September 30, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Spain

Given my affinity for manchego cheese, it’s not all that surprising that any dish originating from the fine land of Castilla La Mancha would automatically appeal to me (which reminds me, Mom, be sure to add manchego cheese to your list of things to have in the fridge when I visit the US for the holidays  – we wouldn’t want me to go through withdrawals now would we?).  Castilla La Mancha is the community (think State, like in the US) just south and east of Madrid and home to the legends of Don Quixote, the charming city of Toledo, and of course my beloved cheese.  Enough talk about these things though, I’m here to introduce you to a new dish from this region, one that is surprisingly healthy and very easy to make.  It’s called pisto manchego, and might remind you a bit of ratatouille.

Here’s what you will need:

    1 onion
    3 green peppers
    3 zucchinis
    3 eggplants
    A clove of garlic
    A large can (29 oz. or so) of tomato puree
    A touch of salt
    A teaspoon of sugar
    A little bit of olive oil 
    Some eggs (depending on how Spanish you’re feeling)

Ok, so you know the drill – quantities above are approximate as the suegra (mother-in-law) doesn’t work with actual measurements.  But you’re a great chef, so this doesn’t matter, right?  

First thing’s first – chop up your veggies, all of them (garlic included – slice that baby up).  Now, get out a large frying pan and cover the bottom with a smidge of olive oil, then add your chopped onion and garlic.  Set the heat to low and let your onion and garlic cook away.

While your onions are doing their thing, get out a large pot and add a little olive oil – just enough to slightly cover the bottom.  At this time you will first add the chopped eggplant so that it’s on bottom (it takes a bit longer to cook), then the zucchini and green pepper.  Set the heat to low/medium-low and cover with a well-fitted top – your veggies will be cooking themselves with the steam!  Now you will just want to check the vegetables occasionally and stir them here and there.  Once they’ve cooked a bit, add some salt (you’re a brilliant chef, remember?  You’ll know how much to add 😉 ).  

Have you been checking on your onions?  I hope so.  They should be about ready for the tomato puree.  So now add your puree, along with a touch of salt and a teaspoon-ish of sugar. Turn the heat to high so that your sauce starts to boil.  Meanwhile, give your sauce a stir or two, and then maybe cover it so that it doesn’t bubble and splat everywhere (like on my nice white blouse, thank you very much – I’ll be heading to the dry cleaner soon).  

Back to your veggies.  How are they looking?  They should just keep on getting softer and softer until they are kind of a mush.  That’s the objective – mush.  Once your veggies are a bit mushy, you will want to pass them through a colander in order to extract some of the water that they have sweat out.  Be sure to get out as much of the liquid as you can.  Once done, throw them back in the same pot and start adding your sauce.  Add enough sauce so that your veggies are covered but not swimming in it (you can use any left over sauce for pasta, pizza, or whatever apparently non-Spanish thing you think of).  Mix up the sauce and veggies over low heat just to cook everything together for a few minutes.  Give it a taste and add more salt if needed.

Now, if you’re feeling extra Spanish, this lovely dish should also be served with a fried egg as seen in the photo above.  Note too that if you aren’t so keen on some of the veggies listed, you can just as easily only use one type of vegetable, or even add others.  It’s up to you!

Don’t forget to accompany your dish with massive quantities of manchego cheese (because I said so).

September 23, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Madrid, Spain

What would you say if I told you that I was going to try all the cakes, pies and pastries at Madrid’s famous Mallorquina Bakery? If your answer is that I would have to change my moniker from the “traveling turtle” to the “comatose cow,” well then you’re on the right track! See, I’ve been to the Mallorquina bakery a time or two, and each time I go I end up cross-eyed trying to decide which dessert to pick – try something new, or play it safe and go with one I know I will love? These questions and decisions plague me, and surely a bewildered traveler even more so. So what’s a traveling turtle to do? The answer is clear – someone must undertake the grueling task of sampling and chronicling all that the Mallorquina has to offer so that when you, potential-traveler-to-Madrid, arrive here, you can mosey on up to the Mallorquina counter with confidence and order exactly what you want with no regrets! It was a hard decision as to whether I could do such a thing, but it turns out that after much soul searching (and tummy growling) that I am indeed up for task! Ohhhh the things I will do in the name of research.

The thing about Spain, and well probably many countries that have histories that date back prior to 1776, is that the country has countless traditional dishes and desserts, each of which is often a speciality of a certain city (and has been for generations). If you’ve even briefly read my blog, then you know that I love nothing more than sampling the local specialities of each place I go. So it’s only normal that I would find a place like the Mallorquina Bakery (which turns out regional desserts from around the country like McDonald’s does french fries) to be a particularly intriguing place. Apparently I’m not the only one either, as it has been around since 1894.

Enough talking already, let’s get to the good stuff. Jacobo and I arrived at the bakery last weekend wide-eyed and with our mouthes watering, ready to order the first dessert we saw – no need to choose, just point and keep on pointing. As expected, they serve far more desserts than we could count on all four of our hands, which meant that this valiant effort would need to be conquered over multiple visits. No problem, we would just order five desserts this time around. So without further ado, here’s what we stuffed our faces with:

First up was the merengue – so fluffly and beautiful that surely it should win best in show. The middle looked like a creamy marshmallow (and pretty much tasted like one too) sandwiched between thin layers of filo-like dough, then sprinkled with powdered sugar on top for good measure (it’s what any rational person would do, right?). With the light filling and sugary, flaky crust, everything just melted in my mouth like a little cloud (strange how after eating it, though, that I didn’t feel much like a little cloud).

Next was the tarta de yema. You may recall my talking about yemas before during my trips to Ávila – the city from where they are a speciality. “Yemas,” which means egg yolks in Spanish, are soft, sugary, yellow confections that are typically served as bite sized morsels no bigger than a large gum ball. In the case of this cake though, the yemas became the filling, translating into pure sweetness, so much so that I’m sure I could taste the thick grains of sugar amongst the possibly sugar marinated cake and sprinkling of coconut shavings. I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I think it may have been too sweet for me (oh dessert gods – please forgive me!). But perhaps if you LOVE yemas and have a wicked obsession for yellow sugary things, then this might be the dessert for you.

Now it was time to order a third dessert, and things were admittedly getting a little awkward. Here we were, these two seemingly normal people, absolutely wolfing down desserts and ordering more before we’d even finished the ones we already had! At this point we did our best to convince the waiter of our motives before requesting that he bring us the most popular dessert in the house (whatever that may be). So with that, he plopped down a napolitana in front of us. I’m not going to lie, I was not impressed by its appearance – after all, there was no chocolate and there didn’t appear to be any oozing sugary substances present either. And well, it tasted as unimpressive as it looked. I don’t know who loves this dessert so much, but whoever they are, they apparently have not tried anything else at this fine establishment. The Mallorquina apparently serves a chocolate napolitana as well, so let’s see if that one will be less disappointing. Stay tuned.

After bashfully requesting the camerero for a fourth dessert, we were presented with the tarta de fresa, or strawberry cake, which honestly looked like something bought from Safeway for $10.99 per three-foot sheet. But I was committed to the task at hand, so I dug in, and holy not-Safteway-cake, it was friggin good! It had light tasty whip cream, a cake that seemed to have been soaked in some sort of liqueur, and a berry topping that was divine. I don’t know what was going on with this dessert, but between its underwhelming appearance and its off-the-charts flavors, it was a guaranteed favorite.

Did we have room for another dessert? Well, no. Good thing I have multiple stomachs available for different kinds of sweets – particularly chocolate. So when we were served a chocolate palmera, I discovered I had new found hunger. You may recognize the palmera as they are often sold in the US, albeit much smaller and typically not chocolate covered (which clearly doesn’t make sense). This palmera was soft like a croissant and was topped with frosting like a cupcake – you know, the soft creamy kind that is so tempting that when no one is looking you just lick it all off because it’s so irresistible (oh, not everyone does that? Never mind then. Did I mention that I live in Spain and am deprived of normal American goodies rendering me desperate and possibly overly excited about anything that reminds me of home? Don’t even get me started about Madrid’s new frozen yogurt shop!). I crown this palmera as the best on the planet (because this matters to someone)!!

Of course we didn’t finish all of the desserts, so naturally we brought the specimens home for further analysis, because you never know, sometimes flavors evolve when accompanied by wine. After lots of careful thought, I’ve come to the profound conclusion that the tarta de fresa takes the cake (ba boom ching!) amongst the five we tried so far, with the palmera being a close second. So which one would you order?

Now I’m going to fast until the next trip to the Mallorquina. Once I can no longer actually see the tarta de fresa hovering around my midsection, I will return again for the next sampling. You can’t wait, can you?! Doesn’t your life already feel more complete knowing what you might order at the Mallorquina!?!

September 15, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Spain, Travel, Travels in Spain, Trips to the US

What is your favorite place on the planet? When approached with this question for a Lonely Planet BlogSherpa Carnival, I couldn’t really imagine how to sift through the heap of awesome places that started flickering through my brain. My favorite place to live? To visit? To eat? So many locations flash into my mind, and surely yours too. Last month it would have been Halong Bay, Vietnam. Last week I would have probably said any Spanish terraza willing to serve me my beloved tinto de verano, a plate of manchego cheese and some gazpacho. And then growing up, my choice would have been Vashon Island, Washington – that weird little island where I built some solid clam digging skills. But of all time? I suppose a couple of places do stand out – two places that tickle all my senses and make me feel like I’m frozen in a dream.

Let me start by taking you on a journey to the first location. It’s a very precise spot in the best city ever (I’m only slightly partial) – San Francisco of course!!! This little spot can be found on the water side of Broderick Street, right before you reach the row of Broadway Street mansions. Sitting there, propped up on the steep incline of the carless block of Broderick, the Marina sits in front of you like a stage. The bustling neighborhood below gives way to the sailboat-speckled waters of the slate-blue Bay. In the distance to your right, Alcatraz pokes gloomily out of the water. Then to your far left, the ebb and flow of marine fog engulfs the Golden Gate Bridge. And just over the hill behind you, whether you can hear it or not, hide the noise and chaos of the big city. Here, in this little piece of heaven on earth, the crisp marine air kisses your skin, and everything around you seems to stand still. I’ve spent countless moments in this very spot reflecting on a stressful day, pondering life-changing decisions (to move to Spain or not to?), or simply reminding myself how grateful I am to have such a special city wrapped around me like a familiar hug.

I have to tell you friends, if I haven’t made it clear already, this is the best place on earth. The rolling hills lined with colorful buildings and filled with equally colorful people, the fusion of international cultures and cuisine, and the weather….no, NO, NOT the weather. This is the one thing I do not miss – except perhaps the mild overcast mornings with the fog horn humming in the distance, carefully soothing me out of my slumber, as opposed to the blinding Madrid sun that does everything short of scream “rise and shine amiga!”

This can’t be my only favorite place, though. There is another, that is perhaps less sentimental and more universally acknowledged as one of the most amazing places in the world – the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. I’ve tried to capture in words before the paradise that is the Alhambra. But honestly, until you are there, and even right now as I write this, it is hard to recall the sensation of walking through the Moorish wonderland. The thought of a palace, for me anyway, typically recalls fancy chandeliers, vast gardens filled with perfectly groomed shrubbery, and ornately tasseled rugs and curtains. While impressive, it certainly seems forced and perhaps a bit excessive, doesn’t it? But this palace, oh this palace, it’s like nothing that you have stored in the corners of your imagination. It’s equal parts elegance and austerity. The Arabic architecture, with its open rooms and intricately carved details, blends naturally with the dribbling fountains. You can’t escape the trickle of water traveling through the palace and gardens, which overflow with everything from roses to fruits and vegetables. When you walk through this palace, everything is in perfect harmony. Nothing is ridiculously lavish, but at the same time, it feels like the richest place on earth – rich with color, smells, sounds and life. It can only best be described as a drug that heightens all your senses – smell, touch, hearing, sight. It is truly euphoric. This would be my kind of palace indeed. Speaking of which, Jacobo, are you taking notes??

Lucky for me, I will be returning to the Alhambra for a third time in just a few short weeks, at which time I will be taking my own notes on what I’d like in my personal (imaginary) Moorish palace (an Andalucian patio and a balcony full of electrically colored petunias are musts!). Meanwhile, if you’re itching to know some other sweet locations around the planet, stop by the Lonely Planet BlogSherpa Carnival hosted by Sophie’s World, to find out what other expert travelers are saying about their top spots and favorite places.

September 7, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Travel

In reviewing the thousands, yes thousands, of photos we took on our trip to Indochina, I find myself re-pondering and marveling at the infinite uses of the motorbikes in Vietnam. I think I should let the pictures do most of the talking this time around, so to that end, may I share with you below just a glimpse of the endless potential of this peculiar vehicle. I can’t help but imagine all the fanciful things I’d strap onto the back of my bike…jamones, blocks of manchego cheese, maybe some pineapples, bars of chocolate and several bottles of wine. What would you use your Vietnamese motorbike for?

Not a motorbike, but worth honorable mention

The helmetless texter deserved a photo

September 1, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Madrid, Spain, Traditions

It’s that time of year again when the residents of Spain’s bigger cities flock to the beaches leaving urban epicenters like Madrid more like ghost towns. People skip pueblo like it’s Armageddon. The same streets that are usually buzzing with booming Spanish voices and horn honking (I never really escape it) are eerily quiet on August afternoons. Aside from this mass exodus to the coastline, August is also often the time of year that towns celebrate their fiestas – a week of celebration in honor of the city’s patron saint.

It just so happens that our town, San Sebastián de los Reyes (a part of the community of Madrid), celebrates its fiestas during the last week of August. Essentially this entails a week-long carnival of chocolate covered churros, concession stands where you can win a jamón (just what I’ve always wanted – no, really!!!), roller coaster rides, and….the running of the bulls! Always out-shined by its more popular rival in Pamplona, the running of the bulls, or “encierros” as it is called in Spanish, in San Sebastián de los Reyes is indeed the second largest in Spain. I like to think of the running of the bulls in Pamplona as the run for tourists – while this may not be so true, I can guarantee you that non-Spaniards are far and few between at the encierros in my lovely town just ten minutes away from Madrid.

Early in the morning for a week, people eagerly mount the fence-guarded streets of SanSe (an affectionate abbreviation of the city name) to witness all the Spanish crazies that decide they want to run along side the bulls. Perched on top of these fences you wait wobbly as the designated shepherds of the race stretch their legs while clasping on to their sticks that will be used to ensure the bulls keep on the move. At this early Spanish hour, drunken teenagers with mullets and abnormally large numbers of piercings are a more likely site than bulls, but just as entertaining nonetheless.

Despite the potential chaos, as the clock approaches 8am, everything falls into place – fence watchers brace themselves (I clutch onto Jacobo for dear life), runners take their final calm breathes, and silence ensues as the firework man (I’m sure he has some fancy Spanish title like “fireworkerero” – I’ll do my research and add that to a follow-up post of Awesomely Spanish Jobs) prepares his rocket. What’s this you ask? It signals the start of the run, and let me tell you, this is not a normal firework that bursts into an array of beautiful colors and is accompanied by a friendly boom. The first few times I heard it while lying fast asleep in bed I legitimately thought it was a bomb and that the world was ending – no, really, I did. This sensation still hasn’t changed, but at least now I realize a few moments after I wake up that in reality it is not a bomb and, no, the world will go on for another day, or at least long enough for the bulls to do their run.

With that, the bulls run and charge, probably as lost, confused and angry about the sound of the firework as I was. The majority of the runners (particularly those with mullets and peculiar piercings) run way ahead of the bulls, out of harm’s way, only to secure their free spot in the Plaza de Toros (where later they let younger bulls chase around these same young, invincible-minded teenagers). After this first group of people staggers its way to the Plaza, there are seconds of deafening silence before the real deal begins. Then, in the flip of a Spanish tortilla, you see a rush of people sprinting as though their lives depended on it (oh wait, they do!) intermixed with several hundred pound bulls and the alarmingly peaceful sound of cow bells strapped around their necks.

And then it’s over. People plop off the fences like rubber duckies in one of the carnival games, rushing to the cafeterias that line the street in order to watch the never-ending loop of run-replays. While folks sip on their coffees and chow down on their chocolate and churros, their eyes remain glued to the television as though each replay of the run were the first they’d ever seen. Then you go home and inevitably every time the news comes on they passionately show the run again just in case you missed it the first 50 times. And heaven forbid there be an accident or injury – this will be played in slow-motion, close up, multiple times so that the viewer may carefully analyze exactly which bones were broken and what puncture wounds may have been incurred.

Welcome to Spain my friends. Until next year, felices fiestas!