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March 24, 2009

Binging and whingeing in Barcelona

Filed under: Cava,Fish,Wine — Mr. Henry @ 2:28 pm

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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.

March 19, 2009

Heavenly city

Filed under: Coffee,Fish,Restaurants — Mr. Henry @ 3:28 pm

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.

March 6, 2009

How do you solve a problem?

Filed under: American Food,Shellfish — Mr. Henry @ 8:35 am

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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.

January 29, 2009

A Good Finish

Filed under: American Food,Cookware,Fish — Mr. Henry @ 8:58 am

finish-job.jpgLately Mr. Henry has been finishing things.

He has not been finishing half-written books, mind you, nor concluding business deals mired in the post-Bushian bog, nor even responding to stale holiday correspondence.

Mr. Henry has been finishing the chops, the fish filets, and the steaks. It’s quick and remarkably foolproof. Indeed, it’s the easiest way to look like a real chef.

Step One

Preheat your oven to 350º

Step Two

Having salted and spiced your pork chop, lamb chop, or what-have-you, sear it in a hot skillet with a bit of oil (and butter, too, if you want to live right). Get a good burn on one side, flip and do the same to the other. Your chop is now beautifully browned but raw in the middle.

Step Three

Pop the skillet into the oven. Depending on your chop’s thickness, this usually should not take more than 10 minutes. Poke it with your finger to feel doneness.

Step Four

Remove and let rest for at least five minutes. Slice and serve. (On a warm plate, if you please. Honestly, having come this far you can do that much extra preparation).

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For serious fun throw some sage leaves into the skillet at the turn. Crisped in the fatty oil they are a heavenly pleasure.ironskillet.jpg

 

On a fish filet Mr. Henry invariably adds a splash of white wine at the turn. Once in a while he adds capers or sage, too. Oh yes, and for a basic meuniere – dredged in flour – he doesn’t skimp on the butter.

Of course you will need a sauté pan with an ovenproof handle. For this operation a good old-fashioned twenty-dollar iron skillet is hard to beat.

August 31, 2008

Honeymoon smoothie

Filed under: American Food,Fish,Holidays,Spirits,Sushi — Mr. Henry @ 9:41 am

After 30 years of shacking up, Jeff and Gail got married.

In Hanalei Bay, on Kaua’i, Hawaii, in the lee of Bali Ha’i they spent six weeks snorkeling and snuggling. It was indeed their own special island.

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Each morning before the sun’s rays reached the blue sea floor they trundled down to the market to buy a tranche of  ahi or kampachi caught that very morning. After a morning in the water they prepared a lunch of sashimi (dipped in soy sauce and freshly grated wasabi) with slices of avocado, papaya, star fruit, or mango (the Haden variety, with pulp that is not stringy).haden.jpg

Richly dark greens like collard or rainbow chard filled the markets. Oddly enough, however, because the climate is so temperate, tomatoes do not ripen to full flavor there.

On Kaua’i they make a pungent and tangy feta-style goat cheese that pairs well with fresh cilantro and crunchy crackers.

But what was the potion impelling them to bind the ties of wedlock? What was their passion fruit?

It was the rum smoothie.

Gail’s Honeymoon Smoothie

dark rum
young ginger, grated
pineapple
guava
mango
splash of orange soda
dollop of lychee-flavored yogurt
coconut water (crack the nut with a hammer)
ice

Drink before dinner. Watch the stars come out.

Having lived happily ever after, having spent a honeymoon in paradise, and having gotten married, in that order, pretty soon now, yes, any minute Jeffrey is going to propose to Gail (or will it be vice versa?). Accordingly, the next logical step in their backward romance will be that unforgettable first blush of mutual infatuation. Who could not be envious?

June 12, 2008

White balsamic

Filed under: American Food,Fruit,Shellfish,Spirits — Mr. Henry @ 10:22 am

How hot was it last weekend? It was so hot that Mr. and Mrs. Henry had to trade favors to decide who went out to buy food. Ice cream melted during the walk home from the store. Black cherries which at the store were perfectly firm arrived home warm and soft. To make sure the bay scallops survived the blistering march up Broadway from Citarella, Mrs. Henry, ever the rugged survivor, packed blue ice in her grocery sac before setting out.
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Firing up the oven was out of the question. Some sort of savory salad seemed wanting. Mrs. Henry fried diced bacon and saved a little fat in which she seared the scallops. She tossed white beans (bottled, Italian) with fresh baby spinach in a vinaigrette made with white balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and lemon. Topped with diced mango and bacon bits, the dinner salad was the perfect reprieve from the day’s punishing heat.

Made from sweet trebbiano grape juice, not from wine, white balsamic vinegar is fruity and distinctly less acidic than red vinegar. It won’t overwhelm a mild dish like scallops or potato salad. Its sweetness also obviates the need to add sugar.

Mr. Henry’s delicate constitution presents a different category of challenge. Although he likes the taste of raw garlic, onion, green pepper, and scallion, his stomach responds repeatedly with complaints. If he roasts or braises these thoroughly, he can eat them in small quantities. But what if you want the taste of raw onion?
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Heaving only one or two sighs of exasperation, Mrs. Henry arrived at a neat solution for a potato salad eaten over the infernal weekend.

She finely diced a Vidalia onion and let it quickly pickle in salt with a liberal dose of her white balsamic vinegar.

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When combined with hot potatoes the pickled onion wilted, yielding its sharpness without denying its flavor. Celery added crunch. Flat parsley added color. A dab of Dijon mustard, a splash of olive oil, and a tablespoon of sour cream generated a creamy potato salad that looked as if it were made with mayonnaise but tasted lighter and fresher.

As for the soft cherries, she threw them whole into a great pot, added a tablespoon of turbinado sugar and a half cup of sake(!). After bringing them to a boil, she let simmer for half an hour until the cherries were plumped and the sauce caramelized. Cooled they became a delectable dessert and breakfast treat all the more remarkable for their unexpected spiciness – a hint of cinnamon, a suggestion of prune, the possibility of sherry. No one guessed the presence of sake.

Next time Mr. Henry will try stewing fruit in white balsamic. It’s sure to work.

August 15, 2007

Codfishing

Like The Manolo, Mr. Henry has been traveling, holed up in a Cape Cod rental bungalo without internet access.cod fish

He tried to eat locavore. He made a real mental effort. But as a citizen of the world he believes no neighborhood is truly so far removed from his acquaintance that he cannot partake of its proudest fare. And where, he asks, is the local food exit off Interstate-95?

In the spirit of a summer share, therefore, he would like to offer a few travel tips:

On the highway, don’t drink the iced coffee at Starbuck’s. It’s a guaranteed stomach cramp. Try Newman’s Own Organic at MacDonald’s instead. It’s delicious, neither watery nor burned, and costs half as much as the Starbuck’s one.

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As for eating roadside fast food, just don’t. Pack a picnic you can enjoy at the rest stop. Pretend the sound of roaring cars to be Niagara Falls. (Mrs. Henry added a dollop of sour cream to her chicken salad which rounded out the mouth feel and slightly disguised the mayonnaise — altogether a nice picnic choice.)

Don’t go to Cape Cod for codfish, which in every case will be an anodyne, frozen, white fish filet caught months ago far, far away — the very same filet you might get in Peoria or Topeka.

Don’t eat oysters on the half shell in Wellfleet. They are OK, but the clams are far sweeter, especially the littlenecks.
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If stuck shopping at the local superette, a quick and easy barbecue sauce can be made from three parts ketchup and one part worcestershire sauce. Slather it on AFTER the ribs come off the grill. (Please don’t even pretend you’re going to do a dry rub marinade. Be reasonable. It’s summer. In the morning, dinner always seems to be a long way away.)

Boil your corn until underdone, a mere seven or eight minutes. Let it cool and slice it off the cob. Mixed with chopped tomato, celery and cilantro (or whatever pungent fresh herb you can find). Splash it with oil and vinegar and you will have a marvelous crunchy salad on hand for snacks or for meals.

For the best possible dinner, take Little Henry and posse out to the marshes. Let them loose in the shallows with buckets to dig fresh cherrystone clams, littleneck clams, razor clams, and mussels. (Rubber gloves are a good idea because clam shell edges can be sharp.)

Sautéed in a big fry pan with onion and white wine, each variety will cook at a different rate. Pluck them out when they open so as not to render them rubbery. Reduce your sauce a touch and add a dab of thickener to help it grab hold of the pasta. (Mr. Henry likes heavy cream but sour cream works fine, too.) Serve over linguine with a chilled bottle of Sancerre close at hand.

July 10, 2007

Summer scallops

Filed under: Fruit,Japanese Food,Mrs. Henry,Shellfish — Mr. Henry @ 11:17 am

knee-high.jpegOn the Fourth of July, the corn was not quite knee-high. Tomatoes were good but not magnificent, not yet the stand-alone dish they will become next month. Garden arugula was bright and not too sharp, happily reminiscent of Italian varietials. Peppers and onions came off the grill with flesh still meaty and toothsome.

Still, although Mr. Henry does not like to complain, the tastes of the weekend were beginning to be a bore. Meat grilled outdoors is all very fine but without a skillful marinade lacks both subtlety and complexity.

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On a lazy Sunday morning at Paul’s country house, however, Mrs. Henry, ever the clever one when given a moment’s free time, created an appetizer of scallops that was the most exciting new taste of the summer. Completed in five minutes, it was beyond compare.

She brushed the broiling pan with olive oil and arranged a quart of sea scallops across its surface. In three minutes they were nicely browned yet still soft to the touch of a finger. [Don’t let them get rubbery. There is no need to cook them solidly throughout. So long as they are warm inside, you’ve done your job.]

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She served them on top of a cool, fresh relish. To a peeled, seeded and diced tomato she added coarsely chopped cilantro leaf, the juice from half a lime, a pinch of salt and — now for the genius — one peeled and diced peach. The flowery aroma of peach married to its tangy tomato cousin created a subtly balanced liqueur, lighter than a wine sauce, which perfectly supported the scallop’s mild sweetness.

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