Fly-in-fly-out to Barcelona… A little less than 11 hours in town, which allowed to fit in enough time to do my thing, touch the Mediterranean and buy proper ham at the airport free shop. And, by proper ham, I mean jamón ibérico de bellota [acorn Iberian ham], the dark red meat marbled with veins of fat which only the free range black Iberian pigs who feast on acorns can have. It is only the finest of cured hams and is considered one of the best delicacies in the world. Well, let’s make it clear – it actually is. I have seen otherwise serious gown up almost shed a tear when they tasted. As M. eloquently put it “the kind of thing that makes worthwhile years of studying just to be able to afford it”. And, if I may add, instrumental to cope with endless hours of corporate drama.
In any case, once the precious ham was acquired, carefully transported into Switzerland and put to rest in the fridge, I still had to figure out how to serve it. It was not just a question of dropping it in a hot plate… This ham deserved the best ingredient to compliment its nutty rich flavor and bring the best out of it. Since I had just been in Barcelona, it seemed totally logical to serve it with tomato bread, a combination of flavors made in heaven, known in Catalonia as pa amb tomàquet. It is said to be the most popular dish of their cuisine, and you may find different versions and lines of thought. Toasted or fresh bread? Garlic, or no garlic? Rub the tomato or use a pre-made mixture? Grate the tomato or puree it? I just avoided all the metaphysical question by resorting to my ex-Spanish Mother-in-Law strong recommendations.
Iberian ham and tomato bread (pa amb tomàquet amb pernil, Pan con tomate y jamón)
- Finely sliced cured ham
- 1 garlic teeth, peeled and cut in half
- Slices of toasted rustic bread
- Tomatoes (I used cherry tomatoes, as they taste of something. When in Spain, I would have probably used regular grape tomatoes.
- Olive oil to taste
1. Grate the tomatoes into a bowl.
1. Toast the bread for a few minutes, until is warm and slightly crusty
2. Rub with the half garlic.
4. Drizzle with olive oil
5.Spread the grated tomato paste to taste
6. Put the ham slices on top
Once I got the empanada de atun [savoury tuna parcels] properly tested and under control, I decided to expand to other combinations. Not knowing where to start, I turned to Carlos Horrillo and Patrick Morcas, whom seemed to favor spinach, cream cheese and spinach. If it is good enough for Patrick and Carlos, it is also good enough for me…. I am actually quite fond of spinach, which helped a bit my decision. Of course, living in Switzerland, the Cheddar in the original recipe had to be replaced by Emmentaler. No one noticed seemed to complain – if anything it conformed better to the taste of hardened expats living in Switzerland for longer than they want to admit. All in all, a great dish to serve when the occasion requires food easy to eat or informal gatherings. For bonus, it is vegetarian and all the greenies make it look a bit more healthy than its tuna fish counterpart. Eat warm or cold, with a beer or a glass of red wine.
Spinach and cheese parcels (empanada de espinacas y queso, adapted from Carlos Horrillo and Patrick Morcas’ Tapas: Simple Flavours, Striking Combinations)
- 2 packets ready of read-rolled puff pastry (one for the bottom, the other to cover it)
- 800g of fresh spinach, washed
- 100g of full fat creamy cheese, like Philadelphia
- 100g of grated Emmentaler cheese
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- 1 slightly beaten egg
1. Coat the bottom of a heavy bottom non sticky pan with olive oil and put it on high heat, until the olive oil is smoking hot.
2. Drop the the spinach leaves inside, season whit salt and turn the leaves until they start to wilt.
3. Transfer the leaves to sieve lined with kitchen paper, so it absorbs the bitter liquids.
4. Allow to cool, and put them in a large mixing bowl.
5. Add both cheeses to the spinach and mix everything together until it is homogenous.
6. Allow to cool overnight in the fridge
7. Heat the oven to 200 oC
8. Line the bottom and walls of the rectangular baking tray previously buttered. Pinch it with a fork and fold in the e spinach and cheese mixture.
9. Put the second sheet of puff pastry on top, and close the edges trimming the excess pastry. Seal with the beaten egg. You can brush the whole surface to look shiny.
10. Leave in the stove for about 20m (or according to the instructions), until the pastry is done.
A few weeks ago, I posted the
watered down light version of this dish. A dinner party loosely inspired in Spanish cuisine prompted me to do the actual thing, with all its condiments, red wine and olive oil. Mind you, for extra slow-home-made-cooking points, the meatballs were rolled by hand with all love and care by T. and myself. It seemed like a lot of food, but at the end all it was left was the meatballs used for this snapshot. And, I had to hide it in a dark corner of my fridge.
Meatballs in rich tomato sauce (adapted from Carlos Horrillo and Patrick Morcas’ Tapas: Simple Flavours, Striking Combinations)
For the meatballs
- 650g of minced pork and beef
- 2 pinches of very finely chopped fresh rosemary, thyme, mint, basil, tarragon, coriander and oregano.
- 1large egg
- small yellow onion, finely diced
- 1 red chili, finely chopped (or to taste)
- 300g fresh breadcrumbs
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Enough olive oil to coat the baking tray
For the tomato sauce
- Olive oil
- 1 small yellow onion finely chopped
- 1 medium carrot, peeled and finely sliced
- 1 stick celery, finely diced
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 70mL ruby Port
- 250mL red wine
- 3 cans of 400g-chopped plum tomatoes
- 10 fresh basil leaves
- 2 bay leaves
1. Preheat the oven to 180 oC.
2. Put all the meatball ingredients in a large bowl, and season all the salt and pepper. Combine with your hands until you have a consistent mixture which allows you to form the meatball.
3. Start rolling the meatballs with your hands.
4. Put a generous amount of olive oil in baking tray
5. Drop in the meatball, stirring them to coat them evenly.
6. Put the tray in the oven for 30min, or until the meatballs are all golden brown. Do not forget to stir them occasionally to cook them in all directions.
7.While waiting for the meatball, start the tomato sauce. Place a large, deep sided saucepan on a low heat and pour in enough olive oil to coat the bottom. Add the sliced vegetables and season with salt and pepper. Fry gently until they are soft and start to color.
8. Poor in both wines, and bring to boil.
9.When the wine is boiling and has reduced to half the volume, drop in the tomatoes. Season again, and bring to boil, stirring at all times.
10. Turn the heat to low and let simmer for about 15min.
11. Once the meatballs are cooked, fold them in the tomato sauce. Let it simmer for 10min more. (in reality, what I did was to do the tomato sauce and the meatballs in advance. On the day of the party, I combined them both while cold. Then, I slowly warm them. It actually tastes better, as the flavors combine and develop).
Nowadays, you can get decent (and indecent, for that matter) Manchego cheese in almost every supermarket. But, Idiazábal cheese is only to be found in high end delicatessen shops, at the price of an arm, a leg, and your children corneas. I only remember having it once in the 9 years I have been living in Switzerland, and truth to be said, it was a Spanish acquaintance who smuggled it in gruyère -land.
In case you are wondering, Idiazábal is a Denominación de Origen [Protected designation of origin] hard sheep cheese from the Basque and Navarre regions, which has a rich smoky flavor. Apparently, the Basque shepherds used to store the cheese in their huts over Winter. The smoke coming out of their fireplaces eventually permeated their dairies, giving it a new flavor that the shepherds preferred. All I can say is that the flavor (and aroma) is strong. Very strong…
In fact, so strong I thought my
suffering testers dinner guests wouldn’t appreciate it to its full splendor. I resorted to Simone and Inés Ortega’s The Book of Tapas for help, and as it turned out, it was actually a very good idea to serve this tapa rather than the pure thing. The sweetness of the onion and honey complement to perfection the slightly less smokey and hot-ish flavor the cheese, for complete delight of guests and cook.
Idiazábal cheese and caramelised onion tapa (adapted from Simone and Inés Ortega’s The Book of Tapas)
- 200g Idiazábal cheese, rind removed and sliced
- 1 cup (=250mL) milk
- 2 teaspoons black peppercorns, slightly crushed
- 1 cup olive oil
- 1 onion, finely sliced
- 6 slices of French baguette
- 1 teaspoon honey
1. Put the cheese in a bowl, add the milk and the crushed peppercorns. Let it sit for about 30min (until it is a bit softer)
2.In the meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a non-adherent frying pan until it shimmers. Drop in the onion, and let it caramelise, stirring every now and gain.It should take about 15min.
3. Fish the cheese out of the bowl and pat dry with kitchen paper.
4.Place each slice of cheese on top of the bread and drop about 1 teaspoon of the caramelised onions over it. Finish the tapa by drizzling a little honey over it.
Another Spanish classic… Very much like the tortilla de patatas [potato omelette], there are many versions and interpretations. And, as you might guess from previous posts, the best empanada is going to be the one cooked by the proverbial Mother-in-Law… Actually, at some point, I had scribbled down a recipe that had been in someone’s family for generations. But hélas!, I lost it during one of my many moves. I ended up to use the one Carlos Horrillo and Patrick Morcas have on their Tapas: Simple Flavours, Striking Combinations book.
All in all, it is not exactly easy to get this dish right. The filling is relatively straightforward, but the pastry requires a certain level of skill and commitment. Although this might sound like scratching a chalkboard with nails to some, I ended up using pre made pastry, to avoid any culinary catastrophes… In any case, it is an awesome combination of flavors and textures, which reminds me of home and many bohemian nights out.
Savory tuna parcels (empanadillas de atún)
For the filling
- Olive oil
- 2 medium onions finely sliced
- 1 large red pepper, finely chopped
- Salt and black pepper to taste
- 225g tomatoes coarsely chopped
- 350g of good quality tuna (in olive oil), drained
- 8-10 good quality black 0lives, stones removed
- Small pinch of saffron strands. soaked in 2 tablespoon hot water
For the pastry
- pack of ready rolled puff pastry
- 1 beaten egg
Place a large heavy base, non stock frying pan (or wok) on a low heat with 8 dashes of olive oil. Add the sliced onions and pepper, a pinch of salt and pepper then sauté gently until soft and tender.
Add the chopped tomatoes and give everything a good stir, then simmer gently until all the ingredients have reduced to a thick sauce.
Add the tuna, olives, saffron and another pinch of salt and pepper, Summer everything together, stirring regularly until you have a tick, rich sauce. Set aside to cool, and then refrigerate for 2 hours.
Preheat your oven to 200oC/400oC/gas mark 6
Lightly flour your work surface and place the rolled puff pastry on top. Using a sharp knife, cut the pastry into 12cm squares and arrange them on several greased baking sheets. You will need 8-12, depending on how many people you are going to serve. Gauge it so you have enough pastry to wrap the filling. If the pastry is too thin the parcel will burst and all the ingredients will spill out. Some spillage is fine. If the pastry is too thick, it will not allow the flavours of the filling to come through.
Put a dollop of the tuna mixture, a ball shape roughly 5-6cm, in the middle of the square, and then dab the edges of the suare with eaten egg, Bring up the corners of the pastry to the centre and press them together to form a peak at the top. Glaze the tops with beaten egg, and then in the oven for 20min, or until golden brown. Serve hot, warm or cold.
Alternatively, you can put the pastry in the a rectangular or square baking tray, allowing the wall to be coated about 5cm. Put the tuna mixture on it, and put another sheet of pastry on top. Close the edges, sealling with beaten egg. Glaze the top with beaten egg.
In a literal manner, tapa means a cover or lid in Spanish. But, if you are talking about food, a tapa refers to a range of fine appetizers and nibbles that are served in bars and pubs to accompany a glass of wine or beer. Over the years, tapas have evolved into a completely new concept, being now a synonym of miniature dishes – sometimes very sophisticated – which are put together to form a meal. In any case, tapas, or its closely related pintxos and raciones, are the center of informal meals and allow you to focus on chatting and socializing rather than scoffing a full blown dinner.
Even risking sounding a bit pedantic, the dish I am doing today is a pintxo. Traditionally, this combination with anchovies is ubiquitous in the Basque Country. And, you simply are not not served tapas in the Basque Country. Up the there, the pieces of bread with something on top are called pintxos. Incidentally, unlike other parts of the country, you also have to pay for them. In case you wonder, about.com does a excellent job on explaining with great detail and accuracy what is one or the other, and the difference between them.
As of late, I have been kind of missing this sort of flavors from home… A poker night presented itself like the perfect opportunity to give it a go. After googling a bit, I ended up finding this Spanish blogger from Bilbao, whom had a recipe that looked very much like the pintxos de anchoa you can find all over the Basque Country.
Anchovy, hard boiled egg and caper on toast (pintxo de anchoas)
- 150 grs. of cream cheese, like Philadelphia
- 2 tins of salted anchovies
- Sliced bread (I use the equivalent of a French bagette, cut diagonally).
- 2 hard boiled eggs, chopped very finely.
- Capers or sliced gurken
- Olive oil
Put the cheesed and the anchovies (plus its olive oil). Mix well with a blender until you obtain a homogenous mix. Reserve.
Cut the bread crust out, and cut each slice in half so you can obtain 2 rectangles. Fry in a generous quantity of olive oil. Be careful to not let the olive oil overheat to avoid the bread to burn. I was on a hurry this day, and simply toasted the bread until it was crunchy. This version is also less caloric.
Spread a generous quantity of anchovy mix so you obtain a thick layer on top of the bread. Cover with the egg and put a couple of cappers on top of it.