Tag Archives: Spain

The Sorcerer’s Apprentices

Book Review: The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adria’s elBulli, by Lisa Abend.

In The Sorcerer’s Apprentices, Lisa Abend chronicles the experiences of thirty-five stagiaires, unpaid apprentice chefs who have beaten out thousands of other applicants to spend a season in the kitchen at elBulli, Ferran Adria’s world renowned avant-garde restaurant in southern Spain.

The three-star Michelin ranked restaurant has been something of a food mecca, with millions of people requesting the several thousand coveted reservations each season, and experienced chefs from around the world willing to work as unpaid stagiaires, to absorb some of the experimental techniques and creative genius of Ferran Adria.

The book is fascinating–as information packed as a documentary, but as suspenseful as reality TV.  The stagiaires arrive from all over the world, nervous and excited.  They are indoctrinated into the procedures at elBulli, slowly gaining confidence and proficiency at new techniques.  The stagiaires work under military-like discipline, day after 14-hour day, to produce the cutting edge, labor-intensive dishes that come together in meals of thirty-plus courses for the lucky patrons of the restaurant.

From steaming rose petals to molecular gastronomy techniques like spherification, reading about the cooking process is riveting.  So, too are the individual stories of the stagiaires–their aspirations, interpersonal struggles, and how they learn to cope with the exhausting pace.

Which stagiaires will not make it through the entire season?  Will any of them be offered jobs as chefs at elBulli?  Will the experience have been worth it?  Where will they go next?  These questions provide the tension that keeps this book moving from start to finish.

One fascinating tidbit from the book: the stagiaires never got to eat the elaborate food that they created for the patrons of the restaurant.  The frustration of cooking stunning food day after day and never actually getting to try dishes such as the “Petroleum”, made of black sesame paste swirled though a pool of transparent white yogurt water, or the “Montjoi Lentils” made from a spherified batter of melted, clarified butter and sesame paste, or the fried chicken cartilage, or baby goat kidneys, was palpable.

Like the punishing pace of boot camp or a medical residency, I had the impression that after their experiences at elBulli, the chefs would find the long hours and fast pace in a more traditional restaurant kitchen laughably easy.

I have long wanted to experience a meal at elBulli, and after reading this book I want to even more.  It seems that is an unlikely dream now, as elBulli is closing in 2012, to be transformed into a creativity center.  But through reading this book, I have at least had the satisfaction of a vicarious experience of elBulli.

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Paella is a complicated dish.  Not difficult to make, but rather a dish full of multiple contrasting flavors that become so much more than the sum of their parts.  There are many variations on the basic theme of rice, meat, or some seafood, and each has its passionate advocates.

And it is also complicated by layers of associations and memories.

We have eaten paella at outdoor restaurants up and down La Rambla in Barcelona.  Wonderful paella, studded with lobster, mussels, and clams, served steaming hot in individual paella pans alongside giant glasses of sangria at tables under the night sky.  The noises of the city, the flow of Spanish conversation, the sights of the crowded pedestrian street, the soft warm air and the summer stars, all served as a backdrop to some truly memorable meals.

But the version of paella I love best, the one that I hold up as a standard by which to judge all others, is the paella that Michael makes.  His recipe varies just a little, depending on his mood and what is available.  The asparagus, bell peppers, or artichokes come and go, but the core elements are always there: the rice richly flavored with garlic and saffron, the chorizo, roasted chicken legs, and shrimp.  This is the paella that he makes for friends, and the one he also makes for intimate dinners for two.

And then, another layer of association: Michael’s paella recipe grew out of a memory of the long-ago summer he spent on Long Beach, of night after night at a restaurant with friends, eating paella bursting with chicken legs and fat shrimp.

As is always true, the pleasure, the real magic, is not just in the food itself.  It’s also in the warmth and comfort associated with it, the view of the city outside rain-streaked windows, the pleasure of sipping a glass of red wine and watching his assured movements as he puts the finishing touches on a special meal for just the two of us, as he did this Valentine’s Day.

If you don’t have a proper paella pan–the traditional shallow, double-handled pan–a large cast-iron skillet will do quite well.  You can vary almost any of the ingredients to suit your own tastes-use chicken breasts if you prefer, or leave the chicken out entirely or substitute lobster.  This will easily make enough paella for four to six people, but it is just right for two with leftovers, as well.


  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 6 chicken legs
  • 1 large onion, chopped fine
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 link (about 6 oz) chorizo, thinly sliced
  • 1 ½ cups rice
  • 3 ¼ cups chicken broth
  • ¼ tsp saffron threads
  • ½ tsp pimenton
  • 8 oz shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • ½ cup finely grated manchego cheese
  • red pepper flakes to taste
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • ½ cup finely grated manchego cheese

And any or all of the following:

  • 2 cups broccolini, cut into bite sized pieces
  • 1 bunch asparagus tips
  • 2 cups red and green bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 cup peas
  • 1 cup baby corn

Heat the oil in the paella pan over medium heat.  Cook the chicken until well-browned all over, remove from pan and set aside.  Add the onions and garlic and cook for a few minutes.  Add the chorizo, rice, broth, saffron, pimenton, shrimp, and cooked chicken.  Reduce heat to medium, cover, and cook for a further 20 minutes.  Mix in the vegetables, and salt and pepper to taste.  Cook for a further 5 minutes or until the chicken and rice are tender and the broth has been absorbed.  Remove the pan from the heat, sprinkle with the Manchego cheese and red pepper flakes, and serve.

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Gazpacho has been on my mind lately.  As I’ve waited for my tomatoes to ripen, I’ve been perusing recipes and mentally rejiggering them to suit my own requirements.  I wanted to reproduce the gazpacho I had in Spain last summer at a back-alley outdoor café in the shadow of the Alcazar, with the sun shining just beyond the sharp shadows of the table umbrellas, a Toledo alley cat winding around my ankles, the clatter from inside the kitchen, the smell of baking breading and cigarette smoke, and a first sip that was so cold and refreshing I could feel it all the way down to my hot, dusty toes…in short, I wanted to do the impossible.

Never have I seen such a terrible summer for tomato lovers.  I’ve harvested a few cherry tomatoes, but the rest of my crop remains steadfastly green.  If they could move indoors with me, out of the damp chill, I’m sure they would.

At the Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning, I perused zillions of beautiful organic tomatoes, grown in sunnier parts of the state.  They were gorgeous, and no doubt worth the four or five dollars a pound they were going for.  But then!  Then I happened upon a corner in which rested box upon box of the unlovelies.  I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for bargain rate cosmetically challenged tomatoes all summer with no luck.  At last, at last…here they were.  Organic tomatoes, $2.00 per pound.  A crowd jostled around the crates, one person even squatting over a box of tomatoes like a territorial lioness protecting her kill from hyenas.  A little overripe, or misshapen or cracked, all different sizes and colors, they really were beautiful in their own way.

This gazpacho may not be exactly the same, but it’s darned close to the one I had in Spain.  Cold, crisp, bright with vinegar and tangy with fresh vegetables, it is a taste of summer.  If you should be so fortunate as to have ripe tomatoes in your garden, you are already half way there.  Serve in mugs for an easy walk-around first course, or in bowls garnished with chopped hard-boiled egg and a hunk of crusty bread on the side.



  • 4 cups seeded, diced tomatoes tomatoes
  • 1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced
  • 1 green pepper
  • 1 red pepper
  • ¼ cup finely diced red onion
  • 1 3-inch long piece of baguette, crust discarded
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tbsp Sherry vinegar
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • ½ tsp ground cumin
  • ½ cup olive oil

Soak bread in water for 1 minute, then squeeze dry, discarding soaking water.

Combine bread, garlic, vinegar, salt, sugar, cumin, peppers, and cucumber, and half of tomatoes.  Blend until smooth.  Add remaining tomatoes and olive oil, blend until tomatoes are finely chopped.

Transfer to a glass container and chill until cold, approx. 3 hours.  Season with additional salt and vinegar as needed before serving.

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Coppa.   Basquese.  Prosciutto Culatello.  Fleur de Sel caramels.  And a wedge of fudgy cake.  It’s nearly poetry, isn’t it?  Yes, and it’s also the contents of a bag I received as a gift recently.  A fragrant, intoxicating, magical gift.  I pulled out the butcher-paper wrapped packages of charcuterie and pressed them to my nose, inhaling deeply as my friend Rob explained that he had picked up this treasure trove at a nearby store called Picnic, and there were little signs with information about the provenance of the food items, so he thought the meat would be within my comfort zone for ethical farming practices.  I could have cried just a little right then, cradling the meat in my arms as the utter sweetness and thoughtfulness of the whole thing sunk in.

I was filled with a primitive urge to tear the packages open with my teeth and bolt the contents like a hungry wolf after the kill, scattering shreds of waxed paper.  I resisted however.  I wanted to wait, get some bread and cheese for sandwiches, to do this right.

Later, when I arrived at Michael’s place with the goods, he also took a deep sniff and smiled.  “This takes me back,” was all he said, but I knew what he meant.  Last summer, we spent two weeks travelling through Spain.  When we first arrived in Barcelona, punch-drunk from jet lag, we sat down at an outdoor café in a sunny square and ordered a plate of assorted meats and manchego cheese.  And then we ate salty, delicate, melt-in-your-mouth cured pork at least once a day for the rest of that trip.

We had thin-sliced, salty jamon in outdoor restaurants.  We ate a memorable  racion of heaped-up meats, cheese, and a few rough-torn hunks of bread served on a wooden platter at a street festival in Pamplona. And bocadillos (baguette sandwiches) stuffed with different combinations of meats, purchased from vendors or made ourselves, for picnics or on trains or just to fortify ourselves until the restaurants opened up for dinner at 9:00 pm.  The smell of that bag stirred a deep sense-memory that included red wine, sunshine, street performers, the hot ancient Roman stones of Toledo, the dust and sweat and adrenaline of Pamplona, the gritty salt tang of the Costa del Sol, and the Rock of Gibraltar appearing on the horizon.

We opened the packages to reveal the meats, sliced tissue paper-thin and stacked on waxed paper.  Deep marbled red, purple, and translucent pink, we peeled the meats from their papers like leaves of a precious papyrus manuscript.  Once the cheese and bread were sliced, we couldn’t bear to turn that meat into sandwiches.  We laid it all out on plates, to sample at will until our fingers and lips were sheened with fat.  We were full beyond belief, fat and happy but still nibbling, unable to stop.  The flavors of the meats exploded in the mouth, the fat so delicate that it melted without chewing.  And when we couldn’t eat anymore, we ate the cake.

I had to see for myself, so I took a little field trip the other day.  Picnic is a wonderful store–a den of delights, with walls of wine, tables stacked with truffles and condiments, and a cold case of meats and cheeses.  I ordered the Charcuterie Plate to go, and enjoyed myself browsing while the meat was cut to order.  Picnic isn’t a store for when one is in a hurry, but rather for a a place for peaceful anticipatory contemplation as one’s order is lovingly assembled. 

Salame feline, sopressata, basquese, a chunk of pate.  Also included were some mustard, cornichons, pickled onion, and several slices of baguette.  A feast.  And like all of the finest feasts it was simple, elemental, and best shared with loved ones.


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