Friday, August 14, 2009

Review: 'The Barcelona Cookbook'

The Barcelona Cookbook: A Celebration of Food, Wine and Life. Sasa Mahr-Batuz, Andy Pforzheimer. Andrews McMeel Publishing, $29.99 (224p) ISBN 978-0740773945

A cookbook about Barcelona? With recipes of all those great things I ate when I was there this spring? When I first heard about 'The Barcelona Cookbook' that's exactly what I thought. Then when I received it for review I discovered that it wasn't that at all. Instead it's a cookbook based on a Connecticut restaurant group: Barcelona Wine Bar and Restaurants. The concept is tapas and wine; the restaurants have been around since 1996. The book's subtitle is: A Celebration of Food, Wine and Life. When co-owners Sasa Mahr-Batuz and Andy Pforzheimer opened their first restaurant they decided to name it after the city of Barcelona because of its vibrancy, and colorful lifestyle -- its 'cosmopolitan, pan-European' feel. They wanted to evoke the feeling of eating in a restaurant along the Mediterranean coast. However, the dishes served in the restaurants, and the recipes used in the cookbook, are not solely Catalan or Mediterranean. Mahr-Batuz and Pforzheimer have traveled to Spain often so the dishes on the restaurant menus come from all over Spain, or are Spanish-influenced; Mahr-Batuz is originally from Argentina so there are Argentinian influenced dishes as well.

When I first read through the book I was surprised and pleased to see that Chef Pforzheimer gave credit to Chef Jeremiah Tower, and the Stars restaurant chefs, for teaching him hands on skills he would later use in a successful career as a chef and restaurant owner. Being that I also worked in and have an association with Chef Tower and Stars it was a comfort to see that. I knew right away he had a good cooking pedigree. I was also happy to see that Chef Pforzheimer's menu choices are influenced by what is available from local farmers and farmers markets. Another area I believe in strongly: living life locally.

I have found with other restaurant cookbooks that the recipes don't always work. It can be difficult to translate dishes made in a professional setting to the page for the home cook. Professional chefs cook differently than the home cook; they also have different equipment at their disposal. I didn't find that to be the case in the recipes I tried from 'The Barcelona Cookbook.' The recipes worked just fine. I chose to try recipes that I had recently eaten in Barcelona -- to see how they measured up. One of my favorite dishes on that trip was patatas bravas -- olive oil fried potatoes served with a spicy mayonnaise. It's a very simple dish and the cookbook's recipe for 'Catalan Potatoes Bravas' measured up perfectly. I was momentarily transported back to my favorite tapas bar in Barcelona. Being that it is currently summer I have been overwhelmed with farmer's market produce; needing to use up all those pesky organic tomatoes I made the 'Barcelona Gazpacho.' An easy recipe to follow and execute, and the added touch of a garnish of day old bread, scallions, cucumbers and green peppers made this cold soup exceptional. Since meat is almost a national pastime in Spain I decided to try a recipe for grilled steak: 'Steak Paillard.' The recipe includes a delicious bell pepper and tomato vinaigrette that is spooned over the grilled meat, as well as fried potatoes. Simple, basic and a perfect summer evening meal.

To me the book echoes what Andy and Sasa seemed to have set out to do in their restaurants: offer a fun, festive, colorful place to eat well-prepared food, drink great cocktails, and taste good wine. The book has a similar feel. The color photos are plentiful and well shot; a mixture of ingredients, dishes, kitchen and dining scenes from the restaurants, and photos of Spain. The two men state that the restaurants are foremost about entertaining people; sections of the book are devoted to throwing parties. There's a whole chapter on cocktails and wine. Interspersed throughout are little histories and commentaries on Spanish food, wine, cheese, cured meats, trips to Spain, and the city of Barcelona, among others. They also include recipes for a number of stock Spanish dishes: sangria, cazuela, albondigas, zarzuela, romesco sauce, paella, gazpacho, arroz con leche and others. Well explained cooking techniques for many of the dishes are added value. Looking at the dishes, the recipes, and the ingredient lists that include such things as olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, paprika, cured meats, seafood, and saffron rice I could easily smell and taste the food, and was almost transported back to Spain.

The book covers a lot of ground, and if I was going to offer any criticism that might be it; there's a lot contained in its 202 pages. It might also suffer from a bit of an identity crisis in that I did think it was a cookbook about food from Barcelona; and it does veer away from strictly Spanish food to include dishes from South America. Once the reader understands what the restaurants are about that is easily overlooked. And if one is looking for a serious Spanish food cookbook, this is it. It has most of what you would want and need plus more. I do wish there was a recipe for one of my favorite Spanish tapas dishes: Padrón peppers. But there is enough else to make this a worthy addition to any cook's bookshelf.

My Status: going on vacation for a week to Guerneville-Russian River-Sonoma County. Lunch at pork store Black Pig Meat Co. and restaurant Bovolo in Healdsburg; dinner at Zazu Restaurant & Farm in Santa Rosa; wine tasting at Chalk Hill, Hop Kiln, others in the Alexander Valley, Healdsburg and Sonoma County; canoeing on the Russian River, and more...

Upcoming Posts: 'gleaning,' or the act of gathering public produce, or leftover farmer's market produce, and giving it to the poor, needy and hungry. A history of the movement
, and the groups that are actively involved in it.
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Monday, August 10, 2009

Iceberg Lettuce & My Recipes & The Wedge Salad

History captures most people's interest; it does mine. But food history I find fascinating. I've been wanting to write about a favorite salad for awhile now because it's so simple, and because of one chief ingredient. The salad is the wedge salad, and the ingredient is iceberg lettuce. The wedge salad would not exist (as well as it does) without iceberg lettuce. Few other lettuces are 'wedgy' lettuces. Few others have the cabbage-like construction that allows iceberg to be cut into wedges that stay wedges.

This interest in the wedge salad and iceberg lettuce started a few years ago when I was having dinner in St. Helena in the Napa Valley and ordered a wedge salad. Being the food and wine mecca that the area is, this was no ordinary wedge salad. Very unlike those found in your average steak house. The lettuce was somehow different. If it was iceberg it was not iceberg like I was used to. The leaves weren't as tightly packed; the color was a greener hue of green. It just seemed healthier, more appealing than the drab iceberg I grew up with. It was a delicious wedge salad made with top notch ingredients. It was a bit like I was eating the wedge salad reinvented. I wanted to eat it again. First off I wanted to know if there was organic iceberg I could use instead of commercially farmed iceberg. Turns out there is.

Iceberg Lettuce

Like most Americans of a certain age I grew up eating iceberg lettuce. It was just what we ate. There may have been other lettuces available but I don't think we ever bought any. I only remember the pale green, tightly wound, heavy, tasteless balls of iceberg wrapped in clear plastic netting that went into everything that required lettuce. It wasn't until I lived in France that I realized there were other lettuces and salad greens out there. I still to this day have a distaste for iceberg. I've become a lettuce snob. Give me mesclun, frisee, endive, Boston, Bibb, or romaine over iceberg any day.

Iceberg lettuce has quite the history. It is referred to as a 'crisphead' cultivar because it resembles cabbage, and because of its ability to stay fresher longer than looser leaf lettuces. Until the 1930s it was called 'crisphead' lettuce not 'iceberg'. Iceberg is one variety of crisphead lettuce; others include imperial, Great Lakes, vanguard and western. There are several stories, or theories, as to why it came to be called 'iceberg.' The most popular notion is that at the advent of cross continental rail shipping, and before refrigerated rail cars, it was packed in wooden carts with lots of crushed ice making the carts look like icebergs. When the trains pulled into stations the local townsfolk called out "the icebergs are coming, the icebergs are coming" and the name stuck. Another source says the name refers to the 'crisp, cold, clean characteristics of the leaves.'

There is one other piece of iceberg history that I found interesting. I thought, like others I am sure, that iceberg went out of favor in the late 70s and early 80s when California Cuisine hit the nation's radar and restaurants like Chez Panisse taught us there were other lettuces and greens to eat besides iceberg. It turns out it may have started a bit earlier when Cesar Chavez organized a boycott to protest the working conditions of lettuce pickers in the fields of California. The boycott shut down iceberg production in California. Other lesser known lettuces stepped in to take it's place. Then the food movement kicked into full gear moving away entirely from iceberg. Yet, even with those changes, and based on available statistics, Americans today still eat more iceberg than any other lettuce.

Not everyone has an aversion to iceberg. James Beard said this about it: "Many people damn it but when broken up, not cut, it adds good flavor and a wonderfully crisp texture to a salad with other greens." From Nancy Silverton: "I'm proud to love it, and I have always loved it. It's something I absolutely crave."

My Recipes

Since I am writing about the wedge salad, and including a recipe, I wanted to write about a favorite site for recipes: is a wonderful online food portal with over 35,000 kitchen-tested recipes, and food and health-related articles. The site culls recipes from all of Time Inc.'s food titles: 'Real Simple,' 'All You,' 'Cooking Light,' 'Southern Living,' 'Sunset,' 'Coastal Living,' 'Cottage Living,' and 'Health.' Every recipe is tested in professional test kitchens and approved by food editors, chefs, dietitians, and food scientists.

I recently spoke to Anne Cain, a Senior Editor at, about the local, fresh, organic, back-to-home-cooking, slow food, farmers market movement going on here in the U.S. She felt that while it is about economics, reducing our carbon foot print and helping out the environment it's also that the food simply tastes better. "The real reason to eat local is because it tastes better. It's so much fun to know the people who grew, or made, your food. There's no better flavor." Can't argue with that. The site even has a weekly web series called 'Local Flavor' where 'Cottage Living' editor and best-selling author, Kim Sunée, discovers and highlights people passionate about local food. Another feature is the slide series 'Eat For Pleasure, Eat Local' that focuses on the local food movement and includes recipes and links to ingredients made by smaller, sustainable purveyors. Both can easily be found via the site's search features. The site also has a 'search by ingredient' feature. When I typed 'wedge salad' into the search feature several recipes popped up. I often check in with when I'm looking for a recipe, or researching a blog post.

The Wedge Salad

There are so many recipes for this dish out there; having been served in many a hotel restaurant and steak house since the early 1900s it also has a long history. But the main ingredients have remained the same over the years: iceberg lettuce, bacon and blue cheese dressing. I chose to make the dressing from scratch; there are plenty of recipes that tell you to use bottled dressing. I also added fried onions. Most recipes don't call for them. I also learned that organic lettuce does exist; I bought it at Whole Foods. The only organic iceberg Whole Foods had was from Earthbound Farm, located in Carmel Valley, California. It's funny but since I don't buy iceberg lettuce I never actually looked for an organic version when I went to the grocery store. When I did an online search Earthbound and Whole Foods came up. Now I know where to buy it for my next wedge salad fix.


Preparation Time 30-45 minutes

Serves 2-4


1 head iceberg lettuce, organic if possible
1 medium-sized onion, sliced
4-6 slices bacon
6 oz. blue cheese
3 - 4 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1/4 tsp. ground white pepper
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 Tbsp. chives, finely chopped

Cook bacon in large skillet until crisp; remove and drain on paper towels.

Using the same skillet reserve enough bacon fat to fry the onions for 10 minutes or until tender and lightly browned. Remove from heat.

Place the blue cheese, olive oil, lemon juice, pepper, salt and buttermilk into a blender or food processor, and blend until smooth. Use the buttermilk to thicken or thin as needed. Set aside.

Use a knife to remove the core of the lettuce head, or bang the stem end down on your kitchen counter; the core will pop right out. Remove any old outer leaves, and rinse. Cut the head in half then cut those two halves in half resulting in four wedges. For an entree portion for two people place two wedges each on two salad plates. If a first or salad course for four, place one wedge on four salad plates.

Lay the onions across each wedge. Crumble the bacon and sprinkle over the onions.

Drizzle the blue cheese dressing over each wedge, sprinkle with chives, and serve.

My Status: enjoying all the summer produce; writing, cooking, blogging and eating!
Upcoming Posts: Review: 'The Barcelona Cookbook'.

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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Recipe: Ratatouille

I recently picked up Julia Child's cookbook 'Mastering The Art of French Cooking' again after a very long time. Fond, fond memories poured forth from the stained pages. The spine has come loose; the book is worse for wear. I could replace it with a fresh copy, one of the recent editions, but I probably won't. It's like a comfortable pair of jeans. Like an old friend. I looked at the copyright and was shocked to see that the edition I have is the twenty-ninth, and was published in 1977 -- the year I graduated from high school, and the year that I left home and family to go live with and cook for a French family in France. I actually used a copy of 'Mastering' that Madame Zundel, an American woman married to a Frenchman, had in her kitchen when I did the family's cooking. I wonder how many other Americans were introduced to French cooking in France while using Julia's cooking bible? I bought the book when I returned from France in 1978 so I have had it for thirty-one years. An old friend indeed.

Since I started the Auntie Em's produce delivery - where I get a nice selection of farmers market produce delivered to me once a week - I have been trying very hard to eat it all. To not throw anything out. And now in week five I have for the most part succeeded. The amount of fruits and vegetables I receive is more than enough for myself. If I didn't have Robert coming over a few times a week I probably wouldn't be able to eat it all. Between the two of us we manage to get through it. However, this last week I did have more than I knew we could handle. So I decided to make something that would use up all the vegetables I had: tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, zucchini and onions. Ratatouille has all those vegetables in it. It would also be a perfect summer dish as it can be eaten either hot or cold. I grabbed 'Mastering The Art,' flipped to the recipe for ratatouille, and spent an afternoon in the warm embrace of Julia. What could be more appropriate in what has seemingly become the unofficial month of Julia Child?

Here's the recipe:

From 'Mastering The Art of French Cooking'

Serves 6-8

Preparation Time: 3-4 hours


1/2 lb. of eggplant
1/2 lb. of zucchini
7 Tb of olive oil, more if needed, as directed
1/2 lb. of yellow onions, thinly sliced
2 (about 1 cup) green bell peppers, sliced
2 cloves garlic, mashed
1 lb. firm, ripe, red tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and juiced
3 Tb parsley, minced
Salt and pepper, as directed

Peel the eggplant and cut into lengthwise slices 3/8-inch thick, about 3 inches long, and 1 inch wide. Scrub the zucchini, slice off the two ends, and cut the zucchini into slices about the same size as the eggplant slices. Place the vegetables in a 3-quart, porcelain or stainless steel mixing bowl and toss with 1 tsp. salt. Let stand for 3o minutes. Drain. Dry each slice in a towel.

In a 10- to 12-inch enameled skillet sauté, one layer at a time, the eggplant, and then the zucchini in hot olive oil for about a minute on each side to brown lightly. Remove to a side dish.

In the same skillet, cook the onions and peppers slowly in olive oil for about 10 minutes, or until tender but not browned. Stir in the garlic and season to taste.

Slice the tomato pulp into 3/8-inch strips. Lay them over the onions and peppers. Season with salt and pepper. Cover the skillet and cook over low heat for 5 minutes, or until the tomatoes have begun to render juice. Uncover, baste the tomatoes with the juices, raise the heat and boil for several minutes, until juice has almost entirely evaporated.

Place a third of the tomato mixture in the bottom of 2 1/2 quart fireproof casserole and sprinkle over it 1 tablespoon of parsley. Arrange half of the eggplant and zucchini on top, the half the remaining tomatoes and parsley. Put in the rest of the eggplant and zucchini, and finish with the remaining tomatoes and parsley.

Cover the casserole and simmer over low heat for 10 minutes. Uncover, tip casserole and baste with the rendered juices. Correct seasoning, if necessary. Raise heat slightly and cook uncovered for about 15 minutes more, basting several more times, until the juices have evaporated leaving a spoonful of flavored olive oil. Be careful of your heat; do not let the vegetables scorch in the bottom of the casserole.

Set aside uncovered. Reheat slowly at serving time, or serve cold.

Here's to Julia and, as she would say: Bon Appétit!

My Status: enjoying all the summer produce; writing, cooking, blogging and eating!

Upcoming Posts: The Wedge Salad: a recipe, the origins of the salad and of Iceberg lettuce. Review: 'The Barcelona Cookbook'.
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