SPAIN, the book) calls for 1 cup of sugar. Today, that seems much too sweet to me. I suggest you start with ¾ cup sugar, then taste the sweetened milk and add more sugar if you want a really sweet version.

This recipe contains uncooked egg whites. If raw eggs are a possible health hazard in your area, use pasteurized egg whites.

Serves 6.

4 cups milk
¾ cup sugar
Peel from 2 lemons
2-inch cinnamon stick
1 clove
3 egg whites
½ teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Put the milk, sugar, lemon peel, cinnamon stick and clove in a pan. Simmer, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. Strain the milk into a metal bowl. Chill the milk.

Place the milk in the freezer until it is soft-frozen. Stir it occasionally to mix the frozen and liquid milk.

Beat the egg whites on high speed until they hold stiff peaks. Beat in the lemon juice.

Beat the soft-frozen milk at high speed until smooth. On low speed, beat in half of the egg whites. Fold in remaining egg whites by hand, mixing thoroughly.

Serve the ice meringue milk immediately or return it to the freezer to freeze slightly longer. It should be the consistency of soft-freeze ice cream. If allowed to hard-freeze, remove it from the freezer about 40 minutes before serving, so it begins to thaw.

Spoon the milk ice into goblets and sprinkle each with cinnamon.

Saturday, August 11, 2012


Vegetables on the grill for escalivada.

When you think about traditional Spanish cooking, I bet you never think of grilling. Yet, cooking on a parilla, a grate or grill; a la brasa, over hot coals, or on a plancha, a metal hot plate set over coals, are all traditional cooking methods in Spain.

On the Mediterranean coast, fishermen haul their boats in at dawn, laden with fresh sardines. For breakfast, they make a fast fire on the sand, skewer the sardines on sticks, stick them in the sand before the fire. Simple and delicious.

Basque fishermen set a grate over a fire for cooking whole besugo, red bream, basted with a feather until the skin turns crisp and golden. In the wine region of Ribera del Duero, vineyard workers grill tiny lamb chops over a fast-burning fire of vine prunings. Hunters in La Mancha make a fire from holm oak to grill rabbits and other small game.
Char-roasted peppers, eggplant, onion and tomato.

In Catalonia, spring onions with their green tops—calçots—cooked on the grill with sausages and chops are an excuse for a party. Another Catalan dish, escalivada, combines eggplant, peppers, onions and tomatoes that have been grilled, skinned and dressed with olive oil.

While Spain may not be as famous for grilled steak as the US or Argentina, I gotta say that the best char-grilled steak I ever had in my life was at the Basque farmhouse restaurant, Baserri Maitea, in Forua, a short drive from Bilbao, where chef Juan Antonio Zaldua has taken grilling to new heights of complexity (squid grilled over lavender; whole sole grilled over pungent holy herb; meat grilled over holm oak).

Beef for grilling at Restaurante Baserri Maitea

That steak was a thick rib chop from a 7-year-old grass-fed vaca (cow), heavily marbled, cooked medium rare, then carved off the bone.

The steak I grilled tonight was not so great. (My butcher misled me this time.) The sauce/marinade, Canary Islands mojo colorado, red chile sauce, with its touch of vinegar, complemented the beef and the grilled potatoes. Escalivada was right-on as a vegetable side.

Charcoal grilling, to me, seems wasteful—it takes such a long time to get the coals up to temperature, then, after the steaks come off the grill, residual heat could cook another meal. What I like about escalivada is that the vegetables can be put on the grill early on or at the very end. In fact, I sometimes make the vegetables at the end of a grill meal to be served cold the next day. The smoky flavor makes it all worth while.

Escalivada is a Catalan dish of grilled eggplant, peppers, onion and tomato.

Grilled Eggplant and Peppers

Serve escalivada as a starter, rather like a salad; as a side dish with grilled meat; heaped on a hamburger bun, or as a topping for pizza. You can also roast the eggplant and peppers under the broiler instead of over charcoal.

Serves 4 as a tapa or side dish.

Peel off charred skins.

1 medium eggplant
1 large red bell pepper
1 medium onion
1 large tomato
1 small head garlic
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil

Prepare coals (charcoal or wood fire).

Pierce the eggplant and pepper with a sharp knife in 3 or 4 places (to prevent steam from building up inside the skin). Slice the top off the head of garlic.

Place all the vegetables on the grill (or under the broiler). Grill until eggplant and pepper are charred on one side. Use tongs to turn the vegetables. Grill until charred on all sides. (If tomato softens before other vegetables are ready, remove it.) Remove charred vegetables to a bowl.

Let the vegetables set until cool enough to handle. Peel the eggplant. Chop or shred the flesh and place in a bowl. Peel and cut pepper in strips and add to the eggplant. Peel onion and cut in lengthwise slivers. Peel the tomato, discard seeds and chop the flesh. Combine the vegetables and season them with salt and pepper

Squeeze the softened cloves of garlic out of the skins into a small bowl. Mash them with a fork. Stir the vinegar and oil into the garlic paste, then stir it into the vegetables.

Serve room temperature.
Mojo Colorado
Red Chile Sauce

Use this as a marinade for meat or chicken, as a dipping sauce for tiny new potatoes, or as a sauce with grilled or steamed fish.

3 tablespoons pimentón (paprika)
1 fresh red chile, seeded and chopped, or cayenne to taste
3 cloves garlic
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons wine vinegar
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup water

Place all of the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Sauce keeps one week, refrigerated.

Sunday, August 5, 2012


Cool summer melon.
The sun is blazing down; cicadas are buzzing in the olive trees; the grass is turning brown. It’s August in southern Spain, where daytime temps regularly soar over 90ºF and occasionally over 100º. After a sticky day of house cleaning, I need a dip in the pool and a cool drink to revive myself.   

Aahh, that’s better.

It’s just too hot to cook. I don’t turn on the oven at all from the end of May until mid-September. My cooking becomes minimalist. Here are some of my summer survival techniques:

  • Use the microwave more.  Try this: diced zucchini, chopped tomato and olive oil; microwave on high for 3 minutes; stir, microwave 3 minutes more. Add salt after microwaving, with pepper and chopped basil.
  • Cook outside on the grill.  
  • Cook early in the morning before the sun has hotted up the kitchen.
  •  Cook several foods in one pot. I boil small potatoes, romano green beans and a few eggs. Ready in the fridge, they make a salad combo or sides with grilled foods. 
  • Use canned and jarred food in the pantry. Garbanzos + pre-cooked potatoes, green beans and eggs, chopped onion, olive oil, mustard, vinegar is a main-dish salad. Canned mussels in escabeche with cooked potatoes, olive oil, lemon juice.
  • Let somebody else cook it (rotisserie chicken from the supermarket).
  • Use quick-cooking foods, such as boneless chicken breast, shrimp, fish fillets. A flip in the skillet and done. Serve with sauce.
  • Make no-cook sauces, alioli (garlic mayonnaise); romesco with peppers and almonds; piquillo. For the piquillo sauce, which also serves as a party dip, blend a can of drained piquillo peppers with garlic, extra virgin olive oil, cumin, and Sherry vinegar.
  • Don’t cook. Pick tomatoes in the garden, slice and serve with extra virgin olive oil. Pick tomatoes in the garden and make gazpacho (recipe here). 
  • Eat fruit. Right now it’s glorious melon, morning, noon and night. Melon, raspberries and nectarines with yogurt for breakfast. Cool melon soup for lunch (see that recipe here), melon with hand-sliced serrano ham as a starter for dinner or an aperitif. Nutty, salty, chewy ham is sensational with sweet and juicy melon.
Sweet melon with ham, summertime delight.

"Toad's skin" melon.

The most widely grown melon in Spain is the piel de sapo, or "toad's skin," so-called because of its rough, green skin. The pale yellow flesh is wonderfully sweet. Those grown in La Mancha, central Spain, have a Protected Geographic Designation. 

Serve ham and melon on picks as a tapa for a drinks party. It goes well with chilled fino, dry Sherry.

Melon with serrano ham makes a quick starter for a summer meal. Hand-sliced ham should be room temperature, the melon must be well-chilled.

 Melons ripen in hot, hot August days.