Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Obama en La Casablanca: Valladolid's Pincho de Oro 2009

Spaniards seem to love themselves some Barak Obama. Once they discover I'm American, they waste no time telling me how much they like him and how much better he is than W. Not that I disagree or anything, but when I mention Zapatero's flaws the tables turn quickly. They ensure me that I simply don't understand Spanish politics.

Digression aside, the proprietor of Restaurante Los Zagales decided to honor our new president by designing a pincho based on his electoral victory. Enter "Obama en La Casablanca"! Every year there are pincho competitions all over Spain. National competitions, regional competitions, city competitions, etc...Los Zagales is pretty famous, having won numerous awards at every level. So far "Obama" has won the gold medal in the city of Valladolid, but the important national competitions are still on the horizon.

So what is "Obama en La Casablanca" you ask? Well, as you can see above, it arrives in a white-domed ceramic dish. That symbolizes the White House for those of you who didn't get it.

The dish itself consists of a disc of crisp puff pastry, topped with a BARELY set egg, truffled mushroom cream sauce, and burned (yes burned) shards of potato. My interpretation of the dish is that the egg represents the egg of reform Obama is attempting to lay in American society, while the puff pastry represents the dangerously fragile state of the U.S. economy on which he is trying lay said egg. The rich truffled cream sauce represents Obama's first-class (and expensive) educational background. Finally, the blackened shards of potato represent Obama himself. Maybe I'm reading too much into the dish though. What do you think?

All said, this pincho is simply fabulous. It is incredibly rich and the oozing yolk combines with the cream sauce to make perfect bread-dipping fodder. Most surprising however, are the burned potatoes. They taste absolutely amazing and not scorched in the slightest. The bartender wouldn't tell me how they make them but I intend on finding out. The shatteringly crisp bits of salty potato are a perfect counterpoint to the creamy sauce.

Monday, June 29, 2009

La Chouffe Blonde Ale

Today I'm trying out La Chouffe Blonde Ale. Blonde (also known as golden) Ale is one of the more popular styles in Belgium. The most commonly known version is Duvel but there are dozens to try here in Brussels. I picked up a 750 ml bottle of La Chouffe at Carrefour because it was just too damned hot to walk all the way to the Bier Tempel.

As you can see, Blonde Ale is, well, golden...a rich amber to be precise. In line with the style, La Chouffe is heavily carbonated. You can see numerous bubbles collecting on the side of my glass. This carbonation adds crispness to the beer and helps compensate for the high alcohol content. That alcohol content is 8% abv, definitely up there for what is supposed to be a heavily drinkable beer. Since Belgian brewers follow no strict stylistic guidelines, the brewmaster decided to add a hint of coriander seed. This touch adds a subtle citrusy essence that only adds to the deceptive quaffability of La Chouffe. All in all, a solid beer for a (relatively) hot Belgian day.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Belgian take on the gyro (or doner kebab)

During my stay in Brussels, I've come to the conclusion that the ubiquitous Middle Eastern kebab houses are far superior to traditional Belgian cuisine. I'm sure that there are plenty of excellent Belgian restaurants but the prices in Brussels are obscene! For 5 euros, there is NO Belgian place that can match the flavor of doner kebab.

However, there is an obvious Belgian twist as you can see in the picture above. Often, pitas are served with fries stuffed inside. It is a remarkably tasty combination, although you can get fries on the side instead. Anyone have other ideas for non-traditional things to stuff in a gyro?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Brussels Hiatus

As I am now living in a cramped ill-equipped room in the Schaarbeek neighborhood of Brussels, my Spanish cooking projects have collapsed. Although there is an abundance of Spanish food in store for the near future (San Sebastian and Valladolid here we come!), I need something to fill the time until July 21. So I will try to mark time with some observations of Belgian food/drink.

My early experiences with Belgian food have been underwhelming. As a result, I will start with the "drink" part of the equation! Belgian beer is justly reknowned for variety and quality. Even the cheap Belgian beers are head and shoulders above their American/German/Mexican competitors. You can get a bottle of Chimay Blue label for $1 afterall! Another factor often overlooked by American frat boys is alcohol content. Sure you can get a case of Beast Light for nothing but there is a reason for the price: alcohol content is directly proportional to the amount of malt in the pre-fermented beer. Few American "pilsners" go much above 5% (if that).

The situation in Belgium is light years apart. Even mass market beers can reach 8% abv. In fact, outside of fruit beers, it is difficult to find a Belgian ale under 7%. Since I have to wake up early for the archives tomorrow, I decided on one of these weaker fruit beers for tonight (although it still clocks in at 5.2% abv...above most American light lagers).

The above beer is Leireken's Wilde Vruchten (or since we are in a country with a dangerous linguistic divide Fruits Sauvages). It is a lambic (wild fermentation) brewed with mixed wild fruits. I much prefer too-literal English translation of the name Savage Fruit! This beer tastes like Fruit Loops should. It's flavor and aroma are a complex mix of wild berries but it is not cloyingly sweet. Instead, it has a subtle tang from the wild fermentation that perfectly balances the fruitiness. Even better, it won't leave me hungover for another day of illegible 16th century documents.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Mejillones a la marinera: "Sailor-style" Mussels

I haven't posted in a long time. That is an understatement. In two days I leave for Europe for (hopefully) my final dissertation research. The preparations have consumed whatever mental energy might have been directed towards this blog. So today's post is a simple and fast dish of mussels. "Sailor-Style" is a common mussel preparation in Spain. I've embellished the traditional dish with some sauteed jamón.

Mejillones a la Marinera ("Sailor-Style" Mussels)
Serves 1-2 depending on appetite

2 tbsp. olive oil
1/4 cup jamón or other cured ham, minced
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1/2 tsp. sweet pimentón, or other paprika
2 roma tomatoes, seeded and diced
1/4 cup white wine
2 lbs. mussels, scrubbed and debearded
1/4 cup parsley, minced
bread for soaking up the delicious juices

1) Heat oil in a dutch oven over medium-high heat. Sautee until crisp. Add garlic and pimentón and cook until fragrant. Add tomatoes and cook until starting to break down, about 2 minutes. Add wine and bring to simmer.

2) Add mussels and cover. Cook, shaking every so often, until mussels open. This will take 3-5 minutes. Remove mussels with a slotted spoon to a large bowl.

3) Taste juices and, if necessary, add salt. Add parsley. Return mussels to pot, stir, then pour into bowl and enjoy with bread!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

When Local Just Won't Do #2: Pimentón de la Vera (Spanish Smoked Paprika)

I began my series on essential non-local ingredients with salted anchovies.  Although anchovies show up in numerous Spanish preparations, they are hardly unique to Spain.  In contrast, today's ingredient is one of the most unique ingredients in the Spanish kitchen: pimentón.  Spanish smoked paprika appears in countless signature dishes, including chorizo, pulpo a la gallega (Galician octopus with potatoes), salsa brava, etc...Penelope Casas Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain contains over 50 recipes (out of approximately 300...1/6 of ALL her recipes and not even counting those incorporating it stealthily in chorizo) that require the smoky/earthy/ruddy spice.
To put it bluntly, there is no easier way to add a Spanish flavor to your cooking than by adding a spoonful of pimentón to your dishes.  Mark Bittman has raved about it and admits to a near obsession.  Pimentón is made by smoke-drying red chiles of various heat levels and then grinding them into powder.  Spaniards hold the highest quality pimentón from the la Vera region in such regard that they have granted it the much-coveted Denominación de Origen status.

Luckily for lovers of Spanish food, pimentón is easily available and highly affordable.  A standard-sized tin should run you less than $7.  If you decide to stock up on all 3 varieties (dulce or sweet, agridulce or bittersweet, and picante or hot), you'll still have change leftover from a $20 bill.  More importantly, you'll have an invaluable ingredient for a plethora of traditional and improvised Spanish dishes.  For today's recipe, I've gone the improvised route: a quick pasta sauced with jamón (cured ham), yellow bell peppers, tomato paste, and (of course) a healthy dose of pimentón.

Linguine with Jamón, Peppers, & Pimentón
serves 2-3, depending on appetite
Cost: ~$3.50

4 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 onion, sliced thin
2-4 oz. jamón or other cured pork product, in small dice
1 yellow or red bell pepper, sliced thin
1 tbsp. tomato paste
1/2 tbsp. pimentón, heat level by preference
freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp. parsley, minced
1 cup aged cheese, grated (manchego would be wonderfully Spanish, parmigiano would work fine, but I happened to have some Vella Aged Jack in the fridge)
10 oz. linguine (or other strand pasta)

1) Bring at least 4 quarts of salted water to a boil over high heat.

2) Heat the olive oil in a  12" skillet (non-stick is fine) over medium-high heat.  When hot, add the jamón, onion, and bell pepper.  Cook for 5-6 minutes or until the mix becomes tender.

3) Reduce heat to low.  Add  the tomato paste and pimentón.  Stir thoroughly and add salt to taste.

4) Cook the linguine in the salted water until al dente.  Reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water.  Using tongs, transfer the pasta directly to the skillet with the pepper mixture.  Drain some of the water but don't be too thorough.  The starchy water will help create a nice saucy consistency.  Toss the pasta with the pepper mixture.  Add the parsley and 3/4 cup of the cheese.  Toss again, adding reserved pasta water as needed to achieve the desired consistency.  Taste and adjust with salt and pepper.

5) Transfer to serving bowls, top with the remaining 1/4 cup cheese, and enjoy!

Monday, April 27, 2009

When Local Just Won't Do #1: Salted Anchovies

Generally speaking, I am a strong proponent of a locally-based diet. However, this poses some significant challenges considering my interest in the cuisines of other cultures. Spanish cuisine is especially problematic. Numerous Spanish specialties rely on unique products from specific regions. For example, an Asturian fabada requires special white beans (fabes de la Granja), cured pork shoulder (lacón), blood sausage (morcilla), and chorizo. While it IS possible to obtain these ingredients in America, they are often prohibitively expensive (e.g. $35 for a kilogram of fabes from La Tienda!!!!!) or of mediocre quality (e.g. Palacios chorizo is the only commonly available Spanish chorizo in the U.S.). What's worse, all these ingredients have to be imported from Spain with all that entails in the way of fossil fuels. Needless to say, I try to find domestic alternatives whenever possible...as long as they are of sufficient quality.
Sometimes the realities of living in Central Ohio override such concerns. In some cases, domestic alternatives simply do not exist. Anchovies are a great example...As far as I know, there is no significant domestic source for the tasty little fish. Luckily, imported anchovies are an "efficient" imported product, with a 2.2 pound can providing a supply for months (or weeks if you're like me). Even better, this kilo of animal protein costs HALF of what the somewhat pretentious fabes de la granja do.
Many foodwriters rave about the superiority of salt-packed anchovies over their jarred or tinned oil-packed bretheren. I finally summoned up the drive to give them a try to see if the hype was justified. My order arrived today and I dove right in!
Salted anchovies require a bit of work to reach edibility as they are packed in a giant block of salt. Take a look (not so appetizing at first sight):

To make them useful, you must carefully pry out the fish, layer-by-layer. Use a thin bladed knife or fork if you are worried:

Next, you must rinse off the excess salt. Use cold water and a GENTLE stream of water. Otherwise you rip the delicate flesh in two or lose it down the garbage disposal. Depending on the intended use, you can actually soak the anchovies for up to 15 minutes. If they are going in a cooked dish, don't bother soaking but be aware of the salt you are bringing to the party. Check out the rinsed fish:

Finally, you must carefully pry the two fillets from the backbone and scrape off any remaining scales or fins. Your fingers are perfect for this job! The first few might be a bit tricky but you'll get the hang of it faster than I could possibly explain it. Don't be afraid of a few stray ribs or bones...you can actually bread and fry the little skeletons for a delicious and crunchy snack. Here are some fully cleaned fillets:

Once filleted, you can use immediately or refrigerate in a non-reactive airtight container covered in olive oil.
As for the hype, it is well-justified. The cleaned fillets have a meatiness and depth of flavor that most oil-packed anchovies do not match. I suspect this has more to do with the fact that most anchovies are pre-cleaned than the particular merits of salt vs. oil-packing. Keeping seafood intact always enhances the flavor and these anchovies are no exception. The above fillets were so delicious that they went right into a Caesar Salad and were consumed before I even thought to take a picture! Hopefully, we'll be seeing more uses for my 2.2 pound block of salted fish before long...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A la Catalana: Spinach with Raisins and Pine Nuts

Catalans are inordinately fond of pine nuts and raisins. They pair them with everything. Often they find their way into the segundo plato...Chicken, pork, or even fish, adorned with fruit and nuts. However, they often show up in the primero plato, along with greens. Whether locally harvested specialties or typical grocery store spinach, this is definitely a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The crunch of the nuts contrasts perfectly with the tenderness of the greens, while the sweetness of the raisins balances their earthiness.
On another note, this is as good a time as any to mention a major difference between Spanish eating habits and American: the Spanish eat their biggest meal of the day at lunch. When dining out, one is often confronted with a daily 3-course menu. Generally, one chooses a (supposedly) light course, often a vegetable, soup, or rice dish. Next, you select a second heavier course that might be fish, chicken, meatballs, or some kind of stew. This might sound like a lot of food already, but don't forget the bread and dessert! Many Americans might feel strange chomping down on a giant plate full of green beans with no "main course" protein to accompany it. Fear not, because that giant plate of first course vegetables is more often than not topped with chopped jamon!

Espinacas a la Catalana (Catalan-style Spinach)
Serves: 2 as a Spanish-style primero plato or 4 as an American-style side dish
Cost: $2.74

1 small handful raisins
1 small handful pine nuts
2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (I used leftovers from my tortilla)
1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 lb. spinach, thoroughly washed and torn into bite-sized pieces
salt & pepper, to taste

1) Heat a small skillet over medium-low heat. Add the pine nuts and toast, stirring gently, until golden brown. Pour 1 cup of boiling water over the raisins in a bowl and let soak for 10 minutes. Drain and reserve.

2) Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a 12" skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 8-10 minutes, until fully translucent but not browned. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute more.

3) Next, add the spinach. It will look like it doesn't fit but keep stirring. You'll be amazed how much a pound of spinach reduces after a few minutes on the heat. Cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly. Be especially careful to scoop up the onion and garlic to ensure an even mix.

4) Add the toasted pine nuts and reserved raisins. Continue cooking and stirring for about 2 more minutes or until most of the liquid is evaporated. Salt and pepper to taste.

Serving: Espinacas a la Catalana works well as either a Spanish-style first course or a side. In fact, if you are careful to cook off all the liquid, it makes a great filling for empanadas. Or untraditionally, leave the spinach saucy and toss with a chunky pasta (like penne or corkscrews) along with an extra 2 tablespoons of fresh extra virgin olive oil. In my case, I had tons of leftover tortilla along with some Palacios Hot Chorizo and Vella Cheese Company Toma. Along with the spinach, this made a nice meal of small plates.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Putting Hair On My Chest: Stir-fried Bitter Melon with Lamb and Black Beans

Although Spanish cooking is my greatest interest, I love to cook dishes from all of the world's great cuisines. I am especially drawn to Asian (especially Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese) cooking because of its astonishing array of ingredients, textures, and flavors. As an added bonus, Asian cooking has three practical advantages for me: 1) it helps me increase my intake of vegetables 2) it allows me to use up any leftovers easily and 3) it allows me to experiment with all sorts of "exotic" ingredients.

Last night, my wife and I ate at Barcelona. Barcelona is a great example of the upscale faux-Spanish restaurants that are common across America. Now don't get me wrong, my braised Colorado lamb shank with cheesy risotto was delicious. Memorable even. It just doesn't remind me of anything remotely resembling Spanish cuisine, traditional or nueva. Simply put, it is the type of dish any trendy American restaurant might serve.

Diatribe against American attempts to replicate Spanish food aside, my leftover lamb shank inspired me to try a classic Hunanese dish I've been thinking about for awhile. For months, I've spotted the gnarled and wrinkly bitter melon at the Asian grocery. After reading an old post from Kian at Red Cook, I finally decided to give it a shot.

Bitter melon is, well, bitter. Fiercely bitter. Will-put-hair-on-your-chest bitter. This is not for the squeamish. For some reason, bitterness is the one flavor that will cause otherwise adventerous American eaters to balk. Exactly the sort of challenge I love. The key to succeeding with bitter melon is to pair it with something equally bold. The gamy Colorado-raised lamb was the perfect ticket. Cooks in Hunan province often pair bitter melon with fermented black beans. The complex sweetness of the beans goes a long way to balance the bitterness of the melon. Surely the lamb and beans together would be enough for my first foray into bitter melon cooking...

WARNING: This dish is incredibly bitter. Bitter melon is not a joke or euphemism. If you serve this dish to a child, expect an immediate visit from Child Services!

Stir-Fried Bitter Melon with Lamb and Black Beans
Inspired by and adapted from www.Redcook.net
Serves 2 (or 4 as part of a traditional multicourse Chinese meal)
Cost: Tough to say...let's estimate $10 since leftover lamb shank is hardly commonplace

1 tbsp. fermented black beans, roughly chopped
2 tbsp. Shaoxing rice wine
2 tbsp. neutral oil (I used corn)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp. ginger, minced
1-2 dried Thai red chiles (optional)
1 bitter melon, sliced lengthwise seeded and cut into bite-sized pieces
1/4 cup water
1 1/2 cups leftover lamb (or other full flavored red meat!)
1 1/2 tsp. Chinese light soy sauce
1/4 ground pepper (white is traditional but all I had was black)

1) Soak the black beans in the rice wine

2) Heat the oil in a 12" non-stick skillet or wok over high heat. When the oil is getting hot (but not yet smoking), add the garlic, ginger, and chiles. Cook, stirring, until fragrant. Add the bitter melon and cook for an additional 1 minute.

3) Add the water, black beans, and wine to the skillet. Cover and reduce heat to medium-high. Cook, shaking occasionally, for 2 minutes.

4) Uncover and add lamb. Cook for 2 more minutes until heated through. Add the soy sauce and pepper, toss, and transfer to a bowl. Serve with white rice.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Tortilla Española: Understanding a greatly misunderstood dish - Part 1

Very few Spanish dishes are subject to the same degree of hyperbolic gushing from American food writers as the tortilla española. In her excellent overview The Foods and Wines of Spain, Penelope Casas describes the tortilla as "a way of life" and waxes eloquent about Spain's "love affair" with the dish. Virtually all American-authored Spanish cookbooks worth their salt contain requisite stories detailing enthusiastic families and inquisitive tourists all experiencing the beauty of Spain, tortillas in hand. These romanticized tales have obscured the purpose and station of what is in reality a humble potato omelet.

It is certainly true that you can find Spaniards serving tortillas all over the country. During my 2-month stay in summer 2008, I rarely entered a cafe, restaurant, bar, or tavern without seeing one. Strangely (considering all I had read from Casas etc...), I did not witness the excitement and enthusiasm that I had been prepared for. First of all, the foreign tourists I encountered seemed perplexed..."This is bland. Why isn't there any ketchup?" was an all-too-common comment. Secondly, Spaniards themselves seemed virtually indifferent to the much-hyped dish. Sure, they would eat a small nibble IF it was given free as a tapa. However, virtually no one ever ordered it specifically and often the free nibble remained uneaten. What was going on here?

I've come to realize that the tortilla occupies a position in Spanish food culture somewhat analogous to tuna salad in America. Sure, most Americans will slap some between two slices of bread for a quick sandwich. Others might occasionally take a more refined approach and dress it up on some greens in a composed salad. Still others might raid the fridge, spoon in hand, for a quick snack. Despite these numerous gastronomic functions, it would sound quite silly to read about an American "love affair" with tuna salad. The tortilla needs to be understood in the same light: it's an easy, flexible, and filling foodstuff for all kinds of unremarkable daily situations.

With only 4 required ingredients (and 1 optional), it is simple to throw together in the American kitchen. You only have a few decisions to make: 1) potatoes diced or thinly sliced 2) thinly sliced onion or not and 3) hot & runny or room temperature & fully set. It is vastly more common in Spain with sliced potatoes, no onion, and served room temperature. Bartenders will cut it into small squares as a free tapa with drinks, cafes will serve thick wedges as a light meal, and moms will slide a slice between baguette slices for their kids' lunches.

In the coming weeks, I hope to explore this misunderstood dish in many of its forms. Spanish tortillas are open to all sorts of improvisation and adaptation. However, it makes sense to start with the basic and ubiquitous potato version:

Tortilla Española
Ingredients - Total Cost: $6.42
2 lbs. russet potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced (I set my Benriner slicer just under 1/4") into circles
1 cup extra virgin olive oil (do NOT try to economize here...much of the oil can be salvaged for other delicious purposes. Sadly, many Spaniards have resorted to sunflower seed oil)
1/2 medium yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced
6 large eggs (obviously the fresher and higher quality the better...in a simple dish you get what you pay for)
3/4 tsp. Morton kosher salt, or to taste

1) Heat the oil in a large dutch oven over medium heat. Most recipes direct you to use the same skillet you will cook the finished tortilla in but I've found that to be an invitation to mess. Since you have to clean the skillet anyway, you aren't really saving any work. Add the sliced potatoes and onions and cook slowly for about 25 minutes. Do your best to periodically stir and separate all the layers of potato for even cooking. When the potatoes are ready, they'll be completely tender. Go ahead and taste the olive oily goodness!

2) Meanwhile, beat the eggs in a large bowl with the salt.

3) When the potatoes are fully tender, drain them in a colander with something underneath to catch the delicious oil. Let them drain for about 1 minute and then pour them into the eggs. Stir the mixture thoroughly and then let it sit for AT LEAST 15 minutes. Do NOT attempt to save time or cut corners on this step of the final flavor and texture of your tortilla will suffer.

4) Heat 2 tbsp. of the reserved oil in a 9-10" non-stick skillet over high heat. When the oil is almost (but not quite!) smoking, pour in the potato-egg mix and quickly smooth it down. Immediately, turn the heat down to medium and cook for about 4-5 minutes.

5) Now the "tricky" part...Place a large plate over the skillet. Holding it in place with a properly pot-holdered hand, FLIP the whole thing over onto the plate. Don't be alarmed if oil and runny egg ooze out onto the plate. This is perfectly normal. Use a spatula to carefully side the tortilla back into the skillet, runny side down. Pour any accumulated eggy juices on and around the tortilla and tuck in any unsightly edges.

6) Cook for 5-6 more minutes or until the eggs reach your desired stage of doneness (some Spanish chefs love a slightly underdone tortilla and use the excess egg as a "sauce"). Flip the tortilla 2 more times to ensure even doneness and shape. Slide the finished tortilla onto a plate and serve hot or cool to room temperature for other uses.

Notes and Serving: Be sure to save the extra potato oil. It is great for frying eggs, vinaigrette, and sauteed vegetables. Eat the tortilla in wedges as a light main course or cut into small squares as a snack. Although it may sound strange (think about the idea of putting American-style potato salad on bread), try a slice between a section of baguette, sliced lengthwise.