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March, 2009 | Manolo's Food Blog
Archive - March, 2009

Binging and whingeing in Barcelona

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As usual the task of pointing out the obvious fell to Little Henry. “This food is salty,” the young one said. Not until then did Aunt Bev notice that since arrival not once had she reached for the table salt. Considering tapas bars here don’t place salt shakers on the table, however, this is not so surprising.

For more than a week it seems Mr. Henry and family have been living chiefly on salt, delicious flaked sea salt conveyed by little fishy vehicles remarkably fresh and completely addicting. Most of these little fishes arrive fried in the lightest of batters. A few come from the grill.

The only way Mr. Henry’s delicate digestion succeeds in vanquishing the fried skins of crunchy baby squid or the dark oils of fresh anchovies is to wash them down with glasses and glasses of cava, local sparkling chardonnay available at Cuines Santa Caterina (smoke free) for a mere three bucks per glass.

Since the Henrys arrived in Catalunya the Euro has risen 9% against the dollar. Extending fiscal principles established by Wall Street and Congress, when discussing money the Henry party prefers to call Euros “bucks” and wait until their VISA bill arrives next month before grappling with subtleties of foreign exchange. Why ruin the vacation spirit?

Tapas are what you eat in Barcelona, by the way. Here one is best advised to forego the sit-down dinner which does not begin until after eight at the earliest, far too late for proper digestion before bed no matter how much cava you may swill. Regardless of the hour, the sit-down dinner is simply not prepared to the same high standards as tapas. Barcelona’s best cooks work behind the bar, not in the kitchen.

Top in the hierarchy stands the fry chef. Exactly how these marvelous little fried tapas – paper thin artichoke slices, tiny bait fish each individually breaded, squid of every size and description – emerge without tasting greasy, heavy or bitter remains an enduring mystery. cerveseriacatalana.jpg

At Cerveseria Catalan yesterday the fried artichokes tasted of olive oil, but how can olive oil sustain the high heat of frying without breaking down?

Late Friday night when Mr. Henry left the rental apartment in the old city to seek out an internet cafe that wasn’t too smoky, and by the way such a place does not exist, all at once he was surrounded by hundreds of running college students.

With a rueful smile at the boundless energy of youth, Mr. Henry tried to maintain his footsore equilibrium. Not until a long-haired youth sprinted past with blood running down his face did Mr. Henry appreciate the unsettling fact that he was in the middle of a riot. When police vans turned the corner, sirens wailing, and helmeted police swinging clubs came running down narrow, walled Carrer Montcald, Mr. Henry felt like a player in history, namely, a peasant about to be crushed.

Careful to avoid getting trampled, Mr. Henry ducked into the nearest opening to discover TextilCafe, a lovely snack bar in a beautiful Renaissance palace courtyard directly across from the Picasso Museum. (Cava there is only two bucks ninety….and be sure to order the babaganoush.)

Once the street cleared of riot police, students, and cigarette smoke (every young Catalan without exception smokes cigarettes), Mr. Henry achieved his initial goal of hooking up to the internet only to discover that the Manolosphere in all its glorious components was down, that is, crashed, kaput, off the airwaves, a temporary case of server overload that not even cava could rectify.

Indeed the day had not begun well. Once again Little Henry had pegged it. “This town is sketchy,” the young sage remarked fatefully. Later that morning exiting a crowded subway car Little Henry announced, “Mom, your backpack is open.”

Moments before Mrs. Henry had felt a little tug at her back and had turned to get a look at the likely perpetrator. There were three thieves. When the train lurched the first stumbled forward creating a diversion. At that moment the second opened Mrs. Henry’s backpack and picked the wallet, immediately passing it to the third.

With all the vigor of her 101 lb. frame she sprinted down the platform, reached out and clamped her hand on the thief’s greasy collar. Startled at having been caught, he turned and handed back her wallet with money and I.D. intact.

Shaken but gratified, the Henry party retreated to eat more salty fishes and discuss where in future to secrete family belongings. As cava calmed his nerves Mr. Henry imagined where, had he only witnessed the deed in time, he would have placed the toe of his shoe on the foul miscreant’s hind quarters. Without doubt it would have gotten ugly.

Perhaps not advancing age, jet lag, or that extra glass of cava explain why Mr. Henry’s reflexes are not what they ought to be. Since arrival more than a week ago, he hasn’t gotten one good night’s sleep. Streets in the old city howl all night long. The only quiet hours are in the morning from six till nine.

No, in sum it must be said that Barcelona’s lifestyle is not conducive to good health. But at twelve midnight the Passeig del Born is rollicking.

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At this instant in Barcelona’s old city Mr. Henry is posting from the wifi at Cafe del Born Nou. Its beamed ceiling reaches as high as Mr. Henry’s spirits. Vintage Joe Cocker is playing on loud speakers without distortion, loud enough to highlight Cocker’s peerless growl but not loud enough to split Mr. Henry’s jet-lagged head. Sparkling cava light and bright in the glass welcomes the arrival of white anchovies on toast, first in a line of tapas that will stretch from evening until night.

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Thirty years ago when a callow Mr. Henry first set foot here Barcelona was emerging from under Generalissimo Francisco Franco’ heavy boot. Each plaça exploded with folk singers shouting their long forbidden language. If you spoke Spanish in Catalunya, locals frowned.

Now Catalan cuisine has seized the vanguard. Foam overspreads the culinary world. In one day Mr. Henry has already eaten foam crema catalan and foam tempura soy dipping sauce.

As a mark of confidence in themselves today if you speak Spanish badly or Catalan barely at all, locals smile graciously and respond in beautifully phrased English.

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Wandering down the Argenteria Mr. Henry found Café El Magnífico, purveyor of estate coffees so rich and so delicate that not only is their name not a boast, it is a sharp understatement. Its natty proprietor, Salvador Sans, launched into an eloquent disquisition on the virtues of drip coffee over the iniquities of espresso. An acolyte of Bostonian George Howell, “god of coffee,” Salvador argued that espresso method’s heat and pressure not only destroys subtle florals and aromatics but also transforms desirable bitter flavors into harsh metallic ones.

Mr. Henry appreciates the opinions of enlightened iconoclasts especially when their opinions bolster his own. For years he had hidden his preference for drip coffee over espresso fearing that to foist unwanted opinions on friends and relations might spoil their after-dinner happiness. No longer. Drippers unite! Take back the aromatics!

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In an act of divine mercy deserving of his name, Salvador telephoned his favorite Catalan restaurant, Taverna del Clínic, to secure a table for the Henry party who passed an evening feasting on sea worms with artichokes, whole squid with its ink intact, and braised rabbit ribs no bigger than the wishbone of a quail. Desserts were created by a chef who in 2006 won best chocalatier in the world. Magnífico.

Josie’s Japanese

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In 1920 when great grandma arrived from Japan she had not yet become a flapper. (Her given name was Toshiko but everyone called her Josie.) Five years later she was pure roaring twenties American, the modern girl sporting beaded skirts and bobbed hair with bangs.

She gambled, swore, smoked with a cigarette holder, drank with the men, danced kabuki, fought kendo, and died standing up.

She also cooked great teriyaki chicken. (The secret ingredient is sugar.)

Josie’s teriyaki chicken

8 skinless chicken thighs and legs
½ cup soy sauce
½ cup sake
½ cup sugar
grated ginger

Marinate for as long as you like, for one day or even two if you are clever enough to plan ahead.

Bake in the marinade at 400 degrees until the chicken begins to blacken, about 45 minutes. (Mr. Henry likes it a little burnt.) Be prepared for everyone to eat more than usual.

Nowadays, truth be told, you can cut down the sugar a little without altering its beneficial effects. The marinade’s combination of salt and sugar not only flavors the chicken but effectively cures it, too. It will keep cold for days after, the perfect picnic for a burgeoning spring afternoon.

Josie loved mayonnaise and habitually prepared a dipping sauce for vegetables composed of regular bottled mayonnaise mixed with a splash of soy sauce, a staple today on the Henry household table. Surprisingly mayonnaise has been a Japanese favorite since the 1920’s and can be found in dozens of standard “traditional” Japanese sauces.

Striving to prepare a dressing for green salad that might complement teriyaki chicken, Mr. Henry mixed a tablespoon of white miso with sushi vinegar (rice wine vinegar mixed with sugar). After some hesitation at the prospect of culture clash, he added Italian olive oil.

The results matched splendidly with teriyaki.

When Josey’s daughter Martha came to town, Mr. Henry boasted to her of his new salad dressing. She said, “Oh yes, we’ve been making that for years. Try topping it with little cubes of tofu. It looks like cheese but tastes much lighter. Even Grandpa Gary, an old Nevada cowboy, likes it.”

How do you solve a problem?

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Faced with the problem of choosing the dinner menu yet again, Mr. Henry sallied forth with characteristic boldness.

Although when he entered the grocery store he hadn’t a clue what to buy, like Sister Maria he had confidence in confidence alone.

Sea scallops lay glistening on a bright bed of chipped ice, their silken bodies firm and pink. Inspiration struck.

He recalled a marvelous summer salad of spinach, white beans, scallops, and bacon bits.

Could it be winterized?

Scallops quickly sautéed in bacon fat are a personal favorite. Bacon goes well with spinach. Bacon and spinach go well with white beans – great northern or cannellini. All good, all good, but weren’t these flavors all too mild? A proper dish must have balance. Where was the acid?

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In summer fresh peaches go perfectly in that salad, the whole dressed in white balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Now in winter what fruit would work? Wouldn’t lemon juice be too strong?

The answer was grapefruit, the most underappreciated citrus.

Back home Mr. Henry cut five strips of bacon into bit sizes and fried them to a light crisp. To half a chopped onion in olive oil he added herbs de provence and a splash of white wine (sauvignon blanc). Once the onions softened he added one can of great northern beans (drained) and let the mixture simmer.

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Whole spinach leaves boiled for three or four minutes emerge dark and pliant. Once slightly cooled they can easily be sliced into manageable sizes.

After sautéing the scallops, he deglazed the pan with a little more white wine and added a splash more olive oil.

After mixing everything together and topping with chopped parsley, Mr. Henry sliced grapefruit sections and served them on the plate alongside the rest. The whole preparation took no more than 25 minutes.

A willful Little Henry objected to eating this satisfying ensemble with crusty brown sourdough bread, so an ever indulgent father quickly boiled some fresh pasta.