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Category: side dish | appetiser

(Re)Discovering Rota, Spain & Costa Ballena {Arranque Roteño}

If someone would’ve told me years ago that Rota was worthy of being considered an international tourist destination, I probably would’ve looked at them with incredulity. It never occurred to me during all those years going to school on the Rota Naval Base that Rota was anything more than a little, sleepy agricultural and fishing town, situated in a strategic location for the Spanish and American military and the neighbour of my little Chipiona. Of course, I knew there was some sort of history there seeped in the stones of the old castle, in the walls of the main church, and in the rocks of the corrales. But from kindergarten through high school, I never really gave it much thought.

Rota for me, like for many other kids who grew up with me, was a beach playground and a place to go bar-hopping and disco dancing with friends. (Yes, I actually said disco.) And Costa Ballena, now a golf and residential resort, was where I used to hang out on a farm that belonged to family friends. A large portion of the land used for the golf course and the resort belonged to a cousin of the former King of Spain from the House of Orleans-Borbón. The rest of the land belonged to this family, who are our friends. On these grounds, I used to go horse-back riding, play in the hay stacks, and catch erizos de mar (sea urchins), which we would cut up right there on the beach and eat raw with a squirt of lemon juice.

After leaving Spain in 1997, it was many years before I came back to visit the area. In fact, the last time I went to our friends’ farm, I got lost because the roads had ‘changed on me’! Part of their farm remains the same as when I used to hop inside the pigsty to pet piglets and carefully feed the mommies or walk amongst the cows in the stable. I used to also feed the geese, although I was terrified of them because I knew their bites could hurt. And it was from this farm that I got my beloved little Marilyn, the bunny rabbit who was my pet until she grew into too much of a nuisance to have at home and we had to bring her back there. Our friend Francisco bit off the top of one of her ears so that we could tell her apart from the rest of the bunnies when I would visit. It turned out that the tiny act of cruelty had been unnecessary since little Marilyn used to come hopping to see me as soon as she heard my voice calling out her name. I don’t know what ended up happening to her.. or maybe it’s better than I don’t remember. But Luisa and Juan’s farm was my animal haven growing up. And Francisco’s older brothers were probably my brother’s first local friends.

So maybe you can imagine my astonishment when I now visit Rota and Costa Ballena and find an entirely different world from what my memory holds true. But just like when the Americans ‘landed’ in Spain and the Base was opened in 1953, the changes that come with this development progress have been more than positive for the Villa de Rota and Costa Ballena.

A few weekends ago, I had the privilege of rediscovering Rota at the hand of Descubre Rota, Rota’s tourism office. I was invited on a blog trip by my good friend Teresa, who pens the travel blog El Faro de la Jument and is one of the original members of the Andalucia Travel Bloggers Association.

I invite you to read on, to get acquainted (or reacquainted for some) with this lovely seaside town, maybe learn a few not-so-well-known facts, and discover Costa Ballena with me.

The Necropolis. Long before the Americans arrived in Rota, even before the Spanish Conquistadores landed in what is now the Dominican Republic to claim the discovery of the Americas for Spain, way long before then, there were other peoples who made this land their land. Who knows where they came from, maybe Northern Africa, or maybe they were the Phoenicians who sailed from the eastern most regions of the Mediterranean Sea and settled in the Iberian Peninsula. Whoever they were, they lived and died here. And some of them built a necropolis sometime during the Atlantic Bronze Age. During the construction of the Naval Base (which is actually a Spanish military base), the necropolis was discovered. It is the oldest archeological find in Rota; and because the the building of the Base had to continue, the artifacts were relocated. Some can now be seen at the Rota City Hall, inside the Castillo de Luna.

Corrales de Pesca. For a long time, it was thought that the Phoenicians – those savvy, commercial, sea-faring people –  had been the designers of the fishing corrals that shape the Rota and Chipiona coastline. But it seems like historians cannot agree on the origins of this sustainable form of fishing. So, although they are ancient, we cannot discern whether we should be thankful to the Phoenicians, the Romans, or the Moors for creating a way of life that continues to this day. Between Rota and Chipiona, there are eight corrales still in existence. To-day, they have been declared as a natural monument, the first in Andalusia; and hence they are now also protected. Many species of fish and mollusks live inside the walls and many others find their way in when the tide is high and get trapped when the tide recedes. The corrals were made with sandstone and lumachelle, a type of limestone containing fragments of shells and fossilized animals, which is commonly found in the area. It is not unusual to see house façades in Rota and Chipiona decorated with piedra ostionera, which is local name for the lumachelle. In fact, our former house in Chipiona has an outside zocalo made of piedra ostionera. One can learn more about this type of aqua-culture and visit the corrales by booking a guided tour with the tourism office of Rota.

Castillo de Luna. Rota’s more modern history is closely linked to that of Moorish Andalusia and the Christian Reconquest of Spain. Rota’s castle was first constructed on top of the remnants of a Moorish Ribat, which gave the town its Moorish name Rabeta Ruta. In 1297, after the Moors have been expelled from Spain, King Fernando IV of Castille grants all the lands between the Guadalquivir and the Guadalete rivers to Don Alfonso Pérez de Guzman, otherwise known as Guzman el Bueno, for his heroic efforts defending the city of Tarifa in the name of the Crown. These lands are comprised of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Chipiona, and Rota, where Guzman erects his castle and settles. A few years later, in 1303, Guzman’s daughter marries a Ponce de León and becomes part of the Spanish royal family. As her dowry, she is given the entire Villa de Rota, including of course the castle. In 1477, King Fernando and Queen Isabel, better known as the Reyes Católicos and as the unifiers of Spain, visited Andalusia and stayed at the Castillo de Luna. Since then, the castle has passed through various hands and has served various functions, from being the family seat of the Casa de Arcos, to being the summer home of the Marquis of San Marcial (who purchased it for 15,000 pesetas in 1909), to housing a school and hospital owned by the “Marquis of Villapesadilla” (who purchased it for 200,000 pesetas in 1943). In 1982, the religious community in charge of managing the school and the hospital abandons the building and it falls into disrepair. In 1999, after 11 years of renovation, it reopens it doors as the municipal palace. Today it houses the City Hall of Rota and the Office of Tourism. The Castillo de Luna can be visited by booking a guided tour at the tourism office inside.

Muralla. The remnants of the wall that surrounded the town at one time are still standing and visible facing the municipal marina, not too far from the central market, facing Calle Pasadilla. One could almost miss noticing the wall, if it weren’t for a small sign on the side facing the street. The town has planned to open a walking street alongside so it can be properly enjoyed. In the meantime, one can view it from behind a metal gate of sorts. But it’s definitely worth a stop and a look. The wall was constructed with lumechella, the same type of limestone used for the corrales and the many façades one sees in the town of Rota. The old wall used to separate the town and farms of Rota from the port and is thought to have been first constructed by the Tartessos. But it’s also been said that it could date from the 12th or 13th century making it Medieval and probably built by the Moors

Iglesia Parroquial de Nuestra Señora de la O. The day we visited Rota, there was a wedding at the Parish Church of Our Lady of the O. Roteños love to get married here, as it’s a very pretty venue; and the palmtree-lined plaza, which borders with one of the stone walls of the castle, creates a beautiful and romantic backdrop for any picture. One of my friends from high school got married here and I’ve been inside numerous times for various events. But I had never seen it from above as on this trip. One can visit the castle and walk on the rooftops, which provide an excellent vantage point of the church’s plaza, the Rota lighthouse, and the iridescent turquoise waters and white sand beaches. The construction of the parish church was finalised in 1537, during the reign of Emperor Charles I. The Ponce de León family paid for the building, which has been an icon of Rota ever since. Inside one can see various architectural styles ranging from Gothic, to Isabelline, to Plateresque and Baroque. Also inside, one can find the patron saint of Rota, Our Lady of the Rosary, whose festivities are celebrated in Rota in October.

Torre de la Merced. This tower is the only architectural remains of the old convent of La Merced, which had been founded by Don Rodrigo Ponce de León in the 17th century. With its brilliantly coloured blue and white tiles, it’s clearly visible from many parts of town and is another cherished symbol of Rota.

Las Playas & La Bandera Azul. Now that we’ve travelled through some of Rota’s most important history, let’s not kid ourselves. Most people today, including the Americans from the Base, come to enjoy the beautiful white sand beaches. Rota is surrounded by 16 long kilometers of beautiful beaches and turquoise waters that look like the Caribbean. From the urban beaches of El Rompidillo (old Garbage Beach to many of my friends) and la Costilla (the most famous and the one that brings back cherished adolescent memories) to the more ‘wild’ El Puntalillo and Punta Candor, which are protected by the pinewood forests, Rota’s coastline is a paradise for beach-goers, swimmers, and wind-surfers. Rota’s clean waters and excellent beaches are usually awarded every year la bandera azul (blue flag) by the European Foundation of Environmental Education. Beaches and marinas that offer a series of environmental conditions and whose infrastructure and installations meet certain standards are distinguished with this prestigious award. This year, Rota’s beaches and marina have been bestowed with a total of ten blue flags!

El Pinar. If there is one characteristic feature of the southern Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula, from Spain to Portugal, it’s the forests of the pino piñonero, or the pine nut pine tree. These pine trees grow along the coast and protect the beaches and the sand dunes typical of the region. Rota’s pinar is part of the Natural Park of the Almadraba and has a unique micro-climate, offering a reprieve from the heat during the summer months and protection from the winds coming off of the Atlantic. One can walk or bike through the park along the many walkways made of wood and breathe in the pine-scented fresh air. And if one is lucky, one could find a pinecone filled with pine nuts to take home and eat. My friends, cousins, and I used to go pinecone gathering in the pinar when we were young. We would also pick up palmichas (the fruit of the palmito – Chamaerops humilis – a palm-like plant that grows at the foot of the pine trees in the forests). The palmichas we usually ate in situ under the shade of the pine trees, savouring the fresh, earthy flavours of the white fruit, after cutting off the green leaves with a sharp knife. Needless to say, we were usually accompanied by adults. The pine cones on the other hand we could gather on our own, although we had to take them home to enjoy. Once home, we roasted them in the fire place, letting the sweet aroma permeate the house and fueling our anticipation of enjoying the little cream-coloured nuts, which we could only access after breaking each shell one by one.

Camino Natural Vía Verde De Rota. Rota is a haven for outdoor sports, from swimming, to wind-surfing to horse-back riding, to golfing, to cycling. The town has recuperated the old train tracks that used to go from El Puerto de Santa Maria to Sanlúcar de Barrameda and has converted them into a green way for cyclists. Within the municipality of Rota, one can enjoy 7,8 kilometers of this green way. By the way, rental bikes are available in Rota and Costa Ballena at the Hotel Barceló Costa Ballena from Bicicletas Valdes

Intervenciones por RotaLiterally translated as “Interventions Around Rota”, this initiative founded by a few local artists is very unique. Their mission is to enhance the town with art in unexpected places at unexpected times. The art is permanent, but when it will appear on the streets, the façades of houses, or on any given wall is totally a surprise for the townsfolk. It’s street art in a sophisticated and serendipitous format. We got a tour of all the “interventions” around town. They all have one common denominator: they represent a part of Rota life and intend to make the viewer think deeper. There are ceramic pumpkins, giant snails, two summer lovers separated, a representation of the different people that have made up Rota, a fishing boat filled with rocks (to represent all the refugee children crossing the Mediterranean), and even a street named “bésame en esta esquina” (kiss me on this corner). I dare you to find all 20 of them!

Costa Ballena & Costa Ballena Ocean Golf Club. The Whale Coast takes its name from the beach called Playa Ballena, who in turn was named by fishermen who used to tell a story about what was probably a stranded whale. Legend has it that there was an old whale who circled the world in search of the most beautiful beach and chose these waters off the coast between Rota and Chipiona as its sanctuary. From time to time, whales and other cetaceans have been stranded along these coasts, but none other has been so influential. Costa Ballena, whose lands as I mentioned in the beginning belonged to a family who are our friends and the Duke of Orleans-Borbón, is now a touristic complex and golf course.

Unlike other golf courses in Spain, Costa Ballena Ocean Golf Club was first built as a golf course, and later surrounded by housing and the rest of the complex. The course has 27 championship holes, a 9 hole par3 course, and the best practice facility in Europe according the the PGA of Sweden. The Club was built in 1995 with Spanish Masters champion José María Olazábal as the head of design for golf company Integral Golf Design. The course, which is all Bermuda grass, officially opened its doors in 1997 “to house all levels of competition, starting with the European Tour Second Stage Qualifying”. The Cuadrangular Internationals at Costa Ballena, King’s Cup, and Queen’s Cup have been contested here; and it is the official training base for National Teams during the winter months.

Friends of my father play golf at Costa Ballena on a regular basis; and my father played a couple of times before we left Spain. But I had never even stepped foot inside the complex until the other day. I was very pleasantly surprised. It’s a mini-paradise that reminds me of parts of the coast of Málaga, which has traditionally been the jet-set coast par excellence. It has a beautiful park, with waterfall and lakes included, a 4-kilometer long strand of white sand beach, 4 hotels (Hotel Barceló Costa Ballena and Hotel Playa Ballena have great views of the course), bars, restaurants, pubs, and a number of beautiful housing complexes. One could live or stay at Costa Ballena and never have to leave … but then one wouldn’t delight in all the pleasures the Villa de Rota has to offer …

Food & Wine. For a food blog, I couldn’t possible neglect one of the great pleasures of life, now could I? Visiting or living in Rota can be a delight for all senses, and for the palate there is plenty to discover.

Rota is known for its fresh, wild caught seafood, its succulent tomatoes, its calabaza roteña (a native pumpkin variety), and other fresh produce. After all, this town has always been known for its fishing and agriculture, two trades that thankfully have not been lost to progress.

There is an old-timer and a new-kid-on-the-block I would like to highlight and which we had the privilege of visiting on our tour.

Bodegas El Gato. Rota’s oldest winery. It turns out I’ve walked by this winery probably a thousand times, and yet I had never noticed it before. When the Americans arrived in the 1950s, the lands where the Base is located were all farms. Many of these farms were vineyards, some of which cultivated the local grape variety Tintilla. Tintilla is a small, purple grape, from which the sweet, syrupy varietal Tintilla wine is made.

Juan Martínez Martín-Niño, colloquially called “El Gato”, used to have a vineyard on the lands of the Base, where he only grew Tintilla grapes. When the lands were expropriated by the Spanish government, Juan found himself without his vineyard and without a job. Instead of abandoning his profession and passion however, he asked his father to help plant a small farm he had in town with the same grapes. Little by little, Juan’s vineyard grew and eventually in 1957, he opened up the winery, as the only producer of Tintilla wines. It wasn’t all a bed of roses nonetheless, and he had to supplement his income as a taxi driver – a profession that thrived thanks to the Base – for a number of years, until the winery took off.

Today, Juan is one of the few producers of Tintilla wine, a local art form that could’ve been lost if it had not been for his tenacity and perseverance. In his winery, several generations of his family and friends – who are considered extended family – work to keep sustaining this craft. They produce other wines as well, many of which are organic, all are aged in their bodegas, and some of which are still bottled artsinally by hand!

The wines can be purchased directly at the bodega; and they also offer guided tours in English, wine tastings, and flamenco shows. It’s worth a visit and a taste!

El Bucarito. For someone like me, El Bucarito is pure bliss. Where else could I visit an old, working farm, pet newborn kids, play with the mommy goats, watch black-hooved Spanish pigs happily romp around in their sty, have a close up stare down with a golden foal who was a little too timid to let me pet him, and eat organic, raw goat’s cheese and organic, salt cured meats? At El Bucarito, I was transported to my childhood within moments of arriving.

But there’s more to the story and this quaint farm, whose owners started this venture only about 20 years ago with the mission to produce artisanal cheeses in the heart of the Rota farmland. It’s a sustainable, organic farm that makes a variety of cheeses, most of which are raw, with a few of them made from pasteurised milk. They grow Florida goats, Iberico pigs, and horses and donkeys. The old, original farmhouse has been renovated and they offer buffet-style breakfasts, children’s parties, and cheese and cured meat tastings. They also have mini classes on how to make one’s own cheese. It’s a true delight for all ages, and most especially for one’s taste buds.

Back in the town of Rota, there are more places to shop and eat, too many to name in one blog post. But El Mercado de Abastos (the local market) is worth a visit, with its mixture of food stalls and bars (restaurants). We stopped there for a break on our tour and ate some salty, crunchy chicharrones (pork cracklings), sampled some cheeses from Dora’s shop (all organic and raw), and tasted some local, white wines.

The last leg of our weekend was at the Centro de Recuperación de la Mayetería, an educational working farm. Rota farmers used to be called mayetos because they harvested their produce and brought it to market in the month of May, an entire month earlier than most in the region of Jerez. It was an agrarian way of life, that probably originated during Moorish times, when in the 15th century Rota is segregated from Chipiona and becomes its own town. Farmers were given small parcels of land, a choza (thatch-roofed house), and an animal, in return for preserving and exploiting the land as mayetos. The produce they cultivated and harvested became synonymous with Rota. The calabaza roteña (Rota pumpkin), the juicy, red tomato roteño, the green cuerno cabra peppers, the Spanish melon, and the local watermelon were prized produce in the markets of the region. They still are to this day, even as far as Sevilla.

The less fortunate mayetos lived in thatch-roofed wooden huts, whilst those with a little more money could afford a thatch-roofed house made of more sturdy materials. They worked from sunrise to sunset, nurturing and caring for their farmlands with constant love and attention. In addition to this complete dedication to their land, there are a few other factors that aided the mayetos to be able to bring their produce to market earlier than most. The long hours of sunlight, the moderate climate, their peculiar form of irrigation, and an earth rich in silica aided these agriculturists as much as the many hours they spent bent over the fields. Because the land is not very fertile and the silica is very permeable, they watered their carefully tilled liños (rows) by only wetting the surface of the ground and repeating this various times during the day. They carried the water in pointy jarras de barro (clay jugs) that are called jarras de riego.  The mayetos were known for spending most of the day bent over; and many suffered from a deviated column in old age. In the area, this health issue is known as anquilosis vertebral roteña, which goes to show how prevalent it was amongst these farmers from Rota.

It was pure permaculture farming, but with a life full of hardships that we cannot romanticise today. However, The Centro de Recuperación de la Mayetería is trying to ensure this important part of Rota’s history is not lost, that we learn from it, and learn how to collaborate with our environment for the benefit of all of us, including Mother Earth.

Arranque Roteño

From this way of life, a traditional cuisine developed that is still enjoyed today. One of the most iconic dishes known almost exclusively in Rota is arranque roteño, which has a similar base as gazpacho andaluz or salmorejo. This dish, although not really a soup like the gazpacho or a thicker sauce like the salmorejo, is made with tomatoes del tiempo (seasonal fruit), pimientos de cuerno de cabra, garlic, sea salt, extra virgin olive oil, and bread. For the bread you can use gluten-free bread, just make sure if it’s homemade that it is has a neutral flavour like regular bread has. The following recipe was shared by Pilar Ruiz Rodriguez-Rubio, who has her own local food blog, Aprendiendo a Cocinar, where she cooks with her mother, Cristina, and shares traditional recipes from Rota. (I met Pilar during the weekend, since she works at the Rota Office of Tourism; as serendipity would have it, she’s a good friend of a good friend of mine!)

You’ll need a lebrillo (or something similar in which to make the arranque) and pestle-like instrument. This can also be made in a food processor, but it won’t be as traditional, and the flavour may vary somewhat.

Ingredients

1 kilo red tomatoes, preferably of the plum variety (not overly ripe), peeled and roughly chopped
2 or 3 green peppers, preferably of the cuerno de cabra variety (or Roman in the US), torn by hand into small pieces
1 or 2 garlic cloves, peeled
Spanish or French bread, one telera or about 1/2 kilo
extra virgin olive oil
sea salt, to taste

Method

In the lebrillo or mixing dish, using the pestle, crush the peppers, the garlic, and some sea salt. When the peppers are throughly mashed, add the tomatoes. Continuing mashing and mixing until you achieve a homogenous, smooth texture.

Start adding the bread, broken up in small chunks, and continuing mashing. Little by little, add the EVOO to soften up the mixture and the desired consistency* is achieved. Add more sea salt, to taste if necessary.

*The type of bread used is typically a telera, which is a golden loaf of bread, very crusty on the outside with a dry migajón or inside crumb. It can be found in Spanish bread shops and usually weighs about 1/2 kilo. The desired consistency or texture of this dish is much, much thicker than gazpacho (which is really a soup). The arranque is almost like a thick paste and it is eaten with pieces of raw onion or raw peppers used as spoons.

Buen provecho!

Ephemeral Time {Calves Liver à la Bordelais + Avocado and Radish Salad}

“This is the first time I’ve known what time it was…” Bree was ignoring both Mrs. Bug’s raptures and the [astrolobe] in her hands. I saw her meet Roger’s eyes, and smile – and after a moment, his own lopsided smile in return. How long had it been for him?

Everyone was squinting up at the setting sun, waving clouds of gnats from their eyes and discussing when they had last known the time. How very odd, I thought, with some amusement. Why this preoccupation with measuring time? And yet, I had it, too.

I laid my hand on [Jamie’s], where it rested on the box [of the astrolobe]. His skin was warm with work and the heat of the day, and he smelt of clean sweat. The hairs on his forearm shone red and gold in the sun, and I understood very well just then, why it is that men measure time. 

They wish to fix a moment, in the vain hope that so doing will keep it from departing.” ~ From The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon

Time is a precious, ephemeral thing. When you’re in the midst of something, it seems like it will last forever, you have time to say things, do things, and leave things for tomorrow, mañana, mañana…. But when time goes by, you see how quickly it evaporated before your eyes, as if it never existed. It never was.

When we arrived in Connecticut last June, the days were still warm and the evenings long, boat rides were still possible and enjoying the kaleidoscope of purples, reds, oranges, and blues of the setting sun brought memories of our times shared in the past when we all lived here. We had the whole world ahead of us, many dreams and hopes (and possibly some apprehensions). Slowly, but surely Fall inched upon us with its foliage exploding in all possible hues of reds, yellows, oranges and greens. A sight to behold with one’s eyes at least once in life, as nature surpasses all conceivable dreams.

Autumn gave way to the bareness of Winter, that would this year prove to be a long and bitter one, literally and metaphorically. Branches now serving as the framework to nature’s delicate and perfect snow and ice sculptures…Winter seemed endless this year. It was the coldest the North East has experienced in over 30 years. That last winter that all the natives over a certain age can recall and tell you about. They describe in detail how they used to walk across the Mystic River and how cold and raw it was.

And then as the snow reluctantly melted away and we approached the equinox of Spring, time fell silent and still. But only for a moment. A fleeting moment. But a definitive moment it was. Soon we could see patches of grass again, the daffodils timidly peeked up through the ground, the deer finally ventured out on the marshes, and a fox or two skirted by our front porch… everything was coming back to life. Nature’s annual renewal.

The bright yellow flowers of the forsythia came and went so quickly it seemed like a reverie, and the pink blossoms of the magnolias exploded one day and then all of a sudden the ground was covered in a blanket of pink. We are now coming back full circle to azure skies, calm seas, lazy afternoons and welcomed breezes… Summer is almost upon us. But as I write this, time is flying by. It’s slipping away…Where has the past year gone? Have I really spent almost twelve months in Connecticut?

All things must come to an end, and soon I will be departing for Europe to resolve my divorce and soon my father will return home as well. We won’t be leaving as we came. And my family staying here won’t remain as they were. We’ve changed forever, although nature will remind us with the seasons that change is inevitable. Only time will tell us what the future holds for us all. It’s been a tough year behind us, filled with a great, irreparable loss whose emptiness will last until the end of time, and yet we have also been afforded the time to be together as a family again, my father, my late mother, my brother, my sister-in-law, and my two lovely nieces and me. To enjoy each other’s company. Share tears, smiles and laughter. To give each other warm hugs that melt the heart. To cook and eat together. To be one.

It may be a long time before we have the chance to be one again. We will see each other separately I know. And technology will keep us connected even in the distance, even as many things will never be as they were. New times are ahead of us. And with hope and new illusions and a prospect of happiness or at least of peace, we go forward, holding on to time.

All the years I was living in Germany and later the two years in London, we travelled to Spain by car and traversed France from corner to corner, sometimes zigzagging, more often than not though in a straight line. I kept insisting we stop, take detours to see the historical towns and castles, but only a couple of times did we have the time. We were mostly on a schedule to get there quickly, squeese out as much time as possible being in the warm sun of Southern Spain, and then make our way back.

We did however, always make time to eat. And yet, with all those lunches and dinners (breakfasts don’t count for this dish), not once did I try calves liver à la Bordelais. Not once! That’s a very strange occurrence for me because whenever I’m travelling or in a new place, one of my first goal is to eat as much of the local cuisine as possible. My other goal is to see and experience as much as I can fit in within the limited time. I tend to exhaust every minute. My motto is that I never know when I’ll be back, and under such a premise, I cannot and will not waste time.

I discovered this recipe in Mimi Thorrison’s A Kitchen in France, A Year of Cooking in My Farmhouse. Although I marked a number of recipes and read the book front to back in one evening, I’ve only made this dish, as I’ve not made the time to concentrate on others. I’ve made it now a number of times, changing things here and there and finally adapting it my way. My beautiful mom loved it the first time I made it for her; and my father and I have enjoyed it in the various adaptations I’ve experimented with. This last one, we both find the best. It’s less buttery and lighter.

It’s hard to source a good quality calves liver where we have been living. I find that essential and would suggest procuring organic, pasture-raised from your local butcher to get the full benefits of eating offal. And the type of butter is also important. I love Kerrygold salted (I could eat it with a spoon!).

The avocado-radish salad I put together on a whim because the radishes were so pretty and the avocado perfectly ripe. Add whatever toppings you like. I only used olive oil, lemon juice and salt and some pepper on the plate, as my father likes to keep things simple.

I hope you enjoy! Salud!

Calves Liver à la Bordelais

Ingredients, serves 2

2 filets of calves liver
4 shallots
2 garlic cloves
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons extra virgen olive oil, plus some extra
2-4 slices of prosciutto
1/2 cup white wine
coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper
arrowroot flower for dusting

Method

Rinse the calves liver filets and pat dry with a paper towel. Salt and pepper on one side and set aside.

Peel and julienne the shallots and the garlic. In a medium sized skillet, add 2 tablespoons of butter and the olive oil. Over medium heat, melt the butter and add the shallots and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, about 8-10 minutes until the shallots are golden and tender. Add the white wine and reduce, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and add 1 tablespoon of butter and stir well. Set aside, covered to keep warm.

In another skillet, add a drizzle of olive oil and heat over medium heat. Add the prosciutto slices and cook, about 1 minute, turning over once. Remove from skillet and place on a plate.

Dust the calves liver filets with some arrowroot powder. And in the same skillet used for the prosciutto, add another drizzle of olive oil. Place the liver filets in the skillet and cook, about 3 minutes on each side.

To serve: place the liver filet on the plate, spoon some of the shallot sauce over each filet, and top with a slice or two of prosciutto. Garnish with parsley if desired.

Avocado + Radish Salad

Ingredients, serves 2

1 ripe avocado
1 radish
sea salt, freshly ground pepper
lemon juice
extra virgen olive oil

Method

Peel and slice the avocado. With a mandolin, slice the radish very thinly. Place the avocado on the serving plate and top with the radish. Drizzle some olive oil and lemon juice over top. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Serve.

Fish A-Flying {Halibut en Papillote, Fennel Mashed Potatoes, + Fennel Salad with Roasted Pine Nuts and Mustard-Oil Dressing}

Years ago, I was bitten by a flounder. It’s one of those stories that one can retell with a certain amount of humour and romanticise about, like we do with most of our myopic views of past events. I was working in the Education Department at the Mystic Aquarium and was asked to cover for one of the instructors on vacation. Part of the duties included feeding the fish and various other animals.

In the main education room, which was also used for birthday parties and special catered events, we had a large “touch and feel” tank with various crustaceans, some bivalves and a flounder or two, if I remember correctly.

Anyhow, I was feeding Mr. Flounder a plump and juicy shrimp placed on the tip of a long stainless steel stick whose purpose was to afford me a distance from Mr. Flounder’s teeth. Piece of cake I thought. What could possibly go wrong? Well, a lot it would seem. Don’t ever be fooled by an innocent and funny-looking fish I tell you, particularly one with two eyes on top. Mr. Flounder decided to forego the shrimp, jump out of the water and lunge himself towards me, taking with him a piece of the skin of my hand in the process. Needless to say, I was quite startled. Once I recovered my composure and Mr. Flounder had safely plopped back in the tank, I realised my ego was also slightly bruised. Who manages to get bitten by a fish, in an aquarium no less? My hand did sting a little and because it was a work-related incident, I had to report it and required a tetanus shot. But it’s a tale that got me a bunch of auntie-brownie points with my nieces back then – they thought their tita was just the coolest thing. Nowadays, they prefer to make fun of the incident and I get teased about it every now and then.

My nieces, one of them has already graduated university and the other is out of school for the Summer, work during the boating season, which runs from some weeks ago to sometime in the early Fall. They are extremely busy and finding time to get together and do things is not easy. But a week or so ago, my eldest niece called me and we spontaneously went out for lunch. I think unplanned outings are always the best. It was a miserable windy day with rain drizzling since the early morning and a thick fog that creeped in rather quickly and lingered way into the evening. But we still thought that venturing downtown Mystic was warranted instead of staying home. Mystic has a healthy population all year round, but it is in the Spring and Summer when it flourishes overflows with tourists and New Yorkers who own Summer homes in the area.

Yet the day we went out was still rather early in the season, so we were a little surprised to see that our first choice was closed for a private event and that the other choice nearby had a line of people waiting to get in. Not wanting to walk too far in the inclement conditions, we ended up at Anthony J’s. It’s a cosy little restaurant in a pretty wooden building parallel to the Mystic River. I had been there before, years ago and always liked the atmosphere. I’m not sure if it’s the same owner or not, but the food the other day was just as delicious as I remember. So in the end, as spontaneous things usually go, the end result exceeded our expectations.

We were seated at the far end of the restaurant, along the large stone wall, from where I could see part of the kitchen and the chef (who by the way was dressed in a rather unique outfit comprised of a white chef shirt and tomato-print trousers complemented by a tomato-print bandana). The warm ambience, the friendly waitstaff, and the elegant, yet simple dishes made with fresh, seasonal food reminded me of many places one finds in Ireland. New England is like that. Sometimes I don’t even feel like I’m in the United States. The buildings are old, some from the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s, mostly made of stone and wood with a quaint charm. And it also has similar weather and lots of lush verdant fields to match.

Anyhow, we enjoyed a lovely time together, a decent conversation although we were both tired and a delectable meal. I had a halibut filet with a Thai-style sauce over mashed potatoes and we shared a fennel, prosciutto and parmesan salad.

The following day when I was thinking about what to make for lunch (ironically I had put out the halibut to defrost the day we went out), I basically replicated my lunch with the ingredients I had on hand instead.

Halibut is a meaty, white fish. It’s the largest flatfish and the flesh is juicy and needs very little condiment to taste beautifully. I generally don’t like to put too much seasoning on fish, as I prefer to let the flavours work on their own. The orange-coconut amino sauce with scallions and tomatoes is full of taste yet is delicate and not over-bearing. And the mashed potatoes with a hint of fennel add a nice contrast to the fish. As I endeavour to always include more than one vegetable in a meal, I served the halibut and mashed potatoes with some steamed rainbow chard. And finally, the fennel salad with the roasted pine nuts is just simply the perfect accompaniment, light, crispy and crunchy all in one. A perfect meal for a Spring day (or any day)!

Halibut en Papillote with Orange-Scallion Sauce

Ingredients, serves 2

2 halibut filets (with skin)
juice of one orange
orange zest/rind
2 tablespoons coconut aminos (soy sauce replacement)
12 cherry tomatoes
3 scallions
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
parchment paper

Method

Preheat the oven to 375F (190C). On a cookie sheet or another flat ovenproof metal dish, place a piece of parchment paper and fold the edges. Rinse the fish and pat dry. Place on the parchment paper. Salt and pepper lightly. Cut the orange in half, and squeese the juice over the fish. Don’t worry if you get some pulp on the fish. Pour the coconut aminos over each filet and sprinkle some orange rind/zest over each as well.

Clean and cut the scallion diagonally. Cut 8 of the cherry tomatoes in half and leave the remaining 4 whole. Place the scallions and tomatoes over and around the fish.

Place another sheet of parchment paper over the fish and folding the edges into the bottom sheet, make a sack. Bake for 15 minutes or until fish is done.

Fennel Mashed Potatoes

Ingredients, serves 2

4 medium red potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters
1/4 fennel bulb, chopped
1 tablespoon butter
milk
fine sea salt

Method

Put the potatoes and fennel in a medium pot. Cover with water and an inch or so more. Place on medium heat and bring to a roiling boil, and cook until tender, about 25 minutes. Remove from heat and drain.

Place the tablespoon or so of butter in the pot and allow to melt with the heat of the vegetables. Add a couple of tablespoons of milk (your preference) and smash with a potato masher to your desired consistency. Add some sea salt to taste.

Serve the halibut filets on top of the mashed potatoes.

Fennel Salad with Roasted Pine Nuts and Mustard-Oil Dressing

Ingredients, serves 2-4

1 fennel bulb
mixed salad greens: arugula (wild rocket), spinach, other greens
hard, cured cheese
handful of pine nuts
olive oil
wholegrain mustard
lemon juice

Method

Cut off the stems and the outer hard part of the fennel. Use the hard part of the fennel for the mashed potatoes. (See above recipe.) Slice the fennel crosswise very thinly.

In a pretty salad bowl, place the amount of mixed salad greens that you desire. Place the sliced fennel over top and mix it a little with your hands. Shave some hard, cured cheese over top. I used Dubliner cheese that we forgot about and left to harden. (It’s delicious like this.)

In a small skillet, heat some olive oil and pour in the handful of pine nuts. Fry until golden brown, stirring frequently, just a minute or so. Immediately remove from heat and spoon over the salad without the oil.

For the dressing: I used 3 parts extra virgen olive oil to 1 part wholegrain mustard and the juice of 1/2 lemon. Mix well and allow for each person to pour over their own salad.

If you have leftover salad, since the dressing is not on it, it will last a couple of days in the fridge.

Sweet Potato Savoury Tart

Sweet potatoes are something I’ve grown to like more since I started with the Paleo lifestyle. I used to equate them with one of my grandmother’s sweet treats. She was a Type II diabetic developing the disease sometime in her late 40s, and attributed acquiring the disease from all the raw honey and sweets she consumed when she lived in Portugal.

She was rail thin, ate like food was going out of style (my father thinks the same of my appetite), and was relatively quite healthy otherwise. She died at the young age of 90. Bless her soul, she was the funniest person I’ve known and had a huge influence on my life… but that’s a story for another day.

Back then, between school and friends and going out, I didn’t pay attention to learning more about how diet affected her illness. I thought it was incurable, one more malady that called for medical treatment. She wasn’t overly strict and only required one small pill of insulin a day to maintain her status quo. But I do recall that she avoided refined sugar, some fruits were off limits such as bananas and the plump, juicy oranges from our orchard, white potatoes were an infrequent side dish for her, and she also limited her intake of bread, picos and regañada (all three which she loved – picos are round breadsticks and regañada is a form of flat bread used to accompany tapas and meals in Spain).

Fortunately for my grandmother, my mother was an excellent home cook, who made sure we ate a traditional Mediterranean diet, which for the most part is very healthy. If my grandmother were alive today, I would be advocating the Paleo lifestyle to her, of course.

I was really into baking as a teenager growing up in Spain, so I used to make desserts without sugar for her. And as she would say, her eyes would go after all the delicious foods she wasn’t supposed to eat. One of her favourite treats was baked sweet potatoes, boniatos, with a drizzle of raw honey and a sprinkle of ground cinnamon. I wasn’t particularly fond of this dessert as I found it too rich. Too everything really (my youngest niece seems to share this predilection – she hates sweet potatoes).

Fast forward many years… and they are a staple in my kitchen. Funny how that happens with a lot of foodstuff, no? Nonetheless, I don’t use them that often as I still find them too sweet. But I do see the benefits of consuming them every once in a while.  The other day, I saw a recipe for a sweet potato and apple pie and loved the concept of the dough being made with this vegetable (and no refined sugar), especially since I had three sweet potatoes kind of just hanging around waiting to be used. And we’re clearing out the kitchen since we have to move soon.

So, I created a savoury tart instead with which to better appease my palate. I hope you enjoy! Que aproveches!

Sweet Potato Savoury Tart 

Ingredients, for a large 9×11 tart

1 3/4 cups cooked and mashed sweet potato (about 2 medium)
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cup almond flour
1 tablespoon thyme
1 teaspoon fine sea salt (optional)
1 large onion, chopped
2 small leeks, sliced
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup extra virgen olive oil
prosciutto
tomato slices
freshly ground pepper

Method

Heat oven to 375F (190C). Pierce the sweet potatoes with a fork and place on a sheet of parchment. Bake for about one hour or until done. (Check with a fork for tenderness.)

Place another sheet of parchment inside the ovenproof 9×11 tart pan/baking dish.

While the sweet potatoes are baking: In a medium skillet, over medium heat, melt the butter in the olive oil. Add the onions and leeks and poach until they are translucent. Set aside.

Once the sweet potatoes are baked, scoop out the pulp and mash. Spoon into a food processor. Add the eggs, almond flour, thyme and sea salt. Blend well. The mixture will be thick. Spoon onto the parchment inside the tart pan and spread evenly.

Top the sweet potato base with the onions and leeks. Then add some prosciutto and tomato slices. Sprinkle with freshly ground pepper and an additional generous pinch of thyme. Bake at 375F (190C) for approximately an hour or until done. (Check with a toothpick; if it comes out clean, it’s ready.)

Makes a delicious side dish for lamb, veal or poultry. We ate ours with lamb steaks.

Revivals… {Pan-Seared Scallops with Nectarines and Balsamic-Honey-Mustard Reduction + Broccoli Rabe with Golden Garlic}

I drove into town the other day specifically to buy more yarn for the snood I‘m making just finished for myself. The woman at the yarn store said I would have enough with one skein, but well obviously I didn’t quite follow her instructions….

I’ve become completely obsessed enamored with the beautifully produced television series Outlander and its costume design. The Starz original (I sound like an advert) is very truthful to the books – I’ve read five of the eight already – and quite possibly better! While the executive producer Ron Moore is fastidious about keeping all the details from Diana Gabaldon’s novels, he’s also very astute and perceptive by incorporating the personality of the actors and making small modifications, as he did in one of the last episodes where Caitriona Balfe does a singing and dance performance to the tune of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, which was a very popular 1940s song. Apparently Cait does a lot of humming and singing when off the set and Ron thought it was a perfect way to include her own personality to enhance the drama. In the books, one knows what Claire is thinking because she’s narrating most of the story. But in the television series, there’s a lot less of that. So, by adding these scenes, we get to experience what it feels like for Claire to be caught between her two worlds, post WWII and the mid-18th century. In my opinion, the result is an improvement on this seductive and mystical story.

I won’t get into the storyline to not spoil the suspense for those of you who are watching the show and haven’t read the books, although I believe they were written something like twenty years ago. So, it’s really a revival. In fact, I read somewhere on the internet that when the story was originally going to be taken to Hollywood, they were thinking of casting Liam Neesen as Jamie. I’m so glad they waited… I have nothing against Mr. Neesen,  he’s a fantastic actor. But Sam Heughan is Jamie. He’s captivating, elegant, regal, yet rugged. And so beautiful to look at. And his acting is impeccable. Can you imagine that Diana Gabaldon thought he was grotesque when she first saw him? That’s simply scandalous. A sacrilege. And my nieces will find that tidbit of Hollywood gossip rather upsetting. They are completely obsessed smitten with Sam (and Jamie). In fact, they are rooting for Sam and Cait to get together!

Anyway, back to what I was saying. My snood. Claire’s wardrobe is fetching, even the every day outfits. And she wears a number of knitted pieces which are so in to-day. I have to say that the costume design is magnificent!

According to the Outlander customer designer, Terry Dresbach, the costumes for the series are as authentic as possible, including what’s underneath. “No Velcro, no zippers, not a lot of shoes, and kilts are worn as kilts are supposed to be worn – with absolutely nothing underneath. These are true Scots! What’s not authentic are the effects of war and journeying through the highlands. To achieve the look of well-worn clothing, the costumes are attacked with cheese graters, burned with blow torches, and aged by tying them up with string and baking them.”

We have a saying in Spain: el habito no hace al monje, which means that the habit doesn’t make the monk. Nonetheless, I do think that what we wear greatly influences how we are perceived, and more importantly how it makes us feel and act in a certain manner befitting of our ensemble. Think about it: You most certainly act and feel differently in a long, ballroom gown versus a pair of jeans or a mini skirt. There’s something magical about wearing a long dress. It’s grand. Feminine. Sensual.

To digress again a little, growing up in Spain, we used to go to an annual pilgrimage called El Rocío. Most of the two-week long event takes place outdoors, in nature, as pilgrims from all over Spain make the journey on foot, on horseback, in carretas, and aboard horse carriages or in 4×4’s, traversing the countryside and marshlands of Western Andalucía. We sleep out in the open, sometimes inside carriolas, sometimes in tents or sometimes on a blanket under a tree. Very Outlander-like. It’s like going back in time with no need of crossing any ancient stones! And as it’s a traditional Andalusian festivity, women wear flamenca dresses, which are typically long and more flowy than the style worn during ferias. Wearing a bata rociera or a flamenca dress transforms you. It makes one feel special, all women become extra pretty with their colourful dresses and flowers in their hair. And it also connects one with traditions and a simplicity otherwise unattainable in today’s frantic urban world. Preparing meals and eating out in the open nature is also transforming. One must keep things simple and organise dishes in advance, so that they can be quickly and easily prepared and cooked during one of the stops or at night for the evening meal. We rely on blocks of ice to keep things cool and we cook on charcoal, wood or gas stoves. There’s a camaraderie that develops from sharing one’s food with others, as happens every day during the Rocío. And although the hardships are different than in past times (civilisation if necessary is really only a car ride away in most cases), the experience of being outdoors surrounded by nature with none of the modern comforts is invigorating, relaxing, healing and restorative to the soul. It’s also a lot of fun!

So, back to Claire. And the snood. Inspired by the series’ costumes, I’ve already made myself a snood with the leftover yarns from a sweater my mother almost finished for me. It’s a special piece because the yarn will always remind me of my mother. But something happened as I was making it: I was reminded of how fulfilling it is to create something with one’s hands like people did in the old days, albeit then out of necessity. Knitting is making a come-back, even in unexpected circles. I’ve seen quite a few posh fashionistas sporting snoods on social media and encouraging their friends to knit. I think influences such as the Outlander series and a return to nature are the culprits of this revival of sorts. I learned to knit when I was a teenager in Spain. My mother taught me and throughout the years, I’ve made sweaters and scarves for myself, for family members and friends. So picking it up again feels natural, like coming home. And that’s therapeutic.

Revivals are a funny thing. We pick up something long forgotten and usually do so with more enthusiasm and sometimes more knowledge as well.

Home cooking is also making a comeback and with a vengeance I think. And so is healthy eating, something I’m very passionate about. I’ve recently discovered a number of websites and magazines that are dedicated to inspiring and encouraging readers to become home cooks and to realise that home cooking is not a daunting task, but something that brings us closer to our food and to nature. And that can be very fulfilling.

In the Outlander novels, I have a number of pages whose corners I’ve turned marking recipes or interesting pieces of information. Diana Gabaldon’s imagination is impressive, and so is her accuracy for details. One is truly transported into the 1700s especially with such things as food, food preparation and small tidbits about health and medicinal practices. We’ve come a long way from the 18th century, and now it seems like we are trying to recapture what we left behind and the forgotten positive aspects of life in the past.

Many are going back to learning how to grow our own fruits and vegetables and rearing chickens for pasture-raised eggs. We are learning to respect the environment and sustainable farming and fishing. And with all that, we have come to appreciate that it all ties together with home cooking. For me, that’s the definition of Paleo, sourcing and preparing one’s food. And nothing can be more satisfying than going to the market to buy seasonal produce and come home to invent a dish or create something traditional that is nutritious, healthy and pleasurable.

A couple of days ago when I bought the first skein of yarn for my new snood, I also picked up some seafood at our local fishmonger, Seawell on Mason’s Island. We’ve been patronising them since my brother recommended that we should. And it’s always an exciting experience. I love that they are trustworthy, one knows what they sell is the freshest of the fresh (we have insider information of course as the owner is a good friend of my brother’s), and I like that they label everything letting one know whether the seafood is wild caught, farmed (rarely, mostly the salmon when it’s out of season), and where it’s from. I also love to be surprised with what is in season and available on the day I visit. For those of you familiar with TJ Maxx (my favourite store), the surprise element is not disimilar. You know you’ll get something, but exactly what one will come home with is an exciting mystery to be uncovered only on the day of purchase. Farmer’s markets are also like that.

I only buy wild caught and try to stick to local as much as possible. On my last visit, I got some fresh Stonington mussels, which I made immediately, following a version of this recipe, as you can see on  my Instagram feed, halibut filets with skin, some wild-caught Gulf shrimp (the woman before me was lucky to buy the last of the Stonington red shrimp), and some beautiful sea scallops.

Scallops are lovely on their own. But today I wanted to enliven them a bit. I did so with some nectarines, whose season is just commencing. And I served them with broccoli rabe, a favourite of my mother’s and mine. I hope you enjoy! For other scallop recipes, please see here, here and here.

Pan-Seared Scallops + Nectarines with Balsamic-Honey-Mustard Reduction

Ingredients, serves 2-4

1 lb (approx. 500g) sea scallops
2 nectarines
1 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup raw honey
1 heaping tablespoon wholegrain mustard (I use Moutarde à l’Ancienne from Delouis fils, which doesn’t include sugar)
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
olive oil

Method

Prepare the reduction first. Pour the balsamic vinegar, raw honey and mustard into a small pan. Over medium heat, bring to a bubble. Lower heat and cook until reduced to about half, stirring frequently.

In the meantime, rinse the scallops and pat dry with a paper towel. Salt and pepper on both sides. Set aside.

Rinse the nectarines and cut into 16 slices. Sprinkle with some freshly ground pepper. In an iron skillet, over high heat, add a drizzle of olive oil. Once the oil is hot, sauté the nectarines, stirring only to turn a couple of times, about 2 minutes. Remove the nectarines from the skillet and place on a serving dish. (If you have a BBQ, they are also delicious made that way.)

Now to cook the scallops. Make sure the skillet is clean. If needed, allow to cool, wash and dry (unless you have another iron skillet to use). Drizzle a little bit of olive oil into the skillet and heat over high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the scallops, cooking about 1-1 1/2 minutes on each side. I like my scallops almost raw inside. If you cook them too long, they will become dry and tough.

To plate: Place scallops over nectarines and drizzle with the balsamic reduction. Garnish with fresh parsley if desired. We ate them as lunch with broccoli rabe.

Broccoli Rabe with Golden Garlic

Ingredients, serves 4

1 bunch broccoli rabe (enough for 4)
8 cloves garlic, sliced
olive oil
sea salt

Method

Cut the ends off the broccoli rabe and rinse in cold water.

Pour water and a couple of pinches of sea salt into a large pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Place the broccoli rabe into the water and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and drain.

While the vegetable is cooking, in an iron skillet or pan heat a drizzle of olive oil. Put the garlic slices into the pan and cook until golden, stirring constantly. Remove immediately from the skillet so as to not burn. (Burnt garlic turns sour and is not very palatable.)

To plate: Simply place the broccoli rabe on a serving plate, drizzle with olive oil and place the garlic over top.

*****

*Note: The images of Jamie and Claire of Outlander I have downloaded from the blog of Terry Dresbach. The images of El Rocío, I have taken off the internet. 

Courgetti {Zucchini Noodles} Without the Need of a Spiraliser

Courgetti! What a cool sounding term. One of those neologisms that simply clicks from the moment one hears it. Paleo (and the culinary world) has a lot of them, since many recipes have been adapted or paleolised (that being a newly invented word in itself).

I first heard the expression coined by my friend Ceri, who is a natural chef and the author of the Natural Kitchen Adventures blog and I just couldn’t get over how easily it rolled off the tongue. Why hadn’t I thought of it? I kept calling them courgette noodles or zucchini spaghetti. How dull and uninventive. Coincidently, Ceri just celebrated her fourth year of blogging by sharing a courgetti recipe!

I’ve been meaning to share this recipe for some time now, but every time I’ve made it I’ve not been able to photograph the dish. My mother requested it often; and I love how easy and simple it is. It can be whipped up in literally less than ten minutes from start to finish. And it always comes out perfect; so it’s a great side dish or something really quick to make in the mornings for breakfast with eggs!

My mother loved vegetables to the point that she could’ve almost been a vegetarian had she also not had an intense passion for all edible sea creatures. There’s a funny story my grandmother used to tell us about how my mother developed this taste for all seafood… something I shared with her and took a step further, having tried whale meat in Iceland. Granted that’s a mammal. I found it to be delicious by the way, a deep dark red meat, with an intense, yet well-balanced flavour of the sea, and a watery-like texture, resembling raw liver. One has a hard time discerning whether one’s eating fish or meat. But either way, it’s a delectable dish. Iceland’s relationship with whales is a long, historical and complex one, where whaling was once a small part of a sustainable fishing industry that helped maintain the population in this harsh land. Today, however and unfortunately, Iceland’s whaling industry is commercialised with many nations partaking, even though there’s a moratorium on whale fishing since 1986. When I tried whale meat in 2004 on my first trip to Iceland, I was not as conscientious (or informed) as I am today about achieving and maintaining a sustainable food industry both on land and from the sea. Therefore, I hope to not offend any sensibilities with the telling of my experience. (Although, I think I may have wounded more than just sensibilities with my parallelism of whale meat to raw liver. I may have grossed out enough of you so much so that we need not worry about moratoriums or sustainable fishing practices regarding whales…)

And on that note, I’ll simply dive into my grandmother’s funny anecdote about how my mother developed her appetite for all things seafood.

As the tale goes, my grandmother ate cat meat when she was pregnant with my mother. It was during the years preceding the Spanish Civil War and the economic situation in Spain was rather dismal with few resources available to the general population. Many people engaged in estraperlo (illegal commercial activities) and oftentimes certain things that one would normally not consume ended up in bars and restaurants and in one’s kitchen. Cats are one example. My grandmother was a seamstress, and a very good one I may add, having trained in the confection of menswear (where the money was according to her mom – my great-grandmother not being a great futurist as you, I’m sure, have guessed) and she had little interest in anything related to cooking. To make matters worse, she was an extremely picky eater as well and anything that remotely sounded like a mortar and pestle had been used made her stop in her tracks and turn around, going back to her workshop without lunch. (Traditional Spanish guisos – stews and “spoon dishes” like lentils, garbanzos, and pottages – generally use some form of ground up spices or garlic in a mortar. And although my grandmother liked spices and garlic, she detested stews. She was very un-Spanish-like in her tastes and actually one could argue a precursor to Paleo!)

However, all of her sisters – she had three of them and two brothers – were great home cooks and one sister in particular was renowned for her hand in the kitchen. It was this sister, the eldest, who set up a little tapas bar in Huelva, that had great acceptance, and which my grandmother used to frequent with full confidence in the cook of course. On a number of these occasions, she ate a variety of conejo dishes, or rather what she thought was conejo… but instead was really cat. Those in the know say that cat meat  has a similar taste and texture to rabbit (conejo). I’ve never tried it and don’t think I ever will, at least not with full consciousness, but I do know that rabbit is exquisite and can just imagine how much my grandmother enjoyed these dishes. During her pregnancy, she ate cat meat quite often unbeknownst to her and when she eventually found out, stopped immediately. In fact, she got violently sick when she discovered what she had been consuming. I’m surprised she didn’t have a miscarriage. On the contrary and notwithstanding the revulsion she experienced, it appears that all that cat meat had some interesting effects on the baby, my mom, whose love for seafood is unsurpassed in our family except for maybe by my brother, who is a fisherman in his spare time (spare translating to any time he can muster up an excuse to go fishing).

Throughout the past year during my mother’s illness, I’ve been the cook at home both for her (when she was still with us) and my father. And when she was in hospital, I got up every day very early to make whatever meals she had requested the day before. She was not happy eating hospital food and I wanted to bring some joy to her daily routine. Amongst all the seafood and vegetables she wanted more often were these courgetti. She really liked them. She loved all things novel and apparently this intrigued her as well as delighted her palate. She was not a picky eater like her mom, but definitely a sybarite in her preferences, liking simple yet delicious and well-made meals.

The way I make these zucchini noodles (or courgetti) is very simple, and anyone can make them at home even if you don’t have one of those fancy vegetable spiralisers. I’ve been keen on getting one to be honest, but the price puts me off since courgette is the only vegetable from which I make spirals. So, instead, I’ve been rather resourceful, a quality I express often in the kitchen and even more frequently in life. I first started making spirals with a little rudimentary, yet very practical, contraption that was gifted to me in Vietnam. And in the winter rental where we are staying, I’ve resorted to using a potato peeler. The courgetti don’t come out as pretty and thin as with the Vietnamese tool (or a spiraliser) with which I’ve made a number of recipes here, here and here.  But for those of you wanting a different look and texture, or if you’re like me and won’t invest in another kitchen tool that will be used infrequently and only take up storage space (plus have the added advantage of less cleaning to do), then this is great method to use – and the dish is quite tasty too! I hope you enjoy!

Stir-Fried Courgetti

Ingredients, for 4

4 medium organic* courgettes (for a side dish, I use one per person)
3-4 garlic cloves, sliced
2 tablespoons extra virgen olive oil
coconut aminos, about 2-3 tablespoons (coconut aminos are a soy replacement)
optional additions: mushrooms, peppers, chopped nuts

Method

Rinse the courgettes and cut off the ends and any ugly markings. Using a potato peeler, create flat zucchini pasta. Set aside on a plate. In a large saucepan or wok, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the sliced garlic, stirring constantly.  Just as they are starting to get golden, add the courgetti and stir fry for 2-3 minutes, stirring almost constantly until the courgetti starts to soften, but is still very much al-dente. If you’re using mushrooms like I did, add them at the same time as the courgetti.

Immediately drizzle with coconut aminos enough to coat all of the courgetti and reduce the heat to low. Simmer covered for 2-3 minutes, stirring frequently until the courgetti reach the tenderness you desire. I like them soft but still crunchy. (I never measure the coconut aminos, instead sprinkling directly from the bottle. So use an amount that you find palatable. Coconut aminos are not salty, but instead slightly sweet. So feel free to add sea salt should you desire. Also the courgette – and mushrooms – will release some water when cooking. This combined with the olive oil and the aminos creates a nice sauce.)

*Note: There are certain produce on the dirty dozen list and one of them is zucchini. When consuming this vegetable, I stick to organic to ensure I’m not eating any GMOs.

*****

Para hacer pasta de calabacín no hace falta un artilugio especial. Con un pelador de patatas también podemos conseguir una pasta que nos da unos resultados muy agradables con una textura diferente. 

Courgetti (Pasta de Calabacines) Salteados

Ingredientes, para 4

4 calabacines medianos orgánicos* (para hacer como guarnición, yo uso un calabacín por persona)
3-4 dientes de ajos, en láminas
2 cucharadas soperas de aceite de oliva extra virgen
2-3 cucharadas soperas de aminos de coco (sustituto de la salsa de soja)
opcional: champiñones, pimientos o frutos secos

Método

Enjuagamos los calabacines y les cortamos las puntas y les quitamos cualquier imperfección que nos resulte fea. Con un pelador de patatas, creamos pasta plana de los calabacines. Ponemos la pasta sobre un plato o recipiente y lo dejamos de lado mientras calentamos el aceite.

En un wok o sartén onda, calentamos el aceite de oliva a fuego medio-alto. Añadimos los ajos y removemos continuamente hasta que se empiecen a dorar. Agregamos inmediatamente los calabacines y salteamos unos 2 a 3 minutos moviendo constantemente hasta que estén blandos pero aún al-dentes. Si vamos a usar champiñones también como hice yo, pues se incorporan al mismo tiempo que los calabacines.

Inmediatamente, le echamos por encima los aminos de coco y bajamos el fuego a lento. Tapamos el wok o la sartén y cocinamos la pasta, moviendo frecuentemente, unos 2 a 3 minutos hasta conseguir la textura deseada. A mi me gusta que estén tiernos pero aun crujientes. (Yo no mido la cantidad exacta de aminos, sino lo calculo a ojo. Echo una cantidad para que la pasta quede bien cubierta. Pero hay que tener en cuenta que el amino de coco es mas bien dulce, no salado. Así que quizás os haga falta agregar un poco de sal marina, dependiendo de vuestros gustos. También hay que tener en cuenta que tanto el calabacín como el champiñón – si se utiliza – sueltan agua al cocerlos. Este agua combinado con los aminos y el aceite de oliva resulta en una salsa muy agradable.)

*Nota: Yo suelo utilizar calabacín orgánico solamente pues esta verdura esta en la lista de los “dirty dozen” transgénicos. 

Spring with Kiko {Chicken a l’Orange + Patatas a lo Pobre}

“Hi little guy. Are you walking your mistress?” asked our friendly neighbour who was raking leaves and preparing his garden for the summer season ahead. Kiko and I were walking by, with the little guy rather dragging me down the hill behind him. (By the way being called mistress was fairly enchanting especially since I’ve been reading the Outlander series, whose story takes place in the 18th century.)

Kiko is my parent’s mini schnauzer. He’s a very affable little thing, although quite prone to being fearful of people. On the other hand, he loves other dogs. Being rather small doesn’t stop him from wanting to greet, sniff and play with all the hounds we encounter on our walks, no matter how large they are. And while he’s generally fun and loving, he is also stubborn. When he digs in his hind legs, there’s no budging him until he gets what he wants, which in most cases is just a stop for him to bury his nose in the ground and mark his territory. Marking his territory takes place what seems like every two seconds though.

One would think our walks are bonding; and maybe on some level they are, as he does look forward to going out and shows his enthusiasm by putting on a jumping performance, which seems to be a characteristic trait of mini schnauzers. He can jump very high for a dog that stands only about a foot off the ground. In fact, he can jump about two times his height. It’s really quite impressive, and may I add amusing to watch.

We take different routes almost every day, with me deciding the way… most of the time. If there’s a big bad monster (aka rubbish bin) lurking on our side of the road, Kiko makes a beeline for the other side, and consequently pulls me with him. Our walks are peaceful and invigorating. While he sniffs, stops, pulls and jovially prances ahead of me, I get to admire the pretty summer cottages (some are actually mansions), attractive gardens, eclectic architecture and the stunning water-views of where we are temporarily living.

Spring is definitely here, although the wind is still chilling, especially along the shore, and my hands feel like icicles on many days, by the time we arrive home. Daffodils are popping up everywhere even along the marsh where they have not been planted. I’m guessing it’s the result of birds dropping their seeds (or the winds blowing them over), just like the number of mussels and clams in their shells that we encounter scattered and broken along the path around the lagoon. The seagulls must be carrying them and dropping them on the ground.

The tulips are slightly more recalcitrant to come out yet, with only a few resilient ones actually in bloom. The magnolias are budding with the promise of their pink and white delicate blossoms coming soon. And the forsythia bushes are alive again with their bright yellow flowers. Everywhere one turns, there are signs of new life. I’m in awe of Spring; and I think I’ve never admired this season as much as I am doing this year.

I haven’t stopped to reflect why this is so, although my mind does a lot of wandering, soul searching, and de-stressing while we enjoy the outdoors. I sometimes think about food too. And how I want to develop the blog and bring a more enriching experience to my readers.

But since mom died, becoming enthusiastic about almost anything is terribly hard and finding motivation to cook has been full of obstacles and excuses. Fortunately for my father and me, I cannot fathom eating processed or junk foods. Therefore, I force myself to prepare healthy meals, even if rather rushed and haphazardly.

Making something quick, easy and effortlessly has become an obsession on most days. As Kiko and I were wandering around the other day, the bright sun and pretty flowers everywhere inspired me to make something that would echo this feeling of life, and I settled on chicken a l’orange (what says sunshine more than an orange?). In my native Spain, orange trees are now just starting to blossom, and the sweet fragrance of azahar will be permeating the streets with the intoxicating aroma. Having grown up on a farm with an orange orchard, we were lucky to have a number of varieties, affording us the benefit of having oranges almost all year round. Here in the US and almost everywhere now, oranges are available year round thanks to more tropical climates in such places like Florida.

To accompany the chicken, I made a traditional (and super easy) potato side dish, which my father loves and my mother used to make. Patatas a lo Pobre is something you’ll find in most family restaurants or ventas (roadside restaurants with home-cooked meals) in Spain. It’s an inexpensive dish, which requires only three or four ingredients and is very easy and quick to make. The traditionalists add green peppers, but as I don’t like this vegetable too much (or rather it doesn’t agree with me), I only use potatoes and onions, and sometimes garlic. And of course, olive oil. I also like to brown the potatoes a bit, which makes parts of them crunchy, adding to the texture of the dish.

Chicken a l’Orange

Ingredients, for 3 or 4

6 organic chicken legs
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
2 large carrots, peeled and sliced
1 large leek, rinsed and sliced (discard the green parts)
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
cumin powder
1 teaspoon coriander seeds, crushed
1 cup freshly squeesed orange juice
1 1/2 cups chicken or beef stock, extra if needed
sea salt and pepper, to taste
fresh parsley, finely chopped

Method

Preheat the oven to 400F (200C)*. Rinse and pat dry the chicken pieces. Sprinkle the chicken with freshly ground sea salt and pepper on both sides. Lightly dust chicken on both sides with cumin powder. Place the chicken legs in an ovenproof dish and drizzle some olive oil over all of them. Bake for about 40 minutes or until chicken is done, turning a few times, so the chicken browns on both sides. (This temperature works for my oven. You may need to adjust for yours.)

In the meantime, squeese the oranges and set the juice aside. In a deep saucepan over medium-low heat, heat the olive oil. Add the onions and carrots and poach, stirring frequently about 10 minutes. Add the leek, garlic, coriander seeds and continue to poach, stirring frequently, another 10-15 minutes until all the vegetables are tender to an inserted fork. Reduce heat to low and add the orange juice and stock. Simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Once cool, pour into a food processor (you may have to do this in two batches) and purée. Return to the pot and simmer. If the sauce is too thick, add more stock. Keep warm while the chicken finishes baking.

You can insert the chicken pieces into the sauce if desired or pour the sauce over the chicken once it is plated. Serve with patatas a lo pobre.

Patatas a lo Pobre

Ingredients, for 2

3 large/4 medium potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
1 large onion, thinly sliced
coarse sea salt, to taste
1/2 cup olive oil
fresh parsley, finely chopped

Method

In a deep and wide saucepan, pour the olive oil and add the potatoes and onions. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt (I used about three or four turns of the grinder, but a couple of pinches will also do). Over medium-low heat, allow to cook slowly, turning occasionally with a spatula, making sure you don’t break the potatoes in the process. I allow the potatoes to brown a bit before turning. Browning the potatoes is the trick to this dish, creating a combination of both crunchy and soft textures. Once they are tender, they are ready to be served. Sprinkle with fresh parsley on the plate.

*****

Muslos de Pollo a la Naranja

Ingredientes, para 3 o 4

6 muslos de pollo
1 cebolla grande, pelada y picada
2 zanahorias grandes, peladas y cortadas a rodajas
1 puerro grande, quitándole lo verde, se enjuaga bien y se corta a rodajas finas
2 dientes de ajo, en laminas
80ml aceite de oliva extra virgen
comino en polvo
1 cucharadita (de te) de semillas de cilantro, machacadas
250ml de zumo de naranja, recién exprimido
350ml de caldo de pollo
sal marina y pimienta fresca a gusto
perejil

Método

Precalentamos el horno a 200C. Enjugamos los muslos y los secamos con toallitas de papel. Salpimentamos por ambos lados y también espolvoreamos con comino en polvo por ambos lados. Ponemos los muslos en una fuente para el horno y le echamos un chorreón de aceite por encima. Horneamos unos 40 minutos o hasta que la carne este hecha, dandole la vuelta unas cuantas veces, para que se doren los muslos por ambos lados.

Mientras se hace el pollo, exprimimos varias naranjas hasta obtener 250ml de zumo. En una olla sobre fuego medio-lento, calentamos el aceite de oliva. Añadimos las cebollas y las zanahorias y pochamos durante unos 10 minutos, removiendo frecuentemente. A continuación agregamos el puerro, los ajos, las semillas de cilantro y seguimos pochando unos 10 o 15 minutos adicionales hasta que las verduras estén tiernas cuando se pinchan con un tenedor. Reducimos el fuego a lento y echamos el zumo de naranja y el caldo de pollo. Removemos bien y dejamos cocer unos 10 minutos, sin que llegue a la ebullición. Retiramos del fuego y dejamos enfriar. Echamos todo en la batidora y lo hacemos puré. También se puede hacer con la mini-pimer. Lo vertimos otra vez a la olla y lo ponemos a fuego muy suave para mantenerlo caliente mientras se termina de hacer el pollo.

Cuando los muslos estén hechos, se pueden poner dentro de la salsa de naranja o se le puede echar la salsa por encima una vez en el plato. Se pueden servir con patatas a lo pobre u otra guarnición a gusto.

Patatas a lo Pobre

Ingredientes, para 2 

3 patatas grandes o 4 medianas, peladas y cortadas a rodajas finas
1 cebolla grande, pelada y cortada a rodajas
sal marina gorda
120ml aceite de oliva extra virgen
perejil fresco, picado

Método

En una sartén amplia y onda sobre fuego suave a mediano, echamos el aceite de oliva, las patatas y la cebolla. Le echamos un poco de sal a gusto. Dejamos que se vayan haciendo las patatas poco a poco, dándoles la vuelta con cuidado para que no se rompan. El truco de estas patatas esta en que queden entre fritas y cocidas, ligeramente doradas (o mas si os gusta) y que su textura sea que se deshagan en la boca. Se sirven con perejil picado.

A Day of Fennel

At the risk of publicly seeming a bit unstable and disorganised, I’ve decided to split the post about my mother in two separate entries. For the inconvenience, I apologise.

I was feeling a heaviness and a certain weight about including recipes with a post about my mom, but this is a food blog and I didn’t want to separate the two, especially since my mother has been my greatest influence in my life and in my cooking.

But she deserves her own space. I struggled with myself about sharing everything I did, yet not writing about her, not sharing with all of you such a huge part of my life, was in many ways not acknowledging her and her life. We are living a fragile time… there are days it’s unfathomable to believe and understand cognitively that she’s gone. And then there are those brief moments when I question myself how could she exist and not be here now.

I don’t recall going through this pensiveness when my grandmothers passed away. It was painful then and I still miss both of them and think of them often. But trying to grasp a little bit of them was different, and maybe because I still had my mother as my biggest support. And she had me.

Now, the stark loss is distinct, unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before. Thankfully, my father and I have each other and my brother and the rest of the family. And life must go on…will go on…

And in continuation of my last post, here are the two recipes that I share with you:

To fuel my passions and inspire myself, sometime after arriving in the US, I purchased a subscription to Bon Appetit. I’ve only opened up one magazine. The rest are patiently waiting that I peel away the pages and explore them… but in that one issue, I found a recipe that I’ve done over and over again, and have changed a few times. My mom loved it. In fact, she requested it several times, when she had her appetite back.

As I’ve tinkered with it, it has evolved into something that my father praises and we both enjoy (and is now quite different from the original). He loved everything my mother used to make and usually likes everything I make too. But he doesn’t like experiments. And now, this soup recipe is ready to be shared, as is the special ingredient.

Fennel is something that I grew up seeing in Spain but have rarely eaten. Snails like to feed on fennel and those in the know say that they acquire a special flavour from the vegetable. And that was my main association with this intoxicatingly fragrant flowering plant, who’s bulb is not the only part that can be savoured and used in cooking.

As I’ve rediscovered fennel here in the US, I’m enamoured with it and buy it almost every week. Cutting up a fennel bulb is a feast for the olfactory senses. The burst of anise is fresh and inviting. And I could hold the bulb and the leaves up to my nose all day long….It was one of my mother’s favourite scents (she loved anise candies and would buy them on every trip to Spain). The leaves are delicate and the perfect whimsical garnish (and they can also be eaten). And the flowers, with which the bulbs are not sold in the market, are pretty and edible as well. And then of course, there are the seeds.

In addition to the delicate and delicious soup, today I’ve made a quiche as well. I hope you try and enjoy both!

The soup is made with the bulb only. But don’t throw away the leaves yet.. they are part of the soup too. Read on and find out how I’ve incorporated them.

Besitos,

Debra xx

PS: Please excuse my photo format. My computer went kaputt about a month ago; and I had to reinstall the operating system and lost all of my programs and files (therefore, Photoshop for the moment is gone, as is any attempt at graphic design). I hope to be reunited with them soon, as I do have an external hard drive waiting for me somewhere in Europe. Also, I’ve made this soup twice specifically to photograph (so we may be getting slightly tired of fennel). The first time, I used bacon bits, which my father and I concur is the best accompaniment, but I only took pictures with my iPhone and in the sun and on a bench! The second time, I roasted some diced carrot but ate them all at breakfast. 😉

Fennel & Potato Soup

Ingredients, for 6 servings:

  • 1 large fennel bulb and leaves
  • 1 large red onion
  • 3 medium russet potatoes, peeled and cut into medium chunks
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 6 cups of water
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 1 teaspoon lime juice
  • garnish and accompaniment ideas: bacon pieces, fennel leaves and edible flowers

Method:

Cut the leaves off the bulb and set aside. Rinse the bulb and julienne. Peel and julienne the onion. In a medium pot, over medium heat, melt the butter in the olive oil. Add the fennel and onion.  Stirring occasionally, poach the vegetables for about 20 minutes until tender.

In the meantime, place the fennel leaves in another pot and add 6 cups of water. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 20 minutes, covered.

Once the fennel and onion are tender, add the wine and reduce for 3-4 minutes. Add the potatoes and 4 cups of the fennel-infused water. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 30 minutes until the potatoes are tender to an inserted fork.

Remove from heat and allow to cool. Once cool, puree with an immersion blender (or food processor). Add sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Stir and heat up. Add the lime juice and serve.

Garnish with some bacon pieces, fennel leaves and edible flowers, and a drizzle of olive oil, if desired.

Fennel and Onion Quiche (Strictly speaking, it’s Primal, as it has feta cheese)

Ingredients, for one 8-in pie pan

  • 1 large fennel bulb, no leaves
  • 1 large medium red onion
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, and some more if needed
  • 3/4 cup feta cheese, diced
  • 5 large eggs
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 1 tablespoon dried dill leaves or fresh if you have them

Method:

Rinse and julienne the fennel. Peel and julienne the onion. In a large saucepan, melt the butter and olive oil over medium heat. Reduce heat and add the fennel and onion and poach for about 20 minutes until tender, stirring frequently so the vegetables do not burn, but brown slightly. Add more olive oil during cooking if necessary.

Preheat the oven to 365F (185C).

In a bowl, beat the eggs well and add the feta cheese and dill and mix well. Set aside. When the vegetables are done, remove from heat and allow to cool, about 10 minutes. Add the cooked vegetables to the egg mixture and stir well. Taste for salt and if needed add some sea salt, to taste. Also add some freshly ground pepper to taste. Pour into an 8-inch pie pan, spreading evenly.

Bake for 25 minutes and allow to slightly cool before cutting and serving.

Hoy os traigo dos recetas con hinojo, algo que he re-descubierto aquí en EEUU.

Sopa de Hinojo y Patatas

Ingredientes, para 6:

  • 1 bulbo de hinojo con hojas
  • 1 cebolla roja mediana
  • 3 patatas medianas, rojas, cortadas a gajos medianos
  • 60 ml vino blanco, seco
  • 60ml aceite de oliva
  • 2 cucharadas “soperas” de mantequilla
  • 1,5 litros de agua
  • sal marina y pimienta fresca
  • 1 cucharadita de zumo de lima
  • como guarnición: taquitos de jamón serrano, taquitos de beicón frito, zanahoria al horno cortada a taquitos, flores comestibles y un chorreón de aceite de oliva, si se desea

Como hacer la sopa:

Cortamos las hojas del hinojo y las apartamos. Enjuagamos el bulbo y lo cortamos en juliana. Pelamos la cebolla y la cortamos tambien en juliana. En una olla mediana, sobre fuego mediano, derretimos la mantequilla con el aceite de oliva. Agregamos el hinojo y la cebolla. Pochamos las verduras, removiendo ocasionalmente, hasta que estén tiernas, unos 20 minutos.

Mientras tanto, ponemos las hojas del hinojo con 1,5 litros de agua a hervir en otra olla. Cuando rompa el hervor, reducimos el fuego a bajo y cocemos unos 20 minutos, tapando la olla. (Esto lo llamaremos “agua de hinojo”.)

Una vez que las verduras estén tiernas, le agregamos el vino y reducimos unos 3 o 4 minutos. Agregamos las patatas y 1 litro del agua de hinojo. Reducimos el fuego a lento, tapamos la olla y cocemos unos 30 minutos hasta que las patatas estén tiernas al pincharlas con un tenedor.

Retiramos del fuego y dejamos que se enfrie. Después, hacemos un pure con la mini-pimer. Salpimentamos a gusto. Ponemos la olla otra vez sobre fuego medio y calentamos la sopa. Le echamos la cucharadita de zumo de lima, removemos bien y servimos.

Se puede acompañar con trocitos de jamón serrano, beicón, zanahoria cortada a dados y horneada, flores comestibles y un chorreoncito de aceite de oliva, si se desea.

Quiche de Hinojo y Cebolla (Tecnicamente hablando es mas bien Primal, que Paleo, porque lleva queso)

Ingredientes para un “pie” de 20cm de diametro:

  • 1 bulbo grande de hinojo, sin hojas
  • 1 cebolla mediana, roja
  • 2 cucharadas “soperas” de mantequilla
  • 2 cucharadas “soperas” de aceite de oliva, y algo mas si hace falta
  • 3/4 taza queso feta, cortado a daditos
  • 5 huevos, grandes
  • sal marina y pimienta fresca
  • 1 cucharada “sopera” de hojas de eneldo secas (o frescas si las tenéis a mano)

Como hacer el quiche:

Enjuagamos y cortamos en juliana el bulbo de hinojo y la cebolla. En una sartén onda, derretimos la mantequilla con el aceite de oliva sobre fuego medio. Bajos la lumbre y añadimos el hinojo y la cebolla y pochamos unos 20 minutos hasta que esten las verduras tiernas, removiendo frecuentemente sin dejar que se quemen las verduras, solo que se doren. Agregamos algo mas de aceite de oliva si hiciera falta.

Precalentamos el horno a 185C.

En un bol, batimos los huevos y le agregamos el queso feta, ya cortado a daditos, y la cucharada de hojas de eneldo secas. Cuando las verduras estén pochadas, apartamos la sartén y dejamos enfriar unos 10 minutos. Incorporamos las verduras a la mezcla de huevo y salpimentamos a gusto, removiendo bien. Echamos la mezcla dentro de un plato para pies de un diametro de 20cm, asegurandonos de que este todo bien distribuido.

Horneamos durante 25 minutos. Y dejamos que se enfrie un poco antes de cortar y servir.

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My breakfast, where the carrots ended up with the quiche!

Only Count the Happy Hours & Rustic Tomato Soup w/ Seared Scallops

A Particularly Nonfacetious Summer with Musical Houses

Summer has come and gone, and I’ve barely noticed. First, “just the beginning” of the scorching summer heat came upon us in Sevilla from one day to the next. Once that happens, it’s generally hot (by hot I mean 40s and 40+ Celsius) for the rest of the season until the end of September. But I left in June, so I guess that I was lucky to escape the torture. Then, the humid air, fetid odours and exciting rapid lifestyle of NYC I had forgotten about enveloped me on my daily journeys to New York Presbyterian Hospital, all of June and July. And lastly, the serene and peaceful breeze of the Southeastern Connecticut shore, where we have been graced with some gorgeous Indian Summer days in the past few weeks, has finally brought the summer of 2014 to an end.

Although we’ve had an intense season, not necessarily delightful and recharging as we all would’ve hoped, time has also flown by and I barely noticed the weather most of the time, or better said, I didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy it much. As summers go, mine has been chilly and basically without sunshine. In fact, I’ve been wearing sweaters most of the summer since I was indoors at the hospital taking care of and accompanying my mother, who had open heart surgery in June. After numerous complications, an almost near-death episode, transport in helicopter from New London to Yale, New Haven and then back to NYC, rehab a number of times, and another stint in the hospital in August, she’s finally home in Connecticut with us and doing much better. She’s still convalescing and there are still issues, but she’s thankfully getting stronger with each day.

Connecticut has welcomed us again. It’s like a second home for me, as I’ve spent the most time here after Spain, and my brother and his family live here. And after some house-hopping (truly it’s felt like musical houses) since March for me and since June for my parents who have been living in Florida until now, we are finally in a house which will be their home until next June. They are renting a place on Groton Long Point, where winter rentals come furnished and one can can have the beach to oneself, a luxury which I love since my days growing up in Chipiona, Spain. The seashore in Connecticut is highly sought-after in the summer months and rentals can go for as much as $20,000 a month. Thankfully, in the winter the prices are much more reasonable. This is our third time renting on GLP. The first time we were here, we had just arrived from Spain when my father retired. I decided to join them and look into graduate schools, as well as help my mother get over the sorrow of losing my grandmother. Spanish families are very tight-knit, and in my case, my parents are probably my best friends; and although I’m not an only child, the age difference between my brother and me is big enough to make me feel like one oftentimes. And maybe because I’m the “baby”, I’m also closer to my parents. So, it felt rather natural to accompany them.

I was still living with my parents when they decided to get a bespoke house in Mystic made and once again, we rented during the winter months in GLP while the house was being built. It was on that occasion that I recall witnessing the crazy tradition of the New Year’s dip in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. I discovered that it’s not only the Dutch and Scandinavians who do this, but that there are also brave souls in America who enjoy an icy dip to welcome the new year.

I’m hoping the third time on this peninsula is a charm and brings us all good luck, which we need. I won’t be staying with them the whole time, but for now I’m still here helping my mother recuperate from the operation. She’s finally walking with more confidence, although still with the walker. And she’s also less depressed. This house has a good vibe, with lots of light and open spaces, which afford her the room to exercise.

Rainy Days, Scallops, & Happy Hours 

After the gorgeous Indian Summer, which the locals were cautiously praising, the rains finally arrived.  The day we moved into this house, it was pouring and my mother and I had to wait in the car until it was less intense to be able to maneuver the stairs.  Such ordinary things as a step or stairs are huge obstacles for someone who needs to learn how to walk again. We never thought that the aftermath of the surgery would be so difficult for her and us.

A few days ago on one of our medical outings, we made a small detour and visited Sea Well near Mason’s Island. Mason’s Island is an island on the Mystic River and part of the town of Mystic. It’s an exclusive community, maybe not quite as private as Groton Long Point, but also very beautiful. It’s here that Meryl Streep’s parents had their retirement home. And it wasn’t unusual to see the actress around town, although I never had the pleasure. Mystic is very popular with the NY crowd and one can sometimes spot a famous or well-known person camouflaged amongst the locals. I remember one day walking on Main Street and bumping into the talented Mexican soap opera star Nailea Norvind at one of the shops. She was with her mother, who I learned that day lived in NYC back then, and the two were speaking in English. So in an unusual gesture for me, I approached her to let her know I admired her acting skills.

Sea Well is a local fish and seafood shop. They have two stores, one in Mystic on Mason’s Island Road, and one in Pawcatuck. The seafood is delivered fresh daily from the Stonington docks and the last commercial fishing fleet in Connecticut. My brother and his family are patrons of Sea Well and sometimes even suppliers. My brother’s passion and main hobby is fishing. And he goes out often during the warm months and usually comes back with tons of tuna, some of which in turn he sells to the owners of Sea Well.

So, when my sister-in-law and nieces recommended buying seafood there, I didn’t hesitate. And naturally, we went for local scallops. I could only purchase three quarters of a pound, as that’s all that was left on Wednesday afternoon. And if I hadn’t arrived just in time, the lady who followed me in would’ve snatched them up. She seemed as disappointed as I would’ve been when the shopkeeper told her there were none left, that I had just taken the last bunch. I love scallops. And my parents do too. (By the way, Sea Well has delicious smoked bluefish and salmon that they prepare and smoke themselves. I highly recommend both.)

It has been an ordeal to get my mother enthusiastic about food. She’s been eating only for nourishment and she’s been forcing herself at best. The only food she has requested has been sushi! We’ve therefore had take out from some local restaurants a number of times… the rest of us savouring it as much as she has.

She simply has not been enjoying any of her meals. But with the move to this house, things have started to change in a positive direction and not only with food. The house as I’ve mentioned gives off a good vibe. It’s clean, with lots of white, blue and green furniture in a coastal decor, and tons of light. There are windows everywhere. In fact, at night I’m sure our neighbours are checking us out from their homes, until I remember to put the shades down. The owners have a number of watercolour paintings from local artists and many little wooden signs in pastel colours. Some are rather cute, like the one in the bathroom that says, “If you’re not barefoot, you’re overdressed.” The entrance of the house has a lovely sunroom, surrounded by windows on all three walls, again with the blue, green and white decor, and a bunch of rustic wooden signs, a few stating that life’s better at the beach, another welcomes the visitor and let’s us know we are on the porch, yet another says there’s no vacancy. And then there’s the one over the front door that reads, “Only Count the Happy Hours.” I like that, especially after the rough year we are having. I can’t wait to meet the owners as I already like them from how the house has influenced my mother’s mood.

My mother is walking on her own (albeit with the walker) and is more engaged in her rehab exercises. She’s talking more. And she’s been helping me peel and cut things in the kitchen. She’s a keen and excellent cook from whom I’ve learned most of what I know; and she keeps wondering out loud when she’ll be able to make meals for my father and herself again.  Thus her voluntary (and enthusiastic) involvement with the preparation of our meals is a good sign in her continued recovery.

She is also finally taking pleasure in eating and she’s cleaning off her plates! We had the scallops we bought at Sea Well yesterday. I dry-pan seared them and served them with oven-roasted rosemary and garlic potatoes (I must share the recipe when I make them again) and some broccoli. And today, I used up the remaining scallops with a light, tomato soup which was very appropriate for the wet and chilly day. My mother cleaned off her bowl and kept saying how delicious it was, which very pleasantly surprised my father and me. We are taking one day at a time, or maybe even one hour at a time, and counting only the happy ones…and relishing in each other’s company, sharing healthy and delicious meals and sobremesa (after-meal) conversations.

*A few days after writing this post, my mother had to go back to the hospital due to complications with her medications. Thankfully, after only a week this time, she’s back home and much stronger.

*****

With all the attention my mother needs and all the stress I’m going through right now, I cannot concentrate on one of my dearest hobbies, reading books, and I have a few new ones patiently waiting for me to pick them up and immerse myself in their stories. Instead, I’ve been able to muster just enough patience to read food magazines. This recipe is inspired by one in the August 2014 issue of Bon Appétit. My sister-in-law and nieces swear by this magazine and the owners of the house had a copy laying around. So, I am putting it to good use.

I like roasting vegetables and fruits, as the flavour is intensified and it gives any dish a rustic feel. For the recipe today, I roasted tomatoes, which I especially love to do for soups and sauces. When one adds roasted garlic, it becomes even more delectable. And if my mother wanted seconds, I think you will too…

This soup is very easy to make and can even be made ahead of time. It’s light enough for a starter yet filling enough for a main course, depending on how many scallops (or fish) you want to add.

RUSTIC ROASTED TOMATO SOUP & PAN-SEARED SCALLOPS

Ingredients:

(serves 4)

16 small scallops (4 pp, or more or less according to your preference)
4 medium organic tomatoes, cut in quarters
8-10 garlic cloves, unpeeled
4-6 fresh basil leaves for roasting, plus 4-5 additional for the soup and garnishing if desired
1/2 tablespoon dried basil
sea salt & pepper, to taste
1 ñora (or other dried, sweet pepper), soaked in water for about 20 minutes
olive oil, about 3-4 tablespoons, plus more for drizzle
2 cups water
raw milk goat’s cheese, crumbled

Method:

For the soup:

Preheat the oven to 400F (200C).

Place the tomatoes, drained ñora, and garlic cloves on an ovenproof dish. Sprinkle with dried basil and add 4-6  fresh basil leaves, season with salt and pepper, and pour olive oil over top. Mix with hands so everything is well coated. Bake for 30-35 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Remove from oven and discard the ñora. Separate the garlic cloves and peel; this is easily done by holding down one end and with a fork pushing the clove out of the peel. Transfer the peeled garlic cloves and the remaining ingredients including the juices into a pot. Add two cups of water. With a potato masher, mash to crush the tomatoes and cloves a bit further but not too much. Add additional 4-5 fresh basil leaves. Over medium heat, bring to a slight bubble, then reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Taste and season with further salt and pepper, if necessary.

For the scallops:

Rinse the scallops and pat dry them with a paper towel. Sprinkle some sea salt and freshly ground pepper over the scallops.

While the soup cooks, heat over medium-high heat an iron pan. Grease the bottom with olive oil and a paper towel, and sear the scallops briefly on each side, about 1-2 minutes. Set aside. The scallops can also be made in advance.

To assemble:

Pour the soup into four bowls. Add 4 scallops to each bowl and sprinkle with crumbled goat’s cheese. Garnish with a drizzle of olive oil and some freshly ground pepper. Serve immediately.

*****

SOPA RUSTICA DE TOMATES HORNEADOS CON VIEIRAS A LA SARTEN

Ingredientes:

(para 4)

16 vieiras pequeñas (4 por persona, o mas o menos según guste)
4 tomates orgánicos, cortados a cuartos
8-10 dientes de ajo, sin pelar
4-6 hojas de albahaca fresca para hornear, mas unas cuantas adicionales para la sopa
1/2 cucharada sopera de albahaca seca
sal marina & pimienta fresca, a gusto
1 ñora, puesta en remojo unos 20 minutos
aceite de oliva, unas 3-4 cucharadas soperas, y un poco mas para rociar la sopa
500ml de agua
un poco de queso de cabra, desmoronado

Metodo:

Para la sopa:

Precalentamos el horno a 200C.

Ponemos los tomates, la ñora, los dientes de ajo, y las hojas de albahaca en un recipiente para el horno. Espolvoreamos con la albahaca seca, salpimentamos y echamos el aceite de oliva por encima. Removemos con las manos para que todo quede bien cubierto. Horneamos unos 30-35 minutos, removiendo unas cuantas veces.

Cuando saquemos la bandeja del horno, nos deshacemos de la ñora y pelamos los dientes de ajos. Pasamos los ajos pelados y los demás ingredientes, incluyendo el jugo, a una olla. Agregamos el agua y con un machacador de patatas, machacamos para deshacer un poco mas los tomatoes y los ajos. Agregamos unas hojas de albahaca fresca. Sobre fuego medio, llegamos a una ebullición, bajamos la lumbre y cocinamos unos 5 minutos a fuego lento. Probamos el caldo y salpimentamos de nuevo si fuera necesario.

Para las vieiras:

Enjuagamos las vieiras y las secamos con un papel de cocina. Salpimentamos.

Ponemos una sartén de hierro a calentar sobre fuego medio-alto. Cuando este bien caliente, engrasamos el fondo con un papel de cocina y un poco de aceite de oliva. Doramos las vieiras, 1-2 minutos por cada lado. Apartamos las vieiras y las conservamos en un plato, sin tapar, hasta servir con la sopa.

Para presentar:

Dividimos la sopa en cuatro porciones. Colocamos 4 vieiras por persona en cada plato sopero, y espolvoreamos con los trozos  del queso de cabra. Rociamos cada plato con un poco de aceite de oliva, y echamos un poquito de pimienta fresca a cada plato. Servimos la sopa inmediatamente.

Cream of Pumpkin Soup aux Herbes de Provence

The butternut squash had been laying on the counter for a couple of weeks and I kept moving it closer to the preparation area near the sink as a reminder to myself to do something with it. I love pumpkin almost anything, but I really wanted to avoid making another soup.

As I’ve not been too inspired lately or have been blogging frequently enough, I wanted to create something special… but I ended up surprising myself with soup. Sometimes the quick and easy wins over; and as it was so tasty, I decided it’s worthy of sharing.

Hope you enjoy!

CREAM OF PUMPKIN SOUP AUX HERBES DE PROVENCE

Ingredients, for 4:

1/2 large butternut squash (the whole squash was about 750g), roasted
3 cloves garlic, sliced
3 stalks celery, sliced
3 medium tomatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1 medium onion, julienned
1/4 cup butter (I used Kerrygold)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup coconut milk
2 cups filtered water
1 tablespoons herbes de Provence
sea salt, to taste
freshly ground pepper, to taste if desired

Method:

I roasted the pumpkin split in half, shell side facing up, for almost 50 minutes at 180C (350F). You can do this in advance to have ready for the soup or other recipes. With the shell facing upwards, you avoid browning the flesh and have better tasting pumpkin meat.

Place the butter and olive oil in a large pot and melt over low heat. Add the garlic, onion, and celery and poach for about 8-10 minutes until tender. Add the tomatoes and cook an additional 3 minutes so the flavours blend. Add the meat of 1/2 pumpkin and give it a good stir to blend well.

Add the coconut milk and stir well. Remove from heat and with an immersion blender, puree all the ingredients. You can do this directly in the pot. Return the pot to the stove and add the filtered water.  Add the herbes de Provence and sea salt and pepper to taste. Stir well and allow to warm through on low heat.

If desired you can serve with pieces of hard-boiled egg, sautéed shrimp or other seafood.

*****

SOPA DE CALABAZA A LAS HIERBAS DE LA PROVENZA

Ingredientes, para 4:

1/2 calabaza (tipo butternut squash de unos 750g entera), horneada
3 dientes de ajo, cortados
3 pencas de apio, cortadas finamente
3 tomates medianos, pelados y cortados a cuartos
1 cebolla mediana, cortada en juliana
1/4 de la taza de mantequilla (como unos 30g, yo use de la marca Kerrygold)
2 cucharadas soperas, o un poquito mas, de aceite de oliva
250ml de leche de coco
500ml de agua
sal y pimienta a gusto

Como hacer la sopa:

Hornea la calabaza a 180C unos 50 minutos. Yo la puse en la fuente con el lado de la piel hacia arriba, así se hornea sin quemar la pulpa y tiene mejor sabor.

En un olla onda, ponemos la mantequilla y el aceite de oliva a derretir sobre fuego lento. Agregamos los ajos, el apio y la cebolla y pochamos unos 8-10 minutos hasta que esten tiernos. Añadimos los tomatoes y pochamos unos 3 minutos mas para que se mezclen los sabores.

A continuación, echamos la pulpa o carne de la media calabaza dentro de la olla. Le damos una vuelta con una cuchara de madera para mezclar bien. Añadimos la leche de coco y volvemos a mover bien.

Retiramos del fuego y con una mini-pimer hacemos un puré. Esto se puede hacer dentro de la misma olla. Volvemos a poner sobre fuego lento y agregamos el agua, la hierbas de la Provenza, y salpimentamos a gusto. Dejamos que se caliente bien para servir.

Podemos acompañar la sopa con algo de guarnición, como un huevo duro picado, unas gambas salteadas o algún otro marisco.

Roasted Pumpkin Vegetable Potage

We are currently travelling through parts of Europe. My husband has to be in Austria a few days and asked me to come along so we could visit family and friends and maybe squeese in a day of early-season skiing as well. (The snow conditions in Austria are supposed to be perfect for skiing… we’ll see.)

So, once again, we are on one of our crazy road-trips, which always turn out to be a lot of fun and which we love. We usually end up seeing a number of cities and sometimes even can fit in a visit to a museum or a tourist site. On this trip thus far, we visited family in Maasland and managed to see a lovely museum. Maasland is a village in the province of South Holland and it has a long history, since about 925AD. It was also an important area, where Willem van Oranje, in 1574, finally defeated the Spaniards with an interesting strategy of flooding the lands. Most of the Netherlands is below sea level, and this area in particular is very low. One can see the old dikes and polders, part of the engineering system of sea and water management for which the Netherlands is famous.

The museum in the center of town is an old farmer’s house with 19th century period furniture. The house has a storefront filled with replicas of lots of traditional stock of Dutch candies, cacao, cigarettes, pharmaceutical drugs, cleaning utensils, cooking oils, and canned foodstuffs. They still sell some varieties of sugary sweets by weight and there were a number of children lining up to get their few euros worth of treats. I remembered my youth in Sevilla with my cousins where we used to go the corner kiosk to buy a handful of candies and chewing gums for only 5 pesetas!

The house also has a cellar, where the original family made homemade butter, buttermilk and cheeses. It’s very interesting to see all of the wooden and iron equipment used for the process of making these dairy products. What a lot of work all that was, but how healthy to make it at home! There are still many farmers who make and sell their own dairy products. In fact, our family shared with us some farmer’s cheese they had purchased especially for our visit. The taste and texture are unique and so wonderful.

My favourite part of the house was the kitchen of course. It was stocked with all kinds of beautiful enamelware.. all of which I wanted to take home! There were the traditional Dutch ovens, which can be stacked on top of each other, ladles and spoons, pots and pans, a poffertjes pan (something like “full” pancakes), teapot, coffeepot…

As we continue our trip, we are having a short break today so my husband can visit his dentist and I’m taking advantage of this time to write this post and share the recipe with you.

On Friday, the day we left London, I made this soup with some leftover roasted pumpkin from this recipe, so we could have something warm in our tummies for lunch and to hold us over until we arrived in France for dinner. It’s very easy to make and is a nice soup to serve as a starter for a full meal. You can use other vegetables, depending on your taste and what you may have on hand.

Enjoy!

ROASTED PUMPKIN VEGETABLE POTAGE

Ingredients, makes about 5 cups:

2 cups roasted pumpkin meat (I used butternut squash at roasted in the oven at 180C (350F) for about 40 minutes)
3 cups filtered water
2 leeks, finely sliced
6-8 cherry tomatoes, halved
3 medium red onions, julienne or chopped
4 stalks celery, sliced
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 teaspoon herbes de Provence
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
sea salt and black pepper, to taste
3-4 tablespoons duck fat
bacon bits or jamón serrano bits

Method:

In a pot over low heat, melt the duck fat and poach the onions until soft, about 6-8 minutes. Add the rest of the vegetables, excluding the pumpkin, and the spices. Cook until the vegetables are tender. Add one cup of the filtered water and the pumpkin meat and mix well. Add the remaining two cups of water, mix well, and season with sea salt and pepper, to taste. Warm and serve with pieces of bacon or jamón serrano.

*****

SOPA/POTAJE DE CALABAZA AL HORNO CON VERDURAS

Ingredientes, hace como 5 tazas de caldo :

2 tazas, como unos 500ml de carne de calabaza previamente hecha al horno (a 180C unos 40 minutos)
750ml de agua
2 puerros, cortados en rodajas finas
6-8 tomates cherry, cortados por la mitad
3 cebollas medianas, rojas, cortadas en juliana
4 pencas de apio, en rodajas finas
3 dientes de ajo, en rodajas a lo largo
1 cucharadita de hierbas de la Provenza
1/2 cucharadita de cúrcuma
salt y pimienta negra, a gusto
3-4 cucharadas grandes de grasa de pato
taquitos de beicon o jamón serrano, de guarnición

Como hacer la sopa:

En una olla sobre fuego lento, derrite la grasa de pato y pocha las cebollas, como unos 6-8 minutos, hasta que esten tiernas. Añade el resto de las verduras, excepto la calabaza, y las especias. Cuece hasta que esten las verduras tiernas. Agrega una taza de agua (250ml) y la calabaza y remueve bien. Ahora agregale el resto del agua, mezclando todo bien, y sazona a gusto con sal y pimienta negra. Calienta la sopa y sirve la con taquitos de beicon o jamón.

Sweet Potato & Zucchini Soup with Quatre-Epices

Since moving back to Europe, we make a point of doing an annual road trip to Sevilla, Spain usually in the summer or autumn. We have three important reasons for driving so many kilometers each year: one, we get to enjoy a lot of quality time together and see many beautiful things along the way, both in France and in Spain; and two, we have the opportunity of seeing family and friends, whom we wouldn’t see otherwise because of where they live, Bayonne and Vitoria; and three, we stock up on Spanish goodies, such as various 5-liter olive oil bottles, whole legs of jamon serrano, and other things we miss, that we couldn’t possibly pack into a suitcase. On the last trip, we even brought back some delicious salted cod!

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Now that we live in London, we are in France more often than when we lived in Germany. Now, we must cross the north of France every time we visit the Benelux and Germany. Consequently, we have gotten to know Calais and the surrounding region quite well. During the summer months when we arrive around lunchtime, our first stop in France is always for moules frites in Gravelines at Le 116. Gravelines is a rather sleepy little town on the River Aa; but it does have a beautiful beach, and the historical, hexagonal-shaped bastion, Grand Fort Philippe, is worth visiting. The area can be confusing for the first-time visitor as the culture, the landscape and even the names of towns are a mixture of French and Dutch. The area was part of Flanders and still has many similarities with Belgium and The Netherlands. (By the way, another very interesting and beautiful hexagonal fort town is Bourtange, near Groningen in The Netherlands.)

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Eating in France can be a hit or miss experience, we’ve discovered. Arguably one could say that can happen in every country; but when eating in France, we’ve come to expect top quality and cuisine, and it’s not always the case. Aside from our moules frites passion, we have stopped for every meal during one trip or another, and have had varying degrees of satisfaction. And some of the best meals have been when and where we least expected them.

We once had a delightful breakfast in Neufchâtel. We arrived in town just as the farmers’ market was opening; in fact, it was still slightly dark out and the morning air was quite brisk, adding a very pleasant atmosphere with which to start our day. At the market, we purchased some pungent local cheeses (Neufchâtel, of course!) from a very helpful cheesemonger and a large baguette at the nearby boulangerie (France and Spain are the only two countries in which I make an exception to eat bread, and only occasionally), which we consumed with a cafe au lait, before continuing our journey. I love visiting farmers’ markets, and I’ve found the best ones in France, The Netherlands and Germany. The only downside of travelling and visiting markets is not being able to purchase all the fresh seafood, meats and produce!

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Another memorable meal was our stop in Conty for dinner. The area is famous for le Tour de France going through it and the little restaurant at which we ate had a number of cycling memorabilia. But the best part of dinner was the cookery book, Cuisine d’Hiver, laying on a shelf behind me. I took a gazillion pictures of the recipes with my iPhone and later saved them on my computer to never look at them again. I do this a lot. In fact, I take pictures of menus with the intention of using the ideas for inspiration and later always forget to revisit them.

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So, when my duck fat arrived in the mail the other day, for some reason I thought of France. And no, I still haven’t used any of the recipes from the cookery book in Conty, although I’ve placed them all in a folder to have them printed. That’s a step in the right direction, I think. In the meantime, I came up with this French-inspired soup recipe to use up the sweet potatoes I had on hand.

I went to grab some quatre-épices and found out I was out of the spice mix. This is another food item I tend to purchase when travelling through France, that and herbes de Provence. The spice mix usually includes pepper (white, black or both), ginger, nutmeg and cloves. For the soup, I created my own combination by using equal parts of black pepper, nutmeg and cloves and adding some freshly grated ginger.

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To add some kick, which my husband tends to appreciate, I included some chili powder, as well. And I added turmeric for the health benefits and for a more intense colour.

As the duck fat was not enough fat for my interpretation of a healthy meal, I garnished the soup with some chopped, hard-boiled eggs and pieces of jamon serrano, along with some chopped chives for additional flavour. You can omit these, but if you want a more well-balanced dish, I wouldn’t. (Of course, bacon or ham can be substituted for the jamon serrano.)

The sweet potato and zucchini soup is my homage to our trips through France… if I can’t be in France on a daily basis, I can bring a little bit of France to me by way of the very healthy and delicious duck fat and quatre-épices. I hope you will also enjoy!

Bon Appétit!

Sweet Potato & Zucchini Soup with Quatre-Epices
Author: The Saffron Girl
Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:
Makes about 10 servings.
Ingredients
  • 900g (just shy of 2lbs) sweet potato, peeled and roughly cubed
  • 2 medium zucchini, partially peeled and roughly cubed
  • 1 medium red onion, chopped
  • 1 medium leek, trimmed and thinly sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1/4 cup duck fat
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 7-8 cups filtered water, or if you have chicken or duck broth, much better
  • 3 teaspoons coarse sea salt (adjust salt if you use broth and/or to taste, of course)
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili powder, optional
  • For garnish, if desired:
  • hard boiled eggs, chopped
  • jamon serrano or bacon pieces
  • chopped chives
Instructions
  1. Place the duck fat, onion and leek in a large pot. Poach over low heat, about 8 minutes until the onion is almost translucent.
  2. Add the garlic, zucchini pieces, and the spices and stir well.
  3. Cook about 2-3 minutes.
  4. Add the sweet potatoes and 4 cups of filtered water or stock.
  5. Cook over medium heat for 30 minutes, until the potatoes are tender.
  6. Remove from heat and allow to slightly cool, enough to handle safely.
  7. With an immersion blender, puree until smooth.
  8. Add 3-4 cups of additional filtered water.
  9. Add sea salt, adjusting to taste.
  10. Add chili powder, if desired.
  11. Stir well.
  12. Heat through over low heat to warm enough to serve, about 5-7 minutes.
  13. Garnish with hard-boiled egg, jamon serrano and chives, if desired.
  14. (The soup freezes well for later use.)

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