Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Sobrasada: a spicy delight for meat lovers

When my in-laws first came to visit from Menorca, among other local goodies, they brought a sobrasada sausage. I'm a fan of all things meaty and it was my first experience of this Balearic delicacy: a versatile cured pork sausage with a good kick of paprika. I hadn't tasted anything quite like it before and really loved it. The picture below shows the picant version, with its red string, whereas the regular dolç version has a white string (see above).

Recently I finally got to visit Menorca and we enjoyed sobrasada with my in-laws who served it sliced with drinks. We also had it spread on small bocadillo rolls as a lunchtime snack – this is particularly tasty as some of the peppery oil leeches into the spongy white bread.

I was also keen to bring some back to London to try out in a recipe I'd noticed in Rick Stein's Mediterranean Escapes where sobrasada appears melted into a tomatoey sauce. The results were great: tasty chicken and vegetables with a spicy, well textured sauce. Lots of fresh, lively flavours. As in the recipe, we used chicken breasts, but next time I will use thighs instead and cook them for longer. (I'm not convinced about the breasts as they always seem dry and lacking in flavour.)

Chicken with sobrasada, courgettes and butter beans

100g dried butter beans, soaked overnight (or 225g butter beans from a tin or jar, drained and rinsed)
300ml tomato sauce (see below)
4 free-range chicken breasts
2 tablespoons olive oil
a good pinch of crushed dried chillies
75g sobrasada, sliced
350g courgettes, trimmed and sliced diagonally
a small handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the tomato sauce
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 large cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes (or 1kg fresh ripe tomatoes)
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Serves 4

If using soaked, dried beans, drain and tip them into a pan. Cover with fresh cold water, bring to the boil and simmer gently for 25 minutes, until almost tender. Add half a teaspoon of salt and continue cooking for another 5 minutes or so until tender. Drain and set aside.

Make the tomato sauce. Gently heat the olive oil, add the garlic and cook until just colouring. Tip in the chopped tomatoes and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes until thickened. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside. Left-over tomato sauce can be frozen and is ideal served with pasta, grated parmesan and a few torn basil leaves.

Season the chicken breasts on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan. Add the chicken, skin side down, and cook for 5 minutes over a medium heat until golden brown. Turn over and cook for another 5 minutes. Move the chicken to the side of the pan and add the chilli flakes and sobrasada, and allow the sobrasada to melt into the oil.

Turn the chicken over in the now spicy oil until well coated, then reduce the heat, scatter over the courgettes, cover and leave to simmer gently for 15 minutes.

Uncover the pan, add the butter beans and tomato sauce, re-cover and simmer for a further 5 minutes until the beans are heated through.

Scatter with chopped parsley and serve. (We had ours with some plain boiled rice.)

Wine recommendation

This dish is absolutely perfect for showing off a decent Rioja. I was amazed how well paprika goes with this type of wine – it melds beautifully with Rioja's sweet, smoky oak. Try this for yourself by nibbling some spicy chorizo while sipping a glass of even quite straightforward Rioja such as Crianza or a young Reserva. Wonderful.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

A great fish recipe to show off a great white wine

As I often use a special bottle of wine as the starting point of a meal, it's interesting to see what food works best. It's often dishes with a certain level of simplicity or subtle complexity, so not to overwhelm the wine. Really good quality meat or fish, served in an unfussy way works a treat and has a great senseof occasion, but sometimes you hit on something less grand that also turns out to be sensational.
A particular favourite in this respect is Rowley Leigh's mackerel with apple purée – a recipe that appeared in his column in the Financial Times some time ago. The wording of the recipe doesn't do it justice as there is quite a lot going on in the dish: mackerel with rosemary-scented olive oil, toasted pine nuts, gently spiced apple. An interesting array of flavours and textures. When I first cooked the dish we enjoyed it with a bottle of mature Vouvray Sec by Huët. Second time around we served it with another nicely evolving Chenin from the Loire, Clos de Coulaine Savennières 2001 (Papin-Chevalier). Great Chenin is a wonderful choice here as it has a distinct apple note that becomes more spicy and baked as it matures and the mouthwatering acidity and complex minerality deliciously cut through the oiliness of the mackerel. What's more, the wine has a mouthfilling waxy richness (from botrytis) highlighted by the toasted pine nuts in the dish. You can see how both the wine and the food have a range of subtle elements that all work in harmony with each other – and quite unforgettably. (That said, you could also consider other smart whites with decent acidity, not much oak, but ideally with some maturity such as Chablis, Gruner Veltliner, Graves and top Rhône whites.)
Mackerel with apple purée
4 large mackerel fillets
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon pine nuts
2 teaspoons rosemary leaves
2 cooking apples
half a cinnamon stick
10 cloves
1 bay leaf
1 dessertspoon sea salt flakes

Serves 4
Toast the pine nuts under a hot grill until golden brown. In a small pan gently warm the olive oil with the rosemary. Add the pine nuts, allow to cool and let the flavours infuse for at least half an hour. 
Peel, core and quarter the apples. Chop roughly and place in a small saucepan with 4 tablespoons water, the spices and the bay leaf. Simmer over a low heat until disintegrated. Remove the cinnamon and bay leaf and whisk the purée until smooth.
Take a large non-stick frying pan, sprinkle the sea salt over the surface and place on a high heat. Lay the mackerel fillets skin side down on the hot salt and press down to prevent them from curling. Reduce the heat slightly and cook the fillets until you can see the heat has penetrated half way through. Turn the fillets at this point and briefly seal the flesh side. You want the fillets slightly undercooked in the middle.
Warm the apple purée and put a couple of tablespoons on each plate. Place the fish skin side up on the apple and dress with the pine nuts and rosemary. Sautéed potatoes are a good accompaniment for a main course, but nothing else would be necessary if you're serving this as a starter – just your special bottle of wine!

Monday, 8 March 2010

Menorca: low season eating, drinking, exploring and relaxing

At long last we've had some sunshine here in London, but it's still feeling much too cold. But at least our little family recently had a very enjoyable change of scene. We (husband Nathan, three-year-old daughter Alice and I) uprooted for half-term and spent a week in Menorca. We were visiting family on the island and rented an apartment in Mahon (Maó) and were well prepared for cold, winter weather as snow had fallen a few days earlier. 

Just to set the scene, Menorca is the least developed Balearic island, despite having more beaches than Ibiza and Mallorca put together, and in February had a relaxed, out of season atmosphere. It was cold and sometimes wet but, as you can see from the pictures, some days were bright and clear. We sensed a calm continuation of normal, day to day life. Driving from one end of the island to the other takes about an hour and Mahon (see pics above) was an ideal base for exploring Menorca (although you definitely need to hire a car at this time of year). This elegant town, in the east of the island, is dominated by its spectacular harbour (the second deepest natural harbour in the world). It became the island's capital during British rule and was a key naval base during the 18th century, whereas the historic capital is Ciutadella on the western side. It's another port and it retains a somewhat haunting air of faded grandeur (see below).

Menorca has several layers of history in addition to having been a British colonial base. There is tantalising evidence of early civilisations as standing stones or 'taulas' are dotted around the countryside. Furthermore, the island was important to the Romans and later the Moors. Returning to the present day, in common with other Balearic islands, Catalan influence is strong and Spanish (Castellano) is often only spoken as a second language after Menorquí (a variant of Catalan). The British influence also continues as it remains a popular holiday destination and many Britons are resident on the island. Interestingly, as an ongoing legacy of British colonialism, gin is still produced here and is drunk widely by Menorquins (and will be covered more fully in a separate post).

As usual, I was keen to go food shopping and try out local ingredients and specialities and, luckily for us, Mahon's main markets in the Plaça d'Espanya were just moments from our apartment.

Bright eyed, super-fresh fish and seafood was displayed on granite counters in the horseshoe-shaped fish market and a wide range of local produce was available at the main market in an attractive building that was formerly church cloisters. Great buys include squid, Mahon cheese, membrillo (quince paste to accompany cheese), chorizo, sobrasada sausage and local patisserie (especially the distinctive spiral ensaimada – great with strong coffee).

Lemons were very much in season during our stay (but ours came from my mother-in-law's garden and were the best I've ever tasted). On the lower floor there's a supermarket open from 10am from 10pm with a comprehensive range (including something I'd never seen before – loose frozen seafood). Here we stocked up on basic items and drinks, including good value staples from Torres, Faustino Rioja, Codorníu Cava, Estrella beer, local Xoriguer gin and a bargain bottle of Pedro Ximenez from 1927 that cost us just less than 10 Euros. We enjoyed this poured over vanilla ice cream, as well as sipping it on its own at the end of the evening. Some wines are produced locally and what we tasted was quite typical of Catalan reds (similar grapes are planted here), but prices appeared high at nearly 20 Euros a bottle (perhaps aimed at the tourist market?).

Around town there were some notable shops, my favourite being a rather chic patisserie, Moll Dolç in the Carrer de l'Angel, and it turns out that some bars double as off-licences and offer food to take out. We discovered this just after arriving in Mahon, quite late on a Friday night, when my husband popped out for some provisions and returned with some melt-in-the-mouth hand sliced Iberico ham and a smart Catalan red. A memorable start to an unexpectedly satisfying week.

As a sort of post script, I shouldn't forget mayonnaise or 'salsa mahonesa'. The story goes that the recipe was taken back to France after the 3ieme Duc de Richelieu defeated the British at Mahon. Of course, we couldn't resist tasting it in situ, and here is Alice tucking into some alioli with salt cod croquetas and a sobrasada bocadillo in the El Muelle tapas bar by the port (Moll de Llevant).