Catalan pasta paella

9788483308868When I arrived in Barcelona earlier this year for my three-week stay, I hoped to learn a lot about the city, the region of Catalonia and Catalan language and culture. Among my most burning questions was what is Catalan cuisine exactly, and how it is different from the food of the rest of Spain?

Answers soon began to appear. One afternoon at the beginning of my stay, I entered a bookstore in the city’s old town in search of a small spiral notebook. As I browsed, I noticed a shelf of cookbooks, some of them devoted to traditional Catalan food. Aha! And I had just begun wondering how easy it might be to adapt the recipes to plant-based versions when my eyes fell on the cover of Vegana i Catalana, whose title left no room for ambiguity. Santa Eulàlia, the city’s patron saint, was clearly smiling on me. It was my lucky day!

The book is in Catalan, but as a translator who speaks French and (some) Spanish, and furthermore is always up for a linguistic challenge, I didn’t see that as any serious obstacle—Catalan is like a combination of the two. I browsed through the pages, recognizing the names of some dishes I’d already heard of (pa amb tomàquet, crema catalana) and soon forgetting my recent resolution not to buy any more new cookbooks for a while. What’s more, according to the book’s publication date, it had just been released a few weeks earlier. Who was I to question the workings of fate?

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Marta Castells

In Vegana i Catalana, author Marta Castells, a cooking instructor who focuses on healthy  cuisine and a holistic approach to food, has revisited the classics of Catalan cooking for people of the region who would like to shift to a more plant-based diet but still want to enjoy the traditional flavors they know and love.

During my time in Barcelona I also dined at the renowned vegetarian restaurant Teresa Carles. I asked the server to point out only the (vegan) Catalan dishes among the wide variety of items on the menu, and soon settled on a dish called rossejat de fideus.

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Fideus dish at Teresa Carles

A pasta dish prepared risotto-style and served in a rustic paella pan, it included mushrooms, seaweed and the chef’s own “cocosepia” blend made with coconut and black garlic (giving the dish a darker color). It was topped with a few spoonfuls of allioli, a garlic sauce (similar to the French aïoli). It was fantastic. I was naturally quite pleased, when I returned to my copy of Vegana i Catalana, to find a very similar dish called fideuada in its pages. There was even a recipe for the garlic sauce.

Back home in Paris, I translated and tried my hand at a few of Castells’s recipes, including the fideuada. At the same time, in a quest to continue learning about traditional dishes, I ordered a used copy of Catalan Cuisine by Colman Andrews, which has recipes but is more like a treatise on the history and food culture of Catalonia. It’s a great resource offering a wealth of information, and although it contains some recipes that call for animal products, others are (accidentally) vegan and, with some creativity, most can be veganized (another challenge that I love).

Andrews informs us that the Moors were the ones who brought pasta to Catalonia, by way of Greece, back in the eighth or ninth century. Called alatria at the time by the Spaniards (from the Greek itria), pasta is mentioned in the Libre de Sent Soví (c. 1324), the first known Catalan cookbook. Today, Catalonia’s most popular native pasta is fideus (the name is thought to derive from the Arabic fada, meaning to overflow): a short, very thin noodle similar to Italian vermicelli but developed independently and prepared in a different way. Rather than being boiled in water and then mixed with a sauce, it is cooked slowly in a broth, like risotto, absorbing flavor along the way.

Marta Castells and her publisher have kindly allowed me to share my English translation of her fideuada recipe, to which I have also made a few small adapations based on what worked best for me. First, not having easy access to real fideus pasta here, I bought Italian vermicelli and needed slightly less broth than the amount in the recipe (in the book it’s 1 cup pasta to 3.5 cups of broth, and in my adaptation it’s 1.5 cups pasta to 3 cups broth—feel free to try the first set of proportions if you’re making this with actual fideus.). I also opted to brown the pasta in a dry pan instead of with oil, and finally added some black olives that were not called for in the original recipe. In the original allioli recipe, the silken tofu is marinated in the garlic, which is later removed, but I opted to incorporate the garlic and skip the marination step.

This dish has already become a new favorite for me, one I expect to make again and again. The pasta is very flavorful, having absorbed the garlicky, paprika-seasoned vegetable broth, and finishing it off under the broiler gives it a nice crispy top. Pan-roasted smoked tofu and olives give the dish robustness and aromatic depth. The garlic sauce, a revisited version of allioli with eggs (allioli amb ous), is simply divine and provides a nice textural contrast to the crispy noodles. While allioli is often described as a mayonnaise, I didn’t want to do that here because this allioli, made with silken tofu, garlic, olive oil, turmeric for color and kala namak salt (another addition of mine), is so creamy and smooth that to call it a mayonnaise, triggering associations with the store-bought kind, would be to do it an injustice.

So here, at last, is the fideuada or, as it can also be called, Catalan pasta paella!

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Creamy garlic sauce (allioli)

Makes 1/3 cup sauce, enough to top two servings of Catalan pasta paella

Ingredients

  • 4.2 oz (120 g) silken tofu (about 1/3 cup)
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • pinch kala namak (Indian “black” salt), or regular salt
  • dash ground turmeric

Equipment needed: small food processor or blender

Finely mince the clove of garlic, or crush using a garlic press. Place the silken tofu, garlic and olive oil in  a mini food processor. Add a dash of turmeric (for color—only a tiny amount is needed), and pinch of kala namak (its sulfurous flavor recreates an egg-like taste but if you cannot find this salt, regular salt is fine). Process, scraping down the inside of the bowl occasionally, until you have a homogeneous, creamy sauce. Taste and add more salt if desired. Transfer to a small bowl and chill until needed.

This sauce can also be used as a base for a creamy salad dressing or tartar sauce.

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Catalan pasta paella (fideuada)

Serves 2

Ingredients

  • 1.5 cups (125 g) egg-free vermicelli pasta
  • 4.2 oz. (120 g) firm tofu, preferably smoked
  • 3 cups (700 ml) vegetable broth
  • half a fresh tomato or 1/4 cup canned stewed tomato
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground paprika
  • 1 tablespoon tamari or soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1/3 cup salty black olives (optional)
  • 1/3 cup creamy garlic sauce (recipe above)
  • fresh basil leaves or other herbs, for garnish

Equipment needed: large skillet or paella-type pan, small skillet, mortar and pestle (optional), oven (optional).

Begin by chopping the tofu into bite-sized cubes. Place 1 teaspoon olive oil and 1 teaspoon tamari or soy sauce in a small skillet over medium heat.

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Once the pan is hot, add the tofu and sauté, stirring occasionally, until browned on both sides. Transfer to a plate covered with paper towel and set aside.

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Next, prepare the garlic, paprika and tomato mixture, which you will incorporate into the vegetable broth. Finely mince the garlic and place in a mortar with the 1/2 teaspoon ground paprika and crush. If you don’t have a mortar, you can skip this step, but in that case be especially sure that the garlic is finely minced. Finely dice the half-tomato.

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Add 1 teaspoon olive oil to a non-stick pan over medium heat. Once the pan is hot, transfer the garlic-paprika mixture to it and add the diced tomatoes. Sauté, stirring frequently. When the tomato has broken down and the garlic is smelling nice (7 or 8 minutes), remove from heat. It will resemble the mixture in the photo above.

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Scrape this mixture into a bowl containing the 3 cups of (warm) broth  and whisk to combine. If making your broth from bouillon cubes, err on the side of less bouillon since the black olives (if using) are quite salty. You can always adjust the saltiness later with more tamari or soy sauce.

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Then, place a large non-stick or seasoned skillet or paella pan over medium heat. When the pan is hot, add the vermicelli (no oil is needed, but if you want to use it, add 2 teaspoons). You will soon see the color of the pasta on the bottom begin to turn golden pretty soon. Pay close attention and stir frequently to ensure even browning.

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Continue browning the vermicelli, stirring frequently, until it reaches the shade you’re aiming for. If you do a Google images search for fideus, you’ll see that the pasta is sometimes a lighter color (with a milder taste), and sometimes darker. The level of darkness is up to you.

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Not long after the pasta reached this color (about 13 minutes), I stopped the browning by beginning to add the broth.

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Add the broth in stages, about a half-cup (120 ml) at a time, stirring as you go. Wait until the pasta absorbs the broth before adding more. When you have added about half of the broth, incorporate the tofu and optional olives. Continue all the broth has been added to the pasta. Taste occasionally and check for doneness; if the pasta is completely cooked but you still have a bit of broth left over, you don’t have to add it. Adjust the seasonings if desired, adding a splash or two of tamari if you want it to be saltier.

This step took me about 20 minutes (after the browning), so this dish definitely counts as slow food! But it’s well worth it.

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Preheat your oven, on broiler mode, to 450°F (about 230°C) and place the skillet under the broiler for 5 minutes to finish the dish. This will make the top crispy, but is not an essential step so can be skipped if you are ovenless.

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The dish is now ready to be served! Transfer the pasta to two shallow bowls or plates, distributing the tofu and olives evenly, and top with a generous dollop of the garlic sauce. Garnish with fresh basil, parsley or other herbs. Serve with the remaining sauce on the side so people can add more.

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Variations:

  • Instead of tofu, use lightly pre-cooked (still firm) slices of sweet potato, pumpkin, zucchini, artichoke, broccoli florets or any other vegetables that strike your fancy.
  • Consider mixing in some additional large chunks of fresh tomato at the middle of the broth-absorption step (so they’re warm and softened but not broken down into sauce).
  • Create a “seafood” version using vegan shrimp, or a mix-and-match paella by also adding slices of vegan chorizo (a Spanish sausage).

Barcelona’s best and brightest

vegnews-december-2016-450x600bA few months ago, I had the chance to spend three weeks in sunny, veg-friendly Barcelona. I owe this good fortune in part to my choice of career, since in the freelance life there isn’t all that much to stop you from packing your bag and heading somewhere new—like a turtle with its shell, you really only need your laptop with you (although mine feels about as heavy and cumbersome as a person-sized turtleshell).

The most tangible result of my stay in Barcelona is the VegVacations feature I wrote for the December 2016 issue of VegNews, which has just come out. In it I describe Barcelona’s main attractions and neighborhoods and recommend some things to do and nice veg eateries to visit.

Barcelona certainly has some beautiful architecture, fascinating museums and great restaurants. But what I’ll remember most fondly, what made my stay truly meaningful, are the great people I met there. Some were locals, some expats. All were warm and welcoming individuals, each using his or her own talents to make the world a better place for people, animals or both. I’d like to introduce a few of them to you.

Petronila — organic coffee from a women’s cooperative in Guatemala 

12196263_1662468663994708_3128329899023612902_nPetronila is a lovely person in many ways, but one of her best qualities has to be her great patience. As she was my host in Barcelona, we had many opportunities for small conversations between our various comings and goings, and she handled the many gaps in my rusty Spanish with good humor. She even managed to make sense of what I said when I accidentally inserted Spanish-accented French words into my sparkling conversation. Hats off!

As we shared our backgrounds, Petronila, who comes from a coffee-growing region of Guatemala, told me about the coffee import business she was in the middle of launching: El Café de Petronila. All organic and fair-trade, her coffee is sourced from a cooperative of women coffee farmers in Guatemala, helping ensure a decent income for these rural workers. The company name Petronila chose has special significance, for it not only refers to herself but is also an homage to the grandmother for whom she was named. Below are a few photos she sent me of the coffee farmers at work. The coffee, in case you were wondering, is smooth and delectable!

Roberto — messages of hope for animals on T-shirts and billboards

dsc_0219bIt was at the Feria Vegana, Barcelona’s twice-monthly vegan fair, that I first met Roberto. It took some time before I could approach the table where he sold his screen-printed T-shirts, since quite a few people were already crowded around it when I arrived, rummaging through the stacks in search of the perfect message, color and size. When I finally pushed my way through, I understood better—these were some cool designs!

Roberto began his screen-printing business, Serigrafia Vegana, about two years ago, first selling his merchandise only at fairs and then branching out into online sales as well. Most of his designs center around the idea of animal liberation, with elegant illustrations of birds flying free and messages reappropriating traditional sayings involving animals. One such phrase is Fueron felices y comieron perdices, which literally means “They were happy and ate partridges”. Often appearing as the last line in a happy ending to a fairy tale, it is equivalent to our “And they lived happily ever after”. The updated, kinder version on Roberto’s shirts is Fueron felices y liberaron perdices (“They were happy and FREED partridges”). That’s more like it!

A native of Uruguay, Roberto has been living in Spain for 10 years but doesn’t believe in artificial borders and prefers to consider himself a citizen of the world. Fair treatment for immigrants and refugees is another cause that’s dear to his heart: one of his bestselling T-shirt designs reads Ninguna persona es ilegal (“No one is illegal”).

In spring 2016, together with three other local activists, Roberto launched the Liberación Animal Ahora project to raise awareness of animal suffering by placing billboards in the Barcelona metro. Similar display campaigns in other countries, including France this past summer and right now, have proven effective at reaching large numbers of people. Funds to rent the advertising space were raised in just 13 days through donations from people in the animal-rights community, and Canadian photojournalist and activist Jo-Anne McArthur granted the campaign the right to use a poignant image of a veal calf from her We Animals project. The billboards went up in May and the campaign was a success, bringing the plight of animals to the awareness of thousands of metro users every day.

Side note: The Feria Vegana is a fun event to visit if you happen to be in town when one’s taking place. People from the city’s vegan community bring home-made food, clothing, jewelry, soaps and other items to sell, and there’s often live music too. For those of you wanting to practice your Spanish, it’s also a nice chance to meet locals (many people also know English, and I even happened upon a French speaker there). Check their Facebook page to find out when the next one will be. In the meantime, a few photos:

Àlex — a sanctuary for abandoned and homeless cats

a_salvadorI learned about El Jardinet dels Gats, a cat sanctuary in Barcelona’s old town, on Facebook while planning my trip and immediately contacted them to arrange a day to stop by. I met with co-founder Àlex (pictured here) and Venezuelan-born volunteer Johanna, who showed me around the sanctuary and explained its history and how it operates.

El Jardinet dels Gats (Catalan for “the cats’ little garden”) is a non-profit organization founded in 2008, when the sanctuary was set up in the yard of a former kindergarten. The El Jardinet team rescues stray and abandoned cats from the street and gives them a temporary home in the garden, where they are fed and cared for by sanctuary volunteers and staff from a local veterinary clinic. At first, incoming cats can be quite wary of humans (with good reason!) and shy away or hide, but most eventually warm up to their caregivers and end up becoming socialized. After some time in the garden, cats move on to foster homes, where they continue to be socialized until they are adopted. The non-profit occasionally holds special events to raise funds and adoption fairs to help find new families for its cats.

Since its founding, El Jardinet dels Gats has rescued and saved over 1,000 cats. If you’d like to make a donation to help them help more cats, please visit this page. The cats thank you!

Tim and Julien — eco-friendly business reviews and sustainable massage services

15032838_1114068485336895_6601207520169929573_nI met Tim online prior to my trip as I searched for interesting veggie-type people to hang out with, and got together with him and his partner Julien one evening for dinner at the amazing Rasoterra. As we chatted and sampled each other’s dishes, they told me their story. They moved to Barcelona two years ago (Tim from Belgium and Julien from France) and have been loving it there, thanks in large part to the city’s relaxed pace. Soon after their relocation, Tim founded Good Goal, an independent site offering unbiased reviews of eco-friendly, sustainable and community-oriented places in major cities around Europe. These include craft beer makers, vegan and slow food restaurants, hidden green spots, specialty coffee bars, slow fashion shops and green hotels. The site also features a blog, and Tim has recently launched a series of pocket guides to sustainable options in various cities.

Julien runs a massage institute, Under Pressure Massage, with a sustainable, eco-friendly approach, using only organic massage oils and creating a relaxing ambiance with candles he makes himself from recycled oils. He offers various types of massage (Californian, Ayurvedic, Thai and more).

Ales and Laura — healthful living-foods cuisine prepared with love

Ales&Laura-PetitBrot.JPGAmong the many restaurants on my itinerary, one of the ones with the highest recommendations from local friends was Petit Brot (Catalan for “little sprout”), a living-foods eatery and cold-pressed juice bar with a focus on optimum nutrition but also a definite flair for flavor and creativity. After my very tasty and colorful lunch (a beet soup, curry over cauliflower rice and a raw version of crema catalana), I chatted a bit with the owners. Ales, who hails from the Czech Republic, and Laura, a native Catalan, first took an interest in a different way of eating after seeing a video featuring Gary Yourofsky. As they were especially intrigued by the health benefits of juicing and a vegan diet, they soon began investigating raw foods. This led to their opening a restaurant of their own in Barcelona. Now, more than one year on, their business is flourishing and the lines at the juice bar are getting longer and longer as locals and tourists alike flock to Petit Brot to experience this type of cuisine for themselves.

Slowly Veggie

This last item isn’t about anyone I met, just a cool find that I wanted to mention. During my stay in Barcelona, I learned about a Spanish version of Slowly Veggie, a newish vegetarian/vegan food magazine we already had in France in a French version. I soon found a copy at a newsstand in the Gràcia district and of course could not resist adding it to my collection of food magazines from around the world. The concept is great for people who are just discovering plant-based eating, since the first half of the magazine features vegetarian recipes and the second half vegan ones—allowing people to get an idea of both. The photography is beautiful and quite a bit of creativity seems to go into the dishes. Slowly Veggie is also available in German, Italian, Romanian and Polish. If you speak any of these languages, check out the sites as there are some free recipes there. Here are a few of the dishes that caught my eye. Perhaps they appealed to Sésame, too… in any case, he was kind enough to help me with this photo shoot back home in Paris.

Barcelona is a truly beautiful and very veg-friendly city with a dynamic community of people working toward a more eco-conscious and compassionate. Perhaps you have read my VegNews article, or even feel inspired just by this little post. Either way, I highly recommend putting Barcelona on your list!

Sri Lankan purple yam porridge

On a recent trip to my favorite cash & carry in the South Asian neighborhood, inspired purely by the photo on the shelf, I picked up a new (to me) vegetable to experiment with. It looked like some kind of great-grandfather root with rhinoscerosy skin, halfway between sweet potato and celeriac. A Google search later on informed me that it’s a purple yam, and that its Latin name is Dioscorea alata. It’s native to Southeast Asia but now also grows in other parts of the world including South America, Australia, China, Africa and the southeast US. Its Tamil name, used on the label in this Sri Lankan shop, is rasa valli kilangu, while in Yoruba, a language of southwestern Nigeria, it’s called isu ewura and in the Philippines it’s ube. The purple yam has apparently gained some fame among Western foodies under this name.

In folk medicine, Dioscorea alata is thought to be effective at treating ailments such as fever, leprosy and hemorrhoids. Some even believe that consuming it increases the likelihood of bearing twins!

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In Sri Lanka, the purple yam is often cooked and mashed to make a sweet dish. As it contains a lot of starch, it can also be formed in a mold rather like polenta, and then cut it into slices or other shapes.

For my first experiment with this tuber, I decided to try the basic mashed form. As it doesn’t have much flavor on its own, this yam benefits from a bit of vanilla and/or cardamom (the latter being a traditional ingredient in the Sri Lankan dish). The end result is a slightly sweet mash that seems ideal for breakfast, so I am calling it a porridge. Warm and filling, it could become your new favorite comfort food.

Incidentally, I was disappointed at first that my rasa valli, once peeled, turned out not to be the bright magenta promised by the label photo, but rather a light lavender color. Maybe some are just more purple than others. But lavender is nice too—one of my favorite colors actually. So it’s okay. It’s still sort of (vaguely) in the red-violet range, and therefore acceptable enough for the first recipe to appear on this blog.

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Sri Lankan purple yam porridge

Serves 2 (as a fairly filling breakfast)

Ingredients

  • 3 cups (350 g) peeled and cubed purple yam (one large yam)
  • 1/2 cup (118 ml) coconut milk from a can, some cream from top of can reserved
  • 2 tablespoons maple syrup
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • pinch of salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom (optional)
  • optional garnishes: cardamom, powdered açaí, dried coconut, edible lavender flowers

Begin by peeling the yam. Caution: these yams are quite slippery characters once peeled, and will want to suddenly fly out of your grasp and across the kitchen!

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Chop the yam into evenly sized cubes.

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Next, place the cubed yam in a medium-sized saucepan and fill it with enough water to cover it. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. After about 20-25 minutes, test the yam for doneness with a fork. When the cubes seem mashable, turn off the heat and drain most of the water from the pan. With a hand-held potato masher (or large fork), mash the cubes until you have something that resembles mashed potatoes. Alternatively, you could process them with an immersion blender or in a food processor, but they will be so soft that this isn’t really necessary, and the partially chunky texture is kind of nice.

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Open up a can of regular (not reduced-fat) coconut milk. Remove a couple tablespoons of the thick cream from the top, transfer to a small bowl, mix with a bit of maple syrup and set aside. This will be the topping.

Stir the rest of the coconut milk in the can so that the watery part at the bottom combines with the thicker part toward the top. Add about 1/2 cup (118 ml) of the mixed coconut milk to the saucepan and turn on the heat again to medium-low. Use a bit more if you want the porridge to be more liquidy.

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Continue mashing the yam together with the coconut milk until you achieve a uniform consistency. Now add the maple syrup, vanilla, salt and optional cardamom and combine well. Taste and add more maple syrup and cardamom if you prefer it sweeter or with a stronger cardamom flavor. Alternatively, you can drizzle extra maple syrup on top of the porridge once it has been transferred to the bowls.

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Transfer the porridge to two medium-sized bowls (or one larger bowl to share, for romantic types!) and top with the reserved sweetened coconut cream, which will melt a bit. Garnish with added ground cardamom, ground açaí (shown here), dried coconut or edible lavender flowers. Enjoy!

Variations: use regular yams or sweet potatoes, vary the spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, etc.), add golden raisins or chunks of fruit.