Newsletter | Jan/Feb 2004

Ugly Food in Beautiful Barcelona

by D'vora Treisman
Here in my 150-year-old flat in the medieval section of Barcelona -- the Barri Gotic -- my lunch is cooking on the stove. It's a typical Catalan dish of pops amb mongetes (tiny octopus with white beans) that is satisfying and easy enough for me to make. I grew up in Los Angeles in a home where food was not the main attraction, and where I never learned to cook. Being from Poland and with many interests in things outside the kitchen, I don't think my mother had ever heard of garlic. She never cooked with it, nor did she ever prepare anything with eggplant, artichokes, herbs de Provence, pepper, or, for that matter, very much salt. She simply had no idea what to do with seafood and I never really tasted any (except tiny cooked shrimp or crabmeat decorating a salad) until I grew up and left home.

From this humble culinary background I slowly inched my way into the kitchen. As a young adult I made a lot of pork and lamb chops. My best meals were those I prepared with Shake 'n Bake. But I did learn a few techniques from watching Julia Child when she was on television, and I did learn to include garlic in my cooking. Eventually, in my mid-forties, I met Manuel who identified himself not as Spanish, but as Catalan, and who introduced me to Catalan cuisine.

But about the pops. This is a dish that I first tasted at Pinoxo, a little bar in the Mercat de Sant Josep, generally known as La Boqueria, a 19th century market on La Rambla, and one of the grand old markets of Europe. At La Boqueria, strawberries and plums become an exercise in color theory and design. When you walk up and down the aisles, the stacks of fruit and vegetables diffuse into colorful geometrical abstractions ñ patches of orange, yellow, red, or green. Bring them into focus and they are peaches, oranges, tomatoes, wild mushrooms, and green beans. Walking the aisles is as satisfying as going to an art museum except when you are confronted with the meat stalls displaying hanging dead little rabbits and little skinned piglets who stare at you with their lifeless eyes from the cold case. Barcelona is blessed with thirty-nine municipal markets, making every neighborhood an interesting place to shop.

Pinoxo (Pinocchio), a tiny bar just to the right of the main entrance, is one of several bars where you can eat in the Boqueria. It is owned and run by Joan, a middle-aged man who wears a crisply ironed shirt, a bow tie, and a smile no matter how oppressive the summer heat and humidity. Joan works with his sister, two nephews and one or two other helpers, resulting in five people at a time working behind the twelve-foot counter. There are stools for ten. The food is fresh and homemade. If you want to know what they have today, you ask, as there is no menu. Once when I came for breakfast and asked for a coffee with milk and a croissant, they went to a neighboring bar to buy the croissant for me because they had run out. This is the kind of service I have come to know and love here.

It was at Pinoxo that I ate pops amb mongetes for the first time. It was so good that I decided to duplicate it at home, with the aid of my Catalan cookbooks, which, if they don't always have the actual recipe, at least tell me general methods and times. You can't live here and not cook. There are too many alluring possibilities waiting for you at those markets.

Most Catalan recipes start with the cooking of onions in olive oil, and this dish is no exception. This basic preparation is called a sofregit. You usually add tomatoes, and then possibly other vegetables and garlic, but there is no exact rule and the onion alone could be the sofregit. The other basic preparation common to many Catalan dishes is a picada -- a kind of paste that you make with a mortar and pestle. The ingredients of a picada also vary, and it might not be a paste at all, but something dryer. It may thicken a dish, but its main purpose is to enhance the flavor. A picada will typically contain a little bit of fried bread, almonds, maybe peppers, but the variety is really endless, depending on the dish and the cook.

So, back again to my pops. You start with a sofregit of onions cooked very slowly in olive oil. In the U.S., I would use yellow onions, but here you can get figueres onions, which are pinker than red onions, and usually a little bit smaller than the yellow. They are the sweetest of the cooking onions and can also be eaten raw in salads. The best sofregit is usually the one where the onions cooked the longest -- in some restaurants they cook the onions for hours. I just put the heat as low as it will go and put enough oil in the pan to keep the onions from getting dry and toasting. Generally for dishes like this one that will cook in some liquid, people use a cassola -- a heavy orange clay pot that we might call a casserole, except that a cassola is not quite as tall as normal casseroles. They are cheap -- a big one costs about ten dollars -- they distribute the heat very well, and they stay warm for a surprisingly long time so that you can use the same dish to serve at the table. I've seen them in the U.S. accompanied by warnings that they are not to be used on top of the stove. But if you season it by immersing it in warm water for a few hours, always start with a very low flame, and never put it over high heat, you can. The moisture absorbed by the clay keeps it from cracking.

One lesson I've learned here is that it doesn't have to be expensive to serve you well in the kitchen. When I was looking for a deeper pan to sauté chicken in, a California friend advised that I should go for the more expensive one that I had seen in the kitchen store near Santa Maria del Mar. It cost about sixty dollars. But I didn't have the money so I bought a cheap metal pan, like the ones you make paella in but deeper, for seven dollars. I was embarrassed to tell my friend. Since then I have seen a pan just like it in every kitchen I've been in. People don't seem to buy expensive cookware, and they don't have all the utensils we have -- the fancy German knives, the big cutting boards. You can't buy a decent potato peeler because people don't use them. They peel with a knife. Most people will have a good pair of kitchen scissors and they will use them for many things -- like cutting up chicken or squid -- which I would always use a knife for. Even when they do use a knife, they tend to cut against their thumb, thereby eliminating the use of a cutting board, which might explain why it was so difficult to find one in the stores when we first came. The one we bought is about the right size for serving cheese. In California, my cooking board was two or three times as big. The interesting thing is that the lack of all the fancy cooking equipment doesn't mean a thing. From what I can tell, people here cook well -- men included, OK. For the pops, you make a sofregit starting with onion, then add chopped tomatoes and a little bit of chopped green pepper. People here tend to peel their tomatoes, but I don't. Then add the pops and let it all cook uncovered on the same low flame. The octopus will exude liquid. You cook until the liquid is dark and almost gone -- maybe forty-five minutes or an hour. Then you add cooked white beans and some chopped garlic and heat just long enough for everything to mix and for the beans to heat if they weren't already hot. Here there is no need to add salt because the octopus is salty enough, but here food products are not as sanitized as in the U.S., so best to taste.

The white beans that I use look like cannellini but they're smaller. I buy them at one of the stalls in the Boqueria that sells them already cooked. They also sell cooked garbanzos and other beans as well as some pasta and potato dishes. You can find these beaneries at those same markets as well as scattered throughout the city. There is no reason to cook beans yourself when you can buy them cooked better than you would do at home.

The dish -- pops amb mongetes -- is delicious but not attractive to look at. It's just sort of brownish beans with little dark creatures that are a darker brown. That's one of the problems with Catalan food. A lot of it is brown. One of my favorite dishes is fideua, a dish similar to paella (made in the same kind of pan) but without the saffron and made with noodles instead of rice. The noodles are thin like angel hair and cut short into one-inch pieces. The seafood is mainly squid and cuttlefish and so has the same brown color as the pops. Black rice is another favorite of mine. It's also similar to paella, but it is made with the squid ink (or ink from a cuttlefish, which imparts the black color and incredible flavor). It is traditionally eaten with a little bit of allioli and tastes heavenly, but it is black (and so are your teeth when you eat it) and looks like something burnt on the plate.

Colman Andrews, in his book Catalan Cuisine, warns the American reader that if you want to try to duplicate Catalan recipes, you had better obtain the best ingredients possible. The reason why this is true is because the ingredients here are excellent -- the fresh ingredients have a lot of flavor, from the tomatoes that taste like they came out of the backyard garden, the onions that cook up almost sweet, to the seafood, beans, olive oil, and even the salt, which is coarse and, well, tasty. Catalunya now boasts Ferran Adria, the Michelin three-star chef at El Bulli on the Costa Brava, considered by many to be the best chef in the world, and there is a move on to have Catalan cuisine named as a world heritage by UNESCO. Ugly it may be, but Catalan food is fabulous.

D'vora Treisman, former OWA administrative assistant and member, just recently moved to Tarragona, an hour south of Barcelona where she continues to write, study Catalan, and learn to cook. Her Barcelona apartment, in the heart of the Barri Gotic, is available for vacation and short-stay rentals. She can be contacted at

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