Thanksgiving in Spain: A Madrid Scavenger Hunt

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

These Aren't Cranberries

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

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

Weighing the Turkey

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

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

Thanksgiving Stuffing

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

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

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

Thanksgiving pie crust making

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

Sleepover with Señor Pavo

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

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

Cooking Thanksgiving Dinner

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

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

Our Thanksgiving Turkey

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

Spainsgiving 2013

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7 Ways Istanbul Trumps London

Istanbul's Blue Mosque

Istanbul has an ancient beauty all it’s own.

With an 11-day break from classes (apparently Easter warrants nearly two weeks of celebrations, me encanta España) I finally had a chance to check the two top cities off of my Most-Want-to-Visit list: London and Istanbul. These two titans of European travel topped my list for nearly polar opposite reasons. London seemed to be an obligatory stop.  I’ve swirled Chiantis in Rome, savored croissants in Paris, devoured tapas in Madrid and danced the day away in Barcelona. It was about time I paid homage to the most visited city in the world and got my fish ‘n chips on in London.

Istanbul, on the other hand, was the slow-burning obsession of my travel bug. The city represented everything I crave about international travel: utter newness, total uniqueness, vast history and, of course, fantastic food. Not to mention in my unscientific poll of travel-lovers (aka asking everyone I met), more people raved about Istanbul than any other city. To say I was stoked would be a slight understatement.

My 10-day Easter adventure was split almost exactly in half: four and a half days in England, followed by four and a half days in Turkey. In hindsight, I had booked the perfect cultural comparison. First I would explore the birthplace of Protestantism and modern Western culture, then the epicenter of ancient power and Islamic conquest. And after strolling each massive metropolis, tasting it’s flavors, touring it’s treasures and talking to it’s people, there is no question that if I was booking a return trip, Istanbul would be at the top of my ticket. Here’s why:

1. Flower beds? Try flower murals.

Istanbul's Flower Murals!

Forget flower beds, Istanbul makes flower clocks!

As far as flowers go, London doesn’t do too shabby. St. James Park near Buckingham Palace features immaculately maintained beds of bright yellow buds and rosy red petals. But from the moment I boarded my bus from the Sabiha Gökçen airport on Istanbul’s Asian side, I was greeted with the most magnificent display of flower landscaping I’ve ever witnessed. Huge swirls of bright pink and purple flowers decorated the hills lining the highway. Abstract murals of shrubs and buds flowed past the bus window all the way into Istanbul.

Sultanahmet Square in Istanbul

Sultanahmet Square was overflowing with gorgeous spring flowers!

Inside the city the flowers were even more impressive. At Topkapi Palace a thick blanket of purple flowers enveloped one courtyard in the sweet perfume of spring. Intertwining circles of forget-me-nots turned Gulhane Park into a living work of art. And outside the Hagia Sophia, vibrant rows of tulips filled geometric designs to create the multi-leveled adornments of a cascading fountain. The moto of Istanbul’s seriously skilled landscapers seemed to be “why build beds, when you can create murals?!?”

2. Tea Time,  Aladdin-Style

Apple Tea in Istanbul

Turkish apple tea is sweet, tart and all-around scrumptious!

The English may have cornered the market on traditional tea time, but the Turkish have taken tea to the next level. Clear glass vases of piping-hot Turkish tea are confined to no specified time, no organized location and no particular occasion. Tea makers are constantly scurrying throughout Istanbuls cramped and winding streets delivering trays of tea and lumps of sugar to shopkeepers, bazaar-stand workers and tiny stool-sitting customers. In Istanbul, tea (or çay, pronounced ‘chai’) comes in two flavors: Turkish and Apple. The former is an amber brown, bitter tea while the latter is light yellow and, as a friend described it to me, “sweeter than a jolly rancher.” Both are fabulous as are the perfectly palm-shaped glasses they are served in.

3. Treasure Hunting

In London, the treasures of the city are prominently displayed, whether it’s historical heirlooms in the British Museum, adorable and affordable styles in Primark or the queen’s crown jewels in the Tower of London. But in the chaos of Istanbul, the marvels of the city take a bit more searching to discover. For me, the treasure hunting began in the Grand Bazaar, a nearly 600-year old labyrinth of 60 streets-worth of shops, stands and stalls selling everything from Genie-style oil lamps to handwoven cashmere scarves.

Istanbul's Grand Bazaar

Rainbows of scarves lined the streets of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.

The true treasure, in my flavor-obsessed opinion, is two stops down the tram line at the Spice Bazaar, or as I have re-named it, Heaven. Picture this: a web of arched streets packed with people and overflowing with every color of spice, every type of Turkish delight, every scent of dried tea leaves and every variety of dried fruit. Istanbul sampled it’s way into my heart as I tasted my way down the streets of the Spice Bazaar. Two days of treasure hunting yielded two more items to add to my list of favorite foods: walnut-stuffed dried Turkish figs and roasted pistachio and pomegranate-honey Turkish delight.

Istanbul Grand Bazaar Lamp

Aladdin-style oil lamps at the Grand Bazaar.

Turkish Delight

Ridiculously delicious pomegranate-honey-pistachio Turkish delight.

4. Energizing (Not Incapacitating) Breakfasts

English breakfasts — with their sausage, ham, bacon, fried eggs, baked beans and buttery toast — may sound good on paper, but after polishing off that heaping pile of goodness, the only thing I want on my day’s agenda is a nice long nap. Delish? Absolutely. Conducive to exploring a new city? No way.

English Breakfast

Eggs, baked, beans, sausage, ham and toast, the typical English breakfast.

On the contrary, the typical Turkish breakfast — tomato, cucumber, tangy yogurt, feta-like cheese and bread — made for an unexpectedly invigorating start to a long day of mosque-ogling and treasure hunting. While it’s a far cry from what I typically think of as breakfast food, the fresh and flavorful vegetables paired with the salty cheese and flaky rolls were satisfyingly filling, yet delightfully light.

Turkish Breakfast

Two types of cheese, olives, cherry jam, butter, cucumber and tomato, the typical Turkish breakfast.

5. Street Food

I now have a whole new appreciation for street food. While Spain’s street-side roasted chestnuts are tasty, they don’t hold a candle to Istanbul’s sesame-covered simit (picture a thin, breadier bagel) or perfectly charred lamb kebaps.

Turkish street food

This bagel-like simit made for the perfect mid-morning snack!

Devouring a Kebap

Istanbul’s lamb kebap: street food as street food should be!

6. The Thames Ain’t Got Nothin on the Bosphorus

When it comes to city-dividing bodies of water, the Bosphorus Strait can’t be beat. Not only does it hold the trump card on the awesomeness scale of separating two continents, the Bosphorus is also magnificently teal-blue, is spanned by breathtaking bridges (especially when they are lit up at night) and bordered by an elaborate Sultan’s palace and stunning modern mansions. My day-long cruise up the Bosphorus to the Black Sea was easily one of the highlights of my trip.

Bosphorus Views

View of the Bosphorus from the Topkapi Palace.

7. Top-of-the-World Views

Just steps away from the Blue Mosque’s walls there is a unassuming doorway with an understated sign reading “teras” in neon letters. Four flights above that is the top of the world. Moments before the dusk call to prayer rang out over Istanbul, I stepped out onto the rooftop terrace of Mimar Sinan Cafe. What greeted me was easily the most spectacular view I saw on my entire trip. Stretching out in all directions wast the behemoth city of Istanbul. Directly in front of me the newly-built skyscrapers on the Asian side disappeared into the clouds . To the right the spires of Istanbul’s most famous mosques encircled the ancient city. On the left sparkling bridges held the city, and with it two continents, together. Behind me the intimidating domes of the Blue Mosque lit up as the light faded from the sky. In that moment, I was on top of the world. 

Best View of Istanbul

Pictures cannot possibly do this view justice.

Spanglish Gracias-Giving

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

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

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

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

Turkey surgery. Harder than it looks.

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

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

Our anorexic, upside down Thanksgiving Day turkey.

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

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

Thanksgiving Dinner in Spain

Spanish Gracias-giving, a success.

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

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