Monday, September 12, 2011

Reflections on a Silent Month: Alentejo Cake and Other Iberian Recipes

While the mainstream is discovering the multitudinous health benefits of chocolate (cheered on by the new International Society of Chocolate and Cocoa in Medicine), I’m pulling myself away from the headache-causing tannins and the stimulant effects of theobromine. I find myself drawn instead to earnest sweetness of summer figs. During my one month at the Obras residency in the Alentejo region of Portugal, hot and golden-hued in the summer, I bought several kilos of figs a week and ate them without remorse. I also bought many of the other miraculously simple ingredients from the local market in the marble-covered town of Estremoz and came up with a set of wholesome recipes that I contributed to our calm if festive shared dinners at the residency. And when it was my turn to make dessert, I found that chocolate and figs go together very nicely.

Bread Salad
Adapted from an idea my neighbor Anneke Muijlwijk at Obras gave me
Roughly chop a couple of slices of stale Portuguese bread and fry the pieces in olive oil and salt (and pepper, if you haven’t run out) over medium heat until their browned appearance suggests that they’ll be just a bit crunchy. Set them aside for a couple of minutes while you roughly chop half a peeled cucumber, two plum tomatoes, and a handful of big fresh parsley leaves. Press the pits out of a dozen or so green olives and chop them each in two or three pieces. Mix everything together. There’s no need to blot the oil from the croutons since it will dress the salad. Crumble some soft goat cheese or farmers cheese on top.
Serves one, in the middle of the workday.

The Bomb Sandwich
Adapted from a recipe in last month's issue of Bon Apetit, with a name suggested on two different occasions by two different people I met this summer, one Belgian and one Portuguese
Buy one package each of Queijo Flamengo and Jamon Iberico. Have handy a loaf of Portuguese bread, not sliced too thickly. In one layer, place a slice or two of cheese on one piece of bread. Top with a slice or two of ham, also in one layer. Top with another piece of bread. Melt a healthy dollop of butter in a frying pan over medium heat. Smear the outside of both pieces of bread with mayonnaise. Grill the sandwich until the mayo and butter together form a delicious crust and the cheese is thoroughly melted.
Multiply by the number of people eating.

Stone Soup
Adapted from the children's story of the same name, familiar on both sides of the Atlantic. In the fable, the entire population of a village claimed to be without food but when someone began to prepare a pot of soup with only a stone as its base, other ingredients materialized from houses far and wide. In this variation, I put a bit of myself into the soup, adding bits and pieces generously bequeathed to me by fellow artists leaving the residency and returning home for the summer.
Bruise and thin thinly slice five or more big cloves of garlic. Roughly chop half a head of cabbage by slicing it into wedges and then slicing each wedge with the knife perpendicular to the long edge. Open a can of whole plum tomatoes, quarter them, and save the juice. Fry the garlic in a large pot over low to medium heat with a big handful of just-snipped rosemary, thyme, and bay leaves. (At this stage, you could add a hefty portion of the thick rind of a brick-sized piece of prosciutto--or, in Portugal, presunto--that you bought at the market earlier in the summer for two Euro; this step is unnecessary, but it adds a richness of flavor as well as a general feeling of richness in knowing that, on a surface level, the essentially negative amount you paid for this prized meat makes up for the many more Euro you managed to spend just by being impulsive and disorganized, and in knowing that, on a deeper level, living in a place like this where time and good company and the meat of acorn-fed pigs in abundantly available is a long-term antidote to those kinds of irksome rumination over one's actions.) When the garlic begins to brown, add the cabbage and cook just until the garlic seems to going too far. Add the tomatoes and the juice, fill the pot with water, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let the soup simmer for half an hour or longer. Then bring it back to a boil, add a cup or more of small pasta (little alphabet shapes are good if you are a writer), and remove from heat.
Serves as many as come for dinner.

Alentejo Cake
Adapted from the "Cornmeal and Fig Cake" on Epicurious
Preheat oven to 375F and butter an 8- or 9-inch square cake pan. Take about a dozen figs and halve each one from the stem down to the base and then cut each half into four pieces by slicing in one direction and then slicing again at a right angle (so each fig is divided into eighths). Place the cut-up figs in a bowl with 3/4 cup of pine nuts, and anywhere from 3 to 6 ounces of chocolate pieces (or one to two chocolate bars, roughly chopped). Whisk together the yolks of three big Alentejo eggs with 2/3 cup sugar. Bring three cups of milk to a simmer in a medium to large pot. Whisking, add the hot milk to the egg mixture. Return the milk with the egg and sugar to the pot and whisk over medium to low heat while gradually adding just under a cup of polenta. Continue whisking until the mixture begins to bubble and pull away from the edges of the pan. Remove the pot from the heat and add the figs, pine nuts, and chocolate. Whisk until the chocolate is melted and everything is combined. Pour the polenta batter into the prepared pan and bake for forty-minutes or until a knife come out of the center clean. Cool, remove from pan, serve with great pleasure.

Obras directors Luna, Carolien, and Ludger


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