30-Minute Mozzarella

Clearly I have been on somewhat of a cheesemaking streak lately. I know that as I have been yammering on, lately, about the joys of making your own cheese, various friends have been looking at me like I have two heads. They will tell me that it sounds pretty cool, but they think that I am crazy for embarking on such an ambitious task. While I recognize that not everyone in the world is ever going to be super excited about making their own cheese, I need to reiterate, as I always do, that it is really, really, really easy. Like stupidly easy. I hesitate to say this as I do like the props I get for taking on something so seemingly “advanced”, but you guys. It is EASY. Now that I’ve tried a couple of beginner cheeses, I am definitely keen to explore the more challenging ones, and they certainly can get complicated, but stuff like mozzarella is easier to make than say, a loaf of bread.

In fact, mozzarella can take only 30 minutes to make. Seriously. So I command you to stop being intimidated by it right now.

Here is what I love about making my own cheese:

First, I love any kind of cooking that feels like a science experiment, or alchemy, depending on your take on these things, in that you take a couple of very simple ingredients, and through a chemical process, transform them into something new and very special. It feels like magic and I love it and get a huge sense of accomplishment from doing it.

Second, as I said in my post on ricotta, I genuinely believe in learning by doing. Cheese is one of my favourite foods, and I think I learn a lot about the cheese I buy from others and consume by learning to make it myself. I am down with any and all angles that allow me to deepen my love and understanding of cheese.

Finally, it tastes good. Really, really good.

If you are curious to try making cheese, then I strongly encourage you to try this mozzarella recipe. Because it is so easy, and you can make it for a weeknight dinner, it comes together that quickly. It will demystify the whole prospect of home cheesemaking immediately. The only caveat is that you’ll need to buy some rennet, which is hard to find in stores. I highly, highly recommend purchasing some online from cheesemaking.com. It is run by the great Ricki Carroll, the same woman who wrote the wonderful book that I am learning to make cheese from. Her prices are great, she ships really fast, and has no problem shipping this stuff to Canada. I think I had my supplies in less than a week. I bought the smallest container of this liquid vegetable rennet, which is enough to make a few dozen batches of cheese.

I have made Carroll’s “30-minute mozzarella” twice now. The first time, we ate it on grilled pizza, and then just the other night, I tossed it, still warm, onto a gorgeous caprese salad composed of heirloom tomatoes and basil fresh from our garden. The mozzarella has the most wonderful smooth texture, and it complemented the tomatoes beautifully. We ate it alongside sausages that Graeme had just made from scratch, also using our bounty of garden herbs, and it felt really, truly wonderful to savour this meal that had been so profoundly prepared from scratch. When making (as well as growing) your food yourself, it doesn’t need to be fancy to be something that you savour and enjoy with great pride.

I look forward to sharing more cheesemaking adventures with you in the future. In the meantime, enjoy the mozzarella.

30-Minute Mozzarella
Adapted from Home Cheesemaking. Makes approximately 200 grams mozzarella.

Ingredients:

  • 0.75 tsp citric acid, dissolved in 1/4 cup cool water
  • 2 litres/0.5 gallon whole milk (NOT ultra-pasteurized, that stuff is useless)
  • 1/8 tsp lipase powder (optional, also available for purchase on cheesemaking.com, just adds a bit of flavour), dissolved in 1/8 cup cool water and allowed to sit for 20 min.
  • 1/8 tsp liquid rennet, diluted in 1/8 cup cool water

When all your ingredients are ready, start heating your milk in a big saucepan on medium-high heat, and add the citric acid solution (and lipase, if using) when the temperature reaches 55F. Stir thoroughly.

Heat the milk to 90F, stirring often. Remove the pot from the heat, stir in the rennet slowly with an up-and-down motion for about 30 seconds. Cover the pot and let it sit undisturbed for 5 minutes.

Uncover the pot, and check to see if the curds and whey have separated. It should look something like this:

The curd should not be too soft and the whey should not be too milky. If it is, let it sit a few more minutes until it separates more. Cut the curd so that it’s not one big lump.

Put the mixture back on the stove and heat until 105F, stirring very gently. Remove from heat and stir gently for 2-5 minutes, depending on desired firmeness (I think about 3 minutes is perfect).

Scoop the curds out of the pot with a slotted spoon, or drain in a sieve. Put the curds into a microwavable bowl*. Press the curds gently with your hands or a big spoon to pour off as much of the whey as possible.

Microwave the curds on HIGH for approximately 1 minute. Take the bowl out of the microwave, drain off the whey, and gently fold the cheese over and over with your hands or your big spoon (I tend to do the latter because it’s hot!) as though you’re kneading bread. You are trying to make sure the heat distributes evenly throughout the cheese. (It does not require nearly as much kneading as bread, though! Just a minute or so.)

It will look something like this:

Microwave the cheese twice more for 35 seconds each (and add salt after the second time if you are using it). Knead it after heating each time. After the third heating, it should be getting nice and smooth. Knead it until it’s elastic, and stretches like taffy.

If it’s not stretching properly, and is breaking instead, then it may have cooled down too much. Microwave it again.

When the cheese is ready, roll it into balls. It is AWESOME to eat fresh like this, while still warm, and I recommend that you do so. If you are not planning on eating it right away, place the balls in a bowl of ice water until they’re properly cooled down, as this will ensure it keeps a smooth, lovely texture.

*There is a way to do this without the microwave, if you don’t have one, but I haven’t tried it! With the microwave, it is super duper simple.

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Strawberries with Pernod and Black Pepper

I love summer desserts. I can be counted on to devour every pie, crumble and cobbler in sight with near-psychotic enthusiasm. It is hard to go wrong with fresh fruits and berries, a butter based crust or topping, and some sweetener. The only problem with these desserts, however, is that there comes a time in every Montreal summer when it is so hot that it would be suicidal to turn on the oven. As any locals reading this blog will know (or really anyone in the northeast of this godforsaken continent), that time came last week.

Of course, beyond the issue of cooking in this heat, summer fruit is also so fantastic that you often just want it relatively unaltered (or completely unaltered), rather than baked into even the simplest recipe. And so one of our summer dessert standbys, when we do want a little something special that doesn’t involve turning on the oven, is this incredibly simple recipe of strawberries soaked in Pernod (pastis liquor) and black pepper. We have been especially into it in recent weeks, as Quebec strawberries are everywhere, and so delicious, and new ones are finding their way into our fridge on an almost daily basis.

Graeme and I discovered this tradtional French way of preparing fresh strawberries when it was served to us last summer at our favourite French bistro in town, Au Petit Extra. I was very skeptical at first, as I hate the taste of black licorice, and therefore tend to hate the taste of licorice-flavoured liquors, but in this case those three simple ingredients–strawberries, Pernod and black pepper–all combined to create something coherent and special, and just licorice-y enough to make an impression but not enough to alienate me and my palate. Au Petit Extra called them “fraises pépé” (grandfather’s strawberries?), but I am not sure at all if that is a commonly used name for them or just one they came up with; as far as I can tell as an ignorant anglophone, it comes from the expression, “chercher les fraises [pépé]” which, for some reason that I do not at all understand, means to become senile. I would welcome any francophones reading this here entry to comment and clear up some of this linguistic confusion, because google and my beloved wordreference.com really let me down on this one.

Anyway, ever since that fateful dinner, Graeme and I have been trying to figure out how to recreate this incredibly simple strawberry dish. It has been a truly Goldilocks-style process; the first time I made this, the Pernod was far too subtle, and then when Graeme tried his hand at it, it was so strong that I found it inedible. After going back and forth a little bit, I finally found a balance that works for our taste buds, although I’m sure other folks would want to alter it one way or another for theirs. I present to you the recipe we came up with below.

At its best, the Pernod and black pepper should not overpower the strawberries, but rather they should give them this extra punch that makes them taste… even more like strawberries. Like super-strawberries. To me, that’s what summer desserts are all about; when fruit is so fresh and so tasty on its own, it is a shame to do much to it unless you are emphasizing what is already there. You certainly don’t want to take anything away from the beauty of a fresh, ripe strawberry.

Strawberries with Pernod and Black Pepper
Serves 2-3. Or maybe more, if you served them with good vanilla ice cream, which is an EXCELLENT idea.

Ingredients:
2 cups fresh strawberries, stemmed and halved
3 tbsp Pernod or pastis liquor
A few generous turns of your black pepper mill

Put all the strawberries into a bowl, and pour in the Pernod, stirring to make sure they are properly covered. Grind your pepper into the bowl, stir, and let sit for at least 30 minutes, ideally an hour or two. (I find that it’s perfect to prepare this just as you’re getting ready to sit down for dinner, and then it is good to go by the time you are ready for dessert.) Serve on its own, or with ice cream.

Mint Lemonade

As a general rule, Graeme and I try not to eat out just for the sake of eating out. Lately, though, it has been so damn hot in this city of weather extremes, that on some days it has been difficult to muster up the energy to cook anything at all. This past Sunday evening, for example, we found ourselves sweaty and exhausted and so we decided to give ourselves a break and seek out food prepared by other people. We wandered down to Sainte Catherine street, which, in our neighbourhood–alternately titled Centre-Sud or the Gay Village–is wonderfully pedestrianized for the entire summer. As such, practically every restaurant on the strip has a terrasse spilling out onto the street, and it seemed like an ideal place for some muggy summer dining.

The village is not known for its restaurants, although there are so many around these parts that I often feel like it is overlooked as a food neighbourhood because there are definitely some gems hiding amongst various chains. On Sunday, we stumbled onto the terrasse of Lallouz, a new-ish addition to the neighbourhood, and a really well-run, charming, yet impressively inexpensive Middle Eastern eatery. We cannot recommend it enough. We feasted on a variety of little salads to start, and then enjoyed really well-prepared grilled beef, chicken and lamb kebabs on warm lafa bread. It was a perfect, not too heavy meal for such a hot night. And what really sealed the deal for me was that, included in their $12 (!!!) set-menu price, was a pitcher of mint lemonade.

I get a little bit excited about mint lemonade, and so this was a fabulous surprise. And was it ever some good mint lemonade. We downed it speedily. It instantly brought me back to the mint lemonade I drank in Israel, when I travelled there in early 2010. It is ubiquitous in the region, and for good reason; could there be any more refreshing combo than lemon and mint? Sweetened, but not too sweet? I would not shut up about how exciting Lallouz’s mint lemonade was, and so on the way home Graeme insisted we stop at the nearby fruiterie and pick up a big bunch of lemons. Surely this was something I could recreate at home?

I am happy to report that–duh–yes, mint lemonade is super easy to make, and a perfect refreshing drink to help you deal with the summer heat. If you are like me, and have mint growing in the garden so fast that you can’t keep up with it, this is a great use for some of it. I completely winged the recipe below and it turned out totally to my liking, so you should feel free to wing it too, and get it just how you like it. And stay cool.

Mint Lemonade
Makes 1 pitcher full.

Ingredients:
1.5 cups lemon juice (about 7-8 lemons)
1.5 cups simple syrup*
a bunch of fresh mint, finely chopped
3 cups water

Combine all ingredients in a pitcher and serve in glasses over lots of ice.

*I warn you, I like my lemonade nice and tart. Adjust the simple syrup to your tastes, and definitely sweeten it if you think I’m a crazy sourmouth or something.

Open Letter to the First Garden Tomato of the Year

Dear tomato,

I probably should not be so excited about you. And I especially should not be broadcasting my over the top, speaking to inanimate foodstuffs, excitement to the world, as it makes me sound a little bit crazy. But here I am.

You are comically small, for a tomato that came off of our “beefsteak tomato” plant. It took you forever to grow and ripen. But I watched you, and followed your progress, and you beat out the San Marzano and grape tomatoes, still green on the vine but growing every day, to be this summer’s inaugural garden tomato. I monitored your ripening very attentively as there is a nefarious squirrel in our garden who likes to beat me to the punch and steal a tomato just one day or so before it’s ripe, take a single bite out of it, and then leave it on the ground for me to find, a sort of calling card of its dodgy dealings. I am glad you did not fall prey to that fate and that I got to pick you, fully ripe, this morning. Fuck you, squirrel. I win this round.

I will wait to eat you until Graeme comes home. We probably consume you on slices of fresh bread with a little salt sprinkled on top. We will inevitably wax poetic about how there are just no tomatoes that compare to garden tomatoes. And while I will savour you, I will also feel kind of bummed out, because the appearance of this first tomato also means that it is late enough in the summer to be eating garden tomatoes. It means that summer is half over. You, my little fresh garden tomato, are a wonderful reminder of how sweetness and melancholy often present themselves hand in hand; the start of tomato season is both exciting and magical, and also a reminder that summer will end.

But for now, welcome!

Love,
Anna

PS – Lebanese cucumber, you’re next!

Homemade Whole-Milk Ricotta

It all started with yogurt. I am an inveterate yogurt-for-breakfast eater, as well as a snob about eating healthy, creamy, full-fat, no-junk yogurt, which can make for an expensive breakfast habit. So when I discovered that it was so damn easy to make your own yogurt, I was hooked. It felt like alchemy; just do a couple of small things to your milk, let it sit for six or so hours, and ta da! Tasty, inexpensive, and you get to thrillingly exclaim “holy crap, I made yogurt!” to anyone within shouting distance. We get a little obsessed with learning to cook things we would normally buy from scratch in this here household, and all of a sudden I was aware that there was this whole world of dairy out there just waiting for me to mess around with it. And so, I bought myself this veritable bible of home cheesemaking possibilities, and set to reading:

source

Once you enter the world of homemade cheese, you have got a whole lot of new vocabulary to learn, and I will admit that I found myself a little bit overwhelmed at first. That said, Ricki Carroll’s book does a great job of explaining the basics and building from there, helping me to understand the process of turning milk into cheese, and what the various possibilities are. Still, despite the fact that I should have known better, I had a hard time believing that it could be as simple as it seemed. Most “recipes” consist of little more than milk, and an appropriate souring agent that does the job of separating it into curds and whey. Hard cheeses get a little bit more complicated, but Carroll assures the reader that classics such as ricotta and mozzarella are really perfect for beginners and dummy-proof.

So last week, I decided to finally throw my hat into the ring and start with some ricotta. I know that all of you who already know how to make things like ricotta, or have Italian grandmothers who did this every day like it was like breathing, are probably laughing at my hesitation. As always, making my own ricotta taught me that the world’s more traditional foods are usually very straightforward and simple to prepare; how else would they have become so ubiquitous? Like my experimentation with yogurt, watching the milk transform into cheese felt like magic. As the mixture warmed up and nothing happened, I was skeptical. What was I doing? And then, as it slowly reached the set temperature, the curds started to appear and I knew that I was creating something.

All in all, including hanging the ricotta to drain more of the liquid out of it, the process took less than an hour. Apparently mozzarella, which I hope to attempt later this week, takes even less time! And it was too cool to watch it all happen, with seemingly little intervention on my part.As I watched the ricotta drip, I thought about the ricotta we buy in the supermarket, and how we generally treat it as a means to an end. It is not something I tend to get excited about eating in and of itself–it is an ingredient in a tasty lasagna, or some other more complex dish. But fresh, and straight out of my own section of cheesecloth, it was the star of that night’s dinner. I ate it with spaghetti and some homemade garlic scape pesto (the recipe here is fabulous), generously seasoned, and it could not have tasted more delicious.
I am therefore convinced that making your own cheese is awesome for three reasons: first, it tastes fresh and wonderful, and elevates often under-appreciated ingredients like ricotta to being central and show-stopping elements of one’s meal. Second, it is really fun to do, and feels like magical kitchen alchemy. And third, and perhaps most importantly, it is a way of learning about cheese. And I love cheese. It is one of my favourite foods, and I consume it with alarming enthusiasm. And it is incredibly instructive for me to start learning how it’s made, and by proxy what it actually is, exactly, both in terms of my appreciation for this beautiful food, and for my understanding of what makes a cheese tasty, or sharp, or creamy, or pungent, or nutty. Anything that deepens my understanding and appreciation of cheese is a good thing, in my book.

And so, let me share with you the ricotta recipe from Carroll’s book, adapted in two big ways: first, I scaled down the quantity considerably, as I imagine that if you are embarking on this for the first time like I was, you probably want to smart small in case it all goes sour (literally, ha!). Second, I couldn’t find citric acid, which is what she suggests as a starter (which is odd, as I’d never had trouble finding it in stores before–I think it was just an off day in my neighbourhood), so I did a bunch of sleuthing and figured out how to substitute the right quantity of lemon juice instead, which worked like a charm. So I will offer you both possibilities in the recipe below. Enjoy, and if you try it, tell me how it went!

Homemade Whole-Milk Ricotta
Makes about 1 cup of ricotta. Adapted from Ricki Carroll’s Home Cheesemaking.

Ingredients:
1 litre whole milk
1/4 tsp citric acid disolved in 1 tbsp of water OR 20 ml (1 tbsp & 1 tsp) lemon juice
1 tsp cheese salt (optional–I didn’t use any)
1 tbsp heavy cream (optional and definitely made the cheese more creamy)

Add your citric acid or lemon juice and optional salt into the milk and mix thoroughly. In a medium saucepan, directly heat this mixture to between 185F and 195F (I did this over medium-high heat). Do not boil. Stir often to prevent any burning. Once it gets up to this temperature range, the curds should start separating from the whey (the leftover liquid). Make sure that the curds separate enough that the whey is not milky, and turn off the heat. Allow it to set, undisturbed, for 10 minutes.

Line a colander with butter muslin/cheesecloth and ladle the curds into the colander. Tie the corners of the cloth into a knot and hang the bag to drain, with a bowl under it to catch the drips. Carroll says to hang it for 20-30 minutes, but as this recipe makes only a quarter of the quantity she suggests in her book, it should be ready within about 15 minutes. It is really up to you how long you hang it for; do it until it reaches a consistency that you like.

The cheese is ready to eat immediately. If you would like to make it creamier, add some of the cream, and mix it thoroughly. Carroll says that in a covered container in the fridge, the ricotta should last 1-2 weeks, but we wouldn’t know, as ours was all gone within 24 hours.

Stay tuned for more cheesemaking adventures!

Proof that we ate more than just ham in Barcelona

…a whole lot more. Hang in there folks, this will be a picture-heavy post, and I will try to minimize my yammering on in favour of letting the photos do the talking. And let me be clear: even the excesses of this third post about Barcelona do not cover the entirety of what we consumed there. There is still more that didn’t make the cut in the interest of keeping this post down to a “reasonable” (!) 29 photos. Needless to say, Barcelona is truly one of the greatest food cities I have been lucky enough to visit.

(See our two previous posts about Barcelona here and here. And if you want to skip this lengthy post and get right to the nitty gritty–our recommendations–scroll to the end!)

Also, let me assure you that we did do all sorts of cool touristy stuff while there; the Sagrada Familia and Parque Güell being among our highlights. I promise! See?

So we didn’t eat all the time. Just most of the time. Speaking of which, back to the food. While the copious amounts of pork and tomato bread that we consumed would likely have been enough to fuel us through our entire week in Barcelona, we did investigate a whole lot of the other delicious foods and drinks that the city has to offer. We did not have a single bad meal while we were there. We became addicted to small plates-style dining. Among the other highlights of our week in this glorious city, were:

Yes, of course, lots of delicious seafood:

Graeme and I both tried cockles for the first time in Barcelona. They were light and lovely.

These cod fritters, also from Paco Meralgo, which I haven’t shut up about in several posts, blew. my. mind. Perfectly fried and crispy, they were gooey and creamy inside. They had the perfect texture. I want to eat them forever.Aaaaaaand also from Paco Meralgo, Graeme and I have not shut up about this dish of octopus in a caramelized onion sauce. It is one of the dishes that brought us back to this restaurant on our last night in Barcelona as we rushed around the city trying to have each of our favourite dishes one last time. Look for something similar to this on the blog in the coming months–I am determined to recreate it at home. Or at least some lame facsimile thereof. Baby eels with mushrooms and garlic! If any of my girlfriends from grad school are reading this, you will recall our baby eel adventures from our trip to Portugal and Spain many moons ago. Graeme was super into this dish–the eels are chewy and super garlicky and now that I’m a less squeamish eater, we both really enjoyed them!Anchovies. Enough said.And paella. Oh our lovely paella. We scarfed down the best paella I ever ate after a morning relaxing on Barcelonita beach. I may not have mentioned this on here, but our trip to Barcelona was actually prompted by my having a conference to attend, such that there was a little bit of work in between all this eating. All of the work-related anxiety and exhaustion melted away after a morning on the gorgeous beach, which could not have been followed up by a more perfect lunch than this seafood paella, which takes over 30 minutes to arrive at your table after you order it, as it is all made fresh, from Can Majó, just off of the beach. If you poke around the internet, you will find lots of hang wringing over the sorry state of paella in Barcelona, but this resto was one that came up again and again in my searches for a good one. It was beautiful–the seafood was meaty and fresh, and the rice had an amazing texture and flavour. It was served to us in a giant paella dish, and we devoured the whole thing without a second thought.

Meats other than pork (and cheese!):

While pork was the star during our time in Barcelona, we did also enjoy a few other beautifully prepared meats. I will say that possibly my only food regret from Barcelona is how, obsessed with meat and seafood, we sampled very little local cheese. There just wasn’t enough time for everything! But I love Spanish cheese in general, and will have to keep exploring it back home.

These venison kebabs were perfectly grilled!

We had this duck pate in a pear crust at Onofre on the same night that we ate this epic charcuterie plate. And yet we finished the whole thing. Because it was silky smooth and impossible not to keep returning to. Behind it is a lovely cheese plate of aged manchego that went beautifully with all of our meat.

We picnicked on ham and tetilla cheese.  I love how creamy and refreshing this traditional Galician cheese is; it countered the pungency of our strongly cured meat really well. Graeme loves how, well, it’s named after its nipple shape.

Lovely grilled goat!

Tapas, tapas, and more tapas:

These heavenly chickpeas were served to us at Bar Pinotxo, the legendary tapas bar in the Boqueria market. While extremely touristy, this place lived up to the hype, and the chickpeas above blew my mind. I have no idea how they prepared them, but they simultaneously still had a bite to them and were perfectly creamy in the middle. It is not often that I get so excited about chickpeas, but I could eat these every day for the rest of my life. Patatas Bravas. Ideally in a creamy and spicy sauce, this ubiquitous tapas staple can be exciting or totally mediocre depending on where you find it. Above was our favourite plate of them–it had an awesome kick to it!

Ham and chicken croquettes; these came courtesy of Bar Pinotxo as well, but we ate many more croquettes during our time in Barcelona. That I enjoyed these so much was a real shocker to me, as at home I would consider croquettes a very dated, 1980s, bland and tired sort of dish. But it is a staple of tapas culture, and so many places we ate did a beautiful job of them, frying them perfectly so that they’d be crispy but not greasy, and melted and creamy inside. I am now wondering if it is time for croquettes to make a comeback!

Occasionally even a little bit of fruit:

In my family, we have a “thing” about peaches in Europe in the summer. My dad will wax poetic about the best white flesh peach he ever ate, in Paris, in 1970-something. I am more likely to go one about flat peaches. Both kinds suck when you buy them here in Montreal, and come to life on the other side of the ocean, full of sweet juice. We could not resist them.


Booze:

As might be clear from this blog, neither Graeme nor I tend to be huge wine drinkers. But in Barcelona we both fell head over heels for light white wines, which were just so refreshing in the summer heat, and a perfect accompaniment to light, small plates dining. Graeme sampled a great many beers in Barcelona, but even he eventually succumbed to the siren song of white wine. We generally skipped sweet drinks like sangria for these guys, amazed that we, for once, felt like we “got” wine, and the wonders it can do for a meal. We mostly drank pretty cheap wines but that didn’t matter; we even lugged one of our favourite, and cheapest, bottles home with us.

Thanks to a recommendation from a friend, we also discovered L’Ascensor, the world’s most unpretentious cocktail bar, which despite being so down to earth has an incredible reputation for being one of the best bars in Spain. Above are some refreshing mojitos that we drank there, a wonderful reprieve from the lame sugary ones that seem to overpopulate cocktail bars these days. L’Ascensor reminded me that properly made mojitos are awesome!

Sweet stuff:

Another one of our Barcelona failures is how little dessert we ate! We were too stuffed full of meat! This is a ridiculous situation which, as you will see, we tried to remedy on our last night.

I became obsessed with this stand in the old city which sold a million different flavours of ice cream on a stick. How could you go wrong with this? It was not the most mind-blowing ice cream you’ll ever eat, but come on. Ice cream on a stick.We were in Barcelona for what we in Quebec know as the festival of Saint-Jean, which is also, it turns out, a festival in Spain. I was not a fan of navigating past 8 year olds setting off amateur fireworks in every part of the city the entire night, but I was a fan of the sweet bread that is traditionally eaten for this festival, which is pictured above. Crema catalana, is, effectively, Catalan crème brûlée. Which is to say that it’s awesome.

And then there was Espai Sucre, pictured above. This is where we made up for our paltry dessert eating. You may have noticed, in our Barcelona recaps, that we did very little fine dining while there; while there are, apparently, many excellent fancy restaurants in the city, we were on a fairly tight budget and had enough to explore on the regular proletariat side of things. We even had reservations for Ferran Adrià’s new tapas bar, and cancelled them. However, knowing that modernist cuisine has its roots in Spain, I did really want to go to at least one wacky modernist restaurant, and when we found out about Espai Sucre, which is an experimental dessert-only restaurant, with a pastry chef school attached to it, we decided that it would be a perfect way to cap off our trip. You can have an entire meal of desserts at Espai Sucre (I really recommend you look at their menu, it is insane!), but we did opt for the small, three-course each menus ourselves, as we had already wandered around the city filling up on the favourite dishes we had collected during our stay in Barcelona. I think dessert is a great way to explore modernist cuisine as dessert cookery is already so mad scientist-y to begin with. It did not disappoint. I ordered the “cheese” menu while Graeme ordered the “chocolate” one, and I will post photos of all of our dishes below.Goat “cheesecake” with raspberries, red pepper and ginger

Chocolate with vinegar, strawberry, mint and pepper

Extra virgin olive oil cake, white peach, green olive and San Simón
Truffle mushroom, butter, hazelnut, cocoa

“Idiazàbal”  cake with cherry + beet and black beer

Chocolate, prunes, oak, rum, tobacco

We capped off the meal with this delicious array of petits fours, which may have been my favourite part of the whole experience! I particularly loved the lime and rosemary pops (top left).

Overall, it was a fantastic meal; I was especially fond of my first course cheesecake, which helped me understand the point of “deconstructed” food, as it combined everything that is delicious about a cheesecake in new formulations so that it was at once novel, while at the same time…everything good about a cheesecake. The chocolate crumbles, in particular, were so perfect and really captured what is so awesome about cheesecake crust at its core. Graeme raved about his second course, and the earthiness that the chocolate got from the inclusion of truffles. Neither of us have every been that crazy about truffles but somehow they really worked in that dish and helped us get why they are so hyped. The “weirdest” dish was, of course, his third, due to the inclusion of the tobacco. It kind of worked, as the tobacco also lent a real earthiness, once you could get over the idea that you were, you know, eating tobacco. The problem was that the tobacco flavour was a bit too strong and  overpowered the dish, which did not help one get past the “I’m…eating…tobacco” feeling. It was the only one we both weren’t crazy about, but I think all it really would take for us would be scaling that tobacco down a notch, to be a complementary flavour and not such a dominant one.

Espai Sucre reminded me to be more open-minded about experimental cuisine. Graeme and I are both, at the end of the day, most passionate about traditional cuisines, and I will probably always prefer a simple tomato bread to deconstructed cheescake. But still, the work they do there is amazing and everything we ate was delicious, and luckily we are hungry enough that there is space in our bellies for both the old and the new. And we love trying new things so we felt really pleased with our experience at Espai Sucre as a way to cap off a fantastically gluttonous week in Barcelona. I totally recommend it as a great way to splurge.

It is easy to surmise what our favourite places were based on these long three posts about Barcelona, but if you want the quick rundown, here are our recommendations for eating and drinking in Barcelona:

Tapas:

Paco Meralgo:  Get the cod fritters, octopus in caramelized onion, tomato bread, and, even though we didn’t try it ourselves, the cheese-stuffed and fried zucchini flowers–they just looked that good!

Onofre: They specialize in wine and charcuterie. So eat those. The huge charcuterie plate is worth it. Their dishes are huge though, so beware when ordering!

Bar Pinotxo: This tapas bar at the edge of the Boqueria market is a perfect place to grab lunch. Eat a plate or two of their sublime chickpeas (and you know, seafood and meat and stuff).

Paella:

Can Majó: The paella is worth the wait. Reserve if you want to sit outside.

Cocktails:

L’Ascensor: Get a mojito. Relax.

Hamming It Up:

La Boqueria
: This market right off of the Rambla lives up to the hype and is a great place to explore the different hams, cheeses, seafood and fruits that Barcelona has to offer. Lots of places will let you buy little samples of various hams, which is how we started exploring.

Other Local Markets: There are excellent neighbourhood markets littered throughout the city, which are quieter but just as chock full of ham and other delicacies as La Boqueria, and they are well worth exploring as they are less crowded and allow for a more leisurely stroll. La Conceptió Market was right by our guesthouse, and so we spent a lot of time there, and everyone was incredibly friendly, helpful and knowledgeable.

Splurging:

Espai Sucre: where you can live out your childhood dreams and have dessert for dinner! And get a taste of what Spanish modernist cuisine is coming up with these days.

Ode to Tomato Bread

It is with a very heavy heart that I must inform you that a few days ago, we had the displeasure of leaving Barcelona and coming back to Montreal. This is not an experience that I would wish on anyone. Were it not for incentives like this, we would have been even whinier than we already are about leaving what is truly one of the greatest cities that I have ever been lucky enough to visit.

It would be an understatement to say that we ate our way through Barcelona. Before our visit, neither Graeme nor I would have ranked Spanish food as one of the cuisines that we got especially excited about, but man, did that ever change. Graeme spent much of our trip looking like a kid in a candy store every time we passed by any ham (which was just about every 5 minutes). He will have to write about the many charcuterie epiphanies he had in Barcelona in a different post, but in the meantime, this is what a man high on ham looks like:

I, on the other hand, became obsessed with the wonder of eating small plates of incredibly simple food that was so damn fresh and satisfying that I could not get enough of it. Barcelona solidified my love of the unfussy. I too, will have to elaborate in another post, but in the meantime, I’d like to talk about one of the best possible examples of insanely delicious simple Spanish food: tomato bread.

Those of you who have spent time in Spain will recognize tomato bread as something that is served as an accompaniment with most restaurant meals. Simply put, tomato bread is…bread, rubbed with tomato. Yep. It is usually toasted, and complemented with some good olive oil, salt, and maybe garlic. (All the recipes I have found online recommend rubbing the bread with garlic, but I am certain that some of the very best breads we had in Barcelona really just relied on the tomato.) It feels like it shouldn’t be as damn delicious as it is, but there is nothing a properly ripe, juicy tomato won’t transform into magic. And good tomato bread really is magic. The plate above is the very first plate of tomato bread we sampled at the end of our first day in Barcelona, when we were so jet lagged and hungry that we deliriously stumbled into Paco Meralgo, an awesome little tapas bar that ended up being our very favourite restaurant in the city. Imagine two weary travellers trying to muster up the strength to stay awake past 9pm being presented with the plate above. We didn’t really know what we were looking at, we just shoved the bread into our mouths in the interest of taming our blood sugar levels. One bite and we were revived. Crispy and juicy at the same time, it just tasted like really damn good tomato. For the rest of the week we cursed ourselves because little did we know that  this would be the very best tomato bread we would find on our entire trip; we even stopped by Paco Meralgo on our last night just to have it one more time.

We ate some absurdly delicious things during our time in Barcelona–some of the best ham I’ve ever had, some stunning seafood, incredible desserts, and other wonders that I will detail at another time. But the tomato bread was the anchor of our culinary experience there, and it is what I am most obsessed with trying to recreate back home. To begin with, it is clear that the dish relies on very ripe, very tasty tomatoes. It is lucky that I have developed this obsession at the start of tomato season; as I type this, a variety of tomatoes are growing, slowly and steadily, in my garden, getting ready to be experimented with.

In the meantime, I made my first batch of homemade tomato bread just two days after returning from Barcelona, to accompany a relatively simple summery dinner that I had thrown together (grilled steak and some roasted zucchini, shallots, bell peppers and mushrooms, with a garlic scape pesto). I bought a baguettine, sliced it and brushed it with olive oil, and put it in the oven to broil for a couple of minutes (as you can see from the top photo, I let it broil a little bit too long!). I then rubbed it with the ripest early-in-the-season tomato I could find, and salted it generously with some Maldon sea salt. What made the Paco Meralgo bread so transcendent were three things: the bread was perfectly toasted and crispy so that the tomato did not make it soggy; it tasted as tomato-ey as was humanly possible; and it was perfectly salted, so as to enhance the tomato flavour even more. I tried to keep these qualities in mind as I made mine.

The verdict? I accomplished, to my own delight, the first and third qualities very well for my very first try. But it still just wasn’t tomato-ey enough. This could be a matter of waiting for better, riper tomatoes, and I also think I need to be more aggressive and generous with the amount of tomato I rub on the bread. For a first attempt, it certainly evoked what we loved so much about the bread we ate in Barcelona. But it did not inspire the same level of fanaticism. We happily ate it all, and mopped up the leftover pesto with it nonetheless, and made notes for next time.

As we all know, sometimes mastering the simplest foods can be the trickiest. Watch this space for further tomato bread adventures!