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.