Tapas Delight, or Living in a Catalan Paradise

An average small tapas selection

An average small tapas selection

Although 10am is a perfectly acceptable time to start drinking in Spain, God help you if you try to get a drink at 4pm. That’s because Spain shuts down in the afternoon, or at least the eating and drinking part of it, in preparation for the nightly phantasmagorical sensory onslaught and debauch known as ‘dinner.’ Dinner can be pretty much anything you want, but for my part, the chief reason to eat in Spain is tapas, also known as pintxos in Basque country.

The rules of tapas are delightful and elegant. After around 8pm you enter a tapas bar and select a bunch of bite-sized morsels from the arsenal of choices spread across the bar (or written up on the chalkboard), and then you order a glass of wine. Not ordering a glass of wine will earn you frowns. You eat tapas and drink your wine, leave, and enter the next tapas bar down the street. Repeat until insensate, which occurs around midnight. At that point, the nightclubs start to open…

I never really had true tapas before. I have eaten at tapas restaurants in Australia and the US (Toro Bravo, in Portland, being the most notable) but there the experience is slightly different, since you tend to be sitting down and ordering from a menu. In other words, not really any different from any other restaurant except the portions are smaller. Also, tapas can be staggeringly simple, such as a piece of Iberian ham on a slice of baguette, which I suspect would not fly in the US. Jamon iberic0, of course, is so good you can buy it in little French fry-style cartons to eat by itself, but you have to go to Spain to discover that, because that’s where they sell it.

gazpacho

Boquerones, chorizo sausage, and mini-gazpacho

Boquerones are a very tender white anchovy, locally caught, that has been marinated in vinegar. The Basques are fiercely proud of their anchovies (but then the Basques are fiercely proud of pretty much anything remotely Basque). Like jamon, you really can just eat them on their own. And I must work on a gazpacho recipe next, because it’s so good it’s brutal.

chicken drum

Jamon served wrapped around sausage, and jamon served on its own. To repeat myself, Jamon iberico really is the finest ham in the world, made from black pigs fed only acorns, salted and dried by the winds of the Spanish sierra and all the rest. It does not bear much resemblance to other forms of ham, so I suppose it should not be compared. I will miss it. A lot. That’s a boquerone under the egg slice, by the way. Like jamon, they go with anything.

ham market

An example of how seriously the Spanish take their jamon. Honestly, jamon-tasting bars were a common sight.

morcilla

A fried quail’s egg on top of a slice of morcilla (blood sausage) on top of a slice of jamon on top of baguette. At the back, boquerones on top of jamon. Do you like anchovies and ham? Yes I like them, Sam I am!

razor clams

How’s this for breakfast? Pimentos Padron (fried green peppers), razor clams, patatas bravas (potatoes with spicy red sauce) and, of course, cafe con leche.

veal

Getting a bit fancier here – veal cheeks in wine, pig ears in chimichurri, and foie gras terrine. Hey, you only live once.

pan con tomate

And the opposite of fancy, what to my mind is one of the finest breakfasts in the world, pan con tomate.

Pan con Tomate

1 large tomato

2 slices good crusty bread

1 clove garlic, halved

good extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling

salt, to taste

  1. Puree the tomato in a food processor or blender until mostly smooth. I don’t bother peeling it but I suppose you could.
  2. Toast the bread until browned and rub each slice with a garlic half (it’s easier if you don’t peel the garlic first).
  3. Top with tomato, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.

A Pressing Matter

automation

Gnerally, I’m a sucker for any dish that takes three days to make. To my mind, cooking is often far too efficient. Getting dinner on the table with minimum fuss, though often a sad necessity, is seldom a rewarding experience.  It’s just another chore to be done. Spending time on a meal, real time, feels more like gardening. It’s rewarding in and of itself. So I like dishes that take three days to make.

It makes sense, too, when you consider how long it took to produce the ingredients you are using – months or years to grow the vegetables and raise the animals, dry the raisins, cure the ham, age the wine. Seems a bit neglectful of all that effort to just throw them together and chow down as the last step of the process.

And speaking of curing ham, here’s a Chinese recipe I found for making a hunk of pork shoulder taste like ham after only three days, instead of the usual two years. The Chinese are masters of this kind of transformation.

Shanghai Pressed Pork

1 tablespoon Szechuan peppercorns

1 tablespoon salt

1 ½ lbs fresh boneless pork shoulder or butt

4 cups boiling water

2 slices fresh ginger

2 spring onions (halved and lightly squashed)

1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine

Dipping Sauce

4 ½ teaspoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon sugar

1 ½ teaspoons minced fresh ginger

1 teaspoon chopped spring onion

Dry fry the Szechuan peppercorns until browning. In a mortar and pestle or spice grinder pulverize with the salt.

Place the pork in a glass bowl and coat each side with the peppersalt. Refrigerate 3 days, turning each day.

salted

Place pork in a saucepan with the boiling water (add more if needed to cover), the ginger, spring onions and the Shaoxing wine. Simmer for an hour or until juices are no longer red when the meat is pierced.

Drain the pork and place on a cutting board. Place another cutting board on top and add weights – bricks, a cast iron pot full of water, or, in my case, dumbbells. Let stand an hour at room temperature. A fair amount of the sticky gelatin will squeeze out.

pressed

under pressure

pressed above

Combine ingredients for dipping sauce in a small bowl and mix well. Slice the pork into thin slices and serve with seasonal greens.

ham

In the words of Norman Douglas: “Not a dish for every day, but the longer one lives, the more one realizes that nothing is a dish for every day.”

So enjoy your days.

The Secret of Soffritto

Clam diggers on the Pacific coast

Clam diggers on the Pacific coast

Every year during the clam tides, diggers flock to the clam beds near Ocean Shores, Washington, to dig their limit of 15 tender, succulent razor clams. The determination of these people is admirable because there can’t be a much more miserable thing to do at 2am than stand in freezing water and rain getting covered in mud up to your armpits. Of course the prize is arguably great – razor clams are delicious. But this display of obsession has surprised me in the past because there isn’t that much you can do with clams, that I know of, other than deep fry them into clam strips or make clam chowder, neither of which hold a world title for most sophisticated dish.

It’s also hard to find a ‘master’ recipe for clam chowder. Perhaps because there really isn’t that much to it no great chef has troubled to put their name to a recipe. All recipes are essentially the same – fry some onions, add some stock and potatoes, simmer, add chopped clams. Simmer again and eat. To this there are countless variations of preference. Add cream or don’t. Add some herbs. Add garlic. If you are in Manhattan, add tomatoes. I even saw a recipe that required the soup be thickened with instant mashed potato flakes. When my wife decided the time had come to make some truly great clam chowder, I wondered if there was any way to really elevate the dish and make it worthy of exhaustion and hypothermia. My theory: soffritto.

Soffritto is a mirepoix of finely chopped vegetables which forms the basis of soups, stews and sauces in Tuscan cuisine. This was more like it – a bit of research into mirepoix revealed a delightful wealth of argument and invective through the ages, a bit like when I tried to track down an authentic recipe for gravlax. Soffritto, the Tuscan version, contains carrots, celery and onion in a 1:1:2 ratio, and is not to be confused with the Spanish sofrito (tomatoes, onions, garlic, green bell pepper), Portuguese refogado (onions, garlic, tomatoes), Dutch soepgroente (leek, carrot, celeraic) or the Cajun ‘holy trinity’ (onion, celery, green bell pepper). As you can see, these are all variants on the same idea. Mince some aromatics, saute them. However, get the region wrong, and you are no longer considered a real chef. This tiny first step of humble vegetables is what lets you know you are doing authentic Tuscan (Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Cajun) cookery.

I picked Tuscan. I mostly did this because nobody adds carrots to clam chowder, and I can never resist the opportunity to do something wrong.

The recipe… well, my wife did all the rest, because she was searching for “a certain flavour idea” as she put it. This is what she says when she knows what she wants to taste in her imagination, and she sets about inventing it. She doesn’t seem to need a recipe to do it, which baffles me. But from what I observed, here is what she did for her simply spectacular, worthy of the rain-and-mud razor clam chowder:

Leslie’s Clam Chowder (for two)

Soffritto

1 leek

1 carrot, peeled

1 celery stalk

Mince the vegetables into very fine dice – take your time. In a heavy, cast iron pot, heat a splash of olive oil over medium heat. Add the aromatics and saute gently for a long time until they are thoroughly softened, but don’t let them burn. (Incidentally, I read recently that the reason celery is essential in soup bases is not because of its inherent flavour, but because it contains a compound that accentuates the taste of other flavours, a bit like the way MSG works. I wondered.) Pretty soon you will be a soffritto convert – the kitchen will fill with amazing smells, and the little toasty bits of vegetables taste delicious off a wooden spoon. Now for the real fire!

soffrito

Chowder, stage one

2 rashers bacon

4 small red potatoes

1 (8 oz) bottle clam juice

2 cups chicken stock

Dice the bacon and crisp it up nicely in a frypan. Reserve the bacon and add the drippings to your softened soffritto. Peel and dice three of the potatoes. To the soffritto, add the clam juice, chicken stock and potatoes. Simmer until the potatoes are well and truly soft, then mash them in the pot. You may want to add more stock if it is getting too thick. Dice the last potato (unpeeled) and add it to the pot, along with 1 tablespoon of the reserved bacon.

Chowder, stage two

1/2 tablespoon hot paprika

1 teaspoon red chilli flakes

1 tablespoon sherry

1/2 cup cream

1/2 lb lovely, lovely razor clams, cleaned and diced

cilantro, to garnish

Add the paprika and chilli flakes and simmer until the last potato is soft (again, feel free to add more liquid if necessary). Add the sherry and cream. Add the clams and reserved bacon and simmer 15 minutes. Taste, add more cream if desired. Serve with a sprinkling of cilantro and crackers for dipping.

The Daily Grinds in Hawaii

DSC_0025Hawaiian Chilli Pepper Water

8 small hot red peppers (Hawaiian, ideally, but birdseye will do), chopped

2 slices ginger

1 clove garlic, smashed

2 teaspoons rice vinegar

1 teaspoon salt

about 2 cups hot water

Sterilize a pint jar. Place in it the peppers, ginger, garlic, vinegar and salt. Add the hot water, seal the jar, and let mellow a few days in the refrigerator before straining out and using. Slop it on anything you like – rice, pasta, meat, salad – to add a touch of Tabasco-like zing.

Chilli pepper water is a ubiquitous Hawaiian condiment which I think pretty well expresses the Hawaiian attitude to food. The word grinds refers to the kind of food you eat everyday, with relish, until you are bursting-full. The most famous grind is loco moco, two scoops of white rice (always medium grain), topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg, and gravy… which you should then feel free to slosh chilli pepper water over. Local variations abound, such as this dish we encountered in Hilo – katsu moco, rice topped with Japanese tonkatsu-style pork and fried eggs. Once you eat of this dish you will forget the days you were hungry.

Katsu moco

Katsu moco

I’m not so much into the diner-style eats, honestly, though they have their place. Mostly this is because I am embarrassed I can never finish a red-blooded-male-size portion. Also, I’m a grazer. I like to nibble on this and that through the day. The best Hawaiian nibble, which I have posted about here, is spam musubi. Again, medium grain white rice, topped with a slice of spam which has been lightly fried in soy sauce, then wrapped in nori. Sometimes other condiments are added, such as the famous Japanese pickled plums ume. Or a little fish roe. Or a sprinkling of furikake. Again, the local variations are endless. They are good. I want some right now.

Making spam musubi and onigiri rice balls

Making spam musubi and onigiri rice balls

Another indigenous food is kulua pork, which is pig that is roasted whole underground in a stone pit. Served with cabbage and the ubiquitous scoops of rice, it is salty, savoury, smoky, succulent and satisfying.

Hawaii (116)

Hawaii is fortunate enough to have a strong Japanese influence, even more so than Seattle. Hawaii is also fortunate enough to have a million available species of fish, which of all people the Japanese know how to deal with.  In Hawaii they put fish to the best of all possible uses, served raw as poke (I’ve previously mentioned poke here). There are even more versions of poke than there are of loco moco or spam musubi. Any creature that swims the watery deep, it seems, can be turned into raw fish salad, lightly seasoned with shoyu, sesame oil, seaweed and chilli. Ahi tuna is the classic fish of choice but you can also get octopus, sea snails, squid, crab, you name it. Poke is so ubiquitous in Hawaii that pretty much any corner store sells it by the pound and with a couple of pairs of disposable chopsticks you have a wonderful grazing lunch for two.

Poke counter at the supermarket

Poke counter at the supermarket

Among other things we have the Japanese in Hawaii to thank for is the tonkatsu-wich. Tonkatzu is pork which has been breaded in panko breadcrumbs and fried, then sliced and served with shredded raw cabbage and tonkatsu sauce, which is often apple-based. Tonkatsu is, historically speaking, already a fusion food. It is an example of yōshoku, the Japanized versions of the Western foods which were suddenly available in Japan after the Meiji restoration. In Hawaii they take the cultural confusion a step further by placing the breaded pork between two slices of white bread. Served with tsukemono (pickled vegetables), ground sesame seeds and a variety of sauces, this is less trashy than it sounds, and very, very delicious.

Tonkatsu-wich

Tonkatsu-wich

In Waikiki we visited a fantastic udon noodle restaurant. It was so popular the line usually doubled about the block, which was a bit odd for a place that really only served one dish. But their udon were fantastic, made before your eyes, thick as nightcrawlers and served with a few simple choices of garnish. Despite the line we went back, just to be amazed again that something so simple could be so good. I think I must try mastering the art of udon making.

Simply prepared udon at Marukame Udon, Waikiki

Simply prepared udon at Marukame Udon, Waikiki

Hawaii (6)

I could go on, and on. I haven’t even mentioned the most famous Hawaiian dish of all, poi, which is steamed and mashed taro root, and which a local we met advised us, if offered it, to smile politely and take a tiny taste so as not to offend anyone. I could rant about the sushi. Or the Portuguese influenced longaniza sausage. Or the dragonfruits and longans and lilikoi (passionfruit), my most favourite of all fruits.

Maybe next time.

Pork Poems

This week I lost a tooth, which always puts me in a maudlin state of mind wherein I obsessively contemplate the nature of mortality, and I’ve been thinking the best way to be memorialized would be to have a food named after me. Here are some examples I can think of:

The sandwich (Earl of Sandwich)

John Wayne candy bar (John Wayne)

Oysters Rockefeller (John D.  Rockefeller)

Fettuccine Alfredo (Alfredo di Lelio)

Eggs Benedict (no idea, but it has to be someone)

Frangelico (Fra Angelico, duh)

Cherry Garcia ice cream (Jerry Garcia)

Earl Grey tea (some British prime minister)

Margarita cocktail (Rita Hayworth. Real name Margarita Cansino)

Melba toast (Dame Nellie Melba)

Pavlova (Anna Pavlova)

General Tso’s chicken (also has to be someone, right?)

Dongpo pork (Su Dongpo)

"I want Dong Po!" ... too obscure? I love 'Kickboxer'.

"I want Dong Po!" ... too obscure? I love 'Kickboxer'.

Dongpo pork is a new favourite recipe of mine. It is Chinese cuisine at its finest – simultaneously elaborate and simple. The ingredients are few but the pork must be boiled, reboiled, simmered in a sauce, fried, boiled again, then steamed. Why is it named after the poet Su Dongpo? No one knows. Almost certainly he didn’t invent it (who could imagine a poet going to all that work?). As Lin Hsiang puts it in Chinese Gastronomy, this dish is “…named after Su Tungpo, the poet, for unknown reasons. Perhaps it is just because he would have liked it.” And I bet he would have. When you are done, the pork is so tender the fat can be eaten with chopsticks.

Dongpo Pork

1 lb pork belly

1 tea bag (Lapsang Souchong for preference)

4 spring onions

About an inch of fresh ginger, slivered

1 head broccoli

Sauce:

1 cup water

8 cloves garlic, smashed

5 slices ginger

1 tablespoon peppercorns

4 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine

2 teaspoons sesame oil

1 tablespoon sugar

Boil a pot of water and toss in the pork. When it comes back to the boil, drain the pork, clean the pot (go on, do it), put the pork back in and cover with cold water. Bring back to the boil. Boil 30 minutes. Fish out the pork, keep the water.

Heat up another saucepan with all the sauce ingredients. Add the pork and simmer for a few minutes, until nicely coloured. Remove the pork and reserve the sauce.

Heat up some oil in a saucepan (or wok). Fry the pork on all sides until well browned and the skin is crispy. While this is happening, steep the tea bag in boiling water for a minute or so, then toss the water and keep the tea bag.

browning belly

Place the pork in the saucepan of water again, and add the tea bag. Simmer 30 more minutes.

Cut the spring onions in half, and use them to make a lattice at the bottom of your bamboo steamer. Place the pork on top of this, then steam for 2 hours. You will need to top up the water a few times.

steaming onions

Don't forget to cover the steamer... unlike this pic

Don't forget to cover the steamer... unlike this pic

Cut the broccoli into florets and place in the steamer for the final 5 minutes of cooking time.

Place the pork and broccoli on a serving dish, reheat the sauce (thicken with cornflour if you like) and pour over the pork. Garnish with the slivers of ginger.

It’s a long process, no doubt, but there’s only one life to eat, enjoy, and enjoy eating. As the poet himself put it:

Shui Lung Yin by Su Dongpo

Drinking through the night at East Slope,
still drunk on waking-up,
I return home around midnight.
My house-boy snores like thunder,
no answer to my knock.

Leaning on my stick, listening to the river,
I wish this body belonged to someone else.
When can I escape this turmoil?

In the deep night, with the wind still, the sea calm;
I’ll find a boat and drift away,
to spend my final years afloat,
trusting to the river and the sea.

Deer in a Jar

DSC_0049Virgil, my fry bread guide, got a deer this year and I got a piece of it. Two jars of canned venison, in fact. Until a couple of weeks ago I had no idea you could keep venison in a jar, but there it is. Life is a learning experience. Here’s what I did with it:

Hungarian Cabbage Rolls (with Canned Venison)

1 lb canned venison, finely chopped

1 cup uncooked rice

salt

pepper

1 green cabbage

1 can sauerkraut

2 small cans tomato juice

sugar

The quantities here are a tad approximate, but this is a very forgiving recipe. First, cut out the core of the cabbage with a sharp knife. Boil the cabbage for about 10 minutes, prodding it aimlessly until the leaves start to come apart. Drain it and let cool.

In a bowl, mix the chopped venison, the rice, and enough salt and pepper. Take a leaf of boiled cabbage and put a few spoons of venison mixture on it.

DSC_0055

Tuck in the sides and roll up. Easy!

DSC_0053

Layer the bottom of a heavy pan with sauerkraut. Place the rolls on top of this.

DSC_0054

Cover with sauerkraut and add tomato juice (and water) to cover. Sprinkle with sugar. Simmer for about two hours. Eat with good company and cheap wine.

DSC_0058