Wild animals have danger signs written into their DNA: when something unexpected happens, one of the herd panics and starts to run off at top speed. Nearby members of the group do the same and soon all of them are running for their lives. A stampede is underway.
We have all seen this in western movies when a herd of cattle erupt into a stampede and give the the cowboys something to worry about — and the cameramen an exciting scene to shoot. The same thing can happen to human beings. Something occurs without any kind of warning and we go into panic mode. Such as a couple of weeks ago when Britons heard there was a shortage of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers — and many people went racing off to the supermarkets to stock up on these items, leaving the shelves bare.
That shouldn’t have happened because humans are supposedly superior to animals in that we can think. But this power to reason about what is happening is sometimes thrown out the window.
When something unusual occurs we become just like wild animals — and it’s panic stations. But we are not running to save our lives — in our case there’s a stampede to the supermarkets to clear the shelves of the products in scarce supply all of a sudden.
Lettuce, cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes aren’t, and never have been, one of the staples, those foods of everyday use such as bread and milk. Many people I know never eat cucumbers or peppers because they repeat on them. Most of the others aren’t used to cooking with peppers and gave them a miss.
Yet the shelves went bare soon after newspapers and TV mentioned a veggie shortage. It was sheer panic buying and quite unnecessary — just like those cattle stampedes. The cows’ lives were never in any danger, and but for the panic of a few the could have continued their tranquil munching of the grass instead of charging madly across the prairie. But the fact is there was an initial shortage of certain veggies, so what should we have done about it? The simple answer is…nothing whatsoever. We should remain quite stoic about this kind of thing and just carry on as before. We can live for a very long time without eating lettuce, tomatoes, peppers or cucumber. Try it and you’ll see.
Even if resignation and compliance aren’t among our philosophical attributes, we can still handle these inconveniences with consummate skill. If you can’t find fresh tomatoes at the market there are plenty of substitutes. You’ll find plenty of whole tomatoes in tins and halves of dried tomatoes (available in most Palma supermarkets), soaked in hot water for two or three hours, are ideal for using in stews, all kinds of rice dishes and also for pasta sauces.
You can even use canned tomatoes for salads. Get the whole plum variety (called ‘tomates de pera’ in Spanish) and tip them into a suitable sieve or colander, being sure to save the juices for a pasta sauce.
When using whole canned plum tomatoes for a salad you must be very careful when handling them as they fall apart very easily. Pick them out of the colander with a wooden spoon and put them on a small plate.
Puncture them one at a time with the point of a knife and let any excess liquid run out. Then transfer the tomato to another plate and cut it up into the sizes you need for your salad. It’s best to season these tomato pieces with salt and any herbs you are using, mixing them gently with a wooden spoon before adding them to your salad at the last possible moment.
Dried tomatoes, so leathery and apparently inedible, will revive when kept for two or three hours in hot water. In that state they’re not as fragile as canned tomatoes and they are also ideal for salads and all dishes in which fresh tomatoes are used.
When tomatoes are dried they are salted and that increases their natural flavours, some of which are retained even after their immersion in hot water. You can stir some of that water into a vinaigrette, a pasta sauce or any type of stew or casserole.
If you eat a salad every day (and I know many people who do) you have a choice of other greens: small leaf spinach, Chinese white cabbage, pak choy, rocket (rúcula, in Spanish) and others available at most supermarkets. But salads don’t have to include green leaf plants. Most of the root veggies when grated make ideal little salads on their own and also when mixed with other salad ingredients.
For salads of this type, check books on Middle Eastern cooking (the best one I know of is A Book on Middle Eastern Cooking by Claudia Roden). If you want to introduce the cucumber taste into a salad or other dishes, your best option is dill pickle: thin slices of cucumber in a dill-flavoured sweet and sour dressing. You’ll find dill pickles at El Corte Inglés in Avda Jaime III or the Avenidas. A Swedish shop in Calle Santa María del Sepulchre (opposite El Corte Inglés in Avda Jaime III) also stocks jars of it. A few slices of dill pickle are superb when placed somewhere in a hamburger and also when served with grilled salmon and boiled new potatoes or the small Mallorcan potato called patató.
A lack of fresh peppers should never be a problem because any supermarket on the island stocks a wide variety red peppers in jars. They are ideal for paellas, other rice dishes and pasta sauces. When buying red peppers in jars, you’ll see there are various prices. It’s best to get the most expensive ones you can afford.
The finest red peppers in jars are the ‘piquillo’ variety that are sold in all supermarkets. The ‘piquillo’ is a small pepper and is sold cut up into pieces, in slices and also whole. The whole ones make a pretty topping on a paella when neatly arranged over the surface. A splendid Spanish way of using whole ‘piquillo’ peppers is with a couple of fried eggs and slices of good country bread to soak up the juices.
The great cook Juan Marí Arzak, the first Spaniard to win three Michelin stars (for his restaurant in San Sebastian) was once asked what he would eat for his last meal. He didn’t have to give it any thought. His immediate reply was: “A couple of fried eggs and some ‘pimientos de piquillo’”
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