I’ve not posted anything since last year November, so first things first: Happy New Year 2016 & Happy Chinese New Year! May it bring us all good health, happiness, and prosperity.
Yesterday the air was crisp, and the sky was so blue it seemed as if someone had taken a brush to paint it just perfectly so. There was not a cloud in sight. And the sunshine was so warm that it encouraged me to take off my jacket and walk about in short sleeves, something that normally at 14C I wouldn’t be doing. As Kiko (our mini schnauzer) and I got closer to the forrest we go through every day, we were greeted by yellow and blue butterflies bouncing around us and a couple of tiny little birds, whose feathers were iridescent in the rays of the sun, and who startled by our steps flew quickly away, chirping. I had the fleeting sensation of being in a Disney fairytale …
I’m still in northern Florida and the winter couldn’t be any more idyllic. The trees are already starting to bloom, signaling that spring is near. We all know that winter (or any season) is not the same around the globe. But when one’s surroundings are so picturesque and the sun is so warm, it’s so easy to forget that right now up north or across the ocean, there’s snow on the ground and freezing temperatures.
Some years ago, I lived in Germany, where winter is synonymous with snow … and other magical things.
Hanau, Genauso, & The Brothers Grimm
It was five minutes till ten o’clock in the morning, when I stood outside the café of the serene, red and white Schloss Philippsruhe. I really needed a coffee as I was battling jet-lag and had a full day ahead of me of house hunting. The shoppe-keeper, who was clearly perturbed, reluctantly came to attend to my incessant tapping on the glass door of the café only to inform me that ‘Wir sind noch nicht geöffnet!‘ As my dumbfounded look must have clearly given away that I had no clue what he was trying to tell me, he pointed to his watch and put up one of his hands indicating the number five, and mouthing the words ‘Fünf Minuten‘. Alas! I was too early. And he had absolutely no inclination of opening up that door before the exact time. So with that message now clearly conveyed, he turned around and shooed me away with a flippant hand gesture, reiterating – you know just in case – I had to wait five more minutes. Of course, by this time, it was more likely only two minutes until opening time … but who was counting?
The year was 2008. And it was sometime in late June. And thus I was not only introduced to the Hessian summer weather, with a slight chill in the air – similar to the temperatures we are experiencing currently in northern Florida, but also quickly initiated in the precise notion of genau (exactitude). This was my second day as an expat in Germany, the land of castles, delightfully quaint villages, green forrests, and fairytales. I was giddy with excitement and couldn’t feel more at home. (Occasionally, I’ve been told that I am more German than the Germans …and although it wasn’t necessarily meant at a compliment, I proudly took it as one… and maybe it has a lot to do with my ancesteral blood calling. All four of my paternal great-grandparents hailed from Prussia and Austria.)
As I stood there on the steps of the schloss and had literally a couple of minutes to spare until I was allowed into the café, I wandered off to the park around the corner, whose luscious green expanse is caressed by the flowing waters of the River Main in one of the most romantic settings in Hanau.
Hanau itself is not a particularly pretty town, as it’s full of typical square 60-70s style post-war buildings and what used to be the old American military base that is now the Wolfgang Industrial Park.
But Schloss Philippsruhe is situated in the more picturesque suburb of Kesselstadt. And as I was forced to wander around the grounds of the schloss park, admiring the natural beauty, being lulled by the sound of the river, and greeted by the chirping of birds, I had no clue I was walking in the footsteps of Hanau’s probably most illustrious sons and exports, the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.
Their fairytales have been translated into many languages, adapted into more sanitised Disney versions (the Grimm versions are rather grim – pun intended), and are oftentimes topic of controversial psychological analyses. But in the end what we all love about them is that good overcomes evil, they allow us to dream and believe in magic, and ‘happily ever after’ seems attainable.
The brothers Grimm were not only storytellers. They were also the authors of the Deutsches Wörterbuch, the equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary. However, they only made it to the letter F … ending very fittingly, albeit not purposely, on the word Frucht (fruit) before they both passed away.
As anyone who has read a fairytale knows, fruit and food in general are conspicuously and inconspicuously present throughout all or most of the stories. From Snow White’s poisoned apple, to the pumpkin that is turned into a carriage by Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, to Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread house, to Jack climbing a beanstalk, to the beautiful princess in Princess and the Pea, whose sensitivity to feel a pea under a mountain of twenty mattresses is the key to her happy future with the prince, food plays varying roles in the characters’ lives just as it does in ours.
Once Upon A Table
One could argue that what takes place in the kitchen and on the kitchen furnaces is magical and mysterious. After all, a cook is one who transforms simple ingredients into tasty dishes and succulent meals. Oftentimes, a large dose of creativity is beneficial. There are numerous myths and legends surrounding many of our every-day dishes of today, such as who can claim to be the original inventors of mayonnaise, with some placing its origins in Mahon, Spain, and others claiming it’s a French invention, or why the first Pizza Margherita was created. As with most things historical, it is sometimes hard to discern the truth from folklore, just like a fairytale.
I am particularly partial to traditional foods. For one, they are prepared and eaten with the seasons; and two, they are generally more nutritionally balanced. I am always intrigued by the history of dishes and love to learn why we eat what we do today. In my quest for recipes with a historical context, traditional foods come first. Some sadly have almost disappeared from our recipe books and tables, such as is the case with this ‘spineage’ pie, which I recreated in a Paleo version.
Having spent most of my life in Southern Spain and having had a Spanish mother, my favourite recipes tend to be Andalusian in origin, such as the two I’m sharing below. The Andalusian cuisine is highly influenced by what is available locally (so it varies somewhat from province to province), and also by our mixed cultural heritage with its rich Moorish background and our ties to the New World via the exploratory expeditions that were launched from Huelva.
Traditions from Huelva + Cádiz
Huelva is the southernmost province bordering Portugal, whilst Càdiz is the southernmost province in Andalusia. Cádiz city is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Spain, having been founded by the Phoenicians, who called it Gadir. (People from the city are known as gaditanos.) And from the tip of Spain in Tarifa (‘the surfing capital of Europe’) in the province of Cádiz, one can see the Atlas mountains in northern Africa. The history of both provinces are closely linked to the discovery of America and numerous seafaring adventures.
Both Huelva, from where Columbus set off on his many expeditions, and Cádiz are known for their exquisite and tasty seafood. The white gamba (shrimp) de Huelva, the langostinos (large tiger prawns) de Sanlucar de Barrameda, the erizos (sea urchins) de Cádiz, ortiguillas (sea anemone) and galeras (mantis shrimp) de Chipiona, camarones (krill), and chocos are some of the most popular.
Chocos (cuttlefish in English – google chocos de Huelva to see what they look like) are a mollusk typically found on the coasts of Huelva, where my mother was born. People from the city and province are oftentimes colloquially called choqueros, which shows how significant this mollusk actually is to the history, culture, and economy of the area. One can find chocos all year round in practically every tapa bar or restaurant – typically cut into rings or pieces, lightly dusted with flour, then fried in extra virgen olive oil, and sprinkled with coarse sea salt before serving. They are related to calamari (squid), but have thicker, tastier, and more delicate meat.
My father who loves chocos in any version recently discovered that BJs carries 5oog-packages of frozen, wild-caught calamaris. And well, one entire shelf of our freezer is dedicated to them now.
Inspired by my visit home this past summer where I divided my time between Chipiona (my hometown), Sevilla, and Huelva (where I got to spend a week with my aunt and uncle on the seashore), I’ve been making a lot of guisos (stews). These two recipes are traditional fisherman dishes of which almost every home cook in my little corner of Spain has his/her own version. And figuring out how they came about is as easy or difficult as tracing the history of the local fishing industry and the history of the potato (Columbus sailed from Huelva to the New World and most of the expeditions returning to Spain dropped off their bounty in the Port of Sevilla – the potato was first introduced to Europe via Spain) or figuring out when the first legumes were cultivated in Spain … the origins may be as elusive as they are mythical.
For the Papas con Chocos, I asked my uncle to ask his wife how she makes them since they eat this dish about once a week; and I got to enjoy it from her kitchen a number of times this summer. Mine is a little variation on her version. The chocos or calamari are cooked until they are mouth-watering tender. That combined with the spices and the potatoes that are cooked to just about falling apart creates a delicate stew that is satisfying and delicious. A true peasant meal.
For the Habas con Chocos, it is traditional to make this dish with fresh faba beans and not much else. Again, the chocos are cooked until they are mouth-watering tender. As I wanted to have a more nutritional version, I added chopped mustard leaves, which also gives the dish a nice peppery flavour.
Both are delectable, filing, easy to make, comforting, and very economical. And now, maybe even a little bit legendary.
Papas con Chocos
(Potatoes and Cuttlefish -or Squid- Stew)
If you can find cuttlefish, I highly recommend using that instead of squid since the meat is more tender and succulent. Nonetheless, squid imparts the delicious, distinctive flavour this dish is known for, as well.
Prep Time: 5 min
Cook Time: 1 hour 50 min
500g (1 lb) squid
4-5 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 large (or 2 medium) tomato, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup white wine
1 teaspoon sweet Spanish pimentón (or sweet paprika)
3/4 teaspoon coarse sea salt
a pinch of saffron sprigs (about 8 or 10)
1 bay leaf
4-5 cups filtered water
For the squid: If you buy fresh, clean and gut. Rinse well and cut the body into rings. Then cut into bite size pieces. Cut the tentacles into bite size pieces too. Set aside. (If using frozen, thaw out, and rinse. And cut into bite size pieces as just described.)
In a medium sized pot, pour in the olive oil. Add the onions, garlic and tomato. Cook over medium heat about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the white wine and reduce, about 2 minutes.
Add the squid, pimentón, salt, saffron and bay leaf. Stir well. Add 2 cups of the water and cook over medium heat for 60 minutes, covered.
Add the potatoes and the rest of the water and cook covered for an additional 35 minutes, or until the potatoes are almost falling apart tender. During the cooking time, watch the stew so the liquid isn’t reduced too much; and add more water as necessary. You should end up with a nice, stewy sauce, which the potatoes thicken up. Remove the bay leaf from the stew. Serve in soup bowls.
In Spain, it is traditional to mash the potatoes with a fork in the bowl, thereby mixing them with the sauce.
To peel the tomatoes easily, simple boil enough water in which to place the tomato/tomatoes. Once the water is boiling, place the tomatoes inside and turn the heat off. Allow to sit in the water for a couple of minutes, then drain. Make sure the tomatoes are cooled before handling to avoid getting your hands burned. Peel with a sharp knife. You can also use canned tomatoes.
Habas con Chocos y Hojas de Mostaza
(Calamari with Lima Beans & Mustard Greens)
Prep Time: 5 min
Cook Time: 1 hr 50 min
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
2 stalks celery, thinly sliced
2-3 garlic cloves, sliced
1/4 cup white wine
500g (1 pound) calamari o cuttlefish
1 teaspoon Spanish pimentón (paprika also works)
1/4 + 1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
3 bay leaves
300g (c. 12 ounces) lima beans
5 cups mustard greens, chopped
4-5 cups filtered water
In a medium pot over medium heat, pour in the olive and add the onion, celery, carrots, and garlic. Cook until the onion is translucent, about 10 minutes. Stir occasionally.
In the meantime, prepare the calamari. I used a frozen packet. If you do too, make sure you thaw it out completely. Rinse, drain, and cut the calamari into rings (if they are not already cut for you), and then cut the rings in halves. If you have the tentacles as well, cut those in half so they are not so long. Set aside.
Once the vegetables are ready, add the wine to the pot and reduce about 2 minutes. Make sure to stir a couple of times. Now, add the calamari pieces, the spices, sea salt and bay leaves. Give it all a good stir so the calamari are well coated with the pimentón. Add 2 cups of filtered water, stir again and cover. Cook over medium heat for 60 minutes.
Add the lima beans, chopped mustard greens, and the remaining water. Add more water if necessary while it’s cooking. The stew should have plenty of liquid, but not be a soup. Cover and cook an additional 30 minutes or until the beans are tender.
Serve in soup bowls.
1. Mustard greens are full of nutrients and have a delicious peppery flavour. However, if you cannot find them, you can also use kale, turnip greens, or any sturdy leafy green. If you substitute with something like spinach, remember you only need to cook that a couple of minutes and you can use the heat of the stew to do it. So add after the lima beans are done, cover the pot and turn the heat off. The spinach will cook in the steam in about 4 minutes.
2. I used both frozen calamari and frozen lima beans. Fresh are also fine, in fact better. For the lima beans, there’s no need to thaw out. If you can find fresh faba beans, use those instead as their flavour and texture are more delicious.