Welcome to Catalan Cookery! I hope you enjoy reading about my culinary adventures and delicious experiences in Catalonia, Spain.

Come check out my current blogging project,
Scrumptious Company, in which I chronicle my once-a-week dinner parties with pictures and recipes.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Another Olive Oil Update

I’ve been collecting a whole slew of olive oil projects to share with you.  So here goes…

Olive Oil Ice Cream                                                                                  The perfect olive oil ice cream is something I’m still working on.  I’ve had a few unsuccessful attempts and a few pretty-good outcomes.  But I can tell that pure success is lurking just around the corner. I can just feel it.  In my trials so far, I’ve been combining traditional ice cream techniques with traditional vinaigrette techniques.  One of the first steps in ice cream making is the whisking together of egg yolks and sugar.  I do this, and then start drizzling in olive oil in a thin stream, all the while whisking, just as you would with a vinaigrette.  And then, when the sauce (the potential ice cream) is all but complete, I drizzle in more olive oil with this same technique.  A double whammy of extra virgin olive oil.  I just need to adjust my ratios a bit, and I’ll have utter perfection on my hands.  (The unsuccessful trials need not go to waste though – they’re fabulous plunked into my morning coffee!)

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Olive Oil ‘Butter’                                                                                           This one is ultra-simple, but I still think it’s pretty cool.  It’s a quick combination of olive oil and mono-diglyceride.  I warm it up, I cool it down, and presto!  Spreadable olive oil!   Imagine it spread on warm crusty bread with sprinkling of salt.  Mmmmm.  Who needs butter?  

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Olive Oil Cotton Candy                                                                         Part of me thinks this one’s cheating a bit.  I mean, it’s only cotton candy with little drops of olive oil  and sea salt sprinkled on top.  Technically, it’s cotton candy with olive oil.  Not olive-oil-cotton-candy.   But when you pop this small wispy-sugar orb into your mouth, it’s instantly infuses with olive oil sweetness.  It just works, if you know what I mean.  Anyways, who am I to say boo to cotton candy?                               

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Olive Oil Powder                                                                               Another simple preparation.  Easy as can be really, but oh so cool.  Combine 2 parts malto-dextrose with 1 part olive oil.  Give it a spin in a food processor. And voilĂ !  Powdered olive oil!

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Olive Oil Custard                                                                                        For the custard, I use the same cream-sauce-cum-vinaigrette technique that I developed for the ice cream.  The end product is pretty similar, and quite nice.  Thick and smooth with a good balance of eggy richness, and a vibrant olive oil presence. 

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Olive Oil Gummies                                                                                        This has got to be my greatest success at Alicia!  These things are fantabulous!  They rival Haribo (the best gummy bears in the world– the only brand I’ll buy).  But like I said, these gummies of mine, miraculously, are just as good.  Gooey capsules of sugary extra-virgin olive oil.  They enliven your mouth with a rich burst of intense olive-oily flavor.  I could seriously eat handfuls.  Too bad that on top of being completely sugar laden, they’re full of fat too!  But they’re so darn good, I keep getting special order requests.  I make a new batch about every week.  In fact, I’m making some more tomorrow. Yay!

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Olive Oil Air                                                                                                         Easy peasy.  Extra-virgin olive oil.  Lecithin.  Combine.  Heat.  Blend. Done.

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So, there you have it.  My entire olive oil repertoire.  You know, I don’t think I’ll ever taste a drop of olive oil again without experiencing an instant flood of lovely Alicia memories.  How lucky.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Breakfast, in Two Acts

I really only have so much time to experience Barcelona, regardless of the fact that I only have three weeks left in Spain.  I’ve been feeling this way from the very beginning – that every single minute in this fabulous city has to count, has to be packed with as much life-experience and sight-seeing and eating (especially eating) as is possible. 

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Living over an hour away by train, and working like crazy at Alicia during the week, I unfortunately only have the weekends to explore Barcelona.  But I’ve derived a pretty effective two-step system for squeezing the most out of this incredible city during the small amount of time I do have. 

Step 1:  Always take the earliest train in and the latest train out.  This means I leave Manresa at six o’clock, and then I’m usually on the nine-thirty train back, which is the absolute last train offered.  It’s a shame because it makes it tough to stay for dinner.  Most restaurants open for dinner no earlier than half-past eight!  (A lot of customs surrounding meals are very different here, actually.  lunch is later than we’re used to also, usually between two and five.  At this time most of the shops and businesses close for a few hours, to observe the siesta, while people eat what’s commonly the most substantial meal of the day.)  Anyways, this nine-thirty train and these late, late dinners lead me to the next step in my system:

Step 2:  Eat two (well, let’s say multiple – on certain days two would be an underestimation) breakfasts and lunches.  This is such a discovery! A fail-proof system!  I’ll ease into breakfast in a quaint cafe for some coffee and say, a croissant with marmalade.  And then I’ll wander the streets for a while, taking in the sites, until I stumble upon another little place for act two, perhaps a cafe con leche (coffee with steamed milk, mmmmmmmm) and a cinnamon-sugar crepe.   For lunch I usually stick to a fabulous sandwich of some sort and then a variety of tapas, or vice versa.  It’s really a flawless plan, and it’s been working like a charm. 

Last weekend I achieved near-perfection with breakfast.  Both times!  My first stop was to a little bar within the Boqueria market.  With all the hustle and bustle of the opening market surrounding me, I pulled up a stool to a counter lined with truly gorgeous selections 0f fresh, colorful food – all made with ingredients from the nearby market stalls.  Old men behind the counter split their time between taking orders and grilling up drool-worth plates of local fish and vegetables. 

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I’ve never really been one for breakfast foods at breakfast.  Early in the morning, I’ll usually opt for a cheeseburger over pancakes.  (FYI: Pancakes are best I think at times hovering around midnight.)  So on this particular morning, I just couldn’t resist a savory option – the seafood mixed grill.  Huge pink freshwater shrimp. I messily ripped off the shells, savored the sweet tender meat, then thoroughly licked every last finger.  A delicate fillet of grilled white fish,  simply excellent with a vibrant touch of fresh parsley sauce.  Quick-seared baby squid, its hollow shape encapsulating a delicious sauce of briny juices that bursts in the mouth the with first bite.  Huge fresh sardines, with shiny silver skins, tender bones and deep pink flesh.  Long and slender razor clams, with a squeeze of lemon, a heavenly blend of briny, citrusy sweetness.

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Oh my goodness,  It was all so delicious, I could have eaten it for breakfast, lunch and dinner that day.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  I still had Breakfast Part Two to take care of. 

The fates must have been smiling down on me that morning, because my next breakfast spot proved to offer an an equally sensational experience.  Having already satisfied my savory tooth, I now felt an urge to indulge in something sweet.  My choice of indulgence was easy: Churros and Chocolate, a typical Catalan treat of long twists of sweet fried dough and a cup of the thickest, richest hot chocolate imaginable. 

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I’ve been a quest for the perfect Churros and Chocolate since I’ve been here.  And on this extraordinary morning I found it.  The hot chocolate was velvety smooth, dark and rich and bitter-sweet.  So comforting and just achingly good.  The churros were fresh out of the hot oil.  Hot, crisp and golden with sweet, doughy insides.  Sprinkled with sugar, they were delicious all by themselves.  Combined with the chocolate, they made for true luxury.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

My Tapas Journal

My guess is that these days, most of you are familiar with the concept of Tapas. With culinary matters on the whole getting all sorts of attention, most people seem to have a new and keen awareness of general foodie sorts of things such as tapas. In any case, here’s a basic definition for those of you still in the dark.

Tapas is the name of the truly magnificent Spanish culinary custom of small plates. Among a table of friends, multiple small dishes of snacks and appetizers are shared all around. It’s a marvelous way to eat lots and lots of food – Everyone has a bite or two of everything. For people like me, who always struggle to choose just one item on a menu (and try to wrangle their oh-so-generous husband into splitting and sharing plates every time they go out) it’s the most perfect way imaginable to eat.

Needless to say, I've been eating lots of tapas while I've been over here. What follows is a journal of sorts, of my tapalicious experiences.

There’s a great little patio cafĂ© right outside of the Boqueria that I was lucky enough to stumble upon my first day (wait – my first hour) in Barcelona. Beginner’s luck was to thank for sure, because this simple place was an instant favorite. I’ve been three times…so far. Twice I’ve gone for sandwiches (sandwiches so glorious they deserve a blog post of their own) but then last week a group of us from Alicia went for tapas. Talk about glorious - The tapas were divine!

Salty cod fritters, flecked with herbs, with lovely-tender insides and crackly golden crust. A virtual rainbow of tangy, briny olives. Roasted peppers, glistening emerald green and topped with flaky sea salt (This tapas holds a special bit of tradition – Most of the peppers are sweet and mild, but one or two per plate usually end up being wicked spicy hot. The fun lies in finding who ends up with the burning mouth!). And my favorite at this tapas feast: ham croquets - warm gooey pillows of oozing cheesy goodness enveloping bits of salty ham, surrounded by crunchy deep-fried perfection of a shell. Oh so satisfying to my soul.

Jaume, 0ne of the head chefs at Alicia and a Barcelona native, generously spent an entire Saturday afternoon touring us around all his favorite Barcelona tapas haunts. In the span of a few hours, we visited three fantastic spots, and ate our hearts out. Each restaurant we stopped at proved to be a variation on complete perfection. Each one could stand alone as its own cosmos of Barcelonian utopia. Strung together, they truly made for a day to remember.

Our first stop just oozed old world atmosphere. A teensy little place filled to the brim with all sorts of bottles, jars, cans and containers in just about every fashion – all enclosing fabulous cured and preserved foods. Two friendly old men served drinks and snacks from behind a bar, while happy customers packed the place, all standing around tall, tiny bar tables, nibbling the tasty treats.

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Our delicious victuals here were… Well, let’s start with the very best. Silver fillets of oil-cured anchovies. So creamy you could mistake them for butter. So rich and savory, just one taste instantly granted a feeling of pure contentment. Oh my goodness. Nearly as good were the sun-dried tomatoes. They were so bright in flavor, you could actually taste the sunshine. Jaume says these are the best cured tomatoes in all of Barcelona, and I believe him implicitly. Oh, and the cured pork - salty plum-colored ribbons of savory perfection that whisper a promise to melt in your mouth. And the plump, round red peppers, bright red and sweet, amply filled with smooth cheese and fragrant green herbs. To wash all this down, frosty vermouth and seltzer water in delicate little glasses. All if it - Shockingly good.

Our next stop was a Montaditos bar. The Basque country’s answer to tapas, Montaditos are small slices of bread generously crowned with a wide variety of multicolored toppings –all sorts of combinations of cheeses, vegetables, meats and fish - and secured with a single toothpick. They’re so pretty to look at, all lined up, displayed on the bar. Like little works of art, all for the eating. Each one tends to outdo the last. It can be so hard to choose…which of course can easily lead to choosing one of each.

We filled a few plates with any and all that struck our fancy and sampled the scrumptious bites and delectable flavors, all the while keeping hold of the toothpicks, which cleverly served to tally the bill. I'm embarrassed to report, I have little recollection of what exactly I ate. It was all such a whirlwind of color and flavor. A delicious whirlwind, I do most certainly recall.

The end of our culinary tour found us in a third lively restaurant, sitting around a food-filled table, sharing a vast assortment of the most wonderfully traditional Catalan tapas...

Pa am tomaquet – perhaps what I’ll miss most about Catalonia – rustic bread sliced in half and rubbed with fresh tomato. The sweet juicy/seedy insides of the tomato drench the soft bread, which is drizzled with rich olive oil and sprinkled with crunchy salt. Utterly, perfectly delicious. I shiver to think of eating bread again any other way. Patatas bravas, another Catalan staple, fried cubes of potatoes, crispy and tender all at once, topped with a stellar combination of garlicky mayonnaise and spicy red pepper sauce. Next up, fried artichokes, delicate and simply divine. And (to make certain we reached our fried food quota,) a plate of assorted deep-fried seafood – squid and whitefish and anchovies, salty and sweet with a light tempura-like crust. What perfect dessert could possibly serve as a just end to this splendid meal (meals!)? Days-old fresh goat cheese topped with toasted pine nuts and wildflower honey. Bliss.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Olive Oil Extraction

So, I just wanted to take a few quick moments and tell you all something really neat. I just extracted some real-life olive oil from some real-life olives. And it felt fabulous!

From one kilogram (that’s about 2-ish pounds) of ripe olives, I was able to produce about 50 milliliters (less than a quarter cup) of oil. Here’s the rundown of my method: For one hour, at the lowest speed of a Thermomix (an incredibly awesome and incredibly expensive European blender, that I really, really want, but I really, really want a lot of things, so oh well) I blended the olives, pits and all, into a purple paste that looked delicious, like a bright and luscious blueberry sauce, but tasted of bitter, horrible terribleness.

I filled large test-tubes with the beautiful-yucky olive paste, and spun them around a couple-million times or so in a centrifuge, which actually only took about ten minutes. When their spinning time was up, a clear golden oil rested atop the purple gunkiness: my very own, very extra virgin, olive oil.

It was slightly bitter and a little grassy-tasting, but round and fresh and really nice. We hadn’t tried this at Alicia before. I was mimicking industrial methods on a much smaller scale, and none of us was sure if it would actually work. But work it did! And we couldn’t have been happier or more satisfied with ourselves. It was a perfect end to a busy week!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Picture Album of My Favorite Place

I have found my absolute favorite spot in Spain: The Boqueria Market. It’s a sprawling open-air space filled with endless stalls of the world’s most gorgeous fruits and vegetables and cheeses and seafood and meats and nuts and grains and chocolate and candy. Heaven. On. Earth.

Every weekend, it’s my first and last stop in Barcelona. I arrive on the earliest morning train, and as the sun is just beginning to filter through the rafters, I ramble through the longs aisles and just watch as the hurried vendors set up their multihued mountains of colorful displays. The busy energy and hectic noise of such a grand and beautiful place coming alive in the morning never ceases to entrance me. I am instantly transported to a world of bliss and wonder. And then after a day of walking and eating along the old Barcelona streets, I return to my market of markets, and try my best to choose from this myriad of dazzling ingredients, a few delectable provisions to take home with me for the week ahead.

I could go on all day, describing this beautiful place to you. I could exploit my best descriptive writing skills, and come up with some truly spectacular essay. I could rack my brains and string together an impressive list of fancy adjectives that would stun even Mr. Lundholm (my eleventh grade English teacher – a very cool guy with a tremendous vocabulary). I could.

But I think we’d all prefer some pictures! Right? And as tricky as it is choosing from this vast array, just a few goodies to fit in my bag and take home with me on the train, it turns out it’s just as tough deciding on some photos to share with you. So I’ve included a whole slew of pictures today. My hope is that this whole mess of photos will give you a glimpse into the immense variety, colorful energy and vast beauty that is La Boqueria Market. Please enjoy.