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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Pomegranate

Guest post by Tasha Graff

When I lived in Barcelona, I would wake up as early as non-alarm-clock possible every Saturday morning and make myself coffee, toast and a soft-boiled egg. I would sit for half an hour with my toes poking out onto my tiny balcony and read. When I was fully awake, I would get dressed, dab on a bit of sunscreen and head across the street and down the block to a Bicing stand full of bicycles from the citywide program. I’d swipe my card and ride the 15-20 minutes to the Mercat de la Concepció to buy flowers and fresh herbs. It took about seven months worth of Saturdays before my favorite curmudgeonly flower seller smiled at me, and a year and a half before he had a bouquet ready for me when I walked in. Both days felt like victories akin to the elation others might feel getting a job offer or graduating from college. My days are often about small triumphs.

My generous friends described my fifth-floor walk-up apartment in the residential neighborhood of l’Eixample Esquerra as “quirky” or “spacious,” but really it was a pre-furnished relic that, despite my obsessive dusting and mopping and penchant for cooking with fresh ginger, still smelled like stale cigarette smoke from the seventies. I didn’t bring many possessions with me when I moved to Barcelona, and so the only real items that made the place feel like home were the books I accumulated, the food I would cook in the kitchen and the fresh flowers I acquired weekly.

I live in Maine now. It’s cold. There aren’t any flower markets in January. I have to buy daffodils at a grocery store. This winter has been particularly bitter, with little snow upon which to ski and lots of ice upon which to slip. My Saturday mornings here involve emerging from flannel sheets, pulling on thick wool socks, slippers, a sweater and sometimes a hat. I make a pot of coffee, clutch a cup of it and get back under my down comforter to read, all the while resisting the urge to check the temperature in Portland (-2°F/-22°C) and Barcelona (54°F/12°C). When the caffeine and heat kick in, I turn on NPR’s Weekend Edition and head back to the kitchen. Cooking has become a ritual for me, and Saturday mornings have become times to bake.

This morning, I looked around my kitchen and saw a few oranges and a pomegranate but was too cold to eat either of them fresh.

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Oranges always make me think of my friend Melissa, Chicago-born Floridian turned Catalan who once announced she didn’t like fruit (it was a bit of hyperbole) and who made the best salad dressing I have ever had while we were cooking a market-fresh dinner together on vacation in western France. Continue reading

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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