Tarta de aguacate: avocado cheesecake

Tarta de aguacate
We had this “house special” dessert in a restaurant on Spain’s Costa Tropical, famed for its avocado orchards, and enjoyed it so much that I decided to try and reproduce it at home. First I googled in Spanish and found quite a few recipes that would clearly have similar results. I ended up using them to provide the basic idea for the ingredients, and determining quantities and method for myself. I had thought it would need gelatine, and believed there was some in the restaurant version, but decided to try first without. And funnily enough it worked just fine, and set well after a few hours in the fridge. Just as well, as I next served it to vegetarians. It has a lovely fresh lime flavour and a pretty pale green colour, so it’s well suited to entertaining guests. You could serve it with a scoop of sorbet or ice cream on the side, but it’s fine without. One recipe showed it garnished with strawberries, which could be nice too.

It’s a really good way of using avocados that are so ripe as not to be suitable for salad; they need to be soft enough to be easily mashed. Very quick to make, no cooking required, but it does need time to chill. Also note that it won’t go brown as avocados do when exposed to the air, because of the lime juice.
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Ensalada tropical

ensalada tropical

This is a ubiquitous dish in the beach bars of Spain’s Costa Tropical, using locally grown exotic fruits. It’s a lovely refreshing starter which can also be quite substantial, while providing a large contribution to your five a day. We usually share one between two of us before a platter of grilled fish.

I will confess to not being a fan of conventional fruit salad: a variety of soggy fruits swimming in sickly sweet liquid does not float my boat. Bananas are especially loathsome in this context. But ensalada tropical is completely different: the dressing adds a welcome acidity that complements the fruit beautifully.

The recipe allows for considerable variation. The essentials are crisp lettuce, some kind of citrus, and something crunchy (although apple is not tropical, I think a few slices add the necessary texture). You won’t go far wrong by including mango, avocado and pineapple, in fact I think it’s incomplete without at least two of these. Melon in some form is good, and a few slices of kiwi fruit are attractive. We added persimmon to our last one, and that worked well too. I think passion fruit would be a lovely addition. Other than that, use what you like and is available (although I have to say I have never seen one featuring bananas, thank goodness).

We also toss in some of the handy fruit and seed mix sold as “salad mixture” in Spanish supermarkets (I always stock up on it when there). This usually features raisins, chopped walnuts, sunflower seeds, and maybe some chopped roasted hazelnuts.

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Spanish chicken casserole

This is a Lucy Bee recipe from a magazine. Described as “traditional Spanish”, it features coconut oil. But I guess that’s because it’s from a book called Coconut Oil: Recipes for Real Life. So naturally we substituted more authentic olive oil. Effort versus results score: excellent. It was really delicious, and a great one-pot meal for cold weather. When we’d eaten all the chicken and veg there was quite a lot of spicy sauce left over, so we had it with pasta later in the week, and it was worth having leftovers just for that. Definitely a keeper.
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Arroz con leche

When in Spain … it has to be arroz con leche, not plain old rice pudding. Truth to tell, the two are almost identical. In Spain, the arroz is always served cold, with a generous sprinkling of cinnamon, one of the three spices used in unadventurous Spain (the others are saffron and paprika). And of course the rice used is paella rice (bomba), subtly different from the round-grain Carolina rice we use. Many Spanish recipes specify partly cooking the rice in water and then adding it to the milk, but I don’t hold with that — I like my pudding thick and creamy, and you need all the starch in the rice for that.

TV chef Karlos Arguiñano’s recipe suits me; he cooks it in milk, and the only thing I changed was the amount of sugar (many Spanish dishes are over-sweet for my taste) — plus we had it hot.
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I love torrijas — if I see them on a dessert menu in Spain, all the other options immediately become irrelevant. They are basically the same as what Americans call French toast, even though in France they are called pain perdu (lost bread); stale bread soaked in milk and egg and then fried. In this Spanish version they are fried in olive oil and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. The perfect accompaniment is a scoop of vanilla ice cream and some butterscotch sauce.

They are so popular in some parts of Spain that bakers sell special pan para torrijas (torrija bread). This is a brioche-like loaf with quite a dense crumb that stands up well to being soaked in milk without falling apart. So a counsel of perfection is to use this, although failing that stale French baguette or any good white bread is fine (for heaven’s sake don’t try to use wrapped white sliced bread for this). If you do want to try the genuine article, I searched the web and eventually found a Spanish recipe for pan para torrijas, and adapted it for the bread machine — see below. I always make two loaves, cut them in half, and freeze them. Once thawed, I leave them to go stale — the staler the better, you can leave this bread hanging around for a couple of days. It makes good toast too.
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Romesco sauce

Calçots and salsa romesco

This is a truly classic Catalan sauce. Pounded nuts, usually almonds, are a strong feature of Catalan cooking, used to thicken sauces, whether savoury or sweet. Romesco sauce is very versatile: you can serve it with plainly grilled or baked fish, for example. Or steak. Or even escalivade. A very traditional combination is with calçots, young green onions that are grilled over an open fire in winter and early spring. They’re served on a roof tile to keep them warm, and eating them (with your fingers) is a messy business; when I ate them in a restaurant, I was provided with a bib!

It’s an uncooked sauce which is ridiculously easy to make — it will take you five minutes if you use a jar of peppers and a food processor or blender. I used the method in this video, substituting salt for the anchovies. Anchovies are not traditional, and they make the sauce unsuitable for vegetarians.
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Book Review: A Late Dinner: Discovering the Food of Spain by Paul Richardson

This book is based on a deep knowledge of everyday life in Spain, which shines through most notably in the chapters on rural life (the author lives on a smallholding in Extremadura). He does a good job of explaining the differences between regions; and Spain is above all a country of very diverse regions. I liked the organisation too, starting on the coast, then going inland to rural Spain, and finally visiting cities. Some chapters were very evocative — the one about Asturias immediately made me want to visit — though it’s clear that the author knows some regions of Spain much better than others. I was a little disappointed in its thin coverage of the Basque country, basically dwelling on San Sebastian and haute cuisine.

In fact, there’s a little too much emphasis on haute cuisine and meticulous accounts of meals in Michelin-starred restaurants, where the chef just happens to be on hand to present him with his very own menú degustación and a friendly chat. Not that these aren’t important — you can hardly write a book about food culture in Spain and not mention Ferran Adria and Martin Beresategui – but they don’t reflect the food world of most Spaniards. His views are at times a little rosy — or else stretching the truth. On several occasions he arrives in a strange town, selects a restaurant apparently at random, and has a wonderful lunch. In real life, this Would Not Happen. At least, it would occasionally, but you would be bound to stumble into one of the majority of indifferent Spanish restaurants and have a terrible, if cheap, meal. It’s obvious he’d done research beforehand — he’s a food journalist for heaven’s sake — so why not say so?

Ferran Adria has it right: “People accuse me of lowering standards: ‘It’s your fault there are so many young kids trying to do modern food, and doing it badly.’ Maybe, but isn’t it much worse that there are millions of tortillas and paellas all over the country that are cooked so badly? Ordinary food in Spain is in a much worse state than haute cuisine, and that’s a fact.”

For me the key feature of Spanish food is that Spain was virtually a third-world country in terms of living standards until about the 1970s. So it’s hardly surprising that food was cheap and filling, the stuff of poverty. There was no Spanish tradition of haute cuisine as there was in France — which is why the Basque chefs looked to France for their inspiration:

More than anything, the cooking of rural Spain is a collective response to the realities of climate, weather, organised religion … and, above all, the need to provide the body with the calories needed for hard physical work. (p 97)

I was surprised that Richardson didn’t mention the culture of the menú del día in Spain. I’m sure I read somewhere that Franco instituted it to ensure that manual workers had a large, nutritious meal at lunchtime, and it must have played a large part in maintaining the dead hands of tradition and cheap stodge that still weigh heavily on Spanish restaurant food outside the rarefied temples of gastronomy. But it was interesting to read about the revolution that started in San Sebastian on the death of Franco, asserting Basque identity through modern riffs on traditional food, and then spread through the country. He makes it clear too that it’s no accident that the most creative and adventurous chefs are from the rich provinces of the Basque country and Catalonia, both with easy access to mountains and sea, and with richer culinary heritages because of their voyaging past.

Further interesting facts: I knew that the Reyes Católicos were responsible for the Spanish obsession with pork, promoting it because it was a good way of winkling out closet Jews and Moors. But I hadn’t heard that in the 1950s, as part of a deal with the Americans over military bases, the Spanish government imported millions of litres of American rapeseed oil. Spaniards weren’t going to let go of their aceite de oliva without a fight, so in order to shift the imported oil a publicity campaign was started to convince them that olive oil was thoroughly unhealthy. Consumption plummeted until the scandal of the contaminated vegetable oil in the early 1980s that killed over a thousand people and persuaded the Spanish to switch back to the home-produced stuff.

Anyway, I enjoyed this book and learned a lot from it — it’s a great read for foodies planning to travel to Spain and wanting to understand more about the country and its culture. He even has a list of recommended restaurants, if your wallet will stretch to them.

Avocado, orange, and roasted pepper salad

orange, avocado, and roasted pepper salad

This recipe was inspired by a tapa in an Andalusian bar, in a village surrounded by thousands of avocado trees. The dressing is a version of a recipe I learned from Jim Fisher at Cook in France. There, we used grain mustard and served it on a salad of blanched spring vegetables and poached eggs. I toned it down a little here so as not to overwhelm the avocados. I like this colourful salad so much I’m already imagining variations: crumbled feta cheese on top, for example.
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How to eat well on the Costa del Sol

Fish market, Malaga

Yes, it is possible. You have to try hard, but there are alternatives to English pubs selling fish and chips and Sunday roast with all the trimmings, and Spanish bars selling stodgy food swimming in olive oil and garlic (not that I have anything against olive oil and garlic when they are used well and don’t swamp every other flavour). Here are our tips from two months’ eating around Málaga.

We’d already decided that the rule that normally applies in France to find good-value restaurants (follow the local businessmen at lunchtime) doesn’t work in Spain. It’s better to follow the tourists. But that technique doesn’t seem to work either in the attractive resort of Nerja. The Balcon de Europa is a lovely, broad esplanade on a headland with beautiful sea views. It’s surrounded by bars and restaurants which are always crowded with tourists eating what looks like frankly indifferent and overpriced food. We found our absolute favourite restaurant in Nerja (and indeed in the whole of the province of Málaga) by the unorthodox method of spotting a classy modern business card among the sea of garish red and yellow restaurant flyers in the tourist office. Passing from the crowded Balcon through a deserted shopping arcade, we arrived at Oliva at the very reasonable Spanish hour of two o’ clock on a sunny Sunday in June to find it completely deserted. We even asked the waitress if it was actually open.

Despite the unpromising start, we thought we’d give it a try anyway because the menu looked interesting, and we were not disappointed. Everything was excellent, but the standouts were the small things. To start, the friendly Dutch waitress brought a basket of warm, fresh bread served with a dish of olive oil and a little pot of herb butter topped with finely chopped black olives. One taste of this butter, and we were hooked. I don’t think it was entirely because being in southern Spain we’d eaten virtually no butter for a month. There must have been 50 g of butter in that pot and we ate the lot between the two of us, using tiny pieces of bread purely as supports, and slathering them with large dollops of butter.

The “pre-starter” of Parmesan crisps with tomato jam was good too, and we loved the little palate-cleaning scoop of mint granita between courses. The tomato tart I had as a starter wasn’t exceptional, but it was attractively presented, and perked up with a good home-made tartare sauce. One of my pet annoyances in Spanish restaurants is having to make your own vinaigrette when the salad is already on the plate, but at least the waitress brought a small can of organic olive oil, and a spray bottle of balsamic vinegar for my main-course salad with fried feta cheese (yes, I was easily able to order a vegetarian meal in a Spanish restaurant!). And the panna cotta lived up to our exacting standards.

We liked the pacing too, more French style than Spanish, with time to relax and chat between courses. It’s not the cheapest (our meal cost 87 euros including a bottle of very nice Chardonnay), but the quality and style of cuisine made it worth every penny. We liked it enough to go back in our last week, on a Wednesday evening in July when there were all of five other diners. I was glad to note that we weren’t the only ones using bits of bread to scrape every last smear of butter out of the pot, and gazing at it regretfully when it was empty. Now I’m making it my mission to tell everyone about Oliva, because I want it to still be open if we are ever back in Nerja. It’s only been open six months, and it deserves to be more popular than it apparently is.

Here is a whole load of other restaurant suggestions for Nerja. I haven’t tried any of them, but several sound promising. Comment if you’ve tried one of them! The one other place we ate at in Nerja and liked isn’t mentioned there: the Casa Luque, just off the Balcon de Europa. We’d asked in the tourist office for somewhere that served local ingredients in a modern way, and this fitted the bill. We had a tapas-based lunch here twice; it’s pricier than the other tapas places around there, but more refined.

Our other outstanding restaurant experience was in Málaga. This one we found by chancing on a feature in that day’s paper as we drank coffee in a bar. “This sounds good,” said my husband. “Let’s have lunch there.” So on no more evidence than that, we walked there through the lovely botanical garden and found La Moraga, a trendy tapas lounge on the beach, but a far cry from the average chiringuito (beach bar) in all other respects.

courgette and scallop pinchitos

In Spanish style we ordered four separate dishes, specifying that we wanted to share all of them. So we started with two glasses of a delicious gazpacho featuring cherries (allegedly, they were hard to detect), pistachios, anchovies, and a scattering of cheese, and a little pot of very nice foie gras with toast and cubes of membrillo — it wouldn’t have occurred to me to pair membrillo with foie gras, but it went really well. Then we had a dish of grilled scallops with courgettes, Málaga raisins, and basil oil, and half a grilled lobster on a gorgeous, creamy potato purée — we fought over the last dregs of potato, wiping the dish out with our bread. Maybe it had butter in it.


Even the desserts were fab — biznaga, a globe of airy mousse filled with membrillo, and — yes! — torrija, my favourite Spanish dessert, made with coconut milk and white chocolate. The portions were tiny, and it was really expensive — 14 euros for three scallops and three slices of courgette is a bit over the top, and one dessert cost as much as an entire lunchtime menu at our local bar, with the total bill coming to 90 euros — less good value than Oliva since we ate less food. But as at Oliva, it was such a pleasure to eat modest quantities of imaginatively and perfectly cooked food, instead of big piles of greasy stodge; in addition it has a view of the beach and very pleasant staff.

Note, I’m not linking to their website in protest at it encapsulating almost everything that is wrong with restaurant websites: no address, opening hours, or phone number on the home page, everything in flash, navigation items that skitter away when you try to click on them, no sample menu, and despite their prices they haven’t been able to pay someone competent to translate their site into correct English. The only thing they’ve missed is cheesy music. Instead here’s a picture of the park.

Park, Málaga

I’ve already mentioned why I don’t like the more downmarket Spanish restaurants. But if your budget doesn’t run to Oliva or La Moraga prices, I have one tip for eating cheaply on the Costa del Sol: fried fish. Everywhere around Málaga that we ate deep-fried fish, it was superb. They really know how to do it to perfection: very fresh, hot and crispy. And, paradoxically, much less greasy than anything cooked a la plancha. After Oliva, my favourite place to eat was at our local bar, where a menu del dia with drinks and coffee costs just 7.50 euros. So here’s a shout-out for the Bar Lopez in Almáchar. Go on a Friday for Paco’s mum’s paella, cooked in her kitchen and carried down the street in its pan by two sturdy men. This is true Spanish paella, with lots of rice and just a few prawns, mussels, clams, and small pieces of diced chicken. You eat it as a starter, with a green salad that actually has vinaigrette on it.

Then have a big plate of crispy fried squid, bacalao, or rosada (a local white fish) with a squeeze of lemon and some garlic mayonnaise. To drink: tinto de verano, beer, or the house white, a fruity white verdejo from Rueda that goes perfectly with the fish. Don’t bother with dessert (this is a good rule to follow in all but the most expensive Spanish restaurants). You won’t do as well as this at every bar, but in a village setting it’s easy to identify the bar that serves the best-value lunch: just follow the crowds at 2 pm. And it’s likely to be better value than any traditional restaurant; steer clear of anything with Mesón in the name, as this seems to be code for “We’ll serve you overpriced, greasy stodge”.

Jurel, Fish market, Malaga

Tortilla de patatas

Tortilla de patatas

There’s an art to making a good tortilla, and I’m not sure I’ve cracked it yet (although I’ve cracked plenty of eggs trying). It’s the sort of thing where even the most detailed recipe is no substitute for being able to sense when you’ve got it right. Even if they aren’t up to the standards of the average Spanish tapas bar (can I do those rounded edges? Can I hell!), I have been pretty satisfied with my last couple of attempts.

The key points are a) the correct ratio of eggs to potatoes, and b) the right sized, heavy frying pan. I reckon you need about one medium potato per egg, but really you need to look at the mixture and know whether to add another egg. It should be neither too eggy (it won’t hold together) nor too packed with potato (too stodgy). The mixture should fill the pan to a depth of between 1 and 1 1/2 inches — thin tortillas are hopeless, and if it’s too thick it will scorch before it’s set in the middle.

Some people slice the potatoes, others cube them. I’m in the “slice them” camp at the moment, but I may change my mind. The onion is essential — it will be too bland without. The end result should be firm enough when cold to cut into wedges or squares and eat with your hands. At the same time it’s not nice if it’s so overcooked it’s gone leathery (another reason not to do a thin tortilla).
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