Purple in the vegetable garden

Color is something I’d never considered as a criterion for choosing which vegetables to grow… that is, until this year. It’s not that I hadn’t appreciated the lovely blue-green of cabbage leaves before. Or the equally gorgeous silvery grey and majestic structure of artichoke leaves. But this year I decided to go with purple. In particular, purple kohlrabi. I confess I’ve never eaten much kohlrabi before, neither green nor purple. But the photo on the seed packet was so irresistible, I just caved in.

As a plant, purple kohlrabi, did not disappoint. It started out with purple stems, and its leaves are veined with the same exquisite colour. Even if it bore no fruit, it is such a beautiful plant, it made me so happy just to be able to grow it.

 

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And of course when the ‘fruit’ started to swell up just above the roots, it was almost unbelievable!!! I harvested it at the size of a plum, but I couldn’t stop gazing at it. It was so stunning in all its parts — its stems, its leaves with their purple veins. How could I cut into such beauty, or even contemplate eating it? Just cutting off the leaves pained me. I reluctantly peeled off its lovely purple coat to put it in a  salad. It was sweet and extremely crisp. I shall definitely be planting more.

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The other contributor of purple to the vegetable garden are purple-podded beans. I’m growing them for the first time as well. The stems, similar to the purple kohlrabi, also start out purple. And the flowers are divine.

Color in veg gdn prpl podded pea flwr vine gYou can see the bean developing below.

Color in the veg gdn fab 3 stages of pea fab.JPG I love the way the purple-podded bean tendril and new leaves go well with the kohlrabi leaf with its light purple veins.

Casa color in the veg gdn kohlrabi lf pea leaf fab.JPGIn the same veg bed is Amaranth ‘Velvet Curtains’. The amaranth’s seeds are edible, as are the young leaves, though I have yet to try them.

 

Amaranth seedlings2Given lots of water, they grow very fast and quite tall.

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The amaranth looks great behind the purple-podded bean. On the left is a bean leaf, which has purplish tones as well. The frilly leaf in the middle is kale.

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Casa color in the veg gdn amaranth curly kale g.JPGI’ve sown orange Tagetes all around the perimeter, not only for the colour contrast, but as well to deter nematodes A bit brassy, but quite cheering.

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It’s great to see what works and doesn’t work in terms of color and texture. I’m not too sure brassy Tagetes is in the right place, but as long as it deters nematodes, it can stay right where it is.

 

 

 

 

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Asparagus in Japan’s Snow Country

Asparagus is not the first vegetable that comes to mind when people think of Japan. Yet whenever I see or eat asparagus, I cannot help but think of that year that I lived on a surfeit – and oh, such a surfeit it was – of fresh asparagus. And it was all thanks to Okuyama-san.

Okuyama-san had an asparagus patch of his own, in a field just on the outskirts of town. Every morning and late afternoon, just before and after work at his printing shop, he trudged there with old Pochi (then barely able to see, his eyes clouded with cataracts). Of all the plants he grew there — a medley of stalwarts like giant radish (daikon) and Chinese cabbage (hakusai) and chrysanthemums — his favourite, and obviously his pride and joy too, was the asparagus. And he lavished it with attention and generous feeding with well-composted leaf mould and compost all mounded up into a soft and fluffy brown futon. And the asparagus in turn repaid his solicitous care with the fattest and most succulent spears.

The year we lived there he was gifted with another patch nearby – a larger one – that had belonged to the old woman whose field abutted his. She could no longer give it the attention it needed, she’d said, and so passed it on to him where she knew it would be in the best of hands. And with so much to spare, Okuyama-san had a bundle for me every few days, enclosed in a large leaf of giant fuki to keep them moist, left at my doorstep to greet me first thing in the morning.

When we had a group of science fiction translator friends come to stay with us one weekend in spring, a feast of Okuyama-san’s asparagus awaited them. Aspara tempura nante, shinjirarenai! (‘Asparagus tempura! Unbelievable!’) was their delighted response. There was so much asparagus, I’d made some into salad as well, with a dressing of miso (made by our neighbours across the road), walnuts, and mirin – from a local recipe (kurumi miso-ae) shared by another neighbour.

With the next batch that I hope to glean from my wild asparagus patch, I know exactly what I’m going to make with them. And if I find some sake (I may need to go to Valencia for this), it will be a fitting meal with which to remember Okuyama-san and our days in Yuzawa, Akita — in the heart of Japan’s snow country —  by.

As I write this, fog has come in from the sea and completely covered the mountain ahead, which was, just minutes ago, nice and clear.

I leave you with a photo of lovely wild orchids growing in a nearby olive grove. March came in like a lamb, behaved like a lion some days ago, and although it’s not roaring at the moment, it’s still far from its mild manner at the start. I’m not complaining — the plants that I’ve sown need the additional coolth to mature. Happy spring everyone!

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Foraged lunch

While walking around the back garden looking for spring wildflower surprises at midday, I spied several spindly stalks swaying in the light breeze. As I got closer, they turned out to be wild asparagus (Asparagus acutifolius; in Valenciano, esparreguera)! It took me back to the late 70s, to the first book that inspired me into foraging and gathering and eating wild foods – Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus.

Well, the beauty of it is that there was no need to stalk these at all. They were just there underneath the pines, the ground having been cleared of the thicket of viciously spined smilax vines that had made that side of the garden a forbidding jungle about a year ago when we moved in. (Though ruthlessly slashed a month back to clear the ground, the reddish new smilax shoots are beginning to push through. Known here as zarzaparilla, they are apparently edible. Hmm… do I dare try them as well? We shall see.)

I was enthralled, walking from clump to clump of waving asparagus, breaking off only the tender top tips, and in no time at all I had a good handful. Just the ticket for lunch – freshly picked wild asparagus! They were brilliant with pasta and some home-made pesto (also from ‘foraged’ basil – actually plants that were past their prime in a nursery that had closed down last autumn) made with artisanal green olive oil from Catalonia. A generous amount of chopped garlic was stirred in at the last minute. And to my surprise, the asparagus tasted much sweeter than store-bought ones. Bliss! Casa Wild asparagus pasta_5605

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Time for marmalade

It’s that time of year when oranges and lemons and other citrus fruits are in season — so plentiful and at their best, that it is inevitable that my thoughts should turn to marmalade. I adore the flavour of marmalade — that combination of tartness and sweetness with a sharp undertone of bitterness. And as well, for its perfume and colour that evoke a brilliant summer’s day. It’s stormy and foggy outside with intermittent claps of thunder and flashes of lightning, and the hail that fell thickly this morning still blankets the garden. But with a couple of spoonfuls of my freshly made marmalade over good brown bread, well-buttered, to snack on while I think and write, I have my own little corner of summer in midwinter.

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This is actually the first time I’m making orange marmalade. It is interesting that this is regarded as the most quintessentially English of conserves, despite the fact that oranges are not native to England. Curiously, in contemporary English, the word ‘marmalade’ refers exclusively to conserves made with citrus fruits. All other fruits preserved with sugar (or other sweetener) and intended for spreading on bread are referred to as jam (those which contain fruit solids) or jelly (those which only contain the juice). The Spanish language does not make the same distinction: jam and marmalade are both referred to as mermelada (melmelada in Catalan/Valenciano); jalea is jelly.

The word ‘marmalade’ has its origin in ancient Greece, but it did not then refer to citrus preserves, but rather to quinces boiled in honey (melimēlon, ‘honey fruit’). The word made its way to Portugal (carried by the Romans), where the quince is called marmelo, and its preserve, marmelada. (Btw, the quince was brought to Japan in the 17th century by Portuguese Catholic priests, and thus in Japanese, marumero マルメロ refers to quinces.) Initially the word ‘marmalade’ (marmaladoo/marmalado) in 16th century England referred to a solid quince preserve, akin in consistency to the Spanish membrillo or French cotignac. By the 17th century however the word was used in a recipe for a preserve made with oranges (‘marmelet’ of oranges). By adding more liquid, the Scots created a spreadable preserve, thus popularizing it, and by the 1800s orange marmalade had become a fixture of the English breakfast table. Nowadays while orange marmalade is what we first think of when we hear the word ‘marmalade,’ other citrus fruits such as lemon, grapefruit, tangerine, ortanique, clementine, mandarin, and even yuzu, can certainly be made into marmalade.

To make my own marmalade, I consulted a number of recipes. The first is Roy Andries de Groot’s in his book, Feasts for All Seasons. It was while perusing the book (a faithful companion from my university days) recently that the idea came to me to embark on marmalade making. Particularly apropos as I’m in just the perfect place here in Valencia to have access to reasonably priced or, better yet, free (that is, scrumped or given by friends) citrus fruits.

I also looked in Mary Slater’s Cooking the Caribbean Way, and a compilation of British country recipes in Farmhouse Fare. Of course I could not ignore Delia Smith’s marmalade. I remember watching her preparation of fool-proof marmalade on television when I still lived in England. And finally there’s Felicity Cloake’s quest to find the perfect marmalade .

What additionally prompted my marmalade experiment were several oranges that M had scrumped from an abandoned grove. To his dismay, the oranges turned out to be exceedingly bitter. Actually the preferred ingredient for English marmalade is bitter Seville oranges for their higher pectin content. And so, I set to, fusing Andries de Groot’s, Delia Smith’s, and Mary Slater’s recipes. I had a little over a kilo of fruit — consisting of bitter oranges, one sweet orange, and one large lemon.

Day 1. The fruits were washed, any discolorations removed, sliced into quarters, and pips set aside. The quarters were then sliced crosswise (I found this was easier to manage than lengthwise), some quite thinly, others a little thicker as I wanted a varied texture. The pips were wrapped in a piece of muslin and tied with string into a bag, and together with the slices, left for 24 hours in a ceramic bowl with water to cover.

Day 2. Fruit and soaking water were transferred to a stainless steel pan (aluminium or bare metal react badly with citrus, causing discoloration) to simmer, the muslin bag with pips tied securely to the pan handle, and 500 grams of sugar added. Once the sugar had dissolved, I raised the temperature to let the mixture come to a rolling boil. I turned the heat off at once, and let the mixture rest for 24 hours.

Marmalade boiling cropt.jpg

Day 3. I tasted the mixture for sweetness. At half the weight of fruit (500 grams sugar to 1 kilo of fruit) it was just right for me. Other recipes recommend an equal weight of sugar to that of the peel and pulp, and this is the time to add more sugar. This greater amount of sugar will preserve the marmalade longer. With the lower sugar content of my preserves, I usually keep them refrigerated, or else top them up with any alcohol I have on hand (vodka, brandy).

I removed the muslin bag with the pips, then simmered the mixture until it reached gelling stage. It took just over an hour. By this time too, the pieces of peel were just the perfect consistency for me. The thin ones were meltingly tender and the thicker ones were tender but still chewy.

There are two ways to know when gel point is reached. One is by dropping a teaspoonful of the marmalade mixture onto a chilled saucer (place saucer in the freezer for 10 minutes). If the mixture wrinkles when a finger is drawn on its surface, it is done. The other is by taking a spoonful of the mixture and letting it fall back into the pan. If the mixture falls into a sheet, that is, if two or three drops coalesce into one as they fall, then it is done. I tried both, just to be on the safe side.

While waiting for the mixture to reach gelling stage, I prepared the jars — washed them in hot, soapy water, put the jars and lids to simmer in water to cover for over 20 minutes. I kept them immersed in the hot, simmering water until I was ready to fill them.

Using tongs, I then took the hot jars and as a further sterilizer swooshed two tablespoons of vodka in them with the lids on. (I returned the vodka atop the hot marmalade.) The jars were filled, sealed, and then upended to cool.

My verdict? As a first attempt, I give my homemade marmalade 8 points out of 10 for its varied consistency and just right tart-sweet-bitter flavour. Next time however my aim is to get a jewel-like transparency. If you have any tips for achieving a transparent finish, I’d love to hear from you.

.marmalade-cropped

Kaiseki a la Valenciana, Part 2

Someone, I forget who, once said that cuisine is a way of eating the environment. Our meal at Ricard Camarena’s Restaurant certainly brought to our table the seas, mountains, and surrounding fields. Combining the best products of the seas and the mountains (mar y muntanya) is not only a Valencian/Catalan gastronomic ideal, but also a Japanese one — umi no sachi, yama no sachi (the joys of the sea, the joys of the mountain). Needless to say these are all at their best in season. The Japanese term ‘shun’ (season) takes the concept further, because in kaiseki, it is usually the earliest products of the season that make their appearance.  Often, just when summer is at an end, autumn is foreshadowed by the earliest of chestnuts for a late August kaiseki.

What are the gastronomic delights of a Valencian autumnal feast? From the seas — the sweetest mantis shrimp, octopus, squid, oysters; from the mountains — aromatic fresh truffles and wild mushrooms, freshly gathered almonds and walnuts; from the fields — the tiniest, tenderest of artichokes, just ripened olives, root vegetables and Brassicas (cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts) gathering sweetness with the cooler temperatures; and fruits that straddle summer and autumn such as avocado, mango, lemon. Included as well were exotic elements from afar: from Morocco, fiery harissa (chilli-lemon condiment); from Southeast Asia, galangal (a ginger relative); and from Japan, shichimi tougarashi (7-spice chilli blend).

Here are a few from our twelve preludio (appetizers) — every single one a gem.

camarena-beet-radish-cauli-crop

Roast cauliflower with black olive-harissa topping; radish, beet with mantis shrimp and dill topping

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A closer view of the beet, radish, and mantis shrimp appetizer.

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Courgettes with steak tartare filling; turnip with salmon caviar

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New potato with roast chicken and almond filling; roast Brussels sprouts with sheep’s cheese and onion; onion with anchovy and black garlic.

Today marks the 300th post in my grace journal. It was supposed to rain today — a blessing for this region that has suffered from drought for several years — but instead we got very dense fog. So dense that outside the house, all was white. Still, it is something to be grateful for, as leaves can absorb this form of precipitation. Tomorrow rain is predicted at 100% probability. Fingers crossed. What else to be thankful for? Lady Brown and Hunter are now accustomed to sleeping in their beds in the sitting room — just in time, too. It was getting too cold for them to sleep out in the open veranda. As always, it is Hunter, who was so wary of us in the beginning, who braved entering the house, with Lady B taking a good two days to be persuaded. We’ve been slowly introducing both to the idea of riding in the car. And again Hunter took to it after being rewarded with tasty treats. Lady Brown still isn’t convinced. She entered once, two days ago, but today she wouldn’t. We’re hoping she’ll get used to the idea soon.

Kaiseki a la Valenciana

What if you were to take the Japanese concept of kaiseki — that is, the full panoply of its gustatory and aesthetic sensibilities –- and transplant it to Valencia, Spain? I don’t mean simply taking Valencian ingredients and using them to produce derivatives of sushi and sashimi that have become globally representative of Japanese cuisine. That would not be too difficult to achieve, because Spain’s eastern coast is blessed with such a wealth of fish and other seafood with which to create these. In fact, the Balfego Group based in Ametlla de Mar in Catalonia, just a few hours north of Valencia, exports its offshore-raised tuna to Japan. What I mean is devoting the same meticulous attention to the minutest detail that is the hallmark of that epicurean Japanese dining tradition known as kaiseki (懐石、also 会席).

And that is precisely what our exquisite meal the other day at the Michelin-starred Ricard Camarena Restaurant in Valencia city called to mind. Although not exactly a Japanese meal, it embodied the very spirit of kaiseki. We chose the 7-course (for M) and 5-course (for me) tasting menu that came with an array of diverse appetizers (Preludio). Every single dish was a gem — melding colour, flavour, texture, and adornment with a surprise twist in the subtle use of a spice or herb that normally would not be associated with such a dish. And what’s more, they were prepared from local ingredients in season. Befitting frames for such jewels were diverse hand-made vessels by a Valencian female ceramicist, Mónica of Per Amor a L’Art. I wanted to find out more about her work, but her website is still under construction.

The interior of the restaurant itself was true to the Japanese aesthetic of shibui — simple, serene, unostentatiously elegant. The kitchen was open, and there was none of the noisy flurry of hectic activity usually associated with restaurant kitchens. It was surprisingly quiet, the staff conversing in low, modulated tones. It was almost like the calm performance of tea masters at a tea cerony. It helped that we were the first guests and had the place to ourselves for a good while.

But over and beyond these, what marked this as a truly satisfying experience was the kind and solicitous attention of the staff — from immediately taking charge, as soon as we entered, of M’s heavy backpack (we’d been stocking up on Japanese food items in Valencia’s Chinatown) and my scarf, to producing a stool expressly for my handbag. The demeanour and behaviour of the staff are elements I always make a note of wherever in the world Japanese restaurants have been established by non-Japanese. The restaurants can, to a certain degree, approximate the taste and look of iconic Japanese dishes such as tempura and sushi and sashimi. But what they cannot quite so readily pull off is that uniquely Japanese way of warm welcome and devoted attention called motenashi, all accomplished without any hint of condescension or effusiveness throughout a meal.  Although Ricard Camarena’s Restaurant is not a Japanese restaurant, what was astounding was the way the staff achieved a similar manner of welcome — motenashi Valencian style.

I shall highlight just a few outstanding aspects of that repast, and cover others in a later post, beginning contrary-wise, with the sweet offerings. The shichimi togarashi (Japanese 7-spice chilli powder) sprinkled on fresh mango slices in the dessert surprised me. I had erroneously detected galangal, and asked the waiter (whose name I later learned was Carlos), who then put me right. I’ve had chilli with mangoes before: in Chiapas, Mexico, ground dried chillies and salt are sprinkled over ripe fresh fruits, including mangoes. So why did I taste galangal? Could this have something to do with terpenes from the mango?

Looking up mango terpenes, I came across an interesting bit of trivia. Apparently eating a mango beforehand heightens a cannabis high (read more here). How? Because both contain high levels of a specific terpene called myrcene. Incidentally myrcene is also found in lemon grass (and basil, ylang ylang, and hops among others; see the list here). That would somehow explain the galangal, whose flavour is not too far removed from that of lemon grass.

Mango with sweet curry sauce, shichimi togarashi, and herbs

Another eye-opener was rosemary pollen, which I’d never known of nor read of being used for flavouring. Rosemary leaves yes, but pollen? Or perhaps they were actually seeds? A brief online search didn’t uncover any reference to the pollen’s or the seed’s culinary use. A sprinkling of the brown granules topped the fine-as-snow lemon crumble dessert. Their faint hint of rosemary complemented the lemon and honey very well.

Iced lemon crumble with honey and rosemary pollen

Iced lemon crumble with honey and rosemary pollen

With my coffee came a selection of petits fours all whimsically fashioned from seasonal fruits and nuts — figs, melon, peach, pistachio. I was glad there were no baked pastries among them. Not that I have any objection to pastries, but they would have been too rich and somehow out of keeping with the preceding dishes that focused on freshly prepared ingredients. Notwithstanding the number of dishes we’d enjoyed, we came away feeling not at all over satiated, perhaps because the majority were based on local vegetables and seafood — only two on beef and wild duck.

Petit fours of pistachio, melon, fig, and peach

Petits fours of pistachio, melon, fig, and peach

This first experience of dining at Camarena’s restaurant was aesthetically satisfying on a number of levels. As someone who adores hand-thrown pottery, I was impressed with the table ware. I especially found it pleasing that, as in the Japanese way of dining, there is not just one uniform set of dinnerware employed, but a diverse array of receptacles of various shapes and colours and textures. I don’t know whether Ricard Camarena specially commissioned the ceramics to his specifications, but whoever coordinated the vessels to the food reminded me of the unerring eye of one of my food heroes, Rosanjin (1883-1959), a Japanese chef-aesthete who created table ware with forms and glazes intentionally designed to complement the food they would eventually hold. If Rosanjin were alive today, I imagine he might be pleased that the spirit of kaiseki can be found in even so far removed a place from Japan as Valencia. In Camarena’s restaurant he would find himself among kindred spirits whose discriminating taste encompasses all aspects of a dining experience — from exquisitely prepared and presented seasonal food, surprising seasonings, handcrafted ceramics, and a quietly elegant space — to the elusive art of welcoming a guest extraordinarily well.

Ricard Camarena Restaurant, Carrer Dr. Sumsi 4, Valencia 46005. Tel. 96 335 54 18reservas@ricardcamarena.com

On becoming a dog parent

How quickly a new pet, like a new baby, changes one’s daily routine! We’ve just had Lady Brown and Hunter for a week, and already they’ve become so much a focus and highlight of our days. Mornings begin with M giving them breakfast. (He’s also been busy concocting dog treats — from chicken liver mostly, see recipe below.) After the dogs have eaten their fill, we go off for an hour’s walk. That’s about as much as Lady Brown can manage without panting too much. Once back home and they’re settled, we then sit down to our breakfast.

This week has definitely taught us a great deal about canine communication. It’s actually the first time we’ve had two dogs, and a couple at that. And an excellent opportunity to observe how two dogs, intimate with each other, communicate. The first two days, Lady Brown refused to go up the steps to the veranda, even though Hunter was brave enough to do so on his first evening here. She sat within sight of us out in the garden, calmly looking on as we sat on the veranda with Hunter at our feet. We were hoping he would settle down for the night onto one of the beds newly bought for them, and by doing so, convince her as well. But as we retired for the night I saw her walking ahead of Hunter in the direction of her nest in the far corner of the garden where she’d spent the first two nights. How did she manage to communicate all that? In the end of course, nature proved the greater persuader. In the middle of the night, rain must have begun to fall, and we awoke to the two of them sleeping on the veranda, each curled up in their own bed. From then on, Lady Brown no longer had any qualms about being or sleeping on the veranda.

She naps in various places — on her bed, partly on the veranda sofas, or out in the garden. Her favourite spot is just in front of the crocuses, among the daisies and crocuses. How does she know to avoid lying on the crocuses? In contrast Hunter did not feel safe enough to nap out in the open, until over a week had passed. While Lady Brown almost immediately found herself spots to nap in the sun or shade, he would only sit, on the alert, close by. For a brief while he disappeared on his first day. But Lady Brown let out a high-pitched almost unvoiced whine, and immediately he came out from behind the low-growing palm near the hedge. That was such an excellent hideaway he’d found — there was no way for anyone to tell there could be anything behind there. And it occurred to me that that was how he’d managed to survive for perhaps a year, maybe more, since being abandoned (brilliant survival strategy). She walked towards him from the veranda to meet him by the crocuses and lay herself down on her favourite spot. And when he approached, he solicitously sniffed her face several times, and then lay down close to her. And they stayed there companionably for quite a while — she napping, he being the lookout.

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Lady Brown and Hunter amidst crocuses and daisies

Later I saw them running leisurely side by side alongside the hedge. She had not even walked along the hedge when she’d been on her own. Were they looking for a hideout? Was he looking for somewhere to spend the night? Perhaps somewhere she could have her pups if, as we suspect, she may be expecting them? It is truly a wonder how messages get across from one to the other.

It occurred to us that Hunter may have been abandoned because of his extreme sensitivity to sudden loud noises, particularly gunfire. The hunting season is currently in full swing and will last until the first week of December. Fridays to Sundays, and holidays too, hunting is permitted in the mountains surrounding us. When we took the dogs out for a walk on Monday morning, we almost ran into the path of two hunters with their shotguns carried across their arms. In the low brush of the maquis around us — what quarry could there be other than small birds and rabbits? We decided it was wiser to cut short our walk and head back.

Hunter went into such a panic the first time he heard a gunshot — shivering and trembling, heart beating wildly. And this is repeated each time there is gunfire, which starts sporadically from daybreak until midmorning, then goes on again at late afternoon until nightfall. We alternately sit with him until he calms down. And then of course it all starts again with the next gunshot. At such times, Lady Brown, who is not bothered by the noise and can sleep through all the racket, will come and lick his face to reassure him as well.

The other day, a lady stopped by who obviously knew the dogs. For a moment I thought oh no, she’s come to take one or both dogs back. When we used to feed Lady Brown, I noted there was a pan of water on the veranda of the empty house where she used to hang out, and wondered whether she might belong to someone. But our neighbours had all told us Lady Brown didn’t have a home. The lady said she already had 4 rescue dogs, and she couldn’t take in another as she had other animals and chickens as well. The least she could do, she’d thought, was to feed Lady and make sure she had water. And when Lady wasn’t there for a whole week, she’d begun to worry until someone told her the dogs were seen in our yard. And so the lady came to see for herself and she thanked us profusely for giving the two dogs a good home. We’d made her day, were her exact words. She’d made our day as well 🙂

Chicken Liver Treats (adapted from the Ultimate Dog Treat Cookbook)

These have become M’s specialty (he’s made them twice now) and Lady Brown’s and Hunter’s favourites. We use them as rewards when training them not to pull when we walk them and to come when called. Chicken livers are sold together with hearts at Mercadona in small packs.

400 g fully cooked chicken livers (or a mix of livers and hearts), finely chopped

1 cup wholemeal flour or cornmeal

1 cup oatmeal

2 eggs

¼ cup vegetable oil

¼ cup bone stock or water

Procedure

Preheat oven to 180°C. Grease and flour a cookie sheet.

Mix together all the ingredients to a stiff dough.

Pat the dough to a ¼ inch-thick layer on the cookie sheet.

Bake for 10 – 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Turn off the oven.

Remove cooking sheet from oven and cut into small squares or rectangles.

Loosen slices from the tray.

Return the sheet to the oven for the treats to cook further in the remaining heat.

Store treats in a closed container in the fridge.

An apple cake to celebrate autumn and the return of life to the garden

With the first serious rains — actually three days of thunderstorms as of today — and more rain expected over the next few days, the garden is looking very refreshed. These rain episodes are most unusual — the sky darkens ominously, then come torrents of rain driven by strong gusty winds, so that we have to hurriedly close all the windows. After twenty minutes or so, the rain stops as suddenly as it began, the sky clears up to an unclouded blue, and brilliant sunshine picks out the raindrops on the sodden leaves like sparkling crystals. I wonder if this pattern is because of our location in a mountain valley close to the sea? I’ve never seen weather like this, but I rather like this alternating rain and sun throughout the day.

Life is returning to the garden after months of drought, and it is perhaps unsurprising that in the Judaic tradition, this time of year in the Mediterranean — with the onset of rains and cooler weather, and the springing up of new greens from the parched earth — is an appropriate time to celebrate a new year. Traditional foods for the Jewish New Year — Rosh Hashana (literally ‘Head of the Year’) — are apples and honey. Of all the pastries made with fruit, those with apples entice me the most, and I’ve been collecting apple pastry recipes from all over the world for some time now. Besides, apples are at their most plentiful and their best in autumn. And what better to accompany a warming drink on a cool autumn afternoon than a freshly baked cake with luscious slices of tender, juicy apples? One of the traditional foods prepared by the Sephardi community (Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, together with the Moors) is this apple cake that was posted in the blog Sephardic Food.

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I tried it yesterday, and it turned out beautifully. I made a few changes and substitutions, as I often do, especially if I don’t have all of the ingredients. I used four Granny Smith apples, as the recipe called for crisp ones, and none of the other apple varieties in the supermarket were as crisp. I also added two red Braeburn apples that were rattling around in my fridge. Fine slices were called for, so I tried the finest I could manage, but the last pieces turned out a bit thicker (I was being careful not to get my fingers sliced by the very sharp knife that I used.) That was all right, because I like having varied textures in the finished fruit layer.

Not having Cointreau or any other orange liqueur at hand, nor an orange either, I used grapefruit, which I had. I grated the zest and sprinkled it with Cretan raki (another thing sitting around feeling unloved in the pantry) over the baked apples. I could have used vodka instead, but I only found it much later. I was surprised by the liveliness imparted by the red grapefruit zest, and I shall be making this cake with it from now on. Had I thought of it beforehand, I could have steeped the zest overnight in the raki or vodka. This is the same trick I use to make my own vanilla essence, btw. Take two vanilla beans, slice them into pieces, put them in a small bottle, and cover the lot with vodka. In a few weeks, the vanilla flavour will have infused the vodka thoroughly. And this home-made vanilla essence is so much nicer than say, Dr. Oetker’s Bourbon Vanilla, and far cheaper in the long run as well, if you bake a lot. I keep replenishing the vodka until the flavour becomes rather thin, and then it’s time to add more vanilla beans. It lasts indefinitely because of the vodka.

Back to our French apple cake. Another change I made is to bake the apples for much longer than the 20 – 30 minutes at 200°C  (375°F) that the recipe specified. At 30 minutes, the Granny Smith slices were still crisp, so I removed the foil and let them bake for 15 minutes more. By then they were meltingly soft, as I prefer, and given off lots of juice. Lastly, although I usually reduce the sugar called for in pastry recipes, this time, after tasting the apples, I felt their sweetness needed boosting. Granny Smiths tend to be rather sour. So I added another tablespoon of sugar. I used pale brown Demerara sugar, btw, instead of white. This cake was delicious, even without the recommended whipped cream or ice cream. It’s more of what the British call pudding, rather than a classic cake. In some ways this reminds me of clafoutis, another simple French fruit concoction made with fresh cherries.

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The original recipe is here. My adapted recipe follows.

Grapefruit-scented French Apple Cake

Preheat oven to 200°C. Butter well a 25cm ceramic pie dish.

Apple Layer

4 Granny Smith apples and 2 Braeburn or other aromatic red apple (about 1 kilo total)

1/4 cup Demerara (pale brown) sugar or white sugar (or more, depending on acidity of apples)

2 tablespoons butter

grated zest of a red grapefruit, steeped in 2 – 3 tablespoons vodka or raki

Peel, core, and finely slice apples. Place slices in a bowl, add sugar, and toss to coat them evenly. Place in the pie dish, dot with butter, and cover with foil. Bake with top and bottom heat for 30 – 45 minutes, or until very tender and oozing with juice. Check the apples after 30 minutes, and adjust timing to how tender (or crisp) you wish the apples to be. Remove apples from the oven. Taste the apples and adjust sugar to your taste.

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Meanwhile, reduce oven heat to 180°C, and prepare the batter. The original recipe says to prepare it while the apples are baking. However, I found that this led to the batter not rising at all: the effect of the baking powder had gone from standing too long. So I suggest to prepare the batter only when the apples are done.

Batter

1/3 cup flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

pinch of salt

1 large egg

1 teaspoon vanilla essence

1/2 cup Demerara (pale brown) sugar or white sugar

2 tablespoons melted butter (I melted this in an oven-proof bowl in the oven.)

In a bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, and salt. In another, larger bowl, beat the egg with the vanilla until frothy. Add the sugar and the melted butter, then stir in the flour mixture and mix well until the batter is smooth. This step can also be done in a mixer or food processor.

Assembly

Sprinkle the grapefruit zest and vodka over the baked apples. Pour the batter over and spread evenly to cover the apples. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the batter is golden.

Serve lukewarm, with or without whipped cream or ice cream.

Buen provecho!

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A gastronomic find

Oliva, a city by the sea a few kilometers away from Villalonga, held its 9th gastronomic festival and demonstrations (Jornadas Gastronomicas y Mostra Gastronomica) this past weekend. We’d missed the one in our nearest city, Gandia (historically Oliva’s rival), as our household stuff had just arrived then and we’d been much too preoccupied with unpacking. The purpose of these local food fests is to highlight local traditional foods, and this year the focus was on stuffed peppers (pebrera farcida). A number of Oliva’s restaurants had prepared special menus for the festival.

One participating restaurant was offering a deconstructed stuffed pepper dish. It’s fine, I suppose, to be innovative about a dish that one has eaten all one’s life, but I was more interested in how the traditional dish would look and taste like. At any rate, much like I feel about philosophical and linguistic deconstructionism, I don’t think I would particularly care for their culinary counterpart.

Scanning the menus of the other participants, I opted instead for the seafood menu of Restaurante La Goleta. It turned out to be the right choice. And we shall certainly be going back for more of Juan Ramon’s wonderful cuisine and his wife Marta’s warm and attentive welcome. Its superb location is another attraction — steps away from Oliva’s Pau Pi Beach (Platja Pau Pi) with its long stretch of golden sand and a picturesque view of the majestic Montgo Massif.

We began with three entradas: carpaccio of prawns in a subtle parsley-garlic oil marinade (it was a sashimi actually –  looking remarkably like finely sliced fugu, pufferfish), a rucula-mixed baby veggie salad with fresh tuna belly, and tempura of coast squid. These went brilliantly with a refreshing Albariño from Galicia’s Rias Baixas region.

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My tongue had the distinct impression that La Goleta’s gastronomic menu was so designed that the flavours intensified with each succeeding dish. Textures and methods of preparation were thoughtfully contrasted and complemented. The initial prawn carpaccio was the most delicate, the prawns’ intrinsic sweetness left to shine on their own, without any intrusively strong scent or flavour that would have masked their delicacy. It could have done with a bit of wasabi (Japanese horse radish), but that is just our idiosyncratic preference for a bit of a kick to our sashimi. This was followed by the varied silky and crisp vegetables married with a sour-sweet dressing and the succulence of fine slices of sauteed fresh tuna belly. The one concession to the festival’s theme was the grilled sweet red peppers incorporated into the salad. Next, the light and crunchy brittle tempura coating highlighted and contrasted with the squid’s flavoursome chewiness, and appropriately capped the trio of appetite whetters, leaving us primed and anticipating the meal’s star feature.

Our main dish was a suquet (stew) of mixed fish and shellfish — hake, monkfish, red prawn, and plump mussels. The fish steaks had been seasoned, battered, and fried before being braised in the richly seasoned saffron sauce. It was as a superb fish stew ought to be.

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To round up such a wonderful medley of flavours, our dessert of caramelized oranges in orange cream was the perfect finale.

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A walk to and rest at the beach was definitely in order after such a sumptuous feast. A hearty thanks to Juan Ramon and Marta at La Goleta. Incidentally, Juan Ramon began his cooking career at his parents’ restaurant called Mistral, further inland up in the mountains. We shall be returning to sample more of La Goleta’s fare for sure, and Mistral’s too.

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The risky business of dining on dangerous foods

There are some foods from the sea that some are willing to risk their lives for -– such is the case of fugu, or blowfish. I’ve never eaten it, though I could have, once upon a time, when I’d been invited in Tokyo for a farewell dinner. My boyfriend at the time, now my husband, was horrified at the thought, and so we settled for a French dinner instead. The dinner, though at a well-known restaurant, was meh. (Since then, btw, that missed fugu dinner has become part of our family’s dining lore.)

In Catalunya, and Galicia as well, there is a popular seafood that one risks, not exactly one’s life, but one’s lips and tongue to eat. And that is the mantis shrimp (galera). It’s not as popularly eaten in other parts of Spain apparently. I saw them for the first time yesterday at the Mercadona in Villalonga, and I could not resist buying some.

My first introduction to this unusual crustacean was in Ametlla de Mar in Southern Catalunya, where it was exquisitely prepared at Restaurant Mestral. The occasion was a gastronomic festival to honour this local delicacy, and the Mestral’s suquet de galeras (mantis shrimp stew) was truly outstanding. Something close to it was what I was aiming at. I didn’t have the Mestral’s recipe, but I guessed there should be onions, garlic, tomatoes, saffron, and white wine, with ground almonds for thickening. The result of my experiment was not quite in Mestral’s league, but it was pretty good, if I may say so myself.

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However, there has to be another way to eat this delightful seafood without lacerating one’s tongue and lower lips. The way they do it in Ametlla de Mar is to hold the shrimp upright with the fingers of both hands, bring one end to your lips, and as you suck the flavourful sauce that clings to it, use your teeth to scrape the shell and draw out the flesh. It is most definitely not one of those foods you want to eat on a first date, or any kind of date, unless you’ve known each other or been married for ages.

Unfamiliar with local protocol at that time, we used knives and forks at first, rather inefficiently. Then we glanced around at the local diners — couples of a certain age and of a certain social standing, immaculately groomed — all unabashedly using their fingers and sucking at the shells with gusto. Well, if in Rome… and in no time at all we were sucking with the best of them. Although we had been forewarned by the waitress about the vicious spines, it was next to impossible to avoid getting our lips and tongues snagged.

This time around I’ve tried to peel the shells at the table, but while this saves your lips and tongue, this is not as satisfying as sucking at the shell itself, because there’s no accompanying sauce with each mouthful. Youtube shows several ways of eating these unusual shrimps — peeling the shell, trimming the side spines with kitchen shears, and cutting lengthwise through the body. I might trim the side and tail spines next time I prepare mantis shrimp. But I’m not going to be doing that anytime soon. The fine cuts on my lips and tongue are going to need a few days to heal.

Oh, what we risk to prepare and eat something unusual!