La lengua es la piel del alma (Language is the skin of the soul)
~Fernando Lázaro Carreter

“Yes, we want!”

Intended to parallel the campaign motto of president Obama, this slogan has appeared on buses and billboards and in television and radio commercials across Madrid promoting a bilingual school initiative.  Unfortunately, the phrase used to encourage English fluency is improper because “Yes, we want!” should have a direct object following the verb. Linguists and educators are dismayed that promoters have abandoned the grammatically correct for the impact that the publicity slogan might have on voters. The advertising campaign, which was launched this month at a cost of 1.8M euros, is aimed at showing that children are keen to join the bilingual program at primary and secondary state schools across the region.   

On to grub. Spanish cheeses are commonly made from sheep’s milk because much of the cheese producing region is rocky and arid—inhospitable to bovines yet suitable for goats and sheep.

Spain’s most notable cheese, Manchego, is made of sheep’s milk from the dry, elevated La Mancha plateau in the central region of the country. Firm but not dry, it has a black, gray or buff colored rind with a zigzag pattern, and the interior ranges from stark white to yellowish, depending on age. Manchego has an even distribution of a few small holes and a zesty and exuberant, nutty flavor which quietly lingers on your palate.

Murcia al Vino, sometimes known as “Drunken Goat” is a wine-washed cheese crafted from goat’s milk. The Murcia region in southeast Spain has a an abundant variety of grasses, shrubs, and wild herbs on which the goat’s graze which imparts distinctive flavors and aromas. The immersion in local wines gives the rind its characteristic burgundy color, imparting a slightly floral bouquet. Murcia’s distinctive yet subtle lemony-peppery flavor and supple satiny body are divinely rewarding.

A slight Spanish spin on the frittata theme with its Italian provenance…

FRITTATA SPAGNOLO

3/4 C serrano ham, cut into small juliennes (matchsticks)
1 C wild mushrooms (e.g., porcinis, chanterelles, morels), roughly chopped

1 1/2 T extra virgin olive oil

8 large organic, free range eggs
Dollop of heavy whipping cream
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper

1 T fresh rosemary leaves, finely chopped
1 T fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped

1/3 C manchego, freshly grated
3/4 C murcia al vino, freshly grated and divided into two equal parts

Preheat the broiler.

In a heavy, large skillet, briefly sauté the ham in a small amount of olive oil and set aside until it reaches room temperature. Add some more olive oil and sauté mushrooms until lightly browned and softened some. Set mushrooms aside, so they may reach room temperature as well.

Crack the eggs into a large bowl, add the cream, salt, pepper and cayenne pepper; then beat lightly with a wire whisk. Add the herbs, ham, mushrooms and half the murcia al vino, then whisk some further to combine those ingredients.

In a heavy 9″ ovenproof non-stick omelet pan or skillet, heat the oil over moderate heat, swirling to coat the bottom and sides evenly. When the oil is hot, but not smoking, add the frittata mixture. Reduce the heat to low and cook slowly, stirring the top part of the mixture, but allowing the bottom to set until the egg mixture has begun to form small curds and the frittata is browning on the bottom (4-5 minutes). With a spatula, gently loosen the the frittata from the edges of the pan. Sprinkle with the remaining murcia al vino and the fontina.

Transfer the skillet to the broiler, placing it about 5″-6″ from the heating element, and broil until the frittata browns lightly on top. It will puff up and become firm in about 3-4 minutes, but watch carefully as ovens differ. However, take care to not open the oven too often during the process as the resulting drop in temperature affects the cooking process.

Remove the pan from the broiler, and let it cool for at least couple of minutes, allowing it to set. Next, either slide or preferably invert the frittata onto a large flat plate.

Salade d’Antibes

July 18, 2009

Salad freshens without enfeebling and fortifies without irritating.
~Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

Nestled between Nice and Cannes, Antibes was an ancient Greek fortified town named Antipolis (possibly meaning “opposite the point of Nice”) which later blossomed into a Roman town…always an active port for trading along the Mediterranean. The Greeks had a tenuous grip on the coast, with threatening Ligurian tribes crowded around the outskirts, and galleons and galleys moored in the sheltered waters.

In the late 5th century, when the Roman empire fell, barbarians invaded the region with Vandals, Visigoths, Burgundians, Ostrogoths and Franks all having their turn at pillage and plunder. In medieval times, Antibes was ruled by the Lords of Grasse, and later by the Bishops of Antibes. By the end of the 14th century, Antibes was on the Franco-Savoyard frontier, and in 1383, the Pope of Avignon bequeathed Antibes to the Grimaldi family of Cagnes.

Home to the inspiring Picasso Museum, the natural beauty of Antibes has been retained in the vieille ville (old town), with ramparts along the sea and the long, arched protective wall traversing the port.

On the west end of Antibes is Cap d’Antibes and the enchanted La Baie de La Garoupe with quaint restaurants rimming golden beaches overlooking the tranquil and ever shimmering Meditteranean—replete with the sheen of oleaginous semi clad bodies. Several years ago, on a warm sunny day there, I shared a cold salad at a pastel umbrella’d restaurant which has always captured my memory. Below is a humble attempt to replicate.

SALADE D’ANTIBES—CANTALOUPE, CORN, ET AL.

1 ripe cantaloupe, seeded, peeled and diced
2-3 ears fresh corn, shucked and cleaned
1 C serrano ham, diced
1 red pepper, stemmed, seeded and diced
2 poblano peppers, stemmed, seeded and diced
1 medium red onion, peeled, and diced
2 medium tomatoes, seeded and diced

1/3 C fresh mint leaves, chopped
1/3 C fresh cilantro, chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

The cantaloupe, serrano ham, peppers, onion and tomatoes should be diced in fairly small cubes of fairly uniform size and in somewhat similar quantities.

In a large pot of boiling water, cook the corn for 1 minute. Briefly drain and immerse corn in ice water to stop the cooking and to set the color. Promptly remove and dry well. When the corn is cool, cut the kernels off the cob.

Combine corn kernels with cantaloupe, ham, peppers, onion, tomatoes mint and cilantro. Season with salt and pepper lightly.

3 garlic cloves
1 1/2 T dijon mustard
1 t sea salt
1 t freshly ground pepper
1/4 C apple cider vinegar
1 C olive oil

Pound the garlic to a paste with a pinch of salt with a mortar and pestle or smash with the side of a large chef knife with salt. In a bowl, combine the garlic, mustard, vinegar, a pinch of salt and a grinding of black pepper. Vigorously whisk in the olive oil in a narrow stream until it emulsifies, remove garlic, and adjust seasoning to your liking.

Toss vegetable mixture well with vinaigrette, let it rest for several hours in the refrigerator, and then serve.

Tapeo is like a baroque, sybaritic game, as it pleases the five senses by means of multifarious smells, friendly pats on the back, the sight and beauty of the streets. It induces states of inspiration and delight, it gives rise to witty banter on trivial topics and the interchange of snippets of juicy gossip.
~Alicia Rio

Tapa, the exquisite Spanish finger food, derived its name from the verb tapar, meaning “to cover.” From this widely accepted assumption, the stories of the origins of tapas are many and disparate.

One legend suggests that the Spanish monarch Alfonso X “El Sabio,” who reigned in the 13th century, had fallen ill. He was advised to take small snacks between meals with some wine. Once recovered and convinced of the healing properties of this lifestyle, the king decreed that all inns must provide small delectable morsels when serving wine to patrons. He reasoned this avoided excess intoxication and intestinal problems caused by imbibing on an empty stomach.

To comply with the king’s edict, botillerias (bottle shops) and tabernas (taverns) apparently began cropping up around Spain. They served glasses or jars of wine covered with a slice of cured ham or cheese to block fruit flies from falling into the wine and also to assure the booze fell on a full belly.

Another version offered is that farm hands needed to consume smaller amounts of food during the work day so they could perservere until the main dinner was served—a meal so hearty that a siesta was often needed for digestion.

Tapas are not so much a type of food as they are a Spanish way of eating and socializing in a convivial bar atmosphere…even a way of living. Tapas venues, called tasca, are not restaurants in a formal sense, but exuberant and lively bars. They vary regionally based upon available foodstuffs and gastronomic preferences. Most historians posit that tapas was born in Andalusia, Spain’s second largest and most southern region, and not surprisingly the closest to North Africa.

Tapas, served hot and cold, are generally classified according to how they are eaten. Cosas de picar (meaning “things to nibble”) basically refer to finger food, the traditional being the quintessntial olive. If utensils like banderillas (decorated toothpicks) are used, the tapas are known as pinchos. Cazuelas (little dishes) are tapas that are lightly bathed in sauce. Whichever you choose from the wide array of tapas—from olives to eggs to hams to shellfish to peppers to potatoes, and so on—you are in for a regal treat.

TOMATO TOAST WITH SERRANO HAM

4 slices baguette or other rustic artisanal bread
2 ripe tomatoes, cut in half
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt
4 paper thin slices of serrano ham (jamón serrano)

Without grating the skin, rub the open face, fleshy side of the tomatoes on a grater into a bowl. Add 3 T olive oil to the grated tomatoes. Season with salt and mix. Lightly brush or drizzle the bread with some olive oil, then toast the bread on both sides in the broiler or better yet on a barbeque grill. Spoon a small layer of the tomato mixture over the slices of the toast, evenly. Place a slice of serrano on each toast, then drizzle with a small trace of olive oil. Serve.

More tapas to follow on the next post.

Serrano hams (jamón serrano) are literally “mountain hams” which are a dry-cured Spanish delicacy that has attained national treasure status. The pigs feed on grass, fruit and, most importantly, acorns that fall every autumn from holm and cork oaks. This gives their meat a unique nutty flavor.

The hams are cured from 18-24 months in drying sheds (secaderos) which are usually found at higher elevations where the atmosphere is cooler and drier. It is generally considered to have a deeper flavor and firmer texture than its close cousin, Italian prosciutto.

Scrambled Eggs — An Art?

February 14, 2009

A hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg.
~Samuel Butler

So often we see abused plates of scrambled eggs—overcooked, hard, lumpy, devoid of life. Mastering simple scrambled eggs is more difficult than it may seem. I have even heard some chefs remark that they occasionally test new cooks by watching them prepare a plate of scrambled eggs. The perfect scrambled egg is a rare dish demanding a gentle, slow and low cooking process. The end product is all about texture.

Do not overwhip, but you must impart air to the eggs so they will be fluffy. The air bubbles in the liquid become coated with protein and the molecules uncoil (denature). When whisking, tilt the bowl so the whisk moves diagonally across the plane—the eggs should be well mixed, but not overly frothy. Overwhipping can unravel the protein molecules in the eggs.

According the venerable James Beard, using liberal amounts of butter is crucial. Also lodged somewhere in the recesses of my hippocampus is a chef’s hint that a very, very small pinch of cayenne pepper can “wake up” the eggs. As with such obscured memories, I do not remember the source of that truc.

It is essential to use low, gentle heat when cooking eggs, as egg protein begins to thicken at only 144°F, which allows them to toughen rapidly.  So, create tiny curds.

When the eggs are soft and shiny, remove from heat before they are too set as they will continue cooking. Remember the adage…“when eggs are done in the pan, they are overdone on the plate.”

SCRAMBLED EGGS

3-4 T butter
3 T cream cheese
6 fresh, organic, free range eggs, meaning the hens are raised on pastureland
1 T crème fraîche or heavy whipping cream
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Small pinch of cayenne pepper, dried
Small pinch of white pepper, dried
Small pinches of herbes de provence and thyme, dried

Melt the butter and cream cheese in a heavy non-stick skillet. Combine the eggs, salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, white pepper, herbes de provence and thyme and a dollop of crème fraîche or heavy whipping cream in a glass bowl and whisk briskly — just until the yolks and whites are combined.

Pour into the non-stick skillet, with the heat on low. With a wooden spatula, gently stir the egg mixture, lifting it up and over from the bottom as it thickens. Stir away from the sides and bottom of the pan toward the middle. Continue to stir until the desired texture (a mass of soft curds) is achieved. They thicken, dry out and toughen very quickly toward the end, so if you like them soft, fluffy and moist, remove them from the heat a little before they reach the desired texture—they will continue to cook after being removed from both the stovetop and the pan.

Pourboires:
Also known as the egg white, albumen accounts for about 2/3 of an egg’s liquid weight. It contains more than half the egg’s total protein, niacin, riboflavin, chlorine, magnesium, potassium, sodium and sulfur. The albumen consists of 4 alternating layers of differing consistencies. Egg white tends to thin out as an egg ages because its protein changes in character which is why fresh eggs sit up tall and firm in the pan while older ones tend to spread out.

Scrambled eggs have many faces, allowing for a variety of permutations and combinations with other ingredients. Consider adding cooked proscuitto, serrano ham or pancetta, chives, sliced sauteed mushrooms, diced sauteed chicken livers, ricotta cheese, goat cheese, barely wilted spinach, fresh tarragon or other herbs…the possibilities seem endless.

Finally, for an even creamier version, try 5 whole eggs coupled with 2 egg yolks.