A little sun and salt

Tomorrow will be the first anniversary of our engagement and if there's anything I find more surprising than how quickly time has passed, it would be the montage of my random recollections of that day.

If you were to ask a million people to free-associate the words "engagement" or "proposal" it is highly unlikely that you would hear a chorus of cows, neon orange scuba suit, or giant-teddy-bear-riding-shotgun-in-an-Ariel-Atom from any of them - save one if, by some bizarre coincidence, I happened to be in your sample pool.

Another unlikely association would be salt. But being the kind of girl who associates all major events in her life with some kind of taste, this is one of the things I remember the most vividly from that crazy cool day.

The actual proposal came quite unexpectedly one lazy afternoon whilst we enjoyed an impromptu picnic during the only 2-hour window of sunshine all weekend. Our "feast" consisted of one bottle of Veuve (inexplicably sporting the above-referenced scuba suit), half a salami, a block of cheese and some leftover tapenade from the day before, and the last remnants of a bag of garlic crostini leftover from God-knows-when.

It wasn't especially practical to eat out of the boot of the car...

...but luckily, we happened to have an emergency hairdryer box on hand.

This is just one of the many reasons why I love this man so. 

That and the fact that many a would-be fiancé might have panic-paired a last-minute champagne proposal with a bunch of chocolates, sweets or something slightly less savory, but not mine. I may be a certified sugar-monkey, but when push comes to shove, I'll take a sassy salt-block over a sappy sugar-cube any day of the week. Besides, any more sweetness that day would have sent me straight into hyperglycemic shock.

Then again, truth be told, I was pretty salty myself that day - figuratively and literally.
If you're interested in the full story, you can read about it here.

Later that evening we met up with Francesco and Katrin - who, henceforth, will be affectionately referred to as the FranKat's - and the four of us continued celebrating all night at Algarve.

Named for a small region in Southern Portugal, Algarve is the only Portuguese restaurant in Utrecht and conveniently located around the corner between our respective houses. With a handful of tables in the front and one guy doing all the cooking in the back, it's one of those delightful little gems that really transports you and turns a simple dinner into a virtual holiday.

Always quick to befriend the waitstaff - after all, this person is responsible for my happiness for the next couple of hours - I inquired enthusiastically about the menu and was directed immediately to the specialty of the house: bacalhau.

Since the 16th century, bacalhau (known elsewhere as baccalà, bacalao, or just plain salt cod) has been the national dish of Portugal. The tradition is so strong there that dishes are categorized as fish, meat, poultry or bacalhau. Preparations vary from boiling, frying and grounding to grilling or baking. It is well documented that there is a different bacalhau recipe for every day of the year, and there are those who believe even that to be a gross underestimate.

Salt-cured and sun-dried, this unassuming, unsexy fish is even credited with making the Age of Discovery possible by providing the essential protein necessary for long sea voyages. It is also said that once you acquire a taste for it, you may be hooked for life.

Whew. That's one hell of a resume for what essentially amounts to fish jerky.
But damn was it good!

And what a perfectly appropriate metaphor for this day:

That the most average, ordinary, everyday things can become the impetus for a veritable renaissance with nothing more than a little sun and salt.

Bacalhau a Marinheiro (Sailors Bacalhau)
recipe adapted from AlgarveBuzz

This recipe requires a little forward planning if you're using traditional bacalhau, but it's really easy and very much worth it. Once desalted and rehydrated (check packaging instructions as soaking times will vary and some now come pre-soaked), the bacalhau can be cooked and either stored in the refrigerator for a day or two or frozen until you're ready for the deliciousness.

I will admit that salt-curing does impart a unique flavor that's pretty impossible to reproduce, but if you can't find any authentic bacalhau, fresh cod works just as well and it's likely that no one but you will know. If you're feeling ambitious, you can soak it overnight in a saltwater bath of 4 parts water to 1 part salt. Just be sure to cover it tightly or you'll need a boatload of baking soda to rectify the situation.

3 cups desalted bacalhau or fresh cod
1 cup milk + water
4 medium potatoes, cubed, shredded or julienned
3-4 tablespoons olive or canola oil 
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
2 egg yolks
1 cup full cream (light cream works well also)
3 tablespoons dijon mustard
salt & pepper
1/4 cup full-bodied white wine
1/2 cup breadcrumbs, lightly toasted
parmesan cheese or a cured sheep cheese
6 tablespoons cold butter (optional)

Whether you're using desalted bacalhau or fresh cod, place the whole portions in a pot and cover them completely with a water and milk bath. Let it boil for 15 minutes, at which point you will notice the cod puff up and the portions become much more flaky.

Drain the cod and let it cool. While its cooling, preheat your oven to 175 C/350 F, unless you're going to freeze or refrigerate it for later use.

When it's cool enough to handle, remove and discard the bones and skin. (Another merit of the fresh cod is that fillets are usually boneless and skinless.) Then you can either place the cod pieces in a food processor and pulse a few times to shred lightly, or you can shred it the "authentic" way: place the cod flakes in a cloth napkin, wrap it up and hit it a few times on your working surface. The water will drain off and the cod will be shredded. Just be sure to close the napkin well so as not to create a storm of random fish parts in your kitchen.

Next, peel and shred, cube or julienne the potatoes. Salt them lightly before frying - this will give them a much nicer flavor than salting them later - and fry them in the skillet until golden. Then drain them on absorbent paper and let them cool.

In the same skillet, melt 2 tablespoons of butter, add the chopped onion and sauté. Once they're transparent, combine with the shredded cod and potatoes in a large bowl.

In a smaller bowl, create a cream mixture by combining egg yolks, mustard, salt, pepper and cream. Blend together, then gently add in the wine and stir until well blended.

Pour the cream mixture over the cod mixture and gently fold until everything is one big, beautiful mess. Spoon into an oven-proof pan or individual quiche dishes and sprinkle with breadcrumbs and grated cheese. Dot with scattered bits of the remaining butter and bake for 15-20 minutes.

Garnish with lemon slices and olives if you like.

Serve hot with a leafy-green salad, seasoned with a vinaigrette type dressing (we made this one) and a bottle of your favorite white wine.

If you happen to have leftovers, it's even better the next day.


Whip it good

There was a time, not so long ago, when I feared I would never be allowed to live in Italy for lack of the innate ability to make a proper cappuccino.

First of all, I use soy milk. That is cause enough for my residency permit to be revoked.

Italians use real, whole milk. Period.

People always come back telling everyone at home how great the coffee is in Italy. But it’s not just the coffee, it’s the milk too. Seriously.

If you order low-fat or soy-milk in the few commercialized coffee shops that even stock the stuff, they look at you like you’re some sort of bleeding heart, left-of-center liberal freak, obviously a tourist with no understanding of proper café culture.

Cappuccino literally means "small cap" and refers to the cap of frothed milk that is supposed to float airily atop a cup of espresso and steamed milk. Historically, my soy caps have been neither frothy nor airy and they sure as hell didn't float, choosing to dive and disperse themselves immediately into the coffee rather than standing proudly with a presence of their own.

Alas, I was certain that a soy-milk cappuccino (much like my visions of living in Italy) was nothing more than a wishful figment of my imagination, a dream that would forever elude me.

Was I the only person in the universe who couldn't make soy milk foam without a $10,000 espresso machine? Despite hundreds of attempts at homemade cappuccinos, I could never, EVER, get the foam going. Luckily I'm actually more of a cafe au lait kind of girl anyway, but cappuccino's are just so darn pretty...

I've mistakenly attributed some kind of self-righteous attitude to this inanimate beverage, deciding that it simply refuses to foam as part of a silent protest. It's all like, "Yeah that's right, you can whip me all you want but I'm not gonna dance for you. If you want pretty milk, go back to your cow, Sissy Girl!"

But take heart friends. I have just discovered that it is not the failings of the soy-milk so much as my own. The secret - as with any frothed milk - ain't nuthin' but time. And a little technique.

So if ever I have to plead my case before a jury of smarmy Italian baristas at the immigration office, I am now confident that I will triumph.

Here are a couple of tips for anyone else who mistakenly believes that they must suffer through a lifetime of unfestive looking coffee solely because they cannot (or will not) do dairy.

1) Get a battery-operated whip (and get your head of the gutter!) - if you are a habitual cappuccino addict, it will pay for itself in less than two trips to Starbucks. I like this one because it has a nice little storage case, and this one is just too cute not to have.

2) Don't be lazy - I had a bad habit of leaving the milk to heat unattended and trying to whip it at the last minute before the milk boiled over (and sometimes not even in time for that), expecting the foam to magically appear like so much fairy dust. But foam needs time to perk itself up - no different than the rest of us in the morning I suppose. So start whipping immediately.

3) Use medium heat, whip in circles and start at the the bottom. I used to skim the whipper on the top of the milk thinking that's where the foam should be (always looking for shortcuts I am), but apparently the magic is in the act of aerating the milk throughout.

4) Enjoy the process - unlike shots of espresso, cappuccino is meant to be savored. That includes the process of making it as well. If you're anything like me, your days are probably super busy so here is a perfect excuse to slow yourself down and stand still for at least 10 minutes in the morning. Take your time and zen yourself out, or (if you simply MUST multi-task) use this opportunity to collect your thoughts and organize your mental to-do list.

Either way, it's a lovely way to start the day...

Cappuccino Variations

Although ratios may vary to taste, a common recipe for a traditional 6 oz. cappuccino is: 1/3 espresso, 1/3 steamed milk, and 1/3 frothed milk. Purists consider this recipe complete as-is. Powdered cocoa or cinnamon may be sprinkled on top. As you can see, I'm as heavy-handed with the cinnamon sugar as I am with my prosecco.

If you allow the freshly frothed milk a moment to rest (and thus separate) you can layer the milk and espresso more easily. Pour your warm milk into the bottom third of the cup, then pour the espresso slowly into the steamed milk and spoon your fabulously frothed milk on top to fill cup. Done in this order, the espresso should settle between the milk and the foam.

Two variations are the Cappuccino Scuro (prepared with less milk and darker in color) and Cappuccino Chiaro (prepared with more milk - but less than a caffe latte - and lighter in color).

It is also growing more common in Italy to see a cappuccino made with only espresso and frothed milk. This is a Classic Cappuccino (1-1/2 oz. espresso topped with 1-1/2- 2 oz. foam) vs the Basic Cappuccino described above.

Gourmet Cappuccino Recipes
[read: excuses to imbibe first thing in the am]

WARNING: If you tend to make monstrous American-sized cappuccino's like mine, please take into consideration your morning activities (like driving, hang-gliding, or cutting your own bangs) before taking the liberty of pro-rating the liqueur quantities.

Caffe Conquistador
Basic Cappuccino with 1oz. of Kahlua topped with whipped cream and shaved chocolate.

Cappuccino Royale
Basic Cappuccino with 1 oz. of liqueur of your choice (classic Italian favorites include Grand Marnier, Frangelico, Amaretto, or any chocolate based liqueur) and top with whipped cream.

Caffe Napoleon
Basic Cappuccino with 1 oz. of cognac topped with whipped cream and shaved chocolate.

Bon Bon
Basic Cappuccino with 1 oz. chocolate mint liqueur topped with whipped cream, shaved white chocolate and a maraschino cherry. (Personally, I would use a brandied cherry - you can find a great recipe at the bottom of this post.)

Cappucino Cioccolocino
Basic Cappuccino topped with vanilla, chocolate or coffee ice cream.

Bottoms Up!
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