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!

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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!

Barbecued Ribs

On Thursday morning I was sitting at my computer with my morning coffee reading the day’s news. I was on The Guardian’s website and, in an experience that is no doubt familiar to many Guardian readers, found myself enraged at the headline for one of their articles. Was it some provocative but thick-skulled analysis of the conflict in the Middle East? A woefully misinformed and patronising article about Canadian politics? Anything ever by Madeline Bunting?  No, it was the headline for the following article by Felicity Cloake on the site’s sidebar: are ribs, this “mainstay of the American barbecue canon overrated or a porcine classic?”

Ribs overrated?  They’d pushed me too far this time.  I ranted to Anna about how stupid the Guardian is and how they only publish things with extreme views that will divide and anger people who will then repeatedly click on the article to leave vengeful comments on it.  Such is the world with print media declining.

To be fair, once I calmed down enough to read the article, it wasn’t actually bad at all.  Basically Cloake’s point is that the British are terrible at barbecue and so their idea of barbecuing ribs is to throw them on the grill for a few minutes on each side and then wonder what the big deal is about ribs as they joylessly gnaw on tough and barely edible meat.  You would think that I’m exaggerating here, but barbecue is an unknown art in the UK.  We tried it when we lived there and had poor results.  You can easily find a cheap charcoal grill, but good luck finding decent charcoal.  And when I say “decent charcoal”, I mean charcoal that will actually heat up enough to be useful for cooking.  It’s like the British state and its perverse obsession with all things health and safety carried out a risk analysis and determined that not only is barbecue potentially carcinogenic but also that hot things can burn and so people should be denied the primal pleasure of cooking things over fire.  Balls.  I digress.  Anyway, Cloake goes on and tries different methods of cooking ribs to find the best possible recipe.

Not that a recipe for ribs is really necessary.  To me, ribs are one of the quintessential “cook from the heart” foods.  As long as you’re cooking them for a long time with low heat and making sure that they don’t dry out, you can do pretty much whatever you want with them and you’ll end up with great meat.  I prefer to give the ribs a slow bake in the oven and finish them on the grill, which is, I know, anathema to the purists who insist that you can only do proper ribs if you smoke them, but I don’t have a smoker, and I’m not confident enough about my barbecue’s temperature control to be able to cook them for hours at a low temperature on the grill.  When it’s all said and done, the ribs are tender and delicious and that’s good enough for me.

I prefer spare ribs to back ribs because they have more fat on them.  I always get mine from my butcher.  The night before I cook the ribs, I first remove the membrane from the back of the ribs.  You can find out how to do that here.  With the membrane removed the rub and the sauce can better penetrate the meat.  I use a rub, which consists of sugar, salt, and spices, though how I make the rub varies each time.  I’ll post the rub I used this time below, but I normally improvise it based on whatever seems good at the time.  I apply (rub?) the rub onto the meat, wrap it in plastic, and keep it in the fridge overnight.

About four or five hours before the planned dinner time I start baking the ribs in the oven.  I only did it for about three hours this time because I had a band practice that went a little bit late.  They still worked out great, and there are plenty of baked ribs recipes that call for a two hour bake, so I guess that two hours is probably the minimum?  But generally speaking, the longer you can bake them, the better.  I brush them with sauce before they go in the oven–Anna made the sauce from from Sheila Ferguson’s Soul Food, which she posted about here–and put them into a 250F oven on a broiling pan.  I put some water in the broiling pan with the idea that the water would steam and keep the meat moist.  I’m not actually sure this works, but the idea seems to make sense.  I’ll occasionally reapply the sauce and turn the ribs.  The sauce should bake nicely onto the meat and as the meat cooks it should pull away slightly from the bone.  When they’re cooked and tender, they can be taken out of the oven and kept until you’re ready to grill them.

When the guests arrive and you’re ready to eat, brush some more sauce onto the ribs and grill them on the barbecue to get the sauce nicely caramelised, and then serve.  We had ours with grilled corn, spoonbread, and a potato and vegetable salad.  The meat was tender and flavourful.  We had a couple of friends over for dinner and over drinks and conversation we devoured the two racks over the course of the night.  It was what summer eating should be about.

Rub for ribs
Makes enough for two racks of ribs

Ingredients:
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon mustard powder (I use Colman’s)
1 teaspoon ancho chile powder
1 teaspoon chipotle chile powder
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

Mix everything together and generously rub it into the meat.

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.

The beautiful, beautiful world of pork

When people asked us what we were planning on doing in Barcelona, I always replied: “eat ham”. A funny, jokey response, right? Wrong.  It’s not that I wasn’t interested in seeing Barcelona’s sights, walking along the Ramblas and the narrow, winding, shaded medieval streets of the Gothic quarter, lounging on the beach, seeing the Gaudi buildings and all that, it’s just that I am first and foremost interested in the things you can do to a pig.

I was not to be disappointed.  Anna wrote about the wonderful tomato bread we had on our first night here, but our meal at the excellent Paco Meralgo also consisted of octopus with caramelised onions, cod fritters, asparagus sauteed with wild garlic, a ham and potato salad (Anna was initially skeptical of this, thinking that it was going to be some grocery store-style salad with mayo and cubes of diced ham–look how wrong she was):

and a plate of gorgeous dried sausage:
Our exploration of the fine meats Spain has to offer went on from this exciting start.  The next day we went to the Boqueria Market and bought a small selection of Serrano ham and jamón ibérico to snack on:

The Serrano was excellent, with a deep, rich cured flavour, but the real revelation was the jamón ibérico. This is the famed Spanish ham made from a specific breed of pig raised only in the Iberian peninsula, with the most prized animals fed only on acorns.  As far as I can tell, the hams are simply made–just salt-cured and dried for as long as three years–and they have this incredibly complex and sophisticated flavour: tangy, salty, nutty (Anna thought that the ham reminded her in a way of a well-aged Parmigiano-Reggiano), sharp, this is the greatest ham I have ever tasted.  This ham haunts my dreams and mocks me with its simple beauty.

The other great discovery was morcón, which we first had as part of an extremely (extremely!) generous mixed charcuterie plate at a tapas bar called Onofre.

It was so good that we went back there on our last night to have it again.  Morcón is the poor country relative of chorizo: the paprika-heavy seasoning is the same, but the morcón uses fattier, less expensive cuts of meat (my Spanish language comprehension is next to zero, so I believe that the server said that it is made from back meat…but I could be totally wrong about that) that are diced instead of ground.  If you have any doubts about how delicious fat is and the difference it can make in food, do a side-by-side comparison of morcón and chorizo.  The chorizo is excellent, yes, but I will take morcón over it any day.

Look at that beautiful fat!

When we got back I called my parents to let them know how the trip was and that we made it back safely, and my mom–who had been following Facebook updates about the vast quantities of ham and sausage we were eating–asked why we kept talking about ham and weren’t eating seafood.  We did eat seafood, delicious seafood, and that’s perhaps for a future post, but who can resist eating excessive amounts of cured meats when ones this good are on offer?

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!

Kitchen Sink Shrimp and Grits with Corn, Bacon and Rhubarb

I must admit that I am a bit embarrassed to post about grits so soon after I waxed poetic about polenta, as the two foods are so similar. On top of that, the ingredients in this dish will look a little bit repetitive if you have been following what we’ve been cooking the past few weeks. I promise we’re not totally boring people who eat the same thing over and over again. This time, at least, there is a good reason for our redundancy; our cooking this past week was influenced heavily by the need to clear out our fridge in preparation for a trip to Barcelona (!!!). I find the week before a trip kind of frustrating in terms of cooking, as while it’s all very well and good to try and use what you have, what you have always seems to consist of random odds and ends that don’t really go together, leaving one, at the end of the day, with a whole lot of hot dogs for dinner. And pierogi. Etc.

I was therefore pretty pleased with myself when I pulled this dish together the other night, combining some staples we had in our freezer (bacon, shrimp) with some produce that needed to be eaten (rhubarb, lime, corn). I am always kind of excited when I use our stone ground grits, too, as we only recently discovered them. For a long time, I had been obsessed with the idea of grits because I, like every other person on the planet, am totally enamoured of Southern U.S. cooking. But they are seemingly impossible to find north of the border, so for a while they were this elusive mystery to me. Luckily, I have wonderful culinary accomplices. At first, a dear friend literally mailed us some from the U.S., with strict instructions from her very southern mom on how to cook them. And so I was hooked. I have since taken to bringing some back I have travel down south myself. And even my mom is in on it–whenever she goes to the condo in Florida she comes back with a package of stone ground grits for me. She has no idea what they are, exactly, but she knows I always need some!

Anyway. I wasn’t sure this dish was going to work out at first, and indeed, Graeme looked at me skeptically when I plunked a savoury dish involving rhubarb down in front of him. I was a bit worried that I was going out on too much of a limb for myself (I am generally not very courageous when working without a recipe), in a feverish attempt to not let my precious rhubarb go to waste, but we both should have had more faith: it was AWESOME. Pairing flavours like bacon with sweet things is hardly a new idea, and rhubarb particularly lent itself beautifully to such a combination. I made a simple compote that I kept nice and tart so that it added just a little bit of sweetness, and a lot of lovely tartness to brighten up what could otherwise feel like a bit of a heavy, muddled plate of food. This dinner was a victory over the oftentimes humdrum nature of week-before-vacation eating.

If you’ve got any leftover rhubarb and you are tired of baking, I really recommend throwing together the compote; the recipe  below made far more than was necessary to accessorize this dish, and we therefore ate it with everything we could think of for several days. It was most notably delicious for breakfast one morning, when I prepared an open-faced sandwich of toast, arugula, bacon, a poached egg, and a little bit of  compote. It worked ridiculously well and was one of the most interesting/exciting breakfasts I have prepared in a long time! (And I love cooking breakfast.)

Kitchen Sink Shrimp and Grits with Corn, Bacon and Rhubarb
Serves 2 (hungry, hungry hippos) – 4 (birds).

Ingredients:
1 cup stone ground grits
5 1/3 cups water
1 ear’s worth of corn
5 stalks of rhubarb, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup sugar*
1 lime, zested
2 slices of bacon chopped into strips
1 onion, chopped
A glob of butter
1/2 cup of cheddar, grated
A dozen frozen shrimp, thawed
Salt and pepper to taste

Bring 5 cups of the water, salted, to a boil. Once it reaches a boil, turn the heat down low and stir in the grits carefully, making sure to avoid clumps. Cook this way, stirring often, until the mixture is creamy, thick and pulls away from the sides of the pan a bit, about 35-45 minutes.

In the meantime, put the compote on. In a small saucepan, combine the rhubarb, 1/3 cup of water, and sugar and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and let it simmer until the rhubarb is nice and soft and the mixture has thickened a bit.

When the grits look like they’re almost done, get started on the topping. Over medium-high heat, saute the bacon pieces and onion until they both start to brown. Add in the corn, and stir for a couple of minutes until it cooks a bit. At the very, very end, throw in the shrimp, and cook for just a couple of minutes longer, to let them heat through and get a little crispy. Season the mixture.

At the same time, once the grits seem just about done, stir in the cheddar and a generous glob of butter, and season (be generous with the salt!). Remove from the heat.

Serve grits with shrimp mixture on top and a little bit of rhubarb compote. Enjoy!

*As I previously stated, this ratio of sugar to rhubarb made for a pretty tart compote, which I loved, but if you prefer things a little bit on the sweeter side, then definitely up the sugar!