Even someone who doesn't cook much would have trouble walking into Mercat de la Boqueria, Barcelona's main food market, and not getting some sort of impulse to rush out and prepare a meal. Rows and rows of artfully arranged fruits, vegetables, meats, and cheeses make this one of the best and most beautiful markets in the world.
Interspersed among the food stalls are kioskos, minirestaurants, each with a handful of stools. In these, cooks take the best from the market and turn it into amazing meals before your eyes.
Bar Pinotxo ("Pinocchio") is one of the best-known kioskos. A year ago, I sampled the food there, and it blew my socks off. More recently, I got a head start on figuring out how to prepare something similar at home by spending a day in the kitchen with the chefs.
There's no menu. Instead, Joan Bayén (his first name is pronounced Jo-Ann; it's the Catalan version of Juan) guides you to what's good that day. Each dish is tapas-size, so you order several to make a meal.
At the center of a beehive of open-kitchen activity, two men in chefs' coats man a grill and a wok station. Those brothers, Albert and Jordi Asim, nephews of Joan, are my guides.
The narrow kitchen of Pinotxo is reminiscent of a ship's galley. The six-person staff can't walk past one another without twisting, but there's a harmony there that allows most things to happen without anyone needing to speak.
Jordi explains the idea behind the kioskos, essentially taking the best the market has to offer on any given day and feeding that to their customers. "Everything we get comes from the market," he says, "and the fish comes from the Zona Franca," the wholesale market where La Boqueria's fishmongers do their shopping. Prices for plates at Pinotxo can range from the US equivalent of $2 or $3 to about $15. Compared to the other kioskos in the market, it's a bit more expensive, but it offers excellent value.
This day's dishes include a stew made with several kinds of mushrooms and three types of local sausages. After it's placed on a plate, it gets a spritz of balsamic, some gros sel (coarsely ground salt), and a sprinkle of crushed candied almonds purchased from a vendor whose stall is directly across from Pinotxo.
Where did the candied almond idea come from? "Me," says Albert with a grin. "Plus, Catalan dishes like mixing sweet and salty."
Also offered is a trinxat (cabbage and potato cake) that combines greens, garlic, and potatoes into an earthy mix. There are two tripe stews - one traditional, the other made with salt cod. Chicken stock, thick with onions and carrots and tasting of Mom's kitchen, serves as a base for two dishes: whole partridge and cuts of tuna steak.
Inside a Dutch oven over low heat, the partridge bubbles slowly in the stock for about two hours or until it nearly falls off the bone. For the tuna, however, hearty chunks of the fish stay in the pot only long enough to cook them through.
Between orders, the brothers dole out advice for each dish. For the mushrooms that go with the sausages, for example, each type of mushroom is sautéed separately ahead of time. Albert "sweats" them over high heat until they've released their water before sautéing them in a mixture of equal parts olive oil, vinegar, and parsley that's been whirled in a blender. Cooking the mushroom varieties separately allows each to be a perfect texture.
I notice that many of the dishes are cooked on the grill without oil or butter. "It's better for grilled fish," says Albert. "Just put the oil on after for flavor." However, he warns, this technique "just doesn't work as well when the fish is not fresh - the flesh gets too soft."
It's this knowledge of their ingredients that has helped keep Pinotxo in business for more than 65 years. Joan and the brothers own it together. It's been a family affair since the boys' grandmother opened it after the end of the Spanish Civil War.
"We all grew up here," says Jordi, gesturing at the market. "I used to work in the fish market. Albert worked everywhere.
"We worked here every day after school," he adds, memories flashing in his eyes. "When my mother left, we took over."
"Fresh, incredible ingredients with minimal enhancement" seems to be the motto at Pinotxo, but Albert adds a little more: "We cook with our hearts," he says. "If you do things you like, you cook with love. For me, that's wonderful."
The Harvard Common Press offers two excellent cookbooks on Spanish regional cooking. One is 'The Basque Table,' by Teresa Barrenechea. The recipe below is adapted from 'Catalan Cuisine,' by Colman Andrews, editor of Saveur magazine. He advises using "truly ripe tomatoes, preferably homegrown," or in winter, good-quality canned Italian pear-shaped tomatoes, well drained.
1 to 2 thick slices French or Italian bread
1 medium fresh tomato, very ripe (see note above)
Mild extra-virgin olive oil
2 to 4 anchovy filets OR 1 to 2 very thin slices prosciutto or Black Forest-type ham
Grill the bread lightly on a grill or toast under a broiler (turning once in the latter case).
Cut tomato in half crosswise, and then rub both sides of the toast (including the crust) with the cut side, squeezing gently as you do. This will leave a thin red film, including some seeds and bits of tomato flesh, on both surfaces of the bread.
Drizzle oil on both sides of the toast to taste. Salt to taste.
Place anchovies, prosciutto, or ham on top, and serve with a knife and fork. Makes 1 appetizer-size serving.