Chard

IMG_8652I love breakfast. For that reason, I’ll never make a perfect Catalan. I don’t love fuet. I’m not a fan of a morning sandwich, except for the kind you find at the delis in New York. I will admit to gobbling down a half a loaf of pa amb tomaquet–that famous Catalan breakfast (or anytime) item made by spreading tomato pulp, olive oil, and salt on a soft loaf of good breadbefore snowboarding or when the cupboards are growing bare, but I’ll never love it like I love a good savory egg dish. This morning, I collected a variety of foods in the refrigerator that needed immediate attention: the swiss chard that was supposed to become the side dish to a Chinese fish dish, several slightly wrinkled cherry tomatoes, half a forlorn onion. Out of desperation and hunger, It became this.

Swiss Chard Strata

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Here, we often use what are called cintas in place of normal bacon. They are small, pre-sliced pieces of pancetta that are smoky and perfect for an egg dish like this one. You can use pancetta, ham, or even American-style bacon as a substitute, if need be. Everything else should be easily accessible in your local market. Continue reading

Panses

A flashback. Ten minutes. Car horns blare in the distance. The flash of a firecracker flickers off the building. The night dissolves into a flurry of clanking, tinny chimes, as neighbors beat on pots and pans with spoons. It’s the caceroladahashtagged as cassolada in reference to cassola, the Catalan word for pan, their weapon of choice. Six minutes. Someone begins to beat a statacco rhythm that reminds me a calypso beat. Silhouettes shadow forth from the recesses of dimly lit apartments. Only the flickering blue of a television screen lights many of the apartments across the courtyard. Four minutes. A crowd of people have gathered in the apartment upstairs and their voices carry through the floor. Cheering and yelling float out from somewhere in the distance, but mostly the night is filled with the sound of metal on metal. One minute. The moon is almost full. At exactly 10:15, the world goes silent. It’s three days until 9-N–November 9th–the day the Catalans will vote for independence. It’s not technically a legal vote, mired down in political bureaucracy, punctuated by aggressive moves and countermoves on the part of both the Spanish and the Catalan governments. It’s complicated for those both on the inside and the outside, and tensions are running high behind the scenes. Other than the bright yellow and red posters across the city and the occasional voter information booth in the central plaza, it would be hard for an outsider to tell there was anything amiss. But each night at ten, the people make their way to their windows and beat their pans to show the world what they want. It is a protest, albeit the strangest one I’ve seen here yet. Instead of shattered storefronts, upturned trash bins, and fires burning in the streets, this is a peaceful call. As I sit listening to the strange sounds of the cassolada from my apartment windows, I’m also writing an essay about food for my university magazine. I search through my memories and am taken back to a small village on the coast south of Barcelona where I discovered my favorite seafood dish. I write about the evolution of my understanding of cooking in a foreign place, of Catalan predilections in the kitchen, of the nuances between their home and mine. I wish, while I’m writing it, that it could still be summer, that I could still sit in the sun on a wide terrace overlooking the sea and eat a paella made from fideua, the Catalan noodle-based version of the dish. But sadly, it’s already growing crisp outside, the seasons are already shifting. I have to dig through my repertoire for a recipe to include with my essay that is more seasonally appropriate. I choose, instead, to write about canelons, like the Italian cannelloni, because they are a perfect fall food and also associated with Christmas which feels just around the bend. Not long from now, when the air grows truly cold and the ice rink is constructed in the main plaza, giant ceramic noodles called galets will begin to appear on the street corners, in homage to the Christmas soup called escudella that is eaten each Christmas day. They are  lit from within, like a glowing reminder of your impending Christmas meal. It’s my favorite time to walk the streets in Barcelona, when people are happy, restaurants are warm, and food is the glue that draws people together. I will miss the galets this Christmas, my approved visa status finally drawing me home early, in time for Thanksgiving at that, to meet my seven-month-old nephew for the very first time. I won’t regret it.

Cannelloni with Spinach, Pine Nuts and Raisins

Canelons amb espinacs, pinyons i panses

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Brought by the Italians in the early eighteenth century, canelons are now one of the most traditional dishes in Catalan cuisine. This is a typical Christmas dish usually made on the holiday of Sant Esteve which falls on the 26th of December, although it is eaten throughout the year. Canelons are made with a variety of fillings–roasted chicken, veal, or lamb–which are often left over from Christmas dinner. This vegetarian version is quite common, and the filling is often made as a side dish. Continue reading

Pecan

Every year, when I’m home for Christmas, my stepmother makes delicious spiced pecans. This year was no different. I woke up one morning to find the kitchen lined with hefty 2-pound bags of pecans, giant bags of Publix sugar, and a jar of cinnamon. The eggs of course were in the refrigerator where every self-respecting American keeps their eggs. Odd to me now, but I accept that it’s probably safer that way. In America, at least. For two days straight, she made batch after batch of them on our largest cookie sheet, filling the entire kitchen with the fragrant smell of cinnamon that makes vacation at home feel like a holiday. They’re impossible to keep your hands off of, trust me on that. For that reason, it would probably a good idea to make only as many as would be kosher to eat in one sitting. Luckily, she was making them to give away as gifts in small, handmade bags, to all of the people who help us year after year.

Pecans are incredibly expensive here, since they are imported and rarely eaten in Spain, but I buy them anyway from Casa Gispert, a tiny little coffee roastery and market on Carrer dels Sombrerers in the Born neighborhood near the famous Santa Maria del Mar church. I always threaten to make a pecan pie with them, but that usually involves a trip to the basement supermarket of El Corte Ingles, our giant department store chain or to any one of several overpriced American food stores to stock up on corn syrup, because I am yet confused as to how it is possible to make a good pecan pie without it. It usually happens that before I can do anything with them, I’ve eaten the entire kilo bag, pecan by raw pecan. Once, some of them were lucky enough to make it into this couscous salad that I posted this past fall. What I can manage to do with them, however, is to make this wonderfully simple version of my stepmother’s recipe, because there is never a time when I don’t have all the ingredients on hand.

Cinnamon Spiced Pecans 

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The recipe below belongs to my stepmother, although to be sure she took it from somewhere else, many moons ago. If I knew the original source, I would gladly give credit where credit is due. If I were to make these again, it would be with the smoked cinnamon from Atomic Spices cold-smoked by Carol Tarr*, a fellow Chicagoan who has set up shop in Amsterdam where I ran into her at a pop-up store one chilly November afternoon. After I ate my way through most of her samples, I went home and ordered one of everything she had. I would recommend you do the same.

*Listed in the Dutch ELLE Food magazine (ELLE Eten) as one of their “100 Favorites” for 2014

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Sesame

It’s winter, but it doesn’t feel like it. In Florida, it rarely does. The temperature is in the 70s, the sun is shining. I am sweating beneath the shade of an old oak tree. I’m craving a reason to put socks on or perhaps even for a patch of snow on the ground. I think of the gray days I left behind in Maine, where I stopped over to visit two dear friends of mine. The long expanses of white, the leaden purple sky tinged with a peach that was meant to count as daylight. I wear my sweatshirt stubbornly, as if the clouds might roll in and save me.

The days are filled with simple tasks, the way vacation days should be. I drink tall cups of extra strong coffee, read the newspaper while our Dachshunds lace themselves around my feet in figure eights, and watch the neighborhood boys (no longer boys I suppose, most of them married with kids of their own) play round after round of half-court basketball. The squeak of their shoes against the slab concrete feels unerringly familiar.

When heat subsides a bit, I pull my tiny nephew around in the red Radio-Flyer wagon he got for Christmas, listening to the acorns crunching underneath the wheels. He sits up straight and grips the sides tightly with plump dimpled fingers. Most of the time, his seven-month-old face is masked in what could be wonder. I think he’s having fun, but it’s hard to tell. My father waves to him from his seat on the small terrace outside the kitchen. At one point, my nephew lifts his arm in what might be a wave, but his body flags in a way that makes me think of the drunken dance of a charmed cobra, and he grabs the rail again, his tiny fingernails white with the effort. He can’t sit up for long though, and as he loses energy, he begins to slowly slide down into the wagon until he’s a slightly crumpled heap. My sister picks him up again and repositions him. We roll on.

As we walk, I recount the items I have in the fridge to use before I leave: a tube of lemongrass paste (because I couldn’t find it fresh); a brick of red miso that made one meal and many dressings and still I couldn’t use it all; an unreasonably giant tub of tahini (because everything in America is extra large). I sift through memories of meals made and meals eaten, considering all the possibilities. I think of Israel.

Israel is a complicated place; there’s no doubt about it. But when it comes to mind, I try to leave politics behind and think not of its complexities but of its simplicities. I remember the endless stretch of white sand beach in Tel Aviv, a heart-wrenching view out over the water in Jaffa.

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I think of the food that we had throughout our journey: the smoky eggplant dish my friend had in Nazareth; the crunchy warm balls of felafel we ate in Bethlehem; the best labne I’ve ever tasted from a perch overlooking the sea.

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