[Correct Dining by Wilfrid: July 28, 2008]
It is about time to get of this city for a while, and my first stop this summer will be Barcelona.
Perhaps perversively, my anticipation of the trip had me looking at recipes for traditional Catalan dishes.
The so-called "peasant cooking" of Europe makes it easy for anyone to extend their home-cooking repertoire in unpredictable ways: this tradition relies for the most part on readily available, inexpensive ingredients (yes, there's the odd thrush and force-fed goose too), high-tech equipment is hardly required, and the techniques are usually elementary, if sometimes time-consuming.
Elisabeth Luard's European Peasant Cookery is a great resource for this (I believe it's also published as Old World Kitchen), but it doesn't include any specifically Catalan recipes. What follows was cobbled together from various sources: it's called mar i muntanya - fairly obviously "sea and mountains" - and it exhibits a couple of features typical of Catalan savoury dishes: meat and seafood are combined (okay, that's common elsewhere in Spain), but also a hint of sweetness is introduced.
This comes not from fruit, as in pato con peras, but from a chocolate paste which goes into the sauce. This makes it sound Mexican, but there's no chili heat - and in this version, no laborious toasting of individual ingredients. Now, some recipes will tell you to toast or even fry the bread, and then reduce it to breadcrumbs. Me, I buy breadcrumbs.
So it starts with melting dark chocolate in a pan. To help it out, I added a slug of good vermouth. I also added a crushed garlic clove and some chopped parsley. It would be correct to add some chopped almonds, but I didn't happen to have any.
Carefully add breadcrumbs and stir to make a thick paste; do not add so fast that you end up with chocolate cake.
Meanwhile, your kitchen assistants will have taken the seasoned rabbit legs and fried them until golden. Of course chicken can be substituted. Your choice of meat is then set to braise, covered, with chopped onions and tomatoes, slowly and gently. Canned tomatoes will give you most of the liquid you need; white wine (or stock, or water) can be added; the meat doesn't have to drown, but the pan mustn't dry out. I happened to have a can of cute Italian cherry tomatoes.
I threw in some carrots for color or sweetness. Carrots and rabbits have legendary affinity.
Your choice of shellfish too, from the broad category of prawns, shrimps, crayfish and langoustine. I found the latter, wild and from New Zealand apparently. These can go in once the rabbit is tender, and should be turned in the sauce and cooked gently until they turn orange, ten minutes at most. Meat and seafood is now extracted.
The fun part is scooping the chocolate paste (omit the garlic) into the tomato-onion sauce. As it stirs, the sauce darkens and thickens. I then served the main items on a hot plate and coated them with the sauce. I have seen versions where the meat and shrimp swim in sauce like a stew, and drier versions. I prefer the latter. The taste is rich, earthy, scarcely sweet. Amazingly, the chocolate ties the flavors of seafood and flesh together; don't ask me how.
A slice of Catalan cheese - Nevat - to follow. Reds from the Priorat or Monsant are the obvious accompaniments, but you could hardly go wrong with a shiraz. Don't forget to suck the heads.