Yep, Burgos Deserves that ‘Gastronomic Capital of Spain’ Title

I didn’t realize until I was rolling Cristóbal (my four-wheeled red Samsonite and most trusty travel companion) across the soaking wet sidewalks along Burgos’s Arlanzón river just how badly I’d been needing a city break. Madrid is fantastic. I love living here. But it was definitely time to get outta the city for a hot second. For two glorious days I left the stress of Trinity English Exams, summer job applications and blog name frustrations behind and went on a mind vacation to Burgos. A gorgeous afternoon stroll along the River Arlazón River in Burgos, Spain

The 180,000 person medieval town is about 2.5 hours north of Madrid by bus in the province of Castilla y Leon. It has an 800-year-old gothic cathedral (named a UNESCO World Heritage site), a monastery so beautiful that kings get married there and a museum projected to be one of the most-visited in Spain within the decade.

But let’s be real. That’s not why I wanted to go to Burgos. For me, it was all about the food fame. Burgos was named the Gastronomic Capital of Spain in 2013 and I was bound and determined to see if it could live up to that title. Here’s a hint: IT DOES!

Empirical Evidence #1: The Blood Sausage

Burgos is known for three things: Ribera del Duero wine, cured sheep cheese and blood sausage. Being someone who turns pale and nauseous at the sight of blood (animal or otherwise), I have, as a general rule, steered clear of Spanish blood sausage, or morcilla. But when in Burgos I figured it was necessary to do as the Burgalese do. So I sucked it up and order a plate of the famous Burgos morcilla. Great. Freakin. Decision.

Morcilla is, at it’s most basic, a mixture of pig blood and rice (a fact I prefer not to think too much about) stuffed into pig or cow intestines. In Burgos it is typically sliced into thick medallions, seared to a crisp on both sides  and served with roasted red peppers. One bite and I didn’t care what it was made of. The crisp outside gave way to an intense, rich, slightly smokey flavor punctuated by the subtle texture of the rice. Needless to say I beelined for the first artisanal morcilla shop to stock up.

Blood Sausage and Roasted Peppers in Burgos

Where to find it: You can find great morcilla at just about any bar in Burgos. The best I had was at La Favorita on Calle de Avellanos, 8. I bought a sausage to take home at La Paloma, a small artisan shop on calle Paloma. 

Empirical Evidence # 2: El Morito

This may just be the best restaurant I have ever been to in Spain. I know! Bold statement. Without a doubt it is in the top five. El Morito is fantastically Spanish in that it has a long bar running down one side of the restaurant where people crowd three-deep to order a 1.20€ glass Ribera and a combo of highly original tapas and raciónes. A smattering of wood tables and four-legged stools line the wall and are perpetually full. Upstairs more long wooden tables are set with bright yellow paper placemats and are equally packed with people.

While awaiting our table for lunch, we situated ourselves at the far end of the bar with a direct view of the grill, where the calmest man in all of Spain was methodically cracking brown eggs, searing thick slices of goat cheese and warming piles of grey gulas, or imitation baby eels which taste like spaghetti noodles made of fish. Creatively constructed plates piled with for example, potatoes and eggs topped with grilled calamari and diced cured ham came flying past us. It was like a mouthwatering parade of food ingenuity. Ten minutes at Morito and I was convinced that Burgos was absolutely the food capital of Spain.

Smörgåsbord of seafood at El Morito

Grilled shrimp with gulas, smoked fish, salmon, crab and caviar and a salad of pickles, tomatoes and crisp lettuce.

Where to find it: Cerveceria Morito on Calle Sombrereria 27

Empirical Evidence #3: The Tapa

One of the first things I noticed in Burgos was how out-of-their-way nice the people there were. From the German-suit wearing old man (I’ll leave that insanity for another post…) to the waiters and bartenders, Burgaleses were more smiley, talkative, inviting and helpful than any other city I’ve visited in Spain.

Our camerera at La Parrilla was fantastic. She happily recommended me her favorite tapa, checked up on us to make sure we liked our food and smiled the whole time. Was this still Spain?!? Her cheerful wonderfulness aside, her tapa recommendation – an anchovy, arugula and tomato tosta- was deeelish. The small tosta was a perfect blend of crunch and fluff, with the sweetness of the ripe tomato perfectly offsetting the saltiness of the anchovy. Gastronomic Capital: 1, Rest of the World: 0.

Cured Anchovy, arugula and tomato tosta at La Parrilla in Burgos

Cured anchovy, arugula and tomato tosta at La Parrilla in Burgos

Where to find it: La Parrilla de Royal on Calle Huerto del rey, 18

Empirical Evidence #4: The Ración 

After a night of heavenly tapas, we decided to test out Burgos’ lunch menu scene on Saturday afternoon. Armed with a recommendation of a local, we headed to the narrow, bar-lined street of San Lorenzo, just off of the Plaza Mayor in search of Casa Pancho.

As luck would have it, they don’t serve their fixed menú del dia on Saturdays. Silver lining: they did have a couple seasonal lunch specials. We ordered the first on the list, artichokes stuffed with wild mushrooms atop crispy cured ham. If I could please have this every day of artichoke season that would be superb, thanks.

Stuffed Artichoke Racion in Burgos

Where to find it: Casa Pancho on calle San Lorenzo, 13

Empirical Evidence #5: The Breakfast

The typical Spanish breakfast of toasted baguettes topped with olive oil and tomato is delicious no matter where you get it. The bread is always freshly baked, the tomatoes ripe and flavorful and the olive oil, well, come on this is Spain, the top producer of olive oil in the world.

But in Burgos, this traditional morning combo was kicked into high saturation. The tomato wasn’t just red, it was blooming poppies on a sunny spring morning red. The bread wasn’t just fresh, it was perfectly toasted, crisp on the bottom and still soft and fluffy on the top fresh. And then there was the fresh squeezed orange juice. And the café con leche. And, well, just go to Burgos, okay?

Toasted Baguette with tomato and fresh-squeezed OJ

Where to find it: Delicatessen Ojeda on calle Vitoria, 5. This is also a great place to stock up on traditional foods to bring home from Burgos! They’ve got a good Ribera wine selection and a huge variety of other prepared and conserved foods!

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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!

Pintxos: The Haute Couture of Spanish Tapas

Best Pintxos in BilbaoOne of the first and most important words I learned upon moving to Spain was “tapas,” those often bite-sized morsels of delectable Spanish cooking that proliferate in the country’s montón of bars and cervecerias. Minutes into my first night of tapeando and I was infatuated. Tapas are small enough that I could try four or five different dishes in one night (#win); they are varied enough that no matter if I was sipping a Cruzcampo or savoring a Rioja the flavors paired delightfully, and they were cheap enough (especially here in free-tapas Galicia!) that I had no remorse going out fo tapas as much as humanly possible!

But this weekend as I explored the wonders of Bilbao and San Sebastián in the Basque Country, my beloved tapas met their match. Forget tapas. I’m over tapas. Bring on the pintxos!!

Pintxo is the Basque word for tapa, but this northern province has translated far more than the letters to arrive at their version of the Spanish staple. Where tapas are versatile, representative and convenient, pintxos are unique, daring and tantalizing. The Basque Country has taken traditional tapas and turned them into avant-garde works of both visual and culinary art, defying the simplicity of typical Spanish food and daring to mix, match and creatively stack the best flavors of this delectable cuisine into tiny masterpieces of flavor, spunk and excitement.

Here are the six most mind-blowingly awesome pintxos I had the distinct pleasure of devouring in Bilbao and San Sebastián. Somehow I think my next Tortilla Española here in Galicia is going to seem wildly lacking…

1. Toasted cracker topped with goat cheese and tomato marmalade, garnished with sesame seeds.

Tomato Jelly and Goat Cheese Pintxo

Where to get the deliciousness: In the heart of San Sebastián’s pintxo land, just south of Mount Urgull (which I highly recommend climbing!) is a long, narrow bar called Txalupa, where the pintxos are plenty and the bartenders are friendly.  Calle Fermín Calbetón nº 3  in  San Sebastián

2. Calamari piled on crusty bread

Calamari Pintxo

Where to get the deliciousness: In the heard of Bilbao’s old town is the city’s main plaza, ironically called “Plaza Nueva.” The entire square is bordered by pintxos places and is packed during the afternoon and evening pintxos hours. We stopped in to Victor Montes to snag this scrumptious bit of squid. Plaza Nueva, 8  in Bilbao.

3. Garlicky grilled mushrooms

Grilled Mushroom Pintxo

Where to get the deliciousness: Calle Somera in Bilbao’s Casco Viejo was on hoppin when we strolled over to Motrikes Saturday night around 9 p, (prime pintxos time!) While many of the bars along that route are geared more toward the younger drinks-rather-than-dinner crowd, the mushrooms at Motrikes  make it 100 percent worth adding to any pintxos evening. Calle Somera, 41 in Bilbao

4. Roasted zucchini, eggplant, fried cheese, lettuce and mushroom veggie burger on a dense, seedy wheat bun. 

Veggie Burger Pintxo

Where to get the deliciousness: Kuku Soak, also in Bilbao’s Casco Viejo region has hands-down the most creative and exciting, if not the best pintxos we tried in the entire city. Barrenkale Barrena, 18 in Bilbao

5. Marinated sun-dried tomatoes, creamy sharp cheese and membrillo topped with red currants.

Sundried tomato, cheese and quince pintxo

Where to get the deliciousness: Berton gave Kuku Soak a run for it’s money in my best pintxos of Bilbao competition. Both this daring delicacy and the roasted mushroom and serrano ham number that I tried were ridiculously tasty and refreshingly creative. Calle Jardines, 11 in Bilbao

6. Stewed veal in a red wine reduction

Red Wine Stewed Veal Pintxo

Where to get the deliciousness: La Cuchara del San Telmo was without question the best pintxos bar of the trip. This melt-in-your-mouth veal was one of about a dozen pintxos available, all of which looked positively amazing. Unlike most pintxos bars, La Cuchara serves their pintxos  hot and therefore does not have them displayed on the counter. Judging by the jam-packed bar, no one in San Sebastián holds that against them. Calle del Treinta y Uno de Agosto, 28 in San Sebastián

‘Feria Gastronomica’: Spanish for ‘Heaven’

Galicia Gastronomy Fair

One of the three delicious local wines I tasted during the “show cooking” demonstration.

This weekend I died and went to heaven. I apologize for the cliche, but in this case, trust me, it’s appropriate.  Let me paint you a picture… In the southern Galician town of Ourense lies a massive convention center that is cutely named “Expourense.” Last week this dreary, grayish metal beast of a building played host to food heaven. Booth after booth piled with regional wines, traditional tapas and artisan cheeses stretched as far as my hungry eyes could see. Chefs gave cooking demonstrations while tuxedoed waiters passed out tastes of their creations. Photographers, writers and food lovers swirled their tempranillos and moseyed from display to display. White linen tables stood clustered into makeshift restaurants, awaiting the joyous ritual of Spanish lunchtime. It was a paradise of flavor and I had but five hours to devour its wonders.

Asturian Cheese Table

I’ll take one of each please!

My first stop at the “Xantar” Gastronomic Fair was the Asturian cheese table. Stacks of cheese rounds in sizes ranging from a fist to a serving platter enticed me from all sides of the table. Atop each stack stood a small plate piled with tiny bites and behind each heap were the artisan cheesemakers themselves, each dressed in the traditional garb of their region. I started fresh and worked my way to strong, falling in love with Asturias with each morsel. As a slice of queso fresco melted over my tongue, a woman wearing a dress that looked like the lovechild of lederhosen and little house on the praire explained that this 100 percent cow’s milk cheese was aged only one week and got it’s pinkish-orange color from a hefty dose of spicy paprika. Farther down the table a young man with a Peter Pan hat introduced me to cider cheese. Picture cold, refreshing beer brewed solely from apples (aka cider) infused into a smooth brie-like cheese. I could almost feel the effervescence from the bright, sparkling cider as I sucked every drop of flavor from my tiny tasting bite.

Piles of dark red chorizo from Asturias’ southern neighbor, León, enticed us away from the cheese heaven. After marveling at the distinctly smokier flavor of León’s chorizo (compared to the Galician sausage I’m used to) we stumbled into a free “show cooking.” A young, slightly nervous chef was explaining to a crowd of about 20 feria-goers seated before his cooking-show style kitchen the proper way to scrape a thin layer of cooked egg from the underside of a cake pan, where he had apparently cracked it and backed it into a see-through sheet.

Moments after settling into our chairs (plastic lawn chairs classed up with linen slip covers) the first of our three wine glasses was filled and a bite-sized sample of the chef’s egg creation paired with tuna (from a can, as it always is in Spain) and drizzled with cauliflower purée.

Galician Gastronomy Fair Show Cooking

Thin sheets of egg sandwich tuna and peppers. Cauliflower purée ties it all together!

Show Cooking Dish #2

Soft organic cheese rolled in dried, roasted tomato and presented on a wheat cracker stick.

Show Cooking Taste #3

This apple sorbet was made using liquid nitrogen and soda water!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next up was what looked like a mushroom but which was actually a smooth, smokey ball of cheese rolled in roasted, spiced and dried tomato flakes and served on a bready wheat cracker stick. This little appetizer packed a serious punch of flavor! Delicious. Next came the manzana sorbet, which the chef created by slowly pouring liquid nitrogen into a huge metal basin filled with about two cups of an sweetened apple mixture. With smoke billowing out of the bowl and cascading down the table the man explained that this light, refreshing dessert would be served in a nerf football-sized white chocolate egg which he had painted with dark chocolate. Ummmm, yes please.

Thus three glasses of wine and three interesting tastes later we sauntered over to wine tasting row, which led us to tapa land and, ultimately, sea food corner. While admiring a table showcasing Galicia’s marisco specialities (sea urchin, barnacles, crab, eel, etc…) Kassandra and I almost took out a passerby when one of the lobsters started walking off it’s plate! Then the razor shell clams started poking in and out of their shells. We scurried away before the eel could start slithering across the table…

Typical Galician Seafood

Galicia is known for it’s amazing (and rather unique) seafood. It’s completely common to find whole eel and octopus at the grocery store!

After a handful of rather adventurous samples including cured river eel (delicious!), sea urchin paté (less delicious) and barnacle paté (literally taste like a mouthful of dirty ocean water) we began to notice that the crowds around the booths had dissipated into the makeshift restaurants. So with already-full bellies we set off in search of a menú. An enthusiastic (and rosy-cheeked) recommendation from a friend we made on the bus, we settled for the epic lunch menú of a local Ourense restaurant. While the waiter assured us it would be no problem to share a menú, I don’t think the concept of sharing made it all the way to the kitchen. This was, without question, the largest meal of my life. Without further ado, I present to you our lunch:

Epic Galician Lunch Part 1

First first course: this flakey ceviche-filled pastry paired perfectly with our crisp Albariño wine. I say ‘first, first course’ because while the menu gave me the impression would could choose one from a selection of four primero platos apparently I was wrong…

Epic Spanish Lunch Part 2

Second first plate: While it is typical to serve bread at every meal in Spain, this place went a tad overboard, presenting us each with a whole loaf. And, obviously, a plate of cured jamón as well.

Epic Spanish Lunch Part 3

Third first course: Raxo. This typical tapa is made from the same ground pork as chorizo, only this one has a much stronger flavor and even more spices. It is one of the only Spanish tapas that I don’t like.

Epic Spanish Lunch Part 4

Fourth first course: Pulpo with potatoes. A platter of boiled octopus doused in spicy paprika, salt and olive oil usually constitutes a meal in of itself. Not today! Apparently in this meal-size time warp it is a mere appetizer. So full already…. but it’s sooo good!

Just to recap, we’ve now devoured half a bottle of wine, half a loaf of bread, ham, seafood pastries, ground pork and boiled octopus. And that was just the so-called “first plate.” Now it’s time for the actual meal….

Epic Spanish Lunch Part 5

Second Course: Beef steak (chuletón de ternera). This not only looked like a work of art, but tasted like one. It was crispy on the outside and ridiculously tender in the center. So lean, yet with so much flavor!

Epic Spanish Lunch Part 6

Dessert: Tarta de Caramelo. I didn’t think I could eat another bite, but when this slice of beauty changed my mind. It was like tiramisu topped with a dense chocolate cake and slathered with coffee-infused caramel.

And then I died happy…

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.

The Black Chicken

Pollo Casero

Fresh, homegrown chicken with fried organic potatoes, roasted pumpkin and apple.

For casi two years I have been avoiding chicken. After reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and learning about the horrific way chickens are mass produced (I’ll spare you the details in case you’d like to continue eating chicken, but I highly recommend the book) America’s go-to white meat has been positively unappetizing to me. I now happily pay the extra dollar to buy free-range eggs and find that most recipes which call for chicken are just as tasty sans meat. While I’m a far cry from an all-organic hippie, my quiet protest of factory-made chicken is my one foray into anti-establishment eating.

Galicia, much to my glee, is a anti-factory-meat eater’s paradise. The grocery stores sell beef raised minutes away in el campo, families raise their own pigs to make homemade chorizo and jamon, bakeries deliver fresh out of the oven bread every morning and backyards are llena with chickens who feast on kitchen scraps and provide deliciously fresh eggs every day.

The language coordinator at school, Victoria, introduced me to the gloriousness of chicken raising during my first week in Galicia, when I stayed at her house in the country. My favorite daily task soon became egg-collecting.

Victoria's Chickens

One handful of corn brings all the chickens to the yard

Gathering the Eggs

Victoria’s chickens tuck half of their eggs between two hay stacks and the others in a nest in the hen house.

Every afternoon I’d grab a basket and head out to the hen house to coger los huevos. I’ve decided eggs that come from homegrown chickens deserve their own name; they bear almost no resemblance to the mass-produced, bleached products that parade as “eggs” in the grocery store. These hormone-free and fantastically fresh eggs have deep orange yolks, thin and fragile brown shells and a flavor that bears hardly a resemblance to their caged and cartoned counterparts. One bite and I decided that whenever I decide to settle in one place, I’m going to become a chicken owner.

For three months I’ve been enamorado with homegrown eggs. But today, for the first time in my life, I got to taste a home-raised fresher-than-fresh chicken. And it. was. delicious!!! After a new baby chick was born at her house last week, Victoria chose to cook up one of her older hens and invited me over to taste the difference.

The pollo that became our almuerzo had been eating nothing but corn and grass during it’s six-month life (a long and happy one compared to the 2-month growth spurt of a life that a factory chicken has). It weighed about half what a store-bought chicken would weigh.

When I arrived around 1:30 p.m. the pollo had been stewing for two hours. When Victoria spooned a thigh and a wing onto my plate I was immediately taken aback by how dark the meat and bones were. The thigh meat was a dark redish-brown and the bones were a few shades darker than I was used to. Victoria’s husband picked up a drumstick and laughingly said, “Es pollo negro!  It’s a black chicken!” One bite into my heaping serving of “black chicken” and I was in pollo  heaven. The meat was both juicier and firmer than the chicken I remembered eating. It was full of flavor and had hardly a trace of fat. In other words, it was completamente delicioso. 

The Black Chicken

This backyard chicken was dark brown, dense and bursting with flavor.

After gorging myself on this insanely delicious stewed chicken and the accompanying lentil salad, roasted pumpkin and fried potatoes, I continued my afternoon of chicken bliss by heading out for my favorite chore of egg gathering and then joined my gracious hosts for a paseo through the countryside.

An Afternoon Stroll

Strolling through the campo outside of Sarria

We harvested giant Galician cabbage leaves to feed to the rabbits, stopped for a quick conversation with a group of boar hunters and watched their heard of dogs dart across a grassy field, yapping after a small deer. It’s days like today that chock up serious points in favor of el campo in my mental comparison of city life versus country living. 

Harvesting Cabbage

I helped harvest an armful of Galician cabbage to feed to Victoria’s rabbits.

Madrid, One Tapa at a Time

Living in Spain is amazing. But sharing all the wonders of this glorious country with a first-time visitor, now that is truly joyous. When one of my oldest friends, Andrew, said he could make a four-day pit stop in Madrid  on the front end of his Spanish work trip, I was — to say the least– ecstatic. As this would be Andrew’s first time in my pais de maravillas I was determined to enlighten him on all of the reasons why I feel in love with Spain in the first place. Somewhere near the top of that list: tapas!

Within hours of being reunited at Barajas’ T4, Andrew and I were on the hunt for Madrid’s top tapas.

Tapas time!

Andrew and I embarking a three-night tapas spree.

Google translate tells me “tapas” in English means “finger food” or “savories” but both of those words seriously underestimate both the scope and the vibrance of Spanish tapas. At it’s most basic level, a tapa is a size of a dish. They are always small, about the size you create by touching your two forefingers and thumbs together to make a circle. 

But more importantly, tapas are meant to be shared. Going for tapas is as much about tasting a smorgasbord of scrumptious food as it is about socializing. In Spain, evenings revolve around going out to the calle, reconnecting with old friends, striking up conversations with new ones and soaking in the vibrance, beauty and life of the city. Tapas are the method (you could even say the excuse) for meeting and mingling. And with heavenly options like croquetas and jamón on the menu, there are few things in life I love more than an evening of tapas. So without further pontificating, here are the top 6 tapas we fell in love with in Madrid. 

6. La Zapateria- Patatas caseros con morcilla (Boiled potatoes with blood sausage)

La Zapateria's Huevos Rotos

These “broken eggs” and chorizo served over fried potatoes were so good I had to go back to the Zapateria twice last time I was in Madrid!

My notoriously bad Spanish is to blame for Andrew and I discovering this new gem of a tapa at La Zapateria. While I intended to order us some of my favorite huevos rotos con chorizo (directly translated: broken eggs with sausage which come served over Spanish-style french fries), I instead ordered us patatas caseras con morcilla (homemade potatoes with blood sausage).

Luckily, it was still delicious! Large medallions of blood sausage, which was hearty tasting with a speckling of rice inside, were nestled among perfectly cooked potatoes drenched in an array of red spices. I was apparently too intent on devouring this new dish (and the perfectly delicious pitcher of Sangria) to snap a picture of it (so unlike me!). Pictured above are the huevos rotos that made me fall in love with La Zapateria the first time I came to Madrid in 2010. This cozy hole-in-the-wall style tapas bar is also where I was first introduced to the tastiness that is caracoles, aka snails!

Where to find this deliciousness: La Zapateria – about 5 minutes walking from Puerta del Sol on Calle Victoria #8

5. El Almendro- Huevos Rotos con Jamón (Broken eggs with cured ham)

Huevos Rotos con Jamon

Fried potatoes with fried egg and bits of jamón from El Almendro in Madrid.

El Almendro is nestled slightly off the beaten path in the La Latina district of Madrid, the oldest part of the city. Inside, the first floor of the restaurant is dedicated solely to tapas-goers. It’s an order-at-the-bar style affair where the bartender was extremely patient while helping me decide between the fruity, semi-dry or dry white wine (I’d DEFINITELY go with the dry).

The huevos rotos (a Madrid specialty, if you hadn’t noticed yet) at El Almendro came highly recommended by a friend who used to live in Madrid and they were absolutely not a let down. This restaurant takes their own spin on the traditional dish, serving it with chip-style potatoes instead of the usual french fry style. While I prefer the more chunky potatoes, the chips made it much more of a finger food, which lightened the atmosphere and turned into a fun evening of catching up and chowing down!

Where to find the deliciousness: Calle Almendro, 13 in the La Latina district.

4. La Pasa- Croquetas de Boletus (Mushroom Croquettes) 

One of my favorite tapas: croquetas! La Pasa serves theirs as round balls, rather than the traditional log shape.

One of my favorite tapas: croquetas! La Pasa serves theirs as round balls, rather than the traditional log shape.

Croquetas being one of my all-time favorite tapas, I was stoked when a friend recommended La Pasa as the best place to grub on the best croquetas in Madrid.

The vibe at La Pasa can only be described as a mezcla. The tables are glass, the walls are covered in modern-ish art and the best of the 2000s is playing at just the right loudness over the speakers (oh yeah they played Jack Johnson!).

Being, as always, excruciatingly indecisive at ordering, we opted to get half boletus (a type of mushroom) and half seafood croquetas. Initially, I was surprised at how large these La Pasa croquetas were! Usually croquettes are about the size and shape of a thumb – long, skinny  and small. These, on the other hand, were slightly larger than golf balls and perfectly round! One bite into these globos and I understood perfectly the reason behind their unusual shape.

By making them round, La Pasa increased the amount of the gooey delicious filling you get in one bite while decreasing the amount of fried outer shell. The result was a mouthful of fantastic flavor with just a hint of that oh-so-familiar fried olive oil taste. Can you say delicious! These easily put my feeble attempt at homemade croquetas to shame.

After a careful taste test, I have to recommend the boletus croquettes. They were muy suave and packed with flavor!

Where to find this deliciousness: La Pasa, calle La Pasa, 4 (also in La Latina district)

3. Potente- Tortilla y Empanadilla (Spanish Omelet and Empanada)

Tapas at Potente

Caramelized onion tortilla, meat-filled empanadilla and jamon tartas with a hefty cup of Tinto de Verano. Aka HEAVEN.

Deciding which amazing Spanish tapa should be Andrew’s inaugural taste of Spanish food was obvious: the classic tortilla. And just as perfectly, a friend had recommended the perfect place to savor the best tortilla Madrid has to offer: Potente. This Latina-area bar not only has traditional Spanish tortilla (heaven in of itself) but has three or four specialty types of tortilla as well! We opted for the caramelized onion version over one with mushrooms, one with chorizo and one with peppers. It was slightly sweeter than a normal tortilla but just as fantastic. While it may be seriously breeching Spanish traditionalism, I could definitely get down with tortilla innovationism. Yum!

We paired this tortilla heaven with a carne empanadilla, or beef, potato and pea filled pocket of joy. It was the perfect blend of sweet and savory wrapped in a breading that was neither too dense nor too flaky. Galicia needs to get some of these on their menus. I want more!

Slices of bread topped with olive oil, tomato paste and jamon came for free with our glasses of tinto de verano. One of the most refreshing drinks on the Iberian Peninsula, this beverage is a mix of red wine and lemon Fanta. Just try it. It’ll change your life. And yes, they do sell it in juice boxes at the grocery stores. (See why Spain = heaven?!)

Where to get this deliciousness: Potente – Calle Cava Baja, 42 in La Latina

2. La Mallorquina – Napolitana con Chocolate

Napolitana con Chocolate

My favorite food in my favorite place! A chocolate-filled croissant at La Mallorquina!

There are few things in life that are better than napolitanas con chocolate. And there are few (if any) chocolate-filled croissants better than this marvel from La Mallorquina bakery right off of Puerta del Sol in the very center of Madrid. This place was packed with fellow dessert-lovers like myself. While there was seating upstairs, we opted to grab and go for this sweet version of a tapa. (Okay, so technically napolitanas, or any desserts really, are not tapas. But I think they should be and this is my blog so here all things chocolate will forever be considered tapas.) 

The croissants in the napolitanas con chocolate at La Mallorquina somehow manage to find the sweet spot between too fluffy and too flat and bread-like. Unlike many napoltianas that have only a thin smattering of chocolate inside, this delicacy was equal parts chocolate and croissant. It was, without question, the second best napolitana con chocolate I have ever tasted (which is saying something considering my 5-month long goal of tasting every chocolate-filled croissant in Spain while I was studying here!) The best is, and always will be, from my horno in Sevilla….

1. Taberna los Huevos de Lucio- Huevos Rotos con Chorizo (Broken Fried Eggs with Chorizo)

Tapas Don't Get Better Than This

This is, without doubt or question, the best huevos rotos you will ever eat. Thank you Lucio for creating happiness.

In poetic fashion, our last tapa  before leaving Madrid was, without question, the most amazing. At least six Spaniards independently recommended I eat at Lucio’s while in Madrid. That recommendation was always followed by some version of “It is the best place in town!” “The king eats there!” “Bill Clinton ate there!!” Oh yeah, we had to eat there. So after a few unbelievably cheap Mahou cervezas (the beer of Madrid) we squeezed our way into a table at the back of this llena establishment.

If we would have done as the true Spaniards do, we should have ordered our huevos rotos at the bar, along with a couple more cervezas, and parken in this perpetually stunning dance/balancing routine in which you have a beer in one hand, a purse and jacket precariously perched against a wall/wooden nook and a fork in the other hand. Then, the group passes around the plate and somehow the whole thing is devoured over a 30 minute time period all while talking, laughing jostling and drinking. Spaniards are a truly gifted people when it comes to tapas.

Instead, we took our huevos with a side of bread, a seat and glass bottle of water (the only way water comes in Spanish restaurants. Que fancy). They arrived with the smell of heaven: sausage pleasantly smokey and perfectly crispy, eggs fried to exact moment when the whites are solid but the yolks are ready drench a bed of freshly-cut, freshly-fried potatoes in a yellow bath of flavor. It’s official. I could eat huevos rotos every. single. day.

Where to find the deliciousness: There are two Lucio’s – one is the restaurant (the more expensive option) which is called Casa Lucio. The other is across the street and is more for tapas, such as the joyousness pictured above. That one is called Taberna los Huevos de Lucio, which is located in La Latina district on calle Cava Baja, 30.

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!

Eating Octopus

Pulpo (Octopus) from the fair in Sarria

Pulpo, a Galician delicacy, is served on a wooden saucer, drenched in olive oil and sprinkled with hot pepper sauce and salt.

It is done. I have done it! Goal No. 1: eat pulpo, check.

Tasting octopus, the most typical of typical Galician dishes, has been at the top of my to-do list since stepping foot in this seafood wonderland nearly two months ago. With the Atlantic Ocean a mere 75 miles away, my little town of Sarria is brimming with Pulperias where the small wooden tables of most Galician restaurants have been replaced by long, communal picnic tables and the proper usage of forks and knives is disregarded in favor of toothpicks and fingers.

Despite my desire to partake in the cultural experience of octopus eating, I’ve been fretting over the best way to go about it. I didn’t want to randomly pick a pulperia for fear I’d choose a bad one and be turned off from tentacles forever. After weeks of fretting, the perfect opportunity arose: Sarria’s tri-monthly fair! The 6th, 20th and 27th of every month Sarria’s best pulperias trek up to the pinacle of the tallest hill surrounding the city (colloquially referred to as el parte arriba or “the high part”) and brew up massive cauldrons of purplish-pink octopus.

Half-Cooked Pulpo Bubbles in Massive Caldrons

Steaming purple water bubbles in massive copper caldrons where the octopus tentacles are cooked.

As fate would have it, the 6th of December was Constitution Day marking the 34th birthday of the Spanish Constitution and thus a school holiday. Kassandra and I strolled up to the fairgrounds around 2 p.m. to scout out the perfect octopus-tasting table.

While taking a vuelta through the smattering of white awnings where locals were selling everything from winter socks to whole legs of jamónwe ran into our neighbor, Carlos, who apparently is a cheese maker! He greeted us from behind a table full of cheese wheels that were roughly the circumference of my head. In typical Galician style, many of the cheeses were mezclas of sheep, goat and cow milk. My favorite type, Vieja (old), was pure sheep milk aged for 14 months in an underground Bodega. The hard, white cheese was slightly softer than Parmesan and tasted surprisingly similar, but with an added tangy twinge to remind the eater that this block of cheese was 100 percent Spanish.

Carlos, a rather round Belgian man who details recipes with all the ferver as if they are ancient legends, recommended a tent tucked behind his cheese stand for our octopus almuerzo. 

Pulpo is served up in large tents.

Long wooden tables are nestled into the remains of an ancient stone room at one of the Sarrian Fair’s Pulpo tents.

The owner, an ever rounder and more boisterous Spaniard, was a friend of Carlos’ and led us the table closets to the heater. Guess we always look like cold Americans. A woman with fingers died purple from serving so much pulpo tossed half a loaf of bread, two well-worn glasses and a cold, unmarked bottle of wine in front of us and hurried off to dish up more wooden saucers of octopus.

The excited chatter of Spaniards sharing their favorite meal of the day filled the tent, which looked like it was perched atop ancient ruins. The dozen or so picnic tables were situated about 4 feet below the ground in what looked to be an old stone room. Stone columns spattered with bright green and orange moss supported a cave-like area to one side where another long table was squeezed under the stone overhang.

My half-ration of octopus tentacles arrived topped with pimiento picante, or hot pepper seasoning, and salt. The waitress doused it, or rather drenched it, in olive oil before scurrying off for more. Whereas most Spanish meals are eaten with the expert use of a fork and knife, pulpo  is devoured using only a toothpick. In fact, the only utensils I spotted were tiny spoons to stir sugar into the after-lunch coffee and small knives to cut bread loaves in half.

Thus, I speared my first centimeter-wide slice of octopus with my tiny toothpick and dug in. My first reaction was, “For octopus, this isn’t bad!” That was followed by the utter shock of spiciness. Spanish food is many things, but spicy is usually never one of them. I was pleasantly surprised!

A pimiento, sal y aciete covered bite of pulpo

Each bite of pulpo has two textures: the firm interior and the fatty exterior.

There are two distinct textures in each bite of pulpo. First is the delicious center section, which tastes like a firmer, denser scallop. Next is the outer portion which surrounds the scrumptious scallop-like center. This exterior tastes exactly like it looks: like a tentacle. The suction cups on the outside of the tentacle have a semi-chewy texture while the rest of the exterior area has a rather booger-like texture. After two or three bites, I snatched up the bread-cutting knife and stripped away the fatty-feeling outer portion, leaving only the firmer muscular center for my toothpicks to poke.

Kassandra, my roommate and supportive pulpo-partner, has a clutch piece of advice, which was passed down to her on her first octopus eating occasion. When eating octopus, only drink wine or milk. Apparently (and logically) water makes the sea creature expand in your stomach, causing a stomach ache. After hearing this I dashed back another gulp of my red wine, just in case.

Pulpo is definitely not a dish for daily consumption, but a month or so from now I could definitely sit down to another media racion. If you want to attempt the dish for yourself, here is a make-shift recipe crafted from a month of tales about eating octopus and a hefty-helping of advice from Carlos.

My reaction to eating octopus.

Verdict: Octopus, in moderation, is quite delish.

Galician Octopus

1/2 lb frozen octopus tentacles

1 cups olive oil

3 tsp salt

2 tsp pimiente picante (cayenne pepper would work)

First, defrost the octopus and wash it thoroughly. It must be frozen before it can be cooked in order to tenderize the meat and prevent it from being chewy. Boil enough water to fully submerge the octopus. Boil the octopus until tender, or until it is firm when poked with a fork, about 45 minutes. Drain the water and cut the tentacles into slices about 1 cm wide. It’s easiest to cut using kitchen scissors. Douse the slices with olive oil and sprinkle with the salt and hot pepper seasoning. Serve on a wooden platter and eat with toothpicks!