Monday, February 28, 2011


When you pick up a package of Manchego cheese at the supermarket, do you ever stop to wonder where it comes from?

Manchego means it comes from La Mancha. La Mancha, Don Quixote’s stomping ground, is an upland plateau in the very heart of Spain. It’s a land of open spaces and big skies, where shepherds move herds of sheep across stubbled fields. Windmills appear on ridge tops like a line of cavalry. The occasional castle with its medieval battlements looks for all the world like a movie set.

Authentic Manchego cheese—with a label showing the denominación de origen guaranteeing it’s place of origin—is made exclusively from the milk of sheep of the Manchega breed and produced within the designated areas of La Mancha. 

The cheese must be matured for a minimum of sixty days, producing a semi-cured cheese. Longer curing produces a drier cheese with a pronounced nutty flavor. (Though, “aged Manchego,” without the cheese added, could also mean an old man from La Mancha.) Sometimes cheeses are submerged in olive oil to keep them longer.

(You’ll find much more about cheese making in my book COOKING FROM THE HEART OF SPAIN—FOOD OF LA MANCHA.)

Manchego is one of those go-to cheeses that’s great for almost anything. Slice it and serve as a tapa; use it for grilled cheese sandwiches; grate it for a vegetable gratin; top a pizza with it; pair it with quince paste (membrillo) for dessert. Or use it for these delectable cheese flans.

Cheese Flans with Ham
Flan de Queso con Jamón

Egg whites folded into the custard give these flans a light texture. For a vegetarian version, omit the ham. Serve the flans with steamed broccoli or grilled asparagus as a luncheon entrée or with shrimp or crab and greens as a starter. A semi-cured Manchego cheese works best.

Serves 8.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped scallions
3 ½ tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
1 cup light cream
½ cup tomato sauce (not concentrate)
2 eggs, separated, whites reserved in a clean bowl
2 whole eggs, beaten with 2 yolks
8 ounces Manchego cheese, grated
3 ounces chopped serrano or cooked ham
Pinch of cayenne
Pinch of dried thyme
½  teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Oil 8 (1-cup) custard cups or individual flan molds and set them in a baking pan.

Heat the oil in a saucepan and sauté the scallions 1 minute. Stir in the flour. Cook, stirring, 1 minute. Whisk in the milk and cream and cook on a medium heat until the custard begins to thicken, 5 minutes. Whisk in the tomato sauce and cook, stirring, 2 minutes.

Whisk in the beaten eggs and yolks. Remove from heat and stir in the cheese, ham, cayenne, thyme, salt and pepper.

Beat the egg whites until they hold stiff peaks. Beat 1/3 of the whites into the custard mixture. Fold the remaining whites thoroughly into the custard.

Ladle the custard mixture into the custard cups, filling them only ¾ full. Pour enough hot water into the baking pan to come halfway up the cups. Carefully transfer the pan to the oven. Bake until custards are set (a skewer comes out clean), 40 to 45 minutes.   

Remove the flans from the baking pan and let them cool at least 15 minutes. Loosen the sides with a knife and unmold the flans onto individual plates. Serve warm or room temperature.

Cheese flan with salad greens makes a delightful lunch.

Monday, February 21, 2011


Seafood soup (sopa de pescados y mariscos).

 Spain has dozens of fish soups—Catalan suquet, Andalusian sopa de rape, Galican caldeirada, Murcia’s caldero. Most of these are basic fishermen’s fare—the catch of the day cooked up in sea water with olive oil and garlic plus bread or potatoes to add substance to the broth.

The Basque version of seafood soup also starts out as a simple marinero preparation. But over the years, as it was adapted by restaurant chefs, the soup has become the five-star standard of Spanish fish soups. So incredibly delicious that it rivals bouillabaisse and other famous seafood soups of the world. This one is outstanding enough to serve to guests on special occasions, especially if made with luxury ingredients such as lobster.

The difference between this soup and the everyday version is that it requires making a fish stock, then a sofrito, then adding enough fish and shellfish to really turn it into a main dish.
Fish head and trimmings for stock.
Crustacean shells (shrimp, lobster or crab) give the soup its depth of flavor, so, if possible, choose shrimp with heads and shells. The restaurant where I first tasted this impressive soup didn’t remove the shells from the clams. They made a little clatter as the soup was ladled into plates. And, you had to get your fingers into the soup to eat them.

When I buy fish, I save the heads, bones and trimmings in the freezer for making fish stock. Likewise, when I’m cooking shrimp, I buy whole ones, unshelled, and save the heads and shells for stock making.

Cuttlefish adds flavor to soup.
Cuttlefish (jibia, sepia) and squid are especially good for adding flavor to seafood stock. Plus, you can add the cooked cuttlefish to the finished soup.The cuttlefish pictured here is cleaned of innards, ink sac and cuttle bone. It's ready to cut up and cook. 
Simple fish broth

If using cuttlefish or squid, save it to add to the final soup. Likewise, cooked fish can be picked off the bones and saved for the soup.

Makes 10 cups broth

1 pound small fish, fish heads, bones, trimmings, shrimp shells, small crabs, lobster shells, whole cuttlefish, etc.
12 cups water
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 onion
strip of lemon peel
strip of orange peel
1 stalk of celery
small carrot, split lengthwise
several stems of parsley
pinch of thyme

Place all the ingredients in a large pot. Bring to a boil and skim. Partially cover and simmer for 1 hour. Strain the stock. Save bits of fish for the soup and discard remaining solids.

Saffron goes into this seafood soup.

Seafood Soup
Sopa de Pescados y Mariscos

Monkfish is such a perfect fish for this soup because it’s flavorful and firm, so it doesn’t disintegrate in the broth. Also good is rockfish, such as scorpionfish. I used monkfish plus skate plus cooked cuttlefish from the stock plus flakes of corvina, also from the stock.

Serves 6 as a starter or 4 as a main dish.
10 ounces whole, small shrimp with heads
½ pound Manila or littleneck clams (or 1/4 cup shucked clams)
¼ cup olive oil
2 leeks, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped
¼ cup brandy
½ cup white wine
7 cups simple fish broth (see recipe above)
1 cup diced tomatoes, fresh or canned
pinch of cayenne
salt to taste
pinch of crushed saffron threads
2 slices toasted bread
1 pound boneless monkfish, cut into 1-inch pieces and/or lobster
parsley to garnish
strips of bread fried in olive oil to garnish

Peel the shrimp and reserve them. Keep the heads and shells.

Put the clams in a small pan with 1/2 cup water. Cover and place them on a high heat until shells open. When cool, remove shells and discard them. Reserve clams. Sieve the liquid and add to the fish broth.

In a soup pot heat the oil and sauté the leeks, onion, garlic and carrot for 5 minutes. Add the shrimp shells and continue sautéing on a high heat until contents just begin to brown. Remove from heat.

Add the brandy. (If desired, it can be set alight and the mixture flambéed.) Then add the wine, 1 cup of the fish broth, the tomatoes, cayenne, saffron and salt to taste. Cook the mixture for 20 minutes.

Add the toasted bread, broken into pieces and cook another 10 minutes.

Place the contents of the pot in a food processor or blender and grind as smoothly as possible. Press the pulp through a sieve, discarding the remains of shrimp shells.

Place the pulp in the pot with the remaining fish broth. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 minutes. (The soup can be prepared in advance up to this point.)

Shortly before serving time, add first the chunks of monkfish or lobster to the soup and cook 3 minutes. Then add the reserved and peeled shrimp and cook 2 minutes. Then add the shucked clams and cook 2 minutes. Taste again for salt. Serve garnished with parsley and strips of fried bread.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Eggplant Pâté

 When my cholesterol level hit 300, my doctor shook his head and  handed me a prescription for a new medication. I had already been through three different statin drugs—and suffered bad side effects. After a trial year with no medication, it appeared that diet alone wasn’t going to lower those numbers.

Just for the record—I use olive oil exclusively in my kitchen. I don’t eat a lot of red meat, but, I have to confess, I probably eat too much cheese, which seems like such a perfect snack food. I take regular doses of red wine, said to help control cholesterol levels. I do aerobics three times a week and do my shopping rounds in the village on foot. Not exactly a lot of exercise, but neither am I totally a couch-potato.

After suffering from previous meds, I resisted starting a new one. So when friend, Gill, told me about an alternative treatment using eggplant, I thought, “hey, worth a try.”

Gill’s prescription, as follows: have handy a heat proof litre container.  boil litre of drinking water, pour into container, drop in two or three fat slices of raw aubergine, skin and all, leave for few minutes - water goes a pale green colour, lift and either throw out or ice box store the slices, strain into lidded container for fridge storage and drink over two or three days.  repeat as often as liked. no rigidity about doses, just when ever.... (Aubergine = eggplant; litre = 4 cups, approx.)

She said that she got the treatment from a friend who got it from her Jamaican boyfriend. And that it really worked for her. An on-line web page called for the same ingredients, plus a thick slice of lemon, all placed into cold water and the eggplant left in the water.

My version of “eggplant tea”: Slice half a raw eggplant (about 5 ounces), and place in a heatproof jar or pitcher with a thick slice of lemon. Pour over 4 cups boiling water. Allow to steep until cool. Cover and refrigerate. Strain and drink about 1 cup per day.

 The lemon makes it palatable. I drink it in the morning as a wake-up juice.

After four weeks of regularly taking eggplant tea, I had my cholesterol tested again. Remember, it was 300. The new number: 210. A drop of 90 points!! This was so amazing that I didn’t believe it! But I kept up the treatment and retested again in four weeks. The numbers had gone up somewhat, to 225. But still way lower than my initial reading. I’ll test again in a few weeks.

A friend said, but now you’re stuck drinking eggplant tea for the rest of your life. OK, but that’s way better than taking cholesterol medications for the rest of my life. And, in this case, the worst side-effect is a surfeit of waterlogged eggplant. 

Has anybody else tried the eggplant remedy for lowering cholesterol? Tell me how it worked. 

DISCLAIMER: Nine months after I started this eggplant treatment, my cholesterol numbers had returned to what they were. I'm now taking medication and have discontinued the eggplant infusion. Anecdotal evidence (from other people I know) suggests that using the eggplant tea occasionally does help to moderate cholesterol. I welcome your comments.

Post script: four months later, after a third test--my numbers have gone up--though they are still not as high as they were before I started the "eggplant cure." Not sure if I will take the meds or stick with the eggplant infusion. Also, after using the soaked eggplant in this pâté and several other recipes, I've decided it's not so good. I throw out the eggplant after soaking and drinking the tea. However, this pâté is sensational made with fresh eggplant, so it's a keeper.

But, this is a blog about cooking, not alternative health remedies. So you can be sure that, in my kitchen, all that eggplant eventually ends up in a more delicious incarnation. After straining, I stash the eggplant in the freezer and when there’s a bagful, I use it in pisto, a splendid vegetable dish (recipe here, )somewhat like ratatouille, or in this vegetarian pâté. It’s rich with cheese and eggs, so it’s a good thing my cholesterol numbers are almost normal.

Cuajado de Berenjena
Eggplant Pâté

Spanish cooking has a number of variations on cuajado, a sort of timbale with vegetables, eggs, and cheese. Somewhat like Italian frittata, cuajado comes from Spain’s medieval Sephardic Jewish culture, where an all-dairy meal (no flesh) was served on some holidays. In fact, modern-day Sephardim call these meatless meals by the Spanish word, desayuno, or break-fast—meaning a substantial brunch or lunch.

My original recipe for this eggplant cuajado (it appears in COOKING FROM THE HEART OF SPAIN—FOOD OF LA MANCHA) calls for a smooth puree made from roasted eggplant. This version I invented to use up the chunks of soaked eggplant stored in the freezer. The uncooked eggplant, preferably peeled, is chopped in a food processor. The result is like meatloaf or pâté in texture. Slice it and serve as a starter or luncheon dish. A tangy tomato sauce makes a good contrast.

Serves 6 to 8 as a starter.

2 pounds eggplant, peeled and cut in chunks
½ small onion
1 clove garlic
3 eggs
2 cups fresh breadcrumbs, preferably whole-wheat
2 cups grated cheese (such as semi-cured Manchego)
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Grated fresh nutmeg
Olive oil to grease the pan
Tomato sauce to accompany

Preheat oven to 350ºF.

Finely chop the eggplant, onion and garlic in a food processor. Beat in the eggs.

Place the chopped eggplant in a bowl and fold in the breadcrumbs, cheese, salt, pepper and nutmeg.

Oil the bottom and sides of a 6-cup loaf pan or ovenproof casserole. Pour the eggplant and cheese mixture into the pan, smoothing the top. Cover with a lid or foil. Place the pan in a larger container and add boiling water to half its depth. Carefully place in preheated oven.

Bake 55 minutes. Remove the lid or foil and bake 15 minutes more. Remove from oven and allow to set for 10 minutes.

Loosen the sides of the timbale. Place a serving plate on top and carefully invert the timbale onto the plate. Serve warm or cold.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


A dream come true—avocados in my garden! That’s after five years of wondering why my little avocado tree never made fruit. The tree appeared to thrive, but year after year it flowered and produced lots of avocado nubbins that all fell off. I worried that perhaps it needed a mate—cross pollination? I think it just needed more and deeper watering.

As I watched my fruit mature, I was gifted with a whole bag full of avocados from a friend’s orchard! I have been in seventh heaven.

I adore avocados sprinkled with a little salt and lemon juice and scooped right from the shell. I slice them lavishly into salads. I make plenty guacamole (I planted coriander seeds to have a source of cilantro). But with such abundance, now it’s time to dream up other ways with avocados.

Mine are the Haas variety. The marvel of this variety is that the fruit won’t soften and fall off the trees, meaning I can pick it over the next couple of months. After picking, they need anywhere from a couple days to up to a week to soften. I can never seem to predict when they’ll be ready to eat! 

Spain is far and away Europe’s largest producer of avocados. Although the commercialization of Spanish-grown avocados is new, their cultivation is not. Spain has been growing avocados since they were “discovered” in Mexico by Spanish conquistadores around 1520. The Spanish name, aguacate, comes from the word the Aztecs of Mexico called the fruit, from the Nahuatl name, ahuacatl, meaning “testicle tree,” for the way some varieties of the tree bear their heavy fruit in pairs. Admired for the beauty of its evergreen foliage and deep-green pear-shaped fruit, the avocado was early grown decoratively in Spanish monasteries and palace gardens. But, unlike tomatoes and potatoes, other foods from the New World, avocados never really caught on in Spain.

The first avocado plantations were established in the subtropical areas around Almuñecar on Granada’s coast in the early 1960s. Since then cultivation has extended to protected valleys with mild microclimates in Málaga province. I look down on a large avocado plantation in the valley below my house.

The avocado, although a fruit, is not especially sweet. It contains a little protein and carbohydrate as well as oil, a mono-unsaturated fat, which, like olive oil, is the healthiest kind. It is rich in potassium, vitamins A, B complex, C and E. Half a small avocado contains about 125 calories. A spoonful contains fewer calories than an equivalent amount of butter or mayonnaise, making it a fine substitute for those spreads. Ripe avocado whipped with a little sugar and a bit of lemon juice makes a superb alternative to whipped cream, served with fruit or as a topping for a tart.

Select avocados that are firm and under-ripe, with stems attached, and mature them at room temperature wrapped loosely in paper. (If stems have broken off, seal the ends with a piece of tape to prevent the flesh from darkening.) To test for ripeness, squeeze very gently in the palm of the hand--the flesh should give slightly. Once ripened, store avocados in a cool place. Although the refrigerator crisper-drawer is not ideal (too humid), it is usually the only alternative.

Cut and prepare avocados shortly before serving, as exposure to light and air causes the flesh to darken. Cut them from stem to stern, lengthwise, then twist gently to separate the halves from the center pit. Whack a sharp knife directly into the seed and twist it to lift out. To peel, place the avocado cut-side down and strip or pare off the skin. Or, use a large-size spoon to scoop the flesh from the skin in one piece. Sprinkle cut fruit with lemon juice to prevent discoloring. Leaving the pit embedded in the avocado doesn’t help to avoid darkening, except where it prevents exposure to the air and light.

I loath avocado-shrimp cocktail with pink mayonnaise (in Spanish, salsa rosa) that is served in so many Spanish restaurants. Gloppy sauce overwhelms the sweetness of shrimp, the butteryness of avocado. I order it sin salsa, with a wedge of lemon on the side. Avocado combines admirably with fish and shellfish, and is even better with the tart zing of citrus dressings; big spices; salty foods such as bacon, ham, capers, olives; and, surprisingly, with sweet fruits, where the buttery smoothness of the avocado makes a lovely contrast.
 Improvising in the kitchen, I combined pink grapefruit, crunchy sliced raw fennel and chunks of avocado, with extra virgin olive oil. Great texture contrasts! Great flavor. Next time, I’ll add some crisp bacon as a finishing touch.

Here is a recipe for salpicón, a favorite salad in tapa bars in Spain. This version is embellished with chunks of avocado. (The photo appears at the top of the page.)

Salpicón de Mariscos con Aguacate
Shellfish Cocktail with Avocado

Use any combination of cooked shellfish—shrimp, mussels, octopus—for this salad.

Serves 8 as a tapa; 4 as a starter.

2 cups cooked shrimp   
1 ½ cups diced fresh tomatoes
½ cup chopped green pepper
½ cup chopped green onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
½ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 firm-ripe avocado, cut in cubes

Combine the shrimp in a bowl with the tomatoes, pepper, onion, garlic, parsley, salt, oil and lemon juice. Stir to combine. Add the avocado immediately before serving.