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Homemade with heart: A simple recipe from simpler times

Ari LeVaux
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On the last night before the Spanish state of emergency went into effect, in the only restaurant in the village atop the narrow valley, people gathered for a birthday party.

The television was blasting scenes of coronavirus panic in Madrid, but nobody was paying attention to it, or the slow roll of the impending crisis.

Aside from that wall-mounted television, Comidas Caseras de Carmen (Carmen’s Homemade Food), felt like an eatery from a different century. As soon as you take a seat, Carmen sets down a large flask of wine and a pitcher of water, and then asks what you want to drink. Her only other question is what kind of meat.

Beyond that the menu is set. First comes a mound of lettuce topped with fresh raw veggies and drizzled with pomegranate dressing. Then, a steaming vat of soup and a stack of bowls. You ladle the soup and pass around the bowls.

The soup changes daily. In my three visits I had cocido de hinojos, made with fennel and white bean; sopa de mariscos, a seafood soup thick with mussels, clams, squid and fish; and salmorejo, a cold, pureed gazpacho.

After the soup comes a skillet of papas alins, potatoes cooked in sherry and olive oil. Decadently soft and impregnated with oil, they are so incredibly edible that the average diner waves the white flag before the skillet is half empty if they don’t pace themselves.

Then come the meats. The rabbit tastes like chicken. The chicken is cooked in a Dijon turmeric sauce. The goat is in stew form, and includes pieces of liver. My favorite was the lamb, salted and grilled. I washed down the melted fat with big gulps of wine from the bottomless flask.

Finally comes dessert, usually natillas — a type of Spanish flan with a cookie on top — or avocado mousse, which tastes like vanilla custard with your eyes closed. Anyone who wants could have an espresso with dessert.

My last taste of Carmen’s homemade food was takeout that we ate on our rooftop terrace in the hamlet of Guajar-Faraguit, just down the valley from Carmen’s. She had packed my food in Tupperware, and my wine filled a plastic liter soda bottle. When I returned the next night to bring back the dishes, the restaurant seemed more festive than usual, and her sister was more dressed up. Some motorcycles roared to a stop outside, and several guests ran out, returning with boxes. An octopus-like cake holder appeared, and within moments each arm held a cake.

The birthday girl posed with each guest in front of the ornate cake rack. All the while, on the screen behind them, the news blasted updates of the impending lockdown. As she kissed her mother, I hoped I wasn’t witnessing a kiss of death.

The next time I drove by Carmen’s, it was shuttered. The villages are now silent, but this eerie silence is comforting. Spain does not want to go the way of Italy with COVID-19, and the citizens and authorities are taking it seriously. During our stay there in March, we were stopped by the police while on a grocery run. People kept their distance on the near-empty sidewalks as if scared of being mugged. One person at a time was allowed in each shop. I had my money sprayed with bleach after paying. Many locals were waiting out the epidemic in their mountain huts, next to olive groves where there is always work to do.

Luckily, nobody stopped us from hiking in the mountains, and I stayed busy in the kitchen trying to recreate Carmen’s culinary magic. I will leave you with the potato recipe for now. This summer, when it’s hot, I’ll drop the avocado mousse and salmorejo recipes. And when fennel is available, and nobody knows what to do with it, I’ll give you the recipe for cocido de hinojas.

This is my version of papas alins and not the official one, or Carmen’s. I started making it my way because I hadn’t realized it’s usually made with sherry, which I couldn’t find in the valley. But like the rest of Spain, and the rest of the world, we adjust and improvise when we have to. You can find the official version of this dish online, but my family has fallen in love with mine.

Papas Alins in the time of COVID-19
Makes 2 servings
• 1 pound potatoes, sliced about ½-inch thick
• 1 cup olive oil
• 4 whole cloves garlic
• 1/2 green bell pepper, sliced
• 1/2 sweet red pepper, sliced
• Optional extras: olives, carrot slices

Heat the oil on low/medium, add the potatoes, and let them slowly poach at a gentle simmer. If they stick above the oil a bit it’s OK, because soon they will soften, shrink and sink.

Unlike with fries, where sogginess means failure, here we want the oil to impregnate the soft potatoes. But if you cook them long enough a crust will form that serves to hold in the flavored oils. It’s not authentic, but it’s a nice touch.

After about 10 minutes add the peppers, garlic and any other veggies you might care to. Move things around so the new veggies are submerged, and keep simmering until the peppers shrink and the air smells like a fragrant mix of potatoes and peppers. Strain the oil and serve.