La cuina de Catalunya: broiled quail and allioli, in homage to El Taller in Caldes d’Estrac

Allioli from El Taller.

Now that our big news is out in the open I can return to my previously-scheduled food blabbering. Once again I find myself two months out from our trip to Barcelona and with very few posts capturing all of the amazing food we had this time around, but I hope that a preoccupation with figuring out where we were going to live next was at least a decent reason to be distracted. With many of those details finally being ironed out, it’s time to talk about one of my top-five restaurants of all time: El Taller in Caldes d’Estrac.

We were introduced to this place by a front desk employee of Kalima two years ago: still very jet-lagged and also exhausted from twenty hours of travel to get there, I asked him for a recommendation for a good place to eat. He asked me if we wanted peix or carns, and quickly jumped at the latter. Giving me a card for a place called El Taller, he assured me it was the best place to get meat in town. The meal we had that night was exquisite, and one of our few regrets during that trip was that we weren’t able to return there for one more meal later during our stay, so when we were planning this most recent trip Michael assured me that we’d probably eat there every night we were there.

El Taller, Caldes d’Estrac

We ended up restraining ourselves to two dinners, both because I wanted to go to Tasqueta at least once during our time in town and three straight nights of meat-heavy meals felt slightly excessive, even to us.

While everything from the rice salad to the cocas are delicious, the star dishes at El Taller are the broiled meats, particularly when they are paired with the classic allioli a la catalana. The meat is seasoned liberally with salt and pepper and broiled long enough to crisp the skin yet short enough to keep the meat tender. I chose pretty lean meats both times we were there—namely rabbit and quail—and even though I usually like them rare, I really enjoyed them broiled because they clearly weren’t kept under the flames for too long. On our second visit Michael ordered the pig cheeks and they really benefitted from being under the intense heat as they ended up striking a nice balance with the crust and the fatty interior. UNF.

The pork cheeks in question.

If the broiled meats are the stars at El Taller, their allioli a la catalana is the unsung hero. A little ramekin of it comes with many of the dishes and you slather it on every bite of meat possible because it complements it so well. It’s a very simple sauce of garlic cloves, olive oil, lemon juice, and some salt, but it’s all brought together very slowly using a mortar and pestle. First you mash the garlic and salt into a paste, then you add a little lemon juice, and then finally you drizzle in little bits of olive oil at a time, working the pestle around and around to absorb the new oil into the emulsion you’ve created and  transforming what was a bit of garlic into an incredibly rich and sharp sauce.

Broiled rabbit with chips.

I’m not sure if this is the exact way they make it—I used a traditional recipe from José Andrés’s Tapas cookbook when I made it a couple of weekends ago—but I was immediately brought back to El Taller’s cozy dining room when I tasted it, and with some quail thrown under our broiler all we needed was a bottle of the restaurant’s house red to fully bring us back there. We too liberally seasoned them with salt and pepper and stuck them under the broiler. I think the next time we make them I’ll drizzle a little olive oil to help brown the skins a little more, but otherwise everything was delicious reminder of warmer evenings spent in Caldetes.

My attempt at allioli.

 

Should you try making allioli from scratch? Well, if you love grilled or broiled meat and you’re open to standing and fussing over a mortar and pestle, then I think it’s worth making at least one time. It’s delicious over meat, and it’s delicious over pasta, and it’s probably just as wonderful over broiled fish. (That might be the next application for this sauce in our home, actually.) It’s time-consuming and slow-going, but to be completely honest it’s also really exciting to see this sauce come together through your sheer brute force. Easy and fast things have their place, but sometimes slow and steady is a better way to make dinner, especially as things get colder and days get shorter.

We’re still perfecting our broiling method, so in the meantime, try this sauce with your favorite grilled meat of choice.

Allioli with the broiled quail. Add this to my list of things to make when the light is better.

Allioli a la catalá

adapted from Tapas by José Andrés

  • 4 garlic cloves
  • Pinch of salt
  • Juice of ½ of a lemon
  • Extra virgin olive oil (I ended up using about ¾ of a cup and had more than enough for four quail plus I used the leftovers on chicken salad)

Smash the garlic and salt together in the mortar and pestle until you get a smooth paste, and then add the lemon juice and smash again in a circular motion. Add the olive oil in very small portions—chef Andrés suggests drop by drop but I would add in a little bit more and then work it in really well by working the pestle in a circular direction around the mortar. Slowly keep adding oil until each batch keeps getting fully absorbed into the sauce—José thinks it will take about 20 minutes, but it could easily take 30 depending on how quickly you work. Just stay the course and you will see an emulsified yet chunky sauce appear before your eyes.

Serve immediately, but we’ve saved this for a day by patting down some cling against the bowl and placing in the refrigerator.

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