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.

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.