Found in Translation

June 19th, 2007

A digital dictionary may save the hungry traveler, deliberating over a menu in some farflung corner of the globe, but what can translation programs do for menu-makers? Wherever we go, I find some quirky dishes on the menu – only the chef can reveal what will actually appear on our plates.  On our recent ramble in Catalonia, the following seafood wonders were on a lunch menu in Girona:  Weak rice with sea crab, Cockles to the Steam, Octopus to the Galician, Clams to the Plate, Cod carpaccio with creaking garlics, Suquet of snuff with potatoes and mushrooms. And when I turned to the meat listing, I was puzzled by: Lamb with garrison (an army of vegetables?).  Problems seem to lie not only with the prepositions.  Rest assured, pasta – Fideus in Catalonia, for instance – is usually a safe bet.

Vagabondgourmand marks one year, with more tasting on the horizon

June 17th, 2007

One year ago, this vagabondgourmand launched a website, knowing little of the technology involved.  It has been an extended learning curve – at times frustrating, but fascinating. The original plan was to post quarterly notes on markets and seasonal ingredients, places and flavors along the way.  Well, the “along the way” part has won, urging more postings than quarterly comments.  Notes from Italy, Catalonia and Greece indicate that we have been on the road with some frequency.   As research on almonds is being wrapped up, more articles on the Mediterranean cuisines we have explored will appear – on this site and in print.  Markets continue to lure me through the aisles, whether rambling along Girona’s shady park-side stalls or inside the busy central market hall of Livorno.  So, look to vagabondgourmand for more on markets, more recipes (monthly!) and more details on seasonal specialties.  We have discovered remarkable cafés and restaurants, leading to another category for the vagabond’s reports.  On the horizon, there will be winetastings and deeper digging for authentic culinary traditions.   A clearly compatible addition will be suggestions for wine pairing at each season’s table.  More articles about our wine region, the Bergeracois in southwest France, as well as tips on wines we encounter and savor in Spain, Italy and Greece are on my list.

But now I invite comments, reactions and more “conversation” about favorite markets, more input on wines, more tasting discoveries.   I raise my glass to the first year, and to all who have shared in this quest along the way!

Salsa Season!

June 17th, 2007

On opposite ends of the Mediterranean Sea, I’ve discovered distinctive combinations – literally from soup to nuts – using almonds in savory, appetizing sauces. When I set out on the adventure of writing a book about almonds, I expected to primarily taste lots of almondy pastries and puddings: a sweet subject. So during the process of culinary and cultural digging on the subject of this Mediterranean ingredient, my taste buds have had a succession of surprises. This month, I’m testing almond recipes, beginning with a Salsa category, and I’d like to share a few discoveries. Now, in June, the timing is right for sauces made of garlic and almonds – a combo found in many culinary traditions. New garlic, with buds bulging under sheaths of purple-striped casing, is at its juiciest, freshest and easiest to mash and mix into vinaigrettes, sauces and marinades.

Lets begin with Romescu, a quintessentially Catalan sauce that shows up from March into April when calçots (local wild spring onions) are grilled. I was delighted to taste it recently in the northern Spanish city of Girona, served with not grilled but lightly batter-dipped and deep fried calçots. At the next table (within inches), a young Catalan gent attacked a plate of tiny snails, ceremoniously dipping each skewered caracol into the pink Romescu and then into a Catalan variation of the Mediterranean favorite garlic-infused mayonnaise, Ali-oli/ailloli. Romescu contains peppers, but in fact is only slightly spicy – not at all a Hot sauce. The almond presence is in the texture, depending on how the almonds are ground. Packaged pre-ground almonds are convenient, or grind small quantities of blanched almonds in a blender or spice grinder. To prepare salsa Romescu, use a blender if you are rushed, but get out the mortar and pestle for the most authentic results.

Romescu: 4 Tablespoons ground blanched almonds

2 T. garlic, finely minced then ground with 1 tsp. salt

a pinch of cayenne or Piment d’Espelette

1 tomato, peeled, seeded and finely chopped (or 3-4 T. crushed tomatoes, drained)

4 T. wine vinegar

3-4 T. olive oil – or as much as a cupful if you like a richer sauce

Mash the garlic and spices, adding the almonds gradually as the paste becomes thick. Continue to add the chopped tomato, then add vinegar (or use half lemon juice) gradually while mashing. Drizzle the oil in a spoonful at a time to create a smoother consistency, beating it in with a spoon. This recipe is adapted from the useful Time/Life book, Cuisine d’Espagne et du Portugal, 1970. A more complicated version in Penelope Casas’ excellent The Foods & Wines of Spain begins by boiling hot peppers in water and vinegar, then adding them to a bread-thickened sauce. For a little zip, sometimes I have added a bit of Ancho chili. Each kitchen has its own favorite approach to this sauce from Tarragona. In that ancient, coastal city, Romescu can describe a platter of shellfish (often the priciest item on the menu) bathed in the addictive stuff.

Next salsa post: Skordalia

Note to travelers: In épiceries and local grocery shops in northern Spain, look for “Salsa Calçots“, the Ferrer label, made in the Barcelona region.