July 3, 2013

Losing My Mojo (or how to produce truly terrible food)

This mandarin orange took one look at me and ran, but not without a kind word first.
I’m not a chef. At most I could call myself a cook, albeit a former professional cook, but a cook nonetheless.

Regardless of my lack of titles, training and presumptions, cooking has always been something that has guided me in my moments of most intense stress, contentment, and euphoria. It has been the joy and consolation that I have turned to throughout the years as a way of easing my pain, celebrating accomplishments, relaxing after a hard day, or conveying my love for my friends and family – old and new.

Cooking for me has always meant solace, tranquility and yes, confidence. It was the medium that I used to connect to my grandmother, and now my parents and brother. I also used it as a tool for seduction (...a promise of homemade Vietnamese spring rolls...), to set the scene for first dates, meetings with friends, holiday celebrations, or even just as a way to acknowledge the joy of being at home with someone I love.

So now, many months after my life was turned upside-down and my existence uprooted, I naturally expected that when the time came for me to regain my strength and confidence, I would return to my love of cooking where I would find the same solace, peace and rebirth that I always have.

Imagine my surprise upon discovering that this is not the case. Yes, it seems that I have lost my mojo. Everything I now cook is a disaster. Even dishes that I have prepared time and time again – without a recipe, without a thought, without even counting on the same ingredients or amounts – have come out of the oven or off the stove in the form of one sloppy or ill-flavored mess after another. 

So I thought, maybe I’m asking too much? Maybe I need to go back to basics, starting with the comfort food that has enduringly accompanied me since childhood? Let’s see how that turned out:

Enchiladas, my father’s recipe that I used to throw together at the drop of a hat: a mealy, destroyed casserole where I forgot the fresh cilantro, lime and tomatoes; bought the wrong cheese and the corn tortillas slowly mocked me one by one as they cracked willy-nilly under the strain of rolling.
Clam chowder: leaden, with a texture that fluctuated between gritty and sandy.
Thai green curry: I bought coconut cream instead of coconut milk; it was sweet like a dessert, tasted terrible and the box of rice in my cupboard turned out to be full of packets of tea (thanks Mom) so I had to eat it with a couple of broken corn tortillas from the enchilada fiasco.
Individual quiches for the first business brunch for my new company: wrong kind of pastry, damp on the bottom, bland on the top, and as sweaty as a debutante wearing wool in July.
Apple pie for the new parents living next door (I made two a day for nearly five years in my restaurant): soggy, flavorless, mealy apples, overcooked topping, and undercooked crust... the list goes on and on.

So, here I am, sobbing over reheating a slice of three-euro pizza from the local take-out place because the Jambalaya that I’ve made a million times has decided to burn and take vengeance on me, when I wonder what it means for a chef, or anyone else for that matter, to loose his or her mojo. And more importantly, how do you get it back, and how the hell do I explain this anomaly to the friends and family that are arriving any minute for what they expect to be at least a semi-decent meal?

I mentioned this issue to my friend K. on her recent visit from the States. She owned a fantastic restaurant in Madrid for several years and is truly one of the most talented chefs I know. Now the proud owner of a recently opened, locally sourced butcher shop / restaurant in the USA, I was surprised when she confessed that, in the past, her own personal upheaval also resulted in her  “losing her mojo”. To be honest, I didn’t expect this from such a consummate chef, but I feel immeasurably relieved to know that I’m not the only person that this has happened to.

So what? Are we sensitive Midwesterners? Is mojo our own invention and therefore our own loss? Is it vain to think that there is some special magical charm attached to my hand and flowing into my spatula (I don’t really believe that anyway)? Did I somehow get overconfident, or tip the Karmic scale that I have been trying so hard to keep tilted in my favor? And if my cooking mojo is gone, what on earth can I do to get it back? And perhaps most importantly, how am I ever going to seduce Alexander Skarsgård without it?

May 31, 2013

The Belly of the Bluefin

Oh man.

It's been awhile since I've been to so many events in one day, but I confess, it was a lot of fun.

The most amazing one of all, however, was the event that was least expected, that I wasn't actually invited to, and that finished off the day with a bang.

It was the breaking down of an entire 200+ kilo bluefin tuna sponsored by Madrid's Baby Beef Rubaiyat Restaurant and Grupo Balfegó. Unreal.

The entire process took well over an hour (or 2) and seemed to be as dependent on strength and experience as it was on intuition and pure skill. It was both fascinating and shocking in terms of the amount of meat produced by that one single tuna.

On a weird note, seeing that beautiful beast of a 15 year old tuna laid out like a sacrificial lamb on the table reminded me painfully of that scene in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (the book) where Aslan gives is life to save Edmund and is strapped to the table and killed by the witch. That scene horrified me as a child and horrifies me still.

And then I ate a ton of sashimi.

Apparently the meat and fat around the eyeball is exquisite.

May 27, 2013

Crapula and other stories based on real events

So, it's been awhile. Lots of changes in my life, but loads of fun new projects as well.

Rather than go into a lot of explanations and excuses I thought I would do a brief update to catch you up on what's been going on over here in the world of serious Spanish cuisine since I last wrote in February.

To add a little cohesion to the whole mess, I will institute a scale from 1-10, 1 being tragic and 10 being euphoric.


Calçot season came and went, as did a plate full of these seasonal delicacies lovingly grilled by my friend Jorge when I dumped the whole thing on the floor accidentally in a pile of broken ceramic (a 1 turned into a 6 when I was able to peel off the skins with the broken glass on them).

The Calçots, pre-tragedy

I started a new company called Gustology (shameless self-promotion) and discovered that I am very talented at writing on food with a marker - not as talented as others (you know who you are) - but pretty darn good at it. I now carry a sharpie with me in my purse at all times because it's addictive.
Challenges still out there? To write on a nice steak, that was a tough one. 3
Biggest reward? Getting the eyeliner to work on the cheese and swabbing the dorada down in alcohol to make the ink stick. 10
Biggest stink? Moving the raw fish mid-photo shoot, several hours post refrigeration. 2 (but I love the photo)

Photo by the awesome Alvaro Minguito (alvarominguito.net)

Learning how to write on our own food was a challenge for myself and my fellow Gustologists, but convincing others to let us write on THEIR food at Madrid's Salon de Gourmets was a real joy. 8

This young man was particularly forthcoming with his cucumber, unfortunately somewhat hard to read.

The best by far was when we got to take a sharpie to this incredible wheel of Basque cheese from LurLan. 10

Also in April, I started writing the new blog for Foods from Spain - which I am admittedly doing more regularly than my own.


Bar Amor debuted a new menu, which definitely made my life easier considering that I have been eating there between 2-3 times a week recently. 8

A lovely fresh foie with asparagus and bresaola.

I invented a new security system for my home. Patent pending. 6

And maybe one of the most special things that I discovered over the past few months was this wine, Crápula (Based on a True Story) from D.O. Jumilla.
Incidentally, the 2009 crianza version of this wine was named one of the Best in Spain by the 2012 Nariz de Oro competition. And this is also one of my favorite grapes.....

Even so, you've gotta love it.

Happy Spring!

February 11, 2013

Migas by Adolfo, King of Toledo

Adolfo and some of his kitchen crew
Last week I had the honor of visiting Adolfo Muñoz at his Adolfo Restaurante in Toledo.

(First of all, I would like to remind everyone, including myself that Toledo is right around the corner from Madrid. It takes only thirty minutes to get there, which is frankly, almost too fast, as I do so enjoy a good journey by train.) 

Snugly situated in the middle of the city, just barely around the corner from the cathedral, this iconic restaurant has long been an institution in this city, which in turn has lead to more recent offshoots like the modern tapas bar Adolfo Colección, the elegant Viñedos Cigarral Santa María banquet hall and winery that is perched over the city with breathtaking views, and the new restaurant on the top floor of Madrid's restored Palacio de Cibeles (old Post Office), which is run by Adolfo's son Javier.
 But it is at Adolfo Restaurante where you are most likely to find this gregarious chef stuck into the busy goings-on in the massive, open kitchen, and it is in this building that you can truly feel the essence of this historic city and the treasures that it hides.

I first visited this restaurant many year's ago with an Irish friend's delightful grandfather. I remember it as being very classic, both in style and in cuisine, with a lot of old world charm. After a hefty renovation in recent years, the place has a new look that includes the open-kitchen, a rooftop terrace with stunning views of the city, nine hotel rooms, and a menu that features a more seasonal take on traditional cuisine and regional flavors. Though somewhat sleeker than I remembered, the place still has old world charm, particularly thanks to the fact that it occupies a 14th century noble house and has the original, exquisitely restored, painted wood ceilings and columns to prove it.

The rest of this charm comes from Adolfo himself, who maintains a level of enthusiasm and energy that is absolutely contagious - especially as he hops around his kitchen.

The official objective of my trip was was two-fold. On the one hand, I had to shadow Jeffrey Weiss, a young American chef who had once worked in Adolfo's kitchens as part of the ICEX (Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade) Training Program and who was back in Spain with photographer Nathan Rawlinson to take photographs for his upcoming book on Spanish cured meats. On the other, I wanted to learn how to make perdíz en escabeche (partridge marinated in vinegar), a typical dish from this region for which Adolfo is particularly well-known and about which I happened to be writing an article for Foods From Spain.
The unofficial purpose was obvious, I mean who would pass up the chance to jump into the kitchen with a famous chef and learn how to make his special dish?

What I wasn't prepared for was the big surprise bonus, which was that Adolfo had also decided to teach us how to make another of the most famous dish's from Castilla-La Mancha: Migas.

The delicious Migas made by Adolfo and eaten by me.
Migas (which means crumbs) is one of those "peasant food" dishes that was surely created as a means to use up old bread and other humble ingredients in a dish that would stick to your ribs. I have always loved these kinds of simple dishes that can often be thrown together from whatever you happen to have on hand - often arriving at hearty and savory flavors. Migas is somewhat like a bread stuffing, but the small crumb-like pieces of bread are moistened by olive oil and must remain loose (not stuck together). Anyway, here is how it's done a la Adolfo:

The starting ingredients for a large pot of migas.
Lots of garlic, a few slices of chorizo, some slices of nice lean pork, a red pepper (used as garnish), finely chopped candeal bread crumbs (preferably that someone else has diced), olive oil and sweet Spanish pimentón (paprika). Cut the chorizo into small pieces, smash the garlic with the peel on, cube the pork and slice the pepper to fry separately.
Good migas should be slightly damp, but still loose.
Prior to preparing this dish, the migas (crumbs) should have been mixed with sweet paprika and a little bit of mineral water, covered with a damp cloth and left in the refrigerator for around 12 hours.

Add a little bit of extra virgin olive oil to your beautiful big pot - preferably if you have your own brand of oil as Adolfo does.

Add the chorizo, the pork, a bit more water and the smashed garlic cloves and let the whole thing cook for a little while, then add quite a bit more oil at the end and let the whole mixture rest for five or 10 minutes with the heat turned off. 
Finally, turn the heat back on and add the bread crumbs.
Stir the mixture together quickly until the oil turns all the crumbs a lovely golden brown (just a minute or two). They should still be loose and not clumped together.
Garnish with the red pepper and a fried egg in the center (and a pinch of salt).
Enjoy! I certainly did!

Adolfo Restaurante
C/ Hombre de Palo 9
45001 Toledo, Spain
Tel +34 925 227 321

February 1, 2013

Jamón slicing, date-eating Iberian pigs and other reasons to say hot diggity!

I love this Spanish jamón slicing guide that I got from the blog of my friend Santiago Orts, botanist extraordinaire and co-founder of the amazing company Huerto Gourmet.

Though Santiago is known for the incredible and often rare heirloom fruits and vegetables that are found in his orchards in Elche (Alicante), he recently made a foray into the world of Spain’s most delectable treat: JAMÓN (nectar of the gods).

At recent gastronomic event Madrid Fusión, Santiago got together with noted Guijuelo (Salamanca) Ibérico ham maker Atanasio Carrasco of Carrasco to present their fascinating new collaboration, the product of three years of experimentation and “research”, which I am sure often came down to getting together and eating a lot of ham. Poor souls.

Basically, the new project consisted of raising Iberian pigs on the fresh dates that Santiago’s orchards are so famous for, instead of the usual bellota (acorns).

I got to taste the results first hand at Madrid Fusión, biting into the sweet and somewhat creamier textures of first salchichón and then ham made from these pigs.

Mega close-up of date-fed Ibérico salchichón
Though the two confessed that there are no immediate plans to retail these products, and also that it costs ten times more for the pigs to eat fresh dates than the coveted acorns, I still find the idea fascinating and more than worthy of an enthusiastic “hot diggity”.

With regards to the ham-slicing chart, it is worth a study. In fact, few people realize just how difficult a task it is to slice a ham, and particularly to slice it well.
At home, we usually have to watch the same YouTube instructional guide several times before attacking the Christmas jamón, and then after slicing for a few days (very painstaking and tiring work – particularly when you are salivating heavily), we give in and take it to our local market where they slice what is left and put it in vacuum-sealed bags for us. I should point out that I say "we", but I really mean E.
What???  It’s called division of labor!

January 30, 2013

Viva Guillaume Long, King of Madrid!

A pretty blurry photo of the wonderful postcard that Guillaume sent us from El Abuelo.
Wow, wow, wow. I take it all back.
How could I ever have suspected Guillaume of leaving us with only a photo of Burger King as his impression of Madrid! (I do have to say that I love the way he owns the Burger King moment though)

But now, well...King of Madrid! Give him the key to the city; name a fountain after him, a monument, an avenue...
Oh my, yes, I am honored. But now I'm hungry again too.

Be sure to check out this great chronicle of Guillaume Long's visit to Madrid, to present his book A Comer y A Beber (Ediciones Sins Entido), on his fantastic and hunger-inducing blog in Le Monde.

January 29, 2013

Food Drama at Madrid Fusion

Burrata Marina by Ángel León of Aponiente. Photo by Álvaro Fernández Prieto.
Madrid Fusion came and went again this year, leaving me with a bunch of blurry photos taken with my iphone and a notebook full of impressions that I am little by little hoping to share.

By way of a start, the following will take you to the article that I wrote about the event for El País (English) - found within the International Herald Tribune:

Creativity Blooms at Madrid Fusion

January 25, 2013

A Comer y A Beber: a tasty read by Guillaume Long

Photo: courtesy of the Instituto Francés
Last week I had the pleasure of presenting the newly released book A Comer y A Beber (Editorial Sins Entido) by Swiss illustrator and food enthusiast Guillaume Long
I am ashamed to say, however, that after a hectic week of food, food and more food presentations at Madrid Fusión, all I can think of to say right now is, "It is a great book, you should buy it"; but at the time, like the studious gal nervous for her first book presentation that I am, I prepared a list of some of the highlights from this fantastic gastronomic-comic.

Here are just a few of them:

- This book made me very hungry and also made me want to go to the market and then start cooking.

- It is not just a comic book about food, or a cookbook with illustrations. It is also a dictionary of food terms, an encyclopedia of interesting facts about things like vegetables abd regional cuisines, an autobiography, a guide for where to eat in what city and an emotional roller coaster of Guillaume's culinary triumphs and defeats.

- It has a back page that you can tear out and hang up in your kitchen showing fruits and vegetables classified by season. It would be very useful if your husband would let you tear out pages from comic books.

- Guillaume loves making lists: lists of ingredients, recipes, behavioral tips, advice, etc. His lists are not always about wonderful, fabulous things. Sometimes he also makes lists of things he doesn't like. I also love to make lists, usually when I'm procrastinating. I wonder if Guillaume ever procrastinates?

- Despite the meticulous quality of his recipes and instructions, I can relate to how excited and over zealous he can get in the kitchen or when dining out. I have also been known to declare something, "the best in the whole wide world", or "the best I've ever had in my entire life", several times in one meal. I also understand what he means when he talks about how one amazing dish in a restaurant has the power to make everything else about the experience more wonderful (the waiter is suddenly nice, the wine is suddenly better, the cockroach is suddenly a pet, etc.)

In short, this book is a perfect kitchen or travel companion that I would never want to damage with sauce or stuff into my suitcase. Be sure to check out the source of this wonderful content on Guillaume's blog on the online version of Le Monde.

(uncomfortable pause)

Oh dear, I did just check it out, and the latest entry is apparently what Guillaume took away gastronomically from Madrid. What he doesn't realize is that I have hard photographic evidence of him eating more delicious things while here.

Actually, it seems I don't have any evidence after all, other than this photo of him in El Abuelo drawing, not eating, with a whole bunch of shrimp peels on the floor behind him.

Maybe it was my fault. We did make him draw us all postcards...

A Comer y A Beber
by Guillaume Long
Editorial Sins Eentido

January 14, 2013

StreetXO, (sort of) the real deal

David Muñoz' Chili-hawk!
This weekend I had the dubious distinction of dining at the El Corte Ingles department store in Madrid's Plaza Callao.

Department stores are not my ideal settings for lovely dinners, but I was curious to see how the Corte Ingles' new Gourmet Experience area on the top floor of the store in Callao was faring, and the results were actually surprising - especially when it came to StreetXO, the new "street food" joint by two-Michelin star chef David Muñoz of DiverXO fame.

Basically, the top floor of this center (which incidentally has some pretty great views) has been turned into a fancy international supermarket with an even fancier "food court". Loud music was pumping out of a variety of establishments serving different types of food (Mexican, noodles, tapas, etc.), but none was louder than what was coming out of StreetXO.

Ready to be disappointed - call me a cynic - I confess that the dishes being turned out by the busy open kitchen sounded both interesting and appealing: "Hong Kong-Madrid Cocido" with char grilled tamarind, taro root and pickled chilies (Cocido Hong Kong-Madrid con tamarindo al carbón, Taro y chiles escabechados); Grilled bone marrow and hake with Kimchi juice and (some sort of) rice (Tuétano y cocotxa a la brasa, Bilbaina y jugo de Kimchee, Gallega de arroz); and "Chili-crab" paprika, chipotles, Palo Cortado (a type of sherry) and mantou (Chilli Crab, Pimentón, chipotles, Palo Cortado, Mantou), to name a few. 

We opted for the Peking-style chicken skewer and smoked bonito flakes with Tobiko, Yogurt-passion and Chinese five-spice (Espeto de pollo pekinés y bonito ahumado, Tobiko, Yoghurt-pasión, 5 especias chinas), which was delicious, with tender pieces of hoisin marinated chicken that had been cooked three times at different temperatures and then topped with katsuo-bushi flakes, roe, cucumber and pickled red onions.

We then tried the Korean rice dumplings with Korean bolognese sauce, Chinese five spice and mandarin orange juice (Ñoquis de arroz glutinoso con boloñesa coreana. Cinco especias chinas. Jugo de mandarinas), topped with thin and crispy strips of pork rind.

Both were delicious and left me with ganas to try more.

For a standing meal at a bar in a department store, the prices aren't cheap - between nine and fourteen Euros per dish - but neither are the ingredients, and each plate held a laborious - though fast - level of preparation.

Unfortunately, the biggest problem with the meal is that, at the end of the day, you are still standing in a department store.

Pizza Al Cuadro makes it to the big time (yay?)

On a side note, it was nice to see that El Corte Inglés had diversified the offering of restaurants at its Gourmet Experience. Instead of only featuring the staid chain places or large franchises, one of the other featured restaurants was Malasaña neighborhood pizza joint, Pizza Al Cuadro. It made me delighted for their success to see them included in this project, but a little sad at the same time to see a neighborhood favorite ensconced in a big department store chain. As my companion put it, it's kind of like when your favorite local band goes mainstream: bittersweet.

January 11, 2013

A yolk by any other color...is completely baffling

Chicken egg beautifully photographed by my father in Colorado, PhD.

Returning to the States for a visit with my family always highlights the many similarities and differences between the country where I live and the one where I grew up. One that never ceases to strike me as interesting is the color variation between Spanish egg yolks and American ones. It might be the jet lag, or maybe I'm just a dork, but I can't get over how much yellower yolks are in the USA when compared to their deeply orange Spanish cousins.

So, maybe I'm the last one on Earth to learn this fact, but it seems that the difference is in the diet of the hens and the amount of carotenoids that they consume. These organic pigments are found in plants and other things like algae and some bacteria and fungi. These are divided into two categories: carotenes and xanthophylls (whew. thanks Wikipedia). The former gives carrots their wonderful color (among other things), while the latter refers to oxygen-containing carotenoids such as lutein, which is found in leafy vegetables and as the predominant pigment in egg yolks. So, it can be inferred that a hen that eats large amounts of green leafy plants will get a lot of lutein. However, another factor that many people stand behind is the amount of insects that a hen consumes. Insect shells also contain carotenoids, which would therefore also contribute to an intense yolk color.

However, while all of this points to the fact that hens raised in pastures consume more carotenoids (lutein) overall, why is it that the pasture-raised, organic egg photographed by my friend Karen in Milwaukee,

Egg expertly cracked by Karen in Milwaukee

 and similarly pasture-raised, organic egg that I cracked open here in Spain, are still so different?

Egg less artfully photographed by me in Spain

Or maybe the real question should be, why do I care so much?
And the answer, I don't know. I just do.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...