A Spanish Retreat

The word retreat can mean stepping back and that’s what three girlfriends and I did a few weeks ago. Our retreat was a well-hidden villa, tucked away up and around a few narrow roads outside the seaside resort of Altea, an hour down the coast from Alicante airport. Our hire car was perfect for our needs but the traffic was aggressive and plentiful and each of the few essential journeys made us dread using it. Our villa was spacious, had air-con in every room (except the kitchen), several outside eating spaces including our favourite pool-side table and lovely views to mountains, sea and what we thought might be a secret dope farm. On walks we picked wild figs, very sweet curly little bananas and tall stalks of seeding fennel. We swam in the sea twice, the second visit far more fun and better organized because we took sandwiches and found a perfect parking spot. 

The first stop, though, as we hit Altea after the nerve-wracking drive from the airport, was a supermarket for victuals for the evening meal and breakfast. As usual on the Blondes annual getaway (a tongue-in-cheek name for old friends met in the early days of Time Out where we all worked), I’m in charge of running the kitchen so I offered to make the food dash while designated driver wilted in our precariously parked car and the others went in search of the office holding the villa key. 

I found the wine counter first at Masymas supermercados and was amazed at the cheapness of the wine; many bottles of white under 4 euros. We all love Spanish fresh gazpacho and here the litre cartons cost triple the price of a bottle of wine yet are still far cheaper than in the UK and worth every penny. I bought garlic, shallots, olive oil, vinegar, cherry tomatoes, sliced mushrooms and pasta for supper, snack biscuits and olives to go with the first bottle of wine (I bought four). Shopping in haste, I loaded up with water, coffee, milk and yoghurt for breakfast. With a very nice basket (12.99 euros) with leather shoulder straps to carry wine and water, the bill came to 51 euros. Our next shop, a far more considered affair at a huge branch of Mercadona on the outside of town, relied on a list I’d made in London augmented by what took our fancy. I divided up the shopping list and we hit the isles in two sets of two, aiming to buy all the food and booze we needed for a week. That bill, which included a mound of fabulous prawns, squid, Serrano ham, loads of fruit, lemons, seasonal veg and salad stuff, eggs and cheese, mayo and more yoghurt, milk and butter, cous cous, jars of chickpeas and lentils, more pasta, gnocchi, rice, fresh and dried bread, canned sardines, spatchcocked raw chicken and a cooked sous vide chicken in what turned out to be delicious brown juices, gin, tonics, beer and wine, more gazpacho (our lunchtime staple), more water, kitchen roll and other hardware necessities, came to 224.02 euros. The point of going into this shopping detail is to show how incredibly cheap our self-catering week turned out to be. We ate and drank heartily and healthily and spent around 50 quid each.  

I’m giving here a rough breakdown of our meals and recipes for the most popular dishes. One item I tossed into my trolley turned out to be a godsend; a densely packed little plastic box of finely chopped flat leaf parsley leaves with equally finely chopped garlic. It transformed fried potatoes (with thyme from a pot in the garden), ratatouille, a squid stew with tomatoes and gnocchi with silky, lemony mushrooms with white wine. We consumed just about everything, leaving behind a half empty bottle of olive oil and another of vinegar, packets of pasta, cous cous, rice and salt. 

Fri: Supper: Mushroom pasta with garlic, white wine and thyme Sat: Lunch: Gazpacho with lettuce and herb salad, cheese and bread Supper: Huge, freshly boiled prawns, mayo and pickled cucumber Sun: Lunch: Gazpacho, Piedmontese peppers, cheese and bread Supper: Torn cooked chicken in delicious ‘gravy’, with garlicky, herby fried potatoes and green salad Mon: Lunch: Gazpacho, lentil salad with capers, olives, cherry tomatoes, chives, and sweetcorn Supper: Squid with tomatoes, herbs and green olive cous cous Tue: Lunch at the beach (expensive and awful) Supper: Roast ratatouille with poached eggs Wed: Lunch: Sardines on toast with tomatoes Supper: Gnocchi in mushroom and herb sauce Thur: Lunch: pic-nic on the beach: egg mayo and chicken sandwiches Supper: Roast spatchcock with (burnt but delicious) carrots and shallots and herby fried potatoes Fri: Lunch: Fridge Tidy chickpea salad

RECIPES all feed 4

     I rarely make gazpacho from scratch these days since one of my sons introduced me to Brindisa’s l litre cartons of the salad soup. It is very, very good and I’ve since come across similar versions at my local deli (www.bayley-sage.co.uk). If you do wish to make it from scratch there are two recipes on my website, one for a pukka version (ww.lindseybareham.com/gazpacho-with-trimmings/) and another for a super-quick no fuss version (www.lindseybareham.com/no-fuss-gazpacho/). We all love Piedmontese Peppers, and half a pepper each makes the perfect light lunch with bread and cheese. There’s a recipe already on the website, find it here: www.lindseybareham.com/piedmontese-peppers/ Sardines on Toast with Tomatoes is one of my fail-safe, quickand vaguely healthy recipes, a perfect way to upgrade canned sardines on hot buttered toast. Add a smear of creamy Dijon mustard or dollop of pesto instead, adding thick slices of decent tomatoes and a handful of fiery rocket to tumble over the top. Any bread works well but a dense-textured sourdough or ciabatta works best, giving a good contrast of textures. Each mouthful is a wonderful mixture of sardines melting against hot, crusty toast with sweet acidity from tomatoes with a grassy finish. Our Althea version was a make-do one; soft seed bread instead of chewy sourdough, shredded lettuce instead of rocket but it was the dish everyone wanted to make when they got home. A good tip with canned sardines is to open then up like a book and remove the backbone. I often then mash them smooth with their olive oil, plenty of black pepper and a generous squeeze of lemon juice. You then have a delicious sardine pate to pile onto hot buttered toast or layer up, bruschetta-style, with tomatoes or watercress. This takes about 15 minutes to prepare including making toast.

4 thick slices sourdough or similar bread

1-2 tbsp Dijon mustard or pesto

2 x 120g cans sardines in olive oil

3 ripe and tasty tomatoes

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Handful of rocket, watercress or shredded Little Gem 

Toast the bread. Spread generously with mustard. Split the sardines in the tin and remove the backbone, piling the sardines onto the toast as you go. Tip the oil in the can over the top. Core the tomato, cutting it out in a pointed plug shape, then slice into chunky wedges. Lay the wedges over the sardines, piling them up to entirely cover the fish. Splash the tomatoes with the extra virgin olive oil then season with salt and pepper. Scatter greenery over the top and serve with lemon wedges. There was a flourishing pot of chives on the villa terrace and I used it daily, in salads and in egg mayo for our beach Egg Mayonnaise Sandwiches. I used the last of our loaf – a strange brown seed loaf – instead of brioche rolls or toast that would be my first choice. I add diced cornichon or capers to the mayo with a dollop of Dijon mustard and squeeze of lemon juice. You’ll find the recipe here: www.lindseybareham.com/Egg-Mayo-Toastie-on-Brioche/ In Spain they sell clingfilm-covered trays of thinly and neatly sliced medium-sized white mushrooms in supermarkets which I always buy when I see them. They can be quickly whipped up into a pasta sauce, good with almost any pasta but easiest to eat with a short pasta like penne, messicani or campanelle. Penne with Mushroom, Garlic, White Wine and Thyme was our first supper and it went down like a dream. No leftovers. It took about 20 minutes to cook, 15 minutes to prepare.

2 shallots

1 tbsp olive oil

25g butter

250g thinly sliced medium-sized white mushrooms

1 large garlic clove

Few sprigs of flat leaf parsley

Few sprigs thyme

glass of white wine

pinch chilli flakes or paprika

350g penne or other short pasta

Squeeze of lemon

3 tbsp finely grated Parmesan or similar hard cheese

     Trim, peel and finely chop the shallots. Chose a spacious, lidded frying pan, add the olive oil and half the butter and stir in the shallots. Cook, stirring often, adjusting the heat so the pieces soften without colouring, while you crack, peel and finely chop the garlic. Strip the parsley leaves from the stalks and chop. Chop garlic and parsley together. Strip the thyme leaves from the stalks, discard stalks. Stir the herbs into the softening shallots, cook for a couple of minutes then add the mushrooms. Stir to mix, season with salt and black pepper, adding a pinch of chilli/paprika if you have it. Once all the mushrooms have started to wilt and turn shiny, increase the heat slightly and add the wine. Bring to simmer, reduce the heat to low, cover the pan and cook for 5 minutes. Taste the juices and add more salt if needed and lemon juice to sharpen the flavours. Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to packet instructions. Drain and return to the pan with the remaining butter. Tip the pasta into the mushrooms, stir and serve from the pan or a warmed bowl.    

     The squid I chose at the impressive Mercadona seafood counter were big and uncleaned, so I got cracking on the clean up and preparation for this simple but simply delicious stew early in the morning I planned to cook it. Once cooked and I left it to simmer slowly for about 45 minutes until meltingly tender, I chilled it overnight in the fridge to ‘mature’. Squid is a bit like skirt steak, it can either be cooked quickly at a high temperature or gently for a long time, so bear that in mind. I sliced the cleaned squid in strips, approximately 6 x 1cm and started building up flavours, first with finely chopped shallot, then more of the garlic and parsley, finishing with lots of diced, peeled tomatoes and the dregs of a bottle of white wine. I’m calling it Squid with Tomatoes, White Wine and Green Olive Cous Cous because I stirred cous cous into the copious juices to make a slack risotto-like one pot dish. It worked brilliantly, all at once a muddle of tender, richly ocean flavours, juicy tomato and scraps of silky shallot and salty green olives and soft, innocuous cous cous. Yum yum, even if I say so myself.

750g, approx, prepared squid

4 decent sized shallots

3 garlic cloves

3 tbsp olive oil

50g bunch flat leaf parsley

few sprigs of thyme

6 decent tomatoes, approx 450g

150ml white wine

1 mug of cous cous

10 pitted green olives

     Cut off the tentacles above the ‘eye’. Cut off the eye and halve the tentacles – these will be the prized mouthful. Remove the wings, halve the sac lengthways, scrape away any goo then slice across the halves to make ribbons approximately 6x1cm. Keeping separate piles, trim, slice and finely chop the shallots and garlic. Heat the olive oil in a spacious lidded frying/saute pan and stir in the shallots. Cook gently, stirring often, adding a pinch of salt, cooking for 10-15 minutes until beginning to soften without colouring. Add the garlic and continue cooking while you pick the leaves off the parsley stalks and chop the leaves. Strip the thyme from the stalks, discarding the stalks. Place the tomatoes in bowl, cover with boiling water and leave for 30 second. Drain, cut out the core in a pointed plug shape, quarter the tomatoes through the core, swipe away the skin and scrape the seeds into a sieve over a bowl. Chop the tomatoes. Crush the seeds with the back of a spoon to extract maximum juice. Stir the squid into the shallots, increase the heat and stir fry as the pieces swivel and splutter, the tentacles kick, continuing until all turn from pearly white to snow white. Add the wine, let it bubble up, then turn down the heat and add tomatoes and juices, most of the parsley and all the thyme. Establish a steady but gentle simmer, cover and leave to cook for 30 minutes. Taste a piece of squid; you want it soft and tender. Add salt and pepper to taste. If necessary, cook on for a further 10-15 minutes before you add the cous cous. Cover the pan and turn off the heat. Stir when hydrated – about 10 minutes – adding the last of the parsley and chopped olives. If cooking this 24 hours in advance, as I did, don’t add the cous cous, olives and final parsley until the stew is piping hot and you are just about ready to serve.

     The final recipe I want to mention because it was and is always such a hit is Oven Ratatouille. I learnt Michel Guerard’s surprising method over 40 years ago from his book Cuisine Minceur. You can read all about it and get the recipe here: www.lindseybareham.com/oven-ratatouille/

Happy Cooking! as chef legend Anton Mosimann used to sign off his books.