Saturday, September 26, 2009

Catacurian: Olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, nuts, cookies

Carmelizing the "Creme de San Josep"'

Tomato sorbet with olive pate

Catacurian ("Cata" short for Catalonyan and "curian" for Epicurian) is my first cooking school. This old, totally renovated farm house on the edge of the Tarragon village, El Masroij, is where I have enjoyed a renewed sense of utter happiness. The owner/chef, Alicia, a retired ballerina and dance teacher, used to visit her abuela (granny) in this place. Now she shares her abuela's recipes (and her innovations to them) with her students. Enrollment is limited to 6, but this week, there are just 3 of us--me and a French speaking couple from Quebec. They are young, fun and well traveled.

For me this has been an experience in tasting all kinds of new foods that I have never had the opportunity to try before. And have I been missing out or what? Many of the dishes we helped create are made in one pot and will most definitely be among my new "signature dishes." Most of them include 2 basic mixtures that are added at some point in the cooking process. The first "La Picada" which means "knock, knock," the sound of a pestle in mortar, is a very finely ground mix of almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, garlic, cookies, friend bread; and may include chocolate and/or the meat of special peppers. This paste is used to thicken sauces, rather than flour or corn starch. The other big additive is "Sofregit," which is like the Holy Trinity in Cajun food. It is is onions, grated tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil. Maybe some parsely added; and brandy or white wine added at the end to carmelize the mix. When these two things are put together, then the other cooking really begins.

After this week, I will have to buy garlic in bulk, tomatoes by the bushel and olive oil by the gallon. Of course, chef Alicia is very biased toward the produce of "el Priorat" where we are located. This area was revitalized in the 1200's by Carthusian monks as they planted grapes vines and taught new agriculture methods to the locals. The head of the monastery, the Prior, was considered as nobility, thus the name "Priorat." Here they grow special tiny olives that give the best oil, the best nuts, the best grapes for wine. The Mediterranean is not far away, so fish figures prominenently in many dishes; as does lamb, Iberian (black) hog, wild game, rabbits and birds.

Just to make the mouths of the gentle readers water, we have made and enjoyed such delights as mussels with rosemary and garlic. Don't peel the garlic and saute it whole for a great sensation--very mild and the texture of potato. And Suquet de peix--a fish stew of hake, shrimp, clams, sofregit, picada. Another evening we had monkfish with rice, artichokes, rice, onion and garlic. Another night veal with three kinds of mushrooms in a sauce of sofregit and picada and stock. This could easily become a favorite.

Some interesting salads have included a huge white asparagus with duck breast ham, olive oil and pepper; tomato sorbet with olive pate; broiled goat cheese with a sprig of thyme on mixed greens with a mustard vinegarette. Oh, and did I mention that it is good to add olive oil to all of these? Desserts have often been simple fruits with cheese. But last night we made Creme de San Josep; traditionally a Father's Day treat, but is basically the Spanish version of creme brule. Tonight we make the requisite Paella; Alicia says that her school would be a failure if every class didn't enjoy this regional specialty.

I suppose it goes without saying, but I will say it anyway, the Priorat is a major wine producing region. So every meal is accompanied by a perfect pairing of wine(s); often beginning with the Spanish version of champagne, "Cava" available in white or stronger tasting red. Some of the white wines are very bold and hold up well with some very spicy dishes; the reds are complex--the result of interesting hybrids which love this dry, shale soil; hot days and tender care. We have sampled many varieties--even some while they were still fermenting in huge stainless steel tanks or aging in oak barrels. Nothing like going to the source, huh?

Today at a vineyard tour, near the Carthusian monastery, Jordie, the winery owner--a young, entrapeneur, with big dreams said, "What we are making in the vineyard is the most important part of the whole wine business." The technology and science of making wine can be controlled and is really pretty standard; bottling and aging can make some interesting nuances, but not so much; marketing can show off a wine and make some profits, but it is really what happens in the vineyard where it really all begins and ends. Some of it has to do with the care that someone exercises in the care of the vines--pruning, spading the soil, deciding when the grapes have reached their right sugar content, color and so on. But it also has to do with intangibles like the soil, the sun, the rain, the elevation. And maybe all of that really has to do with God and God's creation and provision. The Carthusians were silent hermits who listened for God in nature: birds singing, water flowing, wind in the trees. Being attuned to God by mindful awareness also made them enthusiastic pray-ers for the souls of others. As I think of the vineyards where we work (offices, schools, homes) and the people with whom we have contact, I wonder how we might convey that these very people in these very places are the most important part of the whole "God business." And trust that God is working in them and in us, with us and through us far more than we can ever ask or imagine.

Kind of amazing what one begins to think in the middle of siesta time after a lovely lunch of salt cod with tomato sauce and a goat cheese salad. Oh and did I mention that we added olive oil on top of it all and had a lovely white wine from El Priorat? Taste and see that the Lord is good! Salud!


  1. What a delight! Tomato sorbet w/olive paste is beautiful...what an interesting idea.
    All is well, M

  2. Will trade food for (poor excuse of a) wine!
    Chris E.