Wednesday, October 21, 2009

tomate frito

Any grocery store in Spain devotes at least half an aisle to tomate frito, a Mediterranean sauce par excellence. It comes in jars, it comes in briks (cardboard boxes), it comes dried in packets, it comes in any form one could possibly imagine, matched in ubiquitousness perhaps only by American ketchup.

Tomate frito is essentially a slow cooking of tomatoes in a sofrito of the chef's choice. While the packaged version of tomate frito dates only from the 20th century, this puree of 'fried tomatoes' was most certainly being made and used before. Ever since Cortes brought back the first tomato from the Aztecs in the 1500's, it seems likely that cooks combined it with the already popular onion over heat. The first tomato recipes appear in a Naples cookbook in 1692, but the author obtained the recipes from Spanish sources.

Everyone in Spain swears by their mother's (or grandmother's) version, so there are really no definitive rules. I am of the opinion that the simpler the better, otherwise you may as well whip up an Italian tomato sauce. So I keep mine plain-a little onion, salt, and a bit of sugar. Depending on the tomato variety and ripeness, you may not even need sugar. Some people insist on peeling the tomatoes and seeding them, others simply on seeding them, and still others just do a light chop and thrown the tomatoes in, seeds and peels included. I've done it both ways, and as long as you pass it through a food mill, seive, or chinois, I believe it doesn't matter.

As far as uses go, this silky, rich sauce is incredibly versatile. It's featured in typical Spanish dishes, such as tigres (mussels cooked with mirepoix then filled with tomate frito and bechamel before being breaded and fried) and patatas bravas (i love you), as well as infinitely adaptable to any meat or vegetable dish. So hurry-if you live down South you can still grab the last of the season's tomatoes and store some for winter.

tomate frito

5 lbs ripe tomatoes,
small onion, chopped
about 6-8 tbsp oil
tbsp of salt
pinch of sugar

In two 12 inch saucepans, heat oil (enough to cover bottom of pan) over med. high heat. Add half of onion to each pot. Fry until translucent, not browned. Add tomatoes, dividing equally between pots, sprinkle with salt and sugar, and turn heat to low. Cook for 30-50 minutes, until tomatoes are dark red and slightly caramelized.
Blend very well and pass through strainer, pressing to release all the sauce.

Monday, October 12, 2009

brown butter sage pasta

Last Sunday, I was engaged in wolfing down some of my best chicken salad ever when I noticed my poor husband standing off to the side, looking sad and hungry.

I took pity on him and set to the fridge to see what I could rustle up, and it turns out I got a little bit jealous by the time I was finished. We had a couple half portions of frozen ravioli, some butternut squash, some cheese. I pulled some butter and parmigiano out of the fridge, some sage out of the garden, and got to work creating a pretty pantry friendly and delicious lunch. The husband was happy too...he even graced it with one of his Chimays, which he rations out pretty strictly. Honor of honors!

ravioli with brown butter and sage

a serving of ravioli, preferably squash filled
4 tbsp butter
a handful of sage leaves
2 tbsp olive oil
peeled parmigiano reggiano

boil pasta water. heat oil over high heat and lightly fry the sage leaves until crisp; set to dry on paper towels and sprinkle with salt.
melt butter over medium heat. skim off foam and continue to cook. meanwhile, boil pasta according to directions.
when butter begins to smell nutty and turns a brown color, pull it off the heat. toss pasta with butter, plate, sprinkle with salt and liberally with black pepper. top with fried sage and cheese peelings.

Friday, October 9, 2009

a dinner summary:: restaurante akelarre, san sebastian, spain

Sorry for the lack of pictures here....we were so focused on the amazing meal we had at Akelarre two weeks ago that we took no photos, choosing instead to savor every bite of our amazing meals.

Overall, I must begin by saying, this was one amazing meal. I have never eaten at Mugaritz, or Arzak, or Etxebarri, or El Bullí, so this isn't really about recommending one place over the other. All I can say, with every fiber of my food-loving and food-breathing and food-working body is this was worth every penny. The food was exquisite, perfectly timed, perfectly cooked, of incredible quality, and, of course, fascinating.

So let me get down to the details:

The meal started with an amuse bouche: a little box with 4 "candies". The first we were instructed to take all at once, and it turned out to be an oyster encased in a "shell" (get used to the parenthesis...this meal is filled with things that appear to be something other than they are) of black, sandy, crunchy, salty something. Next came a roll of black pudding and crispy wafer. Then a bite-size piece of tuna rolled in crunchy nuts. And finally a powdery "polvorón" of almond and artichoke.

We each got our own tasting menu, sharing the plates. For the first course, B. had the Cold and Hot Crab Salad and its Coral, sitting in what looked a little forest, with a tiny cucumber, she claims an eggplant, and a little "carrot" that was sort of gelatinous and filled with carrot essence, or puree. This crab was the best I've ever tasted, sort of stringy but in the best way that word can be used... I had Little Pearls and Porous of Foie-Gras, Toasted Peanut Bread. A strange translation (from poroso de foie gras) but I don't have a better one; it was a plate of foie gras beads with an airy foie mousse and a thick piece of crispy peanut bread with silky peanut butter.

For the second course, B. had Prawns and French Beans cooked in Orujo Fire, which they brought to the table in a little cauldron and set on fire, infusing these beautiful shrimp with orujo, a liquor made from the pomace of grapes left after wine pressing. These we were instructed to suck the heads of and then dip the bodies in both the green bean puree (again, super silky) and this "soil" of crushed rice and shrimp shells. Amazing. I had Mollusks in the Net of the Fisherman, a challenging dish for someone who barely likes most seafood. However, even I could tell that the razor clams, mussels, shrimp, clams, squidy squids and whatever else was on there (!) were perfect. On top sat a little puffed rice "net" with the cutest little dried shrimp and delicious blobs of dried seaweed.

For the third course, B. had the Wild Mushrooms and Egg Pasta, a slab of impeccable wild mushrooms (enoki, shitake, some other white enoki cousin) with yellow and white "noodles" made by steaming egg whites and egg yolks in noodley shapes. On the side was a dab of deeply flavored mushroom aioli. I had Vegetable Ravioli, four lovely assorted discs of thinly sliced vegetables filled with the cream of each respective veggie: beets, turnips, carrot, and another....and in the center was a little "ravioli" of Iberian ham fat-whoot whoot!

For the fourth course, B. had Red Tuna with Onion Threads and Roasted Peppers. The tuna was gloriously simple, and the red pepper puree that accompanied it was thick and luxurious. There were also "rocks" made of red pepper meringue and a marinated guindilla pepper. I had the Integral Red Mullet with Sauce Fusili. The mullet was crusted with ground up fish bones (yum, for real!) and, as with all the proteins, impeccable. On the side were six little corkscrew shapes of green, white, and brown. They were soy sauce, parsley juice/puree, and garlic juice/puree, fashioned using nitrous something into the shape of corkscrews. Amazing.

The fifth course had B. eating the Roasted Baby Pig with Tomato Bolao and Iberian Emulsion. The pig had the crispiest skin, and it was uber decadent to drag it through its own fat straight to my mouth. My Loin of Lamb Roasted in Live Coal was incredible, as were the black (squid ink) tempura fried veggies alongside.

Next, dessert course one. B. had the most interesting dish: Milk and Grape, Cheese and Wine in parallel Evolution. It was a slab with five little components, starting with a bland looking domino that was basically gelatinous milk and a light grape gelee sort of thing. The flavors got more concentrated and intense the further down the slab we got...a crumbly, powder tart cheese with grapes, a creamy, sweet cheese with ginger jelly and something red, a strong cheese with something encased in a sherry shell, and a gorgonzola ice cream with wafers. Sorry for the ambiguity on that one...we were freaking out over it. The other was Xaxu and Coconut Iced Mousse, a feathery frozen coconut cream with airy frozen creams of goat and cow's milk.

Dessert course two was the Peach in Syrup for me, a lovely white chocolate shaped "peach" that, when cracked open" oozed cold essence of peach, accompanied by a little piece of french toast and a distilled mint water that had the most amazing body in the mouth. B. had Another Apple Tart, which came covered in a piece of edible silver paper with Akelarre written on it. The paper was apple flavored, the writing chocolate. Underneath was a delicious wafer and cream apple flavored dessert.

Finally, there was a little treat box, covered in another piece of edible paper, with chocolates, a candied hazelnut, and who the heck knows what else because we were pretty euphoric by the time this meal was over, two and a half hours after we sat down.

So, a long post that does not do justice to that which it describes. Sorry if I bore any of my usual readers, but I know this will steer someone towards having the same amazing experience I it's worth it.

Viva Pedro!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

gourmet magazine folds

After years of being at the forefront of cuisine and months filled with whispers of trouble, Gourmet magazine has closed its doors.
So sad.
So many questions.
Why? Beyond dismal ad revenues, which could partially be attributed to the economic climate?
Which magazine will step up to be the classic, sophisticated authority on food that Gourmet was? Bon Appetit is nice, but focused much more on trendiness and unambitious, comfortable recipes.
Where will all the talented writers and cooks employed by gourmet go?
Will someone take the name and go independent? Ruth?
I feel so alone...

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

how to make instant coffee

Instant coffee has a bad name, and rightfully so. That's why I buy mine when in Europe. Or I get other people to, like my brother, who called me from France and was like "they don't have instant espresso, all they have is this Nescafe" and I'm like "bingo, you got it!" I suppose what I'm trying to convey is that when in a country where coffee means espresso, it's hard to get a bad cup. Really hard.

So I love having it around, because it's just so handy. And sometimes even French press doesn't make that cafe con leche taste just right. Somewhat recently, a friend told me about a trick his Peruvian friends swear by, and I've been doing it ever since. And it produces the best cup of instant coffee, with a foamy top and a perfectly blended body. It basically consists of forming a paste with the instant coffee granules, sugar, and a splash of milk or water. The process is almost as fun as drinking the resulting perfect cup of 'coffee'.

the best instant coffee

this makes a small/normal size cup of coffee depending on where you are from

tbsp instant espresso/strong coffee
tbsp of sugar
6-8 ounces of milk (whole cut with a bit of water, for me)

measure the coffee and sugar out into a cup. splash a tiny bit of milk and mush with spoon into a thick paste. pour steaming milk over coffee, agitating with spoon. drink.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

pumpkin chocolate-chip cookies: a series

From appearances, this may look like another successful baking experiment. But appearances can be deceiving.
My closest friends can tell you about my obsession with pumpkin, and more specifically, perfectly crunchy, chewy pumpkin chocolate-chip cookies. A bakery in town used to make the absolute perfect specimen: 5 inches in diameter, crispy around the edges and top, yet chewy chewy in the center. I ate a whole one nearly every time I was there, stomachache be darned. I never got around asking them how they made these wonders, even though at the time I had already had a few failed attempts to recreate them. And the urgency wasn't there....after all, they'd always be there for the purchasing, right?
Wrong. Out of business. Without ever releasing their secret recipe.
If you've ever tried to make pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, you know that most often (using canned pumpkin) they turn out cake like. Soft. If you're lucky there's a bit of a crunch around the side, but always cakey.
So I spend the better part of every fall wasting a lot of chocolate, flour, and butter trying to figure this out. I've consulted experts. I've read up. I've combed the internet...disappointments all.
They say a little knowledge is a dangerous I set out to try again now that October is on us. Oh, I thought, I'll just up the sugar and fat (butter) and drain the pumpkin and voila...perfect cookies. So I let the pumpkin drain for about a half day over cheesecloth (which did let out about a CUP of liquid!). So I changed the proportions, even starting with the best chocolate chip cookie recipe ever.
The results? Probably my best attempt yet, but still totally lacking. Crunchy, a bit. I could tell they were trying. But still cakey, and not nearly enough pumpkiny zing.
Don't worry. I'm determined to get this right, for pumpkin cookie lovers everywhere. The quest continues...

Thursday, October 1, 2009

all that remains.

Another glorious trip to my favorite little corner of the world, Gipuzkoa and Navarra, España, and I'm left with just memories and a slowly disappearing hunk of generic (and incredibly flavorful) sheep's milk cheese.

Hauled through customs and multiple airports, the cheese is still every bit as delicious as it was when the man behind the counter at Spar Todo Todo cut it from the wheel. So I'm savoring it slowly, whittling away one sliver at a time, and marveling how it can taste so much better than American cheese.

Reason #5,602 to not live here: our default cheese is technically not even food, but a food product.

Okay, so I lied. It's not all I'm left with. I have notes from an amazing dinner at Akelarre, which I hope to post for whoever cares (probably sans photo) soon. I also have all THIS which I stowed away in my Chinese store suitcase:

marti's spain essentials:

*bottle of Ribera del Duero (Cepa Gavilán 2006)
*Bela Untza, a basque homemade herb liquor
*pimientos del piquillo
*Principe chocolate filled cookies
*instant decaf coffee
*spanish ketchup
*special pastas from Sandro Desii (flavors: spaghettini with chives and lemon shells)
*guindilla peppers in vinegar
*salsa roquefort
*galletas marias
*dried piment d'espelette and piment d'espelette mustard

sigh. Spain, if you are reading this, I miss you!