¡El Splato!

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!

Our desire to travel to Spain was born out of a desire to be a part of La Tomatina in Buñol, a small town about an hour outside Valencia; a bucket list item that we just had to be a part of, even though we were twenty years older than most of the participants. We’ve seen images of this event for years and each time we do, we swear we’re going to make the trip. Now we can gratefully cross the item off our list.

La tomatina

Tomatoes--good for eating and for throwing.

If you’ve ever been in a mosh pit (mosh pit:  for the AARP crowd, it’s a large crowd of hooligans at a punk concert that slam, push and bounce around) imagine being in the craziest one ever with 45,000 people who’ve come from all over the world to be packed into the narrow streets of Buñol for four hours or more–that’s La Tomatina. For hours we stood (if you can call it that) in the middle of a narrow street leading to the village square while being pushed from side to side as waves of bodies moved with a pulsing motion forward, back and from side to side. As more and more people pushed their way to the front of the throng, the crowd grew more and more dense until it was impossible to find a spot where you were not crushed against bodies. One wrong step and a fall and it could be the end. Luckily, neither one of us suffered any injuries. And, this was all happening before the beginning of the tomato fight.

45,000 people packed like sardines, waiting for the fiesta to begin!

We ended up next to a gang of thugs ripping off t-shirts from unsuspecting men trying to push by. And once the t-shirts were ripped from the men the shirts were tied in knots and thrown around the crowd.By the way, none of the men harassed any of the women and most of the young men were even protective of the women in the crowd. We eventually decided to just take our shirts off instead of having them torn off our bodies.

Hot messes!

As more and more people jammed closer to the square, the temperatures soared. All of those bodies produce a lot of heat and when you combine that with a hot, cloudless day in Spain in August, well  you can imagine the crowd’s growing discomfort.  We did get the occasional relief from the stench and sweat whenever the locals threw buckets of water and sprayed hoses from their balconies or rooftops down onto the crowd. This only made the knotted shirts that much harder as they grew saturated from the water accumulating at our feet. By the way, it’s no fun to get hit in the head with one of those. And someone had the nerve to bring a hollowed watermelon as a warmup. Another thing that hurts like a mother f#$%er when it hits you in the head.

Here come the tomatoes!

The actual tomato fight doesn’t officially start until some crazy young man climbs to the top of a greased poll and captures the jamon. And once he does, he’s then hand passed overhead through the crowd along with the jamon, as a type of hero, until he reaches the end of the crowd. Once he reaches the end, a huge cannon blast signifies the start of the tomato fight and all hell breaks loose! If the sardine packed crowds weren’t enough, the crowd gets pushed out of the square as huge trucks drive through the small street with huge rugby player-types (the forwards, not the backs) walking in front as they push everyone who is not on the narrow sidewalk out of harms way of the truck. Of course as they do this everyone is being smashed up against one another and the wall. Riding on the trucks are more rugby players throwing tomatoes (think of the hard Roma variety) into and at the crowd and that’s when the fun begins.

Watch those tomato seeds (and the wet knotted shirts).

We were pushed down a side street by the first truck and as each truck passed by we were pushed further and further down the street until the second blast signaled the end of the tomato fight. By that time we were standing in a river of red as water and tomato filled the streets. Once the trucks pass and the streets run red everyone who has not had enough will body surf down the streets and throw handfuls of red mucky whatever at who ever is around. (This is the part that most people see in images). After all those hours of being in the mosh pit from hell with smells of sweat, tomatoes, sewer (Buñol at the end of summer smells just as bad as any major city in the summer) and god only knows what else, we had had all we could take as we gagged our way out of the crowd. Our forty year old bodies had given up. We threw a few tomatoes and had a great time but we weren’t covered in red like many of the participants.

Will they ever be clean again?

At the beginning, just as we exited El Arbol’s bus and as we walked down to the city center, we thought that this might be an annual pilgrimage, but as we ascended back to our bus after the tomato fight neither one of us wanted to return to the event again. At dinner that night, it took all the muster we had left to gag down a few cherry tomatoes. Maybe our next bucket list item needs to be something more age appropriate and serene, like yoga in Bali.

The pressure is on

Wonderful flavors of orange, rosemary, and red wine are perfect for a weeknight Valentine's day dish.

With so many new kitchen gadgets coming onto the market these days, it’s easy to understand why home cooks feel overwhelmed by the expanding kitchen toolbox on offer from our favorite retailers. We thought it would be nice to take a step back in time by returning to a classic, trusted device we’ve come to love – the pressure cooker. As we write “trusted,” our thoughts turn to our mothers and their fears of exploding lids, shattered glass and hot molten food blown all over ceilings and walls. Some love these things, some hate them, and some don’t know what the hell we’re talking about. Read on, we’ll explain.

Pressure cookers are stove top pans with locking lids on them that use steam and pressure to cook food very, very quickly. Think of it as a sort of precursor to the microwave that hisses but doesn’t emit electromagnetic waves (or reheat coffee). There are so many great uses for the pressure cooker it’s a wonder why there aren’t more of them in U.S. households. But when we bring up the joys of the pressure cooker to our moms, we can see shrieks of terror in their eyes. Modern pressure cookers are infinitely safer than those our grandmothers used to put up preserves. With built-in safety features that prevent explosions even under the most negligent use, these cookers provide the perfect solution to the home cook who wants to prepare slow food quickly. Slow cookers, used for long braising of roasts and all-day simmering of stews, certainly have their time and place in the kitchen, but when you want to cook a stew or beans extra fast there’s only one device that will get the job done and it isn’t your microwave oven.

If you’re in the mood for a hardy yet elegant dish for Valentine’s day, without all the stress, may we suggest that you try epicurious.com’s Lamb and Shitake Mushroom Stew in the pressure cooker. The wonderful thing about this recipe is that you can substitute  almost any meat for the lamb (our latest version made use of wild elk). You can  use button or portabella mushrooms in place of the shitake if you don’t like the shitake’s slippery texture.  It’s even better made a day or two ahead and reheated, served over buttered noodles, orzo, polenta, rice, or simply in a bowl with a nice piece of baguette on the side to sop up the delicious sauce. So there’s no need to stress over what to cook on Monday night’s romantic dinner if you’ve planned ahead, just reheat and serve.

Pressure cookers are safe and easy to use. They’re also energy efficient. So put away any fear of catastrophe inherited from the cooks in your family and invest in a tool you’ll love the very first time you put it to use. You can spend a little or a lot on a good pressure cooker. Our suggestion is to start modestly. Our pressure cooker was a gift, but we suspect it wasn’t a bank breaker. We don’t need a lot of bells and whistles on a pressure cooker – quick pressure release, low pressure settings, etc. We’ve experimented with ours and know how to get the best out of it. With a little time, you’ll get there too.

This Lamb and Shitake Stew recipe makes use of some of our favorite flavors – red wine, rosemary, orange and salty Kalamata olive. Use grass-fed beef if you can’t find good lamb. You’ll still be pleased by the results. In the pressure cooker, all those great flavors come together in minutes. Enjoy!

Pressure Cooked Meat and Mushroom Stew (aka Lamb and Shitake Stew)
Can be doubled and frozen for a quick dinner later in the month

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 lb. lamb shoulder meat or chops, beef, elk or pork roast cut into 3/4-inch cubes
6 ounces fresh mushrooms, shitake (stemmed), button, or portabella mushroom cut into 1/2-inch pieces,
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
2 3×1/2-inch strips orange peel (orange part only)
2 large garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
1 14 1/2-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice
1 cup Chianti, Sangiovese, or other fruity red wine
10 Kalamata olives or other brine-cured black olives, pitted, halved

Heat oil in a pressure cooker pot over high heat. Sprinkle lamb, or whatever meat you are using, with salt and pepper. Add the meat to pot; sauté until light brown, about 5 minutes, you may need to do this in two steps to avoid overcrowding the pan. Add the next 5 ingredients; sauté until onion is golden, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes with juices and wine; bring to boil. Put the lid on top of the pressure cooker and reduce heat to medium-low for about 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat, release the pressure and stir, checking to make sure that the stew does not burn on the bottom of the pan. If the sauce is still too thin then put the lid back on, bring back to pressure and cook for another 5 minutes.

Add olives to stew and season with salt and pepper. (Can be made a day or two ahead. Cool slightly. Refrigerate uncovered until cold, then cover and keep refrigerated. Rewarm over medium heat, adding water by tablespoonfuls to thin sauce if desired.) Serve with orzo, buttered noodles, or rice as the base for the stew.