October 24, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Spain, Traditions, Travel, Travels in Spain

I scarf down one, two, who knows maybe ten pinchos, and think to myself, what’s this you say about running of the bulls? Ah, right, Pamplona is known for that yearly week of runs in which hulligans from around the world try their hand at playing one-sided tag with angry bulls. But golly, with my own town’s fabulous and exhilarating running of the bulls, who needs Pamplona? Well, I do now, but not because of those silly bulls.

Back to the pinchos and my unrelenting appetite for Spanish cuisine. Pinchos, or pintxos as they are spelled in Basque, aren’t just a type of food, but a whole new eating experience. Similar to going out for tapas, going out for pinchos requires one to hop from bar to bar, sampling the food and a glass of wine or beer along the way. Pinchos are a Basque concept, and while Pamplona is in the region of Navarra, not Basque Country, there is a lot of overlap. Many areas of Navarra (particularly the northwest) are predominantly Basque-speaking and have a great deal of Basque influence, while other parts of the region are a mixture, and then the rest is more or less entirely “Spanish” (which I put in quotes given the Basque vs. Spain controversy – yet again, a subject requiring a different blog).

The pinchos themselves are appetizer-sized portions, almost always served on or with a small slice of bread. At a pinchos bar, one doesn’t sit down, crack open a menu and call the waiter over, however. Oh no, it is nothing as glamorous as this. Remember the last time you went to a crowded bar and had to shimmy your way up past the barricade of people in order to capture the bartender’s attention? (I realize this may be a more distant memory for some of us. Love you Grandma!) Well, if you’re in a good pinchos bar, then it indeed resembles this experience, although with better lighting, fewer inebriated 20-year-olds, and a much better payoff – both a drink and something to satiate your growing hunger! If you are lucky enough to secure a spot at the bar (a feat accomplished by carefully analyzing which bar-dwellers are closest to departing), you will be able to peruse the vast display of delicacies sprawled out in front of you and just start ordering away. After trying a couple, it’s time to pop over to the next spot where you can once again release your passion for pinchos by elbowing your way to the bar. If you fancy a trip to Pamplona (for the pinchos, of course – who cares about those bulls), my best advice to you when pinchos hopping is to start at Bar Gaucho (our favorite) and then just keep skipping around from bar to bar looking for those that are the busiest, and therefore most likely to have the best pinchos!

Don’t get me wrong, there is more to this city than just pinchos and bulls. The occasionally hilly city streets are filled with colorful homes that, surprise, remind me of San Francisco! Pamplona is also quite well known for one of its very famous American visitors, Ernest Hemingway, who made many trips to the city, immersing himself in Spanish culture. His legacy there is an important one as he essentially helped to raise the city’s fame to an international level, particularly with his first successful novel The Sun Also Rises (which I admittedly have yet to tackle!). Tributes to him are evident throughout the city, including where we stayed, Hotel La Perla, a hotel once host to the Nobel Prize-winning author.

I realize I’ve been quite cruel with all this talk of Pamplona and pinchos, so in an effort to tease you just that much more, I’ve posted a boatload of pincho pictures (among others) on the La Tortuga Viajera Facebook page. Once again I take you on a calorie-less journey through Spanish cuisine! You can thank me later ;).

October 5, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Madrid, Spain, Traditions

For me, one of the critical components of any culture, particularly Spanish culture, is its cuisine.  You can visit historic places and read age-old tales, but to eat a dish that has been passed down for generations and eaten by the rich and poor both in good times and bad (apparently I haven’t left the whole wedding thing behind me, have I?) is the ultimate cultural experience.  You may not be able to take the Alhambra with you back to your little corner of the world, but you most definitely can try to whip up a mean batch of gazpacho, thus transporting yourself, even just slightly, back to a scorching hot day in Andalucia.  This is what food is about to me.  So that is why I would like to take you on a little journey to experience an afternoon with a very well-loved Spanish dish – paella.  It famously originates from the Valencia region of Spain, can be cooked probably a million different ways, and made its formal debut as an official dish sometime during the 18th century.

Last weekend Jacobo and I headed to our friends Manu and Natalia’s house about 20 minutes north of Madrid on what was proving to be a perfect, sunny Autumn day.  It had been two whole years since we’d last had Manu’s paella, but our obsession with it was not forgotten – I was in fact so desperate for it that I bartered with Manu in order to get him to make it, offering my banana bread in return for his paella (a weak trade, I know, but he bought it!  Sucker!).  You see, Manu’s paella isn’t just served to you at a formal dinner table, but instead cooked slowly in his yard, all afternoon long, while the guests can see the ricey wonder transform into paella, and at the same time nosh on tapas as they throw back glass after glass of almost always delicious Spanish wine.

Arriving at Manu’s, the first line of business was pine cones.  Yes, pine cones.  Cooking the paella over them not only gives it great flavor, but the cones allow you to control the heat easily by adding more or by spreading them apart.  Nothing gets you in the mood for a good paella like working up some hunger while pine cone hunting.  Ok, who am I fooling, the hunting was brief, like five minutes amongst a small grove of trees on the side of the road, but does one really need to work very hard to build up a hunger for paella??  No? That’s what I thought.

Back at the house, Manu prepped the broth for the paella in the kitchen by filling a large pot with water, then adding paellero seasoning (a premix of paella spices – the key spice being saffron), chicken broth cubes, a whole tomato and a whole onion.  Done with his work there, he turned on the stove heat to high and headed out to the yard where the real work began (and consequently where my real work began – sampling the tapas and wine of course! A rough job, but I didn’t want to be rude and not express my appreciation for the fine appetizers).

Out in the yard, the table was set with care – and by care I mean all the essentials were present: jamón, manchego cheese, bread, potato chips (not an essential for me, but strangely enough a tapas essential in most all Spanish households), and white wine (to be followed by two other red wines).  Meanwhile, Manu prepped the BBQ with a few pine cones, lighting them on fire and placing the paellera, or paella pan, on top of the rack.  First into the pan was a touch of olive oil and four whole cloves of garlic, which he cooked until browned.  While the garlic was cooking, he chopped up a bit of tomato, and a quarter or so each of the green and red bell peppers.  Once removing the garlic from the pan and setting it aside, in went the tomato and peppers, sizzling away.

While the pepper and tomato cooked, our paella chef chopped up the pig ribs (something I could admittedly live without – I’m still working on my love of pig) and chicken (bones and all), and then mashed up the browned garlic.  After the tomato and pepper had done their time in the paellera, it was the pig’s turn (as apparently it takes the longest to cook) along with the mashed garlic.  Before too long, the sausage was added, and then finally the chopped chicken.  The smell of the intermingling ingredients and the crackling pine cones was intoxicating.

Meanwhile, the broth was merrily boiling away in the kitchen, just waiting for showtime.  So after all the meats had cooked for a bit, it was time to add that broth to the paellera so that it could boil, slurp and pop its way to perfection.  For how long you ask?  Good question, and one that I posed to Manu.  The response, “oh you know, as long as I feel like.”

You’re probably starting to wonder about that key ingredient aren’t you?  The rice!  Not just any rice though – it should ideally be Spanish paella rice as it is especially absorbent and therefore sucks up all of the mouth watering flavors.  There are two important things to keep in mind at this point:  1) don’t add too much rice – a good paella is one that has a very thin layer of rice, which ensures that it is evenly cooked, and 2) once you add the rice, no stirring as nothing makes a Spaniard more happy than the slightly crispy, almost burnt rice that is stuck to the bottom of the paellera. This crusty layer of rice is called socarrat and is indeed the most coveted part of the paella – the part which the server will laboriously scrape at so that you can have that crunchy goodness on your plate. 

Around 4:30PM, the rice had finally absorbed all of the broth, and lunch (yes, lunch!) was ready to be served.  Manu’s masterpiece had a smoky flavor and perfectly crusted bottom – I can hardly write this without contemplating heading to the kitchen to feverishly find a spoonful of saffron just calm my nerves! Mixed with a glass of wine (eh hem, or several) and the mildly warm weather, you couldn’t ask for a more perfect Spanish afternoon.  A big thanks to Manu and Natalia for making it all happen!

So brave Spanish Cuisine Chef (yeah, that’s you!), are you ambitious enough to take an imaginary journey to the Spanish countryside and try your hand at making paella?  If so, I’ve included the list of ingredients below (albeit in fairly loose quantities, but you’re adventurous, so who cares!?).  In the meantime, though, since I’ve got you all worked up into a Spanish food tizzy (I know, it was rather cruel wasn’t it?), perhaps you’d like to go grab a snack and cozy up for a little journey through food around the world!  It’s the subject of the latest blog carnival by the Lonely Planet BlogSherpas, which is hosted by Tie Dye Travels.  It’s calorie free, so why not?

Paella ingredients:

    2 tomatoes
    1 onion
    1/4 of 1 green bell pepper
    1/4 of 1 red bell pepper
    Paella spices such as saffron, paprika, thyme and garlic (or just use “paellero” if you can find it)
    4-5 cloves of garlic
    Chicken broth cubes
    Spanish paella rice
    Pig ribs
    Sausage (ideally chistorra)
    Olive oil
    Pine cones!!
    *Note that you can find various Spanish products, such as the Spanish rice or paella pan, at La Tienda
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!?!