Monday, September 27
I’m trying out a modern-day media technique of showing you a photo of a pretty face (in food terms) to get you to read this post. It’s a dessert I had in Salamanca – a chocolate brownie with Incan gold (the head chef was from Peru)!
So back to my post. As you know, my most recent travels on the Continent were in Spain, where we were attending a family wedding. Now, I love many things about Spanish food (see here for evidence), but I also can’t deny that part of me that needs more than just meat for sustenance. And the Spanish don’t seem to have a very close relationship with vegetables.
This was part of the reason for my frustration during that week of travelling – everywhere we went, I had to make special requests for veggies. Often, our requests were greeted with looks that combined “Why would you want that…?” with “That’s not the way we do things here” and “I can see you two are going to be trouble…”. But I had to stick to my guns and not be afraid of looking like a weirdo as I persisted against the bureaucracy. It’s quite surprising, really, because I’ve always felt that Spain was the best country in Europe for customer service. (My husband explains the reason for this: “Spanish people, darling. They just start shouting.”)
And so, after a week of having to fight to get my greens, we flew back to London and ended up at our favourite restaurant on our first evening back. As we were seated at our usual table, I got a real craving for some fresh vegetables. You see, I’ve been reading this book on healthy eating (more on that later) that suggests asking for fresh cut vegetables instead of the bread they give you before the meal. The principle behind the eating plan is that your body will get to its ideal playing weight if you don’t get in its way with fake, processed and unhealthy stuff that upsets your body’s chemical/hormonal balance. A part of the programme is to eat lots of fresh veggies, which trains your body to want more (in the way eating lots of sugar sets it up to want more sugar) – hence my craving.
It is surprising how difficult it is to get the simplest thing on Earth that is in any restaurant kitchen. The restaurant’s duty manager looked more and more panicked as I explained that I would like some plain, cut vegetables please. Gamely, he went to the kitchen (in case Gordon Ramsay hasn’t done enough PR for his profession, I should just mention that head chefs and cuddly bunny rabbits have very little in common…). He came back and offered me a carrot soup that was on the menu. I jumped on the offer of carrots and asked if I could have just the carrots cut up. This time when he went back to the kitchen, I suspect he got thrown out.
I thought it just wasn’t going to happen, when he came back with a large oval bowl full of fresh lettuce, carrot batons, cucumber and radish. I was delighted, but he was still looking a bit sober. I realised why when he explained that the vegetables weren’t from his restaurant, but from the Lebanese place nearby.
I was impressed. People living in London often complain that things are slow here, you can’t get what you want, that service isn’t as good as in other parts of the world. However, I thought, where I had heard ‘no, no, no’ all week, I was finally back in a place where you could sometimes hear a ‘yes’. I appreciated how intelligently he had solved the problem, and I thought to myself that London could indeed do it (in Malay, London boleh!).
And just before anyone inclined to that reflex pulls out the Anglo-Saxon card from their Uno pack, I should point out that the duty manager in question was French. When I later explained to him my veggie-deprivation of the past week, he said he understood where I was coming from. In France, he said, in Michelin-starred restaurants of a bygone era, they would serve fresh, cut vegetables before the meal. The vegetables were of such good quality that they could be served on their own. And they would taste excellent. Just imagine the sweetness of those carrots and the fresh perfume of those cucumbers and lettuce leaves.
Incidentally, Cinnamon, there’s another reason you should keep going with the organic delivery!
Friday, September 17
I’ve always thought that was such an odd expression. While the meaning is (to most people who are not me) clearly “if you don’t waste it, you won’t be left wanting in the future”, my imagination has always thought it sounded more like one of two things. The first is “don’t waste it, and don’t want it”. I’m convinced it’s all the fault of that comma…
Anyway, semantic wrinkle in the Universe duly denounced, I move on to today’s topic, which is another wrinkle in the Universe it would be nice to have ironed out. During my recent trip to Spain, it was necessary for us to stay in a few hotels. By the end of the week, I was thoroughly tired of the experience. More on that in the future, but one of the things that started overwhelming me by Day 6 was the amount of food that gets wasted in hotels.
The photo above shows that part of the standard delivered-to-the-room breakfast which we didn’t touch. In addition to all of those rolls and pastries came an abundance of eggs, ham, sausages, sautéed veggies, toast, juice and coffee/tea which we just managed to finish. Is someone seriously expecting anyone (triathlon-types excepted) to eat all of that as well?
I didn’t sneak any photos, but buffet breakfasts on this trip told a similar story. Piles of scrambled eggs, fried eggs, chocolate cakes, fruit tarts, mini-sandwiches, sausages and bacon soaking in grease, enormous quiches, fruit salads and what not assembled and waiting, and most of it getting packed up at close of breakfast and taken away behind the screens to be quietly done away with. I wonder if hotels think you need to see mountains of food at your disposal so that you don’t feel so bad paying them high rent for small spaces.
There is broader issue here. Almost everyone throws away a lot of food at the end of a day – restaurants, bakeries, patisseries, sandwich shops and supermarkets. True, some do give surpluses away to charities, but they are a slim minority. And my question is: why are we producing so much if we can only eat so much?
I’m going to keep an eye out on this issue and find out more, but for the moment, I wonder if small steps wouldn’t help. For example, after taking that photograph, I thought that maybe next time, if I know I’m not going to have the pastries, I should just let room service know and ask them not to bring any. Maybe, just maybe, this could filter through to the kitchen’s purchasing decisions. This strategy will not be without its challenges (try explaining to a chef or waiter in Europe that you want something that’s not on the menu – more on this in a future post), but I’ll give it a shot. Which brings me to my imagination’s second interpretation of the “waste not, want not” mantra: waste not what you don't want.
I’d be glad to hear from our readers if you’ve felt similarly about food wastage in hospitality and catering establishments, or if you have any experiences and tips to share.
Wednesday, September 15
Monday, September 13
Just before my trip to Spain (for a family wedding), I’d promised to tell you about the famous Segovian suckling pig. Well, unfortunately Hubbie fell ill as soon as we reached Madrid, so a trip to Segovia was out of the question. The pigs escaped us once again! Thankfully, Spain isn’t by any means short of other wonders to please the palate.
My favourite has to be the Jamon Iberico de Bellota. This is an entire leg of pork that is cured and then carved by an artisan into thin (but power-packed) slices. Apologies to my wonderful Italian friends, but eat your heart out, Parma! The flavour and texture of the jamon is incredible. The pigs (of the black Iberian variety) are reared free range, and they spend their cushy lives wandering oak forests and feasting on acorns (bellota). According to popular belief, the bellota is what imparts that extraordinary nutty punch to the jamon’s flavour (and the pigs’ easy-going lifestyle is what results in the firm yet yielding texture of the meat). We had plenty of it at the wedding reception, having stationed ourselves on the trade route between the carving table and the marquee full of guests.
Another favourite Spanish classic of mine is paella. There are varieties featuring chicken and rabbit, but I prefer the seafood kind. My father-in-law makes a mean paella, and the first time he treated us to it, he was surprised to learn that South Asian cooking (e.g., Cinnamon’s beloved biriyani) uses saffron as well. Indeed, paella and biriyani seem pretty similar to me – rich rice dishes with meat and the magical saffron. I figure this must be due to the Arab influence in Spain through the Moors and the Arab/Persian influence in South Asia (through, for example, the Mughals). I’m hoping to get a copy of the family paella recipe to share with you, but I didn’t want to hold up the post for it, so you’ll just have to be patient!
What I can share with you though is a recipe for my final favourite; that simple classic, which serves as breakfast, lunch on the go, or a light dinner with salad: the Spanish Tortilla. Having grown up thinking of a tortilla as a round flat bread, the Spanish egg tortilla took me by surprise. Modern versions at boutique hotels feature some sort of deconstructed omelette, but imho you can’t beat the true tortilla – one that looks almost baked like a cake. I asked my husband (whose tortilla recipe this is) what the secret to a good tortilla is – his response: “you have to make sure the potatoes are really happy”. Translated from Spanish into English, I think that means lots of time, attention and good quality olive oil. Que Aproveche!
1. Ingredients: eggs, large onions, potatoes, plenty of olive oil, salt, pepper (and chorizo if you like it)
2. Chop the onions finely. Peel the potatoes and chop roughly into small cubes (not more than about an inch a side).
3. Heat olive oil in a large frying pan, and once hot add onions and potatoes. Cook until the potatoes are reasonably soft and on the verge of browning (but not completely there yet).
4. Whisk eggs and add some salt and pepper. When the onions and potatoes are ready, add the eggs (ensure an even distribution) and turn the gas to a low setting.
5. If you like, add a few slices of chorizo, but make sure it goes into the liquid egg mixture and doesn’t sit on the surface (because chorizo doesn’t taste so good if it cooks on the frying pan surface).
6. Once this side is cooked to your satisfaction, turn it over by sliding it from the frying pan onto a plate and turning the plate over onto the frying pan.
7. When it’s ready, serve it with a nice lemony-dressed salad and good quality baguette. If you have leftovers, you can make Spanish sandwiches with butter and baguettes.