Catalunya

This post is long over-due. Mostly because I was in Barcelona with my family in September. Still, its worth mentioning that Barcelona is crazy cool. There’s funky architecture everywhere, delish food, and a generally good vibe. Gaudi had a big influence on the city and there are a few apartment buildings like this one.

IMG_2066BarcelonaIt rained our first night and I got this creepy beautiful picture of the Cathedral of Barcelona. (Its a little blurry on account of wanting that flash-less shot at night)Barcelona Cathedral

And then of course, the Sagrada Familia, which is over the top in all the right ways. From the outside, which looks like a sand castle, to the stained glass, the carving, the towers… Its beautiful and overwhelming at the same time.

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Sagrada FamiliaSagrada Familia

Sagrada FamiliaSagrada Familia

The view from the top of the tower is spectacular! You take an elevator up and then you can walk back down a tiny, steep, spiral staircase. If the view wasn’t enough to cause vertigo, then the walk down will do it for you. Seriously, at one point you only have a banister on the left (the inside of the outer wall) the steps are about 2 feet wide, and at the end of if you can see down the center of like 50 feet of spiral staircase.

Sagrada Familia

After a day and a half in Barcelona, the next stop was a little beach town called Cadaqués on the Mediterranean coast. A series of winding roads leads through the mountain to get several tiny coastal villages that are spectacular.

Cadaqués

This is the view of the town from the apartment we called home for 5 days.           Its just gorgeous.

Cadaqués

CadaquésCadaqués

Cadaqués

This area was home to Salvador Dalí and in a nearby town called Port Lligat, his home, which he abandoned when his wife died, is just exactly as he left it. Its a museum now that perfectly demonstrates the eccentricity which Dalí is famous for. This adorned bear greets you at the entrance to the home.

Dalí

Dalí

Dalí

Dalí

“Trash Jesus”
Dalí

DalíDalí

Dalí

I can’t wait to go back to Barcelona and spend more time exploring it. And a special thanks to my friend R and his girlfriend for an amazing tour.

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Basque Gastronomy Part 2: Kañoyetan

First, a beautiful picture of sunset over La Concha, the circular beach which San Sebastian is most known for. It’s a small bay off of the Bay of Biscay with warm, calm waters. It’s full of little sailboats and every day dozens of people swim the length from side to side. Up above the beach, a sidewalk stretches the whole length of La Concha and then follows the coast out to the rest of San Sebastian on each side, making it a peaceful and beautiful place to walk.

The day after our fabulous meal at Arzak, we spent the following day swimming and strolling along the beach, gathering an appetite for our next culinary stop: a special invitation to dinner at a Gastronomic Society.

Gastronomic Societies are essentially clubs where members are selected, sometimes after 10+ year waits, and each have access to the fully stocked kitchen and pantry in order to host dinners, whether private or for other members of the society. Some of the best and most well known chefs of the area are members. There is no owner, everyone is equal in the club. Except women, who cannot be members and until not too long ago were not allowed to enter as guests, and who now are still not allowed to pass the threshold of the kitchen. Maybe that sounds sexist, but as a female I really felt no need to complain about sipping wine while waiting for the men to feed me.

Kañoyetan, the particular gastronomic society that we were invited to, was founded in 1900 and is one of the first formal societies of this kind. The slogan above the doorway says: “each town its law, each house its custom”. Our chef prepared a feast of only the freshest sea food which the northern region of Spain is known for.

We started the meal with this spectacular buffet of sea food, including jumbo shrimp, crabs, mussels, and langostines. Few things make me happier.

Perfection.

And wine flowing. Riojas, Verdejos and Txakoli, which is a Basque slightly sparkling, dry white wine with a high acidity (somehow I did not get a shot of the bottle).

And, as if that feast was not enough, our chef prepared a second dish of fish seared in olive oil and garlic.

Simple cooking techniques are all you need when the product is so fresh. Such a different experience to the day before, but eating family style with new friends and the privilege of dining in such an exclusive location made it just as memorable.

Basque Gastronomy Part 1: Arzak

 

Back in Spain now, along with my parents and some friends (those wonderful wine pairing ones, to be exact), and the first stop is San Sebastian. The Basque Country of Spain is really hot right now in the food world with a lot of the worlds best restaurants and most famous names. So this year’s plan was to do a gastronomic tour of San Sebastian. Lucky me!

Before I give my impressions of this experience, I have to say that this was the first time I have ever had the opportunity to do something like this. As a foodie in training, I was beyond excited to experience the edible art that these restaurants are famous for. And let me tell you, my expectations were met, and then some.

Our first meal was at Arzak, a 3 Michelin Star restaurant located in San Sebastian. Chef Juan Mari Arzak is renown for his avant garde twist on Basque Cuisine. We were advised as first timers to do a tasting menu, and that’s exactly what we did.

“Corn, Figs and Black Pudding” and “Chorizo with Tonic”  The first and second dishes are two of the five amuse-bouche that started the meal. On the right, “Corn, Figs and Black Pudding”, a complexly flavored soup with a hint of sweetness from the corn that perfectly balanced the intense flavor of black pudding, or morcilla. On the left, “Chorizo with Tonic”, a more whimsical dish, served in the hollow of a crushed Shwepps Tonic can, consisting of a very thin slice of melon wrapped around a chorizo mouse. Both were delicious and really get your imagination flowing about what could possibly come out next.

Before we go on with the next dishes, we must talk about wine. Remírez de Ganuza Reserva 2003: a wine made from only the hips of the best bunches from vines that are 60 years old. A rich, smooth red wine that paired nicely with the whole meal.

“Kabraroka Pudding with Kataifi”  Kabraroka is a type of fish and we were told this was a pudding wrapped in fried fideos, or very thin noodles. Like a crunchy and savory lollypop.

“Gooseberry with Coconut”  You can’t see the gooseberries due to the wispy white fog pouring out of the dish, a chemical reaction between dry ice and a coconut infusion which the waiter poured at the table. In one bite a sweet gooseberry and crispy salty potato chips.

“Marinated Sardines and Strawberries”  The last amuse-bouche, a side of a sardine, covering a dollop of cream with herbs and a strawberry. This is a combination one would not immediately think of, but again, Arzak knows what he’s doing by ending this portion of the meal with an elegantly plated challenge for the senses.

By now we have all ooh-ed and ahh-ed at every plate, and then again after tasting them, and can hardly wait to see what else is in store.

“Cassava Cromlech with Foie Gras, Onion, Coffee, and Tea”  And we are not disappointed. In my opinion, one of the best. It’s like an ice cream cone, they told us, you have to pick it up and turn it over quickly and then eat it like an ice cream. The outside “cone” is cassava and it’s stuffed with caramelized onion and foie gras – so much flavor in each little bite. And you get two of them!

“Hemp Mustard and Lobster”  Next up, choice pieces of perfectly cooked, moist lobster atop a dollop of slightly sweet mustard. Next to them, hemp seed crackers with mixed greens. The clothespins are made out of the delicious “essence” of the lobster found in the head – I suppose mixed with a gelatin and put in a mold. The lobster was fantastic and was complimented and not overwhelmed by the mustard.

“Tapioca and Citrus Salad”  Accompanying the lobster, a little salad of tender mixed greens, lightly dressed with citrus, over tapioca pearls. Definitely a different combination of textures – a unique take on classic flavors.

“Dusted Egg and Mussel”  A perfectly poached egg. When you cut into it, the intense orange yolk soaks into the crisp sitting on top, melting it. I’m pretty sure everyone at the table put manners aside and sopped up that goodness with bread. The mussel, perfectly steamed, and dusted with pulverized parsley and red pepper, was a bonus bite.

The last of the first courses. Now onto the main dishes. You got a choice of one of the three. At our table, two were chosen, so I have pictures of both.

“White Tuna, Prickly Pear, and Figs”  I had this one because when I see tuna on a menu at a restaurant I have to have it, especially if that restaurant is Arzak. The tuna is perfectly cooked so that the layers just slide apart. It’s heaven. The sauce is sweet and savory and it’s all accompanied by triangles of prickly pear, a slightly sweet fruit. I could eat this tuna every day, and that’s a fact.

“Gooseberry, Spelt, and Monkfish”  What I missed out on was this Monkfish with two different sauces. On the separate plate in the upper left are gooseberries poached in cured iberian ham fat. I didn’t taste this plate – I guess I was too enthralled by my tuna…or perhaps someone “forgot” to give me a taste. I wasn’t even mad about it, too happy to care.

Second courses now and we got a choice of one of four dishes. Between us all, we ordered three – and this time I got to taste them all!

“Pigeon with Anthocyanin”  Pigeon was not my choice, but one must try these things when they are offered to you. The meat is similar in texture to duck, but with a much stronger flavor, maybe even a bit gamey. But, of course, if you’re going to eat pigeon, eat it at Arzak where it’s perfectly tender and moist. You’re probably wondering what anthocyanins are (or maybe you’re a biologist and you’re like, “What? You don’t know what anthocyanins are?”) so just in case you’re more like me, they are the pigmentation that occurs naturally in plants. And you can seem them painted on this plate. They are flavorless, so their purpose is only to make this dish look like a modern art painting. Pretty nifty!

“Lamb with Corks”  I did not choose lamb either, though this proved to be delicious lamb. It’s garnished by a variety of fruits (melon and watermelon) and vegetables (carrots and potatoes) all shaped into cylinders of varying size and length. In my very humble opinion, this dish was not as exciting as some of the others just because the flavor profile, though hearty and delicious, was pretty standard for lamb.

“Beef with Vegetable Screens” and “Smoked Yogurt with Micro Greens”  So that means I had beef. It was tender, it had a sweet gooseberry glaze, it had cous cous with pretty edible flowers and dried gooseberries, and it had screens – yes, like sugar glass with vegetable “essence” (because I’m not sure what to call it) in it. They melted away as they came in contact with the juices from the meat and just added another flavor. It also came with yogurt – smoked yogurt, actually – in the form of a little side salad. Talk about different. Usually you equate yogurt with tart or sweet flavors, but smokey…I guess it makes sense when you think of smoked cheeses that also have that intense smell and taste.

And that ended the savory portion of the meal. Now on to the six desserts they have ready. You don’t choose the desserts, the desserts choose you. Actually the waiters decide who gets what, though I’m not sure if it’s based on what you ate or whether you just have a “she’ll-like-chocolate” face. Things also get a little confusing flavor-identification-wise, so bear with me.

“Roots, Fruits, and Seeds”  This is the first dessert that found me. The center is white chocolate mixed with parsley (I think – like I said, many things are a mystery at this point in the meal) and next to it are “cocktail spheres” – that’s the name I’m giving them, at least. I was advised that each of these must go in whole and that’s pretty much because they each hold about a tablespoon of port wine. There’s a gelatin skin around them and when you bite or just put pressure on them, they pop and you can then drink the liquid. I don’t even know – it was weird and exciting at the same time. Food chemistry skills were put to work in this and all of the desserts.

“Playing Marbles with Chocolate”  The “marbles” are chocolate on the outside and, like my port bubbles, are totally liquid inside. These had a chocolate liqueur in them, I think…

“The Cocoa Forest”  This was my favorite dessert, though it was sadly not mine to devour. The “tree” is filled with a fruit custard – maybe passion fruit – and dark chocolate and fruit are always a winning combination for me. The other chocolate piece is again full of liquid, but I didn’t eat it, so I can’t describe that particular burst.

“Castles on the Sand”  My second dessert, plated over a backdrop photograph of San Sebastian’s most recognized beach “La Concha”. The castle on the left is carved out of watermelon and the pink is a strawberry custard. Again I’ve got gelatin water balloons – the green is basil, and my-oh-my was it basil, and the red was strawberry.

“Pistachio and Beetroot Stones”  This dessert is a pistachio cake that is full of air bubbles. Little circular air bubbles – again, food chemistry. It’s topped with candied pistachios coated and sits on a sauce made of beetroot.

“Golden Footprint”  Lastly, a golden footprint made of chocolate and stenciled edible gold along with two ladybugs full of a piquillo pepper liquid. Very intense flavor, your brain really thinks you are eating a pepper. Not my favorite thing when I’m in dessert mode, but fascinating all the same.

Speaking of piquillo peppers, each dessert was accompanied by a scoop of homemade ice cream, which somehow I forgot to photograph, and one of them was in fact piquillo pepper. Again, tasted just like the real thing. I had a flashback to watching Iron Chef when the secret ingredient is crabs and one of the chefs gets the ice cream maker out and you’re at home thinking “what the heck is that going to taste like?!”. Well now I know. It tastes just like crab and cream. Anyway, I’m getting away from the point. The ice creams ranged from grilled pineapple to basil and piquillo peppers.

And last but not least, an assortment of chocolate nuts and bolts and even gelatin bottle caps topped with pop rocks.

What else can I say about this meal. I think it speaks for itself that I just described all of that to you from memory, two weeks after the fact. It’s a meal that involves all the senses – yes food always involves first seeing it, then smelling and finally tasting, but here at Arzak they play with textures and chemistry. Sometimes your eyes deceive you and your palate is surprised by new flavors. Four hours later you emerge and it’s like you’ve been sightseeing in a new place and seen and experienced things that you hadn’t before.

And this was only part one…

Black Rice with Squid

How did it get black? It’s made with squid ink. This is another recipe from the traditional Spanish kitchen, often made as a “Black Paella” or just served over white rice. I love trying to master typical Spanish meals, and this is one I’ve gotten down to perfection. Personally, I think it’s amazing and incredibly flavorful. But, I can understand if some of you might be a little unsure about whether squid ink is something you want to try. This is one of those things you must try before you make a judgement. And I guarantee you will love it.

I’m not sure how easy squid ink is to get your hands on in the US, but probably a fish shop will at least know how to help you. Here in Spain, they sell it in packets in the frozen foods section.

Start by cleaning about 1 pound (500g) of squid. You can use large or small ones; I used frozen ones which I left overnight in the fridge to defrost. If you get whole ones, it’s important to remember to remove the “backbone”, which like of looks like a clear plastic strip that’s runs up the body. It’s pretty easy to remove (nothing like cleaning shrimp!). Then give them a rinse and slice them into 1/2 inch (1 cm) rings.

Next, saute one small onion chopped finely in about a tablespoon of olive oil. When the onions start to soften, either add one chopped tomato or 1/2 cup of tomato sauce. I opted today for tomato sauce because the tomatoes are pretty hard to come by right now (it’s been a looong winter). Anyway, keep sauteing until either the tomato is soft and breaking apart or the sauce has thickened.

Now, add 1/2 cup of white wine and 1 cup of boiling chicken or fish broth. Add the sliced squid and bring to a simmer. Then add 1 package of squid ink and stir until the ink has mixed with the liquids. Cover the pan and let it cook for about 30 minutes, until the squid are tender.

The last step is to add 1 cup of rice, 2 more cups of boiling chicken or fish broth, and one more package of ink. Keep the mixture simmering, uncovered now, until the rice is fully cooked. There should be some liquid left, as this is supposed to be a more soupy rice dish.

This makes four servings and you should serve it right away so that the heat from the pan doesn’t keep cooking it and absorbing the liquid. If you want to keep leftovers, put them into a tupperware right away.

I’m hoping that if no one else feels brave enough for squid ink, that at least my Dad will feel that this dish is less daunting and is inspired to make it!

Ingredient list:

  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 1 tomato chopped or 1/2 cup tomato sauce
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 3 cups chicken or fish broth, boiling (divided)
  • 1 lb (500g) squid, cleaned and sliced into 1/2 inch (1 cm) rings
  • 2 packages of squid ink, 4 grams each
  • 1 cup rice, rinsed
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New Year, New Blog

I’m starting out 2012 with a new blog about, what else?, food! After a fabulous vacation visiting my family and friends in California, I have returned to Spain with a lot of encouragement and energy to start the new year. It’s funny how three weeks in sunny, warm Southern California can make you forget what the cold feels like. And, man, is it cold. In fact, we had our first snow here this afternoon. And what could be a better way to forget the cold weather outside but to indulge in warm, rich chocolate with freshly made churros.

Chocolaterias Valor are one of Spain’s best chocolate manufacturers and one of their specialties is this hot chocolate “drink” – and use the term “drink” loosly to mean thick, rich, delicious melted milk chocolate. Here in Salamanca we just happen to be so lucky to have a Valor Café where they serve the chocolate piping hot and fry the churros when you order them. I like to sprinkle a little sugar on them and get to dunking.

I haven’t personally attempted this one, but if you’ve got a winter chill and want to give them a shot, here’s a recipe to get you going.

Now, before I sign off, I’ll prove to you all that it really is snowing with a picture taken in Salamanca’s beautiful main square.