Tuesday, September 2, 2008
M is for Membrillo
One of my favorite trips as a kid was going to Spain and visiting my family. We'd always stay with my grandparents in the north of Spain, in the apartment they'd lived in since my father was 4. Mainstream American culture had yet to hit their town and everything around me seemed steeped in old world, European history. Every morning my grandmother would wake me from a deep, jet-lagged slumber and insist that I accompany her on morning errands, all of which involved gathering ingredients for the day's meals. The first stop was always the bakery, where there appeared to be a perpetual shortage of French bread, leading to a race against the clock. Knowing that we had at least 3 other stops to go on our daily relay, the baker would smile, say a quick hello, and pass us our baguette like a runner passing a baton.
That set us off to stop number two, the butcher. In the days before supermarket mega-stores, the butcher was a powerful man. What you ate for lunch and dinner depended solely on what he had available and what was fresh. Being on the butcher's good side was of paramount importance if you ever wanted to bring home another steak. My grandmother had already informed him that we would be visiting and of how much I loved thin veal scallopini, simply seared a la plancha. So, he saved us the entire tenderloin that we could thinly slice and pound out into translucent minute steaks. The last stop was always for what is commonly known here by it's French name, charcuterie. This place was like a mecca for dried and cured meat products, and we stocked up on everything, from multiple kinds of chorizo, to mortadella and entire legs of serrano ham. One last stop for a few pieces of cheese and fruit and we were done for the day.
I'd usually tuck back into bed after all the excitement, picking up on bits and pieces of casual conversation and gossip from the kitchen as I drifted in and out of sleep. As the smell of lentil soup and stove top espresso wafted into my room, I would slowly awake from my sleepy stupor to find the rest of the family showered, dressed, and ready for a late Spanish lunch. I'd always have just enough time to wash up before the futbol match ended and we'd all be summoned to the table. While the rest of us took down one bowl of soup after another, my grandmother thinly sliced a slightly aged manchego cheese and laid it out on a plate. Then she used a string to cut a ruby red, jelly like mold into rectangles and laid them down alongside the cheese. Carefully stacking a jelly slice on top of a piece of cheese, she worked her way through the entire spread of cheese and fruit. I eventually came to love this dish (queso con membrillo) and have often entertained with it. Membrillo, or quince paste, is almost like a firm marmalade that can be sliced and served with cheese or in a sandwich. Its sweetness is a perfect foil for the Manchego, which can be slightly tart, especially as it ages. There's no real recipe here today, but definitely a great idea for entertaining or a lazy Indian summer dinner. Just do as we did and break out the dried meats and cheeses, some membrillo and a good glass of wine. You can sit outside, around the table, or even lounge on the sofa, just grab your family or a loved one and call it a good day.