Thinking on Catalonia, Exploring Barcelona, and a Recipe for Zarzuela

Today’s post has a Catalan theme because my son, Jenan Wise, has taken up residence in Barcelona, Spain, to use it as a launch pad for traveling around and seeing the world from the European perspective while he continues to work with his startup company via the internet. He is a computer scientist with a bent for good food, classical guitar, architecture, and photography, among many other things, hence

A classical guitar shop in Barcelona. Photo by Jenan Wise

his choice of Barcelona, which is a port city on the northeastern shore of the Mediterranean and a center of art, architecture, and, recently, technology. Established by the Phoenicians coming from the far eastern side of the Mediterranean where there is now Syria and Lebanon, Barcelona has long been a crossroad and stop off point for Mediterranean commerce. Its language is a Romance one like none of the others. Heavy on consonants, Catalan is influenced by Phoenician, which was

Vegetables at the mercat de la Llibertat. Photo by Jenan Wise

probably derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs, and had no vowels at all until the Greeks added them around the 9th century b.c.e.  Catalan foods blend centuries-old flavors and seasonings brought by conquering Visigoths, then Romans, followed by the Moors and the Franks. These days, there’s a whole new culinary development in Catalan cooking with foamy, molecular gastronomy concoctions innovated by Ferran Adria at the now world-renowned elBulli Restaurant; a bit like adding vowels to the language of cuisine. Inspired by Jenan’s photos of the mercat where he shops, I cooked a Catalan zarzuela, a shellfish stew. I love the word zarzuela (zar-zoo-ay-la). It onomatopoetically dances and sings like its original meaning, a name for an operatic variety show, popular throughout Spain since the 17th century when the first zarzuela as theater was presented at the Palacio de la Zarzuela, the palace theater of King Phillip IV. The palace was named after the

Catalan-style zarzuela with almond garlic mayonnaise toasts

thicket of brambles, zarzas, on which it was built. The Catalan version of zarzuela operettas varied from others throughout Spain because the lyrics were in Catalan; similarly, its zarzuela fish stew allows for as much variation in its ingredients as operetta zarzuelas do in the music and lyrics. One version or another of such a dish is popular throughout the Mediterranean, but almonds are the undeniably Catalan touch. The guitar and mercat photos are by Jenan. The zarzuela dish photo is by Rick. Ah, how food brings us together, even though apart.

Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, quartered lengthwise and thinly sliced

1 garlic clove, minced or pressed

Fish counter at the mercat de la Llibertat. Photo by Jenan Wise

1 small dried red chili pepper, broken up

1/ 2 teaspoon kosher salt

5 canned plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, very coarsely chopped, with juices

1/ 2 cup white wine

1 cup filtered water

1/ 4 teaspoon saffron threads

1 pound mussels, rinsed

3/ 4 pound squid, cleaned and cut up

1/ 2 pound shrimp, with shells

Almond Garlic Mayonnaise, for serving (recipe follows)

4 slices country bread, toasted, for serving

Fresh parsley leaves, for garnish

1. First make the mayonnaise and toast the bread. Set both aside at room temperature.

2. Over medium heat, warm the olive oil in a large pot or sauté pan that has a cover. Add the onion, garlic, chili pepper, and salt and sauté gently until the onions are wilted and translucent, about 5 minutes.

3. Stir in the tomatoes, wine, water, and saffron and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the mussels, shrimp, and squid, cover, and cook until the mussels open and the shrimp and squid turn pink, about 3 minutes.

4. Slather the toasts with the mayonnaise, sprinkle the parsley across the top and serve right away.

Almond Garlic Mayonnaise

Almonds and other nuts at the mercat de la Llibertat. Photo by Jenan Wise

Garlic mayonnaise in Spanish cooking is similar to Provencal aioli. An almond and olive oil paste, alioli, is similar, but without the egg yolk, and has been used in Catalan cuisine since Roman times. Here they come together in an almond garlic mayonnaise to use with roast chicken, vegetables, and a seafood zarzuela.

Makes 1 cup

1/ 3 cup lightly toasted blanched almonds

1 clove garlic, minced or pressed

2 large egg yolks

3/ 4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/ 4 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1/ 4 teaspoon kosher salt

1. Pulverize the almonds in a food processor. Transfer them to small plate or bowl and set aside.

2. Add the eggs, garlic, and mustard to the processor bowl and process until well beaten.  Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, scraping down the sides of the bowl two or three times. Add the salt, lemon juice, and water and process until blended.

3. Transfer the mayonnaise to a bowl and whisk in the almonds. Use right away or store in the refrigerator up to 2 days.

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