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
May 4, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Traditions

Ah yes, we all know about the beloved Spanish siesta! If only I had a nickel for every time someone told me they were jealous that I live in Spain because I get to take siestas. I suppose that I would be jealous too if that were really the case.

The concept of the Spanish siesta seems to get perpetuated by the fact that small mom-and-pop shops continue to close during the afternoon hours between 2:00 and 5:00. But I hate to break it to you, very few people actually go on an afternoon break to take a nap. In fact, I’ve never even heard of one person doing so. They only take lunch here in Spain, just like the rest of us (although, indeed a little bit longer – usually from 2:00-4:00).

So where did this Spanish siesta concept come from? Are the Spaniards just too lazy to work through the day? No, this is not the case. The tradition in fact began for several likely reasons. The first is rather obvious – in order to rejuvenate workers by allowing them some time to rest and be with their families. In addition to this, during the Spanish Civil War poverty apparently required Spaniards to take two jobs, or work double shifts, therefore requiring extra rest during the middle of day. Another reason results from the fact that it gets so darn hot here in Spain that during the peak hours of heat, between 2:00 and 5:00, people would rest so that they could then work later in the day during cooler hours. Lastly, given that the the largest meal of the day here is typically lunch, the tradition of a siesta after lunch isn’t entirely surprising. Regardless of where the siesta originated, however, I’m afraid it’s pretty much on its way to extinction (although, I’m not opposed to trying to resurrect the concept!!).

So I’m glad that we now have that settled. While we’re at it, let’s just clarify a couple of other small little myths. First, hardly anyone here actually drinks Sangria with much frequency. I know you Americans love it, but I think you might be the only ones. It’s served here, but mostly for tourists. Also, while we all love paella, unless you live in Valencia (where it is their specialty), it’s just not a staple in the Spaniard’s diet. So enjoy your siestas, sangria and paella, but know that they’re a lot less mainstream for Spaniards than you once may have thought.

August 14, 2009 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Travels in Spain

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I totally haven’t been keeping up with this thing, and it’s not for lack of continued adventures. The truth is that my job is draining me of all my will to even think, so the blog has been a victim of that. I’ve got some busy weeks and months on the horizon though, so I better get caught up before I fall so far behind that it becomes a lost cause.

In the last month we’ve had a couple of fun adventures. One included us heading out on a determined search to find a place to go wake boarding. There are lots of reservoirs here where apparently, at some point or another, you could rent wake boards and go out on the water. Well, we found out quickly that this was no longer. We headed out to the Pantano de San Juan and learned right away that our only option would be to go kayaking…..but really, how is that a bad option? So we rented our 15 Euro kayak and took to the calm waters of the reservoir. It was so super relaxing, especially when we parked it on a beach of the lake and just laid out in the sun.

A couple of other highlights in the last month included a trip out to a friend’s ranch (which we visited in the past, and I wrote about in an older blog) and also a visit from some friends of my good friend Molly. Her friend Julie, and Julie’s husband, were visiting Madrid from Texas, so we hosted them for an evening and had an fantastic time. Now I just need to work on getting Molly out here!

Our other recent trip was to Valencia – one of the few places in Spain that I had yet to visit. Another reason why we were eager to go is because my friend Heather’s boyfriend, Garen (who is an American), lives out there. We headed out two weekends ago to enjoy the beach and lots of paella.

We were so lucky to have a host there though – Garen knew the best places to take us. The highlight was certainly our trip to the Albufera (a large fresh water preserve right near the mediterranean) and to a little pueblo on the canals in the middle of rice fields. It was stunning – fields of green rice, canals zig zagging through the town and the smell of rice in the air. We parked ourselves at a charming little restaurant right on a canal with an expansive view of the fields – if these people didn’t know how to do paella, then no one would. And it didn’t disappoint. We all enjoyed a massive pan of heavenly paella in the best place in the world to eat it. What a day!

The next day we enjoyed another Valencia specialty – fideua. It’s similar to paella in that it is cooked in a pan with many of the same ingredients – the big difference, though, being the use of these macaroni like noodles (called fideos here) instead of rice. That was every bit as delicious, and the fact that we had a view of the beach didn’t hurt one bit.

Now, as usual, we’re busy planning our next trips – after all, we need something to look forward to! Up next (which we literally just decided today) is a trip to Florence, Italy in two weeks to meet up with my good friend Robin. A few weeks later I will be heading home to the States…..and then a few weeks later, off to Venice for my birthday. I obviously hate to travel 😉

June 23, 2008 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Traditions

Who doesn’t love paella? And a good homemade one at that! But let me keep your mouth watering for a little bit and start earlier in the week.

The week began with more cold and rain but it seems to have finally turned into a Spanish summer – the last few days have been hot, hot, hot. The week brought more English classes and exciting developments in the progress of my residency here. On Thursday I headed to another cata de vinos, but this time with Jacob’s sister Paloma as Jacob was in Paris on business. Afterward we headed out with a friend of hers and had dinner outside on a terraza and enjoyed the perfect Madrid evening weather. Nothing beats having dinner outside on a terraza during these warm summer nights. On Friday I traveled into Madrid to meet up with Jacob’s aunt Ana Maria to take a walk around Retiro Park and go for lunch. It was a hot day, but Retiro was beautiful – all of the trees were so full and lush from the ridiculous amount of rain we’ve had (since the minute I arrived here!!!). Saturday Jacob I headed to Plaza Mayor in central Madrid to again enjoy the amazing evening weather and dinner outside in the busy Plaza.

So, the paella! Yesterday Jacob and I headed to his parents house for lunch. Lucky for me, his mother cooked my favorite – tortilla! Her Spanish tortilla is the best, hands down. If you haven’t had the pleasure of enjoying Spanish tortilla, you are missing out. Just to clarify here, Spanish tortilla in no way resembles a Mexican tortilla, they aren’t even closely related – Spanish tortillas are more like omelets consisting of egg, potato and onion. As if the tortilla weren’t enough, Jacob’s mother cooked an amazing seafood paella as well! I am pretty sure it doesn’t get much better than authentic homemade tortilla and paella!

The weekend ended with the quarter final Euro Cup soccer game between Spain and Italy. Soccer is obviously a big deal here, but the quarter final of the Euro Cup is pure pandemonium (especially when it’s against the Italian world champions). Jacob and I opted to stay in and watch the game rather than going out. After a full game and overtime with no scoring they finally had to make penalty kicks, resulting in Spain’s win!!! At the end of the game you could hear the entire neighborhood and city yelling and cheering. There was so much excitement that Jacob and I headed into downtown Madrid to see the festivities. It was nuts! If you were in Madrid last night and in your car, then you were incessantly honking your horn – literally the whole city was consumed by horn honking (even hours after the game). The streets were covered with people proudly displaying the Spanish flag in one way or another – cars, motorcycles, you name it, everyone was waving their flag proudly and screaming. I knew this country was proud before, but last night that became brutally clear. You truly haven’t seen fans, or country pride, until you’ve seen Spain after an important soccer game. Thursday will be the semifinal game against Russia….I can’t even begin to imagine what will happen if Spain wins that one.

We are off to Amsterdam this weekend and then I will be returning home to the States after that for a month and a half. The adventure continues!