Saturday, November 29, 2014

Sitges ~ The St. Tropez of Spain

For the second time this year I find myself in Spain where the food is great, the locals are friendly, the weather is wonderful and the prices are reasonable. Work brought me back to Barcelona, which I have posted about previously. But with a few days to spare, a quick 30 minute drive to Sitges provides me with a welcome rest in a lovely Mediterranean resort, which quickly reminds one of France's famous St. Tropez.

I'm staying at the Melia Sitges for four nights which is located perfectly and perhaps the nicest full service hotel in the area. The photo above is taken a short walk from the hotel as I head into the old downtown area where all of the beaches and shops are located. As you can see the walkway is well maintained and feels safe day and night. The local government has done a wonderful job of making the area walker friendly and it seems most everyone is on foot. And why not, when you have such lovely weather and a walk along the seaside.

I'm here toward the end of September and the hotel staff tells me the big tourist season has ended, so the beaches and shops should be more quiet. They are certainly not crowded but there are plenty of people around to make it feel welcoming and friendly. The old city area is beautiful and the buildings have that classic seaside resort look. Certainly they are colorful, well maintained and brimming with shops, cafes and restaurants.

And you won't ever forget that you are right on the beach. A large well maintained beachfront is yours for swimming, building sandcastles, boating and jet skiing. I found the above cute little water paddle boats you can rent and then use their built in slides for playing in the cool Mediterranean. 

Don't be surprised to see naked babies and topless women on all of Sitges beaches, as it is the custom here. Of course you don't have to expose yourself if you are uncomfortable and you will find many women do cover up. But at either end of the very long, broad beach you will also find nude swimming areas where men and women of all ages are completely naked and enjoying the waters and sunshine. In these areas practically everyone is fully naked. Despite this you do not get any sense that it is the least bit sexual in nature and as such you can relax and enjoy the pristine setting just as nature made you.

Click to Enlarge
Of course the area boasts all of Spain's most famous foods and one of the reasons I like the Melia Sitges is that immediately below the property is a marina with a large number of restaurants providing every type of food imaginable, alongside plenty of fresh fish. I enjoyed locally caught fish in the classic sea salt bake. I also had lovely paella, pastas, pizza and great desserts. The local lobster was also very good. Having restaurants very close to the hotel is ideal because in Spain dinner isn't typically eaten until 10:00PM. No respectable restaurant even opens until 8:30PM and then that's just for the tourists. So with late dining and lots of great Spanish wine, I like my restaurant to be relatively close by the hotel.

When I posted the photo of the Iberian ham, on the hoof as it were, I got a few negative comments. Displaying cured ham this way is very common in Spain and Italy too. Don't be put off because you can clearly see where your food is coming from as it is particularly delicious and served everywhere. According to Spain's Denominación de Origen rules on food products, their ham (jamón ibérico) must be made from black Iberian pigs, or cross-bred pigs as long as they are at least 75% ibérico. Showing the black hoof of the pigs is a way to make sure your customers know you are serving them authentic acorn-fed Iberian ham.

Torró, the Catalan name for the candy we call nougat in English, is a local confection made of honey, sugar, and egg white, with toasted almonds or other nuts, and shaped into either a rectangular bar or a round cake. It comes in a wide variety of flavor combinations. Make sure you snack on some while you are there. It also makes an excellent gift to bring home to friends and family.

Julian at the Spanish wine tasting.
I just happened to be in town for the Sitges wine festival, which was fortunate because the area has a long wine making tradition and was the birthplace of the sparkling wine Cava, invented in the early 1870s at the Codorníu Winery. At the turn of the 20th century, the Catalan wine industry was at the forefront of Spain's emergence as a world leader in quality wine production, and the area is also in an important cork production region.  Wine is amazingly inexpensive here and I didn't have a one that wouldn't be considered top quality. Here at the wine festival you get your own full size wine glass and three vouchers for three full glasses of wine. Mind you this was around noon time and these were not small pourings. While I had a wonderful time at the festival, a nap was required upon my return to the hotel.

There is not a lot to do in Sitges, which is just what I was looking for. If you want to enjoy the sun, sit at the beach, shop the lovely small old town and enjoy wonderful food and wine, this is the place for you. I would certainly visit again and would encourage you to do the same!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Woodsy Mushroom Bisque

A perfect first course for winter holiday meals or great for lunch with a salad, this soup is nothing like the canned mushroom soup we all grew up with. In fact that mushroom soup is most often used as an ingredient in recipes and really is not suitable for regular consumption on its own.

Julian's Woodsy Mushroom Bisque with Salad
Perfect on a Cold Autumn Day
My first truly great mushroom soup came from the chef at the Fairmont Chicago where each fall we would hold a board meeting. The chef offered up the soup and thereafter we requested it be served each year long after it was not part of the regular menu options. Thankfully he gladly complied and since then I've tried to replicate that wonderful, woodsy dish.

Cremini, White Button, Shitake
Preferred Mushroom Combination
The key to really good mushroom soup is of course plenty of the right mushrooms and not so much cream as to overpower their subtle flavor. So imagine my delight when Cook's Illustrated published their version of "Best Mushroom Bisque" and it turned out to be almost identical to the soup I enjoyed at the Fairmont. So I've abandoned my own recipe in favor of this one and provide it to you below, mostly as published. My only suggested modification is that I prefer my soup to have a bit of mushroom texture, so instead of transferring it to a blender as directed (for a completely smooth finish) I use my stick blender in the pot to get the desired result. I leave it to you to decide what final texture you prefer.

1 pound white mushrooms
8 ouces cremini/brown button/baby bella mushrooms
8 ounces shitake mushrooms
salt and pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small shallot/onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 tablespoons dry sherry/vermouth/white wine
4 cups water
3 1/2 cups chicken broth
2/3 cup heavy cream
2 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon lemon juice
chopped chives for garnish (optional)
sour cream for garnish (optional)

Wash and cut off tough bottom-end stems of mushrooms. Place mushrooms in a microwave safe bowl and toss with salt. Cover and microwave for 12 minutes, stirring every 4 minutes, until mushrooms have released their liquid and reduced to about one-third their orignal volume. Transfer mushrooms to colander and drain over a bowl to collect the juices.

Heat oil in a large Dutch Oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms are browned and starting to stick to the bottom of the pot, about 8 minutes. Add shallot/onion, thyme and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and cook stirring occasionally until shallot/onion is softened about 2 more minutes. Add sherry/wine and cook until evavporated. Stir in reserved mushroom liquid and cook, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pot. Stir in water and broth and bring to a simmer (low boil). Reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes, covered.

Puree the soup in the pot using a stick blender for a more course texture or transfer in batches to a traditional blender to puree until very smooth (blending 2 minutes per batch. Return to pot.)

Wisk cream and egg yolks together in a medium bowl. Stirring slowly and constantly, add 2 cups soup to cream mixture. Stirring constantly, slowly pour cream mixture into the hot soup. Heat gently, stirring constnatly, until soup is 165F degrees. Do not overheat. Stir in lemon juice and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with chives and/or a dollop of sour cream for garnish.

The French "liaison" of egg yolks and cream give
the soup it's silky texture.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

One Bowl Banana-Nut Bread ~ A Delicious Easy Breakfast Treat

A great way to use up those bananas that are starting to get overly ripe, this recipe is easy to prepare and comes out perfect every time. I've made this recipe for years and was surprised I'd never posted it to the blog. So here it is today for your enjoyment.

Julian's Banana-Nut Bread
Note that I give you an option that will provide you with two different outcomes. My husband prefers one version and I prefer the other. You can decide what's most likely to be popular in your household. If you add the optional applesauce (my preference) you'll have a moist dense banana bread more akin to the texture of a pound cake (but loaf cake sized). If you skip the applesauce, the bread will have a more dry, crumb akin to a cake or traditional breakfast loaf. This is what Kevin prefers. The nuts are also optional if someone has an alergy but I certainly think they add both flavor and texture and shouldn't be skipped unless there is a medical necessity.

The recipe below uses about 3-4 ripe bananas for a single loaf. The recipe is easy to double and comes out fine if you do so. I use non-stick dark baking pans which will provide more of a crust on the loaf. These I spray with food release (Pam). If you are using traditional shiny loaf pans, grease and flour the pans to ensure the loaves come out easily.

Ingredients (makes 1 loaf, 8 thick slices)
1 cup sugar (or 1/2 cup Spenda Baking Mix)
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups ripe bananas, mashed
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup applesauce (optional, see note above)
2 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup walnuts, chopped (optional)

Preheat oven to 350F degrees. Grease the loaf pans (see note above).

Double Batch
Using an electric mixer blend together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Mix in the eggs and scrape down the bowl. Add the mashed bananas and lemon juice and mix in. Mix in the optional applesauce. With the mixer running on low, spoon in the dry ingredients. Stir in the nuts (optional). Add batter to the prepared loaf pans and bake for 45-50 minutes, just until a pick inserted into the center comes out clean. Do not over bake. Cool slightly until you can easily handle without gloves and turn out the loaf.

They make the house smell wonderful!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Crockpot Glazed Pork Tenderloin

Fall-apart tender with a subtle flavor, this recipe is perfect when I need to literally 'set it and forget it'. In the Autumn I'm often busy with many projects around the house/garden and I was looking for a recipe that I could make without much effort that would cook all day on its own (no checking the pot). This recipe cooks for 6 hours!

Julian's Crockpot Glazed Pork Tenderloins
I'm often skeptical of the recipes that are posted on Facebook, but decided this one looked harmless enough and was worth a try. As it turns out, it worked pretty well and below I recommend only a few minor changes to the original which came from, which is largely a site full of ads and not much else.

With regard to selecting the pork tenderloins, you are looking for a package that is 2 - 2.5 pounds. As such it likely contains two smaller pork tenderloins, which really are best rather than one large tenderloin. I'm not sure you can even get a single tenderloin of that size, but it's preferable to have the two smaller pieces in the package for this recipe as the flavors are better distributed among the meat.

Ready for Cooking ~ 6 hours on low temperature.
Finally a word on crockpot cooking. Remember to NOT remove the lid during cooking as this lets the heat escape and dramatically lowers the temperature. Keep it covered and don't feel the need to check on it until you are near the end of the cooking time. A typical slow cooker on low cooks at only 200F degrees, so you don't want to reduce the temperature further by opening the lid periodically. Also note that the recipe makes a nice sauce for service over the meat, you'll need additional gravy if you are serving it with mashed potatoes.

2 to 2.5 pounds pork tenderloin
1/3 cup soy sauce
1 tablespoon yellow mustard
3 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons diced dried onions
2 teaspoons garlic powder or granules

Place the tenderloins in a crock pot on the low setting. Mix the remaining ingredients together and pour over tenderloins. Cover and cook 6 hours. Remove and serve.

Fork Tender with Subtle Flavorings

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Potato Leek Soup or Vichyssoise

With Autumn upon us here in the U.S. Midwest today I'm making one of the simplest soups of the season. It may be easy, but it is also a favorite because of its delicate taste and comforting bouquet. If you serve this soup at room temperature or even chilled it's what they call 'vichyssoise', and is particularly good with a cold supper on a hot day. But the weather here is now decidedly chilly, so I will be serving it warm. With that said, I will still prepare the soup just after lunch and let it sit on the cooktop until just before dinner.

A Delicious Combination ~ Potato and Leek

Some cooks cooks use a chicken base and others add onions as well as leeks. But if you want the delicate flavor and perfume of the leeks, I would not recommend using either. Today I'm just peeling and chopping a couple white potatoes and cleaning and chopping a large leek. These are simply cooked in lightly saled water. Nothing else but cream will be added to the soup to ensure the leek flavor is not masked. Also, I puree the mixture but you really could eat it just as it. Still delicious. And you do not have to add the cream. It will still have a wonderful taste and texture. The cream just adds a bit of luxury!

Ingredients (serves 4-6)
1-2 large leeks
2 large white potatoes
Cold ater to cover the vegetables
1/2 cup heavy cream (optional)
pinch of white pepper
1/4 cup sour cream (optional garnish)
Pinch of chives or parsley for color (optional garnish)

Equipment:  Stick Blender OR Food Processor OR Drink Blender

Julian's Stick (In Pot) Blender
Caution must be taken when cleaning the leaks as they can have sand between the leaves. So cut off the root end and all but about 2-3 inches of the green leafy section. Halve the leak and then peel back the layers under running water to be sure you remove all of the dirt/sand. Then roughly chop the leek and place in a pot of cold water. Peel and roughly cube the white potato and place in the cold water with the leeks. Add some salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the cooking temperature to achieve a low simmer. Cover and cook until very tender, about 45 minutes.

When the vegetables are quite tender, turn off the pot. You can proceed or simply let it sit until closer to serving time. About 30 minutes prior to serving, puree the ingredients. I prefer to do this with a stick blender that you emerse directly into the pot. Puree until very smooth, about 2 minutes. Stir in the cream and add a pinch of white pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. Reheat to just warm if necessary. Serve in bowls garnished with a dollop of sour cream in the center. Sprinkle with chives or parsley.

Julian's Cream of Potato Leek