What a tomato!

August, a long, long, looonggg summer. The thermometer is still showing 35ºC at 10:00 pm, and a scented steam raises from the garden, smelling like wet soil and tomato plants. An unmistakable summer perfume that will become red taste on the table, sweet but not sweet and salty without salt. A strange taste, hard to describe and even harder to find at the supermarket. A tomato.

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A bit of History

Native to Central America, tomato travelled to Europe from Tenochtitlan, Aztec capital city, where it was called xitomatl: ‘fruit with a navel’. But for long years, even centuries in some places, it was only a decorative plant, because it was thought to be toxic.

However, from XVI century it became a must of Italian and Spanish cuisine. Sauces, gazpacho, soups, salads or just fresh tomatoes with a bit of salt and olive oil, it has always be part of our menu since then.

Properties of tomato

We can say that tomato is the perfect food. Beside of its taste and the hint of colour that it gives to your dishes, it has an endless list of attributes. Tomato contains lots of vitamines and minerals, but its most outstanding feature is the combination of vitamine C and lycopen, a kind of carotene that gives tomato its red color. They both are two of the most powerful known antioxidants, protecting cells against the oxidative stress that causes cancer, cardiovascular illness and skin ageing.

Lycopen is liberated when tomato is cooked, and when it gets in contact with some fatty acids, as the ones in olive oil. So that, tomato sauce, stir-fry and even ketchup are excellent anti-age solutions. In adition, tomato mineralizes our bodies and is a really good diuretic. It helps to expel uric acid and provides only 20 kilocalories per 100 g. So it is perfect for any diet.

Tomato is Umami

We are not the only to say that tomato is delicious. Scientists claim it too. Besides the four traditional tastes (Sweet, salty, bitter and acid) Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda set up a fifth one that he called umami (Japanese word for ‘delicious taste’. Umamis is present in breast milk, green tea, cheese, aspargus and, obviously, tomatoes. And these last ones are also able to increase the taste of other food.

Food industry has known it for a long time. Aminoacids responsibles for perceiving this taste – mainly glutamate and aspartame- has been isolated for being used as artificial intensifiers. Nowadays, these artificial intensifiers have got a vaery bad press, however researching on their health effects are contradictory.

Nevertheless, why would you wanted to use artificial intensifiers when a pair of good tomatoes is going to get a perfect taste?

Tomato in our kitchen

Organic tomato on its season, or from local producers when we buy tinned tomato, has become in one of our main stars. Obviously it plays a leading role in our Gazpacho, co-starring with fish in our Cod in Tomato Sauce, and it is the guest star of our Pisto with Fried Egg. Three really umami and very healthy choices.

Plaza Chica: A Life Under the Arcades

It’s Sunday. Not any Sunday, but a good autumn Sunday. It’s raining outside, but wine and electric braziers warm the dinning-room, and there are lots of happy faces around the counter,  deeply engaged in cheerful conversations, everlasting discussions or love talks. Hustle and bustle, smokers jam at the door. You have to run and keep the balance with the tray, dodging a pair of tykes that are coming into, looking for their croquettes.

Say hello, smile, say goodbye, write down the orders, pull some beer and serve some drinks. Take a stew from the kitchen, a dish of olives, a salad and some desserts. Then, add one of those quarrels kitchen-waitress/waitress-kitchen that makes this job so wonderful, and you won’t be able to stand it anymore at five or six pm.

But then, everything is a bit more relaxed. You go out, smell some fresh air, stop for a while under the arcades to see the rainIMGP6689It is great to be here.

Here, in the Plaza Chica (Small Square), the small centre of our small world. More than six hundred years watching how life runs under the arcades: business and markets, trials and weddings, melon stands, theatre, carnivals, Curro Jiménez and The Holy Innocents.

The Square, setting for cinema and life, is probably the older spot in Zafra. It was the centre of the medieval town, which grew around it until the 16th  century, because economic and political power were concentrated here. The weekly market was authorised in 1380, and there are evidences of the location of the town hall since 1430.

The arcades are a natural consequence of its commercial function: three covered parts, for sheltering trades and goods from sun and rain, and a free part for the Town Hall, later the Court (It is still having the jail bars), and today, the Music School. Nowadays, the Square maintains its rectangular plan, surrounded by white buildings whose facades end in brick arches. They have assorted columns and capitals as a result of the reuse of architectonical materials from former Roman and Visigothic buildings. Some of these columns, witness of the passing of time, hold etching words that talk about past ages. In addition, we can see some intertwined arches in one of the windows. They are typical of the Gothic-Mudejar art, but very rare in Spanish architecture.

There are some signs of this commercial past. The most famous one is the Vara, an old Castilian measurement (83 cm) colengraved on a column as a reference for buying fabric. Stands were gathered by products in this old market. As an example, bakeries were located in the arc that leads to Big Square, thas is still called Arquillo del Pan (Bread Arc). The Almotacen, the guardian of the market, lived just there. And in this same corner, small as the square, a tiny baroque chapel devoted to a virgin who, because of her size is called Little Hope (La Esperancita).

The market grew as the town did during the Early Modern Period, so part of it was moved to the other square and Plaza Chica lost part of its commercial function.  However, it kept being the political and judicial centre, and became the location for some taverns and inns. They were our precedents, the ancestors of all these bars and restaurants that fill the square with life, colour and delicious food. 

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Escabeche: history and practice of pickling.

A Bit of History: The Origin of Escabeche

Trying to discover the history of a dish, it is very common to trace the history of its name, the etymology. In Spain, and Spanish, Mr. Corominas is the father of any etymology, so we turn to him to know where escabeche (pickling brine) is from.

This term comes from Arabic iskabej -it sounds obvious, regarding the amount of spices that dress the dish- and iskabej comes from Persian, because the dish appears on the menus of One Thousand and One Nights.

But Corominas takes it to his side. He puts a bit of Catalonian in this etymology, the pair –ch, because the usual evolution in Spanish should have been escabeje or escabel. But it doesn’t mean that the dish was born  in Sabadell, for example, as some people say, but the normalization of the term was based on Catalonian Medieval recipe books –as the Llibre del Coch, by Mestre Robert de Noia-, which were pioneers of European gastronomic writing.

Considering that language (and literature) is a reflection of life,  we can know the evolution of a concrete practice by following the evolution of a word. So, if we look back to the origing of the word escabeche, we will arrive almost at the origin of the civilization, the cradle of the Neolithic and the preserving practices that allow human being to overcome the alimentary right-here-right-now.

Pickling, as well as its cousins, marinades, is based on the use of an acidic medium (mostly vinegar) to avoid putrefaction. But, differently from marinades, food for pickling is previously cooked.

Spanish version is defined by the use of olive oil for frying this food (some people boil it, but the result is not as good as frying), and use different spices to make it tasty, mainly black pepper, bay, saffron and/or paprika.

As the Spanish culinary writer Capel says, European historic recipe books, as Alexandre Dumas’ Dictionary of Cuisine, give a Spanish origin to escabeche. And nothing can be more Spanish than this subsistence cuisine, that allows to take advantage of the abundance and low cost of seasonal produces, preserving them for days and eating them cold, wherever and whenever.

Nowadays, with all our fridges, microwaves, thermomixes  and so on, preserving is just an anecdote, although it doesn’t take taste from one of the more versatile and typical dishes of our cuisine.

 

A Bit of Practice: Cooking and Eating Escabeche

For a good escabeche you just need whatsoever, a good oil, vinegar and spices. Whatsoever can be meat, fish or vegetables, but always fried in a good olive oil. Here in Extremadura you can find escabeche made of vegetables (courgettes, beans, string beans, eggplants…), game meat, chicken, rabbit, sardines or river fishes.

Regarding to vinegar, any wine vinegar is appropriated for an escabeche made of game meat or fish, because a more aromatic one takes the chief role. On the contrary, vegetables and chicken ask for a good Sherry Vinegar.

About spices, they change according to cooks’ mood and preferences: there are as many escabeches as cooks. But if you have any doubt, you always can look up for a recipe on the Internet, where you can find plenty of them.

There are also some tricks for eating. First of all, you should use a spoon: the sour juice is part of the dish. Second, but not less important, let it rest for a day before eating. And finally, to make it perfect, you should eat it cold, a hot summer night, in La Tertulia.

 

SOME SUGGESTIONS

Escabeches are a classic dish of la Tertulia summer menu. Defined by frying in batter and by the mix of vinegar and bay with toast garlic and saffron plus some orange slices, the result is a dish where technique is an excuse for enjoying a soft mix of aroma and taste. This summer we suggest escabeche made of courgettes from El Raposo or Sardines  in pickling brine.

And for drinking, a cold beer, because the bitternes of beer make the taste of pickling strong.