Monday, June 10, 2013

Spanish food is delicious

OK, so I promised my family that I’d write about the food in Spain, and here it is. I’m not going to give you a report of everything we ate in Spain, just some of the highlights.

Probably the most ubiquitous things we ate in Spain were green olives (usually marinated with garlic and/or seasonings and on the table before any other food at every restaurant we ate at) and tortilla.  I don’t mean the flat disks of corn or wheat dough that anyone who has eaten Mexican food is probably thinking of, but instead, what is usually translated on the English versions of the menus as “Spanish omelette”.  They are both simple and delicious, and consist of some sort of fried potato with onion that is then mixed with whipped egg and cooked until it is golden-brown on both sides and solid-ish all the way through. Since I have recently had a tortilla making lesson from Nuria, perhaps I will give you a step-by-step tortilla lesson later on, but for now, you can just take my word for it that tortilla sounds simple from its ingredient list (eggs, potato, onion, olive oil, salt and pepper…that’s it) but is very satisfying to eat.  It is also a staple on tapas menus and we ate them many times during our travels.
Tapas in Madrid, the plate that's mostly empty had held the tortilla, the other things are albondigas (meatballs, left) croquettas (filled with meat and bechamel, middle) and bread (far right) and peach juice. Yum.

I was kind of expecting to eat Tapas most evenings for dinner because they are served earlier and are often cheaper than full-meals, but the problem is that most tapas places at least in the big cities seem to be small hole-in-the-wall places, and it’s just too hard to figure out which ones are “amazing find” holes in the wall, and which are “disappointing and/or sketchy” places, so we mostly were boring and ate at places in our guidebook.  Also, I realized that in a new town, particularly if I can’t read enough of the menu, I tend to pick places by a combination of the number of people eating there and by the look of the food that those people are eating.  That’s an OK strategy (yes, I realize that in tourist towns, the fact that many people use that strategy could lead to weird positive feedback loops on any given night but so be it) but had a problem this trip because most restaurants were empty when we wanted to eat. Yes, the Spanish meal hour could have played a role, but my hypothesis is that given the economic crisis, many people just aren’t eating out very often in Spain.  There’s what, 20% unemployment, and then even many employed people are just not getting paid for their work some months.  I wouldn’t go out to eat often if that were the case for me.

But, back to the food.  We had a delicious dinner in Merida, but the first amusing food story is from the night we were staying in El Rocio.  I voted to go to the Atlantic for dinner, and I wanted fish, so after watching the sun set over the ocean, we found a place that said it did fried fish (not in our book) and then promptly had a problem. I don’t know Spanish, and while Sasha can say many things (including basically everything you need to get hotel rooms, rental cars, etc.) he doesn’t know the Spanish name for most species of fish.  So we ordered non-fried shrimp (no problem, even I knew the word for shrimp) then wanted some fried fish and asked the waitress for a recommendation, and she recommended something that started with a B.  She said they were delicious, so we were excited, but then we got a pile of lightly breaded and fried fish that were maybe two inches long and were gutted but still had heads, tails and skin on…Hmmm… we had to ask how we were supposed to eat them, and (we think) we were told to leave the heads and tails and just eat the skin and meat off the backbone.  Maybe you could eat the whole things, but the tails and spines seemed a bit poke-y and the heads just didn't seem appealing.  They were good, if a bit of work.
How often does dinner require instructions from the waitress?

The fish. Still don't know what they were. Not that I've tried to figure it out.

The shrimp and the olives. We knew how to eat these.
The next night, we ate right at our hotel and the food was fine and the Sangria was also fine.  Mmmm....sangria...

Then came the best meal of the trip.  We ate lunch with Nuria and her family, and I think they were excited to have foreign guests, so served us a whole slew of amazing things.  First, we had slices of jamon (spanish for ham, but it is a different thing from your average US grocery store ham; closer to prosciutto) and sausage and tuna mixed with roasted, olive-oil soaked peppers, and bread and delicious tomatoes.  We could really have stopped there and been satisfied, but then, there was stew called puchero (I think it can also be called cocido) that contained several different types of meat and chickpeas and carrots and potatoes and we first ate a bowl of the soup part. It had the color of chicken noodle soup, maybe a bit more golden, but it had such a complex flavor it was amazing (apparently you need to use 2 very specific types of salt-cured bones to get it to taste right), and the whole thing was cooked in a pressure cooker, so the chick peas were silken almost, which was also delicious.  Then, we took bits of the meat that had been cooking in the soup and mixed in a small amount of pork fat that had been cooking with it (we used just a bit of the fat, but were told that it needed it to be authentic) and the meat was so tender and the fat infused it with richness, etc. that it was also amazing.  OK, that would have also been enough, but THEN Nuria’s sister had made a soup called Salmorejo that is usually tomatoes and garlic and bread that’s then blended to be smooth (like gazpacho but not quite the same) but apparently her sister roasts the garlic and tomatoes first, so the soup was still a creamy smooth pink, but the flavor was, well, more nuanced and rounder like you’d expect from roasted ingredients. Wow.  I love food, and that was an amazing, amazing meal. Yum.  Nuria half-jokes that maybe if she can’t figure out what to do after this post-doc in science, she should open up a restaurant.  I think she’s also a good scientist, but if she goes the restaurant route, I’ll try to be the first in line when it opens!

That evening, we went out to a delicious tapas place.  We had a bunch of things since there were 4 of us, and they were all great, from favas with ham, to these delicious guys:
I think they were cuttlefish, but I know they were delicious, as does Marek (posing in the picture)

The last thing I want to particularly talk about are churros. I remember having churros at the roller rink where we had skating parties in elementary school, and I remember ridged things fried and dipped in cinnamon and sugar.  Maybe those are more like the Mexican verison, but the Spanish ones that we ate were smooth on the outside and are extruded by a fancy machine right into hot oil in long ropes, which are then cut and served to you while still quite hot.  We had them in Tarifa and got them to go, so just emptied a few packs of sugar into the paper bag and shook it to coat them with sugar (and ate them sitting on a stone wall watching a kite surfer playing) 
OK, so we started sampling them before reaching the beach

but then we had them in Madrid in true Madrid fashion, with a cup of hot chocolate (not hot chocolate like you drink, but something that is much thicker, think melted chocolate bar) to dip them in before every bite.  Yum. AND, they had this nifty orange juice machine where they could push a button and the oranges would get automatically cut in half and squeezed.  That was some of the best orange juice, and was the perfect beverage to counteract the intensity of the chocolate and the grease of the churros; I had 2 glasses.  If you are going to Madrid, make sure you have such a meal.  We ate at Chocolateria Valor because our book said it was the best in town, but if you find a better one, please let us know and we’ll have an excuse to go back to Spain.    
Best. Breakfast. Ever. (or at least one of them)

1 comment:

  1. I think the small fried fish are sardines, or maybe mackerels, but they look like sardines. We can get them here, too, often whole foods has a sale or something, and we do the same thing, just clean them and then bread the whole thing and fry them. I think you ate them right - hold the tail, and pull everything else off with your mouth. Except, we take the heads off... stuffy americans =)