The 7 Most Ridiculously Delicious Things I Ate This Christmas

7 Best Christmas Vacation FoodsThe 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

Christmas Market Potatoes

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

Beef Carpaccio with Mango Foam

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

Homemade beef sliders

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

Christmas Eve Scallops

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

Czech Sausage and Sauerkraut

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

Christmas Market Deliciousness

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

Best Donut in the World

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….

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The Gypsy Who Taught Me What Christmas Is

Today I witnessed a Christmas miracle in a six-year-old who doesn’t even understand what Christmas is. She is tiny, even among her fellow first graders, and wears the same red sweatshirt nearly every day. Her black hair is always pulled back in the same long braid and her skin is a few shades darker than most of her classmates. She is a gypsy. And in Spain that makes her “the other.”

Madrid Street

Gypsies here (and in most of Europe) are not the free-loving hippie folk that I used to associate with the word. In Spain, gypsies are a separate race, both physically and culturally different from Spaniards. Gypsies — more politically correctly, and more rarely, called Roma– have lived on the Iberian peninsula for centuries, but they have never integrated into Spanish culture. Gypsies are typically migrant people, often working in traveling fairs, shows and circuses. They are stereotyped as drug dealers and thieves. From my eyes, they are the last, albeit slightly modernized, remnant of the Javelin-tournament era where traveling storytellers and dancing bears enticed village people while their cohorts pick-pocketed the crowd’s gold coins. Or at least thats the feeling I get from many of the Spaniards at school.

In a  country where every resident has access to full health care coverage, the blatant racism towards gypsies stands out like a glaring anomaly to an otherwise equality-driven society. The word alone incites a specific facial expression among most people that falls somewhere among pity, exasperation, anger and ambivalence. And that’s in Spain, where the Roma people have more rights and access to services than just about anywhere else in Europe. One of those rights, which gypsies apparently don’t have in some other European countries, is to public schools where they are integrated into normal classes.

For many at my school in the Madrid suburbs, that integration is both a blessing and a curse. For example, in fourth grade there is a gypsy boy who missed the first two months of school because his family thought it was more important for him to work at the fair than to go to school. He is ten years old, he can’t read and he can barely write. During his bilingual science class he draws pictures and traces the English words his teacher writes for him while his fellow students recite the differences between metamorphic and ionic rocks. When I asked him what his job was at the fair he said with a proud smile, “I was the dragon.”

Spanish toys and candy

Candies and toys for sale at Feria de Abril in Sevilla.

Of the handful of gypsy students I work with, not one of them can tell me the colors in English. Most can’t even write them in Spanish. The first grade girl I mentioned before can write her name but only barely. She hasn’t figured out yet what the letters mean. That stems largely from the fact that she’s continuously absent from school. In the two days per week that I am in her classroom, she is absent about a third of them.

But when she is in class, she is bounding from wall to wall with excitement. “Me ayudas?” she asks during every section of every activity, bouncing in front of me until I come over to her desk and attempt to explain which picture is the fireman. Today while the students were pulling out their English books she ran over and threw her arms around my thigh, the highest part of me that she can reach. She just stood there for awhile hugging my thigh. When I reached down to pull a stray clump of her hair behind her ear the other teacher in the room warned me to “be careful of her hair.” Apparently she’s afraid the girl may have lice. The teacher later explained to me that the child lives in what amounts to a slum outside of Madrid, where the houses are made from scrap metal and “low quality building materials.” That would explain the warts and sores I’ve seen on the girls face and hands.

Granada Gypsy Hills

Some immigrants in Granada lived in caves dug out of the hillside overlooking the city.

When I first walked into class today the first graders were all rummaging around in their bags, getting their materials out for the lesson. This gypsy girl was tugging on something in the small pink drawstring bag that she carries with her to school. She doesn’t have a backpack, or a worksheet binder or a red homework folder… or any folders for that matter. She doesn’t have any of the school goodies that pour out of her classmates roller-wheeled backpacks and trifold pencil cases. But she doesn’t know that. She has her pink princess drawstring bag and a pouch with a couple of pencils.

And today she had something else that she was struggling to pull from the pink bag. “Me ayudas?” she asked me as I walked in. I took her bag and pulled out a heavy sack of something wrapped in a plastic bag. “What is this?!?” I asked fearing that it was what it felt like: a sack of paper-wrapped ground beef. It took me a moment to understand her reply. “Es para los niños en pobreza!” she said, both pride and sympathy flashing across her face.

Then I saw it. The red lettering on the bag. This was the plastic bag teachers were handing out last week for donations to the holiday food bank. Inside the little gypsy girl’s ripped plastic bag was a brand new sack of lentils. She was donating to the poor.

Never Stop Loving

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

Escaping Madrid’s Puente Madness in Alcalá de Henares

Madrid this weekend was a madhouse. The streets of the city center were clogged with impermeable human traffic jams. The metro was so packed that security guards blockaded the entrances, only allowing 50 people at a time to enter. And the narrow, weaving streets of downtown were parking lots of honking cars inching closer and closer to each others’ bumpers.

This was Madrid on Puente, aka a three-day weekend. As Friday was Spain’s Constitution Day, a national holiday, nearly the entire country (seemingly) flocked to the streets of their capital city to stand still in the middle of the sidewalk and admire the Christmas lights or ram their strollers through packed crowds over the toes of innocent bystanders.

Feliz Navidad in Alcalá de Henares

Needless to say after a day of this madness, I beelined for the first cercania train OUT of the city. Thirty minutes later, far from the insanity of celebrating Madrileños, I disembarked into the town of Alcalá de Henares, aka the birthplace of “Don Quijote” author Miguel Cervantes.

Don Quixote statue in Alcala de Henares

Alcalá is the second-largest city in the province of Madrid after the capital city itself, although you’d never know it by the quiet quaintness of the town center, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Walking toward the central plaza (Plaza de Cervantes), my friend and I joked that the tinsel-style Christmas trees hanging across the avenue were straight of A Christmas Story. We ate our words as soon as we enter the Christmas heaven that was Plaza de Cervantes.

Plaza de Cervantes in Alcala de Henares

Lining the plaza were wooden Santa’s elves’ type houses selling everything from chocolate-dipped churros to knitted slippers. A train blaring Christmas music circled a giant decorated Christmas tree (made of actual branches, not metal lights like Madrid’s tree). And lights were draped from tree to tree around the plaza.

After frolicking through the plaza and admiring the Cervantes statue (in which he is perfectly brandishing his feather pen!) we headed for lunch. Alcalá is known for it’s tapas culture. Like in Galicia and Granada, tapas bars in Alcalá give you a free small dish with every wine or beer you order. Unfortunately, when the price is free the quality is also on the low side. Not in the mood for a flurry of fried potatoes and sausage, we set off in search of a more sit-down style meal.

The Best Restaurant in Alcala de HenaresThanks to the advise of a fantastically helpful and friendly Alcalá native, we wove back into the antique kitchen utensil decor of Mesón las Cuadras de Rocinante. Like the majority of the restaurants throughout the city, las Cuadras was absolutely packed when we arrived around 3:30 pm for lunch. Every table was taken and the bar area was shoulder-to-shoulder with people sipping a caña (and it’s free garbanzo-bean stew tapa) while they waited their place at one of the red-checkered tables.

One hour, a glass of wine, and about a dozen near-disastrous collisions with the two frantic waiters later, we were finally able to claim a table. Within minutes, the bright tablecloth disappeared under cazuelas of meatballs and vegetable pisto, a basket of bread and its accompanying olive oil, a plate of seared mushrooms topped with cured jamón, and a dish of delicious semicurado cheese.

It was everything I love about Spanish meals. Every item was simple, yet inexplicably packed with flavor. They were cooked to perfection, in a way that spoke to the centuries of history and practice that went into each dish. And they were presented without flourish, allowing the downright deliciousness of each plate to speak for itself. Our feast, along with two glasses of wine, set us back a mere 17 euro each.

Delicious Lunch in Alcala de Henares

The most important part of the day completed with massive success, we set of to explore the two main sites of Alcalá: the house where Cervantes was born and the insanely beautiful Universidad de Alcalá. Unfortunately, our late lunch meant that we missed the last tour at the Cervantes house by 15 minutes (it started at 5:30pm) AND the final guided tour of the University (which started at 6pm). Guess we will just have to make another day trip to Alcalá!

Universidad de Alcalá

The University of Alcalá

A Piano in el Salón and Politics in the Kitchen

Breaking news alerts announcing each minuscule hint of an agreement to avoid the debt-ceiling apocalypse have turned my phone into a strobe light today. “Senate close to agreement,”… “Deal is imminent” … “President Obama applauds Senate”… “House GOP now meeting,”…

Letters to the President

“Delivering” letters from Texas first-graders to President Obama in 2012.

I’ve heard this story before. I’ve written this story before. And I can picture exactly what my day would be like if I’d chosen to stay on the path that so many of my peers strived to get to. It would have been frantic and stressful, frustrating and unsatisfying. It would be hammering out headlines in moments of sheer panic, then combing through Twitter in search of an update or a new angle. I would have typed myself into oblivion and left late, feeling defeated and behind the curve. Thus is the maddening immediacy of online news.

Instead, as history repeated itself in Washington, I stuck my tongue out at a Spanish second-grader, trying to help him understand the English “th” sound. While a Twitter tizzy of took off across the ocean, I got contagion-hugged by half a class of first graders whose tiny hands could hardly reach my belt loops. Today, while my country was in a politics-driven craze, I drank my morning coffee sitting down and basked in the afternoon sun on my balcony.

Glorieta de QuevedoAnd amid the cognitive dissonance of last year versus this one, it hit me: I live in Madrid. I’m not visiting, or touring or just passing through. This is my new home. And from this distant vantage point I can see the frivolity of many of the things I used to live and die by in D.C. Is American politics a big ‘ol mess? Yes. Is the sun going to rise and the coffee going to brew and the email from my Mom going to come through tomorrow if Congress doesn’t pass a bill tonight? Why yes, yes it is.

I tried to explain to my roommate in my improving but still crap Spanish what all the fuss was about in the States right now. All the Spanish news channels are covering the shutdown and the debt ceiling debate, but let’s just say the story is about 1/100th as long as last night’s soccer match re-cap. As my voice began to rise in frustration and annoyance at the history that was repeating itself in D.C., my roommate sighed, nonchalantly plopped another piece of sushi in his mouth and said “Bienvenidos al club, Amy.” Then he told me that Belgium went two years without a government while three leading parties battled for control. He told me about never-ending-cycle of Spain’s two most powerful parties which strategically tweak the laws to keep themselves in power, “like a fish with his tail in his mouth, it just goes round and round without end,” he said. Then we got sidetracked while I tried to pronounce “pass a budget” in Spanish — try saying “se aprueba el presupuesto” ten times fast! — and ended up laughing about appliances.
Royal Botanical Garden Happiness

Afterward as I walked toward my bedroom down the long hallway of our apartment, an intricate and peaceful melody drifted from the salón. I stopped for a moment to listen to my other roommate, a concert pianist and opera singer, as her fingers danced across her new keyboard. And that’s when I knew for the first time with certainty, that I’d made the right decision.

A Madrid Walkabout: The City Beyond the Travel Guides

Madrid, as I am coming to find out, is a city made for walking. Yes, it is rather massive. Yes, it has an amazingly well-connected metro system. Yes, Google Maps doesn’t usually know whether I’m walking down Calle Jordán or the similarly tiny Calle Olid. But that’s part of what makes exploring Madrid de pie such an adventure. I usually have no idea which direction I’m going (or should be going) but with playground-filled plazas, impresionante old buildings and hub-ub-filled markets popping up everywhere, being lost is turning out to be far more fun than being on time.

Madrid Streets

The other night I decided to take a stroll around my new neighborhood near the Chamberí and Trafalgar barrios, just north of the heart of downtown Madrid. The guide books would have likely advised me to take a left out of my front door and walk down calle Fuencarral (the main street) towards the city center  where I could admire the quintessentially Madrid buildings: statue-topped skyscrappers featured on post cards, the main plaza Sol with it’s bear and tree statue, the expansive whitish-grey Royal Palace and it’s perfectly manicured gardens.  These are the icons of Madrid, but not, contrary to their central geography, the heart and soul of this city. For that, I had to walk the opposite direction, through the winding, absolutely un-grid-like streets of the upper barrios.

Rather than attempting my poor mapping skills, I opted for a meandering paseo with no destination in mind. I turned when the side street looked prettier than the main one, crossed the road only to examine the menus of cute cafes or peruse the old records at a hole-in-the-wall shop. The longer I strolled the more I began to understand the resting pulse of this city, the daily lives of its citizens and the driving force of its beauty.

Missionaries on a Park BenchHidden just off the main thoroughfare that is Fuencarral I stumbled upon a Plaza Olavide, where scores of kids still sporting their school uniforms kicked soccer balls and wobbled past on roller skates while their parents gossiped on the benches, guarded the strollers or had a caña  of beer at one of the dozen bar/cafes surrounding the plaza. This little neighborhood park/plaza didn’t have the splendor of Sol nor the intricacy of Retiro (Madrid’s version of Central Park) but it was real. It was functional. It had only a handful of empty benches and rumbled with the sound of chatter and children.

Beyond the plaza was a tiny (even by Spain standards) fresh fruit store, one of may absolutely favorite places. I peaked my head in to ask the shop attendant if he had any figs, my new fruit obsession. He snapped on a blue surgical glove and dropped six gorgeous, deep purple higos into a clear plastic bag asked me for a euro and slumped back down on his stool. Half of those juicy fruits would later become a spinach, goat cheese and fig salad for my dinner.

An Evening PaseoAs the sun began to set, I wandered deeper into the Chamberí neighborhood, which judging from the grand buildings, is home to Madrid’s more fortunate inhabitants. I saw a red brick school that looked like a relic from an old movie set at Oxford. I walked past a pop-up flower shop selling olive tree saplings that were bent from the weight of their bright-green fruit. I meandered past two old men in tweed suits and old-man caps arguing in whispers on a sidewalk bench. I spotted a small, faded blue sign on a ten-story tall apartment building advertising “Gas on every floor.” I slowed my steps behind an old couple out for their evening walk and watched as they shuffled towards a nearby church, the abuela explaining to her husband which parts had been recently renovated. Her show-and-tell complete they decided to call it a night and turned around to head back home.

It’s these little moments that give this city it’s magic. Of course I love to stand in the plaza outside the Royal Palace and admire its majesty and I can’t get enough of the flower gardens in Parque de Retiro. But it’s the more routine experiences of Spaniards that I’ve come to admire most. These are people who take walks just to take walks, who take hours to finish one beer because the stories are more important than the beverage, whose kids think a piece of rope is the funnest toy on the playground, and who have stores that sell nothing but scissors. This is the Spain I love and the Spain I yearn to know better, the Spain I’ll never find in a guide book.

3 Reasons Why Madrid Is Actually Food Heaven

During my Summer spent in Texas, the first question I was always asked after telling someone of my plans to move back to Spain was, “What is it about Spain that you love so much?” My reaction was always the same: the food. Or more accurately, the culture that surrounds creating and eating food. In Spain “slow food” is not a fad, it’s the norm. Lunches here are hours-long affairs and serving day-old bread is sin. In the rural garden-filled hills of Galicia (my home for the past school year), farm-to-table wasn’t the restaurant’s advertised enticement, it was the diner’s unwritten expectation, one I came to cherish.

Fresh Galician Food

The freshest of meats from the carnecería in Sarria.

Moving to the 4-million-strong metropolis of Madrid this year, I feared my days of abundant food freshness were over. I’ve been a Madrileña for less than two weeks and already any and all of my food fears have evaporated. Madrid is not only a mecca of fruit stands and bakeries, but a foodie treasure chest bursting with traditional tapas bars, specialty restaurants and coffee-conscious cafes. Madrid, I am coming to find out, is the melting pot of Spain’s culinary excellence. In other words, it is food heaven. Don’t believe me? Here’s proof:

Exhibit A: Squid for Lunch. Claro!

Picture two American roommates in their early twenties planning a dinner with friends. What will the menu look like? As an early-twenties American, I can tell you from experience it will likely include ground beef or pan-grilled chicken, perhaps some pasta, probably a salad or maybe some homemade (and by ‘homemade’ I mean from-a-box) brownies.

Two days ago I experienced the same sort of meal with two twenty-something Spaniards. After some rapid-fire Spanish debate over what to fix, my new amigos announced it was time to ir al supermercado. At the corner market, my fearless masters of delicious cuisine marched straight up to the seafood counter, flagged down the haz-mat-style suit wearing attendant, and asked for three gooey, floppy, football-sized squid — well, technically cuttlefish — as nonchalantly as if they were ordering sliced turkey from the deli.

Package-o-fresh-squid in-hand, they strolled over to the fruteria next door to pick up fresh sprigs of parsley and cilantro, informing me that fresh herbs were clutch to making the family recipe’s sauce delicioso. An hour of kitchen-clanking and taste-testing later, my new meal-preparing role models laid a steaming pile of perfectly seared squid pieces on the table next to a dish of boiled new potatoes, a carafe of bright-green parsley-cilantro sauce and two plates of pan-fried Chanterelle mushrooms.  One bite of the crisp, yet succulent squid bearing a hint of the tart, garlicy punch of the green sauce and I floated off into Spanish food heaven…

Exhibit B: Viva la Vida, a Vegetarian Buffet

In a country where your typical bar has cured ham legs hanging from the ceiling and the “vegetarian” menus feature five kids of tuna, there exists the unimaginable: a plaza of not one, but two vegetarian restaurants. Ironically enough, these unexpected changes of culinary pace are nestled in the heart of one of Madrid’s oldest neighborhoods: La Latina.

Spanish Vegetarian Buffett

I stumbled upon the first and most impresionante of the veggie eateries last week while in search of a tasty-looking lunch spot. Inside I discovered everything I could want in a Spanish-style vegetarian restaurant. Lush green vines blanketed the ceiling and Chinese lanterns hung over the bar. Bowls of flowers floated on tables between flowy-skirt wearing diners. Along the black wall, buffet tables overflowed with vegetarian fare with a decidedly Spanish flare.

There were whole-wheat croquetas and meatless albondigas (meatballs). A clay pot of cold gazpacho was nestled alongside salads with bright red tomatoes, blocks of feta and dried dates. Every dish was bursting with color and flavor. I loaded as many kinds of exotic veggie goodness onto my plate as possible, awaited my glass of accompanying white wine, looked out over the Plaza de Paja and dug into veggie heaven…

Exhibit C: The Tomato Man

There are three fruterias between where I’m staying and the metro which means every day I’m torn between the green-and-yellow striped melons at the cavernous self-serve Rosa’s, the 2,35/kilo neon-green figs at Tomate’s and the so-purple-they’re-black bunches of grapes at Un Dia.  Trying to cover my bases, I decided to hit up each store and compare quality, variety and price. Five seconds after setting foot in Tomate and I realized not one of those three standards mattered.

The jolly round man that runs the smallest of the three produce stores, Tomate, hopped up to greet me the second I entered his shop. I asked for a quarter-kilo of figs (my new fruit obsession) and then stood dumbfounded in front of a table of six types of tomatoes. “Which is the best?” I asked after he’d carefully placed about a dozen small figs into a clear plastic bag. “These,” he said without hesitation, pointing to the least-red bunch of lopsided tomato-like forms. “They are ugly, but they are the most sweet, the most tasty.” He plucked the reddest mound from the table. It was relatively nice-looking on the top but squished on the bottom. “Eeh! Esta mal,” my tomato guru grunted, snatching instead a yellowish-red one and placing on the register with my figs.

Skeptical that such a bland-colored vegetable could be as rico as the brilliant red variety sitting next to it, I headed to the back to find a suitable salad back-up. “Toma! Probalo!” Tomato Man shouted across the store, a dripping hunk of the slightly-squished tomato extended in my direction. I rushed over before the waterfall of tomato juice could coat the entire register. Slurping, I shoved the chunk of light red flesh in my mouth. A symphony of sweet, garden-fresh flavor enveloped my tongue and I drifted off into this-is-what-real-veggies-taste-like heaven…

Delicious Tomatoes

Heavenly tomatoes on an ultra-fresh salad!