Restaurante Rekondo – San Sebastian, Basque Country

Τετάρτη, 10 Φεβρουαρίου, 2010

This is a restaurant in «my» neighborhood in San Sebastian. It is on the steep narrow road that takes you to Monte Igueldo, where rests with the most spectacular view of the Concha Bay the Monte Igueldo Hotel (my house in San Sebastian).

It offers classical Basque cuisine and has a fantastic wine list, more than 100,000 labels are on offer at prices you think you are dreaming with your eyes open.

The clientele is at this time of the year (February) locals who want to enjoy good local food and excellent wine. In addition to the restaurant, there is a separate area for drinking wine.

Thi sis not a fancy restaurant, but the locals in San Sebastian are a demanding lot. So here we have a delicious amuse, fried vegetables and a cheese croquette.

The first dish is artichokes with fresh duck liver. The hollow area of the cylinder has been filled with a light bearnaise sauce. The liver is just divine, it melts in the mouth, full of discrete sweet flavors and juices. The texture is smooth and it surrenders to the slightest movement of the tongue. The artichokes full of gentle acidity, dressed in the light bitterness of its flesh. The sauce acts as a universal agent of redemption, smooths out the contrasting tastes and united we all go to heaven!

The following dish is an act in extreme discretion, as it is the cheeks (kokotxas in Basque) of hake (merluza in Spanish) lightly cooked in olive oil and parsley. The discretion is required when cooking the sensitive velvety flesh as it may disintegrate and break into pieces. thankfully this did not happen in my plate, the cheeks were perfect, the taste of the sea rushing into the mouth cavity, just as the rough waves down the cliff crush against the rocks. The gelatinous pieces had released their gelatin in the sauce, which was balanced and delicious.

The best way to end this meal was a plateau of cheese from the land.  I will never learn the names, but I believe that the Basque country produces some of the best cheeses in the world.

This is the result of falling half asleep on the morning flight to Athens and then rushing to the hypermarket to get some basics for the weekend. When I stumbled upon the beef kidneys I knew what I was going to cook. It is one of my favorite materials, both in flavor and in texture, but it is hard to find.

The first step is to marinate the kidneys. I use vinegar, sweet wine, chili pepper flakes, coriander seeds, oregano, coarse sea salt and black pepper. I cover with bay leaves and leave it to rest for one hour or so.

A nice cauliflower and some red cabbage lead me to the second step. I slice the cabbage and simmer it in a bit of olive oil in a deep pan. I add the cauliflower cut in small bunches.

I add fresh coriander and parsley, some coarse sea salt and black pepper, cover and let cook without any water, until it becomes very soft. Remember, all this is going to make the puree that will provide the soft and comforting company ot the wild, demanding kidneys and sudjuk. Not an easy task at all!

When the cabbage is soft, put everything in the mixer and prepare a nice thick mix. I add two eggs and a bit of flower to thicken it up, then serve in the shallow container, and bake for 15 minutes in high heat, to let the excess liquid evaporate and condense the flavor.

I take out of the oven and let it rest for 10 minutes.

In the meantime, the kidneys have been sliced and are simmering in the pan with the porcini and some of their marinade.

The last step is to slice and gently fry the sudjuk.

I got this Armenian sudjuk which turned out to be very good.

Be careful not to slice it very thin, as it will go dry very easily.

I serve on a large dish with a green salad on the side.

If you open a bottle of chianti wine you will be very happy with this dish!  Although any red with a good body will do the job! But take my word, do not eat this dish without a full-bodied red wine!

Bone appetite!

Aleppo, Syria: A foodlover’s paradise?

Τρίτη, 2 Φεβρουαρίου, 2010

Aleppo's Souk by Bryan Denton for The New York Times

It is not  often that new chapters open in whatever we do, think, love, dream and desire. I have the feeling that such a chapter has opened for me when I recently heard a story on the city of Aleppo in Northern Syria in the National Public Radio of the US,  by Deborah Amos.  This is what kick started a process of preliminary research on Aleppo and its secret charms. In what follows, I have assembled some of the results.

Maps courtesy of the New York Times, January 2010

Aleppo is a city very near the border of Syria with Turkey, and according to the historians it is on what used to be the silk road. As Gail Simmons writes in her article on the Silk Road, the city’s name «in Arabic its name is Halab, derived from the word for milk as the Prophet Abraham is said to have milked his cow on the Citadel here – it has long been Syria’s prime commercial centre, a major axis on the northerly route of the Silk Road in Syria. Aleppo remained an important metropolis even when, by the 16th century, the opening of new maritime routes between Europe and the Far East saw the eventual decline of the overland Silk Road.»

LIONEL BEEHNER’s article in the New York Times a week ago (24 January 2010) gives an excellent description of the city and its treasures.

Okra with prunes and apricots (from Poopa Dweck's book "The Aromas of Aleppo")

In his article for REUTERS, Khaled Yacoub Oweis presents among others, a young chef who returned to Aleppo after spending some years in France.

A gateway in the old walls of Aleppo - Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Lara Dunston & Terence Carter in their article published in the Jazeera Airlines magazine, present one of the city’s most successful restauranteurs, Dala Touma.  

Bulgur wheat shells filled with ground meat - from Poopa Dweck's book

The Financial Times have published back in November 2009 an article by Mary Taylor Simeti on Syria’s food. I noted the brain fritters in Smeroud and the visit to the kitchens of the Pistache d’Alep, which make and sell one of the best baklava in the world!


Al-Hareer Restaurant serves kibbeh (minced lamb) - Bryan Denton for the New York Times


Practical Stuff

If after all that you are ready to go to Aleppo, do not forget to read Gail Simmons’ very informative and useful article! Gail has a blog which I found extremely interesting and well written!


Deborah Amos concludes her story by saying: «When it comes to opening the economy — and the country — it turns out that food is a better draw than ancient history.» Is she right? I do not know, but I will certainly try to find out how good the food is in Aleppo. Especially now that I have established its proximity to Gaziantep, the SE Turkey capital of baklava.

Meat balls with lentils and potato patty

Σάββατο, 30 Ιανουαρίου, 2010

Today I wanted to eat lentils in a different way, and I decided to marry them with meat balls and a shredded potato patty. This is the story.

I got two nice pieces of beef from the chest. The bones I used to make the broth for the lentils, and the meat for the meat balls.

Grinding the meat yourself is a great pleasure and makes a big difference in the end result, So I assembled my little meat grinder and got to work.

The quality of this ground meat is beyond description! The meat is full of flavor and tender!

In the meantime, the lentils were boiling mildly, in the stock of the bones.

Th lentils are not visible yet, but you get the picture. A note of importance here, the lentils will not be served as a soup, but as stew, which means that the liquid in the lentils will be at a minimum.

In parallel, shred the potatoes and drain them well. Mix with dill, parsley, coriander, egg and a bit of flour, to absord the remaining liquid. Season moderately with salt and pepper, cover and refrigerate for one hour.

The mix for the meatballs is quite simple. Add chopped garlic and hot peppers, mint, bread crumbs, a bit of olive oil, egg, salt and pepper to the meet, mix well cover and refrigerate for at least one hour.

Shape the balls, cover them with flour, and let it stick for about five minutes before frying them .

The potato patties are easy to fry, use medium heat and be patient, they need about 5 minutes, and require to be turned many times.

Serve the lentils in a deep dish, place a potato patty in the middle, and two meatballs on top.

This is a dish of varied flavors and textures. The lentils are soft, melt in the mouth, the meatballs are medium soft to crunchy, and the patty is on the very crunchy end of the spectrum. The meatballs steal the show in the texture, but the lentils and the patty are strong competitors in the flavor zone.

Enjoy it!

Scorpaena Scrofa (Scorpion Fish) with Risotto

Πέμπτη, 28 Ιανουαρίου, 2010

Today’s dish is made with one of the ugliest looking fishes, the Scorpaena Scrofa, the Orange – Red Scorpion Fish. As there is a good side to everything, even ugliness, this fish has very firm white flesh that provides taste and texture. I usually prepare this fish boiled and then prepare a soup. This time I decided to use all the vegetables and the broth to make a risotto and serve the fish on top of it, with a sauce.

The key to success in boiling the fish is the mix of vegetables in the pot.

I usually boil them first, remove them, and then boil the fish in the liquid.

Carots, onions, celery, potatoes, peppers, and one tomato for extra acidity, with black peppercorns and coarse sea salt.

Once the veggies are done, I remove them from the pot and place the fish. I cut it in two parts, as they require different cooking times. The tail end is ready in 15 minutes, the other requires 25 minutes. Once they are done, remove them and give the broth a good boil to reduce.

I slice the veggies in small pieces and place them in the risotto, to give more color and flavor. It works, but of course I leave the potatoes out.

When serving, let the risotto cool down in the hexagonal container before placing the fish on top and removing it.

Once the fish is placed on top, remove the container, and serve the sauce on top of the dish. The sauce is made with the broth, that has been reduced to a very thick liquid, adding a touch a flour, lemon juice and chili pepper flakes.

The sauce is to a large extent what powers the dish to a supreme combination of hot, sour and fully flavored combination of textures.

Open a full-bodied chardonnay and enjoy it!

Imago Restaurant, Rome, Italy

Σάββατο, 23 Ιανουαρίου, 2010

In my last trip to Rome I had the pleasure of dining in one of the best restaurants in town, Imago, on the top floor of Hotel Hassler, with fantastic views of the eternal city.

Hotel Hassler

I quote from Times Travel:

«Grace Kelly honeymooned at this turn-of-the-century palace at the top of the Spanish Steps, and it’s still the hotel of choice for many of today’s celebs and stylish tastemakers in search of old-world elegance (Gwyneth, TomKat, and Victoria Beckham are all regulars). Renowned for its personalized service, the Hassler is a family affair — a place where guest relations are taken very seriously. The 95 stately rooms are a checklist of classic good taste, with elaborate moldings, gilded furniture, French silks, 16th-century antiques, Limoges porcelain, playful frescoes, and marble, marble, marble, plus mod cons like flat-screen TV’s. Imàgo, its modern Italian restaurant, has heart-stopping views of St. Peter’s Basilica and Rome’s terracotta-tiled roofs. And the concierges can accommodate just about any request, including mapping out routes through the Villa Borghese gardens, near the hotel.»

I was staying at a nearby hotel and walked the distance, passing through Via Veneto. It is a beautiful part of Rome, and I highly recommend staying in this area.

The view from inside the Imago rooftop is amazing.To the extent than when I saw it, I started having second thoughts about the food, as one of the golden rules of the restaurant business is that when the view is stunning, the food sucks. Thankfully, I was proven wrong.

View of Rome from Imago

With determination I moved on and got a table. The clients of the restaurant are varied. You have the visitors who come for the views and the ones who come for the food and the elegant atmosphere. In one of the tables there was a family with two kids, with both grandparents, celebrating the birthday of one of the kids. Wonderful «tableau vivant», with the grandmother reminding me of one of the powerful female figures in the black and white Fellini movies.

Lets move to the food now, and the gastronomic menu the chef prepared. The menu overall is structured in three stages. Stage I is the «delicate» one, with two appetizer dishes, both of them seafood based.  Stage II is the «taste explosion» set of two half-portions of first courses. Both are strong in taste and flavor. Stage III is a combination of two half-portions of main dishes.

The first starter was raw fish of the day. I do not recall the name of the fish, but it was quite tender, moist and tasty. The high point of the dish was the combination of the raw fish with pears infused with grappa. Personally I do not understand the foamy bits, in my eyes they are like aesthetic pollution, but lets ignore them, everyone these days seems to put a little foam here and there!

The next dish was an imaginative preparation of scallops, as they they were stuffed with mozzarella and then fried.The chef added a touch of black truffle to the finished dish, which was extremely subtle in taste and texture, a true delight. The dish is extremely delicate, and the frying must be very quick and swift, otherwise the scallop is destroyed.

The continuation was more intense in flavors and powerful, as the chef prepared pheasant ravioli with cauliflower puree and truffle-flavored honey. Full-bodied, intense flavor, and meaty texture were the characteristics of the dish.

The dish that followed was the star of the menu. Capellini pasta with smoked eel. A divine dish, one that I would include in the Italian Gastronomic All – Time Menu, if there was ever one. A magic of textures and flavors emanates from the dish. The chef came by and had a chat with me after the dinner was over, and he more or less agreed that this dish is his masterpiece. It is quite interesting, that of all the dishes in the restaurant of one of the most expensive hotels in the world, the best is one based on the humble eel of the Lazio region and capellini pasta, which you can find everywhere in Italy. The other golden rule of gastronomy, that is to use the materials of the terroir is yet again proven 100% correct! The chef had at his disposal the most expensive materials in some of the dishes. Yet his signature dish is the one that serves humbly the tradition of the Lazio region. To be correct, I belive that the dish is also traditional fare in the central regions of Italy, like Umbria.

The next dish was a fish and shrimp combination, that left me untouched, as it was rather faceless.

The last dish of the menu was excellent! Roast pigeonwith all the game flavor of the world! Nothing beats that! And it was roasted to perfection.

I found the serving of artichokes with the pigeon an excellent idea!

To conclude the excellent dinner, the chef offered a sweet tray, where the pistacchio canolo stole the show!

Chef Francesco Apreda has a bright future ahead of him, all we need to do is follow him as he evolves and grows as a chef. The one Michelin star he has been awarded is fully justified. And there will be more!

Today’s dish is good for the wet windy weather we had in Athens today. It is warm, soft, crunchy, tasty, and nutritious, to mention a few of its attributes! If you do not believe me, the only thing you have to do is try for yourselves!

Rooster is the integrating element of the dish. Get a big one, the bigger the better!

The next building element of the dish is bulgar wheat. We prepare a mix for the filling of the bird, and then we use it also to supplement the dish with the broccoli.

For the mix we need fresh onions, red and green peppers and parsley, salt and pepper.

The third element of the dish is pancetta. Today I did not have cured belly so I used fresh. It does not really matter, as long as it is really fresh.Make sure you take out all the bones. You can mix them with the wheat for extra flavor.

Finally, you need a nice piece of broccoli to provide the vegetable aspect of the dish.

After you stuff the bird, you add the bulgar wheat around it, the pancetta on top of it to provide extra moisture, and the broccoli on top of the wheat all over the baking tray. Sprinkle generously with coarse sea salt and pepper, rosemary and fresh oregano, and you are ready for roasting.

Roasting is the most difficult part of preparing the dish. For the first 20 minutes you need strong heat (250 degrees Celcius). Then you cover with foil the whole tray, reduce the heat to 200 degrees for another 20 minutes. Finally, remove the foil and «grill» for another 10 minutes.

What you see on the photo is that the pancetta pieces have been removed from the bird before the «grill» in order to give some color ot the skin and make it crunchy.

The result was a moist, tasty bird, on top of the bulgar wheat bed which was full of all the flavors, of the bird and the pancetta. The broccoli added a tone of sanity to the dish, while the pancetta was delicious. The fatty bit was crunchy (because of the «Grill») and the meat moist and flavorful.