We travelled onwards to Barcelona from Marseille, stopping by in Montpellier on the way there. After a whole week of eating out, it felt great to dine on home cooking again, all thanks to my fabulous mother-in-law! And this continued untl a few days into our visit, when we all took a day trip to Banyoles, a beautiful little inland town in northern Catalonia with a huge lake that, legend has it, has a dragon (we didn’t see any – Blai, you owe me a dragon). There’s plenty of history in the town and that lake – that lake! It’s all quite beautiful.

The Lake of Banyoles

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It’s a lovely spot to visit if you can. There’s swimming in the lake and lots of nature to enjoy. However, after a long drive there, food was the first thing on our minds. I had done some googling the night before and Blai’s mother had reserved a table for us at Can Banyoles, a restaurant that was only about a five minute walk from the information centre at the lake.

Their lunch menu is only €12 per person (I’ve written about the menú del dia before) and you’ll see soon enough why this is quite the deal if you order well. For my first dish, I chose the local pear tomatoes with ham. These tomatoes were amazing – grown locally and with, yes, a pear shape, they were simple but fantastic. They were ripe and full of flavour and only needed a pinch of salt and a drizzle of olive oil.

Pear Tomatoes with Ham

But Blai and his mother chose even better than I did – they ordered the rice cooked in a cassola. This took absolutely ages to arrive and when we demanded an explanation, we were told that this was cooked to order. What came out was a magnificent sight. That cassola was still bubbling as it was brought to our table.

Rice

The rice was portioned out for the two of them but the four of us could have easily shared all this. The rice had been cooked with some pork and peas and was infused with the flavour of seafood as well. It was delicious even if it was a bit on the soupy side. I helped myself to quite a bit as well – so so so good.

Rice

Second courses were good and hearty (seriously generous portions here) though not amazing. Blai’s botifarra with a garnish of grilled peppers and boiled green beans and potatoes was fine.

Botifarra and Garnish

Blai’s father’s curry was not too bad – quite a nice curry actually! The meat was tender and had a good spicing.

Curry

My calamari was well fried, not too greasy and generously portioned but became a bit dull halfway through. A garnish of some sort would have been nice.

Calamari

Desserts were very simple but it’s exactly what one wants after all that food. I went with juicy slices of watermelon…

Watermelon

…while Blai’s parents chose the crema catalana…

Crema

…and Blai went with a simple slice of torró ice cream.

Ice Cream

So yeah, really quite a bargain for €12, especially if you order that rice. Bookings are essential, even for lunch on a weekday – the place is popular with locals and visitors alike! I understand though that rice is only available on Wednesdays (from a conversation I overheard between a waitress and another customer). Go on a Wednesday!

Restaurant Can Xabanet
Plaça del Carme, 24
17820 Banyoles
Girona, Spain (Catalunya)

Last weekend, I headed down to South Bank to the Streets of Spain festival to try a free Spanish breakfast masterclass courtesy of the Spanish wine brand Campo Viejo. The Spanish wine company was sponsoring the event and holding a number of free masterclasses on both food and wine that long weekend. They had even brought over a number of stalls from the brilliant La Boqueria market of Barcelona and there was even a pop-up tapas restaurant.

At the masterclass venue, we were welcomed by Òscar Ubide i Marcet, the general manager of La Boqueria, who explained what happened at various hours of the market. And how the working hours for many at the market started early and ended with a breakfast – a breakfast that we’d experience at this masterclass.

Oscar, Manager of la Boqueria

Each place had been set with a glass of Campo Viejo cava…apparently the tipple of choice for market traders having breakfast!

Cava for Breakfast

Soon, a plateful of scrambled eggs cooked with mushrooms was set down before us and we helped ourselves to the roving bread platter to mop everything up. The only downside was the amount of salt in the dish; it was just a bit too salty though the eggs and mushrooms were cooked to perfection otherwise.

Mushrooms and Eggs

To my surprise, the chef responsible for our breakfast turned out to be El Quim de la Boqueria, of the stall of the same name – I’ve been wanting to taste his food for some time but never managed to make it there. But next time I’m in Barcelona, I’ll try to get there again! Anyway, that morning he explained how he made the dish with its five different types of mushrooms and a sweet wine reduction (yup, made with a Campo Viejo wine).

El Quim de la treeBoqueria

It was quite a treat to walk out again and encounter stalls from La Boqueria and we may have ended up spending quite a bit on Catalan pork products (my latest thing is the secallona, a dry thin cured pork sausage)! It was a great way to top up our Catalan supplies.

Stalls

Cheese Stall

Thank you very much to Victoria at Weber Shandwick and to Campo Viejo for the invitation! Please do bring La Boqueria back to London again!

This recipe comes via Blai’s mother and has become one of our favourites. It’s simple to put together, we almost always have all the ingredients lying about at home and the end result tastes fantastic with the tender chicken and almost caramelised onion and tomato pieces. The Catalans rarely roast chickens whole, preferring to cut them first into pieces; I like this – it gives each piece a chance to get its skin nice and crispy. The recipe can easily be scaled to feed more too.

Catalan Roast Chicken

We like to serve it with kale cooked in the Catalan way with raisins and pine nuts and either some good bread to mop up the delectable sauce or some fried potatoes or, even better, both. I’m also particularly fond of squeezing out the roasted garlic onto some bread. I know I’ll be serving this recipe up a few times over the Christmas season this year!

Catalan Roast Chicken
serves 3-4.

4 chicken legs, separated into drumstick and thigh
olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper
dried oregano
1 large onion, sliced thickly
2 tomatoes, sliced thickly
3-4 cloves garlic, unpeeled
3 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick
about 100ml of white wine or cognac

Preheat your oven to 220 Celsius.

Arrange the chicken pieces skin side up in a roasting pan (they should fit in one layer). Rub them all over with olive oil and then dust with salt, pepper and dried oregano. Arrange the onion and tomato slices in between the chicken pieces. Snap the cinnamon stick in half and then also arrange that, the garlic and the bay leaves around the chicken. Drizzle olive oil over all and then splash on the wine/cognac.

Place in the oven and roast, turning twice throughout the cooking process (they should finish with their skin sides up), until fully cooked, skin burnished brown and much of the liquid has cooked down to a thick, almost gravy (this will take somewhere between 1 hour and 1.5 hours). Serve, spooning the sauce and the roasted onion and tomato over.

I can’t speak for the rest of Spain but the menú del dia (menu of the day) can be found at lunchtime, lunch being the main meal of the day, in most restaurants in Barcelona and Catalonia and usually comprises two courses (don’t think of it as a starter and main course but two separate dishes served one after the other), dessert, bread, and a drink (usually bottled water, beer or wine) and occasionally coffee. There’s a fixed price and usually a short menu from which to choose your two courses plus dessert. They will always cost less than ordering a la carte and they’re usually an affordable way of trying some of the more expensive restaurants. If you’re lucky, the menu will change often – La Pubilla is one of those places, offering a daily changing lunch menu based on what looks good that day at Gràcia’s Mercat de la Llibertat located across from the restaurant.

La Publilla’s menú del dia did include some delicious olives and fantastically crusty bread.

Olives Bread

We ensured that between the two of us, there would be no overlap in ordering. The Patates amanides amb vinegreta de bisbe negre (potato salad with bisbe negre vinaigrette) didn’t sound exciting to me (I pictured a thick and heavy mayonnaise based potato salad) but what arrived was light and insanely good. A boiled potato had been sliced up and topped with a dressing made of bisbe negre (a black sausage), tomatoes, pine nuts and spring onions. I’ve certainly not had a potato salad like this but I wish to have more.

Patates amanides amb vinegreta de bisbe negre

The Espaguetis amb tomàquet, anxova i nyores (spaghetti with tomato, anchovy and nyora peppers) was topped with a snowy covering of grated parmesan. A creamy pea and mint soup was another first course available that day.

Espaguetis amb tomàquet, anxova i nyores

From the three available second dishes, we first chose the Bacallà amb samfaina (salt cod with samfaina, a Catalan stewed vegetable mixture made up of onions, peppers, aubergines and tomatoes – it’s not dissimilar to a ratatouille). The thick chunk of cod had been fried and it’s traditionally served with samfaina, the sweetness of the vegetables pairing well with the salty fish. This modern presentation was beautiful, with the red pepper foam and black olive drizzle.

Bacallà amb samfaina

Our other second course was Cap i pota amb cigrons (literally “head and feet” with chickpeas). Bits and pieces from the pig’s top to tail had been stewed together with chickpeas and made for a comforting stew, thickened just by the gelatin and collagen from the trotters used. A hamburger was the third option and it was very popular and looked amazingly plump and juicy as it was brought to diners around us (I hope it’s still on the menu next time!).

Cap i pota amb cigrons

We were pretty stuffed already but soldiered on with the desserts. A Pastís de xocolata was an ethereally light chocolate brownie slice with a not very light chocolate sauce – I’m still dreaming about this cake.

Pastís de xocolata

I knew not what to expect from the Plàtan amb taronja (Banana with orange) and was surprised when a bowl of banana slices appeared swimming in a bowl of freshly squeezed orange juice. It’s simple but was actually a perfect refreshing ending to our meal. If you’re wondering, the third available choice for dessert that day was granola with yogurt.

Plàtan amb taronja

And for this delicious modern Catalan lunch? Well, that’s the best part of the menú del dia, its affordability. At La Pubilla, a set lunch was only 13€ – a total bargain. They’re only open for breakfast and lunch and it’s very popular, making drop in lunches a bit difficult. Do book in advance or come early or be prepared to wait; when we went at about 2pm, there was still space at the bar and we ate there.

La Pubilla
Plaça Llibertat, 23
Gràcia
Barcelona
Spain

That rounds up the posts from my trip to Barcelona over Easter. All my photos from this trip can be found in this Flickr photoset.

When I heard that Rachel of Catalan Cooking was organising a calçotada, I didn’t hesitate to book two spaces; good thing I was prompt too as it sold out quite quickly to both curious Londoners and homesick Catalans alike. You may remember that I attended one of her supper clubs and I knew she’d feed us well!

Calçots look like overgrown green onions and their name most likely comes from the shoes/tights or trousers of the same name in Catalan. When grown, soil is brought up high over the base of the onions, maximising the length of the tender white part and are harvested early in the year. In Catalan, anything ending in -ada is like the English -o-rama, i.e. a great lot of something to be celebrated, and it usually involves food. A calçotada involves calçots, of course, and is quite common in Catalunya but I’d never been to one, not ever travelling there from January to March. This was to be my first one. I’d had calçots grilled and deep fried before but I’d never had them en masse and I was looking forward to it.

Pouring Cava

Soon the day came and after work last Wednesday, I met Blai at The Drapers Arms in Islington, the location for our feast. I reckon there were about 40 guests to feed; that was going to be a lot of calçots! The menu read very simply: calçots, grilled meats, crema catalana, orange. Rachel, of course, had managed to source a few extras and we started with glasses of Codorníu cava and canapes of duck confit and foie gras, both on bread and both extremely rich.

Duck Confit Foie Gras Micuit de Martiko

At our table (four large communal tables altogether) too were bowls of dry black empeltre olives and my favourite little green arbequinas and these briny treats helped to cut the lingering fat on our tongues. And before long, large platters of cured meats and picos were brought along. My favourite was the jamón/pernil iberico de bellota (from acorn fed pigs) with the chorizo possibly coming second. I found the lomo/llom a bit boring, as I usually do, and the salsichon was just a bit too fresh and greasy.

Dry Black Olives Arbequines

Embotits

After we demolished our platters, we were called down to the garden to see the calçots being grilled.

Grilling

It was a shame we couldn’t eat out in the garden but that would have required our jackets as the sun went down. Still, it was lovely to smell them grilling on charcoal (oh, how I dream for a bit of outdoor space!).

When they were ready, they were brought to our tables on platters; almost everything was served family-style at this dinner. With our Catalan Cooking bibs on (yes, you will need a bib!), we singed our fingers peeling off the blackened skins to reveal tender, cooked innards.

Calçots

After a good dunk into romesco sauce, the calçots were brought to our mouths. The traditional way of eating them is to lower them down vertically into your upturned gaping mouth (see here for an example). Rachel’s romesco (one of the classic Catalan sauces containing nuts, garlic, peppers and oil) was excellent and we found ourselves dipping bread into it too while waiting for more calçots. One could argue that the correct sauce for calçots is a salsa de calçots but from what I understand, the two sauces are very similar.

Romesco

After about three platters, our table was sated – it was now time for the meat. Platters of grilled lamb, botifarra and chicken were perfectly cooked and utterly delicious and we ate until we could eat no more. The botifarra was especially good and Rachel confirmed that this was ordered direct from Spain. All grilled over charcoal, of course – oh yeah – and served with an allioli that could have been more pungent.

Lamb and Botifarra

Grilled Chicken

For dessert, Rachel’s excellent crema catalana came around in individual bowls and you know, there’s always room for a little something sweet.

Crema Catalana

There was also an orange each but for us, we had these to go as we had to catch the tube to cross town to get home. My first calçotada was such fun; it was a great night with fantastic food and equally fantastic company. If you’re wondering, dinner spots were £30 each. If you’d like to join in next time, do take a look at Rachel’s site for her future events – Catalan Cooking.

All my photos from the night can be found in this Flickr photoset.

Catalan Cooking

The Drapers Arms
44 Barnsbury St
Islington
London N1 1ER

Happy Chinese New Year, everyone! I’m a terrible Chinese person and barely got around to organising dinners or baking treats but work was and remains hectic and I’m exhausted at the end of each day. This weekend looks a bit more promising anyway. And does this post have anything to do with Chinese New Year? Well, no, unless you count the fact that we ate rabbit.

I received an invitation from Codorníu, a Catalan cava producer, to attend a special Catalan meal prepared by Rachel McCormack of Catalan Cooking and so this past Monday night, I rocked up to Beas of Bloomsbury, where Rachel normally holds her cooking classes. In the kitchen too was Franz Schinagl (the former executive chef of Asia de Cuba), who’s currently in charge of savouries at Beas. This supper was hosted by Codorníu, who are based in Sant Sadurní in Catalunya and who have been making wine since 1551, and who will be supporting Rachel’s supper clubs throughout 2011. Oh yes, we were going to have cava throughout our meal; in Catalunya, cava isn’t just saved for special occasions – it’s drunk during meals. If you were to ask my brother if he learned anything from his trip to Barcelona, he would probably say this, which he learned from my in-laws.

If you’re not familiar with Rachel, she’s originally from Scotland but spent many years living in Barcelona, where she learned about Catalan cuisine. She now runs regular Catalan cooking classes in London, teaching the kind of cuisine you’d find in Catalan homes, and has recently started hosting Catalan supper clubs too. This was only her second supper club night; for a great run-down of her first, check out WenLin’s post.

Anna de Codorníu Brut

At this supper club, we were welcomed with glasses of Anna de Codorníu Brut, a very light and fresh cava, before being let loose on a number of snacks laid out on the counter, buffet-style. There were various embotits, essentially bits of meat and in this case it was fuet, a dry cured Catalan sausage, and pernil salat, aka jamón in Spanish. There were olives, formatge (possibly Manchego?) and an excellent truita de patata i xoriço (that’s a tortilla in Spanish).

Tapas

I should mention here that Rachel had designed the menu to take us on a tour of Barcelona, so while the previous tapas were from the Barcelonan markets, the seafood was from Barceloneta and some dishes were inspired by dishes at restaurants in l’Eixample, for example.

Serving Cava

The next course was a sopa de carn d’olla served in a teacup and with this course came a different cava – a Codorníu Selección Raventós Brut – which was much darker in flavour than the previous one. Remember escudella i carn d’olla? This is the broth that’s made when all the meat’s been boiled. It was extremely rich and comforting and just the right size as to not fill us up before the main event.

Sopa de Carn d'Olla

After a little break, we were directed to the kitchen where another buffet spread was laid. To say there was a lot of food would be an understatement.

One cannot have the sopa de carn d’olla without the carn d’olla itself! And sure enough there was a huge platter of the boiled meats – chicken, pig trotters and pilotes (meatballs) – along with carrots, cabbage and white beans. That platter didn’t even hold all of the meat as I saw Franz topping it up later during the meal!

Carn d'Olla

There were also calamars farcits d’albergínia (squid stuffed with aubergine), patates braves (in the style of those at La Taverna del Clinic, a restaurant in Barcelona), fideuà amb sofregit de calamar (noodles with a squid sofregit – a slow cooked mixture of onions and tomatoes), arròs al forn amb bolets (rice cooked in the oven with wild mushrooms), conill amb ceba (rabbit with onions), escalivada (grilled peppers, onions and aubergine), and coliflor en escabetx (pickled cauliflower).

Patates Braves

Fideuà amb Sofregit de Calamar

Codorníu Reina Maria Cristina Blanc de Noirs 2008

To drink with all of this was a Codorníu Reina Maria Cristina Blanc de Noirs 2008, which my untalented tongue can only describe as not as heavy as the second cava and yet not as fresh as the first. I am utterly useless with wines (I don’t drink very much as I’m intolerant to alcohol). This cava was pointed out to us as being the first Spanish “blanc de noirs” sparkling wine, meaning that it’s white sparkling wine made from black grapes. Quite a special cava then.

That pictured below was just my first plate (!). My favourites, for which I went up again for seconds, were the fideuà (which went well with aioli), the tender pilotes in the carn d’olla, and those amazing patates braves.

My Plate

We were absolutely stuffed and somehow had to find space for the desserts that would finish our meal. As we were rubbing our bellies, somehow the cava bottles in our ice buckets magically transformed into pink cava! This was a Codorníu Pinot Noir Rosé which was ever so slightly sweet.

Codorníu Pinot Noir Rosé

Desserts were all absolutely gorgeous and definitely worthy of tummy space. Rachel’s crema catalana (one bowl per table and we were only two – score! Hello to my lovely tablemate Ailbhe of Simply Splendiferous) was sweet, creamy and delicious and I had many, many spoonfuls of it.

Crema Catalana

Rachel came around with platters of Bunyols de l’Empordà, essentially Catalan doughnuts. Two flavours made the rounds: lemon and amaretto bunyols and orange and rum ones; needless to say, both were fantastic. I can never turn down a freshly fried doughnut.

Bunyols de l'Empordà

The final dessert almost did me in but I’m glad I persevered as it was amazing. It was a very unique sopa d’avellanes amb el seu cruixent (hazelnut soup with a hazelnut crocante): imagine a cold and thick hazelnut flavoured milk with a lump of ice cream within and a crunchy caramel biscuit – beautiful.

Sopa d'Avellanes amb el seu Cruixent

I reckon this is the closest thing you’ll get in London to experience proper Catalan home cooking (well, I mean if you don’t know any Catalan people here!). All the information on upcoming cooking classes and events (check out the calçotada!) can be found on Rachel’s site: Catalan Cooking. If you’re not in London, she’s got a few recipes on her blog too.

Rachel

All my photos from the night can be found in this Flickr photoset. Moltes gràcies to Rachel and Sarah at Codorníu for the invitation!

I’ve still got Barcelona on the mind! I keep meaning to get to Bar Pinotxo at La Boqueria to try their famous chickpea dishes (usually with morcilla, a Spanish black sausage, and raisins or apple) but I’ve never been able to wake myself up early enough (I’m under the impression that it’s less crowded early in the morning). We had some leftover chickpeas one night and the thought sprung to my mind to create a similar dish at home.

Chickpeas with Sausage, Raisins and Pine Nuts

This recipe is based on this video I found which shows one of the cooks at Bar Pinotxo preparing the dish. I’ve had to tweak it somewhat to use ingredients that I can easily get here and of course, I have no idea how mine compares to the real thing. One thing I do know – it’s mighty tasty with the creamy chickpeas and savoury pork mingling with the sweet raisins and nutty pine nuts and a bowlful makes a fine supper with a small hunk of bread alongside.

Chickpeas with Sausage, Raisins and Pine Nuts
serves 2-3.

2 tbsps olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 pork sausages
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup pinenuts
1 tsp dried oregano
a pinch of dried thyme
1-2 tbsps chopped flat leaf parsley
500g cooked chickpeas
salt
2 tsps balsamic vinegar
2 tbsps extra virgin olive oil

Heat a large saute pan over medium heat and pour in the oil when hot. Add the onions and cook them slowly until golden, about 10 minutes.

Peel the sausages and add the filling to the pan. Add the raisins, pine nuts, oregano and thyme in too. Fry, stirring and mashing the meat constantly – you want the meat to crumble to little bits. When the meat has cooked through, add the parsley and stir through. If it’s starting to look a bit too dry, you can toss in a bit of water at this time (a bit only!).

Add the chickpeas and stir to combine well. Let cook for another 5 or so minutes, stirring often. The chickpeas are precooked so you just want to heat them up here. When hot, take the pan off the heat, season with salt and pour in the balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. Stir through well and serve.

Fresh Chickpeas

On a somewhat related note, I purchased these fresh chickpeas at a shop on Ealing Road near Wembley this past weekend. I wasn’t too sure how to prepare them so I boiled them for a few minutes, as I would edamame. Unlike edamame though, there are only one or two chickpeas per pod.

Fresh Chickpea

The pods collected lots of water and with a gentle squeeze, they’d shoot out jets of hot water. Sure it was a bit dangerous but we were rewarded with tender green chickpeas that made for a nice pre-dinner nibble.

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