Tahini

Today I battled the Boqueria, our most famous market, and came home with literal armfuls of herbs. Mint, dill, basil, parsley. More than I know what to do with. I also came home so hungry I could barely unpack my groceries. I made this salad in about 10 minutes flat. I call it my emergency salad.

Couscous Salad

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Serves 2

For the salad

  • 1 cup couscous
  • 1 cup pecans, sliced
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 1 bunch mint, chopped
  • 5 tablespoons tahini
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup water

Add the olive oil to a small pot and heat over medium. Add the couscous and stir until coated. Heat until the couscous on the bottom is toasted. Add 1 cup water, turn off the heat and cover. Let sit 3 minutes until all the water is absorbed. Fluff with a fork.

Put the couscous in a bowl, add the rest of the ingredients, including the dressing, and mix well.

For the dressing

  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup white wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons cumin
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 lemon
  • black pepper, optional

Whisk together the oil, vinegar, cumin and salt. Add the juice of the lemon. Whisk again. Add the zest of the lemon at the end. Add more salt to taste, if needed, and a few turns of the pepper grinder.

Cardamom

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The air was heavy with a scent of something unidentifiable, arid and subtly spiced. The taxi wound its way through the small hills until the land flattened out and desert sand stretched out on both sides of the road. The palette of entire landscape was muted, as though a thin veil of smoke had settled over everything. It was a two-hour ride to Petra from the border, an easy trip despite the vast emptiness around us.

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Camels ranged in the distance, and when we came across two that crossed the road in a ragged lope, our driver pulled over quickly and insisted we take as many photos as possible. We stopped at an overlook and stood at the edge of a deep ravine, buffeted by strong gusts of wind, the strata of the pale coral rock stretching out below us, a testament of time passing.

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We said no to the repeated offers of our taxi driver to take us far into the desert, to see the red sands of Wadi Rum, made famous by the movie Lawrence of Arabia. We figured that we would have barely enough time for the trip to Petra before we had to return to the Israeli border in time to cross before closing. After an hour of persistent negotiations, our driver finally fell silent and drove us without further protest to the gates of Petra, stopping only once more–more for himself than for us it seemed–to admire a flock of sheep on the side of the road.

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We arrived back in the late afternoon to find our taxi driver in a fuss about how late we were. It was hard to find a horse to carry us out we explained. We had to walk instead. He was nonplussed by our excuses, clearly concerned about making the trip back in time. After a while in the car, he calmed down, seeming to settle into the rhythmic monotony of the drive. We passed through several towns and then several roadside stands as civilization started to fade into the distance.

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Suddenly, the driver whipped the car off the road, pulling up shortly in front of a small crumbling white building that looked like a small shop. “I invite you to a coffee,” he said. I said no, used to buffeting his propositions and a little confused by the strange offer. My friend also said no. She doesn’t drink coffee. He insisted twice more until I finally gave in, feeling too American, imagining I was being rude in a culture that likely valued hospitality over personal desire. In a moment, he returned to the car with a small silver tray, bearing two glass cups, filled with a coffee so dark and rich, it looked almost black. I smiled, grateful for his kindness. I was hit in the same moment with the scent of something so strange and wonderful, I was momentarily spellbound. The coffee smelled as though it was laced with spices and tasted of the bright lemony notes of cardamom. It was thick and rich and unlike anything I had ever tasted before. It was then that I realized that this is the moment that defines traveling. The kind of moment that cannot be found anywhere else in the world, that can never be repeated. A singular sensory experience bound up in place and time. I went home and tried to recreate that coffee again and again based on a quickly fading memory. This is closest I came.

 Cardamom Coffee

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I use a small Italian coffee pot, or macchinetta as they call it in Italy. The most common Italian brand is Bialetti, and they are easy to find in any kitchen store. They are simple to use and make a consistently good pot of strong espresso. Although my Italian friends inevitably choose Lavazza, I always use Illy espresso because I prefer the taste over Lavazza. It carries a more nutty and chocolatey flavor as opposed to the brighter more acidic notes of Lavazza. Given that I am no expert on these matters, I’ll leave it to you to choose your brand. The only thing we will both insist on is using best water you can find.

serves 2

  • Illy coffee
  • 5 cardamom pods

Crush the cardamom pods in a mortar. Fill the coffee basket with coffee to the top and add the cardamom pods, tamping it down so as to not leave air gaps but not too tightly. Fill the bottom chamber with water until just below the screw. Close tightly and heat over a medium flame. Watch the pot closely. As soon as the coffee finishes brewing, remove from the heat to avoid burning it.

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Almond

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The days are getting stranger. I go to the market around the corner and ask for artichokes. “A l’hivern,” I’m told. In winter. I sigh. I’m constantly being told no.

Today I wanted to make lavender panna cotta, but I need fresh lavender for the photo. I go to the florist around the corner and search among the plants only to spy two bedraggled half dead lavender plants under the display. I ask the owner if he has more or when he might get some. He says it’s horrible this season. They’re all dead. All the old ladies have come back to complain about the state of their lavender plants. The one I bought from him two months ago has also kicked the bucket, but I don’t relay this because I don’t want to make him feel worse. I tell him I need it for a photo, hoping he might produce a place I can find some. He goes behind the tiny counter in the corner and plucks a dried bouquet of lavender out of a small glass vase. It’s tied with a simple paper string. “Will this do?” he asks. I immediately accept it, although I have my doubts, because I don’t want to turn my nose up at his resourcefulness. “Photograph it. Use it. Bring it back when you can.” He doesn’t charge me for it. This is the way of Spain. The man at the coffee shop where I stop most mornings often says to me when I’m digging around for change to cover my tab, “Bring it another day.” I don’t have quite enough change for the cab. “No pasa nada” with a flick of the hand. So it goes. I have an intense feeling of gratitude for these small acquaintances. It’s taken time to learn them, to cultivate them. But they’ve become the closest feeling to home I have.

I walk the two blocks home, past the Moroccan embassy. A man is being pulled out onto the sidewalk by what appears to be his sponsor holding an official looking folder filled with papers. He’s yelling and gesticulating. The sponsor lets him go and starts to walk away, upset. At the light, he turns around and they begin again. I find an odd sense of comfort in this scene. The ire at the immigration process. The rejection and frustration. I’ve had problems with my residency status too. I understand what it means to be told no.

In the elevator, I have the sudden realization that I’m going about this all wrong. I need to stop thinking, then writing, and then shopping. Instead I need to shop, think, then write. This is the most fundamental rule of cooking, and I’d forgotten it. It’s the rule of the season which we live by in Europe. Which doesn’t exist in America where you can get anything all of the time. I’ve been trained wrong. I have a lot of unlearning to do. The elevator doors open. The hallway is darker than usual. There is a small woman standing before me. I ask her what floor we’re on, explain that I’ve got two more floors to go. In my confusion, I switch to the wrong verb. Again. The doors close, and I sigh in frustration. When will this finally become natural? When will I not have to think about this anymore? I have faith that it gets better–this frustration with language–even though it will probably never entirely go away. When up against an obstacle, change the route. By the time I make it in the door, I’m onto almonds instead.

Tarta de Santiago

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I fell in love with this dessert when I ate it for the first time at Dalí in Cambridge, Massachusetts long before I ever set foot in Spain. Their version skips the powdered sugar and sits in a pool of sweet liqueur instead. The traditional version calls for the form of a cross to be dusted onto the top. This is my apology to my downstairs neighbor whose clothes I accidentally watered yesterday morning. I hope they’re finally dry now.

  • 1 cup Marcona almonds, peeled and ground*
  • 3/4 cup white sugar
  • 5 large eggs
  • 1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 ounces liqueur**
  • 1 lemon peel, grated
  • 1 piece unsalted butter
  • 1 ounce liqueur (optional)
  • 2 ounces powdered sugar (optional)

In a food processor, blend the almonds until finely ground. Then in a pan, toast over low heat until light golden brown. Set aside to cool.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs and then add the sugar and stir until well blended. Add the cinnamon, lemon zest, and liqueur and mix thoroughly. Add the almonds and fold in until fully incorporated.

Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees. While it is heating up, grease a springform pan with the butter. Add the mixture to the pan, cover with foil and bake for 40 minutes checking the doneness every fifteen minutes or so. You can remove the foil for the last 10 minutes or so watching carefully to make sure it doesn’t burn.

Remove from oven, allow to cool, and dust with powdered sugar.

*As with all recipes of few ingredients, quality really matters. Buy the best almonds, the best free-range organic eggs and quality spices. Don’t be afraid of a chicken feather or two.

**This recipe calls for a liqueur from Spain called hierbas. Like it’s name, it’s an herbal liqueur found in various iterations throughout southern Europe under slightly different names and served as an after-dinner digestif. I used a homemade version called Mistela that my good friend Pol brought to my house for a party. An anise liqueur is probably the most similar–although I personally find the flavor too strong–but you can use whatever is easiest to find. If you want to add an extra ounce to the plate at the end, you can. Or top with powdered sugar instead.

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Espresso

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Summers in Barcelona are warm. People here complain all the time about the heat and humidity, and I have to repress an eye roll every time I hear it, reminding myself that they’ve never experienced the brutality of a Florida summer. Inevitably they never believe me when I try to explain it to them. With the constant sea breeze, I find the summer months quite bearable here, but that doesn’t lessen my desire to eat gelato every single day. In order to not go completely broke in the face of this weakness, I’ve committed to making frozen yogurt at home from now on. I must thank my good friend poet Tasha Graff for cluing me in.

I’ve tried to make this recipe as simple as possible, but feel free to adjust to taste. I used eucalyptus honey and demerara sugar, but you can use whatever you have on hand. However a mild variety of honey is best. I prefer my frozen yogurt on the less sweet side, so if you like it sweeter, you could increase the sugar to ⅔ cup. I also made this version without an ice cream maker, which takes a bit more time but is equally delicious. If I’m struggling to eat it all (which doesn’t happen), I’ll pop it into the blender with some milk and a frozen banana for breakfast. But then, I’ll make almost anything into a smoothie…

Espresso Frozen Yogurt

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Serves 4

  • 1 cup Greek-style yogurt
  • 1 cup espresso, preferably Illy or another good quality brand
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 teaspoons espresso grounds
  • pinch of salt

Make the espresso and then pour into a heat-safe bowl. While it’s still hot, add the sugar and the honey and stir until fully dissolved. Let cool and then add the yogurt, coffee grounds, and the salt. Stir until well blended. Place in a freezer safe container and freeze for five hours, removing every half an hour or so to stir well, breaking up any ice crystals.

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Truffle

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I wouldn’t call the truffle particular to Catalunya although the local mushroom hunters take great pride in rooting them out of the wilderness each fall, and you see them showing up in many local dishes. The Italians would likely argue for its provenance–for the white variety at least–which is found in the Piedmont region where I sought it out, one fall, over the Thanksgiving weekend. Each fall, the Slow Food organization sets up their annual food festival in the city of Alba to celebrate, among other local delights, the famous white truffle though workshops, tastings, and green markets. Given that I would be missing the Thanksgiving celebration back home, I decided to at least keep food in first place that weekend, and the festival’s focus on excellent food made that an indulgent reality.

Back in Barcelona, I slowly become aware of how ubiquitous truffles are, albeit generally only the black variety since the white truffle is not as easily found outside the Alba area and thus is extremely expensive. I see it most often in the of the most well-known local dishes, canelones, a Catalan variation of the Italian dish that most Americans are already familiar with. Here they are filled with roasted chicken, lamb or beef and the truffle is laced into the buttery, creamy sauce that covers the dish. Yet, the purists at Tapas 24 celebrate the truffle with in a much more straightforward way, in a dish which take some of the simplest and most highly regarded ingredients of Spanish cuisine and melds them together into one sublime bite. A glorified grilled cheese, this tapa is made with good quality slices of cured ham known here as jamon, aged Manchego cheese, which we call curado (as opposed to the lighter semi-curado), and black truffle shavings pressed between two simple slices of rustic white bread with the crusts cut off. Given its write up in every guidebook and blog imaginable, Tapas 24 is most often overrun with tourists and lines out the door. I say skip the lines, walk Barcelona’s beautiful streets, and make this sandwich for yourself.  If you can stand to share, halve them into triangles and serve them para picar (as finger food) at your next party.

Truffled Jamon Sandwiches
Serves 2-4

4 slices country white bread
4 slices cured ham
2 slices Manchego cheese, curado
1 small fresh or frozen black truffle, shaved
2 tablespoons salted butter

To make each sandwich, place a slice of cheese on the bread, top with a small amount of truffle shavings, and cover with two slices of jamon. Place the butter in a pan over medium heat until melted. Add the sandwiches and cook for 2 to 3 minutes per side or until bread is golden brown. Remove from pan, allow to cool slightly, and slice into triangles.