The Courtier Cooks…Arròs Negre (Black Rice)

Today is the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, and last night on the eve of today’s feast, in Barcelona people partied until the wee hours celebrating the birth of Christ’s cousin and forerunner.  Every year I host my own commemoration of this Catalan custom at the manse, transferring it to the nearest Saturday night in order to allow time to recover the next day of course, though with certain modifications. I have to cap the guest list very strictly to prevent overcrowding, so no long, outdoor communal dining tables like you see in different Barcelona neighborhoods on the Night of St. John.  Moreover, I imagine the District of Columbia would have a problem if I tried to make a bonfire in my back yard, so we just stick to sparklers.

One of the dishes I made for the feast is called arròs negre, “black rice”.  It once known as “paella de pobre” since it was made with just a few, very inexpensive ingredients by fishermen.  Since after posting the photograph below on social media several people asked for the recipe, I am happy to share it with you.

I realize the picture may appear ghastly.  As my youngest brother commented, it looks like an overhead shot of the armies of Mordor.  However this is a dish that is both impressive to look at and to eat.  The color is extraordinary, while the taste and aroma are not at all “fishy”, as you might expect. Rather, it is a more delicate, subtle hint of the seaside, something simultaneously sweet and briny, but very faintly so.

Fortunately, this is a wonderfully simple dish to make, and you can always put in your own variations.  Personally, I like to keep this one plain, since as with all Iberian rice dishes, the rice is the most important part.  If you concentrate on making the rice flavorful, the additions are not as important.

Ingredients:

4 cups of seafood stock

2 cups of short-grain Bomba rice

2-3 medium to large-sized squid, cleaned and separated into tubes and tentacles

1 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika (not Hungarian)

1 teaspoon of salt

6 sachets of cuttlefish ink

1 lemon

1.  Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.

2.  In a 15-inch paellera, heat the seafoood stock and squid tentacles on medium-high until the liquid comes to a boil.

3.  Once the broth is boiling, use a slotted spoon or strainer to remove the squid tentacles from the stock. Discard.

4.  Pour in the Bomba rice, smoked Spanish paprika, and the contents of the 6 sachets of cuttlefish ink.  Be careful when opening the ink sachets as the contents will stain your clothes and hands.

5.  Stir everything together well to combine evenly, then stop stirring completely. From this point you will not stir or touch the rice again.

6.  Continue cooking, uncovered, for about 5 minutes.

7.  Meanwhile, cut the 2-3 squid tubes into rings, about the width of your finger.

8.  Scatter the squid rings across the surface of the rice, and push them in slightly using the back of a spoon.

9.  Now turn off the stove top, and cover the top of the paellera with foil.

10.  Carefully place the paellera in the center rack of your oven for about 8-10 minutes.  You want to check toward the end to make sure all the liquid has been absorbed. The rice should be cooked, but still have a bit of a bite to it, not be soft and mushy.  If you need to add more liquid, add a 1/4 cup of water or seafood stock. If the rice from the bottom of the pan is a little bit burnt, even better.

11.  Remove the paellera from the oven, and allow to sit, covered, on top of the stove for about ten minutes to rest.  When you’re ready to serve, squeeze some lemon juice around the surface, or serve with lemon wedges for your guests to put on themselves.

Bon profit!

Arros NegreThe black rice, cooking away on top of the stove.

Friends in High Places: St. Rita of Cascia

Those of you who read me on a regular basis know that I have a long-standing devotion to St. Rita of Cascia (1381-1457).  Wife, mother, and after her widowhood and the death of her children an Augustinian nun, Margherita Lotti de Mancini lived a life full of both emotional and physical suffering, but remained steadfastly devoted to Christ, and bore her crosses as best she could.  Along with St. Jude, her prayerful intercession is often sought by those facing an impossible situation to which there seems to be no remedy.  Yet despite knowing much about her, I find there is always more to discover, making me ever-more convinced that she was a good friend to fall in with.

I was deeply touched at my birthday party recently to learn that a group of my friends had agreed to pray a Novena to St. Rita on behalf of my intentions.  For my non-Catholic readers, please note that this is not worship: Catholics draw a distinction between worship, which is confined to God alone, and prayers asking for intercession.    The belief that the Church on Earth is united with the Church in Heaven, i.e. those of us who have “made it”, as it were, means that we are asking those who are already in God’s Presence to add our prayers to theirs, just as you might offer to pray on behalf of a friend of yours who is going through a rough time.  In this case, over the years I have asked St. Rita to pray for me on many occasions, not because I was not already directly asking God for help, but because I felt that she would take up my pleading my cause as well.

There are many pious stories about the life of this particular saint, but one which I only recently became aware of involves her life-long devotion to St. John the Baptist, one of her patron saints; in fact she was baptized in the church named after the Baptist in her native Cascia.  Now as it happens, I have for many years thrown a party in June to celebrate St. John the Baptist’s birthday, which is a favorite custom in Catalonia.  However his unexpected connection with one of my favorite saints, who lived many centuries after him, was previously unknown to me.

St. Rita’s husband was one of the victims of the long-standing feud between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, the two prominent political factions of Medieval Italy.  In Umbria, as indeed as common throughout Italy in this period, there were assassinations and resulting vendettas that led to a great deal of bloodshed in an endless cycle.  With the murder of her husband, and the subsequent death of both her sons from the Plague, St. Rita wanted to fulfill her childhood hope of becoming an Augustinian nun, a hope which she had not been able to fulfill because her parents had instead arranged her marriage.  However the convent refused to take her, partially because they were worried that the vendetta which surrounded St. Rita’s husband’s family would be brought to their doorstep.

Through prayer to St. John the Baptist and her other patron saints for their intercession, and despite her being a widow with no political power, St. Rita managed to bring about a peace agreement between her husband’s family and the family that had ordered his assassination.  This document was signed before Cascian officials in a public ceremony, and permanently put an end to the local feuding and revenge murders.  Now St. Rita was at last able to successfully return to the convent and ask for admittance.  In fact it is said that the gates of the convent were opened for her in a vision by St. John the Baptist and her other favorite saints.

Having friends in high places is always a good thing, whether you are trying to get a table at a good restaurant, or whether you want to be bumped up to first-class on a flight.  So having a friend in the ultimate high place of all is a very good thing indeed.  I would encourage all of my readers to learn more about this wonderful saint, who understood human suffering so well and united herself spiritually in prayer to the sufferings of Christ, to serve Him, her family, and her community.  She is a dear friend whom you will very much love getting to know.

Santarita

Detail of “St. Rita of Cascia” window (19th Century)
Cathedral of St. Mary, Austin, Texas

Come On In, The Water’s Fine

There’s nothing like plunging in rather than just standing around at the edge of the pool, waiting for things to happen.

Many of us have made New Year’s resolutions for 2012 which we will eventually abandon, for most experts will tell you that it takes at least several weeks of consistency to form a new habit.  Human nature being what it is, we will tend to go at it with gusto, and then for various reasons will put things aside and forget about these things until someone asks us, some months down the road, whether we have made any progress on that goal or project we announced we were going to undertake.  We will then feel guilty about it for a day or two and then forget about it until next year.

While we do not have to wait for the turn of the year to try something new, or to change course on a particular aspect of our lives, for most of us going it alone is not a realistic way to achieve what we set out to do.  We need some kind of accountability, even as adults, to know that if we do not stick to what we feel called to do, someone will be there to remind us of what it is that we ought to be doing.  There are whole industries devoted, in whole or at least in part, to this sort of thing: from doctors and lawyers and financial planners, to personal trainers, coaches, and counselors.

On the plane back from Barcelona after Christmas, I had plenty of time to sit and think about some of the goals I hope to achieve this year in my personal/professional life, as well as with respect to my writing.  The exercise proved to be particularly helpful last year in regards to writing, as I switched to WordPress and purchased domain names, and made more of an effort to get involved on Twitter. The results have been measurable, and because of that the hope is to build upon what has already been done by improving my online writing: seeking opportunities to write articles and guest-post; adding new features to Catholic Barcelona; thinking about a re-design for my author site and finally getting around to having some proper photographs taken rather than snapshots by willing friends and relations; etc.

Knowing that the various goals, both online and otherwise, that I hope to achieve are likely doomed to failure without some of that aforementioned accountability factor, I am taking the advice of, as it happens, a friendly voice on Twitter and lining up a couple of people to serve as “responsibuddies” on these goals.  Putting aside the admittedly twee nature of that term, the idea is that if you know someone will be checking up on you, you are more likely to actually try to achieve what you set out to accomplish, if you are going to have to report to someone on a regular basis with regard to how things are going.  Thus in my case, for example, a friend who is very knowledgeable about sports and fitness matters has agreed to help with keeping an eye on my fitness goals for the year, and another who is very prominent online is going to help out with keeping focused on improving what I write online and getting it to a wider audience.

Yet as fun or as challenging as some of these goals are, they really do not mean anything if they are nothing more than vanity projects.  They have to, in some way, be contributing to my own spiritual and temporal welfare, and/or that of others.  If I am to use the talents and abilities I have been given, it is because I recognize that I have a responsibility to do so, rather than to simply allow them to linger or collect dust, unwanted and ignored.

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which is the more technical end of Christmastide in most places, since we go back into Ordinary Time tomorrow until Lent begins.  We remember when Jesus presented Himself to St. John the Baptist, in order to be baptized at the beginning of His public ministry.  By so humbling Himself – as St. John commented to his Cousin, “YOU should be baptizing ME!”  – He set an example which Christians still follow today, in baptizing children and adults in acceptance of the Christian faith and in the rejection of sin, with the ultimate goal of getting to Heaven.  Yet He also set an example of creating a starting point, which we recall this time each year, for a renewal of the self and a focus on what lies ahead, and doing so with the help of an old friend.

As you consider what you hope to achieve over the next year in your own life, these goals do not of course have to be all seriousness.  It is perfectly fine to want to save up for a special trip to visit some old friends, for example, without trying to turn it into the equivalent of the Camino de Santiago.  Yet one of the benefits of asking one or more of your friends to help you in achieving those goals is that it will hopefully not only draw your friendship closer together, but also give the other person the opportunity to reflect on their own goals for the year, or for their life, as you consult together.  You may end up planting a seed for something profound in someone else or in yourself, if you reach out to make that happen.

And to that end, gentle reader, I wish you the very best of luck in jumping in at the deep end of things.

Detail of “The Baptism of Christ” by Pietro Perugino (c. 1490-1500)
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna