The Spanish truly deserve a prize for how many crazy huge, fantastically raucous meals they can fit into one holiday season. Here in Madrid the cenas to celebrate Navidad start the first weekend in December and become ever more frequent as the actual holiday approaches. By mid-month every lunch and dinner Thursday through Sunday has a decidedly festive feel and ends with extra-friendly dos besos and emphatic exclamations of “Feliz Navidad! Feliz Año! Feliz Reyes!”
For me, this tasty tradition coupled with my holiday trips to two Christmas wonderlands (aka Prague and Vienna) made for a ridiculously delicious month. This year my holiday meals spanned six restaurants (eight including my elementary school cafeteria and the kitchen in my Madrid apartment) and seven Christmas markets across three countries. It included three 5+ course Christmas meals, dozens of new ingredients and untold bottles of wine. Needless to say, I ate fantastically well this Christmas.
While nearly every meal was packed with goodness, there were seven dishes that sent my tastebuds into full-blown celebration mode. Varying from high-class cuisine to street food, imaginative to traditional, here are the seven most delicious dishes I had the sweet, sweet pleasure of tasting this Christmas.
7. Sauerkraut and sausage potatoes at the Wenceslas Square Christmas market in Prague
I am not and have never been a potato person. In my family and in Spain potatoes are relegated to the role of meat accompaniment. They are the white mountain of fried, mashed or scalloped starch that fills up the rest of the plate. Then I went to Prague and discovered the true awesomeness that potatoes can be. In the huge cast iron skillets of Prague’s Wenceslas Square Christmas market potatoes reached their full potential.
The intoxicating aroma of sausage, sauerkraut and spices floating up from six steaming skillets envelops the dozen or so market stalls on each side of this potato goodness. Rather than Spain’s fried slivers, Prague’s potatoes were halved, boiled and left peel-on. They were doused in spices, cheese and a sweet, tangy sauerkraut and slow-cooked into a mess of goey perfection. I opted for half sausage-and-sauerkraut potatoes and half cheesy potato dumplings. I will never look at a potato the same way again.
6. Beef carpaccio with lemongrass and a mango foam at Sticker in Madrid
When eight food bloggers, guides and entrepreneurs celebrate Christmas dinner together there better be some downright stellar dishes. Madrid’s new gastropub, Sticker, did not disappoint for the Madrid Food Tour team’s holiday dinner.
Our six-course tasting menu was packed with creative adaptations of traditional Spanish favorites, like a Manchego cheese yogurt with cured ham dust and a peanut-crusted poached egg over chips. But by far the most tastebud-tantalizing moment of the meal was the beef carpaccio, or rather the bright yellow dollops of mango foam atop it. The espuma was both tart and sweet; it was light as air and melted in your mouth like good dark chocolate. I’m not much of a beef eater, let alone raw beef, but I’d take a plate of carpaccio any day just to get another taste of that mango goodness!
5. Homemade market-fresh sliders at my apartment in Madrid
After eight days of traveling, my sister and I were more than ready for a nice home-cooked meal. With no specific menu in mind, I took her to El Mercado de Maravillas, Madrid’s fresh food wonderland. Weaving through mountains of vegetables, glaciers of seafood and brightly lit displays featuring every conceivable part of a cow, pig or goat, we searched for something to tempt our growling stomachs.
We loaded up on leeks, carrots, strawberries, cheese, membrillo (a thick jam-like brick made from quince fruit). On a whim we picked up some ground-just-for-us beef. Two days later, after freezing our faces off at the Three Kings Day parade, we huddled back into my kitchen to turn our ultra-lean, utlra-fresh Spanish beef into some super American sliders. Dividing the ground beef into two bowls, Lisa seasoned her half with soy sauce, pepper and “secret ingredients” she declined to share with me. I sprinkled my half with basil, thyme, black pepper and olive oil and tucked a small square of aged Manchego cheese in the center of each little patty.
For toppings we caramelized onions, wilted spinach and toasted garlic in olive oil. By the time the table was set we had created a choose-your-own-adventure slider extravaganza with enough flavor to rival our fancy Christmas Eve dinner. Good things happen when Lisa and I cook together.
4. Seared scallops on a mango and Thai basil salsa at Coda in Prague
For Christmas Eve we decided to go all out. I wasn’t buying a cross-Atlantic plane ticket to see my family, so instead I decided to buy an ultra-fancy dinner to ring in the holiday. After weeks of research we decided on Coda Restaurant in Prague. The seven-course Christmas menu sounded spectacular, the atmosphere looked adorable and the price was stomachable.
When we walked in on a rather frigid Christmas Eve there was a fireplace crackling, a pianist playing and a plate of Christmas cookies waiting on our table. Yep, good decision. With the help of our waitress, we chose a stellar Gala sauvignon blanc, my first Czech wine, to accompany our meal. And then began the parade of scrumptiousness… My “International Christmas Menu” included, and I quote:
- Pan seared fresh scallops served with fresh mango & Thai basil salad and homemade chili jam
- Farmer’s smoked trout ravioli with a light horseradish sauce
- Traditional fish soup with bread croutons
- Homemade orange sorbet
- Roasted & sliced juicy beef tenderloin with truffle rissoto and foie gras sauce
- Traditional plum jam ravioli served in plum brandy glaze with butter roasted breadcrumbs
My sister will tell you the trout ravioli was life changing. But that’s only because she has a shellfish allergy and could not partake in the pure ecstasy that was the seared scallop – chili jam combo. The mango salad played third wheel to the glorious marriage of spice and silky seafood that was blossoming between the scallops (my favorite food) and the chilies (um… yum.).
3. Pork Sausage and sauerkraut at U Tri Ruzi in Prague
As a rule, I never go to the same restaurant twice while exploring a new city. U Tri Ruzi in Prague not only forced me to break my own rule, but it shattered my stereotypes about sausage (hot dogs disguised as something edible), sauerkraut (rotten), fish soup (creamy blandness) and non-wheat beer (hop-tastic).
One bite of their thin pork sausages dipped in homemade whole-grain mustard and topped with a pinch of perfectly tangy, sweet sauerkraut and I vowed to never hate on German food again. It was real meat bursting with flavor and spices. We Americans need to come up with another name for those nasty putty-logs we call “sausage.” This was too heavenly to even share the same word.
2. Sausage sandwich at the Republic Square Christmas market in Prague
Minutes after stepping off the airport bus into downtown Prague and we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of a Christmas dream. Toys, candies, food and mulled wine peaked out from the openings of tiny wooden houses strung with garland and lights. The smell of roasted nuts, cinnamon, cider and sausage wafted around us. Our resolve to first drop our bags off at the hostel before going Christmas market exploring evaporated instantly.
The smell of pure heaven drew me in toward one of the first stalls at the Republic Square market. Somehow without using one correctly-pronounced word of Czech I managed to order a sausage sandwich. The vendor sliced the thick sausage lengthwise and seared it on a hot skillet, adding a delectable crispiness to the center. Then he threw the two juicy sausage slices onto thick, crusty bread, added two lines creamy red sauce, and a couple tomato slices and asked for the equivalent of about 3 dollars. It was easily the best $3 I spent in the Czech Republic. I think I devoured the entire saucy mess before we even got to the table.
1. Giant apricot jam filled donut at the Schönbrunn Christmas market in Vienna
You really can’t go wrong with a jumbo donut. But this face-sized creation went above and beyond where any American donut (or Spanish donut or any donut I’ve ever tasted) has ever gone before. Besides its fantastic size, this riesenkrapfen achieved the ideal balance of crisp crust on the outside and fluffy heaven on the inside.
When my sister and I ordered our most excellent dessert, the vendor pulled out the still-steaming donut, pumped it full of sweet-but-not-too-sweet apricot jam and covered it with a healthy dousing of powdered sugar. My new life goal: to install one of these donut stalls on my balcony. Holy donut heaven!
Now, excuse me while I go for a run….