Saturday, December 25, 2010



My family and I are invited to friend Charlotte's house for Christmas dinner. I'm taking good old mashed potatoes--seasoned for the occasion with bittersweet pimentón, smoked paprika. 

From MY KITCHEN IN SPAIN, I send good wishes to all for a happy holiday season. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


I once lived in an old house in the village with a big, overgrown garden behind it. Stone dry walls divided the sloping garden into terraces on which were planted many trees—an olive, a fig, orange and lemon, peach, pear and apricot. All these I could identify. Then there were some others, new and exotic to me.

One of these bloomed flamboyant red flowers in the spring and then in the fall  produced fruits of a deep red color, the size of big apples, tufted, with skin like burnished leather.

Cut open, the fruit revealed jewel-like red kernels. This, I learned was the pomegranate, called granada in Spanish. (While it’s not clear that the name of the Spanish city of Granada derives from the fruit, it’s true that the pomegranate is grown in that southern Spanish city.)

I treasure these jewels for their intense sweet-tangy flavor and their glowing, ruby-red color.

The “jewels”—arils—are the edible parts. The red juice is enclosed in a transparent kernel with a tiny edible pip in the center. The flavor is tart and sweet with a little tannic edge.

How to extract the kernels? I’ve always cut the fruit into quarters, then used a knife to pry out the seeds. But, I watched my son Ben whack a pomegranate, tufted side down, hard on the cutting board, break it open and chuck the chunks into a bowl of water. The loosened seeds sank and the connecting bits of white pith floated, easily skimmed out. By the way, the juice stains (brown, not red), so protect your clothing.

Pomegranate juice is delightful in cocktails (a recipe is here). The jewel-like seeds make a festive addition to holiday dishes. One of my favorites is sliced oranges, red onions, pomegranates and serrano ham atop escarole or mesclum, with a vinaigrette made with Sherry vinegar and a touch of honey. Sometimes I add raw fennel for extra crunch.

The final touch: Leo adds pomegranate seeds to a festive salad. (Photo by D. Ellefson.)

In Spanish cuisine, pomegranates are used as a cooking medium for pork (in Mallorca) and as a lively garnish for tapa salads in Andalusia and Extremadura.

Solomillo de Cerdo con Salsa de Granadas
Pork Tenderloin with Pomegranate Sauce

Pomegranate cooked in a sauce does not keep its vibrant color. In this recipe, the kernels are sieved out of the cooked sauce and the dish garnished with reserved bright red pomegranate bits. Pomegranate molasses, a reduction of pomegranate juice, while not a Spanish ingredient, would intensify the flavors of this sauce.

2 (1-pound) pork tenderloins
salt and pepper
1 pomegranate
2 tablespoons olive oil or lard
½ cup dry Sherry
1/3 cup meat or chicken stock

Sprinkle the pork with salt and pepper. Remove kernels from pomegranate, discarding the skin and white pith. Reserve a handful of the seeds for garnish.

Heat oil or lard in a skillet and brown the meat with the chopped onion. Add the pomegranate seeds to the meat with the Sherry, stock and additional salt and pepper. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes, turning the pork occasionally.

Remove the meat and keep warm. Cook the sauce for 15 minutes more to reduce it. Sieve the sauce. Slice the tenderloins and serve with the sauce, garnished with reserved pomegranate seeds.

Serves 6.

Friday, December 17, 2010


Whole Hog (Ibérico, Dehesa de Extremadura)

When I was reporting for an article about Spanish ibérico ham from 5J in Jabugo (read the story in the Los Angeles Times here), I was sniffing about for recipes with ham and listening for Americans’ experience with Spanish ham. I called up my main “ham man,” Miguel Ullibarri, formerly director of the Real Ibérico consortium and now with A Taste of Spain, a tour company specializing in food and wine tours. He told me about Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough, authors of Ham—An Obsession with the Hindquarter (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, March, 2010), who were planning to escort a grand ham tour to Spain. (Sorry to report, the tour is off for spring 2011. Stay tuned for future tour dates.)

Mark and Bruce, who live in Colebrook, CT., got involved with Spanish hams while researching a chapter in their book about dry-cured hams in Europe. Mark is the writer and Bruce the chef and recipe developer. Through Miguel Ullibarri the authors got in touch with Fermin, the sole exporter of ibérico hams to the U.S.

“That’s who provided the ibérico ham that graces the cover of the book,” said Mark. “For months after the photo shoot for HAM, Bruce and I lived in bellota bliss (bellotas are acorns--what the pigs fatten on). We would get invited to dinner parties and bring the whole leg, shave off a pound or so, and be piggy with abandon. When we got the thing down to the bone, we cooked it with a pot of beans, cracked open a bottle of rosé cava, and moved on to the sequel to ham, the first-ever all-goat (meat, milk, cheese) book in English” (slated for publication April 2011).


HAM, the book, presents a global look at porky hindquarters, with chapters covering Fresh Ham, Dry-Cured Ham in the Old World, Dry-Cured Ham in the New World and Wet-Cured Ham. Recipes run the gamut from appetizers to soup to main dishes to leftovers. There are some tempting recipes for Chinese stir-fry, Italian-style pizza, down-home southern country stews and chic salads (smoked ham with arugula, pears and honey vinaigrette, for instance), all with tips and Testers’ Notes. Naturally, I gravitated to the recipes with Spanish ham (serrano, as ibérico is too good to use in cooking). The Serrano-Wrapped Scallops, Serrano Fritters and Stewed Mussels with Jamón Serrano, Chickpeas and Saffron all sound enticing. But I decided on trout stuffed with ham, a recipe somewhat like a traditional way with trout in Navarra.  

(Photo in my kitchen in Spain is by Donna Ellefson)

Whole Trout Stuffed with Jamón Serrano, Rosemary, and Fennel Seeds
Recipe adapted from HAM An Obsession with The Hindquarter
by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough: Photographs by Marcus Nilsson
(Stewart, Tabori & Chang; 2010).

The recipe in the book calls for 4 (1-pound) trout. Trout at my market are considerably smaller, so I chose to use a larger salmon-trout, which weighed in at about 1 ¾ pounds after boning, serving 3. Although the recipe doesn’t mention removing pin bones for the individual-sized trout, I decided to do this to facilitate dividing the cooked fish into crosswise slices.  I chose to use needle and thread to sew up the fish’s cavity in order to make it easier to turn the fish without losing the stuffing. And, because I like fresh thyme more than rosemary, I substituted my favored herb. The fennel seeds lend a subtle Pernod-y taste, just right with the ham. Deglazing the pan with Sherry vinegar creates an instant and very delicious pan sauce. 

While shopping, without thinking about it too much, I picked up a Rueda wine, a white made of verdejo grapes (Pentio, 2009). The fruitiness of verdejo, I thought, would complement the ham in the stuffing. It was only later, reviewing the recipe in HAM, that I noticed that the recipe’s headnotes state, “Fast, easy and elegant, this company supper cries out for a bottle of Spanish white from the Rueda region.” Ah so. Perfect, indeed.

1 whole salmon trout (about 2 ¼ 
     pounds), boned
¼ cup fresh bread crumbs
3 ounces thinly sliced serrano ham,
1 clove garlic, minced
½ teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
1 teaspoon rosemary or thyme,
2 tablespoons white wine
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons Sherry vinegar

Preheat the oven to 450ºF.

Mix the bread crumbs, ham, garlic, fennel seeds and rosemary or thyme in a medium bowl. Add just enought wine to moisten the mixture, but not enough to make it wet.

Open up the salmon-trout and spread the stuffing mixture on one side, patting it into place. Flap it closed. (You can use needle and thread to sew up the cavity opening.)

Heat the oil in a large ovenproof skillet over medium heat, adding the oil. Slip the trout into the skillet and cook until crisp, about 7 minutes, shaking the skillet occasionally so the trout doesn’t stick.

Use a large spatula to turn the trout, then shove the whole contraption in the oven. Bake until cooked through, about 10 minutes.

Remove the very hot skillet from the oven and use that large spatula (or two) to transfer the trout to a heated serving platter.

Set the skillet back over medium heat and splash in the vinegar. Stir quickly to scrape up any stuff on the bottom of the skillet, then drizzle this sauce over the trout.

Mark Scarbrough blogs, with taste and humor, about his favorite foods at
Book your tour to ham country with Miguel Ullibarri at

Hams on the hoof.

Monday, December 6, 2010


Glowing red-orange orbs of fruit on a neighbor’s tree had a powerful attraction. I could see them, dangling tantalizingly, every time I went up the steps to my car. The fruit attracted small birds as well. I watched them peck holes in the bright skins, hollowing out the fruit. Time to take action. As my neighbor would be away for months, I took a step-stool and basket and managed to pick all but the top-most fruits.

Now that I had a basket of gorgeous persimmons, what to do with them? A little internet research showed me that persimmons come in two main varieties, Fuyu, which can be eaten while still firm, and Hachiya, which must be very ripe or else are too astringent to eat.

From the photos, I decided my cache of fruit were Fuyu, so I cut them up into a sort-of Waldorf salad with apples, celery and toasted almonds.

I was so wrong!! The fruit was so astringent it turned my mouth inside-out. Completely inedible.

So I piled the persimmons on a tray and waited. They ripened one by one, gradually softening from the bottom to the calyx and turning a deep tomato red color.

I cut one in half and scooped out the pulp, now very mushy, with a spoon. It was juicy and very, very sweet. Not “fruity,” just intensely sweet, like honey or dates or raisins.

A friend and I ate one or two a day. Excess ripe ones were scooped out and stashed in the freezer.

I was itching to do something more exciting with all this exotic fruit. With Thanksgiving approaching, I decided to invent a dessert with a Spanish inflection using the persimmons. Thus, persimmon flan.

Would the remainder of the fruit ripen in time? Someone suggested freezing them to speed up the process of softening, changing that god-awful tannic astringency to sweetness. That seemed to work, giving me a sweet and gorgeously colorful puree.

By the way, the persimmon is called caqui in Spanish. When my flan emerged from the oven, it was no longer that burnished orange of the fresh fruit, but rather the color of caca. I don’t think I need to translate, do I? And, while it tasted very nice, perhaps persimmons are best enjoyed without too much fuss.

Persimmon Flan

I think anisette liqueur, called aguardiente de anís in Spain, adds to the persimmon’s flavor.

Serves 8 to 10.

1 cup + ¼ cup sugar
3 tablespoons water
1 cup milk
1 ¼ cups evaporated milk
5 eggs
2 cups persimmon puree
½ tablespoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon anisette
Unsweetened whipped cream, to serve

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Heat a 2-quart round oven casserole or flan mold in the oven.

Place 1 cup of sugar and water in a heavy saucepan and cook over moderate heat until the sugar melts and turns a dark gold. Pour the caramel syrup into the heated oven casserole, tilting it to cover the bottom and sides.

Combine remaining sugar, milk and evaporated milk in a pan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat. Beat the eggs until foamy and beat in the persimmon puree, cornstarch, cinnamon, cloves, salt and anisette. Beat in the hot milk.

Pour the persimmon-egg-milk mixture into the caramel-coated casserole. Set it in a pan of boiling water and bake until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean, about 1 hour 15 minutes.

Remove the casserole from the pan and allow to cool completely, then refrigerate the flan overnight.

To serve, run a knife around the edges of the flan to loosen the custard. Place a serving dish with a rim on top and invert the flan onto it. Serve the flan with whipped cream.

Monday, November 22, 2010


Last weekend, with glorious fall weather, my son, Ben; grandson, Leo; visiting friend, Donna, and hired man, Juan, gathered to help me pick the olive crop. Donna and I had already filled one gunny sack with pickings from several small trees, but that day we gathered the olives from a single big tree.

With a tarp spread on the ground to catch fallen olives, Ben clambered up the tree to cut down high branches with a chain saw. The tree badly needed pruning anyway and it’s way easier to hand-pick the olives once the limbs are on the ground. Donna could sit on a chair, “milking” (ordeñar) the olives right into a bucket.

I picked from limbs within reach—great stretching exercise! Leo, six, rolled olives on the tarp into a bucket, then happily used twigs to make fantastical play creatures.

Olives on remaining high branches were brought down by vareo, thrashing the branches with a cane pole (cane grows wild in the arroyo, free for the picking) and rastrilla, raking through branches to drop olives onto the tarp. Later, limbs will be cut up and stacked for next year’s firewood.

We loaded four big sacks of olives into the trunk of my car, the fruits of two-days picking. On Monday I drove to the almazara, oil mill, in a nearby town.

Dumped into a hopper on a scales, my olives weighed in at 143 kilos (315 pounds). The going price was a very low 24 centimos per kilo and the price of new oil, 3 euros a liter (quart). Nevertheless, I was smiling as I loaded 11 liters of fruity, fragrant, cloudy extra virgin olive oil to take back to my kitchen and to share with the people who helped me. (Thanks, Donna!)

Picking olives together on a sunny day with family and friends was actually fun. However, it's not easy work. I’m glad my livelihood doesn’t depend on it! 

I still have several trees to be picked. Maybe when Ben and Leo come for a visit over Christmas holidays.

I made an olive pickers’ stew to feed my crew. This recipe is taken from my book COOKING FROM THE HEART OF SPAIN—FOOD OF LA MANCHA. The stew comes from the Montes de Toledo, an area famous for its olive oil. Groups of pickers work all day in the olive groves. They make a roaring fire, to warm the hands and cook the midday meal. The traditional version is made with bacalao, dry salt cod that has been soaked for 24 hours to de-salt it. In this recipe I have used fresh cod, which needs only minutes to cook. If you use salt cod, cook it very gently with the potatoes. I like the addition of something green—in this case asparagus.

Olive Pickers’ Cod and Potato Stew
Pote Aceitunero

Serves 4.

1 pound cod fillets, cut into ¾-inch cubes
2 pounds potatoes, cut into ¾-inch cubes
¼ cup olive oil
1 bay leaf
1 dry chile, such as cayenne
2 cloves garlic
1 whole, medium tomato
1 cup coarsely chopped onion
¼ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon sweet pimentón (preferably smoked)
½ teaspoon hot pimentón or pinch of cayenne
1 cup sliced, cooked asparagus (optional)
1 egg

Sprinkle the cod with salt and let stand at room temperature.

Place the potatoes in a soup pot or deep skillet with the oil and sauté 2 minutes. Tuck the bay leaf and chile into the potatoes and add 2 teaspoons salt and 2 cups water. Bring to a boil.

Cut a small slit in one, unpeeled, clove of garlic and add it to the potatoes with tomato and onion. Cover and simmer the potatoes until almost tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove and discard bay leaf and chile. Skim out the clove of garlic and tomato.

Remove skin from cooked garlic and tomato and place them in a blender with 1 clove peeled raw garlic, cumin, sweet pimentón, hot pimentón, and ½ cup of liquid from the potatoes. Blend until smooth. Add this sauce to the potatoes and cook 5 minutes.

Add the cod to the pot and cook until it just flakes, about 3 minutes. Stir in the asparagus, if using. Raise the heat so the liquid bubbles. Break the egg into the pot. Use a fork to stir it into the cod and potatoes, about 1 minute. Remove from heat and allow the stew to rest 5 minutes. Serve in shallow soup bowls.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


To market, to market, to buy a fat pig. Or small goat. A grand grouper or a heap of spiny sea snails. 

One sunny Saturday a friend and I hopped on a commuter train for the 50-minute ride to Málaga to visit the recently reopened Atarazanas market and have lunch at La Moraga a “gastrobar” that’s been getting a lot of attention since it opened two years ago.

We entered the market through a grand marble arch, all that remains of a naval fortress from the 14th century when Málaga was under the Islamic rule of Moorish tribes. The fortress, known as Atarazanas, gradually fell into ruin and was demolished to make room for a municipal market. Opened in 1879, the market was built of iron struts, somewhat in the style of Les Halles in Paris. It shut its doors two years ago (stall holders moved to provisional locations) for complete remodelling and reopened to the public only a few months ago.

Many years ago, when the variety of produce and food products was very limited in the small Andalusian village where I live, I trekked to Málaga to shop every couple months. Now, with big hyper-markets near my home, I had not been to Málaga market in many years. It was a delight to see the great variety of local foods.

All the parts of a pig—snout to tail, fat and lean, fresh and cured—were on display at market stalls. Blobs of white fatback hung from meathooks and coils of skin for making cracklings were piled on counters. At the delicatessen stall were several sorts of cured hams, both ibérico and serrano, as well as manteca colorá, paprika-flavored lard, the Andalusian alternative spread to butter.

Málaga is famous for its chivo, small kid-goat, as esteemed as baby lamb and just as expensive. It is the meat of choice for Malagueños for the family feast on Christmas Eve.The province is also known for goat cheeses, from the fresh, white ones to crumbly aged ones. The market is the right place to find a good selection of them.

Produce stalls were heaped with seasonal fruits—persimmons, quinces, custard apples, as well as the more usual apples and pears. Wild mushrooms shared pride of place with fresh chiles. Jugs of new olive oil were displayed on many counters and tubs of new-harvest tangy, thyme-scented olives were lined up on others.

Málaga is a famed fishing port, so the market reflects the seafood riches, from the sublime—whole grouper, jumbo shrimp—to the curious—armored fish, spiny sea snails, fatty livers from monkfish (considered a delicacy like foie gras).

 I Checked out almost every shoe shop on Calle Nueva and Larios, Málaga’s main shopping streets; discovered a purveyor of body creams and bath salts called LUSH, where the products quite literally looked and smelled good enough to eat, then wound through the narrow lanes off Plaza Constitución to find LA MORAGA (Calle Fresca 12), a trendy “gastrobar” directed by Dani García. Dani is chef of La Calima in Marbella, a one-star restaurant, but the La Moraga franchise serves up “designer tapas,” or ”haute cuisine in small plates”. (Look for La Moraga to open in New York in the near future.)

At 2 pm on a Saturday, the place was packed with Malagueños, mostly young, some with kids in tow. Most belly up to the bar to select from a varied tapas list. We decided on a tasting menu (menu de degustación) and claimed a small table off the bar. For €20 (about $27) each we selected four different tapas.

We sampled a pair of gazpachos—cherry with a powdering of queso fresco, and peach, with tiny cubes of tofu. Olive oil, Sherry vinegar and a hint of garlic brought them all back into Andalusian focus.

Next came a brace of ensaladilla rusa, “Russian” salad, a tapa bar standard. One was almost classic—smashed potatoes, olive oil mayo, and tuna belly. The other was bound with a smoked salmon mayonnaise, dill and sprinkled with salmon caviar. Quite delicious.

Two croquettes each, crisp balls with hammy-fatty meat (pringá) in one and sausage in the other.

Then a cazuelita of pork cheeks stewed with spicy garbanzos and the house signature dish, bull burger, a patty of oxtail cooked sous vide until meltingly tender, heaped on a mini-bun and served with mushroom-mayo. With a couple glasses of cava to celebrate a birthday, this was a very nice Saturday lunch.

Monday, November 1, 2010


Trick or treat is just starting to catch on in Spanish towns and lately jack-o-lanterns and witches’ on broomsticks are popular novelty items.

Instead of Halloween, in Spain there are two holidays in a row—November 1 is Todos los Santos, All Saints—a real holiday when businesses and schools are closed. November 2 is Día de los Difuntos, Day of the Dead. Once village folk believed that spirits roamed on that night, so the faithful kept a night-long vigil in the cemetery. Now it’s an occasion for honoring the dear departeds with visits to cemeteries. Flower sales soar on these two days. And, while I don’t have any statistics, I bet more roasted chestnuts are sold on these chilly evenings than on any other night.

Also traditional for these autumnal holidays are batatas asadas, roasted sweet potatoes; buñuelos, fried crullers or doughnuts; rosquillas, anise-flavored buns; arrope, a sweet made of boiled grape must; panellets, pine-nut studded almond sweet, and huesos del santo, saints’ “bones”. The bones are confected of sweet almond marzipan, filled with a sweetened cream of egg yolk, sweet potatoes or chocolate, and coated with a white sugar glaze. Unlike some of Mexico’s Day of the Dead breads, these really look nothing like bones!

Buñuelos are street food. Neighbors get together to prepare the batter, a yeast dough, shape and fry the doughnuts.

María Jesus and Remedios paired up to make the buñuelos. The batter was made with bread starter dough from a village bakery, flour and water. After fermenting for five hours, it was ready to go. They filled a deep cauldron with olive oil—best, said María Jesus, because it can be reused once or twice—and heated it with a lemon wedge. When the lemon is blackened, you know the oil is hot enough. María Jesus shaped the buñuelos, patting the stretchy dough into patties, putting a thumb through the center to make a hole and dropping them into the oil.

With a long-handled skimmer, Remedios turned the buñuelos in the bubbling oil and, once golden, skimmed them out to drain on a tray. She scooped them into cones of coarse paper to hand to waiting public. 

Fried Crullers

Makes about 26 crullers. 

1 teaspoon dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
2 cups water at 115º
1 tablespoon olive oil + additional to oil the bowl
1 teaspoon salt
4-5 cups all-purpose flour
olive oil or vegetable oil for frying
3/4 cup sugar

Combine the yeast, sugar and warm water in a mixing bowl. Stir. Let set until the yeast begins to bubble, 5 minutes.

Add the olive oil and salt. Begin stirring in the flour, adding 4 cups.
Turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead the dough for at least 5 minutes, adding the additional flour as needed to make a soft dough which doesn’t stick to the board. Gather the dough into a ball.
Oil a bowl, put the ball of dough into it, then turn the dough so it is coated on all sides with oil. Cover with a damp cloth and put it in a warm, draft-free place to rise until doubled in bulk, about 2 hours.
Punch down the dough. With lightly oiled hands, divide the dough into balls about the size of a walnut and place them on an oiled sheet.
Heat the oil in a deep skillet to a depth of at least 1 1/2 inches. Heat olive oil to 355º; vegetable oil to 370º.
With lightly oiled hands, flatten a ball of dough into a patty, put a thumb through the center to make a hole and place it in the hot oil. Continue shaping and frying the doughnuts, frying three or four at a time. Turn the crullers in the oil.
Remove them when they are puffed and golden-brown on both sides. Drain briefly on paper towelling.
Have ready a shallow tray with the sugar. While crullers are still hot, dredge them in the sugar. They are best eaten when freshly made, as they do not keep well.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


 Saffron Flowers

Two ounces of home-grown Spanish gold—what a treasure! Nothing illicit here—I’m talking about saffron. I grew the precious spice in big flower pots from bulbs brought from La Mancha (central Spain), saffron’s home ground.

The flower is a type of crocus-- crocus sativus. These crocuses appear, not in the spring, but just in time for Halloween.

Saffron, the spice, consists of the dried stigmas of the small, mauve-colored, autumn-blooming crocus. The plant originated in the Middle East and was introduced into Spain by the Moors in the ninth century. Saffron became the flavor of status in medieval cuisine. It has been grown in Spain’s central La Mancha region ever since.

While I was collecting recipes and stories for my book, COOKING FROM THE HEART OF SPAIN, I visited La Mancha during the saffron harvest and followed the trail of this sensuous spice all the way from the field to the kitchen.

(I visited Bealar in Campillo de Altobuey (Cuenca), a small family-owned business established in 1959. It is the largest producer of saffron with the certification (denominación de origen) Azafrán de La Mancha.)

A field of saffron looks like nothing—clumps of muddy clay soil, stones, a few weeds—until you look closer and see the tiny flowers popping up from bare earth. Picking begins from the time the first few saffron flowers begin poking up through the dirt and continues daily. Depending on rain and temperature, this is anywhere from Oct. 25 to Nov. 5.
(Photo by Donna Ellefson)

The saffron flowers must be hand-picked early in the morning, before the petals open. Once warmed by the sun, the flowers open and become limp, making it harder to remove the stigmas. 

Crates filled with saffron crocuses are delivered to the mondaderas, the women who extract the three threads of the stigma from each crocus. The stigmas must be removed the same day that the flowers are picked or the flowers become pulpy and the precious stigmas are lost.

Deftly, the women open the petals of the crocus with the fingers of one hand and with the other, pull out the three stigmas. The purple flowers are discarded in a heap on the floor. The wisps of deep red saffron stigmas slowly accumulate on plates. Each woman will be paid by the weight of saffron she has prepared.

Once the saffron filaments are separated from the flowers they must be lightly toasted to reduce their humidity and to preserve their color and olfactory properties. The saffron is spread in sieves to dry over electric heating elements or, in the old way, over a brazier.

Traditionally, saffron production was a small, family enterprise, with each family planting no more than what its members could pick and process in a day—early morning in the fields, afternoon at the mondeo, the night tending the braziers for the drying operation.

Saffron thrives in only a few scattered areas in the provinces of Toledo, Cuenca, Albacete, and Ciudad Real. Saffron grown in this region that meets quality specifications can be certified with the Denomination of Origin Saffron of La Mancha (Azafrán de la Mancha). DO certification promotes product quality and helps to sustain the deeply rooted customs and foodways of small growers in La Mancha.

When cooking with saffron, crush the threads in a mortar (or, use the butt-end of a knife to crush it in a teacup) and add hot water or other liquid. Let the saffron infuse for at least 15 minutes before incorporating it into a sauce or rice.

Here is a saffron recipe from my book COOKING FROM THE HEART OF SPAIN—FOOD OF LA MANCHA.

Saffron Ice Cream with Pine Nut Praline and Chocolate Syrup
Helado de Azafrán, Guirlache de Piñones y Sirope de Chocolate

Saffron lends a golden color and an aromatic, subtly bitter flavor to the rich ice cream. Saffron has a real affinity for chocolate, while the pine nuts provide a crunchy contrast to the smooth cream. Altogether a delightful combination. Ice cream, praline, and syrup can all be made several days in advance of serving.

Serves 8.

For the ice cream:
2 cups milk
Strip of orange zest
½ teaspoon saffron threads, crushed
6 egg yolks
Pinch of salt
2/3 cup sugar
1 ¾ cups whipping cream

For the pine nut praline:
1/3 cup sugar
½ cup pine nuts

For the chocolate syrup:
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, broken into pieces
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ cup boiling water
1 tablespoon sugar

Bring the milk and orange zest to a boil. Pour the milk through a sieve into a heatproof bowl and discard the orange peel. Add the crushed saffron to the milk and allow to infuse 20 minutes.

Beat the egg yolks, salt, and sugar in a bowl. Lift off the skin from the top of the milk and beat the warm milk into the yolks. Transfer to the top of a double boiler and cook the custard mixture over hot water until foamy and thick enough to coat a spoon. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

Whip the cream until it holds soft peaks. Fold it thoroughly into the custard mixture and chill.

Freeze the mixture in an ice cream maker.

To prepare the praline, place 3 tablespoons of sugar and 2 tablespoons of water in a heavy skillet or round-bottomed wok. On high heat dissolve the sugar, stirring.

When sugar is bubbling, stir in the pine nuts. Cook, stirring, until sugar begins to caramelize and adhere to the kernels. Add 2 tablespoons more sugar, and stir until it melts and turns golden. Add remaining sugar and continue stirring and cooking until pine nuts are coated in caramel.

Spread the mixture out onto an oiled plate or a sheet of baking parchment. Allow to cool. When completely cool, break the praline up into small bits. Store in a covered container for up to 1 week.

To prepare the chocolate syrup, melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler over hot water. Stir until smooth. Stir in the oil, then the boiling water, then the sugar.

Place the saucepan over direct heat and cook, stirring, until it begins to bubble. Cook without stirring for 3 minutes. Remove and cool.

Makes ¾ cup syrup. Keeps refrigerated for up to 1 week. Can be reheated in a microwave to bring to pouring consistency.

To serve: Allow the ice cream to soften 20 to 30 minutes. Scoop ice cream into small bowls. Dribble with chocolate syrup and scatter praline on top.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


It’s been an unusually busy week for me, with two cooking demos for women’s clubs. (I wasn’t actually “cooking”, though I’ve done that before too.) The first, for the Costa Ladies Club, was a seafood how-to featuring recipes from my book, TAPAS—A BITE OF SPAIN. The second, for an international conference of the Soroptimist Club, was a demo of Andalusian gazpacho and white gazpacho, ajo blanco.

While prepping seven pounds of tomatoes and cracking and blanching a couple pounds of almonds are all in a day’s work, the hard part of the exercise is packing up all the ingredients and utensils in two or three tote bags and humping them to a non-kitchen space such as a hotel conference room. I think I’ll get my clever friend Peter Fix-it to design me a custom-fitted suitcase on wheels, with compartments to keep bottles of olive oil upright and tomatoes unsquished.  A place for a freezer-pack to keep the shrimp chilled--- A sling on the side for a roll of paper towels—Slots for knives and other utensils—

But, about the food.

The Costa Ladies wanted to know how to peel shrimp (being Brits, they call them prawns) and clean mussels. In planning a tapas party, in my book I suggest choosing one tapa from each recipe chapter. So that’s what I did, featuring seafood in every one. Here’s the line-up, chapter by chapter.

La Tabla—Cheese or Sausage Board—I showed the Ladies mojama, “ham of the sea,” salt-cured and air-dried tuna, served, like ham,  thinly sliced and drizzled with olive oil. (On a quick search, I did not find this at the usual Spanish import sites in the US. I wonder why???)

Montaditos y Tostadas—Bites on Bread, including tiny sandwiches, open-faced canapés, toasts with spreads, mini pizzas. I showed the ladies bacalao, dry salt cod, before and after, and served tastes of brandada, a garlicky spread with salt cod and potatoes. (See the recipe below.)

Pintxos—Bites on Cocktail Sticks. Pintxos is the Basque word for tapas. Here I show how you can just open a can for some really nice tapas. Canned mussels in escabeche with half a quail’s egg and half a cherry tomato speared on a pick; and the classic Gilda, green olive, anchovy and pickled chile pepper on a pick.

Platos Fríos--Salads and Cold Dishes. Salads and other cold dishes make up the biggest variety of a tapa bar’s daily offerings. On this occasion, I showed the group how to prepare boquerones en vinagre, fresh anchovies, marinated in vinegar. Hey, look, these are really easy to fillet—Then, just layer them in vinegar for 24 to 48 hours. Everybody got to taste the boquerones. My audience declared them “better than the tapa bar.”

La Tortilla y Más--Potato Tortilla and More Egg Dishes. Because our theme is seafood, I chose to show revuelto, or scrambled eggs, with shrimp, mushrooms and green garlic shoots. I showed the ladies the difference between small, sweet gambas  and big langostinos .  In Spanish, there is a different name for each one—not just shrimp and jumbo shrimp. I told the group that the vein is edible, but not pretty. Remove it for some preparations, but don’t be afraid to eat it if it’s not been removed. I also showed them how you “suck the heads “ of cooked shrimp, because that’s where the delicious roe is. The shrimp-scrambled eggs (prepared in advance in my home kitchen) were served atop toasts, a delightful tapa.

A La Plancha—Foods from the Griddle. I had no stove, so couldn’t really grill anything. Having shown  off big langostinos and cigalas, sea crayfish (Norway lobster), I suggested making that sensational sauce—easy to prepare in the blender—romesco, a Catalan red pepper sauce (recipe is here). So delicious as a dip or served with grilled shellfish. I reccomended a Catalan arbequina olive oil for the sauce. The romesco was passed around with regañas, wheat crisps (recipe in the book), for dipping.

Cazuelitas—Saucy Dishes. This includes favorite tapas such as gambas al ajillo (sizzling shrimp); meatballs in almond sauce, kidneys in Sherry and patatas a lo pobre (potato casserole). I showed how to clean mussels, to be cooked in a typical marinera style with garlic and wine. My version is rather fancier than the basic fishermen recipe, as I include saffron and cream.

Fritos—From the Frying Pan. Many of us first tasted fried squid in Spanish tapa bars, supposing those golden rings to be fried onion rings! As I was running over my hour and lunch awaited the ladies, I asked if they wanted me to skip the last demo--how to clean a whole fresh squid. By popular acclaim, I continued.
Gently pull away the head. Here’s the ink sac, a silvery strip on the innards. Separate it if you want to use it for (sensational) black rice paella or squid cooked in ink sauce. Pull out the transparent quill and discard it. Cut off the tentacles and save them. Pull off the fins and save. Pull off the dark-colored skin of the squid. Look, the body is a pouch. You can stuff it. Or, for frying, use scissors to cut the squid crosswise into rings. (The ladies got to taste fried calamares at a tapas lunch, at Restaurante El Chaparral, El Chaparral Golf Club, Mijas Costa.)
(Many thanks to Gertrud Roberts and Emma Walkiden of Santana Books who helped out at both cooking demos.)

Brandada de Bacalao
Garlicky Salt Cod Spread

In La Mancha this spread is called atascaburras and it’s served with chopped walnuts, but in Catalonia it’s brandada and might be garnished with black olives. Serve it spread on toasts or as a dip with breadsticks alongside. Start this recipe two or three days before you intend to serve it, as the salt cod needs to soak for 36 hours.

2 large potatoes (1 pound), peeled and cut in chunks
1 pound salt cod, soaked in several changes of water for 36 hours
4 cloves garlic, crushed
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

Cook the potatoes in water to cover until tender, about 15 minutes. Remove them with a slotted spoon. Lower the heat to a simmer and add the pieces of salt cod that have previously been soaked. Simmer, but do not boil, for 10 minutes. Lift the cod out with a slotted spoon and set aside to cool. Save the liquid.

Mash the potatoes in a bowl with the crushed garlic. Stir in the oil, salt and pepper, and 6 to 8 spoonfuls of the reserved liquid to make a thick, smooth mash.

When cod is cool enough to handle, remove and discard all skin and bones. Shred or chop the cod and stir into the potatoes.

The cod spread can be prepared in advance and refrigerated until serving time. Bring to room temperature to serve.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


Check out my article in the Los Angeles Times HERE about the coming of Jabugo ibérico hams to America. If the first wave of ibérico was called the “best ham in the world,” this may be even better than the best!

 I’ve been to see those famous hams on the hoof, in Jabugo (Andalusia) and in Extremadura. These are free-range pigs of the ibérico breed that are fattened on acorns (bellotas) from wild holm and cork oak trees that grow in the dehesa, a unique ecosystem in western Spain.

 Even before my visit to the pig habitat, I got my first intimation of what makes such superlative ham at dinner when I sampled fresh ibérico pork, the raw material for ham.

Cuts with names like secreto, “secret;” pluma, “feather,” and presa “prize” as well as solomillo, tenderloin, were grilled over smoldering oak coals. The meat was served medium-rare. We’re talking about fresh pork. Like prime beef, it was marbled with veins of fat. I tasted. Wow. This was absolutely the best pork I had ever eaten. The tender cuts very nearly melted in the mouth. The cuts from the shoulder, just chewy enough, were incredibly juicy. This is not “the other white meat.”

Wait! Before you start picturing clogged arteries, let me tell you about acorn-finished ibérico pork. The acorns are rich in oleic acid, the same found in olive oil. Because the pig does not convert the fat, the oleic component predominates and the meat is high in monounsaturated fat. That’s why acorn-fattened ibérico pigs are sometimes called an “olive tree on four legs.”

But, mainly it’s about deliciousness. This is delicious meat. It makes delicious ham.

While reporting for the LA Times story, I learned that fresh ibérico pork is now being exported from Spain to the US. It was José Andrés ( , chef/owner of eight restaurants across the country, including The Bazaar in Beverly Hills, with two more opening in Las Vegas later this year, who was instrumental in getting the first ibérico hams to America. José is a business partner of Fermin, the only Spanish company to meet U.S. regulations for meat slaughtering. The fresh ibérico pork now available also comes from Fermin. Look for it at Wagshal’s Market in Washington, D.C. (  ) and from La Tienda (

In Spain, I can buy fresh ibérico pork at local markets. Not that I buy it very often, as it’s quite pricey. I paid about $7.15 for six very thin loin chops (13 ounces), serving two persons. Cooked on a hot plancha, about one minute per side, they were delicious.

This is a photo of revuelto, eggs scrambled with mushrooms and ham. The recipe is on this page of the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 7.