December 14, 2009 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine

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Last weekend Jacobo’s mom taught me how to make one of my favorite Spanish tapa indulgences – croquetas. It is admittedly a laborious process, but not particularly difficult to do. The recipe below will yield you quite a few croquetas (probably around 40), but keep in mind that you can freeze them and that the more you make at one time, the more worthwhile the long process. The recipe below follows no particular measurements – it’s more about achieving the right consistencies – so if you want to make fewer croquetas, just use less flour, and then less of everything else in order to achieve the correct consistency of the bechamel (the creamy like dough). The amounts of meat are completely up to you – it depends on how much you end up wanting in the croquetas.

    Several pieces of jamon (enough to get about a cup or more of shredded meat)

    1 chicken breast

    Broth from cooking chicken (about ½ cup)

    6 large spoonfuls of flour

    A few tablespoons of olive oil

    A couple cups of milk

    A cup or so of powdered bread crumbs

    1 egg

    Salt and pepper

    Keep in mind that you can make virtually any type of croquetas – shrimp, mushroom, cod, or really any kind of meat or vegetable that you have lying around. The key to making it is as flavorful as possible is that you use the broth from whichever ingredient you have in order to enrich the flavor of the croqueta. So, if you decide you want to do shrimp croquetas, boil your shrimp in just a little water (they will cook fast). Once the shrimp are cooked, remove them from their shells and continue to boil the shells in the same water, ultimately using a strainer to remove the shells from the broth (see my post about pimientos rellenos for more details on how to make bechamel with shrimp).

    In this case we made croquetas with chicken and jamon, so what we did was boil one chicken breast in a small pot with just a little water (maybe a few centimeters high with water – don’t use too much or the broth won’t be flavorful) with the lid on. Be sure to turn the chicken so that it cooks evenly. Once the chicken is cooked, reserve the water.

    You will then want to take the meat from the chicken and shred it in a food processor until it’s a pretty fine consistency (kind of like that of stirred up tuna from the can). You will also want to do the same with the jamon (removing any chunks of fat or any hard pieces once it’s been blended).

    In a small pot, heat up a couple cups of milk – not boiling, but so that it is warm.

    In a separate medium pot, add enough olive oil so that it covers the bottom of the pan and then some. Heat it up, but not too high, as now you will want to add flour and you don’t want to burn the flour! Add 6 or so heaping large spoonfuls of flour, stirring it with the olive oil. While you do this, continue to make sure that you have heat, but not too much. You will want to stir until the consistency is similar to that of pie dough or pasta dough. If it’s too dry, add more oil, if it’s too moist, add more flour.
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    Once your mixture has reached the right consistency, you will want to start mixing in the warm milk. Add a little milk at a time, through a small strainer to remove any of the cream. Stir it in slowly with the dough mixture – you will still want to do this over the heat, but be sure it’s not too hot. You may even want to alternate having the pot on the burner and then off the burner in order to control the heat. Be sure to mix everything well!

    Continue to add the milk so that the consistency starts to get creamy. Before it gets too creamy though, begin adding the reserved chicken broth. The goal is to get the consistency to a mashed potato like texture and very fine with no chunks, so if once you’ve add the broth, you still need more moisture, begin adding milk again. Toward the end, add a few pinches of salt and even some white pepper (or whatever you prefer) – you may want to taste to make sure it has enough salt, but if you’re using jamon (or any salty equivalent), remember that the jamon will add more salt.

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    Finally, add the jamon and chicken and stir fully. Now you will want it to cool completely before moving to the next step.

    Once cooled (whether in the fridge or otherwise), stir up the mixture to ensure the top isn’t too hard.
    On a plate, pore a bunch of your breadcrumbs. Separately, in a shallow bowl, beat one egg.

    Now, with the bechamel dough, you will take two small spoons in order to create the oval shape of the croqueta – don’t worry too much about the form, this is more to ensure even quantities. Place your spoon fulls of mixture in the egg, fully coat with egg, and then place in the bread mixture. Cover the dough fully with crumbs, then form the shape of the croqueta, and set aside on a tray.

    Now, all you need to do is put them in the fryer until they’re a golden brown, or you can even freeze them for another day. Or, if you are desperate and curious like me, you can pop them in the oven (the fryer scares me sometimes) – it’s not nearly as good, but if you must, it’s an option.

    That’s it! Viva la croqueta!

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    December 11, 2009 - Posted by Erin in Travel, Travels in Spain

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    I’m finally getting around to writing about the last stop on our puente tour – Medinaceli! The pueblo, located in the province of Soria, was on our drive home, and since Jacob had been before, he knew I’d like it.

    Medinaceli, the more modern pueblo, sits at the base of a mountain. But to get to the old Medinaceli, you must traverse your way up yet another narrow, curvy road. This particular day was freezing cold, so the old village of Medinaceli was sitting in the clouds and in the middle of lots of blustery cold winds.

    We arrived with the objective of touring the pueblo, from the Roman gate (around 2000 years old) to the castle, but I quickly changed that plan because I was miserable from the cold. Instead we decided to warm up with some lunch. We stopped at the first restaurant that we came across – La Cerámica. Inside were about six tables and a space heater – SOLD!

    My main objective for writing this post is not to tell you how darling the town is (which it was), but to relive the heaven that was their setas a la plancha (or grilled mushrooms). If you are ever within driving distance of this place, go there PRONTO and order yourself some setas and some croquetas caseras (homemade). What a treat! Note that the picture above was “post-setas,” thus the happy mood.

    On each table they also had advertisements to become a shepherd for a day!! Apparently it only costs 12 euros and you get to run around and chase sheep all day – sign me up! Jacob and I will be returning in the warmer season to make like shepherds and then eat us some mushrooms at La Cerámica. Expect details in a future post!

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    December 9, 2009 - Posted by Erin in Travel, Travels in Spain

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    We had seen what there was to see of the monastery and it was time for a new adventure. On Sunday we set out to visit one of Spain’s larger cities – Zaragoza. It’s the capital of the Zaragoza province and was once the capital of the very important Kingdom of Aragon.

    We wandered through its historic quarter and then headed out intent on doing some pueblo hopping on the trip back. On our drive home we passed what seemed to be more than a pueblo – it was the city of Calatayud. Since we were more set on visiting small towns, we decided to drive on, and that we would return if we found nothing else of interest.

    Shortly after Calatayud, we came upon a sweet looking pueblo called Munébrega. Like most pueblos, particularly on Sundays, it looked like a bit of a ghost town, except for the herds of cats that seemed to be more in charge of the city than anyone else. Getting out of our car we were greeted by nine straight away, all eyeing us up as though we’d invaded their territory.

    The town was small and charming – I particularly loved that many houses, that would otherwise be drab looking stone buildings, were painted rich vibrant hues of blue, red and yellow (reminds you of another lovely city with wildly colored houses, doesn’t it?).

    After we’d seen the few streets that the city consisted of, we headed back to the car, deciding that Calatayud was worth a visit. Turning the corner to our car we started hearing the shrill sounds of a cat fight. We then realized that cats had conquered our car and were fighting over it. Silly cats.

    We reached Calatayud by dusk and walked our way through the streets and down its long main paseo. It was worth the stop, although a shame that we couldn’t do so much considering the late hour. That didn’t stop us from venturing through two more pueblos before heading back to the monastery though.

    On the curvy road to the monastery, we had noticed signs to some other nearby pueblos, so despite it being dark, we figured we might as well take the short drive to see if we’d come upon a small-town treasure. After making the turn though, the road got eerily narrow and dark, with steep dark abysses on both sides (we were indeed high in the mountains). We ended up in some random pueblo called Ibdes where we popped out of our car just long enough to enter into a smoke filled bar and have everyone stare at us as though we were aliens, at which time we promptly turned around and left.

    Last stop was Nuévalos – a pueblo we’d already passed through several times as it was on the road to the monastery. We had also stopped there the night before actually, thinking we’d have dinner, but decided against it when the drunk gas station attendant declared that he wouldn’t recommend a single restaurant in the town because he got screwed (rather f*&@!$) when they charged him 100 euros. Anyway, this night we decided to ignore the drunk guy’s advice and ended up having dinner there. It wasn’t anything amazing, but it also wasn’t 100 euros. We walked away satisfied.

    That ended our day of pueblo hopping. When we got home, we curled up (literally) in our miniature bed and watched a really, really bizarre special on gypsies in Spain. That night my dreams of waterfalls were replaced by nightmares of creepy gypsies living in caves, getting married at 16 and following the laws of strange elders. Seriously weird stuff, and yet incredibly fascinating.

    The trip’s not over yet though! One more day to come.

    December 8, 2009 - Posted by Erin in Travel, Travels in Spain

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    This last weekend was what is known as the December “puente,” (or bridge). This is because today, Tuesday, is a holiday, therefore everyone takes Monday off and goes on holiday for the four day weekend. Last weekend, Jacob planned a getaway for us at the Monasterio de Piedra (Monastery of Rock), located in the province of Zaragoza – an area I had yet to really explore.

    We arrived there on Saturday morning, checked into our room at the monastery, and immediately headed out (along with our gloves, hats and coats) to check out the surrounding grounds. This monastery is less known for the monastery itself, and more for the large piece of land it sits on. Every bit of the land is covered with trickling creeks, streams, and rivers. In some bizarre way, it reminded me of the Alhambra in Granada (one of my favorite places on earth), which has water running throughout it like veins in one’s body. But this was nature’s Alhambra, which meant that it couldn’t all be peaceful creeks. I could hear the sound of falling water from the monastery, and as I got closer to the more mountainous part of the land, it became rather deafening. Just a five minute walk from the monastery and you encounter countless gushing waterfalls. It seemed like a volcano of waterfalls – water seeping out of every hole and fissure in the mountainside, as if it were erupting from somewhere within. I still can’t fathom where all that water comes from. I tried to put myself to sleep one of the nights there just trying to imagine how a waterfall must begin…it kind of gave me a headache though.

    The property is pretty vast, so we were able to walk up, down, in and all around – from the bottoms to the tops of waterfalls, in caves, and over creeks. We were even able to trek behind a massive waterfall, deep into the mossy cave behind it. It was breathtaking, and sadly impossible to capture on camera (well, on mine anyway…hint, hint mom….xmas list 😉 ). We also were able to see the vast fish ponds they have (I later ate one of the trout at the monastery restaurant), as well as a small lake called “Mirror Lake” with the most crystal clear and still water I’ve seen in my life. It’s clarity was hypnotizing because you could see every leaf, rock and fish as though it were just inches away and frozen silently in time.

    The monastery’s land was pretty impressive, and while the monastery too was impressive, I would definitely recommend staying elsewhere. The building was very charming, but our bed seemed to be preserved from the monk days hundreds of years ago – in that it was terribly uncomfortable and hardly fit someone of my height, much less someone like Jacob. Next time I go to the monastery, I would likely stay either in Zaragoza (1 hour+) or Calatayud (only about 30 minutes away) where you can find reasonable hotels and more things to do and see nearby (not to mention a selection restaurants).

    Since there wasn’t much else to do at the monastery, we ended up visiting several other places on this same trip. I’ll get to those in the next blog though.

    December 3, 2009 - Posted by Erin in Madrid, Travel, Travels in Spain

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    It’s been awhile since I last went to Cuenca, probably a couple of years. The last time I went, I wasn’t blogging yet, so I’m glad that I can now add a little bit about the charming city hanging on the precipice of a deadly gorge ;).

    We gave my family the option of going to Ávila or Cuenca, and they chose Cuenca – thankfully. I needed to visit some place that I hadn’t been in awhile. Unfortunately, when we were about 45 minutes into the drive, we discovered that several of the main roads were completely closed and that we would have to take several detours to get there. 45 minutes in, and we figured we may as well go all the way. Almost two hours later and we arrived in Cuenca where we parked in front of the Parador with the breathtaking view (quite literally breathtaking considering the steep cliff just feet away) of the old city of Cuenca and its hanging housings (casas colgadas).

    Angie and I clenched each other’s arms as we carefully stepped are way across the bridge spanning the two sides of the deep valley. Every squeaky wood panel sent a shiver up my spine. I am not going to lie, I watched where Jacob stepped and carefully stepped in his footsteps (is that ridiculous?).

    We managed to arrive safely on the other side and headed straight for lunch at a restaurant right at the mouth of the city. In the foyer I paid close attention to the paintings on the walls as my Spanish professor from the US, Rebeca, had told me that her father had painted them, and sure enough, I saw her last name inscribed on each painting.

    We enjoyed another yummy Spanish meal as we peered out the windows of our “hanging” restaurant. The lunched was finished off by a yummy coffee liqueur that is a speciality of Cuenca. After this, we walked through the old city, stopping in shops along the way. I was somewhat disillusioned by the pungent smell in many of the shops (what was it – cheese?), almost irritated that they were ruining the impression my family would have of such a lovely city.

    We came upon a hole in the wall shop (really, it did seem like a hole in the wall, what with Jacob having to duck his head constantly and the teeny tiny window in back that looked out over another steep slope). At this shop they sold loads of handmade bowls, plates etc (the shop, called Cuencos de Cuenca, literally means bowls of Cuenca) all made by an artist born and raised in Cuenca. I had to buy a few of the darling colorful tea cups.

    Across the street, my aunt Kia checked out a wine and cheese shop to see if she could find any of the yummy coffee liqueur. When I entered the shop I was greeted by that strong smell again – what was the problem with this place!?? My mom and Kia made some purchases, while Jacob and I stayed behind talking with the chatty shop owner about cheese (Cuenca is in Castilla La Mancha, the home of my favorite staple food – manchego cheese). She gave us a long dissertation about how her cheese was the best artisanal cheese, and how she guaranteed it would be good. After her long speech, we felt we could hardly leave without buying some of the famous cheese (as if I ever need an excuse anyway).

    We made the long drive back to the city where the Madrid Christmas lights were finally blazing. We drove up and down the Castellana and down toward Puerta de Alcala gazing at the twinkling lights all the way. We finished off the day with dinner at our favorite Madrid spot – Rubaiyat.

    The next day, Jacob and I opened the manchego and suddenly our kitchen was filled with the intense odor that I recognized from Cuenca. I was skeptical – I love manchego, but this could be a stretch. One bite though and I realized how very wrong I was – best manchego ever! Lesson learned – don’t judge a cheese by its smell.