On the Ground + Slow-Roasted Cherry Tomatoes with Saffron Rice

Sorry for the long silence here. In case you hadn’t noticed from my recent Instagram posts, we have moved back to Barcelona. It’s been exactly three weeks now, enough time to realize how freakin’ intense the past seven months have been, trying to live in two places at once. Coordinating the many moving parts of a whole family’s move across the world left me depleted, but landing in one place has renewed my energy and enthusiasm. 

The decision to move was in no way easy or straightforward. One fine day in late December 2017, the four of us went on a hike by the Yuba river, armed with a notebook and pen as our only weapons (and a picnic).  We found a pretty spot (not hard in that setting) and put our tools and minds to work to build a list of pros and cons of each place, Berkeley vs. Barcelona.

Even then, we didn’t see things entirely clearly for a while, which I guess is a good sign of having adapted to our lives in the U.S. Then a friend offered to help us with an i-Ching reading; we were up for anything at that point, and the mind-blowing result left no room for doubt: it was time to move (which in our gut, I guess we knew by then). 

Once we made the decision, in addition to working hard at our regular life in California, we spent all of 2018 searching for a new home in a new neighborhood, schools for the kids, jobs for ourselves, and a container to ship all of our belongings in. We had done the letting-go-of-everything exercise when we moved to California in 2013; it was too soon to repeat it (although we did get rid of a good deal of things this time around as well; namely all of the electrical gadgets, which don’t work in Europe). The shipment is still headed our way; Israel has been following the London Express online daily (it’s in Genoa today). We’ve been camping out in empty houses for the past month and a half, a zen experience that I’ve so gotten used to, I hesitate between wanting our things to arrive so we can finally settle in, and fearing the onset of clutter. 

Though there’s still lots to be done, being in just one place now feels like a cinch. I’m finally grounded, and hugely relieved. Summer in Spain also helps with relaxing; there’s not really much you can get done. I had forgotten how dead everything is here in August, especially the middle two weeks. In the Bay Area, although the seasons were present at the market and in my kitchen, they went more or less unnoticed with the mild year-round weather (aka freezing summers) and non-stop activity levels. Sometimes I had to wrack my brain to figure out what time of year it was. Here, in August all the locals leave the city to the tourists. See you in September was the phrase we heard again and again when we announced our arrival date as August 1 to former colleagues, new job leads, and even close friends, who take off for the whole month, no matter how eager they are to see you. This has allowed us some time to settle in gently, and find our way around our new life without too much pressure from the outside. 

Although this is a move back, we decided not to return to downtown Barcelona, where we lived for 15 years, but rather to a village on the outskirts of the city. Half a decade in a house in Berkeley changed us: the fervent city people we once were now have a hard time imagining themselves in an apartment surrounded by people on all sides. From those days, I still remember the upstairs neighbors’ heels clacking above us, not to mention their heated arguments nor their teenage son’s weekend parties, with the bass of electronic music thudding throughout the entire night. We have chosen a hilly, green village with a population of about 4000 people, a mere 25 minutes away by train. Good public transportation and a no-more-driving life was at the top of my pros-of-living-in-Europe list. 

So far, we love it here. I wake up every morning to the view of Montserrat mountain out my bedroom window, and birds chirping (it’s a pet-friendly area so lots of dogs barking too). I  have my tea and do my yoga practice outside (in fact, we’ve had all of our meals outside since we arrived, another huge plus compared to Berkeley, where it was always too cold in the mornings and evenings) and lots of birds come to visit, real birds, not just ugly city pigeons. (I envision some birdwatching in my far future, and think of my friends Cheri and Jim, as it’s the first time I’ve felt for this weird habit of theirs). 

There’s only one small grocery store in the village (and it’s been closed for the past week and a half- there’s August for you) but to my pleasant surprise, it has a decent selection of organic produce and products. For now, I’m not finding myself missing the vast array of choice of Whole Foods, which we lived 1 block away from in Berkeley, and perused regularly (in fact, the enormous variety on offer never ceased to make me anxious). There’s one brand of organic fresh milk, one brand of kombucha (yes, they even have kombucha! Spain has changed), etc. It’s enough for now. In fact, I’ve been reading labels obsessively, as I am used to, but even some packaged foods, such as coconut milk, a hard one, seem to have shorter ingredients lists. There’s a modest weekly farmers market in the next village (walking distance), where almost nothing is certified organic, yet it’s locally farmed and things taste amazing and even Israel shocked me when he said to me last night “I can’t wait to go to the market this Saturday to buy more nectarines and peaches.” 

We’ll see what it’s really like to live here once real life starts up again in September, the village residents come home, and we have to go into the city for work. I know by now, having moved enough times, that there’s no perfect place. My body is covered in mosquito bites. Spanish customer service is an oxymoron; efficiency is a separate standard and don’t get me started on punctuality. Mealtimes I swear I will never adjust to, no matter how long I live here. The tourism boom of recent years has had dire effects on the city (more on this in an upcoming post), which are causing its lifelong residents to either be forced to move away, due to the rising cost of living, or want to move away from a city that seems solely geared towards overcrowded tourism. 

There are things from Berkeley I know I will miss. People especially (you know who you are; I hope you come visit). But I do feel like I have returned home, like Ulysses after his decade at sea (how funny, after writing this metaphor, I realized that our street is named after the guy who translated Homer into Spanish). 

Today, I am right where I want to be. I haven’t felt that way in a hell of a long time. Or maybe ever. This place I’m at is not an end in itself, however; I haven’t “made it” anywhere. It’s just another step along a path. But the view is sweet from here. 

On the professional front, new projects are also in store. Israel and I have been working hard to revamp the website to reflect Sobremesa’s new Barcelona offerings (please check them out!), all based on the concept of honest tourism. And I’ve been in meetings with dear friends and colleagues, for an exciting new venture I am proud to be a part of.  It’s only been three weeks, yet I feel relieved and excited to be finding people with similar values and enthusiasm for getting things done. More on all of this soon, too.

In the kitchen, I’ve been making do with the very few utensils I've borrowed from my mother-in-law and a couple of close friends.  I haven’t wanted to get too greedy borrowing stuff because, as I learned during the first phase of our camp-out in Berkeley, it gets hard to keep track of what is who’s. And, as I mentioned, I have begun to fear clutter. The weather had been so warm that we mostly crave refreshing salads or cold soups anyway (my mother-in-law brought over an extra blender she had in Madrid; gazpacho is, after all, one of the few dishes she cooks). I have already found a couple of local farmers in the next village. One of them is on vacation until the end of the month, so again, not much choice, but all of the produce I have been getting from La rural de Collserola has been excellent, in addition to goodies like artisanal natural mosquito repellent, or their scrumptious green olives in mojo verde sauce, which we are enjoying with our vermouth during aperitivo and in salads, with the mojo as dressing.

Of course the season’s star right now are tomatoes (in fact, while writing this post, this week’s NY Times Cooking newsletter dropped into my Inbox and guess what? It's all about cooking with the overabundance of tomatoes!). Given my current limited availability of resources, and the farm’s excess of tomatoes on sale, it’s a no-brainer: slow-roasted cherry tomatoes are popping out of the oven on repeat.

 Slow-roasted Cherry Tomatoes with Saffron Rice and Sautéed Baby Leeks

Slow-roasted Cherry Tomatoes with Saffron Rice and Sautéed Baby Leeks

There’s basically nothing to do or add: at its most basic, just a drizzle of a good extra virgin olive oil (not hard to come by around here) and some flaky salt. They are sweet already, but slow-roasting brings out the sweetness even more, so they taste like candy. They look beautiful at the table as is, or in a myriad of flavor combinations. In the photo here, I served them on a platter of saffron rice and sautéed baby leeks, another recent farm favorite of mine which have also been frequenting my kitchen in many ways (sautéed, roasted, braised, or even raw in salads, they’re that tender). The farm has a special deal going on if you order at least 1.5 kilos of cherry tomatoes (over 3 lbs.), but no matter how many I roast, we just can’t get enough. 

Last weekend we had a beautiful welcome back lunch with two of my closest friends, and I brought a big tray of these tomato gems along, which paired very nicely with the veg risotto and eggplant parmigiana my friends had made (they’re Italian, how did you guess?) There was also homemade sourdough bread, a couple of shepherds’ cheeses, copious local wine, and a pistachio carrot cake. Lunch and its sobremesa ended at 8pm! This is why we moved back.  

The roasted tomatoes are just as good warm, room temp (my personal fave), or right out of the fridge (much to my chagrin, my family has a penchant for cold food and beverages, perhaps their most American trait).  A fresh Burgos cheese and black Aragón olives can turn them into a Spanish version of Caprese; basil is not at the market currently (weather’s too hot) but fresh chives have suited them, as well as a parsley salsa verde I made with herbs from our village’s own municipal medicinal garden (!). 

I’m almost ashamed to write up a recipe, they’re that easy, but here goes, especially for my dear friend Cathy, to whom I promised regular blogging with recipes. On one delivery, the farm brought me tomatoes in two colors, and they were just stunning. 

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Slow Roasted Cherry Tomatoes
Preheat oven to 175ºC/350ºF. 
Rinse 3 lbs. cherry tomatoes and pat dry. 
Prepare a baking sheet to fit your oven with parchment paper. Drizzle with good, fruity extra virgin olive oil. Place the tomatoes on top, and shake them around a bit so that they get coated with some oil (alternately you can do this in a bowl; this is the lazy way, so you don’t have to wash the bowl). Sprinkle with a bit of sea salt and, optionally, some freshly ground black pepper. Feel free to add other spices or dried herbs at this stage; save the fresh herbs for later.
Roast, shaking the tray periodically, for about 1-2 hours or until your tomatoes reach your desired consistency (less time for juicier, fresher tomatoes, more time for drier, even sweeter ones). 
Turn off the oven and let the tomatoes sit inside for a little extra slow cooking, always a good thing. 
Serve alone, following any of the suggestions above, or use your imagination; they go well with pretty much anything. 
You can store the remainder (fat chance) in a mason jar and cover with more good olive oil. 
Enjoy. Feel grounded. 

Saffron Rice
Ingredients: 
1 pinch saffron threads
1 cup Calasparra rice (or other short-grain rice, as available)
1 teaspoon good extra virgin olive oil
2 cups veg or chicken stock, preferably homemade (or water, in which case add 1/2 teaspoon sea salt)
Rinse rice well, until the starch is mostly gone. You can do this under the tap with a fine-mesh strainer, or by placing the rice in a bowl, covering with water, swishing around and then pouring off the water. Repeat at least 3 times. Make sure to rub the grains of rice with your hands (some say that this starch is the secret to Japanese women's soft hands!). 
Grind 1 pinch saffron in a small mortar and pestle and infuse in 1 teaspoon water (or stock or white wine) to dissolve. Bring 2 cups veg or chicken stock to a boil in a small pot.
Warm a drizzle of that good olive oil in a separate skillet or heavy-bottomed pot; make sure you have a lid that fits tightly. Add 1 cup Calasparra rice (or Arborio or Bomba or Valencia), a pinch of salt, and stir to coat every grain of rice. Add the hot stock all at once, stir a bit, cover tightly and reduce heat to minimum. Don't stir again. Let simmer on low for 13 minutes. Turn off heat and let sit another few minutes. Serve immediately, or insert a clean kitchen towel between pot and lid, to absorb the steam and not overcook the rice.