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Sunday, September 29, 2013

100 Montaditos: "The True Taste of Spain"

Two or three years ago we discovered a new cafe bar at the Habaneras shopping mall that we go to only occasionally in Torrevieja. It was 100 Montaditos (a montadito is Spanish for a small sandwich). There were 100 numbered selections on the menu, ranging from sandwiches with tuna, to ham, shrimp, salmon, beef and all sorts of good things, accompanied by salad and/or a sauce. Best of all, each sandwich only cost 1 euro, or €1.50 , or €1.80. You selected from the menu, wrote down your choices, and delivered your list to the counter, where you also paid and picked up your drink--most probably a caña of beer for €0.90 or a jarra (mug) for €1.00. A little bit later--well, perhaps longer than you would have wished, but this is Spain--your name would be called and you would get up from your table to collect your little plate of montaditos, which in addition to the sandwiches had a few potato chips on it. Just the thing for a light, interesting, inexpensive and not totally diet-wrecking snack while out shopping. We made it a practice to stop there whenever we were in the area, but alas, that was not often.

About a year ago we started driving to La Condomina shopping mall in Murcia, a city about 45 minutes away. This is a much larger mall, but the main attraction was an Apple store, where I was learning how to manage my new computer and where not much time went by before Johannes bought an iPad. We were pleasantly surprised to discover a 100 Montaditos in La Condomina and it became a tradition that every time we went to the Apple store we would get a montadito.

And then we took a trip to Zenia Boulevard, the new mega-shopping center that opened last September on Orihuela Costa. This was a bittersweet expedition, because I am convinced that this grand shopping center was supposed to be "ours." When we bought our house in Algorfa, we were told that the plans were approved for a great new shopping center within walking distance, and that construction would begin soon. That was pre-economic crisis, and the space for which our shopping center was planned is now an empty eyesore. Presumably more money flowed to the developers from the other location than from our town, so there is now a fancy shopping mall just 20 minutes down the toll road from where "ours" was supposed to be. And it's just aggravating that the toll is so unreasonably high that, on the four or five times we've gone to La Zenia, we drive out of our way to go through the free countryside and avoid the tollgate. The important thing about Zenia Boulevard, though, is that it also has a 100 Montaditos.

We made a quick trip to Murcia and La Condomina a week ago. We needed a connector for a new camera bought in Singapore to replace the one that is now resting on the bottom of  Halong Bay. We got that quickly, and we stopped for a montadito. As I scanned the 100 selections, I was surprised to see a few new ones on the menu. (Presumably some of the poorer sellers had been removed to make way for the new). The new were five sweet montaditos (numbered 95-99, all involving chocolate and all on "chocolate bread.") One was with "cookies and cream" and another was with "grageas de chocolate," which looked very much like M&Ms. Well, I didn't indulge in a dessert montadito that time, but I didn't forget them, either.

On Wednesday of this week we went to La Zenia for a very specific purpose: to look at bathroom fixtures at Leroy Merlin to replace a shower and vanity in our upstairs bathroom. We got out of the house early and were at Leroy Merlin just after they opened at 10:00. We spent a fair amount of time there and when we completed our work, we were more than ready for a cup of coffee. Does 100 Montaditos even have coffee? I had become so used to having a meat or seafood montadito and a little beer that I didn't remember if they made coffee. But as we entered, Johannes spied the coffee machine and so we ordered coffee. And I thought one of those chocolate montaditos would be just the thing to accompany coffee.

So that is what I had, a chocolate montadito composed of just-baked, or at least just-warmed, chocolate bread, chocolate cream and a thin chocolate sauce, and several M&Ms. I seldom indulge in such a treat, but chocolate genes run in my family, and every once in awhile, they assert themselves. As I bit into the chocolate montadito, I almost swooned, grinned, and said, "My father would have loved this," for that is where my chocolate gene came from. Until he died, my father enjoyed a little piece of chocolate every day, he told me--just a little piece.

As I was looking for links to the 100 Montaditos site to embed in this post so you could see the menu, I found one that I did not expect to see. In addition to the Spanish menu, I found another menu, in English. It seems that 100 Montaditos has opened in the United States to offer "The True Taste of Spain." There are several outlets in the Miami area, and one has made it as far north as Orlando. In an ironic twist, the 100 Montaditos in Orlando is located less than a mile from where my parents lived for almost 20 years. My father would have loved it.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Culinary Challenges

From my pile of unpacked but not-yet-put away stuff from my summer vacation, I located this week a very slim cookbook, nearly just a pamphlet. It is Homestyle Vietnamese Cooking, by Nongkran Daks and Alexandra Greeley (Periplus, 2002) and it is an excellent little collection of about 35 recipes, with full and half-page colored photos, three pages of explanations and tips on ingredients, and international measurement conversions that speak to U.S., U.K., and Australian audiences, at least.

I had really enjoyed the food I had in Vietnam--indeed, throughout the entire trip--and so had Johannes, so I read through all the recipes and explanations, and made a shopping list of typical ingredients that I did not have on hand. I knew my selection of what to make would depend on what I was, and was not, able to find. Among other things, my shopping list included:
  • fish sauce
  • hoisin sauce
  • oyster sauce
  • tamarind
  • rice paper wrappers
  • star anise 
  • five spice powder
  • fresh lemongrass
  • fresh daikon
  • red chilies
  • fresh papaya
  • coconut cream 
  • rice vermicelli
  • rice wine
  • rice vinegar
  • Asian, lemon, and/or holy basil
I had seen few, if any, of these ingredients in the various grocery stores I frequent in Spain. Some of them, like rice paper wrappers for spring rolls, I had no recollection of seeing in my life. But I was determined to find what I could. The best candidate, I thought, was the local hypermarket Carrefour, which has multiple ethic food shelves for British, Belgian, Scandinavian, Russian, U.S. (think Betty Crocker fudge brownie mix) and many more cuisines, including Asian. Off we went to Carrefour on Thursday morning.

But first we stopped in Ciudad Quesada to go to the bank, and since the bank was just around the corner from Jumerca, a nice little German specialty shop, I decided to pop in there first. It was a great idea. I found hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, canned coconut cream, and rice vermicelli. Not bad at all, and I hadn't even set foot in Carrefour yet.

We proceeded to Carrefour and went directly (well, almost) to the Asian food section. There were lots of things for Indian food--there is a very large British population here. There were a couple things for Chinese and Japanese. A demonstration area was even giving away free samples of sushi. But I found not a thing that was still on my list! There was hoisin and oyster sauce, coconut milk (not cream) and several kinds of rice vermicelli--all at prices higher than I had found at Jumerca. Oh yes, I did find the papaya, but it cost four euros for a scrappy-looking one, and since I wasn't sure when I would be able to get the other ingredients for the recipe, I put it back in the produce section. I could have bought sake, too, at the sushi demo, which my little cookbook--that I had brought with me--said that I could substitute for rice wine. But it also said I could substitute dry sherry, and I had some excellent dry sherry at home. By this time, we were exhausted and I was discouraged, because the one ingredient that I absolutely had to find, and had not as yet, was Vietnamese fish sauce. We settled for a cup of coffee and went home for the day.

Friday I had to do regular shopping and scoured the shelves at Consum and Mercadona, my two usual groceries. Again, I saw some repetition of the jars I needed, but except for the red chilies, which I could get anywhere and any time, I thought, I found none of the fresh produce. Well, my Vietnamese dinner was getting pushed back into the weekend, because I would have to look at the Sunday open air market. But of course, if I failed to find fish sauce, which the book says is essential, the fresh ingredients were moot, anyway.

I went to the Internet to find out whether fish sauce and oyster sauce were the same thing, by chance. At least I wasn't the only one who had hoped that they were. But the answer was no, fish sauce is thin, oyster sauce is thick, and there are undoubtedly other differences. Some people said that soy sauce could substitute for fish sauce, but I didn't really believe that. We went for coffee with a friend who has lived in this area for several years, and I asked her if there was a local Asian food market. Not too many Asians live here, she said, and she is right. But she thought there might be one in the poligono industrial in Torrevieja. I knew approximately where she was talking about, and Saturday morning I looked it up on the Internet and did indeed find the name of an Asian food store, its address, and phone number.

Forget the phone number, we just set the GPS and were off to the specialty store. When Gloria, our GPS lady, told us we had passed it, I was apprehensive. We parked and got out and asked a young woman who was hosing down the chairs in an outdoor cafe. ¿Hay una tienda de comida de Asia? No, she said, there used to be one on the corner, but it's closed. It must have closed a long time ago, because there were no remnants of its name, although there was a "For Rent" sign on the window.

Well, we were in Torrevieja, so we might as well at least go to Iceland, the British frozen food specialty supermarket where I buy a couple pre-cooked items for emergency dinners, and by the way, that's where I am able to get canned condensed cream of chicken soup for the American casserole that Johannes loves. We looked all through the Sauces/Salsas section and found nothing we had not found before. But there was another aisle, and in that aisle were some Asian things, and on the top shelf there was a jar labeled Fish Sauce. No brand name that I could discern, but it said "A Splash of Nam Pla Fish Sauce," so it sounded Vietnamese. And in tiny letters, I found out after I got it home, it said Waitrose,a good British brand, I thought, but I wasn't going to discriminate anyway.

When I returned home with my prized fish sauce I read through my little cookbook again and chose a recipe for Sunday night. I am making Tangy Prawn Salad with Carrot, Cucumber and Mint Leaves. Of course, now I had to go out and buy the prawns and the spring onions, but I had the mint and coriander, lime, chili, and shallots. I would have to buy the roasted, unsalted peanuts at the Sunday market.

I did. I am all ready. This will be my first attempt at cooking authentic Vietnamese, and I do have all the ingredients. I hope we like it. It's already been a lot of work and I haven't started preparng the dish yet!

I am still on the lookout for rice paper wrappers, but that's for another dish.

Pomegranate Pearls

Last year at about this time, a neighbor came over with a small dish containing a mass of red, jellied pearls. She had harvested several pieces of fruit from her pomegranate tree, she said, and this bowl represented the fruits of her labor peeling one of them. I believe this was the first time in my life that I had seen pomegranate fruit in the raw.  It was a very small bowl. I sensed that it had taken more than a little time to retrieve the pomegranate seeds, and I thanked her. After dinner that evening we devoured the unaccustomed dessert with about two bites apiece. It was a strange but pleasant combination of sweet and tart tastes, with an unusual texture. Nice, and I wondered whether the tree in our backyard that we had recently discovered was a pomegranate tree would ever bear fruit.

A year and a severe pruning later, there are no signs of pomegranates on the tree in the back yard. So I was pleasantly surprised this week when another neighbor, while walking home from book club, asked me if I liked pomegranates. She had been given a whole bag of them and there was no way she could use them all. Just the thing for our lunchtime fruit salad, I thought. A few minutes after I returned, there she was again, with three pomegranates for me. She just peeled them in strips, from top to bottom, she said by way of advice, and then scooped the seeds out. She agreed that they would be a nice addition to fruit salad.

I was already late for lunch that day, so it wasn't until the next noontime that I tackled peeling the first pomegranate. And it was only after I did so that I truly appreciated the gift from my other neighbor the prior year. Even I, who normally slices peaches, nectarines, apples and more into fruit salad, skin and all, knew that I didn't want to eat the skin of the pomegranate. I tried to make a slice to enable removal of the skin, but I found it hard to penetrate. So I ignored the advice to peel the skin and simply cut the round globe in half vertically, crown to foot.  In each half, it seemed as though the skin was holding about a thousand barley-sized seeds, all nestled tightly in a red gel in three or four compartments separated by white pith. I assumed that the pith was inedible, and set to digging out the seeds with a little, tiny coffee spoon. It was time-consuming to scoop out the seeds, separate them over the fruit bowls, and pull out the white pith. The pomegranate was only the crowning fruit in the salad that already had chunks of banana, pineapple, red apple, golden plum, and red and green grapes,  so I put away half for the next day and gave us each a quarter of the seeds.

We enjoyed the salad, but the pomegranate's sweetness was distinctive, and the next day I only used half of the remaining half. That provided a nice garnish to the salad, and left the last quarter for Saturday's salad. This Sunday morning, as I contemplated starting to tackle the second pomegranate, I thought, there must be a better way. There is, supposedly. A 2006 NPR story advises slicing the whole fruit into quarters under water, then scooping out the seeds with your hands, still under water. The seeds will sink to the bottom and the peel will rise to the top. You pour off the water and peel, and there you have the pearls of pomegranate, presumably with a little extra diluted pomegranate juice.

That NPR story also mentioned a chicken-walnut-pomegranate main course, Khoreshteh Fesenjan, that is also one of the recipes from the Pomegranate Council, provider of the pictures here. That recipe sounds adventurous, and just maybe I'll use one of my remaining pomegranates to try that. Pomegranates provide three different antioxidants and are one of those superfoods, according to the Pomegranate Council. And after my experience with harvesting the seeds, I can fully understand why pomegranate juice is so expensive in the market.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Reading in Translation

It has been a week of getting back into the groove of regular activities after being away for three weeks. The two important social engagements I had on my mind (after an appointment at the hairdresser) were my Spanish class and my English-language book group, which meets this coming Wednesday.

I had a lot of preparation for book group because it is my turn to write the questions and lead the discussion--and I still had a few chapters to read in the book that I had lugged half a world away to read. It is The Time in Between, also called The Seamstress, by Maria Dueñas. Reading it while on vacation kept me thinking at selected times about Spain during its Civil War and the early Franco era, the Spanish Protectorate in Morocco, and Portugal. It did not keep me thinking in Spanish, as I am reading it in English.

I have felt a little guilty about reading a novel originally published in Spanish, and written by an academic at a university less than an hour from where I live, in English. However, this book is 600 pages long, and given the time I had and the other activities I was devoting attention to, I'm lucky to have made it through in English in a month. And the native language of all the book group members is English (of varying sorts) and the discussion was to be in English. And I had previously read one of the book club books, originally in English, in a Spanish translation and had an opinion about the book that was markedly different from those of my colleagues--the Spanish was better. So I stuck with an American English edition of The Time in Between, though I intend to find a Spanish copy and look up some passages to compare, because some of the dialogue I read in English just did not ring true. I've asked my fellow members their opinion of their translations, and I'm looking forward to hearing what they say.

I don't need to feel guilty about reading a Spanish book in English, I decided, when I realized, as I got ready for my Spanish class, that I was reading an English book in Spanish translation. Muerte en el Seminario (literally Death in the Seminary but the published title is Death in Holy Orders) is the first book by P.D. James that I have ever read. I have heard about James, of course, with her renowned writing style and riveting mystery novels. It's really sort of crazy to approach her through a translation, but it's an excellent and entertaining way to learn Spanish. My Spanish teacher and I have wonderful talks--though halting as I search for words--discussing Dalgliesh and the various characters in and around St. Anselm's in East Anglia. It's going to take us a long time to get through this one though. We can only do about 25 pages each week, and my copy runs to 494 pages. We are approaching page 200 for class tomorrow.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Home Again

We arrived home from our Southeast Asia trip last Thursday evening at about 7:00, very tired after traveling for 40 hours without seeing a bed (that included a 10 hour layover in  Singapore's Changi airport, which does offer beds, but we opted instead for shopping, garden tours, movie theater, dinner, and a short rest on one of the free lounges). The first thing we noticed was that the front porch wall light that we had left on was off. Oops, bulb burned out, we said. Then we noticed that the small accent light in the dining room with the 7-watt bulb was also out. Odd that they both went, but we had been gone three weeks. Then we went to put the air conditioning on and we realized that all the power was off, so we went to the master switch and flipped the switch, and there was light. And air.

Then I opened the freezer door to pull out the ready-made frozen Spanish salteada, which we call Spanish biksemad (diced potatoes, onion, tortilla, bacon, and peas and red pepper--throw it in some olive oil in a saute pan and it's ready in 7 minutes). I had carefully made sure I had a bag of this emergency staple, because I knew I would be tired and hungry when we returned. But as soon as I opened the door, it dawned on me: the power to the refrigerator/freezer had also been off, of course, and for how long? While on vacation we had read about severe storms in Spain, and our taxi driver from the train station in Alicante had said that there were tormentas and lluvia "last week." Depending on when the winds and rain came last week, the refrigerator had been off for anywhere between four and eleven days.

I shut the freezer and didn't even open the refrigerator.

Back in the last century when we were first married and my culinary standards were lower than they are now, I used to buy boxed macaroni and cheese at the Stop & Shop in Arlington, Massachusetts, for 20 cents a box, or maybe it was 25 cents. Even adding milk and frozen peas to the mix brought the dish to about 50 cents, which was a real cheap meal--necessary on a student's budget. That's sort of what we had the night that we arrived back from Vietnam. I found a Spanish equivalent of dried macaroni and cheese in my larder--actually a German version, since I vaguely remembered buying it at Lidl--and cooked it up, using dried milk, water from the tap (at least we could drink tap water again!), and a strong dose of Penzey's Southwest seasoning. It was edible, but I don't need to repeat that experience.

I waited until the next morning to approach the refrigerator again. We had decided to go out for breakfast and buy replacement groceries on the way home, but of course I needed to get the old crud out first. When we flipped the master electric switch the night before it had turned on the power to the fridge and freezer, and we had left it on. That may have been a mistake, but who knows for sure?

I tackled the freezer first. I have a three-drawer freezer, with vegetables at the top, meats and fish in the middle, and anything else at the bottom. Out it all went. The pork tenderloin and a turkey tenderloin had refrozen overnight. The vegetables had also refrozen, as a solid block in each package. None of this was irreplaceable or even terribly expensive (I was glad that I had used the frozen duck breast recently), but it hurt me to throw out the whole cranberries that I had brought from the U.S. and keep stored in the freezer for cranberry bread. However, there was a layer of them that was no longer whole cranberries, but something resembling a frozen cranberry jelly. It must have gotten very warm in the freezer over the course of several days.

The freezer was a breeze in comparison with the refrigerator itself. No need to go into detail here, but I have deduced that mold does not grow--or at least become visible--in frozen temperatures, whereas refrigerator temperatures are another matter.

Everyone, I am sure, has lots of little partially filled jars of condiments in their refrigerator door and maybe even on the interior shelves. I remembered distinctly that I had two open jars of Dijon mustard, one obviously purchased by accident, and I had diligently been working to empty one of them. I won that battle--now they both went out. Also tossed were a jar of peanut butter also imported from home, and a small jar of maple cream from Polly's Pancake Parlor in  Sugar Hill, New Hampshire. And a few fruits and vegetables that I had never expected to use again, but that I had run out of time to clean out before I left on vacation and chose to keep them in the fridge so they wouldn't rot and stink up the kitchen. And the eggs that I had left to fry for the top of the welcome home night biksemad.

I did not take the food from its container, nor did I separate the cans and the plastics and the glass, as we normally do for recycling. I took three kitchen garbage bags to the dumpster and heaved them in.

There wasn't much I kept. Two bottles of white wine that had never been opened, and three small splits of cava. An unopened can of salmon bought for our Saturday night smorrebrod that, when I got to the checkout counter at Lidl had cost 5 euros instead of the 1.29 that I had seen on the shelf, so I was saving it for a special occasion. A small can of fruit cocktail that Johannes bought while I was in the U.S. last time and that I had still not opened. A tube of tomato paste and an unopened jar of spicy hot preserved peppers, though I intend to look at them closely when I do open them to see if they are still preserved. Three bottles of water and an opened bottle of white vermouth that we use for fruit salad. And an envelope of Penzey's Sunny Spain seasoning.

That's what I put back into the refrigerator when I finally finished reassembling it. (Washing and disinfecting is one thing--figuring out how to get the shelves together again is another!) I didn't put anything into the freezer except a small ice cube tray filled with water, and that only after the tray had gone through the dishwasher.

It all took a lot longer than I thought it would, so we went out for brunch instead of breakfast, and we only stopped at one grocery store on the way home, to get the necessities for breakfast, lunches, and dinner for one night only. Saturday we went out grocery shopping again, this time to Mercadona, which is where I buy most of my frozen vegetables and prepared dishes like the Spanish biksemad and the rice and vegetable mixes, for those nights when we need to eat in a hurry and I don't feel like cooking. I am still at that stage when I can see everything that I have in the fridge and freezer without moving things around, and I hope to keep from buying too many of those little jars of condiments that seem to collect and multiply.

I have yet to buy any Dijon mustard.