Sunday, May 25, 2008

Hay calçots

Here in Barcelona we have tomatoes in January. This is thanks to the enormous greenhouses in southern Spain, in a region called Murcia. It is said that the greenhouses in Murcia are so large that they are one of the few manmade objects that can be seen from space.

The tomatoes from these greenhouses are not very good. Greenhouses of space-age proportions do not provide the best environment in which to nourish food that nourishes. But they do create an environment that is able to fuel the ‘get what you want when you want it culture’ that is now permeating Europe since it was first imported from the United States some fifteen years ago.

And what the greenhouses are unable to provide can always be imported from China.

But it is not January. It is the end of May. And the rains we so desperately hoped for in April have finally begun to fall. The end of the drought is tentatively announced. The city’s water supply has risen to such a level that the ban on watering gardens has been lifted and the fountains have begun flowing again. The air smells greener. For the last few months they have been bringing water up from the Murcian desert, together with the tomatoes.

Yes, the rains of May have washed away the dirty threat of water rationing, which will not be missed. But they also mark the passing of a season that comes but once a year to Catalonia whose return next year we all look forward to.

The season of the calçot.


Calçots are in the onion family. They have been described as a cross between a leek and a spring onion or green onion, without actually having any direct relation to any of the three. Calçots are now the only food that you really have to wait for. Tomatoes in January. Plums in March. Mangoes when you want them. Mangoes don’t even grow here. They import them from Brazil. But not the calçot. You can only find them from February to April. By the end of April they’re hard to come by. And you can only find them in Catalonia, particularly in the province of Tarragona. It is a culinary tradition that Catalans hold fast to. And to see how the Mediterranean diet they delusionally lay claim to is being replaced by fritanga and meals that come in boxes, it is truly heartening to spot the Hay calçots signs that begin to spring up in restaurant windows just when the buzz from the holidays has worn off.

The calçot is one of the last bastions of locally produced and, perhaps even more importantly, locally celebrated foods remaining here.

And how they are celebrated!

The calçot, like any good food, is as much ritual as it is nourishment. It is celebrated in such ritualistic fashion not recommended for the faint of heart. They are traditionally grilled over open flame and eaten as an accompaniment to grilled lamp and are usually served in clay roof tiles sometimes lined with newspaper. When they hit the table, the rite begins and everything you ever learned about table manners and proper etiquette is roguishly pushed aside.


It is a ritual only for those who don’t mind getting their hands dirty. Oh, it is messy – your fingers blackened with the soot of the grill as you peel off the first layer of skin, which slides off easily, to get to the sweet warm center. The soot mixes with the calçot's sticky juices and gets under your fingernails and refuses to leave.

And it is a ritual only for those who don’t mind looking ridiculous. Calçots are usually eaten standing up. The first layer of skin is peel away and the calçot dipped into salsa romesco, a reddish sauce made with hazelnuts and red peppers. The appropriate stance must then be taken. Some find it most comfortable to stand with their feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent. The head is tilted back and the calçot, dripping with romesco sauce, is raised over the head and lowered into the mouth, inadvertently getting sauce all over your face and occasionally in your hair. Bibs are recommended for novices.

And it is a ritual only for those who relish in copious amounts of red wine and laughter, as everyone enjoys the fun and soot and ridiculousness of the moment. The addictiveness and the deliciousness of the rite ensures that twenty to thirty calçots will be eaten per person. Bloated bellies promise that the subway ride home is to be among giggles and accidental gas leaks. So it should be added that is also a ritual only for those who are comfortable making references to bodily functions in the presence of friends and strangers alike. It also helps to find the word pedo absolutely hilarious.


Bibs are recommended for neophytes


Pablo and Ingrid do it standing up

My father, who is blind, has said that the day he finally tries calçots we should place a napkin or tablecloth over his face and later frame the resulting Pollack. I like this connection between Jackson Pollack and calçots. Perhaps that’s the food he would have been. A calçot – fun and reckless and messy and served with plenty of red wine.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

This Tastes Weird

I started cooking for others when I was six or seven years old. I made a hamburger for my best friend Jared. It was a Play-Doh hamburger. I stuffed it with little rocks and I presented it to Jared, jammed in a Stroehman's bun.

"Go ahead," I said.

"This looks weird," he said.

Honestly, Jared was my enemy. I hoped he might die. At the very least, I hoped he might stop spending so much time with my real best friend, Chris. Jared actually tried the burger. He was a troubled kid, clueless and adventurous.

"This tastes weird," he said, chewing little rocks.

My early forays into cooking were always like this: I'd throw some shit together and see what happened. After The Jared Incident (as it came to be known in my house) I started experimenting with real, edible food, the type of food one swallows and digests. Still, my evil, youthful urge was to fuck around with people, so my early creations were always disgusting.

I enjoyed combining things (soda, mustard, bananas, for example) and blending them into a smoothie. I used a lot of ketchup, a lot of eggs (raw ones), and I'd make my little sister try everything. My sister, god bless her soul, developed a cute little eating disorder.

I never tried my own recipes. I learned my lesson early on, after a failed attempt to replace milk with Diet Coke in a traditional recipe. The recipe was Honey Nut Cheerios and milk. The Diet Coke gave it a tinny, disgusting medicinal taste.

Then something happened. One summer day I was hanging around, plucking honeysuckle flowers. I pinched the bottom, pulled out the stamen, and sucked the little drop of nectar, so exquisite and sweet. After about fifty flowers, I was struck with a profound inspiration: Why not make honeysuckle juice? I actually tried. I pulled out the stamen and deposited the nectar into a little Dixie cup. After two, three hours I had maybe one half teaspoon of nectar. I went inside, mixed the nectar with some water in a little shot glass and presented the drink it to my sister.

"I'm telling!" she said, which was what she always said.

Somehow, though, I convinced her to try it. She gulped it, actually.

"This tastes good?" she said.

I found this immensely satisfying, far more satisfying than, "This tastes weird." Sure it took me three hours to make the goddamn recipe. Sure my sister's gulp seemed brief and insignificant--but man, I'd made something good! That was new. That was surprising.


Today I make a living developing recipes. I make my recipes, and I let people try them. I feel genuine, heartfelt satisfaction when people try my recipes. I get a sincere kick out of watching people eat food I've made. I get so happy, too, when people love my food, when they smile and feel joyful, even if it's a tiny joy, a brief interlude in an otherwise ordinary day.

I try many of my own recipes, but I do have many recipes I've developed that I haven't ever tried. My diet is strange and idiosyncratic. I avoid many foods and food combinations. I'm allergic to some dishes, "sensitive" to others, and sometimes scared of others. If I eat a scallop I might die. If I eat pasta I develop a migraine headache. And something like eggplant just freaks me out. My eating disorder is strange and real.

Obviously, as a professional, I can't avoid these foods in my recipes. So I work on instinct, feeling my way through my recipes, and then I let other people tell me what they think.

I cook a kick-ass scallop (sauteed, lightly, in compound butter), I'm told. My Kasha Varnishkes, I'm told, would make my Jewish grandmother proud. And eggplant? Well, fuck eggplant.

Sometimes, when I think about these recipes, I feel like a sad clown: everyone else is laughing, but I'm crying inside. In my case, everyone's eating my recipes, getting plump and happy, and I'm on the sidelines, sipping my tea, feeling skinny and weird.

A Suzanne paperclip photo

I think my most unique recipe is my Strawberry Avocado Salsa. I developed the recipe nearly three years ago for a strawberry festival and it was a instant, smash hit. Since then, at work at least, the recipes become my signature recipe, qualified by co-workers and customers alike as quintessentially Seth.

I love the way the salsa looks upon completion. I'm a big advocate of the disparate ingredients: strawberries, avocado, cilantro, scallions,
jalapeño, and lime. Still, there's something about the combination of all these ingredients that scares me, and so I've never once even tried it. Not one single bite. I'm aware that this sounds ludicrous, even, perhaps from a cook's perspective, unethical.

What can I say? Strawberry Avocado Salsa sort of reminds me of my early creations--something that tastes weird. I envision myself eating it and feeling weird for hours.

I suppose I'm writing about this because I've recently thought I might try the recipe, perhaps paired with thinly sliced sweet potatoes, pan-seared in olive oil. I'm thinking about it, making my way there. It's a huge thing for me.

In the meantime, I'll keep making it for others, getting my kicks vicariously, with each little joyful bite.

Strawberry Avocado Salsa

I've already published this recipe on-line, elsewhere. That recipe is good, but I'm changing it a bit, below, in an attempt to "reclaim" the recipe for FoodVibe. Consider this recipe below the definitive Strawberry Avocado Salsa recipe, straight from the source. This recipe is about gentle, exquisite preparation. I suggest taking your time, following the recipe precisely...

1 pound strawberries
1 jalapeño pepper, minced
1/4 cup scallion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons cilantro, finely chopped
1 lime, quartered
1/4 teaspoon sugar, optional
sea salt
2 firm-ripe avocados

Remove the green stems from the strawberries. Gently chop the strawberries, using clean, swift knife strokes so that each chopped piece is only touched briefly by the knife.

In small bowl, gently, very gently, toss the strawberries with the jalapeño, scallion, and cilantro. Squeeze a quarter of lime onto the strawberry salsa and season with sugar, if desired, and sea salt.

Half the avocados, remove the pit and the skin. Finely, and very smoothly and carefully, dice the avocados and place into a small bowl. Squeeze two quarters lime juice onto the avocado and gently toss.

Pour strawberry salsa in the bowl with the avocados. Gently toss. Season with additional salt and lime juice, if desired. Serve...