October 19, 2007

Harvest time in ye olde Ribera del Duero

Grape harvest arrived to Ribera del Duero last week and I wore my big blue rubber boots just in case.
I had never witnessed the harvest before first hand and I have to say that the whole experience was aided by an absolutely stunning day. We drove up to the town of Aguilera, near Aranda del Duero, early last Friday morning to meet up with my friend Gema's uncle Florien, a venerated grape producer with vineyards that have been in their family for generations. It was the second day of harvest and in general the motto seems to be "we're ready when they are". I can understand it. Like any annual crop, you wait for the meat of it all year long, and like anything else, you also risk the wrath of Mother Nature and the fact that anything can happen at any time to destroy a year's work. This becomes even trickier as the fall harvest time rolls around as the temperature begins to change and there is a greater likelihood of storms or frosts that can mildew or damage the vines. This year seemed particularly tragic in Ribera del Duero, as an icy frost hit just a week before harvest and wreaked havoc on a huge percentage of vines. Driving through the countryside you could see a line across the vineyards like a treeline in the mountains. All of the lower-lying plots of vines were stained bright red, their leaves and fruit irreparably damaged by the freeze, but as the plots moved out of valleys and up hills, the vines were intact.
Florien was lucky this year. Despite the fact that his overall production was down 40% (he blames it mainly on the climate change, global warming), his vines were untouched by frost and gleaming with juicy fruit (that I just couldn't get into my mouth fast enough - hoping it would ferment in my belly, maybe?).
He and his son and daughter were leading a group of workers in the harvest. Harvesting everything by hand (for much much better quality wines), they showed us how to clip the bunches of grapes close to their "stems", to look at the grapes to make sure that they weren't damaged or diseased and to then lay them gently in the 15-20 kilo boxes. Between the four of us, Gema and Carmen took on more directional, supportive and photographic roles, while Carlos and I put our back into it. We were extremely proud of the four boxes that each of us filled (in the time that the seasoned workers had probably filled 5x that amount), and I was delighted to calculate that we had probably just picked enough grapes for approx. 120 bottles of wine. Not too shabby. But oh, my back was aching. Good thing I wore those rubber boots.

October 7, 2007

How to please your spanish In-Laws

While I do consider myself to be a cook, having had people pay to eat my food in a restaurant gives me that right, I am not a chef. I have never trained as a cook and actually my personal cooking manta is “invent, invent, invent”. I am a hack, a proud food-loving hack who can joyfully spend an entire Saturday morning at the market mulling over the fruits and vegetables, eyeing the fishmonger’s wares, and creating and discarding menu after menu as my options change and ingredients are found or forgotten. I am fortunate enough to have a willing audience at home, a pareja that has evolved into quite a foodie and a familia polĂ­tica that will trustingly and enthusiastically eat just about everything I put in front of them. The only problem with this is that it is sometimes hard to feel vindicated for spending an entire day making homemade raviolis, pierogis, or marinating a duck, when they would likely be just as thrilled and complimentary about a ten minute throw-together chicken pot pie. In fact, for the first meal that I prepared for my suegros (parents in-law), I was prepared to go all the way, mentally sculpting delicate rosebuds from radishes and hand-sculpting vichyssoise bowls out of entire blocks of ice. Therefore, I was taken aback when Enrique informed me that one of his father’s very favorite foods in the world was none other than, chili con carne – in all of its Tex-Mex glory. So, while this blog is purportedly dedicated to the pursuit of Spanish wines, restaurants, culture, and grub, I have decided in the spirit of intercultural communication to include (for my Spanish friends) a 20 minute recipe for fool’em chili. I should point out that, is chili better when you cook it all day, add 17 spices, hand cook the beans, use real tomato sauce, and butcher the cow yourself? Probably, except for the part about the cow. But for a delicious (cheap) and exotic meal (in Spain) with under 5 minutes prep time, who cares?

2 cloves garlic
1-1.5 pounds ground beef
1 jar or around 300 grams tomato sauce (I use organic, I find it tastes less industrial)
1-2 Tbs.olive oil
1 onion (I am allergic so in my house we omit them, well, I omit them)
2 cans diced tomatoes
1 jar or around 450 grams cooked kidney beans or red beans or a mixture of the two
2 tbsp. cumin more or less
Cayenne pepper (add a little bit at a time to taste, it gets spicy quickly
any other chili spices, I like Chayote
salt (I sometimes use garlic salt)
1 tsp. oregano
diced zucchini, red pepper, green pepper, celery (all are optional but I like to add a lot of veggies)
cheddar cheese
sour cream
chives (if you want to be really fancy and garnish, again, I am allergic)

Heat olive oil and add the garlic and onions. Sautee until tender and add the ground beef to brown. Season with oregano, salt and pepper. Once the beef is browned, add the diced cubes of vegetables and cook the whole mixture on high for about 5 minutes. Add the cans of diced tomatoes, the tomato sauce, and another can or a bit less of water depending on how thick you like it. Add the rest of the spices and cook until the vegetables are tender, about 10 more minutes. Rinse and drain the beans and add them at the very end. Cook just long enough to heat the beans through and throw in some more spices for good measure. Garnish with cheddar cheese and a dollop of sour cream or plain yoghurt. Was supposed to serve 8, but there were 5 of us and we all had huge second helpings and then groaned that we ate too much. I was also planning on including a photo, but we ate it all before I had a chance.

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