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Spain is a country loved by culinary cognoscente for its extraordinarily diverse range of classics and creativity. But in every restaurant and every casa, there remains one constant ingredient: olive oil. Core to the much-acclaimed Mediterranean diet, its use is so prevalent that olive oil’s healthy values seep into everything. But it was still a surprise when I encountered “extra virgin” potato chips available in pharmacies here, which unlike their U.S. counterparts generally sell only medicine and skin-care products.
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Potato chips condoned by medical experts? I needed no more encouragement to go out and test my options. I gathered four chip brands from Spanish grocery stores and the one from the pharmacy, all advertised as “made with olive oil” — most with an alluring cruet of olive oil on the package. A few brands claimed to use 100% olive oil, but only the pharmacy-stocked San Nicasio brand qualified their chips and the oil they fried them in as “extra virgin.”
San Nicasio went a step further, specifying the D.O. of both the olive oil and the potatoes (seriously, a Denominacion of Origen for potatoes?), the low-sodium Himalayan pink salt and the temperature at which the chips were fried in one of the most award-winning oils in the world, made by Almazaras de la Subbetica of Cordoba, Spain. The company clearly was fanatical about the quality of the chip. That all sounded intriguing but it was now time for the true measure — a blind taste test.
First, the smell test for freshness. As most olive oil fans know, olive oil is best when fresh and three environmental factors will have a negative effect on smell, taste and physical qualities: oxygen, light and excessive heat or cold. Rancidity is usually the most obvious signal that the oil has lost its best values. If you’ve ever smelled a stale jar of peanuts or worse yet, bit into one, you know the telltale flavor.
Cracking open one bag at a time and taking a deep whiff revealed that some brands were past their prime, giving off a flat, almost mechanical aroma or slightly rancid smell, obviously fried with poor-quality oil. Two samples, one from the in-house Hacendado brand of Spain’s largest grocery chain, Mercadona, and San Nicasio had a nice, light aroma of potatoes and the San Nicasio chips smelled of fresh olive oil. It wasn’t until later that I learned the San Nicasio brand seals their airtight bags with nitrogen to avoid having the oil’s quality be degraded by exposure to oxygen. This attention to detail obviously worked.
Next, I evaluated visual cues of color, size and thickness. Two appeared darker and overcooked, the Hacendado and Lay’s Artesanal chips were almost too perfectly platinum blond and the San Nicasio brand was a fairly rich, natural yellow color. From an “eat with your eyes” perspective, I was drawn again to the rich-colored chips.
Finally, the true test of a potato chip: its flavor and crunch. Being all about the same thickness, they each delivered on the crunch test. But the real divide was apparent in the taste. I was looking for lightly salted, true potato flavor and a clean finish that would indicate quality olive oil. I’ll admit the Lay’s Artesanal came in a solid second for lightly salted flavor and crunch and being the largest chip manufacturer in the world, it should have enough experience to deliver the goods. But after all that testing, the San Nicasio chip I found in the pharmacy won across all categories. Healthy, flavorful and downright yummy.
Do you need a prescription from your doctor to indulge in San Nicasio chips? Not likely. But for fans of these thin, crispy wafers, you can at least tell yourself that they’re a health food.
Fried Eggs and Chips
Prep time: 0 minutes
Cooking time: 5 minutes
Total time: 5 minutes
Yield: 4 appetizer servings
Like elsewhere in the world, potato chips are most frequently enjoyed as a side snack to a midday meal or a sporting event. But in Spain, they are often included in scrambled eggs for mid-morning breakfast or paired with fried eggs for a rich tapas experience.
I first tried this dish presented by Spanish chef María José San Román while at Nancy Harmon Jenkins‘ Amorolio event in Tuscany and thought it a stroke of genius. I later discovered it’s a long-standing classic Spanish tapa for the home table. I’ve tried them both ways, but I’m partial to the liquid egg yolk and crispy-edged white atop the whole gooey mess.
Extra virgin olive oil, 1/4-inch deep in saucepan
2 whole eggs
1 7-ounce bag of best-quality salted potato chips (In the U.S., chef José Andres sells the San Nicasio brand under his own label.)
1. Heat olive oil until just below smoke point.
2. Gently pour in whole eggs and cook until the white edges are crispy and the yolks still liquid.
3. Plate with a thin layer of chips, topped by the eggs. Break the yolks and sprinkle with more potato chips, giving the dish a gentle mix to incorporate.
Main photo: Extra virgin olive oil potato chips. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
In Spain, the Christmas season lasts from early December until Jan. 6 and features a dizzying array of culinary traditions throughout the extended holiday. Christmas dinners are typically celebrated on the eve with either a traditional bird or a melange of seafood, depending on regional custom. Twelve grapes are eaten at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve to ensure a bit of luck. Cava, the Spanish interpretation of sparkling wine, is imbibed with abandon. A ring-shaped cake loaded with candied fruit (and a hidden toy) and sugar glaze commemorates the Epiphany, or the Feast of the Three Kings, on Jan. 6. But the quintessential signal that it is Christmastime in Spain is the appearance of a traditional candy called turrónes.
Turrónes, an almond-studded nougat, can be found around the world and throughout the year. But in Spain, it has been an essential part of the Christmas tradition for hundreds of years. The southern Valencian region of Alicante is the world production center for this candy, with a history dating to the 15th century. As the story goes, it was invented to satisfy the young Scandinavian wife of a Moorish king who planted hundreds of almond trees in the area in the 1400s for their snowy springtime blossoms that reminded her of snow.
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While there are recipes for turrónes that seem easy enough, it’s not typically a homemade treat because there are simply too many excellent artisanal choices available to Spanish households. As soon as stores start to transform their aisles for holiday shoppers, all sorts of turrónes magically appear in grocery stores and market stands.
By the 20th century, large-scale turrónes manufacturers were taking the approach of the more varied the flavor options, the better. But seeking the truest traditional form of local turrónes, I paid a visit to Jijona (Xixona), high in the hills above Alicante, where turrónes has been produced since the Middle Ages.
Shortly before arriving in Jijona on a bouncing bus ride, I noticed that large-scale turrónes manufacturing factories lined both sides of the main highway and the Museo de Turrónes was strategically positioned front and center. If there had been any doubt, it was now clear that this was the turrónes mecca. The center of the quiet, meticulously maintained village was filled with turrónes storefronts and artisanal factories spilling into smaller side streets.
Turrónes production window ends just before Christmas
Most production begins in mid-October and only lasts until the week before Christmas. Although my visit was timed during the height of their production cycle, two award-winning turroneros, Ricardo Coloma of Coloma García and Primitivo Rovira, a sixth-generational family member of Primitivo Rovira e Hijos, both graciously provided a glimpse into their multi-step, multiple-day production processes.
Sugar, honey, egg whites and almonds are essential to every turrónes recipe. The process begins when honey and sugar are heated and mixed together for an hour until they become fluffy white syrup. As the heat is increased to a high fire, egg whites thinned with water are added to the syrup and stirred for another hour. If the goal is to make turrónes de Alicante, the final step is to fold in toasted almonds using giant punxe, or hand paddles, and cool it enough press into loaf molds or tart molds to set.
The process for the creamy turrónes de Jijona takes another two days to complete. The candied mixture is chilled on large tables and then run though stone grinders for 20 minutes. The resulting paste rests for a day when it is returned to the stone grinders for a three-pass process and then pounded for 4 to 5 hours over heat with a boixet, a high-speed large pestle that emulsifies the mixture into a creamy paste. One more day of rest in loaf or tart pans, and it’s ready to enjoy. (Watch a video.)
While I expected to be a fan of the crunchy, nutty nougat version that I recalled from childhood candy stores, I was surprised at how addictive the creamy, dense paste of the loaf-style turrónes de Jijona was. It is similar to almond butter but more intense, dense, creamier and richer. Ladened with bags of both, I got back on the bus for the bumpy ride home, no longer entirely sure whether any of it would make it into someone else’s Christmas stocking
Main photo: Different varieties of turrónes, the almond-studded nougat. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
Nochevieja, or “old night,” as New Year’s Eve is known in Spain, is a celebration that comes with a bit of insurance. All across the country, welcoming the New Year includes 12 grapes and a glass of first-class cava.
On Dec. 31, when the clock signals the midnight hour, people eat one grape for every toll of the bell. The traditional grapes are known as las doce uvas de la suerte, or “the 12 grapes of luck,” and no one would want to start the New Year without them. But Spaniards like to wash down these grapes with the best bubbly they can find. And with every new year, their choices for first-class cava, the Spanish sparkling wine, get better and better.
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The approach is straightforward enough, but requires a laborious multi-step process. It begins by creating a low-alcohol still wine, then adding a mixture of yeasts and sugar known as licor de tirajo to initiate a second fermentation in the bottle, resulting in the wonderfully tiny bubbles for which sparkling wine is known. The final step is to slowly invert the bottle over a few weeks (riddling) to allow the yeast to accumulate in the neck, freeze the neck, remove the temporary crown cap and a small plug of ice and replace it with the cork that makes the quintessential “pop” when you are ready to start celebrating.
Catalan cava has true regional flavor
Like French producers who use three traditional local varietals — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier — to make the blend known as Champagne, Spain’s cava producers rely on their own regional grapes: Xarel·lo, Macabeo (known as Viura in Spain’s Rioja region) and Parellada. Other varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are permitted for use in the Penedés region of Catalonia, but the best Catalan winemakers are increasingly using grapes emblematic of the area to showcase the unique style of their sparkling wine.
With a strong regional pride typical of the highly independent Catalan region, these top producers represent the best that Spain has to offer in today’s vintages. The result is a dry, crisp quaff redolent of apples, lemons and almonds, a little less sweet than Italy’s Prosecco and not quite as nutty as France’s Champagne.
Yet like many other Spanish wines coming out from under a long-standing reputation for middling quality, prices still trail far behind the improvements in taste. Some vintages, like Agustí Torelló Mata’s Kripta Gran Reserva Brut Nature, rival the cost of high-end French Champagne, yet most contemporary cava options represent wonderfully priced, first-class quality.
Many of these producers export great vintages to the United States, and their prices reflect some of the best bubbly bargains around. So this New Year’s eve, start celebrating with 12 grapes and some Spanish cava. The first will bring you luck, the second will bring you happiness.
Cava producers and labels worth celebrating
Agustí Torelló Kripta Gan Reserva Brut Nature Sparkling
Castellroig Sabaté I Coca Reserva Familiar Xarel·lo
Gramona III Lustros Gran Reserva Sparkling
Juvé y Camps Gran Reserva Brut Sparkling
Llopart Leopardi Brut Nature Sparkling
Raventós Blanc de Nit Sparkling (which incorporates a bit of my favorite regional varietal, Monastrell to create the perfect pink sparkling wine)
Recaredo Brut de Brut Gran Reserva Brut Nature
Main photo: Spanish cava for toasting the new year. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
One of Spain’s favorite wines suffers from a case of mistaken identity — and is better known abroad under an alias.
In the Mediterranean coastal regions of Murcia and Valencia, wine made from Monastrell (the fourth-most planted red wine grape in Spain) is a local favorite. With its slightly rugged, fruit-intense profile, it is ideal to pair with hearty winter flavors such as La Mancha’s gazpacho manchego, redolent of rabbit, wild mushrooms and snails, and Valencia’s richly seasoned paellas.
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But somewhere around the 16th century, the varietal traveled to France and took on the name Mourvèdre, which stuck for 500 years. Over time, Mourvèdre gained popularity as a perfect partner for Grenache (known as Garnacha in Spain) and Syrah — a blend known as GSM for short. GSM blends from Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Côtes du Rhône are particularly well known. French winemakers also stepped ahead of Spanish vintners to carve out a reputation for the grape as a respectable single varietal. Even Australians and Americans thought well enough of Monastrell to plant vineyards of their own, but gave it yet another name: Mataro.
But recently, Monastrell has moved to center stage, to share the spotlight with garnacha and the Rioja region’s famed Tempranillo. With more producers creating Monastrell wines of what could be called a finessed rustic style, Monastrell has shed its reputation for jammy, high-alcohol vintages and acquired one for its distinctly Spanish, authentic approach to this powerhouse grape. Michelin-starred chef María José San Román showcases the fruit and wine on the menu every night at her restaurant, Monastrell, in the heart of the varietal’s growing region in Alicante.
But Monastrell is not an easy grape to grow; it takes perseverance and dedication. The varietal flourishes on old bush-trained vines, planted in incredibly rocky soil at elevations high enough to be hard on the fruit. In temperatures that are blazing hot in the summer and bitterly cold at night, the grape benefits from being both drought-tolerant and late to harvest, but typically produces in heavy and light volumes on alternate years.
To the eye, Monastrell’s thick skins contribute to a deep, dark purple color. On the nose, its aroma gives away the earthy, rocky soil it thrives in, but the wine is all about spice and intense, dark fruit such as blackberries, blueberries and plums.
Most quality producers in Spain have tamed its highly tannic, rustic taste with selective oak aging, and the best vintners create wines that balance intense fruitiness with savory undertones. Although there is no getting around the fact that most Monastrell wines are relatively high in alcohol, averaging 12 to 15 percent, there’s a softness to the fruit that makes this wine very approachable, with the right level of acidity.
Experiencing Monastrell at its source
During a recent visit to Bodega Castaño in the Yecla DO (Denominación de Origen) of Murcia, I witnessed the unique growing conditions of this workhorse grape. More important, I tasted Monastrell at its source, perfectly paired with country food and generous Spanish hospitality.
As a guest of Ramón Castaño Santa and two of his three sons, winemaker Ramón and Daniel, I toured an estate that had been maintained by four generations of Castaño vintners. On this day during harvest, the Monastrell grape hung in heavy bunches just inches from ground, so I was able to experience the deep flavor of the fresh fruit before swirling the wine in a glass over lunch.
Although the hearty country gazpacho prepared over a wood fire was a simple but spectacular main course, the real treat was the collection of six wines that the Castaño family shared with its guests. From the simple, single varietal 2013 Monastrell to the smooth 2011 Casa de la Cera, the family’s flagship example of a perfect Monastrell blend: 50% Monastrell, 50% combination of Garnacha Tintorera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot.
I discovered that afternoon that Monastrell is a friendly wine that’s worth getting to know. There are a host of Spanish vintners from Murcia’s four recognized winemaking regions that are creating great examples of Monastrell vintages, including Bodega Castaño and Castillo del Baron in Yecla and Enrique Mendoza, Volver and Sierra Salinas in Alicante.
Best of all, Monastrell can still be an incredible value because the reputation of the heavy-handed, rough style of the Monastrell of old has not caught up with the new, more refined approaches that vintners are applying to this fruit-forward wine. Sometimes, mistaken identity can work in a wine lover’s favor.
Main photo: Monastrell grapes. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
With her latest book, “Baking Chez Moi,” acclaimed author Dorie Greenspan has fait mouche (hit the bull’s-eye) again. In this luscious culinary tome, Greenspan manages to break through the mystique of French baking techniques with ease and humor. She is, quite simply, the perfect guide for any baker who wants to explore everything from approachable variations on haute pâtisserie to those classic weekend cakes called gâteaux de voyages.
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"Baking Chez Moi"
By Dorie Greenspan
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
Of late, I’ve been poring over countless cookbooks for research. It’s made clear to me how important the author’s voice is in translating subject matter, recipes and technique. Greenspan’s uncomplicated, personable style makes me want to study her cookbooks cover to cover, with notebook in hand and an occasional smile. After all, how many cookbook authors will attribute a recipe’s success to “the magic of that vixen: chocolate”?
Reading “Baking Chez Moi” is like spending time with a best friend who happens to know just about everything there is to know about French baking, and whom to ask when she doesn’t. Even better, she’s a whiz at translating it into something that readers can conquer, not fear. It’s a skill that is never handier than when trying to attempt trickier French desserts like colorful macarons or her riff on Pierre Herme’s sumptuous Carrément Chocolat.
Anyone who has attempted advanced baking knows that it is an art of precision. Following directions to the letter is normally recommended. Yet while Greenspan encourages the exactitude of using metric weights and measures, she also allows for some interpretation, and in many cases promotes it.
Affectionately nicknamed “Miss One More Minute,” the author suggests that recipe timing is meant to be a well-defined guide but not absolute — especially when oven calibrations are never the same. Through her own tales of hits and misses, she gives the reader permission to play, including inventive sidebar suggestions she titles “Bonne Idées” (good ideas).
But what I like best about Greenspan’s approach with “Baking Chez Moi” is her active style of cross-pollination between recipes throughout the book. She moves from recipe to recipe just long enough to unearth the special character of each, then whisks along to find clever ways to employ it elsewhere, inviting the reader to jump right in and join her. And I took that invitation — after a first read, my copy was left with 17 sticky notes tagging the recipes I intend to try first.
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From "Baking Chez Moi"
"This recipe was given to me by Joëlle Caussade, whose husband, Gilles, owns a lively Paris bistro, Le Petit Vendôme, where Joëlle makes the mini cannelés that are served with coffee.
"A word on timing: The batter needs to rest in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours, so plan ahead.
"Serving: Cannelés are traditionally served alongside coffee or tea and often turn up on trays of mignardises, the small sweets that are after-dessert desserts.
"Storing: The batter needs to be refrigerated for at least 12 hours, but it can hold there for up to 3 days. As for the baked cannelés, they’re perfect the day they are made and still good, but firmer and chewier, the day after. Keep the cannelés in a dry place at room temperature. Lightly cover them if you like."
- 2 cups (480 ml) whole milk
- 1¼ cups (250 grams) sugar
- 2 tablespoons (1 ounce; 28 grams) unsalted butter
- 1 cup (136 grams) all-purpose flour
- 2 large eggs
- 1 large egg yolk
- 2½ tablespoons dark rum
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- Melted unsalted butter, for the molds
- At least 1 day before making the cannelés: Bring the milk, ¾ cup of the sugar and the butter to a boil in a medium saucepan, stirring occasionally to make sure the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and let cool until the mixture reaches 140 F. (If you don’t have a thermometer, cool the milk for 10 to 15 minutes; it should still feel hot to the touch.)
- While the milk is cooling, put the flour and the remaining ½ cup sugar into a strainer and sift them onto a piece of parchment or wax paper. Keep the strainer at hand.
- Working with a whisk, beat the eggs and yolk together in a large bowl until blended. Whisking without stopping, start adding the hot milk, just a little at first; then, when you’ve got about a quarter of the milk blended into the eggs, whisk in the remainder in a steady stream. Add the flour mixture all at once and whisk—don’t be afraid to be energetic—until the batter is homogeneous. You might have a few lumps here and there, but you can ignore them.
- Strain the batter into a large bowl or, better yet, a pitcher or a large measuring cup with a spout; discard any lumps in the strainer. Whisk in the rum and vanilla, cover the container tightly and refrigerate the batter for at least 12 hours. (The batter can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.)
- Lightly brush the cannelé molds with melted butter and put the pan in the freezer. The pan needs to be frozen only for 30 minutes, but if you put it into the freezer right after you make the batter, you won’t have to wait for it on baking day.
- When you’re ready to bake: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 450 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Put a cooling rack on the sheet and put the frozen cannelé molds on the rack.
- Remove the batter from the fridge. It will have settled and formed layers, so give it a good whisking to bring it back together, then rap the container against the counter to debubble it a bit. Fill the cannelé molds about three-quarters full.
- Bake the cannelés for 30 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 400 F and bake for another 30 minutes or so. Cannelés are supposed to get very dark—black really—but if you’re concerned that yours are darkening too fast or too much, place a piece of parchment or foil over the molds. When properly baked, the bottoms will be dark and the sides of the little pastries will be a deep brown—think mahogany. (I spear a cannelé with a bamboo skewer and pull it out of its mold to inspect it.) While the cannelés bake, they may puff above the tops of the molds, like popovers or soufflés, and then, as they continue baking, or when they’re pulled from the oven, they’ll settle down. Pull the whole setup from the oven and put it on a cooling rack.
- Let the cannelés rest in their molds for 10 minutes, then turn them out onto a cooling rack. (Resting gives the tender pastries a chance to firm so they’ll hold their shape when unmolded.) Be careful: Even though you’ve waited 10 minutes, because of the caramelized sugar and melted butter, cannelés are hotter than most other pastries. Let the cannelés cool until they are only slightly warm or at room temperature.
Main photo: Dorie Greenspan. Credit: Alan Richardson
The next time you bite into a peach and experience a burst of juicy flavor that threatens to dribble down your chin, you might owe Dr. Stanley Johnston a note of thanks. Chances are you are eating a Redhaven, the most widely planted peach variety in the world. It was developed by Johnston during his long career at Michigan State University’s South Haven Experiment Station, beginning in the early 1920s.
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Even though Michigan’s production pales in comparison to leading peach-producing states like California, South Carolina and Georgia, the Mitten State gets to claim Johnston as its hometown hero. He dedicated his life to creating fruit varieties that would thrive in Michigan’s perfect conditions, including the Redhaven peach and his namesake, the Stanley blueberry, and his legacy can be found all around the world.
While there are hundreds of varieties of peaches, Johnston’s best-known creation was a series of eight different Haven peaches, and the Redhaven variety is the most famous of all. So it is fair to say he’s responsible for years of wonderful pies, cobblers, sundaes and sauces, all served up during peak peach and blueberry season.
Professional chefs and home cooks alike have long known that the brilliantly colored Redhaven is ideal for baking, canning or freezing. But what exactly makes the Redhaven an all-time favorite? It is that perfect combination of intensely pure peach flavor all wrapped up in a nearly fuzzless globe of juicy smooth texture. It is the quintessential peach.
When I’m within reach of a farmer’s stand, I almost always opt for white peach heritage varieties that smell, taste and look the part of a season-ripe and ready delicate fruit. But I’m also willing to admit that it’s hard to beat Johnston’s classic Redhaven if you’re after really “peachy” punch.
This summer, I decided to celebrate Johnston’s contributions to summer fare by grilling a slab of pork ribs and slathering them in a spicy peach and blueberry grilling sauce. I can also attest that the sauce’s deep rich, sweet and spicy flavor is just as good over grilled chicken. If you want to join me, pick a peck of peaches and a couple pints of blueberries and let’s get the party started – just don’t forget to thank Dr. Johnston.
- ½ pound fresh blueberries
- ½ pound fresh peaches, skins removed
- ½ large onion, roughly chopped
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- ½ cup dark brown sugar
- ½ cup cider vinegar
- ½ cup Worcestershire sauce
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 chipotle chiles in adobo (canned variety)
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Place all ingredients in food processor or high-powered blender and process until sauce is a smooth consistency, about 3-5 minutes.
- Transfer to a small saucepan and heat over a medium flame until the sauce reaches a boiling point, reduce and simmer for 30 minutes.
- The sauce can be prepared up to one week in advance but must be refrigerated until needed.
Main photo: Pork ribs with Spicy Blueberry and Peach Grilling Sauce. Credit: Caroline J. Beck