Saturday, December 24, 2011

Nochebuena - The Countdown

In Spain, Christmas Eve is known as Nochebuena (The Good Night). One day, when I have more time, I'll research the reason for the name. Perhaps it came about from the delicious foods that are eaten. Maybe because it is a night of good wishes and warm feelings. Whatever the reason, it is a special night for a Spaniard, in a sense similar to what Thanksgiving is for Americans: the family gets together, turkey is usually involved, lots of cooking...

We are hosting a small dinner party for Nochebuena. A group of friends will come over and we will drink, eat and exchange gifts. We wanted the menu to be primarily Spanish. On Friday I prepared this red cabbage soup, fried the bread stars (mine look far less professional than the ones on the photo: I cut mine freehand), and even practiced the feathered cream touches on top. Lombarda, or red cabbage, is something that I associate with the holidays, perhaps because I don't remember seeing it at home at any other time of the year. This is the first time I make this soup. This recipe is a keeper.

My husband is in charge of the main course, leg of lamb. I am not sure how he will make it, but as a lover of all things Spanish he will probably stick to rosemary and garlic. I believe he is planning on serving it with Brussel sprouts and this delicious sweet potato puree with braised leeks, which has been already made. One less thing to worry about tomorrow.

For the dessert, I will make warm chocolate pudding cakes with caramel sauce again, because they were such a smashing hit last time. I cheated somewhat, though, in that I bought some Mexican cajeta in one of the multiple supermarket forays we did today. Making caramel, one less thing to do.

No Nochebuena would be complete without some turrón. In the same supermarket where I got the cajeta, I found Turrón El Almendro, which is such a quintessential brand. What a surprise!

I took care of a few last-minute details, like decorating the windows with junkmail snowflakes. From the street, at night, they look magical. During the day they give interesting shadows. It gives me such pleasure to create something so pretty out of something so humble. I learned how to make them here.

I also made some Epsom salt luminaries out of empty jam and olive jars. On Friday I ran around like crazy, and by the time the lighting outside was good for a photo, I was on my third supermarket trip, so this is all I got of the process. Luckily, this tutorial will show you how to make them. My luminaries will light our dinner table.

I still have to make a mushroom compound butter, wrap a couple more gifts, sweep the floors, load a Christmas playlist on the iPod... I better go to bed.

I hope you have a wonderful Nochebuena!

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Green Christmas of El Granado

My sister posted a link on her Facebook page about a small town in Andalucía that goes green for Christmas. Because anything that has to do with recycled art interests me, I decided to learn more.

El Granado is just near the border with Portugal. To say that it is a small town is quite the understatement. Last year’s census has it at less than 600 people. There may not be many, but they are certainly conscientious about our planet.

For the third year in a row, El Granado citizens have decorated their town for Christmas in a very original and eco-friendly manner. In the center square, the 30-ft tall Christmas tree was made with more than 25,000 bottle caps.

If that wasn't enough, they also created this whimsical nativity scene

This project has been a true collective effort. The citizens of El Granado helped with the gathering, drilling and installation of the caps.

In these days of global financial crisis, this town has given everyone a great example on how to save money while doing it in an environmentally and financially sustainable manner.

In 2009 the Christmas tree chosen was a dead oak. The tree was decorated with old shoes, worn out circular saw blades, empty containers wrapped in aluminum foil, painted pine cones, and many other items. Perhaps because this was the first year the town didn’t choose a conventional Christmas tree, the citizens were very divided. Some loved it, some didn’t.

The nativity scene in 2009 was created out of rebar left over from the construction of the town hall. The rebar was welded into different silhouettes, which were then wrapped with lights.

Even though opinions were very divided, that didn’t stop El Granado, and in 2010 the Christmas tree was made with 580 empty wine bottles. The tree topper was a very large whiskey bottle. It stood over 25 feet high. This tree was so popular that a neighboring town, Villanueva de los Castillejos, asked to borrow it to display in its main square this very Christmas season! A tree made of recycled materials gets recycled itself. Could this be any more perfect?

I am looking forward to seeing what they come up for Christmas 2012! I wish more towns and cities had the initiative to do something similar. With a little bit of ingenuity, it is amazing the beauty that can be created.

My sincere thanks to Maite Barroso, spokesperson for the town of El Granado, for her help and her wonderful photographs.

¡Feliz Navidad!

ps: these guys throw a mean crafts fair! Nicely done!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Christmas Tree 2011

This is a very self-indulgent post. My sister asked me for photos of the Christmas tree, but rather than emailing her, I thought I could make a blog post out of her request.

Not a bad looking Douglas fir from Oregon! It measures somewhere between 6 - 7 ft (1.82 - 2.13 m), and it is quite chubby. I have a ton of ornaments, but this year I decided to be moderate, and ended up hanging approximately half of them. There is an entire storage box still in the garage. Most of my favorites are on, though

As a Spaniard, I have very fond memories of the Three Kings (Los Reyes Magos). These figures are made out of paper, and I love their faces, which remind me of the El Greco paintings

You won't find a whole lot of plastic on my tree. There is something special about homemade materials, like these cute felt creatures (although the ladybug has quite the sinister face)

Last year I participated in a crafts exchange at, and my trading partner, a lovely 18-yr old from Nebraska, sent me a trio of Kusudama balls. One was made from an old novel, another from a map, and this one from the pages of a magazine

This knitted stocking and a couple of other similar ones have been with me since college. I am not 100% sure how I got them. I want to say that the landlady from the apartment complex where I lived gave them to me

This ensemble is in honor of my husband's love for jazz music. The face of the drummer makes me laugh!

Of course, I could not possibly NOT have a cork ornament

Some ornaments have traveled a long ways, found by lucky friends in their exotic vacations, like this mistletoe paper cutout from Denmark

And like I said, there isn't a whole lot of plastic on this tree, but this is one of my favorite things: the Lifesavers garland. I bought it at Mac Frugals (now known as Big Lots) while I was in college. Perhaps the idea of trimming the tree with candy appeals to my inner 4-year old. The truth is I always look forward to hanging this garland. I love the fake sugar dusting on it, its bright colors, and how user-friendly it is. I have a love-hate relationship with garlands. They tangle. They slip. They don't want to stay put. So I am grateful for this one, flexible, colorful, tangle-proof, happy, silly.

So that's my tree.

There are many Christmas trees in my memory, but two stand out, and neither was very pretty, in the strict sense of the word. The tree we had while growing up was silver tinsel, and it looked like an uprighted bottle brush. When we moved to Spain, somehow the pole got lost, and my mom had a carpenter create a new one. I don't think the carpenter understood very well how the tree was supposed to look in the end, judging from how he drilled the holes for the branches. I should post a photo of it, for your enjoyment. We have tons of them. Every year we would snap a new photo, and my mom would ask if we were documenting the tree's growth.

The second tree I vividly remember is the one my friend Bert had for a Christmas party at his place. He was an exchange student from the University of North Carolina spending a year in Sevilla. I was a student too, thinking about going to college in the US. Bert bought a tiny artificial tree, no more than 2 ft tall, and at the party he handed everybody colored pencils and construction paper and asked us to create ornaments. There were many levels of expertise among us. Bert's mom said at one point, "I can't draw", which sounded odd to my English-as-a-second-language ears, because she was, in fact, drawing. I distinctly remember the ornament that our friend Marvin created, a little teddy bear, so perfect it looked professional. We also had a big bowl of popcorn, and we strung it into garlands, also a first for me. At the end, that little plastic tree looked beautiful, with its paper ornaments and the popcorn simulating snow, a touch of home for a whole bunch of American kids spending their first Christmas abroad.

Saturday, December 3, 2011


We planted a persimmon tree in our backyard the summer of 2004. I remember the date because for a while we were following the tradition of wedding anniversary gifts by year (first anniversary: paper, second anniversary: cotton...) We have since given up, after stumping on bronze, but in 2004, which is the year of Fruits and Flowers, we were still at it.

This persimmon tree is therefore very young, and I marvel at its tremendous load. I can almost hear the upcoming sigh of relief this poor thing is going to make once all that fruit is off

We have had fierce winds these last few days, and the leaves have all fallen out

Northern California is a good area for persimmons (can you tell?). They are everywhere. Mine is the Hachiya variety, and you have to wait till the fruit is soft to eat it. Otherwise, the astringency will knock you over. The trees get to be really tall, up to 25 feet or more, and at a time of the year when the leaves have fallen and there is little color, it is a delight to see them with their flaming orange fruits, hanging like big ornaments.

I have let this little tree grow pretty much untamed, and this is why there are lots of crisscrossed branches. I need to fix this as soon as the fruit is off the tree. Pruning is not my favorite gardening activity. The saying goes, The cobbler's children go barefoot (or in Spanish we would say, En casa del herrero, cuchillo de palo). I have a degree in Plant Science, and this would have granted me a big F!

The birds are plenty happy. I just hope they leave a few persimmons for me

While taking these photos, I ran into this cutie

I am a big fan of the Play With Your Food books, by Joost Elffers. This persimmon could have been featured in the series, maybe as an evil witch, or perhaps a toucan.

Although I have a whole cookbook on persimmons, I think this year we may have to dry some. I am going to do some research.

Final piece of trivia: one of my college lab mates was Japanese. Someone brought persimmons one day, and much to my delight, I discovered that persimmon is pronounced the same in Japanese (Kaki) and in Spanish (caqui).

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Vegetable Stock, à la Jacques Pépin

To say that we are big fans of Jacques Pépin is quite an understatement. I love him, but my husband idolizes him, and it is easy to see why. Jacques Pépin is a culinary genius. He is, above all, a great teacher. His cooking is simple and delicious. I can say so because my husband has made pretty much every single dish from Fast Food My Way and More Fast Food My Way. Our copies are so well-loved that they are falling apart. We have also seen pretty much all of his TV series. My favorite is Cooking Techniques. It was a thing of beauty to see him create a teddy bear from a lemon and some peppercorns, or decorate a paté with scallions, carrots and a paring knife. He is a true artist.

As I have seen so many of his programs, I can't remember exactly where I watched him make vegetable stock using kitchen scraps. This method is true Pépin: simple, inexpensive, and delicious.

Open the top of an empty half-gallon carton of milk or juice, and rinse well

Any time you prepare dinner, save the vegetable scraps: onion tops, tough mushroom stems, carrot peels, pepper cores... The possibilities are endless

Keep the carton in the freezer till it comes full. Once full, get ready to make the stock

It may be hard to get a solid brick of frozen vegetables out of the carton. It is OK to tear it apart (or so I tell myself)

Pour enough water to cover the vegetables. Season generously with salt and pepper

Bring it to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and let it simmer for 30 minutes or so

You will end up with the best vegetable stock you have ever tasted.

When done, strain it and use or freeze.

This is ridiculously simple and so tasty. This stock will be a terrific base for your soups, and useful in any recipe that calls for some broth.

You can also add chicken bones to the stock, or that turkey carcass you haphazardly threw in the freezer just last week. Before you do so, I recommend you roast the bones in the oven, because doesn't everything taste better roasted?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Toilet Paper Tubes Christmas Wreath

As some of you may know, I love to craft, and I especially love to reuse and repurpose things that were otherwise destined to the garbage. This is why, when I ran into this tutorial, I got very excited.

Speaking of garbage, I have a confession to make. Every time I go to a Michaels store, I walk the silk flower aisles and pick up whatever flowers and leaves are on the ground. I always ask if it is OK to take them home, and the answer is invariably, "Sure, go ahead, they get swept up at the end of the day anyway". Thank you, Michaels, for letting me rescue these perfectly good flowers!

In the last few weeks, with the holidays approaching, many of the flowers I have gathered were poinsettias. I have also found glittery pine cones, red berries, holly, and the usual holiday suspects.

I followed the directions of the tutorial, and made a whole bunch of tp flowers. With glue gun in hand, I assembled them into a wreath shape, and embellished the resulting wreath with my Michaels finds.

My front door is white on the inside, and the red looks great against the white background. I'm very happy with the results. The hardest part was cutting the tubes. I did not listen to the tutorial, and used a pair of scissors instead of the craft knife. It is hard to cut cardboard with scissors, so I only did one tube at a time. But once all the flowers were ready, it took just a few minutes to assemble the whole thing.

It makes me happy to know that pretty much all this was destined for the landfill, and instead it is gracing a corner of my home. I had fun making this wreath, and it may not be the last one I make. I sure have enough tp tubes and flowers to keep going!

Thanksgiving weekend is usually when we start decorating the house for Christmas. On your marks, get set, go!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Curing olives: pickling

I bit into one olive, as promised, after five days. It was nowhere near ready, so I left them soaking the prescribed two weeks, with daily water changes. Now it's finally the time to pickle them.

The olives have lost a great deal of their purple color. They are variegated in shades of green and purple.

The first step is to make a brine, which is nothing more than salt water. How much salt do you need? Enough so that a fresh egg will float.

I added three or four tablespoons of vinegar to the brine, and the rest of my pickling ingredients. There are as many recipes as families are in Andalucía. What I used was:

Cumin seed
Bay leaves
Dried red peppers
Thyme (estate grown!)
Peppercorns (I happened to have a fancy rainbox mix at hand, but black peppercorns are more traditional)

Other key ingredients are:


I don't think the carrot contributes a whole lot of flavor to the olives, but it looks great in the mix, and as it also gets pickled, it's an added bonus.

Other typical spices and add-ins are fennel seed, paprika, oregano, savory, orange peel, red and green pepper, cauliflower florets...

I put everything in the brine, threw the olives in a clay jug, and poured this pickling magic over them.

This jug is now sitting on the counter, loosely covered with a kitchen towel. I would wait for about a week before trying the olives. Legend has it that the longer they sit in the pickling liquid the better they taste, but I have never had olives last more than a few weeks.

Monday, November 7, 2011


My closest supermarket is a Fortune 500 company. It is not an exciting place to shop. When you walk in, you are usually greeted by pyramids of the latest ultra-processed potato chips, semi-artificial cookies, or soda in a new flavor. This is why it is refreshing to walk into a little grocery store catering to a Hispanic clientele and find something like this:

I had never seen cocoa beans before, so I had to buy this. It is somewhat of a cliché that women love chocolate. This woman certainly does. I have been reading about how to process these beans, and I'm going to follow the directions from eHow. Then I hope to make some brownies. Betty Crocker, you can kiss my butt!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Curing olives: score & soak

Olives are very bitter in their raw state. The first thing you need to do is get rid of the compounds responsible for that bitterness. There are a few ways to go about it. You can use lye, a great method if you are impatient. I don't like it because it robs the olives from some of their fruity flavors. You can use salt, which is so much fun, and the olives come out delicious! I wish I had enough olives to salt-cure a few. Next year...

I am going to use water. It's a safe, easy method, and the olives come out great. The basic principle is to soak the olives in plain water, and change that water every day. Little by little, the bitterness will wash away.

To speed the leaching up a bit, I scored each olive using this tool.

I bought this board a few years ago in a hardware store in Seville. It's made of beech wood, and has four little metal "blades" in each of the holes. Each hole is a different diameter. You place the board over a bowl or bucket, and push the olives through the holes.

You can achieve the same results with a paring knife and a bit of patience, or you can smash the olives, instead of scoring them. Smashed olives are super-authentic, and you'll see them in every bar in Andalucia. To smash them, the only thing you need are a hard surface and a mallet. Also, I highly recommend you wear a pair of gloves. Otherwise, you'll sport very black fingers for a few days.

So once your olives are smashed or scored, put them in water, and change it every day. Rule of thumb is about two weeks for green olives. Mine are pretty ripe, so I'll start biting into them around day 5 or so, just to gauge the level of bitterness. I don't mind if the olives stay a little bitter. Every element, in its just measure, adds complexity to the overall flavor.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Curing olives: harvest

I have been curing olives since I was six years old, when we moved into my grandfather’s house. One of my first memories from that time is when his cousin sent him 60 lbs of Manzanilla olives from his hometown. My grandfather, who was in his seventies at the time and had moved to Seville as a teenager, still remembered many of these country things. I accompanied him on walks around the neighborhood, looking for ingredients for the olives in abandoned lots. Some years later, after my grandfather's passing, I remember walking past those same lots, the herbs and plants long gone and replaced by trash and junky cars. It was sad to see how the urban makeup of my neighborhood changed in just a few years.

You cannot eat olives straight from the tree. They are so bitter you’ll want to scrub the inside of your mouth with a brillo pad. That bitterness needs to be leached out first. Once that’s done, you brine and season them. It is amazing how something that originally was so unpleasant ends up being so delicious.

We have a young olive tree in front of our house. This year was not a good one. We had a wet spring and a cool summer. During bloom, all that rain knocked off a whole lot of flowers. My crop was this little, barely two cups’ worth.

There are some old olive trees at the community college near our house. We drove by on Sunday to see if we could perhaps supplement our crop. Sadly, the trees were completely bare: not a single olive on them. Olive trees are notorious for their alternate bearing tendency. Some years they are loaded, some years there’s nothing. Last year these trees were so full we were able to fill a three-gallon bucket easily.

So my 2011 harvest is what it is. I have a handful of pockmarked, scarred olives. They are not stellar, by any means. I’m going to cure them anyway. Stay tuned.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

We've been booed

A cool thing happened today: we were booed.

Sometime in the morning a sneaky neighbor left a basket on our front door, with a note.

The note said that we had been booed.

I had heard of Secret Santas, but never of Secret Halloweeners. I went to the website listed on the note, and apparently this is a new tradition.

Even though I am not a big fan of Halloween, this is something that fosters good feelings, so I'm all for it. I love surprises, and this was a sweet thing to do.

We unpacked the basket and found some interesting loot

The note had a little poem, and instruction on how to keep the Boo going around the neighborhood. We now have to put the sign with the little ghost on our door, prepare two Boo baskets, and secretly deliver them to two homes without a Boo sign.

My husband suggested that instead of candy and cheetos we should put carrot sticks and tofu. If we did that, then we'd really get booed. I think I'm going to go for some beer and potato chips. Later on tonight I'll sneak out and deliver the baskets to the theme of Mission Impossible.

Have you heard about this new tradition? What do you think?