The ingredients of Spain: Paprika and Saffron

I love Spain! It could be partly because it’s in my blood with my ancestors originating from the fishing port of Cadiz. And also because I love their attitude to life, family values, beaches, scenery and ever-blue and sunny weather.

Then there’s the food. This trip I’ve packed several Spanish recipe books for my initial inspiration…the rest I get from checking out the fresh ingredients in local markets and supermarkets. There’s so much stuff to choose from dinner takes a lot of decision making.

This week I decided to make a Catalan-style fish stew. Actually a pretty simple recipe that takes a little bit of time but, most crucially, you need the best ingredients. Which is easily achieved when in Spain.

Two of the key ingredients in this amazingly flavoursome and fresh-tasting dish are paprika and saffron, two classic and frequently-used Spanish ingredients. So I thought I tell you what makes them special.

Paprika (or pimenton in Spanish) is made from air dried peppers. The flavours vary by country and in Spain you tend to get three varieties – dulce (mild), agridulce (moderately spice) and picante (very spicy). The peppers are smoked which gives it a wonderfully earthy flavour and the pimenton dulce has a lovely sweetness that adds a unique taste to any dish.

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A mound of the beautifully smoky and vibrant pimenton

Saffron was introduced to Spain by the Arabs and comes from the stigmas of the beautiful purple crocus flower. They bloom at dawn and need to be picked as soon short as possible as the plant withers quickly and the stigmas lose colour and aroma. It’s harvested in autumn between dawn and 10am, and because of its delicate nature, it needs to be done by hand – a seriously back-pain-inducing process. More than 85,000 flowers are needed to produce 1kg of saffron. That’s a serious amount of flowers. No wonder it’s the most expensive spice in the world.

saffron6

The beautiful flowers produce the amazing, delicate stems

Historically, saffron has been used as a dye, in perfumes and as a drug as well as a cooking ingredient. Cleopatra is said to have used it as a seductive essence and in Ancient Greece it was a remedy to sleeplessness and to reduce hangovers as well as being used to perfume baths and as an aphrodisiac.

Most of the world’s saffron comes from Iran and Spain who are generally regarded as having the best quality. And I’m happy to say that it’s sold at my local market in Spain for a bargain price – a tightly sealed box for a snip at €3. You don’t need a lot to flavour dishes, I guess this purchase will last me for about a year’s worth of cooking.

saffron-cultivation

Saffron makes for a beautiful field of purple

So now you know all about these two amazing spices. And here’s a delicious dish to make using them, which shows how well they work together.

As I’m beside the sea, the fish is all wonderfully fresh and again, great value. I used hake, prawns and clams today but you could include any kind of shellfish or white fish (like monkfish or cod).

Catalan-style fish stew

bowl

Juicy prawns, sweet clams and succulent hake in the rich tomato and pepper sauce

Serves 6

A large pinch of saffron threads

6 tbsp olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped finely

1 tbsp dried thyme

4 bay leaves

2 red peppers, cored, deseeded and chopped roughly

1 can chopped tomatoes

1 tsp sweet paprika

250ml fish stock

24 live clams, rinsed in water

18 raw prawns, heads and tails removed

600g hake fillet, skinned and cut into 5cm chunks

Put the saffron threads in a heatproof bowl and pour 4 tbsps boiling water over them. Set aside to infuse while you prepare the rest of the dish.

Heat the oil in a pan over a medium heat. Fry the onion for about 10 mins until golden but not brown. Add the garlic, thyme, bay leaves and red peppers and fry for about 10 mins until the peppers are soft.

Add the tomatoes and paprika and simmer for another 5 mins, stirring.

Add the fish stock and saffron water and bring to the boil, stirring. Reduce to a simmer for 10-15 mins until the sauce reduces and thickens.

Add the hake gently and spoon the sauce over it – don’t stir it in or it will break up too much. Put in the prawns and clams, making sure they are gently mixed into the liquid. Reduce the heat to very low, put a lid on the pan and simmer very gently for about 10 mins until the hake is cooked through, the prawns turn pink and the clams open. Discard any clams that don’t.

Serve immediately with plenty of crusty bread to mop up the juices.

pot

The stew in the pot just after the fish is added

Recipe: Prawn, pasta and pineapple salad

I hate throwing food away, my leftovers always go back into the fridge. All very good except for the fact that a lot of the time they end up in the bin a few days later. Not anymore…it’s time for me to get creative and think of ways to use those leftovers in delicious dishes. I’m pretty impressed with my first effort.

When we have pasta I always seem to cook too much, hate the idea of there being not enough, I guess, so I had a generous portion of cooked penne in the fridge. I’m in Cape Town at the moment and the weather was sweltering, so I came up with this lovely salad recipe.

The secret with the seafood-style sauce is to make it using twice as much mayo as ketchup. Although, of course, if you prefer different predominant flavours it’s easy to experiment until you’ve got your ideal ratio.

Serves 2

prawns2

A tasty salad for a hot summer’s night

For the sauce (per portion – so double for this recipe for two)

4 tbsps mayonnaise

2 tbsps ketchup

A squeeze of lemon juice

A dash of Worcestershire sauce

For the salad

150g cold cooked penne

250g medium sized prawns, cooked and peeled

3 slices of pineapple, peeled and cut into small pieces

1 handful of chopped fresh mint leaves

Half a small iceberg lettuce, chopped

1 tomato, quartered

6 slices of cucumber

Mix all the ingredients together for the sauce.

Add the prawns, pasta, pineapple and mint and mix together thoroughly

Serve in a bowl with the lettuce on one side and the prawn salad on the other, tomato and cucumber arranged around.

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The pasta salad all mixed and ready to serve

Do you have favourite recipes using leftovers? Get in touch and let me know, I’m always looking for new dishes to try.

Recipes and ideas for summer barbecues: Part three

Heatwave – it’s one of my favourite words! Possibly because I spend most of my time in London where you can never be certain of a decent summer. And a heatwave generally doesn’t mean death and destruction as it can do in hotter parts of the world. English heatwaves are gentler, though you wouldn’t necessarily think so if you’d heard the somewhat alarming warnings on the radio this morning. It’s only likely to reach 30C!

Anyway, when the sun does come out, I immediately gravitate towards my garden. I love eating al fresco and lighting the barbecue, of course.

Despite my strong, carniverous, Southern African genes, I don’t believe barbecues are entirely about slabs of meat. I treat my barbecue as an outdoor oven, I can create anything I want out there in the sunshine. So today I’m cooking up some deliciously sweet seafood kebabs.

This simple, summery dish is wrapped in foil so it can steam in the juices and flavours of the marinade. It’s quick and easy and makes a lovely light dinner. I served it with a jacket potato, one of my favourite comfort foods.

Scallop and prawn skewers in ginger and lemongrass

Serves 2 (makes 4 skewers)

fish kebabs

12 medium to large prawns, heads removed, peeled and deveined

12 small scallops

1 yellow pepper, deseeded and chopped into chunks

1 small packet of asparagus tips

For the marinade

Juice of two lemons

2 tbsps chopped ginger

4 sticks of lemongrass, sliced

Half a cup of olive oil

A good grind of black pepper

Mix all the marinade ingredients together in a bowl and add the prawns, scallops, asparagus and pepper. Leave to marinate for 1-2 hours.

In the meantime soak the wooden skewers in cold water so they don’t burn when you cook.

Thread the ingredients onto the skewers, alternating with different ones until you have used everything up.

Tear four squares of tinfoil and lay each skewer on one. Divide the marinade between the four skewers, pouring it over.

Wrap the foil loosely around the skewers so none of the juices can escape.

Place on the barbecue on a medium heat and cook for about 15 minutes.

Unwrap carefully and serve.

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Colourful skewers ready to be wrapped and barbecued

My top tips

You can buy prawns already peeled, deheaded and deveined which will cut down significantly on the preparation time. Preparing prawns is not my favourite pastime!

Try different vegetables, eg red peppers, spring onions or even fruit like pineapple or mango.

You could add a chunky white fish for a more substantial skewer, like monkfish.

I like the smaller Patagonian roeless scallops which have a lovely sweetness to them, and are perfectly bite-sized.

For a delicious jacket potato, rub your potato thoroughly with olive oil and season well with salt and pepper before wrapping in foil and baking in the oven for at least 45 minutes.

The sun is out...time to barbecue in the garden

The sun is out…time to barbecue in the garden

Looking for a new barbecue? Birstall have a good range to choose from, visit http://www.birstall.co.uk/ to find one that’s perfect for you.

Fabulous pasta in the sunshine at Il Leone

I hadn’t been to Il Leone for years and now it’s practically a local with the new MyCiti bus service. As a constant user of public transport in London, I am thrilled that I can now catch the bus in Cape Town. So, armed with my pass, I had a quick bus hop, followed by a short walk and there I was to meet my friend Candy for lunch.

She visits fairly regularly and had bagged a table on the patio under an umbrella on what was a scorching Cape Town day. Refreshment was vital and she’d ordered a bottle of Babylonstoren rose, chilled water and a helping of ice on the side to get us started. Thanks to Candy for the scene setting picture.

A crisp glass of rose awaited me

A crisp glass of rose awaited me

Il Leone serves up a wide range of classic Italian dishes including starters like carpaccio and bruschetta, plenty of  fish and meat dishes and wonderful pasta options. One of today’s starter specials was a salad with marinated artichokes (one of my favourite delicacies), avo, tomatoes, leaves and a wonderfully light and tasty dressing. Simply the perfect summer starter.

artichokes

We tucked into the freshest of salads with a wonderfully light dressing

You know how some days you just feel like a particular dish? Well, as is my usual practice, I’d perused the menu online (helps limit my constant mind changing and prevaricating) and I had carbonara on the brain…and linguine. You can mix and match any sauce on the menu with the type of pasta you fancy, so there you go, my decision was simple.

carbonara

Creaminess and saltiness combine to produce a delectable carbonara

A perfect carbonara is hard to beat with its beautiful creaminess topped with crispy, slightly salty bacon. It was heavenly.

Candy’s favourite dish on the menu is the gamberetti  – baby praws served in a olive oil, fresh tomato, cream, garlic and chilli sauce. An amazing combo of sweet, fresh tomato sauce with a nice chilli bite and plump, juicy prawns.

prawn pasta

A delightful tomato sauce was both sweet and spicy and came with juicy prawns

Classic dishes made with lovely pasta and fresh ingredients. And all a short bus ride from home. Cape Town, you get better and better.

Il Leone is at 22 Cobern Street on the corner of Prestwick Street in Green Point.

Summer salad with prawns, peas, broad beans and Dijon dressing

The heat is on! When it turns up (which hasn’t been often in the 28 years I’ve lived here), summertime in London is truly spectacular. It’s really like living in a different country full of happy people desperately soaking up the sun. Our local park is always packed with picnickers, sunbathers and dog walkers all loving every moment of it.

This year it has been the hottest for seven years. Sounds very hot, but really it just hasn’t been very hot for seven years! Temperatures of 29/30C are pretty high for London though, especially if you are on the tube which can be highly unpleasant. And sleeping at night can be tricky…our houses aren’t really built for tropical weather and the thought of investing in air conditioning for those few weeks every decade you’d need it is simply ludicrous. Not that I’m moaning, I’m always happier in hot weather.

I also find I feel less like eating when it’s hot, especially heavier food. Easy solution there, time to come up with some great new salads to enjoy. This one is a mix of a lot of green ingredients topped with plump, fresh prawns. It’s wonderfully light and zesty and looks beautiful, too. Give it a try and let me know what you think.

The perfect summer fare that's beautifully green and pink

The perfect summer fare that’s beautifully green and pink

Serves 2

2 little gem lettuces, quartered

150g peas, steamed and cooled

150g broad beans, peeled, podded, steamed and cooled

Small bag of pea shoots

4 spring onions

2 handfuls of fresh mint leaves, pulled off the stem

1 tbsp fresh tarragon leaves, pulled off the stem

150g peeled, cooked prawns

For the dressing

3 tbsps olive oil

2 tbsps white wine vinegar

1 heaped tsp Dijon mustard

Once you’ve cooked and cooled the peas and broad beans, simply combine all the salad ingredients. Top with the prawns, pour over the dressing, toss and serve. Summer on a plate!

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A tasty plate of food for the hottest of days

My top tips

I bought ready peeled, ready cooked prawns from the supermarket. Saves time and effort!

You could substitute different ingredients – just think green. Different types of lettuce, rocket, watercress, asparagus, green peppers would all go wonderfully. Plus you could think of adding fruit -– pineapple and prawns go together beautifully, for example.

A surprise new discovery at Maribel

For someone with an elephant memory when it comes to food and restaurants, our visit to Maribel surprised me. I thought I’d been there before but as soon as we pulled into the car park I realised, horror of horrors, I’d never stepped foot in it! So time to try somewhere new.

The restaurant is on the La Manga estate on the way to the West Course (golf course) and is pretty large with views across to the shining Mar Menor.

A quick glass of Cava at the bar and it was time to order. When we sat down sliced, freshly made tortilla was presented to us…one of my favourite and simplest dishes and absolutely delicious.

Wonderful tortilla arrived as we sat down

Wonderful tortilla arrived as we sat down

I spotted the jamon leg sitting on its stand on the counter as soon as I walk in. I often talk about how I’m going to carry one of these home (complete with stand) one day…until I tried to lift one, that is. This jamon is just fabulous, so when I saw it on the menu I had to ask: “The jamon, is it that jamon?” – pointing to the counter. When the response was yes, my decision was made.

I got to watch the waiter cutter my delicious thin slivers and scoffed a whole plateful of this flavoursome, melt-in-the-mouth delicacy.

Ooh...carving my jamon

Ooh…carving my jamon

And here it is on the plate

And here it is on the plate

Other starters were equally well received, like a traditional scrambled egg and prawn dish, fantastic garlic prawns and a plate of smoked salmon with all the trimmings.

A traditional Spanish eggy dish

A traditional Spanish eggy dish

Jambas al ajillo

Jambas al ajillo

Smoked salmon with plenty of goodies

Smoked salmon with plenty of goodies

We all ordered fish for our mains and were in for a treat. Maribel is something of a restaurant for ceremony and tradition and the fish was all prepared on a trolley that was wheeled up in front of us. The traditional sea bass cooked in salt was cracked open and filleted and my grilled sole expertly deboned. It was sweet and perfectly cooked.

Lubina

The sea bass arrives – a delicious treasure covered in salt

Beautiful grilled, filleted sole

Beautiful grilled, filleted sole

And then we had to have pudding – recommended by Dave’s daughter (we were dining with Dave and Val), we ordered the crepes. Out came another trolley with a built in hot plate (how I’d love one of those to whip out when necessary) and our waiter proceeded to put together the delectable concoction in front of us! Let’s just say we kept our waiter busy with all the various dishes he had to prepare and cook for us.

Another course, another trolley!

Another course, another trolley!

Orangey, buttery crepes

Orangey, buttery crepes

Maribel is a really fun place with lovely food that is really exceptional value. I’m actually quite horrified that in all the years I’ve been going to La Manga I’ve never eaten there! Well I’m certainly going to remedy that in future, it’s a regular on our dining out list now. My dinner there even inspired me to do my first review on Trip Advisor!