A TALE OF TWO BUFFETS

Guarding the Buffet

photo by specialkrb

We’re in luck – Simpson seems to be on a roll

pINCHEN AND (oh, i’ve dome it again haven’t i? will i never learn) i have many obsessions, but perhaps none that stretch as far back as one of us saying unto the other “and i bet that’s never been said before”.
 
So when i put my fork down on my second “Buffet Lliure” of the weekend and mentioned to “Her Indoors” (though at the time we were obviously out and about) that i had better write about our gastronomic adventures of this weekend, and the phrase “A Tale of Two Buffets” leapt into my mind, there was obviously no way back and it had to be done.
 
Sometimes a title is just so good (incidentally, did you know that unless you write on your own blog or are Rupert Murdoch and own your own swathe of publications, you will never, ever get to put your own title on your own piece of writing? Even if it’s a damn good one, because the person who receives your piece will either think it’s rubbish or will think you’re a smartarse and will want to establish oneupmanship over you for being so) that you then have to go away and write about the bloody thing. (Wow i’ve just realized that the bracket was far, far longer than the sentence itself).
 
It seems a bit daft to write about buffets; but then thinking about it, there is really so much that you can say about them. In a sense, there’s more that you can say about them than a straightforward meal.
 
i mean, it obviously is not a “review” in the strict sense of the word, and clearly nobody (in their right mind) is going to go to the buffet (at least not the ones i’m going to be talking about, but if anyone knows of a great one, please, please, please let me know so that i can get what i want) just because it is mentioned on the internet.
 

glutton (!) for punishment

The obvious difference between a set-course meal in a restaurant and a buffet is that you can – if you want and are a glutton (!) for punishment – get to try most of what they lay on. Unless of course you are reviewing a) a friend’s place and you are well catered for; b) you are a well-known gourmand and the owner is all out to impress you; c) at a place like El Bullí where there are 35 courses or something.
 
i actually think that there is a place in the culinary world for buffets, particularly at lunchtime (you’re generally hungrier than at night and the tendency is to eat lighter at night, plus, and here is the killer-point: you’re more likely to be in a hurry and will have more things to do than when night approaches and you can relax).
 
Look, i know that the brackets are getting annoying but i happen to think that my supplementary material is pretty damn on-the-money aujourd’hui, so indulge me please fellow buffet-eaters of the world (all seven of you).
 
If you’ve got offspring in tow, have had a lot of exercise and are flagging, are in a hurry, are extremely ravenous (or what about all four?) have no time to go home and cook and all previous four reasons are applicable, or don’t like sitting on your own in an eaterie feeling self-conscious, then the lure of the tray, one-off down payment, and collect your glass and cutlery on the way, is for you.
 
One in a weekend may be fortunate or careless, depending which way the breadroll crumbles, but two? Yet that was the position we found ourselves in this last saturday and sunday. The reasons for this culinary oversight are irrelevant, the detail however, is very much worth a closer look.

Why should the fare at a buffet be so much worse than in a restaurant? The people doing the actual cooking would i imagine be earning more-or-less the same, i suppose the lack of a “proper” chef at the helm might be something to do with it.

 Maybe it’s just the presentation? Perhaps if you put smaller portions from the large buffet trays onto plates along with sprigs of parsley or a little rocket salad your taste buds would be fooled by your visual dept?After all, they say that presentation is the key to a great dish. Personally, i’ve never been swayed by that particular cliché as many of the beautiful people i’ve met have been dull-as-ditchwater and some of the teams i’ve heard play magnificent stuff have been played off the park by a gang of bruisers; so i tend to reserve judgement until the grub hits my gullet.

First the good news, both places had gazpacho as a starter. You may scoff, but i like it all year round and would someone please explain to me why gazpacho made in military quantities would be any worse than in a charming bistro? The good news continues because both were more than acceptable and superior to a number of gazpachos i’ve had over the years in smaller establishments.

 Saturday’s place (8.95 per head & 4.50 for children) put the gazpacho in those tumblers that Basque wines are served in, and amazingly only filled it a half or a third full………. where’s the logic? i had to have three of them to feel well on the road to my five-a-day of fruit & veg.

i normally eschew the ubiquitous salad buffets on the grounds of a) boredom; b) even i could do that at home if i could be bothered c) other people sneezing. To round off my buffet extravaganza i finished on a mélange of couscous with diced things and a bluecheese salad whose cheese didn’t look blue but whose tomato was moist with something (nice i mean, probably a vinaigrette). But i had been hopelessly misguided by my final-flourish.

My savoury misguidance was saved by a fresh fruitsalad (kiwi + apple in orange juice) – called a macedonia here – and unbelievably a homemade yoghurt, mixing fruitsalad with yoghurt or natillas (a spanish custard but consumed solo here) can outsmart many a homemade cake or desert here which is heavy on appearance, and synthetic cream and sugar and flour, and has no redeeming features whatsoever, i’ve found some quite classy places getting it hopelessly wrong on cakes, puddings and reposteria in general.

Her indoors got a chocolate pudding/ brownie type thing which at one point was warm out of th’oven, was declared delicious and she proceeded to eat five (they were in small squares and she claimed that only half were for her).

In between there was a fideua (not dry) – a paella-type dish of short noodles instead of rice – meatballs with squid in sauce (meat routed crustacean by about 8 to 1 in a one-sided encounter where i would have liked to see a draw), a potato and courgette omelette (i can never be bothered to do filled omelettes at home) and grilled vegetables along with a few fried slices of aubergine.

I also had chips. Now here’s the thing, if you haven’t had chips for a while, doesn’t there come a moment when you just fancy some. And go on, admit it, you often end up disappointed don’t you (is there anything more dismal than a cold chip?)? Well, in a buffet, you can wait until a freshly-fried batch hits the container and take as many as you want. i waited, i saw and i conquered.

The next day…

Which is more than can be said for my next day’s buffet (sunday). In the Olympic Port, ergo, primed for tourists, we were “up for pollo a l’ast” – the catalan barbequed chicken – and this place said on the gaudy publicity stuck on the window that they did it.

What a disaster! Suffice to say that it should be renamed a “self-service” as upon paying “punter” were given a main course ticket and “one pudding only” ticket (so you couldn’t mix the tinned fruit-salad with anything else). The only thing that you were free to do was reject some of the fare on offer.

The only saving-grace was the fish soup (there was even a whole mussel in it), a full bowl of gazpacho, and a strong garlic flavour in the “patata graten” – the Spanish Dauphinoise which is butter free but smothered in their ubiquitous, insipid bechamel sauce. One chicken dish, one fish dish and a paella (which had been out for an eternity while the fresh one remained on the serving-hatch, doubtless to bring it down to the required cold temperature).

There were signs all over the place – helpfully in a variety of languages – that your pudding-rights would not be exchanged for coffee-rights. Yeah! That’s really a deal-breaker right there. It was, as someone once pointed out to me with reference to the catering-areas of large institutions: Get in, get fed, get out!

 The price was 11.95 – how much we wondered would it be midweek? We asked the illegal economic migrant who cleared our table, he had no idea but came back shortly and told us that it was three euros more monday-saturday. We were surprised, so on leaving asked the female presumably illegal economic migrant how much it was during the week, the same price we were told. 

 We didn’t know who to believe, and to be honest we didn’t really care. This was one buffet too far, and free or not, we would never be back.

 

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Lentejas

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Lentejas is one of those classic Spanish dishes that really has no translation (literally lentils) – it just is. A staple of the good old menu del día, usually to be found steaming onto restaurant tables on Mondays, lentejas should not be confused with ensalada de lentejas, or lentejas con… – no, lentejas is simply lentejas.

At its most basic this dish is just the pulse cooked in a pot with garlic, maybe a bit of bacon, ham and/or chorizo, and a bay leaf or two. No two cooks do it the same and my recipe is an adaptation of the magnificent lentils served up in the Bar Fayon here in my village in Huesca. The señora in the Fayon basically gets the lentils cooking, makes a sofrito and then adds the two together after pushing the sofrito through what in Spain is called a chino (see photo below). This is great because it means that you can use ingredients that your kids probably wouldn’t eat if they could see them.

Ingredients

250g lentils (pardina)
Half a head of garlic (or less or more to taste)
Half a leek
A couple of carrots
Tomatoes (a large tin if you don’t have fresh)
Small green or red pepper
A chorizo
Wine
Cumin
Paprika
Bay leaf
Parsley
Salt & black pepper

Rinse and check lentils for stones then cover with plenty of water. Throw in the bay leaf and bring almost to the boil. Cover and simmer. Get the sofrito on the go – heat some oil in a heavy bottomed pan and slowly brown the chorizo and sweat the garlic.

Roughly chop the rest of the vegetables into small pieces and add them, the ones with longest cooking times first.

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If using chorizo, try to get the juices really flowing, turning the colour of the oil. When the vegetables have softened, turn the heat up add the white wine and let reduce. Then add the tomatoes, reduce heat and simmer.

When the carrots can be mashed with a fork, remove the chorizo and pass the sofrito through the chino strainer, or blend it and add to the lentils which should be cooked. Add the cumin, paprika, parsley, salt and pepper. Simmer for around 10 minutes. In Spain everybody likes lentils in their own way with more or less liquid. If you have too much, turn the heat up and let it evaporate. Serve the lentils in a bowl and top with slices of the chorizo. For a vegetarian/vegan version just leave out the spicy sausage

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Eat the Bikini

This post was inspired by Ben at Notes from Spain who wrote about what he calls “the humble sandwich mixto” – check it out here

In Catalunya this staple of bar-hoppers and niños is known as a Bikini – apparently named after the legendary Barcelona club of the same name, as this was the sandwich of choice of punters filling the bars around the club. Ana happens to make a mean Bik, so we decided to share her recipe.

Remember that this is a cheap bar snack and therefore best made of processed crap that normally wouldn’t get a look-in here, but it just can’t be done any other way (I admit that while I can take the plastic cheese, I do need some real ham, however).

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(sorry about the quality of the photos but it’s the best we could do with a hungry 5 year old desperate for his favourite snack)

Ingredients

Sliced white bread (generically known as pan Bimbo)
Margarine
Processed cheese slices
Ham (jamon dulce or york not serrano)

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Start assembling the Bikini – top a slice of bread with the ham and then the cheese & cover with another slice of bread.

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Spread margarine over the top, and then place margarine side down in a hot frying pan or skillet.

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Press down with a spatula, then carefully spread margarine over the top (mind you don’t burn your fingers), cooking over a medium flame.
Lift the sandwich up and inspect the bottom – if it is done to your satisfaction, flip it over and get the margarine side down in the pan.
Press down with the spatula again.

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When cooked to perfection, wash the Bikini down with favourite brew (or Estrella if you don’t have your favourite brew to hand). If you leave out the ham, this could be a great vegetarian snack too.

Thanks again for the inspiration Ben!

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calçot sauce recipe

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Calçots are a member of the onion family, typically grown around the town of Valls in Catalunya, At this time of the year the calçotada is a typical event in which family and friends get together to celebrate this glorious vegetable. Around 25 calçots per person are slowly grilled on a barbecue; when they are soft, the outer charred layers are peeled off and the white part is dipped in a romesco sauce and then bitten off the green part and eaten. A calçotada is a messy business and the participants usually wear bibs and traditionally swill wine from the typical Catalan drinking vessel, the porró.

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As you can see, calçots are usually cooked on a barbecue/grill. First clean off the outer layers and then grill them slowly to let all of that sweet taste flow.

You need to get on with your sauce before lighting up the fire and then let it sit. This recipe is by Carme Vidal who was born and brought up in Valls and it’s the best one I’ve ever tried. Remember that the quantities are for a large group and adjust them accordingly.

Ingredients:


1 mature tomato per person.
100 grams of toasted almonds for each 3 people
1 entire bulb of garlic for each 2 people.
1 “nyora”(type of dried pepper) for each 2 people.
1 litre of olive oil for each 10 people.
A little parsley, vinegar, salt, a small chili (optional)

Blacken the tomatoes and garlic over the flames (not embers), make sure that the flame isn’t too “live” as they need to be cooked.
Scald the “nyoras”in boiling water .
Crush or blend the almonds with the parsley and the chili (if you want a spicy sauce). Then mix in the peeled tomatoes and garlic and the pulp of the nyoras (discarding the seeds). The sauce is made by slowly stirring in the olive oil. Add salt and vinegar to taste.

If you can’t find nyoras, Janet Mendel, in her book “Cooking in Spain”, suggests substituting them with paprika . This sauce is fantastic with any type of grilled vegetables, meat, poultry or fish. It is an important part of the Xato salad.

When the calçots are ready, peel off the charred outer layers and dip into the sauce and eat. Slurping and stains are expected. The calçotada is such an important tradition in Catalunya that most of the political parties were obliged to partake as part of their general election campaigns last weekend, with the socialist party even sporting campaign bibs…

salsa from Valls

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Sopa de caldo

Sopa de caldo, apart from the benefits that its ingredients can bring, is comfort food in Spain. Kids, older people and the toothless can all enjoy it and even if it’s not on the menu most restaurants can give you a plate as it is the stock for many other dishes. It’s also very easy to make.Basically sopa is stock. I like to make a large quantity on a Saturday morning and use it over the weekend both as sopa and to make other dishes: Thai noodle soups, meat dishes or whatever. If you are a vegetarian or vegan you can do just the same but just leave out the meat.

So I go to the butcher’s and get a ham bone, chicken carcass and maybe an off-cut of knuckle or whatever. Then I put these things into a big a big sauce-pan with some vegetables – the typical ones here are potatoes, carrots, leeks, parsnip, celery, runner beans and turnips. Plus onion and garlic of course. At this time of the year you can add yams, pumpkin or any other seasonal veg you like. I usually throw in a couple of bay leaves and a handful of parsley stalks and some black pepper. I don’t add salt as there’s plenty from the bones. Then I cook it in the pressure cooker, but you can leave it in a normal pan and cook it over a low heat a good while.When it’s ready you can take off the liquid and use it as stock or sopa.

As this was usually made with low quality ingredients, normally in Spain the rest is discarded except at Christmas or if you are making cocido. To make sopa from this caldo (broth) you heat it up and add some very small pasta. If it’s not available in your part of the world just break up fine spaghetti and throw it into the boiling stock. Reduce the heat slightly so that the liquid doesn’t evaporate. The ratio of pasta to liquid is very personal as some like their sopa thick and others more watery. When the pasta is cooked the sopa is ready to serve.

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