Tag Archives: Spanish

Catalan seafood stew

I killed a lobster for this stew. It’s actually not the first time I’ve cooked living seafood in my kitchen–if you count clams and mussels–but it was definitely the first time I’ve looked my dinner in the eye while it was still moving. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Will I be doing it again? Not for a while.

The challenge started when I got the lobster home. It was fairly docile when the fishmonger pulled it from its tank, but by the time I pulled it from the bag it was fully awake and kicking like crazy. I ended up sticking the lobster in the freezer while I boiled the water, since I don’t have enough counter space to temporarily house a live, disgruntled crustacean. Supposedly, freezing renders the lobster unconscious and is thus more humane; I suspect it’s more for the cook’s comfort than the lobster’s, but in any case it worked. I boiled my now-dormant lobster, harvested the meat (covering myself and the countertop in lobster juice in the process), then added the shell and body back to the pot with fresh water and simmered it into a rich lobster stock.

Then I got on with preparing the other ingredients for the New York Times’s Catalan lobster stew. It calls for toasting nuts, soaking chiles, and frying bread, then combining them all in a food processor with lots of other ingredients to make a powerful chile paste. That paste, along with some sauteed onions, became the base of a rich red liquid in which to poach the lobster meat and some bivalves. The result was phenomenally delicious: intensely lobstery, luxurious but not fatty, with a slight spicy heat and lots of nuttiness from the hazelnuts and bread.

But it turns out that lobster murder isn’t necessary for this stew to turn out great. I made the it again a few weeks later with frozen fish stock, shrimp, and clams, and it turned out half as complicated and just as delicious as before. The brawny lobster flavor was missing, but in its place was a broth that felt like a warm, briny hug, with some lovely mix-and-match textures from the seafood. I’d happily make this streamlined version again–not for an everyday meal, but certainly for a special occasion. And maybe, someday, in a bigger kitchen and with plenty of time to spare, I’ll tackle the lobster once again.

catalan lobster stew

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Spanish chickpea gratin

One of the things I love most about creative pursuits is how a kernel of an idea, picked up from elsewhere, can take root in my body and morph, almost of its own volition, into something new. It happens to me in my writing, and even more so in my cooking. Sometimes the idea twists and warps in the process, emerging partly-formed and disappointing; but other times it’s charmed right from the get-go, and that’s what really keeps me going.

This was one of the charmed ones. It began as I was casting about for a Spanish-inflected vegetarian main course to serve for my mother’s birthday, a headliner for the opening act of those glorious clams and artichokes. From somewhere in the dusty crannies of my brain came a vague memory of a Minimalist recipe for chickpeas with spinach and sherry. I went looking for it, and in the process found another Minimalist recipe for rack of lamb with pimenton-flavored rye breadcrumbs. I seized on a sentence in the accompanying write-up: “[these breadcrumbs] could turn the simplest vegetable gratin into something truly special.” And suddenly the two recipes began to meld and harmonize into one: a chickpea and spinach gratin, flavored with sherry and topped with those incredible breadcrumbs. From there it was just a matter of finding a good chickpea gratin recipe to riff on, and then putting everything together as best I knew how.

From the minute I sent the gratin into the oven, I knew I had a winner. Just the carnival-clutter appearance of it made me smile, with purple-red onions and sandy-colored chickpeas and grassy spinach and that gorgeous brick-red breadcrumb blanket. From the oven I could smell smokiness and garlic and the sweet mustiness of Amontillado sherry. It came out bubbling, deep crackling brown on top, and almost luscious underneath. The onions–a whole mountain of them–melted into filmy ribbons in the oven, and the spinach turned dark and silky. The breadcrumbs themselves were richly smoky, crisp, almost meaty, like a strange vegan hybrid of bacon bits and chorizo. We devoured our portions and swabbed our plates with bread to mop up every last bit of the sherry-infused gravy.

My one possibly-unnecessary step was to mash half the chickpeas before adding them to the gratin, hoping that the mix of pureed, chunky, and whole chickpeas would lend contrast and interest to the gratin. But the mashed chickpeas just dissolved into the sauce, while the whole ones stayed whole, becoming lush and soft in the oven. If I had it to do over again, I’d probably keep all the chickpeas whole, for more creamy texture interruptions throughout the gratin. Call the mash an optional step. Do it if you want a slightly thicker filling, or don’t if you want a greater texture contrast.

This could serve nicely as a vegetarian or vegan entree, or as a side dish for chicken or light-fleshed fish. And the leftovers are just made to be reheated for breakfast with a fried egg on top. It’s a good one, this gratin; I’m proud of it. It’s the kind of success that keeps me cooking.

spanish chickpea gratin

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Tuning out

So yesterday was a pretty big deal.  And I just about missed it.

I’d been thinking for ages about how to deal with September 11, 2011.  The events of ten years ago have left a deep bruise-purple handprint on the psyche of an entire American generation–a generation of which I am part.  But everything that could be said, has been said many times over.  Anything I could say would be a whisper in an echo chamber.

So instead, I spent the day engrossed in the business of living.  I woke up late and cuddled with my boyfriend; bought a purse at the local art and wine festival; played with my friend’s new kitten; watched The Matrix; ate sushi; packed for a business trip; slept.  When I return from my trip, I’ll make myself a simple tuna and piquillo pepper sandwich, inspired by the one I ate on my last afternoon in Spain.  I’ll call my parents.  I’ll braid my hair.

Ten years ago, we questioned whether these little things might ever be so normal again.  For all the intervening upheaval, they are.  That’s no small triumph.

Bocadillo de Atún

Toast a slice of good crusty bread, and let it cool just until you can handle it without burning yourself.  Drizzle the bread with olive oil.  Cut a juicy ripe tomato in half, and rub the cut side all over one side of the bread.  Spread some canned tuna on the tomato-rubbed bread, then drape a couple pieces of roasted red pepper over top.  Lay two or three oil-packed anchovy fillets on top of the sandwich, then take a big bite and immediately make a mess of tuna and tomato all over your plate.  So.  Good.

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