June 29, 2011

Grilled Seafood at Madrid's El Boquerón

With the way that I have been sluggishly getting through this heatwave, I almost feel like I've met the same fate as the delicious gambas (shrimp) and cigalas (like salt-water crayfish) that are grilled and served piping hot with sea salt at El Boquerón, Lavapiés' local seafood haunt. This traditionally tiled bar has been a neighborhood favorite for decades and has all of the elements of one of those classic and treasured Madrid locales that you hope to frequent for years to come: grouchy but charming old waiters, delicious food, perfectly poured cold cañas (little glasses f draft beer) endless glasses of vermouth on-tap and a shrimp-head scattered floor. The best time to come is the aperitivo hour (around 1pm), before lunch on a Saturday or Sunday, although El Boquerón is always busy. In fact people actually begged me not to write about it, so as not to attract more crowds.

Shrimp and cigalas are weighed on an antique scale before being gracefully laid on the smoking griddle. And while I have tried many a grilled crustacean in my time here, nothing quite prepared me for the wood-smokey flavor of these exquisitely grilled delicacies.

For a palate refreshment, try the small, sweet oysters from Northern Spain that are being shucked to order just behind the counter.

And, as always, remember that the best places to eat in Madrid are those with the most (but right kind of) trash on the floor. Just try not to slip on a shrimp head.

El Boquerón
C/ Valencia 14, Madrid
+ 34 91 527 6380

June 22, 2011

What's on the menu for the revolution

Just the other day we were discussing the fact that so many expressions and sayings in Spanish have something to do with food. Mala leche (bad milk) is for someone with a bad attitude or intentions, while a mendrugo (piece of hard bread) is a way to call someone stupid, and the list goes on and on.
And of course the food expression of the hour in Spain is calling your least favorite politicians chorizos, which, in addition to a famous Spanish pork sausage, also means "thieves". So it seems only fitting that Spanish protesters have been using food to express their feelings. Here is just a taste of the Spanish revolution.

Buen provecho!

June 14, 2011

My Father's Daughter - Gwyneth Paltrow's Cookbook Speaks From the Heart

I asked my recently visiting parents to bring me a copy of Gwyneth Paltrow's new cookbook "My Father's Daughter: Delicious, Easy Recipes Celebrating Family & Togetherness" from the States. I was curious and, I confess, have always felt a bit guilty for writing a petty blog entry years ago expressing my jealously over the PBS series "On the Road" about eating around Spain. (I think I inexplicably felt that I held the market on loving Spanish food and culture - don't bother looking for it on the site, I removed it years ago in shame). I had also heard quite a bit about the book and its recipes and can closely relate with equating my love for cooking with my love for my family and the wonderful times that we have shared around the stove and the table.
My own father, who I am incredibly fortunate to say is healthy and wonderful, is a great scientist in the kitchen, making breads, pizza doughs and other dishes that depend heavily on strict measurements and a number of external factors such as oven temperature, type of dish, altitude, humidity, exact timing etc. It surely has something to do with his training as a marine biochemist, but I think mostly revolves around a type of intense culinary satisfaction - of being able to solve the riddle of a dish and recreate it the same way every time. My own culinary satisfaction manifests itself in a different way, from the challenge of being able to invent an amazing meal from the remains of the refrigerator or the dwindling contents of my spice cupboard. I like inventing, mixing and matching and making every dish my own.
It is the combination of these things that makes Paltrow's new book so enticing. Her philosophy on cooking is one that I share - use good-quality, fresh ingredients to make simple and delicious dishes (and, drink while you cook) and the recipes themselves are simple, interesting and intentionally leave a lot of room for adaption (for kids, vegans, main dishes, dinner parties, etc.), which I appreciate as I like to take inspiration from recipes, but rarely follow them to the letter. She even includes a couple of recipes from the time she spent in Spain studying abroad, which is also something I can relate closely to. This is, in fact, partly what led me to buy the book in the first place. About a year ago I saw the recipe for Pan Tumaca on her website (Goop) and thought, "13 years in Spain and it never occurred to me to grate the tomato - what a fantastic idea!". I have been using this technique ever since.
I should confess that I have yet to actually try any of the recipes. I meant to, I truly did, but I sat down with the book to find some inspiration for dinner and ended up reading the whole thing cover to cover with a glass of wine - forgetting about eating altogether. I can't remember ever doing this with a cookbook before.
In short, I found everything about it be refreshingly clear, tenderly nostalgic and an overall delightful read, lacking in any of the pretension that sometimes invades celebrity-chef cookbooks. Quite on the contrary, Paltrow's writing exudes a straightforward love of cooking, gastronomy and family that makes it easy to enjoy and relate to. Of course the fact that both she and her kitchen are absolutely beautiful doesn't hurt either.

June 8, 2011

(Not Spanish) Tortilla Making 101

First off, I should mention that I don't mean Spanish tortillas (egg and potato omelets), but rather the delicious corn tortillas used in the cuisine of so many other places all over Latin America.

I absolutely love corn tortillas, especially those small fresh ones that I have stuffed my face with in Guatemala and Mexico so many times. In Spain it is now easy to find brands like Old El Paso and other similar versions, but these poor imitations (Old El Paso only contains 29% corn flower) lack the toasty corn taste and the soft yielding texture of real tortillas, and so I decided to make my own.
Years ago my roommate Alison and I made corn tortillas in the apartment that we shared in Madrid. She is a great cook and showed me how easy it was to press the tortillas flat by putting the ball of dough between two plates, pressing the top one firmly down in the center. Now a much lazier, and more gadget happy, version of myself asked a chef friend to buy me a tortilla press in Milwaukee and bring it to me at a wedding that we both attended two weeks ago in Chicago. Oh no, I just remembered that I never paid her back!

Anyway, I have been using it like mad since I got back to Madrid and I have to say that yes, my tortillas are indeed delicious and incredibly easy to make. The only ingredients are (instant) masa corn flour (which is now available at El Corte Ingles department store), water and salt. Masa is essentially a corn flour made out of corn that has been treated with lime and made into dough that is dried and powdered. The recipe on the back of the Maseca brand Masa that I bought (which is also used for tamales, pupusas, empanadas, etc.) calls for two cups masa, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1 3/4 water, to make 16 small corn tortillas.

This is the process, as carried out in my tiny kitchen by me and my Dad, and captured on film for eternity by my Mom (visiting from Colorado). I should note that my dad has decades of experience frying up tortillas, ever since he and my mom would visit her family in San Diego and bring an empty suitcase along to fill up with tortillas straight from the best factory in Los Angeles. They would freeze them in our massive basement freezer in Michigan to last the year, during which snowy Midwestern Saturdays were perked up by my Dad's quesadilla lunches.

First, mix the Masa, salt and water together for about 2 minutes until forming a soft and smooth dough. You can add a bit more water if it feels dry, only about a Tablespoon at a time. It worked best to mix with our hands.
Then, to divide the dough up evenly into 16 parts, my father, the scientist, came up with this wonderful circular - Aztec looking - disk technique:

Then you roll each of the sections into balls, which you should keep under a slightly moistened cloth so that the dough doesn't get dry.

Lighting not a special effect
The next step is the tortilla press, just slip each of the balls of dough between two pieces of plastic wrap or wax paper (papel de horno) and press down. This is captured in this scintillating video.  Music by Al Green.

Voila! The last step is the cooking. About a minute on each side in a very hot, UNGREASED pan. This cooks the tortilla dough. Then, if you are going to use them for tostadas or tacos or the like, let them cool a bit and then fry in a bit of olive, or other, oil.

We had ours with chicken and vegetable fajitas during the Spain - USA soccer match. Unlike the game, the food made everyone happy!

June 6, 2011

Anto's Family Recipe For Tortitas de Camarones!

I confess that yesterday's post on food in Cádiz made me hungry for some of those delicious, crispy-fried tortitas de camarones. I asked my friend Anto who is from Cádiz, but lives in London, if he would ask his parents or grandparents for a family recipe for this local favorite.
Before I go into the recipe, I should note that in Spain, camarones are teeny tiny shrimp about the size of a normal paperclip (it took me a really long time to think of something that size) that are eaten whole - head, peel and all.

Anto's Parents and Grandmothers' Recipe (translated directly):
Flour, onion or chive, parsley, camarones (it sounds cruel but it's better if they're alive) and a pinch of salt. Add water (some people also use beer) a little bit at a time and stir until you get a relatively liquid batter. Heat olive oil and when it is very hot, add a spoonful of the batter in the oil, spreading it out so that it is wide enough and very thin. (One spoonful = one tortita). Cook until golden, remove and drain oil with absorbent paper.
As I am personally averse to measurements, this is my kind of recipe. However, I will try to define it a bit better for anyone who is interested once I have made it. Off to the market to buy camarones (I hope they sell them in Madrid), but I will leave you with this blurry photo of tortitas from El Faro del Puerto.

I was so excited to eat these that I didn't wait for the camera to focus!  Blurry tortitas de camarones - sorry!
Mil gracias a Anto, padres y abuelas!!

June 5, 2011

El Faro del Puerto, Cádiz

There is plenty of great food in Cádiz, with particular emphasis on wonderful things like different types of crispy fried fish and tortitas de camarones (thin pancakes made with tiny whole shrimp, garbanzos, eggs, onions, garlic and parsley). One of my absolute favorite places to eat here is Gonzálo Córdoba's, El Faro del Puerto, a classic restaurant dedicated to traditional and delicious "gaditana" (from Cádiz) cuisine, using local and seasonal ingredients. The restaurant is actually divided into two areas, a large circular bar and a more formal, sit-down dining room, which is connected to the bar through a door at the back. To be perfectly honest, in all of my visits here over the years, I´ve never even set eyes on the dining room,  I´m sure the food is wonderful, but, as locals will tell you, the secret to this restaurant is to dine at the bar. Here, you can not only can you order anything off the moderately expensive regular menu, but also chose from a huge menu of incredibly priced and delicious tapas and raciones (slightly larger plates of food) - a small price to pay for the lack of stools or any other seating. The best and most typical thing to do is to order a variety of different dishes to share.

Here are some of my favorites from a recent visit (I actually went twice in two days):

Alcachofas confitadas con boquerones en vinagre y jugo de pimiento amarillo (Artichokes with vinegared sardines and yellow pepper juice - 2.65 Euros / plate)
Brocheta de alcachofas y vieras a la plancha con jugo de pimientos asados (Grilled artichokes - I love artichokes - and scallops with roasted pepper puree - 5.25 Euros)

Albondigas de Marisco al Jerez Fino en Salsa de Almejas (Seafood balls with Fino sherry and clam sauce - 16.60 Euros)
Fried eggplant "flower" and charming waiter
In the center of the bar behind the counter there is a huge cold storage box piled with the local fresh fish of the day, ready to be prepared to order in any variety of ways. Other specialties include incredibly rich and perfectly cook rice dishes and a long list of meats.  The wine list is long and varied, but I always start with a glass of crisp, dry Manzanilla (sherry) that the bartenders line up along the bar in cold buckets of ice at the beginning of the shift.

And if this doesn't convince you. This is the photo that I took around the corner from the restaurant.

El Faro de Cadiz
C/ San Félix, 15
+34 902 211 068
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