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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Zuppa di Cozze (mussel soup)

2 peeled and seeded tomatoes, diced
1 onion chopped fine
2 cloves of crushed and chopped garlic
1 16 oz can of Italian tomatoes
1 cup of white wine
2 bay leaves
¼ cup olive oil
salt to taste

I learned this recipe from an Italian cookbook years and years ago and I haven't changed a thing, so why change the name? If I remember correctly, the book was The Food of Italy by Waverly Root, a famous food writer. I have used mussels from the Mediterranean, Maine, and Penne Cove in Washington state. Penne Cove mussels are la puta madre (a good thing, in this case) of mussels but this dish is splendid with any sort of mussel. I made this at some friends' house the other night as we were having a dinner party and this dish doesn't travel well, even though we only live two blocks from each other. This isn't so much a soup as just a bit of broth to accompany the mussels. I will sometimes put a big baked croûton in each serving dish as an added touch. Nothing could be simpler than Zuppa di Cozze and few dishes are better when you are preparing mussels, wherever they were fished.

The first step is to clean the mussels. You need to de-beard each mussel which just means ripping the fibers from the shell. After this I like to use a piece of steel wool to thoroughly scrub each shell. Let the mussels sit in a pan of fresh water after they have been cleaned.

In a large soup dish, sauté the onion and garlic in the olive oil. When this has cooked thoroughly, add the chopped tomato. Let this cook until most of the moisture has evaporated. When the mixture is beginning to stick to the pan, add the cup of wine to de-glaze the pan. Add the can of whole tomatoes (I crush them by hand in a bowl before I put them in), throw in the bay leaves, and season with salt to taste. Allow this to simmer for about 15 minutes.

Next, add the mussels and cover the pot. They only need a few minutes to cook and as they do the shells open. Discard any which do not open.

You can serve it at this point. I have also made another version in which I pull all of the mussels from the shells and discard the shells. Then I add some sort of cooked pasta to the pot to make a noodle soup. Here in Valencia I use fideos which are very fine, small noodles that they use to make a form of noodle paella called fideua.

I have been making this dish most of my life and it has always been a treat. My Spanish friends enjoyed it especially since I gave it an Italian name.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Michael Clayton

Don't read this if you haven't seen the movie. If you haven't seen the movie, see it.

I have to place Michael Clayton way up on my list of all-time favorite movies. It was absolutely superb in every way: great actors, a demanding and relevant story, cool music, and it just has a great depth to it that is hard to define but you know it when you see it. The story requires that you fill in a lot of the blanks about the characters without the director just dumping the usual Hollywood clichés in your lap. He is a compulsive gambler but they don't go into much detail. What they do give you are a few ancillary views into his problem. The debt collector guy who is there when his restaurant is being broke down is a very original version of the mob bag man. I also thought the card game was done really well and revealed a lot about the central character—mainly that he had a serious problem with gambling. We get just enough dialogue to learn what we need to know about his restaurant, problems with betting, and family difficulties.

The dudes who worked for the hit man agency, or whatever the hell it was, were really creepy and totally believable. The agency itself was thoroughly creepy and you have to wonder if something like this service is available to huge corporations to take out their garbage. Even these guys, the worst people in the film, weren't shown as heartless pricks but as professionals dedicated to their nefarious jobs. The fact that they worked with a professional detachment made them far more ominous than the usual Hollywood thugs.

I noticed a lot of the dialogue that was directed to people off-screen—telephone calls, orders given to employees in the office, etc. It's something you usually don't think about much but I couldn't help but notice how well done this was throughout the film. I did noticed that they used the tired old expression, “We have a situation,” but the rest of the dialogue was excellent. Even if people really do say stuff like, “We have a situation,” writers should keep it out of films. The only reason people say shit like that in real life is because they heard in so many movies. It's time to break the vicious circle.

Sydney Pollack recently passed away. He was a fine director and a rather fine actor as well. He brought out a lot in his small part. Every character in the film just looked exactly like the person should look like whom they were portraying—if that makes sense or is grammatical. I think that too often in movies the casting director is thinking of somebody from another movie when he makes his choices instead of trying to see a real person. I think that far too many Hollywood writers are guilty of using stock movie characters to hatch their own fictions instead of finding their own in the real world (defined as everything outside of movies).

I like how the movie ended; not with a shoot out but with a soliloquy delivered by Clooney. That was just a great scene and really boiled down the essence of the whole film. The woman lead counsel was a great character and they really showed her moral dilemmas. Her vulnerability was evident as she allowed herself to be consumed by the corporate ethos or putting humanity on a lower priority than the bottom line. There weren't any cartoonish bad guys in the film; as I've said before, most action movie bad guys seem less threatening than Ferris Buehler's principal. The woman lawyer was too frail to be a villain on her own; she needed the group-think of everyone associated with the business at hand which was to screw over a lot of injured people. There wasn't really one person who was the bad guy, it wasn't even one corporation. The bad guy was simply the corporation in general. The real villain was the idea that evil is when people surrender their will to the collective nature of the group.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Roasted Chicken with Cabbage and Cherries

Roasted Chicken with Cabbage and Cherries

I remember having this dish—or a version of it—at one of my favorite Seattle restaurants called Marjorie—the restaurant, not the dish. I don't know what the dish was called or what I should name it but it was (is) wonderful. After I had it at Marjorie I returned a couple weeks later only to find that the dish was no longer on the menu. I asked the owner, Donna, about this and I can't remember what her answer was or if she answered. I have tried to cook the dish myself a couple of times but without a recipe I have met with something less than success...until yesterday.

Cherries are in season here in Valencia and I always looking for something to do with them. I thought I would have another go at this dish. I think I pulled it off rather well. Here it is.

One whole chicken cut into two halves
1 green cabbage chopped coarsely
¾ Kilo of pitted cherries (I know that it's a pain in the ass but it will give you a good excuse to buy a cherry pitter which can also be used with olives. I actually brought mine with me)
¼ cup toasted rye seeds
1 cup red wine vinegar
Olive oil
2 table spoons of flour
Some sort of mild white cheese

In a large pot with a lid throw together the cabbage, rye, cherries, and vinegar and simmer until the cabbage has wilted, add salt to taste. Heat oven to 190°c. In a large baking dish throw in the cabbage concoction and lay the two chicken halves on top (I use my big clay dish I use for arroz al horno). Flip the chicken when the tops have cooked and cook the other side. When you remove the dish from the oven there will be a lot of liquid in the pan. Pour the liquid into skillet and reduce it a bit. In another skillet heat a few spoons of oil and add sifted flour to it to make a roux. When the roux is ready pour in the liquid and stir well. To this add the cheese and stir it in well. The sauce should be thick enough to coat a spoon but it shouldn't be pasty. You can simply spoon a layer of the sauce on each plate and then add the cabbage concoction with the chicken on top.

This came out really well. I served this with roasted potatoes. Sorry I don't have a picture.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Simplicity Defined (Chapters 112, 142)

It is the city dweller's version of people coming by unexpectedly for a visit. I was at home last night and some friends called and told me to meet them down the street for a drink. It's not like people never drop by your apartment unannounced, but it is a lot easy just to call and meet up at a corner café or a local bar which serve as the collective living rooms of city folk. I was already dressed when my friends called and not really doing anything. I wasn't in the middle of cooking and I didn't have plans.

I was there in about ten minutes and spent about and hour and a half catching up with two friends at a bar that is equidistant from our apartments. While we were there a few more people we know showed up. I wouldn't say that I have more friends here in Valencia than I had when I lived in other places, but I would say that of all the people I hang out with, we all live within a few blocks of each other. My neighborhood of Ruzafa has an even more dense population than where I lived in Seattle. I almost always run into someone I know when I am sitting at a café reading a book. For lack of a better description, I wold say that this place is starting to feel like home—whatever that means to a lifelong wanderer.

It is hard to think of anything more delicious than a ripe tomato. I like to slice a tomato thinly and lay the pieces on a plate. I sprinkle a bit of salt and crushed pepper on each slice and then anoint (this is the word they use in Spanish) them with good olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Then I flip over each piece to let the other side soak up what has dripped on to the plate. If I am really trying hard to make this into a meal I will add a few choice (very choice) olives, bread, and even some sardines. Of course, it would be rude to have this without a small glass of wine. We aren't animals, after all.

You may be thinking to yourself that these two things, meeting friends and tomatoes, have nothing to do with each other but they are both chapters in the book The Best Things in Life.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Walk-up Culture: All the World's a Bar

A lot of restaurants in Spain have a little walk-up window that connects the street directly with the bar which obviates the need to even walk into a place to get your cortado or your quinto (a small 1/5 liter bottle of beer). So not only are there more bars per capita in Spain than any other place in the world, they make it even easier for you to get your shot of coffee or whatever suits your mood. 

I first noticed bars with walk-up windows in Miami. At the time I thought it was a Cuban thing—which it is but its origin is Spanish. I had been to Spain a couple of times before I moved to South Florida but I didn't notice this feature in Spanish bars. There was a little café near my apartment in Florida that had one of these windows and I thought it was pretty cool. I have never seen one of these walk-up windows in Mexico, Peru, or Puerto Rico, and I've been to a lot of bars in Mexico, Peru, and Puerto Rico—the only other Spanish-speaking countries I have visited. Perhaps this aspect of Spanish life immigrated to other Latin American countries.

The whole notion of knocking back a quick shot of coffee at a walk-up window almost seems antithetical to the unhurried pace of life here, unhurried at least until people get behind the wheel of an automobile. If I were forced to explain the phenomena of the walk-up window, I would say that the services provided by bars are so important in the quotidian life of Spanish people that direct access to the street if sometimes necessary. It's like removing a buffer zone between citizens and espresso. I'm surprised that they don't have waiters with trays of espresso patrolling the sidewalks so people don't even have to stop walking to have a shot.

Depending on the weather, I usually prefer to sit at a table outside at a café or stand at the bar inside. This is an important part of every single day for me. If I am alone I use the time to read a book, a football paper, or a newspaper. I sometimes study my vocabulary lists or I study what is going on around me. If you are a tourist, bars provide the best place to connect with Spanish people, something that is true even if you aren't just passing through. If you are out to literally “rub elbows” with the locals, the walk-up window is the place to do it. Whenever I stop for a drink at one of these widows I always feel like I couldn't be more Spanish if I were wearing a matador's costume. I would love to have a picture of a matador at a walk-up window (to digress a bit, I saw a little boy the other day wearing a matador costume and it was so cute that I almost tinkled myself). The walk-up is also handy if you are on your bike and don't feel like locking it up to go inside.

Not every bar in Spain has a walk-up window. In fact, when I went out looking specifically for bars with this attribute I found a lot fewer of them than I thought I would. However, it seems like the bars that don´t have a window were just built wrong, with the bar being against a back wall away from the street instead of along the side of the place moving up to the sidewalk. If I ask an older person here about this I'm sure they will tell me that back in the good-old-days every bar had a walk-up. I actually had someone tell me the other day that there used to be a lot more bars in Spain than there are today. I can't see how that is even possible unless there used to be bars inside of other bars.

I'll probably never find out why the Spanish feel these windows are necessary and other people of other nations don't. Spanish people probably just feel that it is too much of a chore sometimes to walk inside of a bar to get a coffee. I mean, if you have to actually walk through a door you might as well cover the place in barbed wire or build a damn moat around the place. When you are walking the block and a half home from the market who needs the hassle of opening a stupid door just to get a beer?

It's not like there aren't millions of cars in Spain but walking is still a big part of city life. I have yet to see a drive-up window here and I hope that this never catches on—anything that keeps people inside their cars is a bad thing in my book. I'm sure that a walk-up bar window would be breaking about nine million laws in the U.S., although I have bought a cocktail at a drive-thru window in Montana years ago and even then it seemed like a disastrous idea. On the other hand, anything that caters to pedestrians is OK by me. What kind of culture are you looking for, walk-up or drive-thru?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Sin Pijos

(No Douche Bags*)

Something about me that I think has changed irrevocably since living in Spain is my attitude about bars and restaurants and status and being “seen,” or whatever the hell you call it. I mean, there are a few trendy bars and restaurants in Valencia, at least I think that I have seen places like that. I just go to the places that 99% of Spanish people go for a drink or a cup of coffee. As I have mentioned many times before, Spain has more bars per capita than any country in the world, and they are all sort of exactly the same. The Spanish bar is probably the most easily recognizable modern cultural icon of this country and plays a much more important role in daily life here than does its American counterpart which probably explains the lack of pretension in the vast majority of Spanish watering holes. Bars in Spain are the moral equivalent of the proletarian worker´s smock in China—its functionality far outweighs its aesthetic importance.

This isn't to say that Spanish bars are dreary or unattractive, they are simply stamped from the one-size-fits-all mold like a Chinese worker´s garment. I think that the Spanish have the attitude that “if it's not broke, don't fix it” when it comes to bars. The sort of bar you find on just about every street corner in Spain (and often another one in the middle of the block) is perfectly acceptable in the minds of the people who matter the most in this equation: the folks who flow in and out of these places throughout the day. The bar as an institution is too important in daily life here to allow it to become some sort of exclusive enclave of yuppies, hipsters, sportos, beautiful people, or whatever stupid subculture is all the rage this week. One of my biggest complaints about modern American culture is that we feel the need to obsequiously cater to ever single group of douche bags under the sun, creating a sort of apartheid of trendiness, instead of just forcing everyone to mix with with others outside of their own ilk.

It´s not like there aren't places in Spain that are subculture specific but the vast majority of bars are there to serve the needs of everyone. I mean, everyone drinks coffee, beer, and wine, right? And everyone needs to get a bite to eat, watch the news on TV, read the paper, bullshit with their neighbors , take a load off their feet, and do all of the other things that people do in bars, so why should anyone try to turn these mundane pursuits into some sort of stupid status game? I suppose the homogeneity of Spanish bars has a lot to do with the fact that not too long ago this was a poor country. I just hope that this aspect of Spanish culture doesn't feel the need to change now that the country is quickly becoming wealthy.

After all, isn't it to be around other people the reason we go to public places in the first place? If the bar you go to is too subculture-specific you are never going to talk to anyone other than people just like you, people your age with your interests and dislikes. When you think about it, that sounds pretty awful. When you think about it, your little hipster-haven bar or restaurant is like the douche bag country club in Caddy Shack (so many of life´s important lessons can be found in that movie) which makes you Judge Smails, and no one wants to be Judge Smails. I'd rather go to the bar where the caddies hang out.

*A very loose translation

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Lasagna with Bolognese Sauce

Lasagna with Bolognese Sauce (sort of)

Lasagna is a fairly simple dish. I have only made it a handful of times in my life. This is due to the fact that it is time-consuming to prepare and it isn't exactly my favorite dish in the world. I am only making it today because I had lasagna the other day at someone´s house that they bought pre-made from the supermarket and I told them that American lasagna is a lot different and better. The lasagna here comes with béchamel sauce which I have never seen in American lasagna. I use a simple meat and tomato sauce, ricotta and mozzarella cheese, and a bit of Parmesan. The pasta noodles here are also different than those you get in the States. The ones here are smaller than a paperback book and thinner that the first 25 pages.

Here's what I use:

2 cans whole tomatoes
1 can tomato puree
1 can tomato paste (tomato paste here isn't as concentrated)
3 onions (chopped roughly)
4 cloves garlic (diced or crushed)
2 pounds ground beef and pork mix
1 glass red wine
Salt, pepper, 3 bay leaves, oregano, basil, red pepper flakes

Fresh mozzarella cheese
ricotta cheese (I use queso fresco here in Spain)

Lasagna noodles.

Sauté the onions in olive oil. Add garlic when onions have turned color. When garlic has cooked a bit I de-glaze the pan with the cup of red wine and add the canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, and paste.

Brown the meat separately I a pan with more cooked onion. Pour of the fat and pour in a bit more red wine. Add this to the tomato sauce after the sauce has cooked for at least an hour. Let this cook together for another 45 minutes or so.

Cook the noodles a few at a time in boiling water with olive oil and salt. Just allow them to loosen up a bit; they don´t need to cook too thoroughly. Place a layer of the noodles in a baking dish. Add a layer of meat sauce and a layer of cheese. Repeat this and top the pan with another layer of noodles. Bake this at °170c for about 1 hour. The cheese should be bubbling.

As I said, it´s an easy dish and every time that I have made it I was pleased with the result. I would rather just make something with another type of pasta, like zitti or rigatoni using the same ingredients and technique, more of less.

Friday, May 09, 2008

The Not-So-United Nations

I stopped in at a bar in my neighborhood of Ruzafa the other day to have a cup of coffee. The place is owned by a Chinese guy which seems to be the trend in Valencia. More and more of the little mom-and-pop corner cafés are being purchased by Chinese immigrants. I had been in this place before and I recognized the owner as he sat at a table in the mostly-empty place playing solitaire. The guy tending the bar was talking in Arabic to three young guys at the counter. At one point the barman sneezed and I reflexively sang out, “Jesús.” I immediately corrected myself because I thought that he was probably a Muslim. I asked him what I would say in Arabic when a person sneezes. “Al humd Allah,” he answered, which means “Praise the lord.” Neither of us knew what you would say in Chinese and the owner looked too busy with his game of solitaire to be of any use to us.

In the past I was usually held with suspicion when I have mentioned that I speak a bit of Arabic. I think it is different when I tell someone this while speaking Spanish. I suppose that an American who is already speaking another language is not quite so suspicious to an Arab when he says that he speaks Arabic. I showed him my rather childish written Arabic. Of course, my English handwriting is also pretty childish. Sa'id, the barman, grew up in France and told me that he barely reads and writes Arabic, although he speaks it fluently. He also speaks very good Spanish. He told me that he speaks English as well although I hardly ever speak English if I don´t have to. I would much rather speak Spanish when I am out, or French, or even Arabic, although that would be a rather tedious conversation as my Arabic sucks these days. My Spanish doesn't suck any more as all of the reading that I do is paying off—that and the fact that I have lived here for almost a year and a half.

I almost never speak French although I have a few French friends here. Ruzafa is full of immigrants from all over and there are more languages being spoken than you could imagine. There are dozens of businesses catering to Arab immigrants: Halal butcher shops, barber shops, tea houses, and grocery stores. Most of the Arab immigrants are from Morocco or Algeria. Apart from a few older women who wear the hijab, the Arab immigrants seem to blend in fairly well.

There are a lot of places that provide for the Latin American immigrants in the neighborhood. These are mostly Ecuadorians who make up the largest immigrant group in Spain. There are also a lot of Bolivians in Ruzafa. Unfortunately for someone who likes to cook Mexican food, there are very few Mexicans in Valencia. I am able to buy corn tortillas at one of the Latin American food stores down the street, but what other few products they have from Mexico are prohibitively expensive. Most of the stuff these places carry is a big mystery to me.

There doesn't seem to be a lot of Pakistani immigrants here but they seem to own every green grocer and internet café in the city. They also have also run a lot of little grocery stores that are referred to as “Pakis” by my Spanish friends. I don't think this has the derogatory connotation as it does to English speakers although I don't use this term. I do like to buy my spices at these small stores because you can get them in larger quantities than they sell in the supermarkets. I use stuff like cumin, red and black pepper, and turmeric practically in bulk so the little bottles from Mercadona just don't cut the mustard. These stores are also open when everything else is closed. Something that comes in handy when you need a bottle of beer or something to eat late at night. The Pakistanis also run most of the kebab joints around town which cater to all of the Muslims because they don't serve pork products, which in pork-happy Spain is quite a feat.

And then there are the Chinese who I find to be the most enigmatic immigrant group in Spain. I have read almost nothing about the Chinese in Spain since I arrived and I read two newspapers almost every day (El País and Levante). I would love to learn more about the Chinese in Spain but I don't know where to look. Forget about asking them directly as I have never been able to hold a conversation with a Chinese immigrant and not for lack of trying. They have a rather formidable language barrier to overcome but they also seem to use this as a wall to keep others out of their doings. My Spanish friends don't seem to know anything about the Chinese at all. If anyone knows where I can find out more about this community, please let me know.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

What Would John Gotti Do?

(After garroting them with piano wire and stuffing the body in a wood chipper)

All of us have our moments of indecision and self doubt, times when we feel lacking in the clarity of vision necessary to carry out important tasks. Asking for divine guidance always has seemed to be a complete waste of time and rarely offered the type of solutions you really thought the situation warranted. What would Jesus do? Turn the other cheek? Love thy neighbor? Dude, you are killing me with this passive-aggressive shit. What the hell kind of advice is that when you have a business to run? Jesus would be laughed out of every boardroom in the country. No, if you are like me you are looking for advice that is a little more practical for the modern world. Things are a lot tougher now than back when Jesus was a self-help guru. I feel that for the 21st century we need a new iconic figure to give us counsel in our times of need.

John Gotti lived a life every bit as humble as that of Jesus, at least when he was confined to a 7 X 8 cell at the United States Penitentiary at Marion, Illinois. Humility is a bit over-rated, in my opinion, and humility isn´t going to make your “little problem” with the Cali Cartel go away, not unless “Humility” is the name of a new, semi-automatic assault rifle. What Gotti has that Jesus lacks is authority—authority and pinky rings. Gotti is just the man to turn to for advice on everything from business tactics to gardening secrets (just don´t dig down too deep in that part of the garden unless you´re looking for some teeth).

Even if you aren´t holding the reigns of a violent criminal empire, you stand to benefit from our radio call-in show, What would John Gotti do? (after garroting them with piano wire and throwing the body in a wood chipper). His step-by-step formulas could be the answer to all of your problems. Here are a few questions taken directly from callers just like you:

One of my top lieutenants is going to rat me out to the FBI. How should I handle this?

What would John Gotti do? (after garroting them with piano wire and throwing the body in a wood chipper)
First of all, take a deep breath and count to ten. Remember, never act out of anger. Next, be sure to wash out the wood chipper with bleach so as to destroy any traces of your lieutenant´s DNA.

I think that one of my employees is stealing office supplies but I can´t prove it. It isn´t much, a stapler here, a printer cartridge there, but it´s starting to add up. What should I do?

What would John Gotti do? (after beating them to death with a tire iron and throwing the body in a shallow grave)
Make sure that you are in Florida when it goes down. Keep all of your receipts so you can prove it to the feds when they come sniffing around, fucking pricks.

My neighbor´s dog always takes a dump in my yard and he never cleans up after it. How can I get this to stop?

What would John Gotti do? (after throwing them down an open elevator shaft and dumping the body in a trash compactor)
Volunteer to help him look for his dog when it goes missing. He won´t suspect nothin´.

Stop whining and start acting like a goombah. Your troubles aren´t going to just disappear, but throwing things in a wood chipper almost makes them disappear.