No tick tock

I walked past a high school. It was early in the morning. Five girls in school uniform were waiting for the doors to open. They were chatting and wiggled in an attempt to keep warm. A friend arrived. ‘You haven’t stopped smoking yet?!’ he said to one of the girls ‘Yes I have,’ the girl replied, ‘tomorrow’.

I ran a half marathon. Ten kilometers in one direction, and then the same way back. The man next to me yelled: ‘let’s go girl, you’re a champion!’ I followed his gaze and realized it wasn’t me he was cheering on. It was the girl who ran in last place. We had about seven kilometers to go, but she wasn’t even halfway yet. Behind the ambulance and the police car that followed her, volunteers were already cleaning up the circuit. The man knew she was losing the race, but was winning against herself.

I bought the ingredients for mushroom croquettes. On my way back I walked past an appliances store. The type of store you wonder how it can still exist. Behind the counter was a very old man. He was reading a newspaper. A tobacco pipe hung from the corner of his mouth. In the window stood two old fashioned alarm clocks. The round ones. Next to them an encouraging sign that said ‘no tick tock’.

Mushrooms with garlic

Mushroom croquettes
Makes about 15 medium-sized croquettes

2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil
1 medium size union, peeled and finely chopped
250 grams of (chestnut) mushrooms, finely chopped
A pinch of (freshly grated) nutmeg
1 bay leave
1 sprig of thyme
750 ml of vegetable stock
150 grams plain flour
About 250 grams of breadcrumbs
2 large eggs
Sunflower oil or peanut oil to fry the croquettes (enough to cover them)

Heat the olive oil in a large pan and sauté the union with a bit of salt over low heat until soft. Add the mushrooms, nutmeg , bay leave , thyme and some more salt and cook for about 10 to 15 minutes, stirring frequently.

Carefully stir in the flour and heat for about 2 minutes. Add about a quarter of the vegetable stock, stirring vigorously and constantly, and bring to boil. Little by little add the rest of the vegetable stock, continuing to stir constantly. Cook for about 10 to 15 minutes, until the mixture has the consistency of a thick paste that comes away from the bottom of the pan.  Let the mixture chill for at least 2 hours or overnight.

Divide the breadcrumbs over 2 large plates. Beat the eggs lightly in a soup plate. Place the soup plate in between the two plates of breadcrumbs. If wou want you can rub your hand with olive oil to prevent the mushroom mixture from sticking to your hands. Take lumps of the mixture the size of two walnuts and shape them into oval balls. Drop the balls into the first plate of breadcrumbs. Roll them until they are well covered. Then roll them in the beaten egg, and in the second plate of bread crumbs. They should have a thick crust. You can freeze some of the croquettes after this step to save them for later. They should be completely defrosted before frying them.

To fry the croquettes, heat the oil in a large pan until it is medium hot (when you drop a piece of bread in the oil it should sizzle immediately, but should not turn dark quickly). Carefully drop the balls in the oil and fry for a few minutes, until lightly browned, turning them over ones. Work in batches to make sure the ball don’t stick to each other and the oil temperature doesn’t decrease too much by adding the cold croquettes. Lift them out with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. They are best when eaten straight away, but can be re-heated in the oven (160 degrees Celcius, 15 minutes).



Two mandarins

I met my first Spanish friend long before I moved  here. When we both lived in a small city in the south of Mexico. She studied postmodern psychotherapy and lived with her sister who was a diving instructor. I came to their house for dinner, and her sister made Spanish tortilla, her grandmothers’ recipe. She and I made breaded eggplant and a salad with bacon and homemade jam. As we ate we listed to the people gathering outside, enjoying the evening breeze coming from the Gulf of Mexico. We heard the crackle of the tortilla mill, and people ordering a dozen for that nights’ dinner. We turned the ceiling fan up so high the cord started dancing. All three of us were wearing thin summer dresses.

Before she went back to Spain she and her boyfriend cycled from Mexico to southern Patagonia. Last week she came to our house in Madrid to tell us stories: about sleeping in fire fighters’ barracks, or in people’s homes. About asking people for a meal and doing something in return. About how they managed to climb the Andes (low gear, don’t rush, enjoy the scenery).

Arroz con leche a la mandarinaShe told us about the candy store owner they stayed with in the Pampas. One morning, as he was making coffee, he told her about being homosexual in a small and remote town. He told her about his secret sexual adventures, about his HIV. How rough live and other people are on him now that he wears a stigma. They sat at his kitchen table in the tiny house in the back of his candy store. Outside the wind was blowing fiercely over the vast plains. They had their hands wrapped around their coffee cups and talked all day long.

When she had told us many stories about their trip, but not nearly all the stories they had gathered, I made her bed in our guest room. She lay down and fell asleep immediately, even before I had left the room. The next morning when I woke up she had taken off. But she had left two mandarins on the kitchen table. On the note it said they were from the tree in their garden. The tree they  can look at from their bedroom window in Spanish Basque Country: ‘Before we go to sleep’ she said ‘we look at the leaves dancing in the moonlight’.

Arroz con leche a la mandarina (2)Arroz con leche a la mandarina  -Rice pudding with mandarin
Serves 2 to 3

750 milliliters of whole cow milk or rice/soy milk without added sugar
1 clove
The peel of ½ clean mandarin cut into 1 or 2 strips
50 grams of medium grain Spanish rice or risotto rice
40 grams of brown sugar, or more/less to taste
2 large egg yolks, lightly beaten

Bring the milk to the boil in a large pan with the clove and the mandarin peel. Add the rice and continue to cook over very low heat for about 45 minutes to an hour. Stir frequently with a wooden spoon to make sure the rice doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.

Stir in the sugar and cook over very low heat for another 10 minutes. There should still be a good amount of liquid left. Remove the mandarin peel and the cinnamon stick.

In a small bowl, beat the egg yolks with a few tablespoons of the milk and rice taken from the pan. Pour the mixture into the pan and stir vigorously over low heat for a few second. Make sure not to let it boil as the yolks will curdle. Take off the heat and pour into two or three bowls.

Serve chilled, at room temperature or warm.

Adapted from Claudia Roden

The boy and the letter

When I was young, even younger than I am today, a boy wrote me a love letter.

He and I worked in a fast-food restaurant together. We snacked on overly salted French fries and drank cola all day long, and got drenched in the smell of frying oil that was hard to wash of. Yet, we had a great time.

In the letter the boy wrote about a journey. He said he wanted to go one and asked if I came along. The journey was going to be as important as its destination he said, he was very specific about that.  Because that is the best way to live he said. I was eighteen and impressed by the philosophical tone of his letter.

Bread with olive oil

I thought about the boy and the letter last week, when I travelled 800 kilometers just to meet a retired Spaniard who had built an olive oil mill, with his bare hands. It was not efficient, but it was a great journey.

I drove past small villages where pastel colored houses where clinging onto steep mountain slopes. And where fireplace smoke circling up into the air was the only movement to be seen. I stopped in a village called Goat of the Holy Christ, and drank coffee in the only bar in town. I chatted with the owner, the only towns person not working in olive oil agriculture. “Are you visiting the cathedral?” he asked, referring to the ruins a little further up the road that I believe no tourist ever laid eyes on. “No” I said “I want to know all about olive oil”. “Are you visiting Fernando’s little olive oil mill then?” he asked, and I nodded.

Yesterday a friend wrote and told me she had also gone on a journey as well; an open-ended one: “seeing where the winds blow me” she said. I hope they will blow her to Madrid, because I am saving the last bit of Fernando’s olive oil, and we will eat it together.

Bread with olive oil(3)Bread with olive oil

Mix the olive oil with some salt, dip your bread in it and eat.


Her name is Rosita

It was early in the morning when I approached the town square. People were cleaning up after what seemed to have been some sort of festival, probably something to do with foods and local crafts. Now, apart from the cleaners, the people drinking their morning coffee in the café, and the birds chirping away, there was nobody. That’s when I like to go to small Spanish mountain villages: when they are sleepy, and not trying their best to be that charming traditional town.

The town square really was an old bull fighting rank. In August they still use it for fights. I looked up at the white three-story houses with green balconies, and imaged people gathering there to watch the bulls; all sweaty and stinky in the August heat. Then I stopped to look at a sign. It said something about anise bread around the corner. “It’s the best bread in town” an old man with a walking stick said as he was opening the door of his food shop, “her name is Rosita, she’s from Barcelona and she started baking when she was 14”.


There was an old-fashioned bell. The type people on television use to call upon butlers. It rang when I walked in. The morning news was playing on the radio and there was decorative and edible bread on display everywhere. But there was no Rosita. I called out a couple of times, but nobody appeared. Just as I walked away a white Citroen, the car that everybody in Spain seems to drive, approached. Rosita honked her horn. “Wait! Wait!” she said, “I had to go to the hospital, and then I had to get my medicine, and I have nobody to help me out”. She held onto the roof as she was trying to get out of her car, rearranged her thinning hair, and put on her bakers hat. “What can I do for you? “ she said.


She hid away the medicine in a drawer as she was explaining the different types of bread she makes every day. I told her about the man with the walking stick, and about what he had said. “Oh that..” she said, waving my comment away as if a lifetime of baking was nothing “when I was ten my father gave me a toy oven. ‘This is your destiny’ he told me. He taught me to bake when I was fourteen and I haven’t stopped since”.

I bought her anise bread and white sour dough bread. It was the best white bread I have tasted in Spain.


Sourdough bread

Rosita’s bread was white, but I like to make whole wheat bread. If you’re using white flour, reduce the amount of water or increase the amount of flour.

450 grams of whole wheat flour (use a bit more if you’re using white flour)
1 small teaspoon of salt
150 grams of sourdough starter (see here or here)
300 to 315 milliliters of luke-warm water

In a large bowl, mix the flour, salt, sour dough starter and water with a wooden spoon. Transfer it onto a large and floured work surface and leave it for about ten minutes. You can wash the bowl in the meantime. Knead the dough for about ten minutes. (I use this technique).

Transfer the dough back into the bowl, cover the bowl with cling film and a damp cloth and leave it to rise at room temperature until the dough has tripled in size (depending on your starter and the temperature this can take between 4 and 12 hours or longer).

Deflate the dough: with a rubber spatula dislodge dough from inside of the bowl and turn out onto a lightly floured surface, scraping the bowl clean. If dough seems damp and sweaty, sprinkle with a tablespoon of flour. Lightly flour the palms of your hands and flatten the dough firmly but not too roughly into a circle, deflating any gas bubble by pinching them.

Lift a corner of the near side and flip it down onto the far side. Do the same with the left side, then the right side. Finally lift the near side and tuck it just under the edge of the far side. The mass of dough will look like a rounded cushion. Slip the sides of your hands under the dough and return it to the bowl. Cover and let rise again, this time to not quite triple, but again until it is dome-shaped and light and spongy when touched, this can take between 1,5 and 3 hours or longer.

Loosen dough all around inside of bowl and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Because of its two long rises, the dough will have much more body. If it seems damp and sweaty, sprinkle lightly with flour. Lift one end and flip it over onto the opposite end to fold the dough. Cover loosely with a sheet of plastic and let rest for 5 minutes before forming. This relaxes the gluten enough for shaping, but not long enough for the dough to begin rising again.

While the dough is resting, prepare the baking sheet. Smooth baking paper on the sheet and rub flour thoroughly on the entire surface.

Now form the loaf. Lift the left side and flip it over onto the opposite side, almost reaching the far side. Now lift up the right side and flip it over onto the opposite side, almost reaching the far side. Rotate the dough one quarter-turn and repeat about 8 to 10 times.

Turn the dough upside down and spin it around with your two hands, pressing the edges under the dough. After about 12 rotation you should have a nicely shaped ball with a small navel where the edges came together. Turn the dough upside down and transfer it onto the baking sheet. Close the navel by pressing it with your fingers. Sprinkle with flour and let it rise again until it has tripled in size. Turn the dough upside down, slash the top of the dough with a sharp knife in several places to make patterns in the crust. Sprinkle with flour.

Bake the bread in a 225 degrees Celsius pre-heated oven for about 45 minutes. Let is cool on a rack.

Thanks to Julia Child and Ineke Berentschot.


There was a homeless person on the corner of our street. His name was Carlos. Every morning he sat down in front of the bakery and put up a sign: “I have no home, no job, and nothing to eat. Please help me. Today I need your help, tomorrow you might need mine”. I thought that was reasonable, and started occasionally buying him bread and fruit, and bringing him bottles of water.

There were other homeless people in our neighborhood too. There was one on the way to the park. He had collected some things -a mattress, a pillow, some blankets, and even a little side table. He had arranged everything in front of an empty building and created his outdoor home.

From one day to the other, all the homeless people in our neighborhood disappeared. For a day or two someone else took Carlos’ place in front of the bakery. He was wearing a similar outfit and even used Carlos’ sign, but definitely wasn’t him. He soon disappeared as well.  The “home” in front of the empty building is abandoned. I don’t know where they have all gone.

One day, long before this all happened, I had tried to make one of Spain’s famous savoury pastries. After we finished eating I put some of it in a plastic container to give to Carlos. I bent down to hand him the container. He looked at it and said: “does it have any fish or meat in it?” “Tuna!” I said, all excited that I was giving him something special. “No thanks” he replied “I’m a vegetarian”.

Tuna PieTuna Pie

Serves 6 as a starter

For the pastry dough:
1 large egg
1 teaspoon of baking powder
125 ml olive oil
125 ml white wine
½ teaspoon salt
about 375 grams all-purpose flour
1 egg white, lightly beaten
1 yolk, lightly beaten with ½ teaspoon of water

For the filling:
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
1 red pepper, deseeded and cut into small pieces
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 400 grams tin of chopped tomatoes
250 grams tinned tuna in oil (drained weight), drained and crumbled
20-24 black olives, pitted and cut into pieces
2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped

For the pastry, beat the egg lightly with a fork in a large bowl. Then beat in the baking powder, oil, wine and salt. Gradually work in enough flour to make a soft malleable dough, stirring it with a fork to begin with, then working it with your hands. Roll the dough into a ball, wrap it in cling film and leave it to rest at room temperature for an hour.

For the filling, fry the onion and pepper with some salt in the oil in a large frying pan over low heat, until they are soft. Add the chopped tomatoes. Cook over low heat for about 15 minutes until the sauce is thick. Remove from the heat and stir in the tuna, olives and boiled eggs. In the meantime preheat the oven to 180 degrees celsius.

Grease a pie dish or tart tin, about 28 cm in diameter, with olive oil. Divide the dough into two balls -one larger than the other. Roll out the larger one on a smooth surface; keep the remaining dough wrapped in cling film. There is no need to flour the rolling-pin or the surface since the oil based dough is not sticky. Roll it out so that it is large enough to come over the sides of the pan, and carefully roll it out into the pan. Without stretching the dough too much, ease it into the corners. Brush the dough with egg white to prevent it from becoming soggy.

Bake in the dough in the oven for 10 minutes, take it out and let it cool.

Spread the filling evenly inside the crust. Roll out the remaining dough and lay it carefully on top so that it covers the edges of the bottom crust. Brush with the egg yolk and bake in the oven (180 degrees) for 35 to 40 minutes until lightly brown.

Recipe: Claudia Roden

I didn’t dare to tell them they were eating garbage

I have a confession to make: I eat garbage.

When I walk our dog at night I stroll past a vegetable store and there are always boxes of old fruits and vegetables outside; to be picked up by the garbage men. Sometimes I get there too late and I watch large automatic iron arms pick up boxes of tomatoes. Tilting them upside down and shaking them a couple of times, to make sure they are completely empty. I watch the tomatoes splash, thinking they would have made a great gazpacho.

From other garbage that I managed to safe I’ve made this apple cream, and banana bread that is so much sweeter than when I use sellable bananas. The people who ate it loved it, they were licking their fingers and getting all excited, but I didn’t dare tell them they were eating garbage.

I read this article today about reducing food waste, and I’ve gotten angry before, when people don’t want to buy a cucumber because it looks strange,  when retailers and producers cater to our superstitions. So I thought I should come clean: Once, I admit it, I picked up so many thrown away vegetables I almost had enough for this whole meal.

vegetables with tomato and hard-boiled egg dressingVegetables with a tomato and hard-boiled egg vinaigrette

Serves 4 to 6

For the vegetables:
3 or 4 leeks, cut into 2 centimeter pieces
500 grams potatoes, peeled and cut into 2 centimeter cubes
400 grams carrots, cut into 2 centimeter pieces

For the vinaigrette:
7 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar or the juice of half a lemon
2 tablespoons of finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 firm tomatoes (about 200 grams), finely chopped
1 hard-boiled egg, peeled and finely chopped

Put a large pan of salted water on to boil and throw in the leeks and potatoes, and cook for about 10 minutes, then add the carrots and cook until they are done, between 5 and 10 minutes.

Drain the vegetables well and make the vinaigrette. Beat the oil and vinegar or lemon juice with some salt in a bowl. Stir in the parsley, chopped tomatoes and hard-boiled egg and pour over the vegetables. Turn the vegetables over thoroughly so they absorb the dressing well.
Inspired by: Claudia Roden

I wish they wouldn’t move so fast

She seems to be getting ready for winter. It is far over 30 degrees, but our upstairs neighbor has washed all her scarves and hung them to dry over the interior patio. Some of them are so long they reach down to our windows. They have bright colors and blow softly in the wind.

Then there was a brown leaf that seemed to announce fall. This morning I walked downtown to meet someone for coffee in a café, and a brown leaf bounced in the wind alongside me. As if it was telling me another season is approaching.

HerbsI wish they wouldn’t move so fast. There’s a lot more to say about summer in Madrid.

She pushed herself upon me, with the highest temperatures in over forty years, but I feel I haven’t got to know her very well yet. I don’t get that summer feeling immediately after I see, smell or hear something.

Like I did  back home when I saw clear blue skies late at night, with a white airplane stripe here and there. Heard the sound of large sprinklers irrigating the farmland, and my parents chatting in the garden.

In Madrid, people told me about roller-skating on busy avenues in the quiet August month, but I am yet to find out. I know that children, and the occasional adult, jump into fountains late at night for refreshment. And I know that people have dinner at ten or eleven o’clock at night. They might head for a terrace where the waiter serves them Canary Islands style potatoes with herb- and chili sauce.

potatoesCanary Islands style potatoes with herb- and chili sauce

Serves 6

1 kilo small waxy potatoes with thick skin, washed (potatoes should be in their skin and have a thick skin, or they become too salty)
3 to 4 tablespoons of coarse sea salt

Put the potatoes in a large pan, where they fit in one layer. Add just enough water to cover and add the salt. Boil hard, uncovered and letting the water bubble, for about 25 minutes, or until the potatoes are very tender and the water has evaporated. Watch that they don’t burn. Then leave them over very low heat for a few minutes, moving them and turning them over carefully in the dry pan. Until their skin is wrinkled and covered with a fine powder of salt. Can be served hot or warm.

Green sauce with coriander leaves
(Mojo verde de cilantro)
½ green pepper, deseeded and cut into large pieces
Leaves of a large bunch of coriander (about 75 grams with stalks)
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1 ½ tablespoon white wine vinegar
Salt to taste
125 milliliter extra virgin olive oil

Blend all the ingredients except the olive oil to a paste in the food processor, then add the olive oil and blend again to a light creamy consistency.

Spicy red sauce
(Mojo picón)
4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
¾ teaspoon spice ground pepper (e.g. cayenne pepper)
2 teaspoons sweet paprika powder
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Salt to taste

Mix the garlic with the spices in a bowl, then beat in the olive oil and vinegar with a fork and add salt to taste.
Recipes: Claudia Roden