Surf & Turf, Spanish Style

fineswine

Next time I go to Spain I’ll be sure to take my fine swine t-shirt with me. It just might get me some freebies!

I’m currently reading John Barlow’s Everything But the Squeal, in which he details his year spent eating every part of the pig on his travels throughout Galicia, the northwestern corner of Spain that borders the Atlantic Ocean. For those of you who might not have heard the expression, it is said—most correctly—that when it comes to the pig, you can eat everything but the squeal. Actually, I always heard that expression as “everything but the oink,” but the idea is still the same. If you treat it with ingenuity, patience and care, you can consume the hog in its entirety.

What struck me, though, was his reveal that when you go to Galicia’s pork-centric festivals (and Galicians reaallly love their pork!), whether the exalted piece of pig flesh is the snout, the corkscrew on the backend or somewhere in the middle, you’ll find not only the celebrated piggly part but pulpo as well. It is a feature of every festival. EVERY festival. In fact, Barlow says that pulpo is “as close to a Galician’s heart as pork.”

Pulpo is a treat that shows up on tables throughout Spain. Fitting in the tapas category—or pintxos if you’re in the Basque region—pulpo is octopus tentacle that has been simply cooked (in Spain it’s usually boiled in a large copper pot), cut into bite-sized pieces, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with Spanish paprika and flaky sea salt. The flesh is dense yet smooth and creamy, unless it’s been mishandled and becomes tough and chewy. Its delicate flavor makes it a natural for all sorts of flavor combinations.

This past week I found myself in an Asian supermarket, pulpo the last thing on my mind. As I searched for items for some recipes I’ve been developing, I swung by the seafood section for a look at the fresh fish and such, much of which was looking right back at me (I’ll return for those catfish heads another time). And I spotted individual octopus tentacles, pre-cooked and packaged with little sleeves of wasabi. As I plucked a couple of them out of the array of seaweed salad, sushi and kimchi—all of which I adore—my thoughts weren’t of Asian food.

They were of PULPO!

octopus

I’m a sucker for these suckers…

So when I got home with them, I tossed out the wasabi packets and gave the tentacles the Spanish treatment, added in a few delectables from the local Spanish market—namely some anchovy-stuffed Spanish olives and tiny green pickled peppers called piparras—and poured myself a glass of txakoli, a crisp white wine from the Basque country. And I rounded out the feast with a hunk of bread Himself had baked the day before, great for mopping up every last bit of olive oil, paprika and sea salt.

pulpo din din

mine, all mine…

Speaking of Himself, he was out of town, so I greedily envisioned enjoying my feast all by myself. That worked out only until Cosmo’s nose alerted him to something in the kitchen that he needed to check into. Turns out, he’s a fan of pulpo too. And now he drifts through hopefully, assured that there’s more pulpo and that I’m in a sharing mood.

pulpo lover

fellow pulpo lover

What a delight that this need not be an either/or proposition. In Spain you can indulge in both, just my kind of surf and turf. Now I’m scoping out recipes for combining these two, like wrapping octopus in bacon. I’m not the first one to think of this—the internet is full of menus featuring pork belly and octopus There’s even a restaurant in Milano that serves octopus and pork belly lollipops!

As for me, I’m not interested in blazing a new trail but rather reimagining how I can take ingredients into my own kitchen and use them in ways I’d never thought of—like giving my Chinese octopus a Spanish passport.

I see a whole new type of angels on horseback in my future.

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green almonds in the last place I’d expect to find them…

one almondDuring my 18+ years living in Los Angeles I searched unsuccessfully for the delicacy that is the green almond. One of those items only in-the-know locals are hip to, they eluded me each time I’d check the farmers’ markets in April, the wee micro-season in which they’re available. Like the town’s celebrities, I knew they were there–just hard to spot sometimes.

But today Himself and I were in Goodies Mediterranean Market, a great Seattle find, picking up rose water for a recipe I’m developing, when I decided to pop into the fresh produce area for a look around. And there, far, far from the Mediterranean climate of our recently departed Southern California—and the Mediterranean itself—lookie what I found…

almond halfGreen almonds! They sort of look like tiny, immature peaches, don’t they? That’s because they’re kinfolk, botanically speaking. But you can munch away on these without doing a thing to them. Yup, can you eat them whole, just as they are and enjoy their crisp, delicate tartness. Or you can toss them in a splash of olive oil and a sprinkling of flaked sea salt and make a lovely little snack for yourself. They need nothing else to be delightful. If you’re a peach-fuzz-o-phobe, don’t let the fuzzy exterior put you off. Crunchy is the primary texture you’ll notice. And see the very inside of the almond embryo? It’s cool and jelly like.

almond splitThe late Chef Judy Rodgers of Zuni Café fame so loved green almonds that she featured them on the cover of her wonderful Zuni Café Cookbook. She liked to carve away the exterior and pull out the delicate centers, those future almonds, to serve with white rose nectarines and prosciutto. Their subtle tang plays well with the delicate sweetness of the nectarines and the salty, porkiness of the prosciutto.

So to all my Southern California pals—and to anyone heading that way in the next few weeks, including my colleagues in town for IACP’s annual conference—keep an eye on the farmers’ markets, especially the one in Santa Monica, and see if you can get your hands on some green almonds. (Come to think of it, the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market is a good place to spot both delicacies and celebrities!) Once they move beyond their cute fuzzy puppy stage, you’ll have to wait until they’ve matured and lost their tough outer layers to enjoy the mature treasure inside. (em, talking about green almonds again, not celebrities!)

And if you’re not in a Mediterranean climate, check around to see if you have a grocery nearby that carries the foodstuffs of that area. Even if you don’t find green almonds, you’ll certainly discover something you’ve never tasted before that’s worth trying–perhaps a whole shopping bag full of somethings that will surprise and delight.

Addendum… After posting this entry I realized I was essentially saying “I couldn’t find these, but you should take your time and look for them.” To carry the celebrity analogy further, going to a Southern California farmers’ market is a feast for the eyes, with those mountains of showy citrus fruits, orderly boxes of jewel-like berries and lush jungles of greenage. Y’know, the celebrities of the farmers’ market. Then there are a few items that don’t announce themselves from the moment you step out of your car. Let’s call them the character actors of the farmers’ market. You have to look for them, but when you find them you think, “Oh THERE you are! I’m so glad to meet you!”

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…the beets go on…

beets

A bunch of red and gold beets are as pretty as any bouquet!

The beet is a muchly-maligned vegetable, and I’m not really sure why. Maybe it’s the earthiness. If that were the case though, why not bag on turnips, rutabagas and parsnips? Or on potatoes, fer cryin’ out loud?!

What I find most amazing about beets is that you can do so much with them:

Beets are good served hot or cold, pickled or not.

You can grate them into a salad raw (Thanks, Martha Rose Shulman for that revelation!).

Speaking of salad, beet greens make a good one. Or you can cook the greens, mixing them with other, horsier ones like collards or more tart ones like mustard to achieve a nice balance of flavor.

You can eat the stems (the thinner ones; save the thick ones for the stock pot). Cut into bite-sized pieces they can go into the pot with the greens. Or they can be braised on their own, pickled, or battered and fried for a snack.

stems

The stems are good to eat, so don’t throw them away!

Beet leaves and stems are worthy food items that too often get thrown out, so whenever the person I’m buying beets from at the farmers’ market offers to trim my beets for me, I always say nooooo! (I think they’re hopeful that they can keep my greens and stems for themselves.)

You can juice your beets and use the juice to make pasta that’s fit for royalty. Take a look at my friend Ken’s neriage noodles, a mass of Christmasy looking pasta colored with the juices of beets and broccoli rabe. (And keep browsing his site—Ken has been doing some absolutely amazing things with pasta!)

You can make a variety of hot and cold soups out of beets.

borscht

raspberry-beet borscht with loads of add-ins and add-ons

I made this borscht for a recent cookbook club dinner, this month’s dishes all prepared from The Artisan Jewish Deli at Home. The recipe for this particular borscht calls for a significant amount of raspberries. Seemed odd to me, considering many borscht recipes call for meat. But when I thought about it I realized that borscht is like a lot of dishes—its contents vary depending on personal preference, what you happen to have on hand when the urge to make borscht strikes you, and whether you’re a free spirit in the kitchen or a tradition-bound, recipe-faithful cook.

The next day I took the leftover borscht and made sorbet. The raspberries gave it fruitiness and the beets bolstered the sweetness and added a velvety texture.

borscht sorbet

raspbeet sorbet? raspborscht sorbet?

I love beets’ visual appeal. Their deep, ruby red and lush, rich gold varieties are a pure pleasure to behold. And the chioggia variety has those darling peppermint candy stripes that make your serving of beets look like a party on a plate (they’re hard to find this time of year, but I promise to grab some when they’re back on offer and insert a photo of them here. In the meantime here’s a little eye candy for you).

I prefer roasting beets to simmering them, because roasting concentrates their flavor and amps up their sweetness—and frees you up to focus on making the rest of your meal. Once you’ve trimmed their tops (leave about an inch of stem) and “rat tails” (don’t peel them until after they’re done), tossed them with some olive oil, put them in an aluminum foil-covered roasting dish, and popped them into a 425ºF oven for an hour (or until the point of a knife glides in and out easily), you can let the oven work its magic on them and focus on making the rest of your meal.

roasted gold beets

Roasted beets are a flavor powerhouse just waiting for whatever whim strikes you!

What can you do with those beets once they’ve been roasted to tantalizing perfection? Just about anything at all! My favorite thing is to cool them and add them to any salad that wants a little heft and sweetness. Here’s last night’s dinner, a frisée salad, sans poached egg. (Possibly the only item more versatile than the beet is the egg, and we’ve run out. Sigh!) We resorted to using the last two of the hard-boiled eggs we keep on hand for snacking and kept all four protein sources in the salad (egg, nuts, bacon and cheese).

frisee

frisée salad with a few differences—both gold and red beets, shavings of manchego instead of bleu cheese and that hard-boiled egg…

Bonus tip: buy beets in bulk and roast them all at once. You can keep them in the fridge for a week—if they last that long—and use them as the fancy strikes you.

So to my friend Suzanne, who asked me to address the issue of beets on my blog I say, here ya go, gal. Now get busy.

Beets are the Swiss Army Knife of the vegetable world!

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Hello Seattle!

tulipA glorious tulip gifted by an anonymous fellow at the U-District Farmers’ Market on Valentine’s weekend

Greetings from our new home….Seattle. Himself and I have been here just over a month, our days a jumble of unpacking, wondering which boxes we’ve stashed in the garage might contain something we’re missing, and reconnecting with friends and colleagues. And we’re adjusting from an LA winter to a Seattle winter not only in terms of how to dress and how to drive, but also what to anticipate from the local food scene.

Our trips to the farmers’ market are vastly different, as we knew they’d be. Southern California is the land endless bounty, with multiple strawberry seasons and citrus for miles and miles. While I’m ready to embrace Seattle’s growing seasons—we’ve already embraced the rain, thank you very much!—admittedly it’s going to take some time to adjust to a new way of eating. Root vegetables, mushrooms, apples and pears are big sellers at our neighborhood farmers’ market right now. Many of the vendors are selling preserved foods in the form of cheese, salumi, jams, an assortment of dried peppers and fruits and fermented items like kimchi and kombucha.

And this being Seattle, there’s an array of fresher-than-fresh seafood at the farmers’ market, one thing I’ve most looked forward to about moving here. While Los Angeles is a coastal city, to me it never has seemed to be facing oceanward unless surfing was involved. Savoring fresh seafood within sight of the fishing boats meant an excursion to Ventura or Santa Barbara. And having grown up in Tennessee, a full day’s drive from any salt water, I was well into my adulthood before I encountered seafood that didn’t smell like cat food and that hadn’t been heavily breaded and fried into a state of complete and total ick. In spite of my training in culinary school I still approach all seafood with trepidation and mistrust. [the exception to this rule being the time I pulled the fish out of the water myself]

BUT….we’re in Seattle now, so Himself and I selected salmon for our cooking date on Valentine’s weekend. We prepared it en papillote, with each serving nestled into its own parchment wrapping with fresh herbs and lemon slices. Our efforts rewarded us with a smooth blend of rich but bright flavor that banished all thoughts of the dreaded red can.

salmon&spudssalmon en papillote with roasted potatoes and carrots

The meal was so satisfying we picked up an albacore loin at the farmers’ market the following weekend for our next cooking date.

tuna&bsalbacore steak au poivre with maple sriracha brussels sprouts

We carved some tuna steaks, coated them in cracked black peppercorns and pan seared them, leaving their interiors warm but underdone. Cracking the peppercorns released their sweetness, not their heat or bitterness. The lemony cream sauce perfectly fused the flavors and textures of the albacore and the peppercorns. Fantastic!

Both were among the freshest and tastiest seafood meals we’ve ever had. Two for two just a week apart. That’s certainly a record for Himself and me.

I predict I’m going to become an increasingly fearless seafood buyer and cooker. Next up—investing in an oyster knife.

Oh yeah. I think Seattle and I are going to get along just fine.

 

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Think Outside the Shell

 

risottoEscargots + Risotto = Escargotto (cute, eh?!)

I have nothing against eating escargots out of their adorable little shells or from one of those almost as adorable little ceramic dishes made for that sole purpose, but it’s easy to forget there are other ways to enjoy them that don’t require what our practical pal Alton Brown calls a monotasker, a kitchen item that has only one function and just takes up storage space.

Recently I was in the mood to make risotto, and when I reached into the pantry for the arborio rice, I spied a can of escargots just waiting to be noticed. And I thought, “Why not?”

Note: If you contend that you’d never eat a snail but you have no problem chowing down on scallops, clams, oysters and calamari, just keep in mind that all of these critters are mollusks. Snails are essentially earthbound seafood. Fancy that!

I call this dish of risotto with snails “Escargotto,” and essentially you can make it by using a basic risotto recipe and stirring in rinsed canned snails at the end. They’re precooked, so they’ll only need heating up. I also stirred in a quarter of a head of roughly chopped radicchio and a teaspoon of lemon zest and garnished the dish with julienned French breakfast radishes. They add a nice crunch without the heat.

risottoingredsThis is what I used for making Escargotto, because it’s what I like. But no law says this is the only way.

I’d like to encourage home cooks to move away from slavishly following recipes to the letter (unless you’re baking—then you must be meticulous, since you’re dealing with chemistry and proportions). If you like shallots, sauté a handful in a combination of butter and olive oil before adding the rice. If you don’t want to use butter, replace it with the same amount of olive oil. (On the other hand, if you opt to use all butter and no olive oil, take care that the butter doesn’t burn.)

The more you make a dish, the more you’ll discover your own tricks and preferences. If your showcase ingredient is mildly flavored—like snails—use a broth that won’t overpower it. I made a quick leek broth for this one, which added a velvety mouth feel and a delicate, complementary flavor.

It’s about balance and making something you like to eat. The more you do this, the better you’ll get at it and the tastier your results.

That’s thinking outside the shell, and it’s delicious.

 

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