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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Summer Menu


If you had to plan an ideal menu of Spanish and Mediterranean cuisine it would probably come close to what we had this past weekend at the country home of a couple who recently left my hectic neighborhood of Ruzafa for the peaceful hills of an agricultural community south of Valencia. It’s a startling contrast whenever I spend time at their place where I will spend days without hearing a car horn or a jack hammer—two instruments that are major contributors to the soundtrack of life in the city. We have always eaten well when we spend time together but these last few days were exceptional. I haven’t visited them in months and it was like we were making up for lost time in the kitchen and on the patio grill.

I had bought a huge supply of tomatoes which are on sale all over Valencia in the usual summer gold rush manner. I hauled almost four kilos of them along with me for the weekend. Upon arriving I almost immediately started making gazpacho. This is a dish that belongs in your refrigerator all through the summer months. It is also easy to make and open to a lot of personal interpretation and adaptation. It’s impossible to mess up and the only cooking required is when you drop the tomatoes in hot water to remove the skins. The important thing to remember about gazpacho is that after it has been left in the fridge to chill you will want to take it out and adjust the seasoning. My huge batch went from bland and uninspired to delicious after I added quite a bit more olive oil, garlic, and salt after leaving it overnight to chill.

One of the things that I most missed about Mediterranean cooking when I left Greece many years ago and returned to the United States were grilled sardines. I don’t think we have the tradition of eating these little fish except in canned form. It just so happened that my friends had just visited their local fish merchant and picked up about three kilos of very fresh sardines. Although the people along the Mediterranean think rather highly of sardines they aren’t willing to pay much for them. They cost about 2€ a kilo. The modest price of this variety of fish means that they sell quickly which insures that the quantity you buy is always fresh. Anyone who has done a bit of angling knows that fresh fish are harder to scale than older stocks; a small price to pay when preparing sardines—and cleaning three kilos of sardines is quite a bloodbath. I rarely ever cook sardines at home, mainly because I don’t have a grill and also I don’t want to drive my neighbors away with the smell they make while cooking. Grilled sardines are one of the few reasons I ever bother to go to a restaurant in Valencia. Of course the odor isn’t a problem when you have a grill on the patio of a country home.

We cleaned the fish and then sprinkled them with very coarse salt before placing them on a double-sided grilling rack over a hot charcoal fire. High quality charcoal is something my friend takes very seriously so he buys it in huge 40 kilo bags from an Argentine who supplies a lot of backyard barbequers in his area. When the sardines come off the grill you simply splash on a bit of olive oil and you are ready to serve. I don’t even bother with lemon. These sardines are about 20 centimeters (8 inches) in length so they have a healthy backbone. With smaller sardines I just eat them bones and all but on these the meat separates easily. After a swelteringly hot day the heat had waned considerably and we were able to eat outside on the patio. Other factors in our favor were the Mediterranean summer dining rules which allow you to begin an evening meal at 1 am. This was going to be a tough meal to top and it was only Friday.

I’m the kind of guy who brings along his own chicken when you invite him over for the weekend. Friday afternoon I had cut it into pieces and seasoned it with salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, paprika, and garlic. I drizzled olive oil over all of it and put it in a covered glass dish in the refrigerator. On paper this doesn’t sound like the most imaginative dish I the world but it is amazing the results you get with a good charcoal fire. We had this chicken for lunch the next day and it was slow grilled to absolute perfection. The gazpacho came out well, if I do say so myself. A slice of bread and a glass or two of wine (who’s counting?) and we had another great meal.

There is a wonderful community swimming pool just a few blocks down the street so I headed down there a bit after lunch. As much cycling and running as I have been doing lately haven’t really prepared me to take my position on the podium of World’s Underwater Swimming Champion, a post I held for many years—at least in my own eyes. I could barely make one lap of the pool (25 meters? perhaps less) underwater without drowning. I used to be able to make it twice this distance. I am just out of practice as I haven’t been snorkeling since I moved to Spain and it’s been a long time since I really worked to improve my underwater swimming skills. If I ever want to be a Navy SEAL I had better get cracking.

None of us were even thinking about dinner that evening until late into the night. Of course, there was enough gazpacho to withstand a month-long siege but we didn’t have anything else planned. I made an appetizer with some of the leftover sardines. I just mounted them on a thin slice of bread in the Spanish manner of montaditos. Along with a glass of white wine we were off to a good start to another fine meal.

My host whipped up a dish that should be in everyone’s repertoire: pasta aglio olio: pasta in a sauce of olive oil and garlic. This Italian standard has been mastered by every resident of that peninsula and has made into way into the diet of just about everyone else living on the Mediterranean. It is as simple as it is delicious. Boil pasta (tagliatelle in this case), heat a good amount of olive oil, add minced garlic, and toss the pasta in the oil. I make it with red pepper flakes as well. We served this with fresh basil and Parmesan cheese. People tell me that this is a late night dish in Italy, usually served after you have been out all night dancing or whatever. We call it “drunk food” in American where we are a little less moderate in our intake of beer, wine, liquor, shots, tequila, more beer, another round of shots, etc.

As he made the pasta he also started a huge pot of fish stock to be used with Sunday’s traditional Valencian rice dish. The stock contained two heads of rape (monkfish?), some galeras, a truly terrifying version of shrimp, and langostinos. A good stock is crucial for a successful Arroz a Banda that we would be making for tomorrow’s afternoon meal.

I feel stuffed just writing all of this down and I still have another big meal left to describe. I have previously posted a video for Arroz a Banda so I will spare us all this meal. I would like to say that he changed his recipe a bit this time around and added cuttlefish to the dish. I think that it is safe for me to say that I ate rather well last weekend.


Gazpacho