Sunday, October 30, 2011

This blog is hibernating

Our contemporary lives take on the speed of light. So many things, so little time. And the cliché lives on. Well, this all means that some things have to be put on a wait list while other projects take shape.

I am simply too busy right now and decided to put this blog aside temporarily. Let's just say it is fermenting.

Cheers to all of us!

Monday, May 10, 2010

the devil goes well on toast

I have a theory that every person, even the ones with very healthy eating habits, have a devil food that torments them. Perhaps it does not haunt them all the time, maybe once in a blue moon or, in my case, about twice a year.

My devil is brown and smooth. His name is Nutella.

In Spain, this item (made mostly of hydrogenated vegetable oil) is advertised as a great breakfast choice - Con Nutella, desayuna positivo. I could not imagine loading my body with this stuff first thing in the morning, after it has been through a crucial moment in its cleaning process, when the liver is running full speed to get rid of toxins. For breakfast I prefer real food, things like fruit, yogurt, oats and nuts. Those few times a year when I do load this stuff into me (when I am taken over by the devil?), I do it in the late afternoon and evening, usually when I have been at the computer for way too many hours. And, personally, I prefer to consume the devil spread thinly over dried toast. On anything else, it just doesn't taste the same to me. 

I don't fully understand why I crave this stuff. All year, I am discusted by the mere sight of its strangely shaped jar, with a logo that starts with a black 'n', followed by the red 'utella,' with the 'll' leaving the paper completely (who thought of this?). But, for some reason, when the devil speaks and the craving arrives, I just can't seem to get enough of it. I read somewhere that highly fatty industrialized food-like products create a quasi-addictive effect in the body, sometimes generating a feeling of insatiability. It's the chip syndrome - you can't just have one. This time, what woke the devil was a tormentous cold. One evening I was fine, the next morning I was the personification of miserable. This cold kept me house-bound for a week and it was in the second day that I, with a high fever, decided to give in and walk five floors of stairs (I live in a pre-elevator building) to into the Paskistani shop to get my fix - at 10:30pm, by the way. Oh. I felt guilty putting on my shoes, opening the door, hearing my footsteps on the old tile stairs, and greeting the shopkeeper. I found the odd jars that Ferrero is so proud of in what was ironically the darkest corner of the shop. It was like a movie scene. I eyed one in particular and stared at it while there was an entire conversation going on in my head. Two distinct voices weighed the pros and cos of spending 2.99 euros on this glass jar full of devil. At the end of some long long minutes, I walked to the counter and, ashamed at my weakness, handed the jar and the money to a big-eyed man who didn't seem to understand my shame. Perhaps his devil is a different one.

The advertising says that Nutella does not need refrigeration. In fact, it stays 'fresh' for months right beside the honey in the kitchen shelf. Ironically (again), its more wholesome neighbor is made in a factory as well, where hundreds of dedicated bees spend their entire lives creating honey without any prospect of retirement. The non-refrigeration worries me incredibly. Yes, honey can stay out of the refrigerator because it has natural (and very good-for-you) anti-bacterial properties that preserve it for long periods of time. But what about something that is completely industrialized? I mean, Nutella's ingredients are as far from natural as they come. Preservatives and aromas created by people in lab coats. Yikes! What happens to this stuff at the celular level inside of me? This thought scares me and, oh, wait a minute! I think I find myself grossed out again about this thing. Fantastic! Now I can go back to my normal eating life, devil-free until, for some reason, it returns. Unannounced. But until then, real food please!!!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

failure in the form of bread

Today I suffered from baking failure. I guess it happens to the best of us, or at least that's what I hear. But when it comes to kneaded dough bread, it happens to me a lot. I have started to dive into the bread world very recently, and have not yet figured out how it all works. My breads usually turn out tasty and (there is no hiding it) very dense. Sometimes the dough wouldn't rise very much, so I progressively added more yeast at every try.

This time the dough rose beautifully, and then it shriveled down like a scared animal. I don't understand why.

These are the ingredients I used:

1 and 3/4 cup rye flour
1 and 1/2 cup all-purpose unbleached white flour
about 2 and 1/2 tablespoons fresh yeast dissolved in one cup of warm water
2 large pinches of salt
about 2 tablespoons of olive oil
a handful each of mixed oats, raw sunflower and pumpkin seeds

I kneaded the dough into a ball, placed it in a greased bowl, covered with a damp cloth and placed it into a warm oven to rise for about 45 minutes. It rose beautifully. I felt proud. Then I kneaded it again, split it into two equal parts, placed them on a floured cookie sheet and let them rise again in the warm oven, for another 40 minutes. After rising some more, the two loaves looked lovely. They cracked on the top, just like the artisan breads that sell for 5 euros at the bakery down the street. I was proud again. But my pride was quickly replaced by disappointment when the two loaves collapsed, becoming deflated proof of yet another bread failure.

I baked those two ugly things at about 185 celcius. They made the house smell nice. The smell impressed my flatmate. When they were done I thought they looked a bit too light, so, to "add some color" I turned on the upper broiler and proceeded to finish some emails. In a blink of an eye they were burned on top. I felt like an idiot.

That was that. The bread (not even sure I can call it that) actually has nice flavor though, especially toasted with some butter and tamarind jam. But honestly this process of hit and miss (miss and miss to be more precise) is frustrating to me. I want to understand why I haven't been able to get the bread thing to work. I usually get anything to work after at most the third try. I read about "active dry yeast" online, which seems easier than fresh yeast, but haven't been able to find it here in Spain. Is this my problem? Perhaps the oven is not hot enough, or too hot? I really don't know... Suggestions are more than welcome...

vino turbio

Wine is cheap in Spain. This is an unquestionably wonderful thing. And cheap wine does not mean bad wine here - another fortunate discovery. In fact, there are some unbelievably inexpensive wines one can purchase by the liter at neighborhoood bodegas (perhaps best explained as "old school" liquor shops) that are much tastier than many costly options. The wine is poured directly from large wooden barrels and into a (reused) bottled. A nice Priorat Seco sells for 1.30 euro per liter at my neighborhood bodega, located on Pintor Fortuny Street. As an added bonus, it's also nice to know that the bottles are being recycled.
As for white wines, I find that vino turbio - an unfiltered table wine - is quite lovely indeed. It is fruity but not too sweet, light and excellent for the spring and summer. There are sediments hanging out in the bottom of the bottle, which, I believe, probably add the slight fizz characteristic of this delicious wine. 

Now, I am far from being a wine expert. Just as with anything I put in my mouth, I go by taste and texture. In these terms, this wine is a winner. It also does not hurt that it usually costs beween 1.50 euro and 2 euros per bottle, depending on where it's purchased. If you go to one othe shops at the Boqueria (the touristified market in the Raval) it's expected that the price be on the higher side, but, it's 1.50 or 2 euros per bottle, the price is still low enough to feel almost a big guilty...

Friday, May 7, 2010

still on bananas

The women in my family love bananas. I am not sure exactly why. I realized this when editing the photos from my last visit home this past January. There are so many photos that show bananas! This realization got me thinking... yes it is true - bananas are an integral part of my family's table. We eat them at breakfast, at lunch, in the afternoon snack and even at dinner (in the form of a dessert called doce de banana). 

Each woman has a very specific way to approach this fruit. My grandmother, for example, is very particular about how one should and should not touch her bananas. She is known for her doce de banana (adored my many) but she will will only make this dessert when she can find "proper" bananas for it (perhaps it's a good thing she has never seen the bananas we get abroad). She will go unimaginable lenghts to get the bananas she is comfortable cooking with, even pretending to befriend people she absolutely despises just so she can have access to their precious banana plants. 

In June and July we celebrate Festas Juninas in Brasil. These are the parties for Saint John, Saint Anthony and a few others that I honestly don't remember (does this make it obvious how un-religious I am?). During these festivities, young women perform very traditional divination games, the kind to do when you want to know what the future holds for you. It's things like blurbing some sayings at the same as you're dripping some candle wax in a bowl of water with some spices, then reading the first letter of the name of the future husband on the wax. It's also things like poking a peixeira (very very large knife everyone carries around in the Northeastern countryside) through the banana tree, which supposedly also has divination qualities. The tree is very moist inside. This moisture grabs onto the blade and on this blade one can see the face (or the first letter of the name, or whatever one may believe to see) of the future husband. 

I am curious to discover more about the origins of such relationship between the women of this tiny corner of the world and bananas (ooh! that didn't sound right). But in all seriousness, there is a very intimate connection between people from rural Brasil (and rural parts of the world in general) and food. In my grandmother's home, each thing that goes in your mouth is in there for a reason. There is a preocupation with where this food came from, whether it is a quality item, whether it's at the right moment to be eaten, and what it does to your body. The older women in my family don't have all the answers, but, in paying attention to each banana that is consumed, for example, one can understand and participate so much more in the culture and society in which she inhabits. 

Food is not only about sustaining the body. In fact, I believe that's far from being its most important quality. Food is about relationships. Relationships between people, between people and their environment, between people and the perfume of life. People who have no relationship with their food also lack involvement with the very elements that make us human. Human culture is not consumer culture. Traditionally, we are eaters, not buyers. We produce (or find) and share our food. A very dangerous disconnect exists in households where more and more industrialized foods are consumed in place of "real foods." A decline in everything that is good and wholesome stems from the increased development of a relationship between people and industry, not between people and food, or people and people. The examples are everywhere and are especially visible in the so-called "industrialized, developed" nations. One just needs to open her eyes to be able to see.  

a note on bananas

I love bananas but I hardly ever eat them. Let me explain. I have spent most of my time outside of Brasil since 1997. This time has been spent in so-called "developed" nations - either the United States, Spain, and lately, Italy. These are not banana-producing nations. However, there is no scarcity of bananas in these countries. I have never walked into any supermakert in the US or Europe that didn't have bananas in stock. They are everywhere. I suppose this is because the banana is the ultimate fruit for people "on the go." They come with their own "easy-open" packaging, and are easy to eat. Eating a banana is a tool-and-mess-free process. Compare that to eating a mango, or a pineapple. 

Although ever present in my life away from home, I refuse to eat bananas and that is because, simply put, they suck. It's true. They do. These perfectly yellow spotless bananas are mass produced in places like Costa Rica, Hawaii, and Jamaica. Once the little bananas pop up, the whole set is placed inside a plastic bag, which is supposed to make them mature faster. I have seen this in Costa Rica and it made me sick. Entire massive fields of banana plants covered in blue plastic. These are then picked way too soon, green as can be. Then they undergo other processes that we may never really know about before they get to the supermakert shelves and to our home. As a result of the manner in which these fruits are produced, the bananas have practically no flavor and the texture is unbearable to me.

The thing is, most people who consume these fruits were born and raised in countries where these fruits cannot grow. So, we can assume that most of these consumers have probably never eaten what I (and many other people from the tropics) consider a great banana. I often feel sorry for them when I see them select these sad sad fruits at the supermarket. I imagine some of these people will take these fruits with them to work and eat them during the highly expected lunch break. Oh man, what a sad snack that is. 

Let me share some tips about bananas. 
Real bananas are at their peak of deliciousness when they are almost too ripe. The sugars add up, the flesh starts to become soft, and the peel has darkening spots. I don't know any brasilian person who would consider a completely yellow banana to be a good thing. Oh no! We don't eat those. We look for the ones with the spots. You can judge the ripeness of a banana (and its sugar content) by the spots and the softness. Another tip: if you would like to cook with bananas in, say, a banana bread, wait for them to ripen. Then, when they are really ripe (I mean, soft, dark... look for these signs) freeze them. When you are ready to bake, defrost them by simply leaving them on the counter and you're ready to go. I have found that more of the flavor comes out this way.

For those of us who have (sadly) never had the amazing pleasure of eating a real banana, please consider this fruit the next time you think about booking a vacation. Once you have eaten delicious, travel-free bananas, you will never look at another banana the same way. I promise.

la tortilla española • the Spanish tortilla

Potatoes are cheap. Unfortunately the ones I bought this week came all the way from England. I don’t understand how it is possible that 5 kilos of English potatoes can be sold at a supermarket in Barcelona for 57 cents. Not 57 cents per kilo, 57 cents for a 5-kilo bag. It blows me away. Such are the times I guess.
In Spain the word “crise” is not only on everyone’s mouth, but also on advertisements everywhere. There are “anti-crise” promotions at the banks and many restaurants display their “menu anti-crise.” The unemployment rate has plummeted beyond 20%. Things are tough in Gaudí land! 
As I was making a tortilla today, my housemate called me the “tortilla queen” and proceeded to tell me that my tortillas are much better than the ones sold at the bars around the city. I was flabbergasted!  It is true that the quality of the food in most bars and restaurants in Barcelona is very very low. Yucky stuff indeed.
So, to go with the “crise” theme, and because I have been crowned “the queen of tortilla,” let’s focus on this dish, which I consider the most basic and cheapest item of the Spanish cuisine.
I make tortillas out of all kinds of things that most Spaniards would never imagine. But one must first learn the rule in order to break it intelligently. Once you have gotten the basic one down, you can let your creativity loose, my friends! So here we go, this is how I make the basic tortilla:
I. Potatoes (skin removed and cut into thin round slices)
II. Add them to some olive oil on medium heat (olive oil is delicate, so do not over heat it!)
III. Fry the potatoes (It’s not deep-frying. I cover them and once in a while uncover and stir gently).
IV. Meanwhile, slice some onions lengthwise.
V. Once the potatoes are done, remove them onto a plate. Drain the remaining oil off the pan and into a jar (where it can stored until it is reused for a future tortilla).
VI. Add the onions onto the pan with a little oil. Cook the onions.
VII. Whisk the eggs in a large bowl with some salt and pepper.
VIII. Once the onions are done, add them to the bowl. Then add the potatoes. Stir everything very well and return to the pan. (Make sure there is enough oil still coating the pan to prevent tortilla from sticking). Cover (still on medium heat).
IX. Uncover and have a look. Check to see if it is free from the bottom. (If stuck, well, the only thing to do is try to de-stick it). When it has set and there is still a little liquid on the top, put the lid back on (or a perfect fitting plate), then turn it over and back onto the pan, but on the liquidy side. Makes sense?
X. Gently accommodate everything down. No need to cover again. Let it cook for a few minutes and it’s done!
As I find it incredibly difficult to stay within any recipe’s boundaries. I always add spices to this recipe. I cook the onions with black pepper. I also add cumin and paprika to the eggs. Perhaps that is what makes my tortilla better than the Barcelona bars’ versions to the palate of my housemate? It’s a possibility!