Monday, December 26, 2011

Txikiteo in San Sebastian

The most epic food adventure of the trip took us to three of San Sebastian’s most well-reviewed pintxos bars. They showed us why San Sebastian is regarded as the culinary capital of the Iberian peninsula, how the local cuisine holds on to tradition while not being limited by it, takes inspiration from the sea and the mountains, looks forward and abroad for inspiration but manages to remain undeniably Basque.

Although not easy to find, you’ll know you’ve reached La Cuchara de San Telmo by the buzzing crowd of locals and tourists. You’ll feel the anticipation in the air and you’ll feel it too as you squeeze through the narrow bar to secure a spot.

La Cuchara de San Telmo takes traditional Basque dishes and elevates them to new heights, cooks them how they should be cooked and throws in a few surprising elements for good measure.

We started with a classic Basque dish of kokotxas de bacalao al pil-pil: delicate cod cheeks cooked with olive oil, garlic and parsley. Sounds simple but a seemingly magical transformation produces the sauce when the slow-cooked fish releases its natural gelatin to produce a rich, almost creamy sauce.

My favorite of the night was tako de buey Argentina con tximi-txurri: braised Argentine beef with chimichurri over potato puree.

Risotto cremoso de queso de cabra (creamy goat cheese risotto) was next.

And last: carrillera de ternera al vino tinto (red wine-braised veal cheeks).

We were so impressed with the small pintxo-sized portions we returned for dinner next night and tried goat cheese stuffed with vegetables, a sirloin dish and canelones. All were spectacular!

Just down the block was our next stop. A Fuego Negro is an eatery that re-interprets Basque dishes in an extremely modern and creative way.

We all started with txacoli, a slightly sparkling dry white wine produced in the Basque Country.

The meal at A Fuego Negro was a revelation. We asked the guy behind the bar to surprise us with his favorite dishes and he started us off with ensalada sucia con vegetales a la plancha (“dirty salad” with grilled vegetables). The “dirty” part of the salad was a dressing of olive oil pureed with black sesame seed and the vegetables were purple potato, zucchini, squash, eggplant and onion.
Next was a warm layered cup with a tomato base, mussels, b├ęchamel foam and a chicharron topping. We didn’t know what to expect when this arrived the but the flavors played so well off one another.
We all enjoyed the kevap de cordero (sliced lamb nestled in warm flatbread) with pickled jicama and yogurt.
And the risotto was spiced with garam masala and chile powder and topped with puffed rice and fresh herbs. Such amazingly creative flavor and texture combinations!

The last stop of our txikiteo was Astelana.

As soon as I saw the menu I was stoked about this place… lots of options and diversity and foie gras in like half of the dishes!

We started with a local cidra (cider).

The first dish that came to us was something I am going to try my darndest to recreate at home: a pistachio croquette. Pistachios were pureed with potato and fresh cheese for the inside of the croquette and it was rolled in crushed pistachios before going into the fryer. Oh. My.

The rest of the dishes were… duck ravioli topped with a foie gras sauce, drizzled with balsamic and served with a cinnamon raison crispbread.

Revuelto de hongos (mushrooms cooked with eggs) topped with quail egg.

Txipiron a la plancha (grilled squid) with roasted Padron peppers, onion confit, parsley sauce and a spicy pepper sauce.
And solomillo a la plancha (grilled sirloin) with big salt flakes, currants, apples and kataifi (shredded phyllo).

And now… now you know why San Sebastian is my favorite place in the world.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Pais Vasco

And now we get to the good stuff. Sure, the entire trip to Spain was good stuff, but the Basque Country has held a special place in my heart since I lived in the heart of San Sebastian during college. Ever since I have dreamed of the day I could return to elegant pedestrian avenues, tranquil bays and most important, the Parte Vieja, my old neighborhood that boasts more restaurants and bars per square meter than anywhere else in the entire world.

The Basque Country has long been regarded as having the best cuisine in Spain and some even say all of Europe. I studied the resurgence and reinvention of Basque cuisine in gastronomy school and have been itching to go back. So this part of the trip was very exciting for me!!

San Sebastian was the destination but we rented a car so we could visit more of the Basque Country on the way. It’s an impossibly beautiful land of mountains, forests, beaches, seaside fishing villages and remote mountain towns. First we detoured to Elantxobe, a fishing village precariously hugging a cliff in the northern reaches of Spain.

We kept along the Basque coast en route to San Sebastian, visiting seaside villages where tourists seldom venture. Lekeitio is bigger and more visited than most and we stopped here to have a coffee and gaze out over the beaches and fishing boats at the ocean view.

Then the highway widened, the cars sped up and San Sebastian’s elegant bay and cosmopolitan buildings unfolded before us.

Our apartment for the next few days was smack dab in the middle of the Parte Vieja, just a few blocks from my old place on Plaza Sarriegui. Here’s the view from our balcony.

San Sebastian is something of a mecca for food-lovers. The city boasts more Michelin stars per capita than any other city and in the Parte Vieja there’s a pintxo bar in seemingly every storefront. You’ll notice Basque words on signs all over town. It’s a frustratingly strange language with unknown origins and no relation at all to the romance languages of which the king’s Spanish is a part. Basque is a tangle of x’s and k’s and z’s and you’re not likely to pick up much if you stay for only a short time. But, if you learn only one Basque word while visiting this part of the world, the word to learn is pintxo (pronounced “peencho”). Pintxo = tapa.

Most any pintxo joint you choose in San Seba has so much food displayed on the bar you’re likely to think you’ve died and gone to the best possible version of heaven, a land where succulent chorizos-tortillas-croquetas are available at every turn. But there’s a secret to dining in San Sebastian. Before dinner locals embark on what’s called a txikiteo, or tapas crawl, grazing on small pintxos along the way and enjoying a glass of txacoli (a local white fizzy wine), red wine or hard cider at each place they visit. Mastering the txikiteo is not as easy as you may think when you consider that every other first floor space in the Parte Vieja is occupied by a food establishment of one sort or another.

You must do your homework, or inspect closely before you commit to a place. The best eateries don’t have hot finished pintxos laid out on the bar. Rather, the displayed items are usually dishes that can be eaten at room temperature (like tortilla or olives) or raw items the chefs will prepare to order (like uncooked croquetas or raw pimientos de Padron).

Especially beware the joints with fake lacquered food on the bar. *Shudder.*

Heaping displays of prepared foods are surely arranged in order to lure unsophisticated tourists, especially those who aren’t confident ordering off a Spanish or Basque menu. These are the people who just want to point and chew. Please do not be one of those people.

So how does this all work? Without you even knowing it, the bartenders will be keeping track, slyly watching your every move, counting every olive you raise to your lips, every anchovy that slides off a baguette into your throat. When you’re ready to pay just grab a bartender’s attention and he’ll ring you up. To be safe, you might want to save your toothpicks and show them to the bar keep when you want to pay. He’ll count ‘em up for you and charge you per toothpick.

On to the food! Just next to our flat was Bar Zeruko, where the creatively displayed items hint at the creative, molecularly gastronomic bent practiced by chefs here.

There was tuna stacked like dominoes, things floating in aspic, gulas and pepitas and cornichons…

… and it was here that we encountered one of the first… but certainly not the last… not even close… shall we call it, meat mishap? My vegetarian traveling companion had been warned that the Spanish may not understand her lifestyle and dietary choice. So far – and I’m talking on her first night in Salamanca – she had been offered a “vegetarian” salad full of krab (fake crab meat) and gulas (the “krab” version of angulas). At Bar Zeruko, which was certainly more sophisticated than the hearty meat-and-potatoes eateries of Salamanca, her sandwich “vegetariano” was stacked with cheese, pimientos de padron… and ham. And… tuna. When we asked the guy behind the bar what the deal was, instead of apologizing he faulted my friend for being vegetarian and suggested she should learn to eat meat. Pretty indicative of the general Spanish attitude towards vegetarianism.

Those of us who consume creatures enjoyed poached lobster with parsley chimichurri and a mayonnaisy crab salad wrapped in ribbons of zucchini.

Stay tuned for photos from the most epic txikiteo ever!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Dinosaur toes and crispy piglets

You may have learned in elementary school that dinosaurs no longer roam the earth. That they have been extinct for millions of years. But I have proof to the contrary because I ate dinosaur toes in Salamanca this year.

Okay. You’re right. Maybe they’re not actually dinosaur toes. But how else can you describe the appearance of percebes, with their knotted leathery elephantesque skin and distinct pre-Cambrian toenails? Percebes were on my “must-try” list and I found them at Casa Paca in Salamanca our second night in town. These curious little barnacles are quite the delicacy in Spain. Apparently it’s somewhat of an ordeal to harvest them. The season must be right and the tide must be just so and you must recruit the bravest of gentlemen who are willing to rappel down the side of treacherous ocean cliffs to pluck these ancient creatures from the rocky, watery depths.

This tiny pile of the expensive little buggers cost us 44 euros... that’s like $60 US. Ouch. But it was worth it! The texture and taste reminded me of a razor clam.

Here's me eating the percebes and talking about the perils involved with harvesting them.

At Casa Paca I also knocked out another food on my “must-try” list! Angulas!

I know it doesn’t look like much but tucked inside this filet of hake is one Spain’s most sought-after delicacies: teensy tiny baby eels.

This article goes into much more depth about angulas than I ever could but long story short, newborn eels embark on a three year, four thousand mile journey from the Americas to Spain, where they must be captured on a moonless night in a short timeframe during the winter months; because they can breathe out of water they must be killed by plunging them into water that has been deoxygenated with an infusion of tobacoo. Perhaps you’re not surprised that angulas are one of the most expensive delicacies on earth.

The rest of our meal at Casa Paca was less memorable but equally expensive (!). Chuletillas de cabrito a la brasa volcanico were tiny goat chops grilled over volcanic wood. They came with fried potatoes and a few fried pimientos de Padron. Lindsay’s lomo de merluza en salsa verde was a fresh take on hake swimming in an herbaceous green sauce. 

Next morning we were up bright and early to embark on a road trip in Sierra del Francia. The act of renting the car was perhaps the biggest adventure of the day but once we were seatbelted with our trusty GPS in working order we were on our way to explore the far reaches of Castilla y Leon.
We stopped for lunch in Ciudad Rodrigo, a walled medieval town not far from the Portuguese border. Our vow to be thrifty after the wallet-busting meal of the night before let us to a budget-friendly option on the main square, where we had patatas al roquefort (shredded potatoes in a Roquefort cheese sauce); ensalada rusa (diced potatoes, red peppers and onions in a thick mayonnaise sauce); pulpo a la vinagreta (marinated octupus); tortilla; and pimiento relleno (a piquillo pepper stuffed with ground beef and baked in a cheesy sauce). Total price for lunch for all three of us? Around 10 euros.

This is the heart of Spain’s embutido (pork and sausage) country. It’s known as producing some of the best jamon and chorizo and it seems that every other door opens into a shop festooned with dozens of hams swinging from the ceilings. 

We picked up some sausage souvenirs that I successfully smuggled back into the States: farinato iberico from Ibericos Felipe Hernandez, a sausage that’s unique to this region, and some chorizo made with jamon iberico de bellota, the most highly-regarded Spanish ham that’s made with the meat of free-range pigs who graze on acorns throughout their lives. They love their meat around these parts.

The rest of the day was spent navigating extremely narrow mountain roads in a land that until recently was entirely inaccessible to all but the most determined travelers. The villages seem to be stuck in time: La Alberca, with one of the most picturesque Plaza Mayors anywhere...

San Martin del Castanar, a medieval town perched on the mountainside with narrow streets and window boxes overflowing with lush flowers... 

And Mogarraz, a long, narrow and seemingly deserted town whose most interesting inhabitant was a filthy, wallowing pig.

Because we were soon to be joined by a vegetarian in one of the most staunchly non-vegetarian parts of the world, once back in Salamanca we were determined to squeeze in one last porcine extravaganza at the aptly named Meson el Jamon. 

Now I understand this may seem barbaric to all my vegetarian friends but the toston, or cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig), is an honored local tradition. We had frantically been seeking out a toston around Salamanca, to no avail. Sensing defeat the night before our last day in town we asked the gracious folks at the front desk of our residence, Hotel el Toboso, if they had any suggestions.

A single toston takes three days advance notice to prepare! said our hotelier’s restaurateur friend. But we need it tomorrow before we leave town! we cried. Do these girls know what they are asking?! he countered, exasperated. (At least I’m assuming that’s how the conversation went down since I was upstairs snuggled cozily in my bed enjoying a pre-bedtime siesta. We were in Spain, after all.)

Thus at 1:00pm the next day we walked into Meson el Jamon, three girls on a mission to eat a meal that usually feeds six, and sat down to a crispy-skinned suckling pig that none of us is soon to forget.

And then, at 5:00pm, the vegetarian arrived.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Rutas de Tapeos in Salamanca

How do you start to write about a two-week trip filled with seemingly endless epic meals?
This summer I went with four girlfriends to one of my very favorite countries: Spain. During college I lived in San Sebastian, in the Spanish Basque Country, for a time and the country was tops on my list to re-visit!
We planned a tour of the northern half of Spain, flying into Madrid and circling around through Castilla y Leon, Basque Country and Barcelona before closing the loop in Madrid. For me, food is obviously the whole point of traveling so suffice it to say we had more than our fair share of memorable dining experiences throughout the trip.
I suppose I have to start somewhere. So let’s begin in Salamanca.
We embarked on two memorable tapeos, or tapas crawls, here. The first was with my good amiga Asha, who was my best friend back in my Spain days and just happened to be living in Salamanca at the same time as this trip.
It’s always best to travel with someone who knows the place you’re visiting and our first night in town Asha took us on a tapeo on Calle van Dyck. Since this street is well outside the main historic center of Salamanca it’s off the radar of most tourists, although it was only about a 20 minute walk from the central Plaza Mayor. We were rewarded with fresh, tasty and classic tapas that cost between .80 and 1 euro each (! a COMPLETE steal in Spain!) and a lively atmosphere that didn’t feel touristy and contrived.
First stop was the rustic Barbacoa La Encina. Asha took the lead here and ordered us a runny fried egg with potatoes cooked in olive oil. Breakfast for dinner? I won’t argue with that.

Next up was a wedge of tortilla, another egg-and-potato-based superstar of Spanish cuisine.

Meson Don Mario was the next eatery on our tapas crawl. One of my favorite dishes of the night was pulpo a la vinagreta, sliced ceviche-style octopus tossed with onions, red bell peppers and tomatoes in a piquant vinegary sauce. 

Gambas al ajillo came next. Shrimp sizzling in hot, garlicky olive oil is always a winner in my book.

Don Mario introduced us to what was to become my traveling companions’ drink of choice through the remainder of the trip: tinto de verano. Let me give you some advice. If you go to Spain, don’t order sangria. That’s what tourists do. Order a tinto de verano, which is essentially the same thing: red wine, sangria mix, liquor, soda water with a squeeze of lime over ice. Here it is with a plate of piping hot croquetas de jamon. 

Despite crinkled noses from my friends I ordered boquerones fritos con limon. The anchovies in Spain are some of the best in the world and in my opinion are best simply prepared: fried, with a squeeze of lemon.

At this point I was more than a few glasses of red wine in so the names of the eateries are lost in time. Just a few steps away was our next stop. Yes, you’re reading the menu prices correctly: .70 or .80 euros per tapa! 

And these were good ones. Big, meaty champinones simmered in olive oil... 

...and a fried egg with chorizo... 

...cooked up by one lone sweaty bartender in a tiny postage stamp of a kitchen. This is also where Asha taught us how to manipulate the standard papery napkins you find in every bar in Spain into a dirty message.

A little further down the road we parked at a bar staffed by flirtatious (read: annoying) gentlemen who served us mejillones con salsa bechamel: big nuggets of mussel meat cooked in a bechamel sauce, stuffed back into their shells, breaded and fried to a pretty golden brown.

The specialty of this particular bar seemed to be “stuff stuffed with stuff cooked in bechamel” so we went for it and got a chunk of tortilla rellena de champinones en una salsa bechamel. The cook had made a thick tortilla, cut it in half horizontally and stuffed it with mushrooms in a bechamel sauce. Good thing we had that 20-minute walk home to work off all those potatoes and eggs and breads and bechamels.

A couple nights later Asha invited us along with her friends on another tapeo around the center of Salamanca, starting at Casa Paca, one of the most historic restaurants in town. 

We started the night with carrilleras: pork cheeks slow-cooked in a rich red wine sauce.

The crew then moved to Asador Mauro on the Plaza Mayor.

I enjoyed the poached shrimp nestled in a bath of mayo...

… and the pinchos morunos (pork brochettes with peppers)...

… but the morcilla de Burgos was one of the best dishes I tried on the whole trip. Some folks are squeamish about blood sausage but this version from Burgos is a good way to make a baby step into the world of blood sausage. It is mixed with rice and heavily spiced with cumin, something that’s quite unusual in Spanish cuisine. The sweet caramelized onions were a perfect complement to the salty, spicy sausage.

Meson Cervantes occupies a prime location on the Plaza. Although that also means it’s located in a prime touristy location, I was happy to see a number of locals crowded around the upstairs bar. The food here was by no means elegant - just hearty, classic Spanish tapas.

We took over a long table in the dining area and started with chorizo con patatas (chorizo with chunks of fried potatoes).

Anchovies and olives came next.

And finally, broken eggs with potatoes and chorizo. Remember when I said the food here was hearty?

After this we were led to a place called Bambu just off the Plaza. We were hoping to end the night with something light-ish but instead were offered bread topped with thick slabs of fried fatty bacon and chorizo. I thought I could hang with the Spanish... but...