Thanksgiving in Spain: A Madrid Scavenger Hunt

I have a whole new appreciation for cranberries. And also red currants, for that matter. Which, although they are red and round and relatively cranberry-shaped and might have been on the “arandanos/cranberries” shelf at Corte Ingles, are actually nothing like cranberries.

These Aren't Cranberries

This is one of the manyyyyyyy fun little lessons I learned this year while attempting to bring all the goodies of my family’s traditional Thanksgiving dinner to a table halfway around the world. My American amiga and I invited my Spanish roommates and neighbors to celebrate their first Thanksgiving with us on Saturday (seeing as we all had to work Thursday and Friday). We promised them an authentic American holiday, and, by dios, we were going to give them all the deliciousness of a true American Thanksgiving! Pulling that off in a country were pumpkin is usually pig food and pecans don’t even have a word in Spanish took a bit more planning than just scratching out a grocery list. It was more on the scale of a city-wide scavenger hunt mixed with an opening hours roulette. The first hurdle on our list of Turkey Day adventures: find a whole turkey.

In Spain, the big box buy-everything-you-could-ever-want-at-one-time American-style stores are just beginning to pop up in the commercial (read: accessible by car only) parts of town. Being carless and having a mild obsession with food markets, food quality and freshness I was determined to get our turkey from a stand-alone butcher shop, or carneceria. Why I decided to chose a butcher that was 10 metro stops away from my apartment… well, that just adds to the adventure, right?

Weighing the Turkey

Hauling our 13-pound raw turkey 30 minutes down Madrid’s brown line turned out to be massively worth it. Señor Pavo, as the butcher told me, was raised on a farm near Zaragoza (a city in Northeastern Spain). He was butchered on Thursday, driven to Madrid on Friday and we ate him on Saturday. Hellooooo fresh! When I first spoke to the smiley, cleaver-waving butcher about our Thanksgiving experiment, he immediately picked up the telephone to call his farmer. The farmer vowed to find us a reasonable-sized turkey after my eyes bulged at the butcher’s 7-kilo suggestion. Fourteen pounds, apparently, was small. “But it’s Thanksgiving!” the farmer told the butcher, “She’s supposed to have a giant turkey!” The 6.5-kilo (13lb) pavo we ended up with was one of the smallest he had. The butcher later told me that turkeys from this farm get as large as 23 pounds!

With the most important part secured, I moved on to the sides and stuffing. Cornbread mix was my next target. Last year while living in the rural Northwestern province of Galicia I attempted to make cornbread (an ingredient for my stuffing) from scratch. It was, to say the least, a massive fail. This year, in a city of 3 million where Taste of America stores and Corte Ingleses exist, I had high hopes of having help from Mrs. Jiffy. I was wrong. I could buy gingerbread mix, funfetti cake mix, crepe mix, Aunt Jemima pancake mix, wheat bread mix and Duncan Hines double chocolate brownie mix. But nowhere in Madrid (that I could hunt down) sells cornbread mix. Our stuffing would just have to go without.

Thanksgiving Stuffing

After similarly unsuccessful city-wide wild goose chases for crystalized ginger (yes, it was a castillo en el aire kind of dream to begin with) and some serious price-gouging on pecans, yellow cake mix, karo syrup and pumpkin spice, we decided to drop all of the above from the menu. No pecan bars for us this year. But not to fear! We would still have my aunt’s famous apple pie and Maureen’s aunt’s infamous pumpkin-ginger pie. Also impossible to find were fresh cranberries, although we didn’t realize that until the night before our cranberry sauce was to make its Thanksgiving debut. While unloading the jumbo bags of supplies Maureen brought, I spotted some small, red  definitely-not-cranberry berries. Apparently the signs had been switched at Corte Ingles. Instead of “arandanos rojos” we ended up with “grosellas” aka red currants. Oops! We dashed down to the grocery store, bought some dried cranberries and tossed them in a bowl to rehydrate overnight. Crisis averted? As my Andalucian-accented roommate would say, “ma o meno.”

Mercado de MaravillasThe week leading up to our cook-a-thon I was exploring Madrid’s top food markets for a post over at the Madrid Food Tour blog. Amid the insane variety of random (and apparently edible) items at the Mercado de Maravillas I found almost all of the fresh ingredients on our list: gorgeous brussel sprouts, ecologically-produced apples, ridiculously flavorful sausage, sweet potatoes the size of my forearm, adorable little cheery tomatoes and unfairly good goat cheese. I was in market food heaven. The sausage-selling man told me all about how much his daughter loves America (she is working in New York). The ecological fruit and veggie people described the flavor profiles of their three types of tomatoes and helped me pick out the perfect pie-making apples. This, to me, is how grocery shopping should be. Each item we bought for our Thanksgiving meal had it’s own story, it’s own history and knowing those made each dish that much more delicious. That is, after all, what the first Thanksgiving was all about right?

Will the ingredients gathered (or at least we thought) Maureen and I invaded the kitchen Friday night to begin our two-day cooking adventure. The pies came first.

Thanksgiving pie crust making

What I imagined would be a quick two-hour pie making sesh turned out to be an all night pie creating extravaganza. At 1:30 am we finally pulled the last pie out of the oven and fell into bed.  Señor Pavo joined the sleepover and spent the night on my balcony. There was no way he was fitting in the fridge.

Sleepover with Señor Pavo

Saturday morning started off as all Thanksgiving days should. With mimosas. We encountered our first hiccup approximately 5 seconds after we began. We had the turkey. We had the oven. But we had no way to get said turkey into said oven. In our haste to gather ingredients, we might have forgotten to buy a pan…  Maureen frantically searched the grocery store, the convenience store and finally the everything-you-could-ever-need Chino store for a pan, while I got to work on the stuffing. Shee finally found a pan just barely big enough to fit the turkey and just barely small enough to fit in the oven. Señor Pavo made it into the oven with literally centimeters to spare on all sides. Thank the pilgrims we didn’t end up with a 13-kilo turkey!

The next five hours were a blur of chopping, sipping, laughing and explaining as my roommates and neighbors trickled in and out of the kitchen to check on our progress. Around 2 p.m. we convinced them to partake in the traditional Thanksgiving morning mimosas and before we knew it the guys were taking turns making Cava and OJ runs. I don’t think I want to know how many empty Cava bottles ended up in our recycling that afternoon…

Cooking Thanksgiving Dinner

While Maureen and I were basting turkey and stirring cranberries, my piso-mates were (unbeknownst to me) preparing their own slice of magic in the neighbor’s spacious salon. Since my apartment doesn’t have a dining room, we had asked the neighbor guys if we could have the eating part of Thanksgiving in their grande salón. Being amazing as they are, they erected a huge table and together with mis compis laid the most perfect table for our celebration, complete with starry tablecloths and candles.

When at last we decided (guessed) that our turkey was ready, a flurry of table-setting, food carrying and cork popping ensued. The second the turkey hit the table phones flew into hands as every single member of our 11-person feast snapped photos. I have to admit. It was a beautiful sight!

Our Thanksgiving Turkey

Then, we dug in. Plates filled, glasses emptied and the room filled with the rumble of mixed-language chatter and bilingual “yums and ñums.” Looking out over the scene with a ridiculously juicy, flavorful bite of turkey in my mouth all I could think was que perfecto. After an enthusiastic round of seconds, I proposed a toast to the gracious and truly amazing friends who gathered to eat our odd (to a Spaniard) food and celebrate our 100 percent American tradition. We then went around the table and each person said what they were thankful for. Some of the Spaniards made a valiant attempt at saying their piece in English while some of the Americans gave it a go in Spanish. It was a massive collision of cultures in the best kind of way. And I couldn’t help but wonder… hope… if next year we would all be sitting around the same table, raising our glasses to Spainsgiving 2.0.

Spainsgiving 2013

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The Secrets of Spanish Chorizo

Curing Hundreds of Chorizos

Nearly 1,000 links of chorizo hang in a smokey, stone room to cure for one month.

After spending mere days in Spain, there are two questions about which it is nearly impossible not to form devout opinions, opinions that conjure up deep defenses and invite fierce debate. The first pregunta, clearly, is “FC Barcelona or Real Madrid?” The second is “salchichón or chorizo?” My answer to the first question I base primarily on color preference and the charming good looks of a particular jugador. But my preference in the second match-up is far better researched, stemming from months of incessant questioning, hours of meat-cutting manual labor, days of thought,  and countless taste tests. 

Delicious Spanish Chorizo

While most of the chorizo served up at every meal is the fully-dried version. This semi-dried hot style is even more scrumptious!

Chorizo and salchichón share a plate on the table at nearly every Spanish meal. They, like bread, persist through both the first and second courses and unlike Spain’s plethora of regional dishes, are popular in the entire peninsula, tempting idle fingers away from forks from Santiago to Sevilla to snatch these often-homemade delicacies. In Galicia, these staple sausages are more than just a mid-meal diversion, they are a family business, a strictly-guarded recipe and a direct reflection of the patriarch’s (or matriarch’s) taste buds.

For me, the question of taste in the face-off between chorizo or salchichón was obvious.  Salchichón, the lighter of the two sausages, tastes drier and meatier, usually with a hint of garlic but little else to excite the palette. Chorizo, on the other hand, is visually striking with white dots speckled throughout the bright redness of the sausage. It fills your mouth with flavor, zapping awake the salt sensors of your tongue, exciting the savory centers, brushing fleetingly through the sweet sides and igniting the slightest burn of spice as it tumbles through the back of your mouth.

But until three weeks ago, I could not for the life of me definitively discern why  these two types of sausage — both created from the same animal (pig), cured for the same amount of time (one month) and served in the exact same way  (sliced with bread and cheese)– could taste so completely different. Each time I asked one of my authentically Galician friends the answer was siempre vague. “Chorizo has more fat,” one matter-of-factly stated. “It’s the seasonings,” another responded, opting not to elaborate.

Elbow-Deep in Chorizo Meat

The resident expert on Matanza dumps a heaping handful of salt into the already-garliced chorizo meat.

I did not fully appreciate the complexity of Spanish chorizo until my arms were elbow deep in a vat of freshly ground pork and my eyes were watering with the pungency of garlic, salt and raw meat. We were wrapping up the first day of matanza, the four-day family pig slaughter, which meant adding the first round of seasonings to each family’s tub of chorizo meat. Looking across the ancient barn at the half-dozen multi-colored vats of meat, I finally began to understand the answer to a burning question I had thus far been unable to satisfactorily answer. While chorizo and salchichón come from the same pig, they could not be more different. The former has more fat, more seasonings (a small mountain of firehouse-red paprika), more steps (season, taste, season, taste) and takes a whole lot more TLC (stir, wait, taste, mix, try, add, cure, store, cook, don’t cook… you get the point). The later is a quick, one-day-and-done affair, made from the leanest cuts of meat and seasoned only slightly with garlic and salt (no wonder it’s not nearly as delicious!)

Five families were participating in our matanza and each had very rigid specifications for their chorizo seasonings. In the first round of seasoning, one group wanted garlic mixed with water, another preferred straight minced garlic. One liked an extra sprinkling of salt, another added only a scant handful. Once the meat was garliced and salted to everyone’s liking, it sat overnight to absorb the flavors. The next day a golf-ball sized scoop was pan-seared and tasted. In went more salt or more garlic or more water followed my a flurry of mixing and stirring. Again the meat sat to season.

On the third day the real fun began when one-kilo bags packed with powdered paprika were ripped open and scattered into the meat. Handful by handful each family expertly added their desired ratio of sweet to spicy paprika as their hands, elbows  and noses turned redder and redder.

Chorizo Meat Spiced with Paprika

Paprika, a staple of the Spanish spice cabinet, was dumped my the fistful into the tubs of soon-to-be-chorizo.

Gloves Coated in Raw Meat

Holding up her meat-stained gloves Marta remarked that Gallegos have a lot in common with vampires.

One more day of waiting and it was time for the final taste test. Each couple assembled in front of their prized meat, rolling a tiny bite from side to side in their mouth. Celebratory cervezas were popped open and delighted “Mmmm delicioso!”s sizzled throughout the frigid barn.

A team of six assembled early the next morning for seven hours of straight chorizo stuffing. Unbeknownst to my ill-advised American brain prior to matanza was the type of tube that my scrumptious Spanish sausages were stuffed into. I naively assumed it was some sort of pre-fabricated mesh, plastic perhaps. How wrong I was. The holder of this joyous embutido is none other than salted pig intestine.

Preparing these less-than-appetizing exteriors  must have been, back in the day when Galician families used the intestines of their own freshly-slaughtered pigs, the most disgusting job of the year. Nowadays the (much smarter) younger generations buy already cleaned and salted intestines from China (ironic? absolutely.). Nevertheless, the 15-meter (50-foot) intestines must been rinsed and wound into yarn-like balls before the chorizo stuffing can commence. Not wanting to miss one step of the the matanza, I scurried off to the barn to help with the intestine-rolling after the pig-cutting had ceased. Big mistake.

Pig Intestine Used to Stuff Chorizo

The salty, squishy strings of intestine stretched the length of the barn and filled it with a stench so foul I almost lost my lunch.

Pig intestine (despite the fact it is already “cleaned”) smells exactly as you would expect an organ responsible for the final stages of cerdo digestion to smell. The eyeless pig faces didn’t bother me. The heaps of raw meat left me unfazed. But the foul stench of Made-In-China pig poop nearly sent me retching. I am absolutely going to meticulously peel the “casings” off of every slice of sausage from now until eternity.

Chorizo Sizzling on Hot Coals

The fruit of or labors sparkles on the hot coals of the antique stove.

By the end of the matanza more than 900 links of chorizo hung from wooden beams in one of Victoria’s 16th century stables. For three weeks a small fire continuously smoked the chorizos until they had halved in size. Last weekend, I got to savor the first taste of my hard work. The first phase of smoking was complete, and a small percentage of the sausages migrated from the smokehouse to the freezer to be added to stews, fried or barbecued throughout the year. One of those six-inch long paprika-filled pockets of joy was wrapped in foil and thrown into the coals of Victoria’s cast-iron stove for us to probar. 

In minutes the sparkling package was sizzling and Victoria sliced open the brilliant, deep red chorizo. I don’t know if it was the memory of mucho trabajo, the weeks of anxious waiting or the tried-and-true family recipe, but that bite of pipping-hot chorizo was hands down the best I have ever tasted.

Spanish Chorizo

If there was ever a doubt about which sausage reigns supreme, this little slice of happiness handily tips the scales in favor of chorizo.

Nutella Day: February’s Holiday of Happiness

World Nutella Day 2013

Our Nutella Day loot: Salty Chocolate Nutella Thumbprint cookies, Drunken Devil’s Food Espresso Cupcakes with Nutella frosting and Nutella Banana Bread.

It’s official. I have a new favorite holiday. Forget soon-to-be-wilted flowers, overpriced “romantic” dinners or pre-fabricated heart-shaped chocolates. This holiday is frill-free, 100 percent authentic and celebrates the one love who is by my side no matter which country I happen to be gallivanting off in. Therefore, from here until eternity, my February celebration of amor will take place on February 5th, World Nutella Day.

My unwavering (and slightly obsessive) love for Nutella was kindled 2010, between two golden Maria cookies. If peanut butter’s soulmate is jelly, then Nutella’s media naranja is Marias, those lightly honeyed biscuit-like creations that waver mid-way between cookie and cracker and were undoubtably put on this earth to squish together into heaping Nutella sandwiches.

Before I dive into describing (with recipes of course!) our Nutella-filled delectables, I must first quell any notions that the perfection that is Nutella can be substituted for any of the array of it’s “chocolate-hazelnut spread” impostors. Here in Galicia, there are many who claim that the Spanish version of Nutella, called “Nocilla,” is actually better than it’s Italian original. False. Whereas Nutella captures the perfect balance between the sweet richness of chocolate and the smooth creaminess of hazelnut, Nocilla punches you in the tongue with a mouthful of bitter chocolate doused in sugar and bearing only traces of the deep flavors of roasted hazelnuts. Splurge for the original, buy true Nutella.

Salty Chocolate Nutella Thumbprint Cookies

Happiness is devouring one these beauties fresh out of the oven, when the Nutella topping is ever-so melty and the chocolatey centers are ever-so gooey.

When the internet joyously informed me that five years ago a group of geniuses had created a day to savor and celebrate this godly gift to man, I immediately began the hunt for the most scrumptious recipes to pay a proper tribute to my favorite midnight (and midday and midmorning) snack.

The first contestant was a recipe I’ve been dying to recreate ever since my boss at ABC brought in a baggie of these little bites of bliss two years ago. When I first bit into The Washington Post’s Salty Chocolate Nutella Thumbprints my tongue was immediately engulfed in the rich bitterness of dark chocolate cocoa, followed by the smooth nuttiness of the Nutella topping. With one bite they replaced 21 years of love for Quaker’s Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies and became my new favorite cookie. And that was before I tasted them in their warm, gooey, melty straight-out-of-the-oven state. (Recipe below)

Espresso Nutella Cupcakes

The subtle coffee flavor in these cupcakes melds magnificently with their purely Nutella frosting!

Our next Nutella-day discovery comes from the oh-so-appropriately titled blog “FuckYesNutella” where Kassandra and I discovered “Drunken Devil’s Food Espresso Cupcakes with Nutella Filling.” While deliciously combining my two loves (Nutella and coffee) this recipe also allowed us to add some Galician flare to our Nutella Day celebration: some locally-made coffee liquor (a scrumptious product that Galicia is known for). These are the first completely from scratch cupcakes I’ve ever attempted and (with Kassandra’s help) they turned out mar-vel-ous! Thanks to my mom for her perfectly-timed package containing the festive cupcake holders and heart decorators! Get the Recipe here.

Nutella Banana Bread

Y.U.M. Nutella Banana-y goodness makes for an ideal breakfast.

The final addition to our Nutella Day celebration was our attempt at an alternative to the serious richness of our first two desserts: Nutella Banana Bread. After all, next to Maria cookies, bananas are Nutella’s best sidekick. The best part about this bread (besides how positively tasty it is) is the awesome art project it allowed me to create in the pan. Half the batter is a chestnut brown from the Nutella while the other half is golden from the bananas. The two halves are swirled together, dollop by dollop, to make this totally tasty breakfast bread! Get the recipe here.

In our attempt to share Nutella Day joy, Kassandra and I baked about 6 dozen cookies, two dozen cupcakes and one heaping loaf of bread to spread around our small town of Sarria. The cookies that survived to be baked (holy Nutella the dough is delicious) disappeared almost instantly in our respective teacher’s lounges. The cupcakes were devoured largely by friends and the bread was nabbed for breakfasts and for one friend who claimed it was her favorite Nutella Day offering. Without a doubt, though, it was the cookies that took the cake, forcing me to attempt to translate the American recipe into Spanish. Here it is, in both English and Spanish!

Salty Chocolate Nutella Tumbprints 

(courtesy of The Washington Post)

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups (10 ounces) flour
  • 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon (3.2 ounces) natural unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at a very soft room temperature (see headnote)
  • 1 1/3 cups (9.3 ounces) sugar, plus 1 cup for finishing the cookies
  • 2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 cup Nutella (or slightly more)

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or a silicone liner.

Whisk together the flour, cocoa powder and salt in a small bowl.

Combine the butter and 1 1/3 cups of sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer. Beat for about 2 minutes on low speed, until fluffy, then add the egg yolks, cream and vanilla extract; beat on low speed until combined. Add the flour mixture and beat until just incorporated.

Place the remaining cup of sugar in a shallow bowl.

Scoop 30 to 35 heaping tablespoons of dough onto the baking sheets. Shape each mound of dough into a ball, then roll it in the remaining sugar to coat evenly. I prefer to dip only the tops of the cookies in the sugar. Space the balls 2 inches apart on the baking sheets, then use your thumb to make an indentation in the top of each cookie, gently flattening the cookies a bit as you work.

Bake one sheet at a time for 10 minutes or until the edges are just set; the tops of the cookies will be soft. I baked mine for 8 minutes and they turned out perfect! Just the right level of softness and no dry edges. (If the indentations have lost definition, press the centers again immediately after you remove the cookies from the oven.) Transfer the baking sheet to a wire rack to cool. Pipe or spoon the Nutella into the center of each cookie while the cookies are still slightly warm. If you place a small dollop the cookie first and let it melt just slightly, it spreads much easier and you’ll turn out with more beautiful cookies!

Serve or store once the Nutella centers have slightly set.

Makes 30 to 35 cookies.

Galletas de Chocolate con Nutella 

Ingredientes

  • 2 tazas (250 g) de harina
  • 1 taza y 1 cuchara grande (135 g) de cacao en polvo sin azúcar
  • 2 cucharas (pequeños) de sal
  • 225g de mantequilla sin sal
  • 110 g  de azúcar mas 1 taza para espolvorear por encima de las galletas
  • 2 yemas
  • 2 cucharas grandes de nata
  • 2 cucharas grandes de vainilla
  • 1 taza de Nutella

Preparación

 Precalentar el horno a 180ºC

Mezclar la harina, cacao y sal en un bol.

En un otro bol, mezclar la mantequilla y el azúcar con una batidora de mano o una batidora de pie equipada con un batidor plano. Añadir las yemas, nata y vainilla y mezclar bien.

Añadir la mezcla con harina poco a poco a la mezcla con mantequilla. Mezclar bien con una cuchara.

Poner la azúcar en un plato. Hacer pequeños montoncitos de cucharadas de la mezcla y pasar la parte superior por azúcar. Ponerlos en bandejas para hornear forradas y hacer un impresión del pulgar encima de la galleta.

Hornear durante 8 minutos. Dejar enfriar un pocito. Saque una pequeña cantidad de Nutella dentro de el impresión del pulgar cuando las galletas están un poco caliente.

Disfrútalos!

A Mountain of Shrimp Croquetas

Shrimp Croquetas

“Croquetas de Mariscos” or Seafood croquettes

In my perpetual desire to perfect (or rather obtain) Spanish cooking skills, I decided to whip up a batch of shrimp-filled croquetas. I blame my delightfully friendly neighbor Carlos for this decision.

Still beaming after arriving home from a fantastic English class in which my pupil gave me a full-blown tortilla cooking lesson last week, my doorbell rang (a rare and startling experience). Carlos, remembering a conversation we had weeks ago about my love for cooking, had brought one of his Galician cookbooks for me to borrow. The treasure was made even more exciting by the cluster of yellow post-it notes sticking out of the top of the book, marking his favorite recipes. To say I was excited about Carlos’ delivery would be a bit of an understatement.

After reading through every recipe in the book twice — three or four times for those flagged by Carlos’ yellow stickies — I chose to embark on my cooking adventure with a receta for Croquetas de Marisco, or seafood croquettes. Seeing as shrimp is the only type of Spanish seafood I have any idea how to work with (what exactly does one do with an entire squid or a whole eel?) I plopped a 500g bag of frozen gambas in my reusable grocery bag and hoped for the best.

The recipe, like all things Spanish, seemed easy. First you cook the shrimp and onions, then make a bechamel sauce with flour and milk. Toss it all together, roll it into logs and fry it! Que facil! Except, like all seemingly-easy Spanish recipes, this behemoth of an undertaking only became clear after I was elbow-deep in milky flour.

Three-Pot Shuffle

Warming milk, sautéing onions and melting butter for bechamel.

Croquetas are without question one of my favorite Spanish tapas. They were a staple of tapas menus in Sevilla, but are more of a rare gem up here in Galicia. They come in all types, the most common being jamón and the most delicious being spinach-filled. I went for shrimp croquetas because that was the only croqueta in Carlos’ cook book, which I was eager to use. Having no idea how my favorite fried treat was actually made, or even what the filing consisted of, I did my homework before getting my ingredients out. I credit the awesome mujer’s YouTube video for saving my croquetas from what I’m sure would have been total ruin. 

I embarked on this cooking adventure around 2 p.m. after chopping up a cabbage salad to accompany my less-than-healthy main dish.

Croqueta Assembly Line

Spoon out the “pasta,” bathe in egg, roll in breadcrumbs y viola! Croquetas!

In five minutes my onions were golden, my garlic was toasted and my shrimp was sauteed. In typical me fashion, I was compelled to use casi every pot, bowl, spoon and knife in the entire kitchen to realize my croqueta dream, so it was with three pots sizzling on the stove that I began the bechamel/pasta dough that would become the center of my croquette. In a frenzy of semi-panic I over-floured my croqueta insides and in my hesitation to put nutmeg (with I associate only with pumpkin pie) in a savory dish (as the recipe called for) I seriously under-spiced my dough.

One hour of furious slicing and stirring later, I was standing in front of a enorme heap of shrimpy dough. Then the rolling, dipping and flouring began. While I only made half of the original recipe (which claims to be enough for 6 people) I ended up with FIFTY croquetas. I always knew Spanish portion sizes were generous, but 16 croquettes per person for a side dish?? Que loco. 

I fried up half of my bounty and stashed the other 25 in the freezer for another day. Sitting down to devour my first authentically Spanish dish with more than three ingredients, I felt remarkably accomplished. And while my croquetas were a bit dry and seriously under-shrimped, no croquette has ever tasted better.

If you have two hours to spare, here’s the tried and tweaked recipe for these super scrumptious Spanish croquetas. I’ve amended the recipe to include with the improvements I’ll make on my second attempt.

Croquetas de Marisco

The finished product!

Croquetas de Mariscos

400g (about 2 cups) shrimppeeled, de-tailed and de-veined and chopped into tiny pieces

250g (a scant 2 cups) flour

2 liters (a generous 2 quarts) milk

1 onion, finely diced

150g (11 tablespoons) butter

2 eggs

2 teaspoons nutmeg

2 teaspoons salt

2 cups plain breadcrumbs

2 cups sunflower oil

First, cook the shrimp in a skillet with a teaspoon of butter and about 1/4 cup water. Set aside. Sautee the onion with about 2 tablespoons butter until nearly transparent. While the onions are cooking, start warming the milk in one pot and melt the remaining butter in another medium-large pot. Add the nutmeg, salt and flour to the melted butter, stirring continuously over medium-low heat. Add the onions, keep stirring. Add the milk and stir, stir, stir! Never stop stirring (as the sweet YouTube mujer says).

After about 10-15 minutes the water/flour mixture should start to form a dough. It gets thick and sticky, kind of like bread dough. At that point, add the shrimp, keep stirring for another 5 minutes. Transfer this “pasta” mixture to a bowl and refrigerate until cook enough to touch.

To form the croquetas, spoon out about 1.5 tablespoons of dough at a time and roll into a log shape. Beat the two eggs and bathe the logs in the egg, then roll in the breadcrumbs. Repeat 50 times.

Fry the croquetas in hot oil (preferably, but not necessarily sunflower oil) until golden brown. Serve warm! I dipped mine in a bit of balsamic vinegar for a little extra kick! If you’d rather not eat only croquetas for a week, you can pop them in the freezer before frying them.

Tortilla: Spain’s PB&J

Tortilla: the Spanish Omelet

My second, studied attempt at Spanish tortilla-making.

Tortilla is to Spain what peanut butter and jelly is to America. Don’t know what to have for dinner? Tortilla. Need to pack a lunch? Tortilla on bread Looking for a mid-afternoon snack? Tortilla with toothpicks

It’s nearly impossible to find a tortilla-free tapas menu or Spanish madre who doesn’t have the perfect tortilla flip.

Thus in my attempt to learn how to cook Spanish food, the most logical starting point was the oh-so-typical Spanish omelet. The seemingly-simple recipe has only three ingredients (four, if you’re rebellious): potato, egg, salt and onion (because I am).  I have been assured by every Spaniard I’ve asked that, like all things in the Iberian Peninsula, making tortilla is muy facil. I’m beginning to think my basic Spanish classes failed to teach me the real definition of “facil” because this totally traditional dish is proving to be anything but easy to recreate.

My first attempt at cooking tortilla was more than two years ago, days after returning to America after studying in Sevilla for five months. I can’t remember the specific ratio of potato to egg that I used, or exactly how burnt the exterior was, but it will suffice to say it tasting nothing like the omelet my señora used to serve.

Tortilla-Making Attempt #1

Don’t be fooled by my shoddy photo skills, this puck of egg and potato is straight up burnt.

A year later, living in a group house in D.C. with a Spanish roommate, I attempted the facil three-ingredient dish again. THe second the Spaniard left the house, my solo tortillas lost their light and fluffiness, burned on the outside and were grossly runny on the inside. I blamed America’s must-be-refrigerated eggs.

After landing back en España this year, tortilla was item No. 1 on my list of homemade dinners. But despite the farm fresh eggs and grown-in-Galicia potatoes, my Spanish omelet was just as dry, black and bland as ever. I was convinced that making tortilla is just not in my blood. In order to successfully create this so-called facil dish, the chef had to be a full-blooded Spaniard.

On the verge of giving up all hope of ever cooking like a Spaniard (after all, if I can’t pull of the most staple of Spanish dishes, how could I ever attempt the delicious meatballs or heavenly croquettes?) Not ready to give up on my fantasy of freshly-cooked Spanish delicacies, I solicited the help of every Spaniard I knew for tortilla-making advice. A teacher at school swore it was all about the pan, so I bought a new, non-stick skillet. A friend insisted the key was low heat, so I vowed to never use a full flame again. The best advice came in the form of a demonstration one night while having cena at a friend’s house. We arrived just in time to witness a true Spanish madre in tortilla-making action. I was a tad bit excited.

Tortilla-Ready Potato

Mistake #1: The potato has to be thinly shaved, not diced.

Raw Tortilla Fixins

Mistake #2: The potato to egg ratio should be nearly even. Mine was always seriously skewed.

The tortilla master (a title worn by all Spaniards, in my opinion) walked me through each step.

  1. First, wash, peel and thinly slice (not dice!) the potatoes
  2. Mince (not hack into rough chunks) the onion
  3. Fry the onion and potatoes in plenty of oil (olive is preferred, but not necessary)
  4. Use a strainer spoon to remove the lightly-browned onion and potato mixture in to a bowl (rather than emptying the pot into a pasta strainer)
  5. Scramble the same number of eggs as you have potatoes (potatoes should be smaller than your fist)
  6. Dump the golden mixture of potato and onion into the eggs and stir just enough to incorporate it all together
  7. Add a pinch of salt
  8. Heat a non-stick (VERY important that it’s non-stick!) skillet over medium-low heat with about a tablespoon of olive oil
  9. Pour the gloopy egg-potato mixture into the pan
  10. Add another pinch of salt
  11. Dance with the skillet (in other words, shake, spin, wiggle and scoot the pan so the omelet doesn’t stick)
  12. While the top still looks positively raw, but the bottom has just begun to firm into a solid mass amongst the wiggle-routine, press a plate over the top of the pan and flip the pan over, dumping the omelet raw-side down onto the plate
  13. Slide the now-almost-a-tortilla back onto the pan, runny side down
  14. Turn off the heat (it sounds crazy, I know. The thing is still half raw!)
  15. Let the tortilla firm up from the residual pan heat four about 3 minutes
  16. Slide the masterpiece out onto a plate and go about your sweet Spanish life, cuz Dios! wasn’t that easy?!?
Tortilla Masterpiece

Myriam showing off her mother’s perfect Spanish tortilla.

SIXTEEN steps. And she made it look SO easy! They say this is the easiest Spanish meal there is. I’m doomed.

But I’m also determined. So after returning from my (completely fabulous) Christmas vacation in the states, I set out to re-create the magic I witnessed in Myriam’s kitchen.

Step 1: Potatoes

I chose two small and one large-ish potatoes and meticulously peeled them.

Step 2: Chopping and Slicing

Second, I slivered the potatoes into thin pieces and minced the onion.

Step 3: Fry Time

Next, I dumped my cutting board handiwork into hot Extra Virgin Olive Oil until the potatoes and onion were soft and cooked through.

Step 4: The Ratio

With three eggs scrambled and waiting, I spooned the lightly browned potatoes and onion into a bowl.

Step 5: Skilleting

Lastly I slipped the concoction into my tortilla skillet, flipped the forming omelet way before my instincts told me it was cooked and hoped for the best.

Step 6: Devour

While it still wasn’t a perfect Spanish omelet (I forgot the salt and could’ve had a tad more potato) it was definitely passable!

Spanglish Gracias-Giving

I discovered this weekend that for the past 23 years I have completely underestimated how hard it is to cook Thanksgiving dinner. My parents are superheros for doing this whole thing in one day. That being said, the following items do not exist in Spain and therefore made for some serious adventures in our Thanksgiving preparations: canned pumpkin pie filling, frozen (and featherless) turkey, normal pre-made piecrust, cornbread, fresh cranberries, measuring cups.
Our epic Turkey Day adventure began on Wednesday, when (with the help of Victoria, the vice principal and English teacher at school ) I placed our turkey order. I had intended to order the pavo on Monday, but last weekend I was struck down with el gripe, which despite the doomsday sound to that word was a mere bought of the flu complicated by fierce Spanish medicine that I’m pretty sure did more damage than help. Anyway, I was back in action on Wednesday and one brief call to the egg and chicken delivery man (who sells poultry products to the elementary school’s cafeteria) later one super fresh pavo was en route to our Gracias-giving mesa.
Our Thanksgiving Turkey, Spanish Style

The elementary school chefs got a serious kick out of this American girl carting around a raw turkey.

The giant, always fresh never frozen bird arrived Friday morning. (Warning: stop reading now if you don’t want to hear about how turkey-like our turkey was.) This thing was walking last week, I’m convinced. It didn’t have feet, but it had scaly almost-feet ankels. And while most of the feathers were gone, they left us a reminder around each wing, where a smattering of white feathers remained intact. This was NOT a turkey like you find sterile-y frozen at H.E.B.

I lugged Mr. Pavo down the river walk, through downtown Sarria and up three flights of our apartment building stairs with the scaly legs protruding from holes they had ripped in the oversized white grocery sack. Since the turkey was bigger than our oven, we brought it to one of the best bakeries in town to have it cooked.
But first, I had to stuff it, a task that is infinitely harder than it looks. My first concern was making sure every last feather was plucked. It took about 30 minutes to tweeze (yes, as in with tweezers) all the feathers off. I was later informed during dinner that a lighter would have sufficed (and probably saved me half the time and half the queasiness). Live and learn…
Stuffing our Thanksgiving Turkey

Turkey surgery. Harder than it looks.

Next, with the expert step-by-step Skype help of Kurt and my mom, I managed to remove the half of a lung from inside (que. asco.) and fill it with scrumptious stuffing! The stuffing was an adventure in of itself because it called for 3 cups of cornbread. Sadly those handy blue boxes of Jiffy cornbread mix don’t exist here. My attempt to make it from scratch was an epic failure, so I ended up buying the densest, heavies loaf of “corn bread” I’ve ever seen in mi vida from a local bakery. Mr. Pavo was ready to roll around 2 am Friday night. At 10 am Saturday morning the turkey transport commenced. Picture this: the only two American girls in Sarria struggling to carry a huge pan of turkey down three flights of stairs and about 7 blocks to the bakers in a mild windstorm. Struggle.

Back at home the cranberry challenge began. Because there are no fresh cranberries in all of Sarria (trust me, I looked) I bought craisins and soaked them in water for two days, turning dried cranberries into water-logged but semi-plump cranberry halves. The cranberries never really turned into a sauce, so I batidora-ed them a bit (a half-blender, half-beater contraption with the best name ever. Batidora!) They were alright…
The pumpkin pie, which Kassandra successful constructed out of a real, live pumpkin, was a serious challenge because half of the spices came in whole, raw form. We had to bust out the mortar and pestle to pulverize the cardamom, cloves and ginger. Most of which was an epic fail. We finally broke down and bought a spice/coffee grinder.
One of our biggest challenges was measuring. Did you know 100 grams of sugar and 100 grams of flour are completely different amounts?!? We had no measuring cups (Apparently Spanish chefs just eyeball everything) so our day was filled with a lot of “Does this look like a 1/4 teaspoon of cloves? Sure! Close enough…”
All in all it took us about 10 hours to cook the whole meal, which included: turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, potato salad and broccoli casserole with pumpkin pie and apple pie for dessert. With nearly everything ready and our Spanish Thanksgiving guests en route,  we  went to pick up the turkey from the baker’s. A large cardboard box dripping with aceite de turkey was waiting for us on the glass countertop, above chocolate covered galletas and Spanish-style donuts.
Thanksgiving Day Turkey

Our anorexic, upside down Thanksgiving Day turkey.

When I caught site of the beast inside I had a small internal panic attack. Our turkey had turned anorexic in the oven. The top was nothing but skin and bones. The entire back looked like it had melted off, you could see right through the ribs into the stuffing and the hip bones jutted into the air. My heart started beating again when I realized it was just upside down. Turkeys look seriously odd upside down.

We invited seven friends from Sarria to partake in our Spanglish Gracias-giving and they were as excited or more than we were. They’ve seen Thanksgiving celebrated in movies, and were stoked to experience it first hand. Pedro and Guille fought over the honor of cutting the turkey with Guille proclaiming he was “very fuerte, very very fuerte” and Pedro winning out once Guillermo realized that carving a turkey is hard work. Pedro didn’t quite get the concept of stuffing in one bowl, turkey in another, so we had one big plate/pile of stuffing mixed with turkey- still delish!

Thanksgiving Dinner in Spain

Spanish Gracias-giving, a success.

Myriam and her sister Lucia were fascinated by the mashed potatoes- which people don’t make in Spain and I gave up trying to explain gravy and resigned to calling it “Turkey sauce.” Patri popped open a (much needed at this point) bottle of red wine of the homemade variety (Guillermo’s family, like many families in Galicia, ferments its own wine) and which was deeeelicious. Then we all sat down to a feast that was mostly-American but with some definite Spanish flare. It was a massive success!

Now that we have all the appliances and cooking gear that we’ve been missing, Kassandra and I have decided that we are going to put it to use! Our next adventure: Chai cupcakes with pumpkin frosting or pumpkin pancakes with chai lattes. Gotta use up that leftover cardamom and pumpkin puree! I’ll keep you posted on how they turn out.