December 2008

Spain: A Culinary Road Trip
By Mario Batali with Gwyneth Paltrow
Published by HarperCollins 2008, hardcover; $37.95; 384 pages

I took a road trip through Spain last fall with my husband and two close friends so I was thrilled when this book arrived on my desk. I thought it might recapture some of what we experienced. I could see from the map provided at the beginning of the book that Batali’s trip took in many of the towns and cities we visited.

But, alas, I quickly learned that this is not really a book as much as it is a series of little notes, pasted together with a jumble of photos. And the sauce that flavours this book is not so much Spain as it is celebrity.

It’s clear celebrities travel in a different universe than you and I do. Every word they utter, every thought that bubbles from their brains, every nibble that passes their lips is fair game for preservation. It is the “I” of travel, rather than the eye, that gets a workout here. Favourite breakfast foods, favourite things to find on their hotel room pillows at night, what they like in their coffee, favourite candy bars, favourite travel music – these tidbits are folded into the pages like whipped air, as are snatches of conversation that from anyone else would be mercifully forgotten as soon as the words are spoken. Here they are enshrined in big, bold type: “I love it out here, it’s such fresh, crisp air, and the oxygen helps your body relax,” says Paltrow on arriving at Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route dating back to the 9th century that even today changes people’s lives — never mind their relaxation response — after they spend many weeks trekking its entire length.

Bad food? Unfriendly people? Insane city driving? These were all part of our experience, but you won’t find any of that as Batali, Paltrow and their travel companions, New York Times food writer and cookbook author Mark Bittman and Spanish actress Claudia Bassols, race (literally! Batali admits the fastest he drove on the trip was 245 kmh, “but I’m not as fast as Gwyneth”) from one destination to another.

As for the recipes, most are simple to execute – stews, grilled seafood, hearty soups. But some may be difficult to duplicate because they’re based on specialty local ingredients, such as “unto”, a distinctive cured pork belly that makes Caldo Gallego, a traditional soup from Galicia, what it is, or “lechazo” (“one of the best things we ate on our trip,” says Batali), grilled baby lamb under 25 days old and fed only mother’s milk. Then there are 10-pound capons and hake cheeks that are not really widely available here either.

I can’t be too churlish, however. As I roamed through the book, I found myself beginning to relax into its rhythm. A bit of history here, an interesting person there, a recipe or two, a list of things eaten that day. It all began to jell into a comfortable little ride. By the time I finished reading the book, I really didn’t know much more  about the people who actually took the trip or about the country they had travelled through, but I still had a very pleasant time. It’s sort of like reading about people in People magazine who find all the best restaurants, drink wines that are 50 years old and effortlessly meet high-profile people such as architect Frank Gehry, who designed the spectacular Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. They run into rock star Michael Stipe along a country road near Barcelona (it was a setup to surprise Paltrow, says Batali), and have lunch with the world-famous chef Ferran Adria, who joins them afterwards at the Prado Museum where he spends the entire time explaining how the food he produces at his restaurant, El Bulli, is actually as serious as the art on the walls there.

Okay, then. . . Here’s a recipe that doesn’t require a science degree, or liquid nitrogen, or deep artistic contemplation. It is the national dish of Spain, a toothsomely simple mixture of onions, potatoes and eggs. It is found everywhere – in tapas bars, on breakfast menus, in sandwiches, at dinner alongside salad and velvety slices of the ubiquitous jamon (Spain’s answer to prosciutto). It’s good either warm or cold. Every grocery store in Spain carries a heat-and-serve version in the refrigerated section. But fresh is best.

The most complicated thing here is turning the tortilla to finish the cooking. If you’re leery of turning the tortilla as directed (I did and it was a bit of a messy business), you might try running this under a hot broiler for a minute or two to finish cooking the top, but if you do that, make sure the pan you’re using is completely ovenproof. Use a largish pan for best results. This makes enough for 8 to 10 servings as part of a selection of tapas. We had it the other day with shredded duck confit and garden ratatouille. Delicioso!

Tortilla Espanola

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 ¼ lb. waxy potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
8 extra-large eggs
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat oil in a large cast-iron or nonstick skillet over medium-high until very hot but not smoking. Add the potatoes and onion, season with salt and pepper, reduce heat to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally and adjusting heat if necessary so that the vegetables do not brown, until the potatoes are tender when pierced with the tip of a paring knife, 15 to 20 minutes.

Meanwhile beat the eggs with salt and pepper to taste in a large bowl. Add potatoes to the eggs, then pour into the skillet, spreading the potatoes evenly in the pan. Cook for about 1 minute, just to set the bottom of the egg mixture. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook for 20 minutes or until almost set throughout. Carefully flip the tortilla over (invert it onto a plate) and cook for 5 minutes longer, until set. Flip out onto a clean plate and allow to rest for 5 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 4 to 6 as a tapa or appetizer.

– From Spain: A Culinary Road Trip


The Christmas Table: Recipes and Crafts to Create Your Own Holiday Tradition
By Diane Morgan
Published by Chronicle/Raincoast 2008 softcover; $21.95; 240 pages

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year. . . With the kids jingle belling, and everyone telling you, Be of good cheer. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”Steve Wariner

If you’re someone who loves to wallow in all things Christmas, this book is for you. From 12 very extensive planning tips for the holiday season, to a full list of special foods of the season, to the tools and equipment you’ll need to make your holiday meals, parties and impromptu get-togethers enjoyable for all — including cook and host — to a wealth of recipes that meet every holiday-menu need, Morgan has produced a highly useful book. All the recipes are family favourites, she says, and all sound so good, the book won’t sit on the shelf the other 11 months of the year. Smoked salmon frittata, roast tenderloin of beef with bordelais sauce, saffron-scented fish stew, spicy crab in wonton cups, pistachio and chive goat cheese on puff pastry wafers, fudgy chocolate walnut brownies, and a spectacular ginger bundt cake that’s loaded with fresh ginger are sure to be welcomed any time there’s a special occasion.

But the focus truly is Christmas and Morgan covers all the bases, from Christmas breakfast to cookie exchanges, from home-made gifts of food to leftover favourites. She also provides six suggested holiday menus as well as every entertainer’s godsend: a timetable  to help you avoid those last-minute nightmares that plague so many of us when we entertain.

The final chapter gives some easy but great looking suggestions for decor, including this one that will lift any table setting: Glue fresh salal, bay or other leathery green leaves to inexpensive votive candles in glass holders, then tie them with gold bullion wire. Or spray paint small hard apples, pomegranates, small acorn squashes, lemons and oranges with pebbly skin, and assorted nuts with various metallics and arrange along mantle or table greenery. Bright red apple tops sprayed with clear lacquer, then sprinkled with a bit of kosher salt, will look like they’re dusted with fresh snow.

Such easy but inexpensive touches add a festive note and lift the mood at any gathering, whether it’s a  tree decorating party, a Christmas Eve supper,  a grand Christmas day banquet, or even an interfaith gathering of friends and family that Morgan calls Chrismukkah, a hybrid holiday meal, for which she also provides a menu and timetable.

A word about the following recipe. Morgan has been giving these “sweet, crunchy buttery gems” away as gifts for 20 years and has steadfastly refused to give anyone the recipe. But her list of recipients has grown so long that her yearly output has ballooned from several pounds to 20 pounds of pecans, so it seems appropriate that she shares the recipe with her readers. These will keep for up to three weeks at room temperature and are delicious served alongside dessert, tossed into a mesclun salad together with dried cranberries and crumbled blue cheese, or served with glass of brandy or whiskey. And if you do decide to try these and give them away as gifts, remember to make enough to keep for yourself, too.

Diane’s Christmas Pecans

Morgan says she has tried to make these with liquid egg whites sold in refrigerated cartons, but the meringue did not become as lofty and the finished nuts weren’t as good as those she makes with fresh egg whites. If you are doubling the recipe, you’ll need two rimmed baking sheets. Put one on the centre rack and the other on the rack in the lower third of the oven, then switch the pans every time you stir the nuts, she says.

½ cup unsalted butter
2 egg whites, at room temperature
1/8 tsp. kosher or sea salt
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 cup packed golden brown sugar
1 lb. shelled large or jumbo pecan halves

Position rack in centre of oven. Preheat oven to 300F. Have ready a large rimmed baking sheet, preferably nonstick for easier cleanup.

Melt the butter on the baking sheet in the oven. Be careful not to let the butter brown. Set aside

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whip attachment, beat egg whites on medium speed until foamy. Add salt and beat on medium-high speed until soft peaks form. Pour vanilla over the brown sugar. Add the sugar, 2 tbsps. at a time, to he egg whites, beating on high speed to form a strong, shiny meringue with stiff, glossy peaks. Using a rubber spatula gently fold in the nuts until they are well coated.

Carefully tip the rimmed baking sheet so the butter evenly coats the bottom of the pan. Using a rubber spatula, spread nuts over the  butter, without stirring, to form and even layer without deflating the meringue.

Bake the nuts for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and stir with the spatula, moving the nuts at the centre of the pan to the edges and the nuts at the edges closer to the centre. Return the pan to the oven, bake nuts for 15 minutes longer, and stir them again. Continue baking, stirring every 15 minutes until the nuts are separated, have absorbed the butter and glisten, and are beautifully browned but not dark brown, 45 minutes to an hour.

Immediately turn the nuts out on a counter lined with a long sheet of aluminum foil, spread them out, and let cool completely. Store in an airtight tin or covered glass container, or wrap in gift boxes lined with decorative waxed paper. Makes 1 pound.
From The Christmas Table

Puff: 50 Flaky, Crunchy, Delicious Appetizers, Entrees and Desserts Made with Puff Pastry
By Martha Holmberg
Published by Chronicle/Raincoast, 2008; soft cover $21.95; 144 pages

The word “flaky” is often used to describe behaviour or bearing that is bizarre or eccentric. But there’s nothing bizarre about biting into something that crunches lightly but spectacularly, then melts into a buttery caress of flavour.

That’s the stuff of perfect puff pastry, something Martha Holmberg, the food editor for the Oregonian in Portland, describes as a cook’s “secret weapon”. Yes, homey pie crusts, delicate pate brisees and cookie- crumb bases are a wonderful way to enclose a savoury quiche, enrobe fresh fruit, or give a sturdy base to a rich cheesecake. But all bow down before the queenly bite of the sensuous puff.

Puff pastry isn’t as easy to make as any of the above, so Holmberg devotes 10 fully illustrated pages to taking you through the entire process. She even gives two versions: the classic French butter and flour mixture (known as pate feuilletee) that, by the time you master it, will give you 2,187 layers of flakiness (Holmberg says she did the math); and something called rough puff pastry (demi-feuilletee), which is much easier to make and works just fine for quiches, galettes, turnovers and potpies.

Not up to rolling butter so thin, it could probably cover a football field? There’s no shame in buying ready-made puff pastry, Holmberg says, and the challenge of making your own is just that. You feel you’ve accomplished something, but when you have other things you’d rather do, go out and buy a slab of frozen puff pastry and try some of her recipes. The key to using puff pastry successfully, particularly   store-bought, is to make sure it’s completely thawed by putting it in the fridge overnight before rolling it out, she says.

Once you have the finished product — whether home-made or store-bought — puff pastry is a cinch to work with, says Holmberg. “It’s surprisingly not that delicate, it isn’t sticky and you can refreeze the scraps.”

Imagine a tray of appetizers that includes melt-in-your-mouth spicy parmesan puffs, spiced samosa puffs with cilantro-chile dipping sauce and caramelized onion, crisp bacon and roquefort tarts. Or go for an irresistible main course such as swiss chard and goat cheese tart, or melted leek tart with fennel sausage and goat cheese, or wild salmon in pastry with savoury mushroom stuffing and lemon-caper beurre blanc. Even pizza can be taken to new heights with a flaky rough puff crust.

Then, of course, there’s the ultimate puff indulgence: dessert. Holmberg has recipes for brown sugar and brandy pear turnovers, honey-spice walnut tart, profiteroles with coffee cream, rich chocolate-espresso sauce and toasted almonds, sugar-crunch palmiers and roasted pineapple and ginger napoleons with salted caramel sauce.

Enough talking. Try a bite of the following.

Spiced Samosa Puffs with Cilantro-Chile Dipping Sauce

1 ½ lbs.Yukon gold or russet potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
3 tbsps. olive oil
1 cup finely chopped onion (about 1 medium onion)
Kosher salt
2 to 4 tbsps. minced fresh chile, such as jalapeno
2 tbsps. minced fresh ginger (from one 2-inch piece)
1 tbsp. garam masala
2 tbsps. unsalted butter
1 cup fresh or frozen peas (no need to thaw)
Juice of half a lime or lemon, plus more to taste
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 sheets (about 9 oz. each) frozen puff pastry, thawed
Cilantro-Chile Dipping Sauce (optional; recipe follows)

Place potatoes in pot of generously salted water, bring to a boil and cook until very tender, about 10 minutes. Scoop out  about a cup of the potato water, then drain potatoes.

Meanwhile, heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat; add onion, season with salt and cook until very soft and slightly golden, about 3 minutes. Add chile, cook for another minute, then add ginger and garam masala and cook until mixture is fragrant, another minute or so.

Dump the drained potatoes into the pan along with the butter. With a rubber spatula, fold to blend (it’s fine if the potatoes get a bit mushy), adding enough of the reserved potato water to make the mixture a bit creamy, then add peas and lime juice. Fold until well blended. Taste and season generously with more salt and some pepper. Let cool slightly, then fold in cilantro.

Heat oven to 400F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats (you’ll probably need to bake these in batches if baking all 36 in one session).

On a lightly floured counter, roll a sheet of pastry into a 14-inch square. Cut it into thirds lengthwise and thirds crosswise to make 9 squares. Roll one square to enlarge it to about 5 by 5 inches and cut in half to make two triangles. With a triangle in front of you at a right angle, spoon about 1 tbsp. onto the pastry just to the lower right of centre. Moisten the edges of pastry with water. Bring the top corner to the bottom corner to create a smaller triangle and pinch all around to seal tightly. Repeat with remaining squares and the second sheet of pastry.

Arrange samosas on the baking sheets and bake until lightly puffed and rich golden brown, 18-20 minutes. Let cool for a few minutes on a rack, then serve hot, with or without Cilantro-Chile Dipping Sauce. Makes 36.

Make Ahead Note: You can make samosas and keep them in the fridge for one day before baking, or freeze the unbaked samosas for up to one month. Bake them directly from the freezer and add a few more minutes to the cooking time.

Cilantro-Chile Dipping Sauce

1/3 cup plain yogurt
1 tbsp. minced onion or shallot
½ tsp. minced fresh ginger
1 to 2 jalapenos, cored, seeded, and roughly chopped
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. sugar
1 cup lightly packed fresh mint leaves
2 cups lightly packed fresh cilantro leaves
Put everything in a food processor and process until creamy. Taste and adjust seasoning. Chill for at least 30 minutes to let flavors blend. Make about 1 cup.
From Puff