November 21, 2007

Thanksgiving: celebrating my favorite holiday

It was my first Thanksgiving in Spain and our rented flat didn't have an oven so I tasked each of my roommates to go out and get a boyfriend, friend or acquaintance who had one. Luckily, my American roommate understood the importance of this mission and came back with Santiago – the owner of a large kitchen and large oven, albeit one that was located somewhat far away on the other side of town.

And while I've surely told this story at least a hundred times, on the eve of Thanksgiving so many years later, I just can't keep from smiling at the thought of it: how my friend Ashley and I called in sick to work and picked up the 20+ pound bird at the market in a taxi and drove it uptown in style; how we got tipsy on the cooking sherry that was meant for the stuffing, spent an entire day cooking alone in this relative stranger´s house and eventually caused a blackout in his entire building as we sucked up all of the electricity on our 8 hour turkey, stuffing and pie baking bonanza; how the famous blackout didn't have the courtesy to wait for the turkey to finish cooking and so more cooking sherry was consumed while we waited for the electrician to come and sort us out again; how by the time the turkey was finished it had to be transported boiling hot right out of the oven and swimming in juices in the trunk of Santiago's car (who had come home from work that night to find virtual strangers jollied-up on cooking sherry, an electrician, and a bunch of cranky powerless neighbors) in traffic, to a house full of 20 some guests who had been waiting, starving at my house for about two hours for the food to arrive; and how, when we finally arrived, we realized that in our haste to tuck the turkey snugly into the car, we had left the stuffing, pies, potatoes and whatnot on the curb in front of Santiago's house; so he had to go back, in traffic, to retrieve them.

I think that the food that Thanksgiving was delicious, even the burned slivers of bitter parsnips (I´m not naming any names) and the cold accompaniments. I know that the best part of the evening came after dinner when we passed around a bottle of Turkey, (this time the Wild Turkey kind) and everyone drank a shot and said what they were thankful for – something that would have been very TV movie were it not for the fact that we represented about 9 different countries and 5 different languages with their corresponding simultaneous translations - I also know that the best part of that Thanksgiving has been just being able to repeat this story over and over again. I can´t think of a better way to pay homage to my favorite holiday or to explain what it means to me.

November 20, 2007


ve been away for a month exactly. A month filled with wine presentations, tasting classes, bobbing for apples (not really), working full time and achieving stiffer penalties for parole violators. And somewhere sandwiched right in the middle I managed to escape to Porto, Portugal (sigh) city, deliciously lovely city in the north of Portugal.
If I had a gun to my head forcing me to rate countries in terms of their national cuisine, Portugal would be right up near the top of my list. If I had to rate cities in terms of just sheer breathless romanticism and staggering drama, Porto would outrank most that I´ve ever visited. It is a city graced with the wide and elegant avenues typical to more northern European cities, but then interwoven with winding streets that cascade carelessly down from hilltop monuments. There are charmingly blackened and sometimes rundown buildings that seem perched almost haphazardly amongst the maze of streets and glints of brightly colored tiles in cherry and emerald tones, and intricately painted wedgewood blue designs. There are clotheslines winding like colorful flags though the building facades. There is an area near the cathedral that feels almost like a fishing village, its windy narrow streets have flowerpots, open doors shrouded in threadbare curtains, delicious aromas of food (maybe because it was lunchtime when I happened upon it), and the occasional Virgin complete with lit candles, stuck into an unassuming corner. And just when you think you are in the middle of a charmingly sleepy town, you happen upon the clean and stark lines of a modern architectural masterpiece, a photography museum, or a reformed apartment building and incredibly majestic bridges.
And then there is the Douro; glistening, wide and churning away of its own free will, independent of everything else and breathing life into the city as it rushes by as though completely unconcerned by it. Someone told me that this is what every city needs, a thing with a life completely of its own.
There are the famous Port wines, and fresh fish (typically cod); plates of deep green leafy sauteed vegetables, softly boiled potatoes, and minced golden flecks of baked garlic. Crisp, refreshing vinhos verdes - slightly sparkling - and deep fruity reds made of grapes with wonderfully difficult to pronounce names. Portuguese coffee is one of the best in the world, and cheap!
And when the sun comes out and the city is laid out before you, there is no place like it in the world.

October 19, 2007

Harvest time in ye olde Ribera del Duero

Grape harvest arrived to Ribera del Duero last week and I wore my big blue rubber boots just in case.
I had never witnessed the harvest before first hand and I have to say that the whole experience was aided by an absolutely stunning day. We drove up to the town of Aguilera, near Aranda del Duero, early last Friday morning to meet up with my friend Gema's uncle Florien, a venerated grape producer with vineyards that have been in their family for generations. It was the second day of harvest and in general the motto seems to be "we're ready when they are". I can understand it. Like any annual crop, you wait for the meat of it all year long, and like anything else, you also risk the wrath of Mother Nature and the fact that anything can happen at any time to destroy a year's work. This becomes even trickier as the fall harvest time rolls around as the temperature begins to change and there is a greater likelihood of storms or frosts that can mildew or damage the vines. This year seemed particularly tragic in Ribera del Duero, as an icy frost hit just a week before harvest and wreaked havoc on a huge percentage of vines. Driving through the countryside you could see a line across the vineyards like a treeline in the mountains. All of the lower-lying plots of vines were stained bright red, their leaves and fruit irreparably damaged by the freeze, but as the plots moved out of valleys and up hills, the vines were intact.
Florien was lucky this year. Despite the fact that his overall production was down 40% (he blames it mainly on the climate change, global warming), his vines were untouched by frost and gleaming with juicy fruit (that I just couldn't get into my mouth fast enough - hoping it would ferment in my belly, maybe?).
He and his son and daughter were leading a group of workers in the harvest. Harvesting everything by hand (for much much better quality wines), they showed us how to clip the bunches of grapes close to their "stems", to look at the grapes to make sure that they weren't damaged or diseased and to then lay them gently in the 15-20 kilo boxes. Between the four of us, Gema and Carmen took on more directional, supportive and photographic roles, while Carlos and I put our back into it. We were extremely proud of the four boxes that each of us filled (in the time that the seasoned workers had probably filled 5x that amount), and I was delighted to calculate that we had probably just picked enough grapes for approx. 120 bottles of wine. Not too shabby. But oh, my back was aching. Good thing I wore those rubber boots.

October 7, 2007

How to please your spanish In-Laws

While I do consider myself to be a cook, having had people pay to eat my food in a restaurant gives me that right, I am not a chef. I have never trained as a cook and actually my personal cooking manta is “invent, invent, invent”. I am a hack, a proud food-loving hack who can joyfully spend an entire Saturday morning at the market mulling over the fruits and vegetables, eyeing the fishmonger’s wares, and creating and discarding menu after menu as my options change and ingredients are found or forgotten. I am fortunate enough to have a willing audience at home, a pareja that has evolved into quite a foodie and a familia política that will trustingly and enthusiastically eat just about everything I put in front of them. The only problem with this is that it is sometimes hard to feel vindicated for spending an entire day making homemade raviolis, pierogis, or marinating a duck, when they would likely be just as thrilled and complimentary about a ten minute throw-together chicken pot pie. In fact, for the first meal that I prepared for my suegros (parents in-law), I was prepared to go all the way, mentally sculpting delicate rosebuds from radishes and hand-sculpting vichyssoise bowls out of entire blocks of ice. Therefore, I was taken aback when Enrique informed me that one of his father’s very favorite foods in the world was none other than, chili con carne – in all of its Tex-Mex glory. So, while this blog is purportedly dedicated to the pursuit of Spanish wines, restaurants, culture, and grub, I have decided in the spirit of intercultural communication to include (for my Spanish friends) a 20 minute recipe for fool’em chili. I should point out that, is chili better when you cook it all day, add 17 spices, hand cook the beans, use real tomato sauce, and butcher the cow yourself? Probably, except for the part about the cow. But for a delicious (cheap) and exotic meal (in Spain) with under 5 minutes prep time, who cares?

2 cloves garlic
1-1.5 pounds ground beef
1 jar or around 300 grams tomato sauce (I use organic, I find it tastes less industrial)
1-2 Tbs.olive oil
1 onion (I am allergic so in my house we omit them, well, I omit them)
2 cans diced tomatoes
1 jar or around 450 grams cooked kidney beans or red beans or a mixture of the two
2 tbsp. cumin more or less
Cayenne pepper (add a little bit at a time to taste, it gets spicy quickly
any other chili spices, I like Chayote
salt (I sometimes use garlic salt)
1 tsp. oregano
diced zucchini, red pepper, green pepper, celery (all are optional but I like to add a lot of veggies)
cheddar cheese
sour cream
chives (if you want to be really fancy and garnish, again, I am allergic)

Heat olive oil and add the garlic and onions. Sautee until tender and add the ground beef to brown. Season with oregano, salt and pepper. Once the beef is browned, add the diced cubes of vegetables and cook the whole mixture on high for about 5 minutes. Add the cans of diced tomatoes, the tomato sauce, and another can or a bit less of water depending on how thick you like it. Add the rest of the spices and cook until the vegetables are tender, about 10 more minutes. Rinse and drain the beans and add them at the very end. Cook just long enough to heat the beans through and throw in some more spices for good measure. Garnish with cheddar cheese and a dollop of sour cream or plain yoghurt. Was supposed to serve 8, but there were 5 of us and we all had huge second helpings and then groaned that we ate too much. I was also planning on including a photo, but we ate it all before I had a chance.

September 29, 2007

Customer Service Sadism

I wish I could say that I've stayed away from my blog for so long so that you could get a taste of what customer service is generally like in Spain: slow, tedious, and sometimes non-existent; but I can't, that would be a lie - although not the part about customer service.
Let me give you an example. The other day I went to a trendy and expensive furniture store. I wanted to exchange a chipped 4 euro coffee cup that had formed part of a 500 euro purchase (not mine). The 14 employees of the store were divided up into 4 basic groups: talking on the phone in a rude manner, smoking cigarettes outside, standing in groups bitching about their whatever, and smirking nastily from behind the cash register. As I waited in line for 20 minutes behind the other 6 customers who seemed to think that it was normal to wait while over a dozen employees roamed around without even acknowledging our presence, when it came to be my turn, I decided to boldly ask a question. "Um, hi, excuse me, for exchanges?" Someone barked at me, "You'll have to talk to Alvaro, he's the only one in a 75 kilometer radius authorized to exchange the broken cup that we knowingly sold you".
"Ok, um and who's Alvaro?". The surly employee replied, "well, he was in the smirking nastily group, but since then he's shifted to the talking on the phone in a rude manner team," gesturing to a sullen man behind her. So when he hung up the phone, "excuse me Alvaro, I'd like to exchange this coffee cup." He looked at me, "You'll have to wait your turn" and went outside for a cigarette.
Now you might say, isn't that just water under the bridge, can't anyone have a rotten day? But the reason I brought it up was because I was reminded of the whole experience by the charming waiter that served us in the Galician restaurant where we went for lunch today. After waiting patiently for 20 minutes for him to come over to our table while he buzzed busily around us, I waved him down with my most winning waiter smile. His response, "you'll have to wait." Brilliantly disrespectful (so much so that my American restaurant-owner friend fantasizes about working there), rude, downright uncivil. What gives? My Spanish brethren like to tell me that the reason that restaurant service is so bad is that the waiters are not working for tips. While I agree that it is annoying when Brian shows up at your table at _____________ American restaurant with crayons and begins to kiss your ____ the whole night, isn't there something to be said for customer service meaning just decent and friendly treatment between humanoids? Maybe they get off on it here, maybe waiters like to treat their customers badly just as much as customers don't enjoy themselves as much if they are treated with respect. Are Spaniards customer service sadists?

September 12, 2007

How to build a starter kitchen

I was interviewed a couple of months ago by someone who was doing an article about how to start a wine cellar with 200 euros. It seemed like an excellent idea to me, especially considering that everyone has to start somewhere and that a few pointers can go a long way.
I was reminded of this article again last night when a good friend asked me if I could share a few easy recipes with her, and give her a few pointers in the kitchen. She went on to say that when she goes to the market or the grocery store she unsure even of what to buy, and frequently ends up with very few things to build on, which is the way that I like to think of cooking. For me, fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, condiments, are all building blocks. Unless I have something very specific in mind when I go food shopping, whether at the supermarket or the farmer’s market, I tend to buy what “looks good”, knowing that the possibilities for mixing and matching will be endless once I get home. This is in fact what I most love about cooking; above all I am an experimenter and an inventor in the kitchen. I might use a recipe for inspiration, or for general cooking times or temperatures, but I like to take a recipe and turn it over and over in my head, creating its new identity and then throwing in a little bit of whatever else I can think of. Usually, I will do my shopping with a very definite idea in my head – chowder, chard, Poland, comfort, etc. but in general the finished product morphs a dozen times, again depending on what ultimately “looks good” while I´m in the store. I understand however, that even if you are able to chose the vegetables that are in season and the best cut of meat, you don´t necessarily know what to do with it when you get home. How do you know that what you are buying is going to “work”.
So, what are the building blocks for starter kitchen? They would obviously have to be broken down into groups of things, and this would clearly be open to debate (which I am more than welcome to) depending on the cook, the size of a kitchen, and whatever other possible factors such as food allergies (I, for example am allergic to onions, a building block for most kitchens) or refrigerator space. I should also point out that the interesting thing would be to create a starter kitchen that would contain not only basic elements that enable one to cook (i.e. Oil, salt, pepper), but also basic elements that enable one to cook WELL.
On top of these basic elements, it would then have to include the variables, those things that again, “look good” and that are in general can be used in a huge variety of dishes, and would include things such as vegetables and starches such as rice, pasta, couscous, etc., while it would also include meats, fish, poultry, etc. that can be prepared, and enjoyed at any time, without too much of a hassle. And then of course there is the price factor. Knowing how much things are going to cost you in general, and not to mention how long they are going to take to cook, is a huge help when it comes to stocking your kitchen with food. If I´m running to the grocery store with 10 euros in my wallet and want to get something good for dinner, I automatically know before I get there certain things that are out of my grasp. In fact, I brag about the fact that I can usually guesstimate how much my cart full of groceries at the supermarket is going to cost me down to the euro.
I know, isn´t that just fabulous for me, but that being said, my friend’s question still remains: what should she buy, how should she shop for it, how much will it cost and what does she do with them once she gets home?. All of these are valid questions, and ones that one by one I hope to address and answer here, hopefully with a little help.

September 5, 2007

I still don´t get it...

What is going on around here? I promise that I don´t have a personal vendetta against Ferran Adriá, but it seems you can´t shake a stick without it hitting some mention of his wonderful exhibition in the Kassel, Documenta. Were we the only people who actually went and realized that he didn´t do anything – at least not there. In the latest edition of Museo Manía magazine (Museum Mania – yes, I have been reading a lot lately), there is an article that starts off with the line (roughly translated) “Ferran Adría´s contribution to the most recent Documenta in Kassel constituted an eternal compromise between art and cooking”. What?? What contribution? I promise that if someone writes and explains this to me, I will eat happily eat my words in the form of gels and foams.

September 3, 2007


What I’m about to say is no news flash. In fact, it might even be considered old news by those in the know and those who know me, but it is worth re-mentioning every once and a while. I love GAGO. GAGO from Bodegas Telmo Rodríguez, D.O. Toro, that potent and enveloping wine that stylishly wears one of the most beautiful “labels” I have ever seen on a wine bottle. GAGO, synonymous with GOOD AND GORGEOUS.
It is a sumptuous wine, but lively, not stuffy. A noble prince with a dignified jaw line and a level head, but also prone to fits of laughter. Yes, I know, speaking of laughter… It is all the best of the Toro: the dense lush fruit, serious structure, and potent tannins that the region is known for, mingled together with a frank and open elegance that the region is starting to become recognized for.
Pour a glass of GAGO and you will find it deeply jeweled-garnet in color, brilliantly reflected around the rims of the glass but densely opaque in the center. The prince’s cape, his velvet pantaloons or whatnot. It is aromatic to say the least, even before being either daintily or heartily swirled. The enveloping aromas become spicy and peppery, with an intense underlying aroma of sweet dark cherry cordial, chocolate cherries, black cherries and all the other cherries in between. On the palate it is velvety and elegant, but again lively, potent and bold, suggesting that there might be even better things to come.

Gago 2004, Compañía de Vinos de Telmo Rodríguez
D.O. Toro, around 15 euros
(photo thanks to La Vinia)

August 29, 2007

to Boycott or not to Boycott, why do we love to eat out?

I have been mulling over a tough question the past couple of decades that I hope to address here with frequency, what makes a good restaurant? Or, what makes a restaurant good? The obvious answer and the only one that makes any sense is that it is a combination of factors: food, ambiance, service and of course price. The tricky thing however is figuring out the correct combination of these things, given that there are so so many ways that they can meld together harmoniously. Some of my favorite restaurants are beautiful, and some are dives. Some have delicious wonderfully elaborate food and others I crave for the simplest of dishes. Sometimes, nothing but a greasy hamburger can fill that whole. I love a bargain, but I don't mind spending the money once in a while for a truly fabulous meal. I sometimes relish the surly old school Spanish waiters that grump and groan at you and I hate being fawned over. Other times, I can diatribe for hours on how it doesn't take an effort to be friendly, or at least polite. So what is the magical blend and how do we read the signs to discover if we should become a regular or become a boycotter (I am not a vindictive person, I swear)? I plan on using this space and the RESTAURANT entries/reviews that I write in this blog to analyze this, to find out, and to undoubtedly make myself hungry along the way.

August 24, 2007

Adrià, the Reluctant Traveler?

I do honestly and sincerely believe that Ferran Adrià, renowned chef of El Bulli, is an artist. His creations are so otherworldly, creative and ethereal at times that it is hard to remember that they are also deliciously edible and not just sculptural feats of greatness. That being said, I just cannot get over his "contribution" to the documenta contemporary art exhibition which, in a word, I think is lame.
To quote the El Bulli press release, "When (the curator of the documenta) Roger Buergel invited Ferran Adrià, he became the first cook in the history of haute cuisine to participate in Documenta..."
This is significant. It is a move to expand the world of art past what we traditionally think of as art (photography, sculpture, painting) and to accept that artistic design can flourish in different formats. I was excited. I thought, "this is it, cooking as an art form recognized on the scale of world class contemporary art", and I booked my tickets to Germany to attend this exposition that only takes place every five years.
Ferran Adriá however, must have forgotten to book his tickets because he wasn´t there!
Nor was there any sign of him apart from a little corner on the exposition map designating the different pavilion locations that read, El Bulli, Tarragona, Spain. (But, I just came from Spain!)Rather than coming to the documenta and presenting something, anything - he stayed in El Bulli and declared that his contribution to the event would consist of inviting two guests a day for the duration of the exposition to dine in his restaurant.
Fabulous, so sign me up! Where do I put my raffle ticket? Then I read that it was for two guests a day that would be hand chosen by director Buergal himself, and I heard a rumor that they had to pay for it, not to mention travelling to Spain for it.
So where exactly is the part where ordinary people that have made their hotel, train, plane and automobile reservations and paid their 30 euros entrance fee, get to experience food as art? Or even the possibility of food as art? A mere whiff, a pamphlet poster, photo, catalog, a copy of a menu? I did read today that Adrià made a special menu inspired in the documenta. Too bad you didn´t even HEAR about it at the actual exposition. The article, from the newspaper La Razón (23 Aug.), ends with the line. "Everything in El Bulli is a mystery". They got that right.

August 21, 2007

Adrià´s Chemistry 101

Always a master of selling, something, renowned chef Ferran (and Albert) Adrià has come up with a kit that does things to food - although I´m still not sure what. The name of the kit translates more or less to "Basic Spherification" and contains four different cylindrical containers that hold the secret to creating different textures in food, something that Adrià has mastered to perfection. From what I can understand both from his own web page and an article from today´s El País, is that it gives users the ability to "gel" liquids into the form of different spheres by submerging them in different substances. The resulting spheres might be the size of caviar, eggs, or raviolis. The gels can then be manipulated into different forms, creating your own Bulli-esque creations, as well as modified by other substances from the kit that can be used to correct the amount of acidity, for example. In addition, there is another line called "Surprises" which contains options such as "Fizzy" (used to create effervescence), and "Crumiel", which creates crunch. The price of the kit is 55 euros and I must confess that I am dying to try it.
Considering both how fascinating, complicated, and artistic this all sounds, my suggestion would have been for Ferran Adrià to use his space at this year´s Documenta (contemporary art exposition in Kassel, Germany that takes place every 5 years), to demonstrate these techniques, instead of disillusioning thousands of people with his promised participation in the festival, which in the end only consisted of putting his restaurant El Bulli on the exposition map, thus gaining free publicity with zero effort. Put that in your liquid and gel it.

Trans Fat , Transformation?

(photo thanks to)

Good news! According to the latest trans fat update published in the New York Times, trans fat has been struck yet another debilitating blow in the form of banishment from the Illinois State Fair.
Yes, that´s right, this is good news for those of us who have been worried that deep fried Snickers, Ho-Ho´s, or Peanut Butter Cups might be too fattening, or dare I say, unhealthy? The measure has been greeted with mixed feelings by the Fair fry-folk, some of whom complain that the new trans fat free oil has to be changed more frequently (frequently then what? I ask, afraid of the answer), while others have noted that this change might have dire consequences, making people believe that these foods are actually healthy now and that they can eat more of them.
ve been told that this is the first banishment to follow the 1967 ruling that outlawed fruits and vegetables anywhere within a four mile radius of a Ferris wheel.

August 14, 2007

There´s more to Cuenca than Morteruelo, thank goodness!

Cuenca is nothing if not dramatic. Perched on a rocky outcropping with deep river gorges falling off on both sides and spanned by a beautiful steel and wood pedestrian bridge. Houses hanging precariously over the great expanse, the nexus of Spanish abstract art, immensly tall cyprus trees that seem to lap up the deep blue sky, massive stone sculptures, naturally sculpted to look like fists being brandished in the sky, and morteruelo, the most traditional dish in the coquense cuisine.
Oh yes, they love the drama here. As far as I´m concerned, morteruelo (see photo above) is about as dramatic a dish as you can get. Basically, you take some rabbits, partridges, chicken, ham, liver, pork etc. and cook it for a really long time with bread, broth and a whole bunch of spices such as oregano and paprika, until it has the consistency of mushy gruel. Other names for it are great green gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts, I´m only kidding, but as a special regional dish it´s not the easiest one to learn to love, and especially not when served hot with even more bread in the dead heat of August, in Spain. But yet, here in Cuenca you see it everywhere. Menus hanging outside of restaurants, beckoning people to come in and try their fare, seem to mock you with morteruelo, as if challenging your stomach to a digestive feat, saying "come on, let´s see how AUTHENTIC a tourist you really are".
I was that authentic of a tourist here, once, but this time around I was hoping that Cuenca could introduce me to some new gastronomic experiences, and I was not disappointed.
The name of the restaurant was Recreo Peral, its existence weasled out of our hotel manager when we insisted that we wanted to go to a non-touristy restaurant (the touristy ones all have the gorgeous views of the gorge below). What I really wanted to ask him was to recommend a restaurant that does not serve morteruelo, but I figured it would be better not to push my luck.
The restaurant can be reached by a lovely road that goes through the historic center of Cuenca, descending down off the plateau and passing by beautiful houses and a convent that have been sculpted out of the rock and bathed in ivy and flowers. At times, the urban walkway takes you under natural stone arches and outcroppings before it descends down to the level of Cuenca´s other river, the Júcar. The restaurant almost looks like one of those slatted farmhouses where you would find an old waterwheel, with two outdoor terraces on either side and a glassed in dining room, all facing the river.
After little cañas (beers) on the outdoor terrace, we moved inside for dinner which began with complementary glasses of cava rosado. A nice touch, and not at all typical in my experience in Spain. The indoor space is quite pleasant, like a glassed in porch filled with Saturday night diners. The only incongruous details were the very modern mismatched plates that the first course was served on and then the too large somewhat old-fashioned plates that came with the main course. The modern and clean lines mingled together with outdated tablecloths printed with the name of the restaurant and current bull fighting posters on the wall. In addition to good and attentive service, the setting and the tiny embellishments (like the glasses of cava) that the restaurant tacked on to the meal gave the whole experience that comfortable feel of quality without pretention - a back woods country club perhaps.
We ordered a salad with slim green asparagus, nuts, citrus fruit, endives and marinated cod. I have to admit I was expecting the oily smoked cod that you normally get on salads - straight out of the packet and onto the plate - but I was delighted to discover that it was fresh cod, and a lot of it, sliced from the loin in thick cool slabs. Next, they brought us some lemon sorbet and then for the main course solomillo or beef tenderloin, simply prepared with rock salt and as grilled to a tender and flavorful perfection. The food was as simple as it was well prepared, and even more importantly with fresh ingredients and attention to detail.
I was tempted to try a local wine from the ample selection and was thrilled when the waiter suggested a 2003 crianza called Casa de Illana (Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Cauvignon) that was half the price (only 13 euros) of the wine that I was originally going to order. Neither incredibly aromatic nor incredibly full bodied, it was nonetheless fantastic on the palate: velvety, smooth, spicey and balanced wafting notes of clove and tart cherry jam.
Had the food and wine of Recreo Peral chased the drama away? Feeling peacefully satisfied and tranquil, we made our way back through the town towards our hotel. I tripped over nothing, fell in the street and sprained my ankle, narrowly avoiding getting hit by an oncoming car. Dramatic dramatic dramatic.

Restaurante Recreo Peral
Carretera Cuenca-Tragacete, Km 1
16002 Cuenca
Tel: 969 22 46 43
Average price for a dinner for two with wine around 75 euros

July 31, 2007

Beef jerky finally gets what it deserves!

According to the New York Times, beef jerky is finally making its way into the ranks of the elite gourmet - reaffirming the pro-jerky stance that I have taken for years in spite of the mockery of my peers. While buying beef jerky at the gas station on road trips has long been a tradition in my family, I am thrilled to find that the fanciest foodies are taking the delicacy to a new level - using lean strips of top and bottom round or chuck, seasoned and then slowly smoked and dried using complements such as molasses, brown sugar, Cabernet Sauvingnon, garlic, and whiskey to name a few.
Actually, the article points out that beef jerky (as I've long suspected) is actually the perfect meat, it has zero fat, lots of protein, and low cholesterol. It dates back to at least the Incas, and the name "jerky" comes not from the cowboys of the Old West, but from the Quechua word “charqui.”
In Spain, the land of ham and all cured pork products, I have been getting my beef jerky fix for years with something called "cecina". Typically from the region of Leon, cecina is essentially fresh beef that for hundreds of years has been smoked and naturally dried. The inside is deep red with very little fat, and it goes splendidly thinly sliced on salads or alone and drizzled with olive oil.
To check out the Times article.

July 22, 2007

Aquodka, Avodka, Tomato, Tomahto

I feel like I owe it to everyone to give an update on the Aquodka - probably because over a week ago I said that I was going to post the recipe for this new dreamed up cocktail sensation on the web, and shucks, I didn't.
I'd be lying if I told you that the aquodka hasn't been on my mind however. Sloshing around in my big fishbowl glass of a noggin, stirring up memories, ingredients and even color combinations from cocktails past. But alas, true inspiration came in the form of a pastry bag styled mound of avocado mousse perched jauntily on the edge of a plate of sashimi a la Karen. The AVODKA not the AQUODKA, a frothy moussey, avocadoey, limey, vodka-y, refresher served in a martini glass maybe with jalapeno rock salt neatly arrayed around the rim. After all, avocado is my favorite fruit and vodka is my favorite Russian distilled potato beverage (although actually can now be made from many other sources such as corn).
Finally sure that this is the way to go, I thought I should do some research into the cocktail just in case I am serving it or drinking it some day at Memento and a stranger at the bar tries to outshine my avocado knowledge. Thanks to the FOOD LOVER'S COMPANION, I learned the following tidbit, making me think that this will not be a problem:
"The fruit's name comes from abuacatl, the Nahuatl word for testicle, which is assumed to be reference to the avocado's shape." You don't say....
Avodka recipe and photos to follow, this time I promise....


July 13, 2007

The Aquodka

I just woke up from an extended siesta, proving that they do actually exist in Spain, which is something that people ask me all the time. We just got back from two days in La Granja, a city about an hour or so from Madrid, and fifteen minutes away from Segovia. It is the site of an extremely grandiose 18th century royal palace that is particularly well known for its gardens, laid out in an imitation of the ones at Versailles and runningith over with fountains.
Anyway, maybe due to the heat or just to my own inherent laziness, when I got back to Madrid (neatly deposited on my doorstep by a car, not the somewhat outdated bus service that I had used to get there in the first place), I had the feeling that I had traveled those 75 kilometers on horseback wearing an excess of petticoats - sidesaddle - so I allowed myself to nap the afternoon away in preparation for this evening when I am going to pick up a shift at my friend Karen's wonderful restaurant, Memento. Her trusty main waitress is out of town so I have been reliving my glory days and forcing everyone to call me the Sommelier, regardless of what I am actually doing. I go up to each table to take their order or to run their food with my whole background story prepared just in case the customers decide to ask me questions such as "so, how long have you been a waitress here?" or "Wow, you seem like more of a sommelier than just a waitress, how come?". I would then explain to them that "actually, I am a sommelier, I am just clearing your plates because our waitress just choked on her tongue and had to go to the hospital." I think I might say it in a British accent, I mean, in the event that someone ever does ask.
The point of this whole thing, (and trust me, I think there is one), is that I took a siesta and had a dream that I invented a new and insanely refreshing cocktail called the AQUODKA. Much like Santa Teresa must have felt after communing with God, I woke up in a haze of Aquodka excitement, repeating the ingredients to myself and most importantly the name, over and over again. So I'm thanking my lucky stars that I am the sommelier at Memento tonight (my temporary laboratory of cocktail research) and the soon to be mother of the Aquodka, (which the only thing that I have clear about so far is that it contains ice and vodka, and I think is meant to be rather lemony), the most refreshing drink of all time. I will post the recipe tomorrow, when I have one that is. Bet you can hardly wait.

July 10, 2007

Hedgehogs, not just for breakfast anymore

So, I've just discovered something incredibly titillating in the Spanish lexicon. The word for sea urchin, erizo, is the same as the word for hedgehog, erizo!
Ok, so maybe titillating isn't exactly the right word, but isn't it fascinating that in an ocean of vocabulary so big that you could spend a lifetime swimming to the other shore, someone, somewhere and for who knows what reason, decided that these two creatures should in fact share the same name.
To be fair, I should start this loquacious bit of prattle with an apology to my friend Valen who, as we were walking along the road in Germany the other night and came upon a pair of hedgehogs, actually informed me that they were called erizos in Spanish, just like sea urchins. Considering that my complex animal terminology in Spanish is limited to things that can be served on a plate, I must confess that I scoffed at him for suggesting that this was their name. However, when I started doing research in order to prove that Valen had in fact no idea what he was talking about, I learned that, not only was he dead correct, but that hedgehogs were actually known as urchins in English as well (and still are in some places) until the term hedgehog was coined in the 15th century.
Ok, fine, both hedgehogs and sea urchins do share certain physical characteristics - and I was also surprised to find that both types of erizos are in fact eaten - and apparently on purpose. The consumption of sea urchins is quite common along the coast of Northern Spain. I tried them once in Asturias, still in their spiny homes and piled high on platters. To prepare the urchins, (or whore's eggs as they were called in 19th century Newfoundland), scissors are used to cut around the urchin's mouth on its flat side and the connective tissue inside the spiny shell is punctured and then the orange colored coral, or reproductive organs, are scooped out. I ate them raw, which is the most common way that they are eaten, and while the flavor was delicate, it was also overwhelmingly iodiney on the other. Despite the fact that I loved dipping my spoon ino the squishy center of the urchin, feeling both macho and cool, the flavor wasn't what I was looking for, although it seems that the extremely high iodine content in the sea urchins can be an effective cure for a neck ache.
While I have never eaten a hedgehog, I was able to find out (dear, beloved Wikipedia) that Hedgehogs were eaten in both Ancient Egypt and during the Middle ages. The most accepted method of preparation is to cover the hedgehog with clay and then bake it. When the clay is cracked open, its spikes are removed and voila, hedgehog a la pharaoh.
It is also interesting to note that neither one of these creatures is related to the porcupine or the sea cucumber, and that hedgehogs are naturally lactose intolerant.

July 9, 2007

For Whom my Burger Tolls

Enrique says that I make the best hamburgers in Spain. “Poor man”, I think, shaking my head. If only he’d had the privilege of growing up with a backyard deck and a father who grills just about everything with a hint of Chipotle smoke. Now, THAT’s a good burger. But alas, he’s a city boy, a Madrileño born and bred in the capital city of Spain, and yes, I will concede with a sigh, my burgers are probably the best ones here. I should mention that there is a fancy restaurant here that makes even fancier burgers out of Kobe beef, but what do they know? Unless you’ve been through what I’ve been through, you just can’t understand what makes a burger tick. I consider myself a Cook, not a Chef mind you because I’ve never studied, never worn checkered pants, and my knife collection is an odd mishmash of what I’ve been able to steal from my parents and smuggle in my suitcase, mixed together with a 10 dollar set of IKEA knives bought 8 years ago that still work like a dream. I did however have my own restaurant in Madrid for several years, and I was in fact the Cook, so monogrammed jacket or no, I do own a pair of kitchen clogs. Additionally, I have been in Spain for 9 years and have endured the running commentary by Europeans about American food. My restaurant, although my American partner and I never advertised it as American food, was plagued by the irritating question, “what’s American food?, hamburgers?”. My new friendships were marred by comments like “you Americans don’t have a cuisine of your own, except maybe hamburgers”, and my wallet was consistently lightened by my constant dinner parties – determined as I was to show the wealth and variety of “American” food. Imagine the struggle, the exhaustion, the dishes washed without a dishwasher, until something happened last summer ago that turned by world on end.

Four years before that, during the first summer that my restaurant was open, a lot of expectations were placed on the United States World Cup soccer team. They were good, they were playing well, and they were actually holding their own in the incredibly talented and competitive World Cup tournament that was taking place that year in South Korea. My parents were in town from Michigan and for a week we actually carried the prep cooking from the restaurant to my nearby apartment and prepared it in the kitchen there; Dad skewering chicken, Mom rolling spring rolls, and me whipping up some tuna marinade (all in strict adherence to health codes of course), the three of us glued to my television – watching the U.S. beat first one team and then another. When they had made it further than any US team ever had before, we were dismayed to realize that the biggest game of all, between the USA and Germany, was scheduled right in the middle of the restaurant’s weekday lunch rush. Luckily, my dad, who has a PhD, came up with the brilliant idea of carrying my microwave sized television down to the restaurant (as opposed to lugging 75 Tupperware and a cooler four blocks back and forth and up three flights of stairs). We went as far as to plan two special lunch menus around the event: the American one consisting of coleslaw and barbecued short ribs, and the German one of German potato salad and Wiener schnitzel. The restaurant was packed, expectations were high, and I remember that my then-new acquaintance Enrique sat at the table next to my parents. The USA lost, my German customers were unbearable, the television was lugged home, and we were forced to wait another four years for the USA to have another go at the World Cup.
Although fervent soccer fans might think that the world came to a halt for those four years, in truth, a great many things happened in the years that fell between those two tournaments. Enrique and I fell in love and eventually moved in together, he came to the States with me a few times and (a lover of spicy foods) tried his very first Jalapeño burger in a bistro type tavern in Boulder, Colorado. I watched his eyes grow big as the massive french fry laden plate was set in front of him, a tiny American flag waving proudly from between the sesame seeds on the top bun. He also tried his first Chili burger that summer on our road trip from Colorado to San Francisco. He was lucky with that first one, it was delicious oozing spicy homemade chili, but unlucky with the four or five canned chili burgers that he tried after that; starting with the unrecognizable and slightly grey chili blob that he ordered at a diner in Leadville, Colorado, America’s highest city, and continuing with the tepid chili burger experiment at a place called Mom’s somewhere in Utah. During those years I also closed my restaurant and studied to become a sommelier, and a couple of times I slapped together some burgers for lunch or dinner at Enrique’s request, never suspecting that all the while expert soccer playing men from the US of A were gearing up to surprise the world again in yet another well-played World Cup tournament, one that would change my culinary claim to fame.
Last summer was full of lazy – albeit economically challenged – days. I had just finished sommelier school and was delighted to pour my efforts into enjoying the World Cup for a week or so. I may lack the fervor that Europeans like Enrique feel for the event, it is their super bowl, their end all – be all, their moment to slip out of the European Union and return to the old “us against them” rivalry; but I did play soccer for almost 15 years and don’t mind getting catching a good game and getting caught up in the rivalry myself. With time and unemployment on our side we decided to watch as much as possible. When Spain played for the first time, Enrique and my mother-in-law and I dressed in the Spanish colors of yellow and red, ate Spanish jamon and drank Mahou beer, cheering loudly with the neighbors when the team scored. And when the States played for the first time, we stood up for the national anthem with a friend from New Mexico, drank Budweiser and said things like “hot-diggity” and “that was a doozie” (for some reason watching American sporting events always makes me revert to retro 1950’s lingo). Everything was going just dandy until the US was scheduled to play Italy and we decided to strike up a friendly culinary rivalry with an Italian friend who was coming over to watch the game. “I’m going to make something typically American” I said into the phone “and I was hoping that you would bring a typical Italian dish”. And it was at this moment that my world momentarily stopped. A pause, and then a snickering started coming across the phone lines, then giving way to full-on chortling, with arrogant guffaws coming from the evesdropping Portuguese husband in the background. I heard him gasping “what is she going to make that’s American, hamburgers? Americans don’t have cuisine, there’s no contest”. “I’m sorry”, she managed “but my husband thinks it’s funny that on top of thinking that you can beat the Italians in soccer, you are even daring to suggest that our gastronomy can be compared, let alone challenged, and by what, burgers???”. Sickeningly sweet, a hostess that my Southern grandmother would have been proud of, I hung up the phone, and swore that I would indeed make burgers that night, and that I would make them pay for those comments with the best burger that those pompous citizens of former Roman colonies had ever seen.
With Enrique’s American burger road trip and several calls to my father as my inspiration, I began to create not only the best tasting ground beef patty imaginable – a mixture of four different fresh herbs, garlic, chipotle flakes, different spices, special bread crumbs, organic Galician eggs – but also the most colorful and elaborate mélange of toppings to lay out on the table in the oh-so-American make it yourself tradition. A relatively new mother and independent businesswoman, my Italian friend had found the time to throw together a Napolitano style lasagna and for a second, glancing at my colorful table, I almost felt sorry for the Ital-Portuguese couple, unaware that their dismissive comments about American cuisine had released the beast within me. Sorry, that is, until I saw their new baby flaunting an Italian team uniform, and until they mentioned that they were so sure of victory both on the field and the dinner table that they hadn’t made much of an effort with the food at all.
Much to my dismay and their gloating delight, the US team tied the game and lost their place in the competition. But much to the horror of the Italians perhaps, the burgers stole the evening. The guests heaped their plates with the toppings: bacon, jalapeños, three kinds of cheeses, sautéed mushrooms, the standard lettuce and tomatoes, onions, four kinds of mustard, horseradish, and of course the savory herb and spice laden burgers; leaving the (oops, did I dry that out in the oven while reheating it for you?) lusterless lasagna on the bench. While the Italian team did go on to win the entire tournament, I felt like I had won the real tournament that night, taking a stand for American chefs everywhere, not by showing a savoir of creative and innovative gourmet delights, but by embracing the very thing that I have spent a lifetime denying as a symbol of all that is culinary: the burger.
While we may have to wait another four years to show our soccer savvy, the recipe for “Spain’s best burgers” follows:

ground beef
finely diced fresh herbs: cilantro, basil, mint, thyme, parsley
crushed garlic cloves
garlic salt or Jane’s Krazy mixed-up salt
Perrin’s sauce
Chipotle flakes
cayenne pepper
finely diced shallots (optional as I’m allergic)
whole wheat homemade dried and rough smashed bread crumbs

Mix ingredients together, form patties, fry or preferably grill, and enjoy, all the while doing your little superior dance.

ich bin 5 pounds heavier

I realize that this is supposedly about Madrid, gastronomican in madrid yes, yes, but I just got back from a long weekend at the Dokumenta contemporary art bonanza in Kassel, Germany, and I just can't stop thinking about those darn good German breakfasts.
I have always loved German breakfasts, to the point that I will do anything in my power when taking a morning flight (including pay extra) to book my ticket on Lufthansa, the German national airline and one of the only ones that still serves a hot, a hot GERMAN breakfast.
It seems absurd I'm sure to the casual observer. Why can't she just make a German breakfast at home? Black forest ham, salami, smoked herring and whitefish, assorted soft cheeses (some with herbs), muesli, hard boiled egg, brown bread, rye bread, those soft white rolls, honey. The obvious two-part answer is that it can be hard to come by the raw product here in Spain and even more importantly, that it is extremely hard to justify eating that much for breakfast when you are not on holiday.
I'm going to go snack on a slim jim.
(photo by Carlos Nogueira)
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