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 cacerolada—hashtagged 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
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.
For the canelons
- 16 small pasta sheets for cannellonis*
- 2 bags (10 ounces each) fresh spinach leaves
- 3 tablespoons raisins
- 3 tablespoons pine nuts
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 3 tablespoons butter, diced
- ½ cup emmental cheese
- salt and pepper to taste
For the bechamel
- 4 cups whole milk
- 4 tablespoons flour
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1 bay leaf
- ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
- ⅛ teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
- ¼ cup pecorino cheese (optional)
- ¼ teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Soak the pasta sheets in hot water or cook them, per the instructions on the package. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat, add the pine nuts and cook, stirring constantly, until they begin to turn golden. Add the raisins and the garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes more. Add the spinach and cook until wilted. Add salt, pepper and clove. Set aside. To make the bechamel sauce, bring the milk and the bay leaf to a gentle boil. Turn off stove and let sit. Meanwhile, heat the butter in a pan. Add the flour and stir until it begins to turn golden without burning. Remove the bay leaf from the milk and add the it, along with the nutmeg, cinnamon, and salt, to the flour mixture, stirring gently until lumps disappear. Cook for 30 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. Do not overstir. Stir in the cheese. Cover the bottom of an oven-safe dish with a thin layer of the bechamel sauce. Place a tablespoon of the filling into the center of each pasta sheet, roll, and place in the dish with the opening facing down. Top with the rest of the bechamel sauce, sprinkle with the cheese. Dot with the pieces of cold butter. Place in oven, cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove foil and cook for another 5 to 10 minutes until the cheese is golden brown. *Notes: Here, the sheets of pasta for canelons are sold flat in a box similar to lasagne pasta sheets, and are quite small, about the size of the palm of my hand. I use the pre-cooked kind that only need to soak for 20 minutes before using. A whole box of 16 sheets fills a 9 by 11 baking dish. If you cannot find something similar, the regular Italian cannelloni tubes will work, although you may have to increase the amount of filling. Because they will be difficult to fill, after you cook or soak them according to the instructions, you may want to slice them open flat, fill and then re-roll them.