Chili Eggplant with Lentils, Parsley, and Lemon

19 01 2012

For lovers of eggplant and lentils, I bring you Eggplant and Lentils.

Given that you love these two elements – but of course you do – the remaining finer points of of this weeknight-for-one recipe just serve to highlight how sublime they both can be when coddled into their element. The eggplant is doused in olive oil and blackened, crunchy and delectably burnt crust hoarding creamy veggie bliss within. I simmered the lentils in homemade chicken stock until al dente like I like ’em; I also allowed the pot to dry and the lentils to stick from time to time, infusing them with a similarly darkened flavor palette, plus slightly crispy edges. The freshness of lemon and parsley enthusiastically lift up each of our star players here, the chile sings soft and warm in the background, and the cherry ‘maters are just beautiful. Aren’t they?

Chili Eggplant with Lentils, Parsley, and Lemon

olive oil
2-3 bird chiles OR red pepper flakes OR fresh chiles of your choosing
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 eggplant, diced. Peel it if you hate the skin; I love it.
handful cherry tomatoes, halved
salt n pepper
handful parsley, chopped roughly
~1/2 c lentils, cooked, in homemade stock should you have it on hand
fresh lemon juice

1. Heat chile and garlic in olive oil until fragrant; add diced eggplant and salt/pepper. Sautée until eggplant is golden and blackened on a few sides, as you like, then add tomatoes and heat through. Turn off the heat and mix in chopped parsley.

2. Put the lentils in a bowl and mix with a fat squeeze of lemon juice. Add the eggplant and tomatoes and serve.

Pan con Tomate at El Brillante

15 12 2011
Photo stolen, mercilessly, from

El Brillante is a Madrid institution, famous for its bocadillo de calamares (just ask them). I’m here writing about it never having tried the acclaimed sandwich, nor having been tempted, nor anticipating sampling said squid in any foreseeable future. The gaudy, neon-coated front is just outside Atocha metro station, a stone’s throw from la Reina Sofia, and neighbor to 100 Montaditos. It appears specifically designed to lure in the tourist crowd fresh from out the museum, eager for a Real Madrileño Experience.

All this slagging has a point. Friend Sevi, not nearly as over-the-top jaded as I am with regards to the local/tourist divide, insists several times that’s she’s located the best pan con tomate in the city. She calls it her “dirty old man bar,” in which the misplaced modifier ought to be taken as innocently as possible – less lechery, more stainless steel counters, kept sanitary through the age-old tradition of dropping used napkins directly on the tile floor.

At 11 AM, the scene is chaotic. Newcomers pause in the center clearing, uncertain of their destination, while scores of late breakfasters, folks on their merienda break, and unmistakable Old Spanish Men crowd the bar stools lining the walls. The ceiling is ringed with dated, unappetizing photos of what’s available: gray boquerones in a thin soup of vinagre, traffic-cone orange mussels pursed like wrinkly relatives’ lips, congealing brava sauce blanketing pasty potato chunks.

As soon as the aged crew behind the metal counter notices our entrance, they call out a hearty: “¡Hola, jóvenes!” Untrusting trepidation ever-so-slighty eased, I shuffle up behind Sev to just-freed barside seats. Contrary to characteristic Spanish style, we’re immediately asked what we’re having; the mood is affable but all business. The drinks – I go café con leche in lieu of my usual cortado – are made at the bar, and the chapatas con tomate order is projected vocally across the room to the kitchen, walled in by transparent plastic sheets.

The best part is almost the people-watching. The barmen are a serious spectacle in themselves, high energy just on the verge of hectic, calling out orders and greetings in between trading day-to-day remarks with what seem to be regulars, all while slinging hot coffees and keeping the rapidly moving counter clear. The crowd isn’t all tourists like I was picturing – perhaps about a 50/50 split at this mid-morning hour – and, despite ample opportunity for foreigner confusion, everyone is playing it pretty cool. Families split raciones of the patatas (which, thankfully, bear little resemblance to their unfortunate photo representation) and strollers mingle in the open central area. The ghost of cigarettes past hangs nearly palpable over the mellow regular crowd, who read newspapers and sip caffeine and/or booze (SEE: carajillos).

But the scene isn’t the best part, not to me. Not two minutes of acclimation go by when our breakfast is carted over to the bar, complete with miniature plastic salt shaker and a Trina bottle filled with olive oil. I make a move to unscrew the lid and am practically leapt upon from across the bar – “No no NO, hay ajugeros en la tapa, ¿¿ves?? ¡Si la quitas todo va a salir a la vez!” Somehow missed those ingenious little holes poked in the metal lid, yes. Not that the bread needs any more oil anyway; it’s come already inundated, yellow and toasty, crowned with a healthy smear of garlicky grated tomato.

And yes, this is the best part. The crunch and the yeast and the heat of the bread, air pockets bursting with nutty, earthy olive oil, rounded out by sweet and fragrant tomato essence, concentrated and rich, accented by salt granules and invisible garlic. The bread absorbs the oil’s potentially objectionable slickness and amplifies instead its flavorful depth of character. The textural contrast digs in its hooks and doesn’t let go. I’m normally a very light breakfaster, and these two fat slices simply vanish.

Beginning the day this way FEELS wholly Spanish, regardless of tourist presence, irrespective of arbitrary judgements of authenticity. We’re not in Cataluña, home of the original pa amb tomàquet. We’re not in some hole-in-the-wall that lay simply waiting for discovery. This is El Brillante, shiny like a quartz diamond across the way from internationally famous Atocha train station. And this is me, re-evaluating what it means to live here, how I’m seeing and interacting with Madrid, what kinds of assumptions are worth swallowing along with totally unfounded pride.

Are their famous bocadillos any good? Still couldn’t tell you. They look okay; I would try them if prompted. Hear they’re pricey, though.

Beyond Perfect Tomato Sauce

28 09 2011

Halved and tweaked from Smitten Kitchen

5 or 6 plum tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1 large clove garlic, thinly sliced
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Small handful basil leaves, most left whole, a few slivered for garnish
1/8 cup olive oil
dried spaghetti for one or two, depending on how sauce-laden you like your pasta. Don’t worry, there won’t be any leftover.
1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter

1. Cut a small X in the bottom of each tomato and blanch in a pot of boiling water for approximately 30 seconds. This loosens their skins, which should now slip right off and be discarded. [You can cook your pasta in the hot water later if you like.]

2. Halve each tomato lengthwise and remove the seeds with your fingertips into a small strainer set over a bowl. Discard the seeds, but hang on to the precious, precious juice.

3. Add the tomato flesh and juices plus salt to a large saucepan over medium-high heat, mashing them with a wooden implement to your desired consistency as they soften. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer for 30-ish minutes.

4. While the tomato cooks, combine sliced garlic clove, a few whole basil leaves, the pinch of red pepper flakes, and the olive oil in a small saucepan. Heat over the lowest heat possible to draw out the time it takes to come to a simmer. Once you see bubbles, immediately remove from heat, strain into a small dish, and reserve.

5. At about 20 minutes of simmering, add a healthy dose of salt to your blanching water pot and bring it back to a boil. Toss in the spaghetti and cook just to the point of al dente – should have a slight bite to it. Reserve 1/2 cup pasta water and drain the rest.

6. Your sauce should be the most gorgeous brilliant red by now. Stir in the reserved olive oil and taste, adjusting seasonings if needed. Add the drained spaghetti plus just a touch of the pasta water to the sauce and cook together only for a minute or two. If sauce needs more liquid, add more pasta water.

7. Guild the lily: add in the 1/2 tablespoon of butter and stir. Garnish with slivered basil for a touch of green. Don’t add cheese, this sauce needs nothing. Serve; devour in reverent silence.


21 02 2011

Ladies and ladies, the quinua ship has landed.

Was thinking stir-fry as my veggie sense has been tingling all weekend, but then the magic of parsley and lemon juice won me over. Traditional tabbouleh is made with bulgur, but who wants that when you have Peru’s finest goosefoot seeds lying around?

Quinua, dry, looks like this (p.s. now you all know the secret of how I “measure” cups n’ such). In its natural state, it generates a coating of bitter-tasting saponins, which ought to be removed by commerical processing, but it’s recommended that you rinse the buggers for a minute or so in a mesh strainer. I acquired one today at my favorite Asian mart for just this purpose.

Voila! Quinua, cooked. Just like most rice grains, you’ll want to boil twice the amount of water as quinua, then let it steam for 10-15 minutes or so. It will be exceedingly obvious when it’s done, since the germ inside the shell emerges and makes the whole thing translucent and kind of golden. It will also make your kitchen smell nutty, which continually had me thinking I was burning the beasties. Not so.

While the quinua was steaming, I threw together chopped cherry tomatoes, a carrots, a cucumber, a red bell pepper, lemon juice, olive oil, S&P, and a whole lotta parsley. I also roasted a chicken thigh in the oven, diced it, and threw it in for extra protein. 2/3 cup or so of the completed quinua was then distributed throughout.

The recipe suggests that tabbouleh improves as it sits, but this will require further investigation – no WAY was any of this leftover. Tabbouleh is often served room temp or even cold in restaurants, but this warm lemony version of the crunchy, colorful Lebanese salad was exactly what the doctor ordered for a nutrient-starved February afternoon.

Unquestionably, this is something I will be bringing to potlucks in the near future.


Quinua Tabbouleh
Serves 1
Adapted from

1 1/3 cups water
2/3 cup quinua
4-6 cherry tomatoes, diced
1/2 cucumber, grated
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
1 carrot, grated
3/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 cooked chicken thigh, diced (or breast, or whatever)
olive oil to taste
a big ole squeeze of lemon juice to taste
salt and pepper to taste

1. In a saucepan bring water to a boil. Add quinua and a pinch of salt. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Allow to cool for a few minutes. Fluff with a fork.

2. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine everything else. Stir in cooled quinua. Stick in fridge if you’d like it cold and have more patience than me.

NOTE: although most English sources spell this magic seed “Q-U-I-N-O-A,” I’ve been informed by none other than our very own Aldo (!!!!) that true blue Peruanos go “Q-U-I-N-U-A,” much like it, uh, says on the package I bought. Noted and corrected.

Happy Monday Bouillabaisse

13 12 2010

As I lie in bed this lazy Monday morning, I muse on the excellence of the early day off. Stray thoughts enter and exit my cerebrum without consequence, until one suddenly sticks. I must make bouillabaisse.

I learn the words for fennel (hinojo) and leek (puerro), which Mercadona shockingly keeps in constant stock. Hector mashes together a magnificently garlicky rouille, and the hake purchased from my local fishmonger (Ina Garten, eat your heart out!) is ever-so-gently simmered towards flaky tomato-broth perfection. Today I remove my first-ever mussel beards.

Marta comes home to a piso overflowing with soupe de poisson. We pour the remaining chilled white wine, and together we feast.

Recipe here, although I changed it significantly. A good 2/3 of my broth was white wine, and I added both puréed tomatoes and tomato paste for more punch. A squeeze of lemon juice brightened up the essential seafoodiness, and I didn’t do any straining nor blending of the veggies. It is a seriously forgiving soup. Try it.