April 27, 2009

Hisop, and my favorite server

I promised a friend I would get back to some of the unfinished posts about Spain. Originally, I was going to tackle the Etxebarri post... but that one is going to need some more time. Instead, today's post is about Hisop, a fantastic restaurant located in the upper Diagonal, part of the growing collection of uber-chic, modern Barcelona food scene. Two chefs partnering to follow a dream... a very cool story, a very good restaurant.

We came to Hisop in hopes of finding a balanced combination of modern gastronomic techniques with classical Catalan flavors. Hisop achieved that balance with grace and sophistication, expressed with a firm viewpoint toward pushing the traditional forward into the future.

This was also the meal where we encountered my favorite server of the vacation... skillful, knowledgeable and proficient, looking like Sinead O'Connor's butt-kicking culinary cousin. Something about her said that she didn't take BS from anyone, but even with her take-no-prisoners aura, she was simultaneously hospitable and welcoming. A contradicting combination of characteristics that all worked perfectly for this venue and this meal.

We started with two amuse bouches. The first, an interpretation of a traditional Catalan soup of codfish, olive, potato, onion and white bean--richly flavored, but pure and focused--nicely accented by caramelized and pickled onion. The second, lightly seared tuna with basil concentration, balsamic vinegar gelee cubes and roasted peanut. The peanut flavor was much lighter and nuanced than I expected, and the balsamic gelee tied each of the component flavors and textures together very successfully (buttery soft tuna, nutty peanut).

Our first courses were comprised of two insanely decadent dishes. First, a salad of seared foie gras medallions... are you kidding me??? Sweet, salty, rich, unctuous... the genious of this dish was in the allspice and nutmeg-spiked croutons and the lightly candied orange rind. There was nothing subtle about this dish; just a blow-out bistro salad with an air of luxury. The second dish, lentils with blood sausage and grilled squid. An amazingly caramelized exterior to the squid--tender but crispy, fresh, pristine, almost sweet... accompanied by an earthy mushroom foam. All so rich and so very good.

Corvina with a sauce of rendered tete de veau and leg roast. Perfectly--and I mean PERFECTLY--cooked... lovely crispy skin, intensely moist flesh, and following a prevalent theme of the meal, insanely rich (magnificent body from the beef collagen) without heaviness, focused and precise flavor of the juices of the fish mingled with the beef essence.

Roast chicken with dried apricots, plums and cinnamon foam. De-boned and pressed while grilled, garnished with huge crystals of fleur de sel. A bit springy in texture, but otherwise cooked quite well. Almost Persian in flavor combinations...

Before dessert, a refreshing apertif of peppermint. For me, an array of cheeses (cow, goat, manchengo, bleu, and fermented cow's milk cheese with olive oil--surprisingly acidic), served with a quince compote. For Lav, a rice pudding with pineapple ice cream and a citrus almond cookie. A well-executed combination of flavors.

At 25 Euros, this lunch was an absolute steal for the quality of the ingredients, the amount of food, and the sophistication of both the setting and the service.

Before leaving, we asked our server for tips on other restaurants to visit in Barcelona. Without equivocation, she recommended Saüc, which in her words was making her favorite food in the city. Oh, if we only had more time (and meals) in Barcelona...

Passatge Marimón 9, Barcelona

April 20, 2009

United Way's Hunger Action Week: April 20-24

A quick time out from all this blogging about extravagant eating in Spain and Portugal...

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email invitation from the United Way of King County, inviting me to participate in their Hunger Action Week, which starts today and runs through Friday, April 24th.

The idea behind the action week is to raise awareness for hunger issues in our local community, and the challenge is to see if you can feed yourself for only $7 a day, the maximum food stamp benefit for an individual in Washington.

I really like how they explain it on their website:
"This challenge is really an exercise of empathy—to live in someone else's shoes for one week and learn how you can help fight hunger in our community."
Here are the rules for the Hunger Challenge:
  • Eat breakfast, lunch and dinner spending only $7 per day.
  • Salt and pepper don't count but all other seasonings, cooking oils, condiments, snacks, drinks, and everything else do.
  • Don't use food you already own.
  • Don't accept food from family, friends, coworkers and others. Not even the free samples from Costco!
  • Try to include fresh produce and healthy protein each day.
  • Keep track of expenses, food choices, etc. and share your experiences (which you can do on United Way of King County's blog).
So please join up yourself, if you can, and consider the following:
  • Can you feed yourself for only $7 a day?
  • If you had to make a choice between buying groceries and paying your rent, how would you choose?
  • What compromises will you need to make?
  • Will you be able to provide much variety or will you need to eat the same thing all week?
  • If you don't know how to cook, does this make the challenge more difficult?
After returning from an extravagant vacation abroad for the past two weeks, this challenge comes at a perfect time to regain some perspective. I'll be blogging about our meals each day at our other blog, fishes+loaves, and returning to blog about the rest of our journey through Spain after the challenge ends.

More information can be found at the Hunger Action Week Blog.

April 18, 2009

hopelessly behind, wholly overwhelmed by Spain

Everything they said was true. I had over the top expectations for Spain, but those expectations have been exceeded.

Our journey through Spain has been non-stop--full of amazing sights, sounds, smells, flavors, and people. There are so many food-related things to blog about, describe, remember and savor--including one of the best overall meals of my life, and one of the best composed dishes I've ever had--but there just hasn't been any down time to relax, digest (both mentally and physically), and gather my thoughts.

I figure I'm about six blog posts behind, and those will just have to get done sometime over the next couple of weeks. Meanwhile, I'll leave you with one of my favorite tips for Barcelona provided to us by our hotel:

Be aware at all times, do not let yourself be cheated. If you are offered flowers in the street and the sellers are standing very close to you, they are trying to pickpocket your wallet. If people come up to you pointing to a "stain" on your clothing, they are trying to pickpocket you. If, when you are driving around in a car, and you stop at a traffic light, when someone tells you that you have a flat tire, or the car is on fire: do not leave the car, lock the doors and drive a short distance before making sure that it is not true and that they were trying to rob you.

Luckily, we encountered none of these issues during our stay in Barcelona, which ended up being my favorite city on this trip.

We have never eaten like this before... never so well over such a short, concentrated span of time--with such a wide range of foods and so many consistently amazing experiences. But now, it's time to go an a raw food diet and hit the gym hard. It's hard to leave; I already want to come back.

More details and pictures to come...

April 15, 2009

Cava Baja: my favorite street in Madrid

This dark, lively, beautiful street is Cava Baja, my favorite street in Madrid. To explain, I need to rewind a couple of days.

During our first stop through Madrid, S+K, Lav and I went on a fun tapas crawl through the streets between Puerta del Sol and Plaza Santa Ana. Five places, some good food, but nothing that left an indelible impression on my mind. I had to admit to my companions that I was a bit disappointed with the food, given how (perhaps unrealistically) high my expectations had been prior to the trip.

But then Lav and I had some exceptional tapas in Granada and Sevilla. I was enthralled, and my expectations were reignited. Madrid would get a second chance as we passed through for just an evening, traveling from Sevilla to Santiago de Compostela. And this time, Madrid wouldn't let me down.

Our hostel for the evening was located an easy 10 minute walk from the area of taverns around the La Latina metro station, near the literary quarter. Our first stop was at La Camarilla (Cava Baja, 21), a full service restaurant with an excellent tapas bar (and fantastic beer on tap). I also spotted an Asian sous-chef in the kitchen... sweet.

Empanadilla de Atún: Flaky, buttery, richly flavored... tuna has never tasted more like pork than in this empanadilla (included with our drinks).

Pinchos of mushroom, crisped jamon and Tempura de Pimentón: Two delicious bites, with the jamon adding just enough of an accent to enrich the earthiness of the sauteed mushrooms and the vegetal bite of the pepper.

Next stop, Casa Lucas (Cava Baja, 30), just a few doors down, serving innovative pinchos. This is the one place I got by speaking only the few words of Spanish I know, somehow without needing to ever point, pause, or make up words while trying not to look confused. A bit of salami was served with our drinks as we looked through the offerings... we ordered two types of pinchos:

Jumilla: A cold mousse/terrine of half spinach, half corn, with a sweet shrimp and garlic aioli. Our favorite of the evening--the corn mousse with the shrimp and garlic was outrageously good.

Alella: Chicken, caramelized onions, corn pudding, and a soy glaze with sesame oil. The corn pudding was an inspired flavor pairing.

Last stop, Casa Lucio (across the street from the original bar at Cava Baja 34), known for their fried eggs. This one probably could have (or should have) been skipped, but I'm going to show you the picture anyway...

Fried eggs, fries and chorizo. People were devouring plates of these fried eggs all around us, sopping up the residual grease with their bread. Insane. How people in this city can eat like this at close to midnight on a regular basis is unfathomable. Bill Clinton supposedly liked these... before his heart surgery, I'm sure...

Cava Baja, you treated me well, though my arteries might not forgive you for that last dish.

P.S. - S&K, you would have loved the places on this street... more for you to see the next time you go to Madrid...

April 14, 2009

More tapas, this time in Sevilla

I think my favorite thing about tapas is the seemingly unending variety. For our stay in Sevilla, I did a little "research" (Chowhound/eGullet/Rick Steves/blogs) on tapas taverns. A few posts on Chowhound lamented that Sevilla was home to an unfortunately high number of disappointing tapas bars. Most sources agreed, however, in the quality of Restaurante Enrique Becerra, a small tavern just off the Plaza Nueva with a nondescript exterior--giving no hint at the treasure inside--where local food fanatics supposedly flocked...

What we ended up finding inside this terrific little tavern was some truly outstanding food and easily the nicest server we've met so far--a classy gentleman who made his way from behind the bar, through the crowd, and up to our little corner to assist us.

Ensalada de aguacate y gambas: A salad of super-ripe avocado and fresh, sweet shrimp, tossed with onions and tomatoes. Simple, creamy and delicious.

Bocaditos de mejillon: Mussels stuffed with a bit of caramelized onion and jamon and fried with a bread crumb coating. Not a delicate dish, this was a total flavor bomb. In a good way.

Pinchito de cordero y datiles con cuscus: Lamb and dates grilled on a skewer, served with couscous. This was an eye opener... the robust, roasted flavor of the lamb was paired perfectly with the practically caramelized dates, all served with the natural juices rendered from the grilled meat.

Revuelto de cola de toro deshuesada y patatas: A racione of oxtail with scrambled eggs and potatoes. Not the prettiest dish to look at, but absolutely delicious, particularly with the gelatin from the oxtail making the dish just that much richer.

In addition to the fantastic tapas, I also enjoyed a perfumed, tropical-scented Rueda and an almost Napa Cabernet-like Rioja for 2 euros per glass. Incredible quality for the price.

After an evening paseo and before some late night flamenco, we decided to throw the research and the guidebooks to the wind and found ourselves at Taberna La Sal, tucked away in a little romantic alley off the main foot traffic of the square.

The meal started with a complementary tapa: tuna mixed with a puree of roasted red pepper and fantastic Spanish olive oil. The Spanish have a magical way with roasting peppers to extract the maximum sweetness and flavor.

Panuelitos de morcilla andalusi: Filo fritters filled with Andalusian blood sausage and caramelized onions. My favorite of the evening. Mouthwateringly delicious, rich, savory flavor. Everything I love about blood sausage... makes you forget what it's made of. Each bite makes you want another. The shatteringly crispy fried exterior contrasts perfectly with the filling. A home run.

Carrilleras de atun guisaditas con patatitas: a rich, slow-braised stew of tuna and fried potatoes in a tomato-based broth. I never would have thought I'd enjoy a "tuna stew," but this dish had terrific body and depth of flavor... amplifying the richness of the tuna.

Fideos caldosos en amarillo con Pez Espada: A simple, clean-flavored seafood broth with short cut noodles. Enjoyable, but a bit bland. Too bad, since this was our priciest item.

Leche frita: Literally, "fried milk", this was a dessert of sweetened cooked custard, lightly fried, and dusted with cinnamon and sugar. I'll admit it, I only ordered this because I wanted to find out what "fried milk" was. It's actually a fairly traditional Spanish dessert made of slices of thickened flan that are pan fried to add a crisp exterior. Dense and filling.

So many different creations and flavors in so little time... I love this.

April 11, 2009

a tale of two tapas experiences

As mentioned in an earlier post, one of the things I was most excited about for this trip to Spain was the idea of going on a tapas crawl to sample the best offerings of the myriad tapas bars here. Historically, these taverns were frequented by the lower classes for glasses of simple jug wine, served with a slice of bread (the "tapas," or "covers") to keep the flies away and help prevent spillage. The oldest taverns in Madrid evolved into gathering places for intellectuals, political activists and authors who would engage in lively debates over their drinks and tapas. If Madrid is the political and intellectual center of Spain, then immersing yourself into the local culture would seemingly require a head-first dive into the tapas scene.

Based on a good amount of research, there seem to be three main areas for tapas: between Puerta del Sol and Plaza Santa Ana, the area around La Latina, and Chueca/Malasana/Salamanca. Puerta del Sol and Plaza Santa Ana were the closest to our hotel, so the four of us set out for our adventure.

Museo del Jamon: First thought--How can you not go to a place named "Museum of Ham"? Second thought--generally not a bad stop for a small plate of jamon (serrano, for us), but the place is has all the charm of a chain restaurant which it is), with a utilitarian, fluorescent light atmosphere.

Alhambra: In contrast to the museo, this tavern has a fantastic vibe, with tasty little montaditos of grilled bread and chorizo. The bocquerones (which I loved in Barcelona) were only okay here.

Bar La Abuella: A crowd of locals watching an exhibition soccer match on TV. We ordered patatas bravas and gambas a la plancha, both of which I hoped would be spectacular, but which ended up being just pretty good.

Vinoteca Barbechera: Having made our way down to Plaza Santa Ana, I was in the mood for some wine. A much younger crowd, lots of smoke, and a slightly pricier selectoin of tapas. The croquetas de bacalao had a nice, crunchy exterior, but were otherwise somewhat bland. A tapa of roasted pork tenderloin and caramelized onions was tasty, if not a bit ordinary.

Taberna Maceiras: Looking for a final place to close out our crawl, we grabbed the last small table at Maceiras, which was packed. We ordered some sangria, steamed cockles (berberechos), a layered tomato dish, and a flaming drink... all solid and tasty, nothing earth-shattering.

What was going on? I mean, everything we ate that night was tasty, but nothing was flat out delicious... and certainly not life-changing. Were my expectations set too high? Was the euphoria of my first tapas experience in Barcelona a trick of a sleep-deprived mind? I was particularly disappointed because I had wanted to plan the most epic tapas crawl to end all crawls for our last dinner with S+K, and to experience the best of Madrid as a group. We still had a great time, but I think the most memorable aspect of this crawl was the company of friends and the energy of the different taverns rather than the food itself. Not what I expected at all...

The next day, a totally different experience.

L and I said our goodbyes to S+K, having spent a terrific first 4 1/2 days of our trip with these great friends. After a full day of experiencing the splendor of Granada (including the crazy cathedral, the even crazier Alhambra, an awesome street performance of flamenco-inspired guitar and tasty fried fish at El Ladrillo--fried octopus should be a bar snack in the U.S.--and the uber-intense good friday processional) we were aiming for tapas at Vinoteca Salinas II by the Plaza Nueva. The crowds, however, made it nearly impossible to cross over to the other side of the plaza, so we instead dragged our tired legs to Ermita Centro, immediately adjacent to the cathedral.

Ermita is a beautifully sleek but understated modern tavern, part of a collection of restaurants. Crowded with locals by the time we were into our first tapa, the service and atmosphere were ideal--vibrant, but controlled and well-executed. But above all else, the food sparkled. Here's what we had:

Croquetas Bacalao: Wonderfully creamy and rich, with outstanding cod flavor and nice accents of white pepper.

"Secreta" Iberico: Jamon Iberico served on top of a grilled steak medallion and fries. The glistening Jamon Iberico was outrageously good, its flavor and musky/earthy/meatiness amplified by being warmed through the residual heat of the steak. Crispy, medium-cut fries, just the way I like them.

Carpaccio of ox: Hands down the most delicate carpaccio I can remember having. Unbelievable tenderness, it nearly disintegrated under its own weight, melting effortlessly on the palate. Nice, crunchy flakes of sea salt and beautifully perfumed olive oil. A real surprise and eye-opener.

Ensalada Ermita: A salad of bacalao, avocado, roasted red pepper and caviar, with a broken egg dressing. A nice combination contrasting sweet and creamy with saltiness.

Sopa de Picadillo: A smple soup with strips of jamon, a boiled egg, and shredded slow-braised pork. Comfort food to its core.

Higado de Pate: A nicely seared lobe of duck fois on toast with a light pear compote. Closed my eyes to savor each bite...

Bacalao a Pil Pil: a filet of cod served with pil pil sauce--an emulsion of the natural oils of the cod. Creamy, rich, decadant... maybe just a bit too salty.

This dinner at Ermita was invigorating... exciting... deeply satisfying. The irony here is that the heavily researched tapas excursion in Madrid was somewhat underwhelming while the unplanned tapas stop in Grenada (not in our guide book or any of our resources) absolutely killed.

I suppose you can only plan so far when traveling... with some of the best moments happening by sheer chance.

April 10, 2009

getting a marzipan fix in Toledo

The former capital of Spain, Toledo is well known for being a city with diverse religious and cultural influences on account of its historical blend of Arabic, Jewish and Christian backgrounds. The city is also famous for being the home of the famed El Greco in the final stages of his career, when some of his darkest and most intense pieces were created.

Toledo is also known for another thing: marzipan. Now I know a lot of people have mixed feelings on marzipan. Some people feel it can be too chewy, almost like a fondant. Others are turned off by overly sweet marzipan. I whole-heartedly agree with these notions. I typically only enjoy marzipan that is moderately sweetened and delicately textured, not the paste-like sugar bombs you find in most places. But L is the real marzipan fanatic between us. She adores marzipan treats, loves princess cake, and had our wedding cake decorated with marzipan.

The marzipan in Toledo is very good, comprised of a mixture of almond paste, sugar and honey. And while there are countless marzipan shops in town, to get truly fantastic marzipan you need to go to the best: Confiteria Santo Tomé, family owned and operated since 1856.

Santo Tomé's marzipan treates are created using Valencia almonds, thousand flowers honey (produced from countless varieties of different flowers), fresh farm eggs and pine kernels from Avila. In creating the marzipan, traditional techniques are used, such as cooking in wooden dishes and extended resting times.

We picked up a number of treats: mazapan delicia (crecent shaped treats filled with marzipan), pastas pinon (cookies made of marzipan encased in pine nuts), empanadas rellenas fruta (similar to a mazapan delicia, but with fruit jam in the core), figuritas sin relleno, toledanas and jamones mazapan (in the shape of a jamon).

For comparison, we also bought some of the same treats from Calama, another marzipan shop a couple of blocks away. Santo Tomé's treats were a clear notch above in quality of flavor and texture, with smooth marzipan that melted in your mouth whose sweetness had a far more delicate, restrained quality to it... a great way to get a bit of an energy boost for exploring the twisting streets and alleys of Toledo.

April 9, 2009

beautiful food in the Douro Valley

When traveling, L and I love to visit different wine regions and make our way out to the actual vineyards to compare the settings with what is more familiar to us in the U.S. We've been lucky enough to see the viticultural areas of New Zealand, Chile and Greece, and L's also been to Champagne and Bordeaux. And just as with our trips to wine country in the U.S., we've enjoyed some terrific meals at restaurants in these wine growing regions (like Laja and Amisfield).

Thanks to Shane's deft driving (and nerves of steel), we were able to take a quick day trip to the spectacular Douro Valley... intensely rugged landscapes, deeply plunging hillsides, and a still-developing wine-tasting scene that is mostly devoid of crowds and corporate over-commercialization.

While tasting port at Kopke the day before, I saw a newly released cookbook by one of Portugal's most famous chef's, Rui Paula, entitled Uma Cozinha No Douro. The food inside looked fantastic, and I began to wonder whether we might be able to pull off a visit to his newest restaurant, D.O.C. Opened in 2007, D.O.C. is housed a sleek, minimalist building jutting out over the edge of the Douro, with ceiling to floor glass walls to maximize the views. The food is a refined, modern expression of the bounty of Portugal's seafood, one of several contemporary restaurants that have recently opened in the Duoro Valley, perhaps ushering in a new era of wine tourism.

L opted for the 4-course tasting menu, called the Menu Huile d'Olive (Olive oil menu), while I ordered two dishes from the regular menu. This is always a good option, because sharing tastes of each other's dishes ended up creating an informal 6-course meal without any redundancy.

Queijo Brie con compote de 2 pimentos (brie with pepper compote): Lovely rich, warm buttery flavors accompanied by a sweet compote with just a hint of the vegetal edge of the roasted pepper.

Recheado com Vegetais, Trufa Preta e Fois Gras (wild mushroom carpaccio with meat cannelloni stufed with vegetables and fois gras): A terrific dish. The wild mushrooms were sliced very thin and sauteed lightly in olive oil, resulting in flat ribbons of muchroom with the texture of al dente papparadelle (if not a bit thinner). Wonderfully rich fois gras encased in a thin ribbon of beef to complement the earthiness of the dish. Beef replacing the role of pasta, and vice versa... except the "pasta" here was made of mushroom.

Creme de Espargos Verdes e Ravioli de Congumelos em Azeite Trufado (green asparagus cream with scallop and mushroom ravioli): Asparagus is in season much earlier here due to the relatively warm weather. The soup had a pleasant purity of flavor... if not a bit on the simple side, with a delicately cooked scallop. The mushroom ravioli seemed an odd addition to the dish.

Polvo a Lagareiro (octopus made by a wine-presser): I will never get over the octopus I've had in Portugal. Ridiculously tender, spectatular flavor... I have no idea if it is the technique or the product itself that makes the octopus so good in this country. This octopus was creamy in texture... unreal.

Cherne con Tomate Confitado em Azeite e Espuma de Batata (stone bass with tomoato confit and potato foam): Another very well executed dish, if not inventive. Perfectly cooked stone bass, flake tender and moist. The potato "foam" was a bit of a misnomer... it was more like highly whipped, lightly aerated mashed potatoes.

Shot de Tangerina con Frutos Secos caramelizados em Azeile (tangerine shot with dry fruits and olive oil: A nice palate cleanser with the acidity complementing the flavor of the olive oil.

Bochecha de Porco Bisaro sobre Circulos de Cachaco Confitados em Azeite Virgem ("Bisaro" pork cheek): Somehow that translation seems a bit on the short side. A slow braised pork cheek accompanied by confit pork, accompanied by a traditional side of mushrooms and thickened cream. A heavy way to end the meal, particularly with the generous portion sizes. This was probably the least favorite dish.

Tarte de Maca com Queijo de Cabra e Gelato de Azeile (apple pie with chevre and olive oil ice cream): The chevre on the apple pie was an inspired combination, but the olive oil gelato's texture was icy, rather than creamy.

We enjoyed the meal with a bottle of Cabeca de Burro Reserva, Duoro, 2006, which I selected because the winemaker was the only female among the producers included in the wine list. Some of my favorite California wines are made by women--in what continues to be an incredibly male-dominated field--and I like to support people who are breaking new ground in whatever small way I can. The wine was crisp and refreshing, with flavors of tart apple and citrus... terrific for a sunny day in wine country.

In all, this was a high quality meal at a fair price, particularly considering the still-unfavorable exchange rate with the U.S. dollar. Nothing ground-breaking, but a thoroughly satisfying way to spend a couple of hours on a beautifully afternoon. Ah, the sun feels nice...

April 7, 2009

copious amounts of port and some unexpected treasures

Today's mission was singular in focus: we're in Porto... it's time to drink some port.

Our first stop of the day was at Kopke, founded in 1638 by Christiano and Nocolaus Kopke and recognized as the oldest producer of port. Kopke's tasting room provides a fantastic setting for sampling their wines, with large tables and armchairs impeccably arranged on the second floor, large windows overlooking the riverfront, and a sophisticated and modern urban chic to it all. Kopke was also the only producer we visited who had a vintage port available for tasting, which was a real treat. I sampled the following from their selection:
  • Kopke Ruby: Deep ruby red color with aromas of raisin and plum. Medium weight on the palate with a hint of a white peppery edge on the finish.
  • Kopke Vintage 1978: Burnished golden caramel color with heady aromas of vanilla, toffee and baking spices. Flavors of honeyed toasted walnut and a whiff of burnt almond.
The day was spent sampling ports from several producers, and I quickly gained a new respect for port tasters and critics... I have absolutely no idea how they keep their senses receptive to the nuances of different ports, because my palate was crushed after the first four tastings from the sheer weight of the flavor density, sweetness and alcohol content.

To counteract some of these effects--and because the port tasting rooms all closed from 12:30 pm to 2 pm for lunch, we took a late lunch at a small, simple cafe along the waterfront. Shane had been raving earlier about his new favorite sandwich: the francesinha--"little French girl" in Portuguese--so I knew I had to try one.

A specialty of Porto, the francesinha is Portugal's answer to France's croque monsieur, comprised of toasted bread, ham, sausage, steak and melted cheese, all covered in a slightly thickened "secret" spicy sauce. The sauce used varies from place to place, but is generally tomato-based, with onions, garlic, bay leaf, tabasco sauce and beer. I ordered a francesinha especiale, which comes with a fried egg on top. This was a seriously intense sandwich... rich, hearty, filling... a total guilty pleasure devoid of gastronomic finesse but full of primal satisfaction. The sandwich was surprisingly balanced in flavors, with the heat and the acidity from the sauce contrasting the decadence just enough to tie everything together.

We also had an order of caracois, or snails, steamed with oregano. An incredibly simple dish, the tiny snails were tender and addictive, adopting the flavors of the seasonings in the broth. This would be a fantastic bar snack back at home, if only Americans wouldn't be so queasy about the fact that these are snails...

Later in the afternoon, we stumbled upon a warm and friendly older gentleman roasting chestnuts with a bit of salt in a little cart on the side of the road. Roasted chestnuts are one of our absolute favorite snacks, and though I couldn't speak any Portuguese, I think he could sense my excitement. Through a series of hand gestures and nodding, he told me it would just take another minute before the chestnuts were ready. He then proceeded to stick his BARE HAND into the roasting pot (which was literally glowing orange from the heat of the charcoal fire below) to check the doneness of the chestnuts.

Seeing my look of amazement (and envious respect for his hands of steel), he smiled and said something along the lines of "Don't worry, this doesn't hurt at all..." Once the chestnuts were ready, he poured them out and counted out a dozen for me, placing them carefully in a bag, then paused for a moment and added an extra chestnut as a bonus with a wink and a smile. Huge chestnuts, perfectly roasted, the gently sweet meat accented by the lightly salty char... a great way to stay warm on the walk back to the hotel.

Our evening concluded just as it started... with a wide tasting selection of different ports, this time at Solar do Vinho do Porto, a cozy bar in Bairro Alto. Set in a renovated portion of a 19th century building, the bar's overwhelming library of ports by the glass was easily navigated with the help of the endearing servers as we closed out this day--and the bar--in style.

Tomorrow, we're off to try and see where the grapes are actually grown.

April 6, 2009

12 hours in Spain, then off to Portugal

The first time I ever had tapas was at a little bar in downtown Chicago while I was still an undergraduate. The allure was immediate and powerful... little plates of terrific food at a reasonable price where communal sharing was encouraged. Perfection. The fascination continued through the years, but the "restaurant" context adaptation in the U.S. never felt quite right. From what I'd seen, read and heard, I suspected the "real" experience would be something different... something more spontaneous, more boisterous, and even more delicious.

And here I find myself in Spain, finding those very things to be true, my first true tapas experience being more than I hoped for.

The preceding 48 hours were rough... I was only able to sleep about 3 hours during that time. We landed early in Barcelona early in the morning and commenced our exploration of the city fueled only by excitement and anticipation. As my energy began to take a precipitous decline, we walked in to El Xampanyet, a popular bar we spotted after our visit to the Picasso museum.

Following the crowds is always a good idea when it comes to food, and this was no exception. The bar was elbow-to-elbow crowded... people gathered at the bar and around small tables in pairs, groups, and alone, all focused on boisterous conversations accented by sips of beer and bites of different tapas. Somehow, we squeezed ourselves into a prime location at the bar, ordered two beers, and proceeded to point at whatever looked appetizing. Except it all looked delicious.

Roasted red peppers stuffed with marinated tuna, served with an olive on bread: Simple and spectacular. Supremely sweet peppers with the most delicious olive-oil cured tuna.

Shavings of pata negra: Unbelievable pork flavor, its decadence obvious even before it touches your lips. The pinnacle of cured meat deliciousness. We will become well acquainted many times on this trip, my new friend.

Olive oil cured sardines: Spiked with a hit of spicy vinegar, the sardines were pristine and sweet, beautifully showcasing nothing more than their pure flavor.

Raw bacalao with olive tapenade: Sweet and salty in harmony, the intrinsic sweetness of the cod paired with the briny, but fruity emulsion of olive oil and pulverized olives.

Plate of canned seafood: Wait, what? Canned seafood at the coastal city of Barcelona? Don't worry, this was nothing like canned seafood in the U.S. In Spain, there is a long tradition of canning the very best seafood at the height of freshness... somehow, their canning methods result in an incredible product, giving the seafood a delicately fleshy texture while amplifying its sweet flavor with just a whiff of the ocean dancing on your palate. It seriously makes no sense, but our plate of oysters, mussels, clams, berberechos, and calamari was absolutely fantastic.

Honestly, I was waiting for Madrid to launch into a full scale tapas crawl, but this was a great start. Hanging out in a shaded courtyard after lunch, I had a deep sense that this journey through Spain is going to be very special.

But before any more adventures in Spain, we were off to the airport to meet up with our good friends Shane and Kelly in Porto, Portugal. Flights from Barcelona to Porto were less than $50 on RyanAir, so we planned a 2 1/2 day excursion out there to sample a good amount of port--obviously--get a bit of the Portuguese scene, and hopefully see some of the vineyards in the Duoro Valley. We met up at the hotel at 9:30 pm, and after a long day of travel, I was in the mood for something simple. On the recommendation of our hotel staff, we headed up the street to a small, modest restaurant (whose name escapes me at the moment) lit by harsh fluorescent light bulbs but full of local families happily sharing massive plates of food. In other words, it was perfect for this evening. We grabbed the last open table, ordered a bottle of dangerously easy-drinking vinho verde, and had a small feast:

Arroz de Polvo: An absolutely terrific dish. The stewed octopus was so unbelievably tender, you could easily cut it through it with just a fork. The rice was infused with the flavor of the octopus, whose juices permeated the dish, imbuing a faint purple hue. We all kept coming back to this dish.

Cozido a Portugeza: We wanted to try something regional and traditional... and this dish fit that calling. This was a traditional Portuguese stew made with cabbage, carrots, potatoes, pork belly, pig ear, blood sausage and a single pig trotter, all served on white rice. Super simple and considered a "peasant" dish (though I find that term problematic), the stew relies on inexpensive cuts of meat and offal to impart richness and flavor. I have to hand it to Shane... the guy will try anything I ask him to. Want to share the trotter and all its gelatinous glory with me, buddy? Why yes, I will...

Grilled fresh calamari: Simply prepared, with the flavor of the calamari taking center stage. In contrast to the remarkable octopus, the meat was a bit tough on the grilled calamari. Not a bad dish, but not a particularly memorable one either.

Fried bacalhau: Served with fried potato chips and a quick sauce of sauteed onions with a dash of vinegar, this was like Portugal's answer to fish and chips. Familiar and comforting.

Some great eating in the first day... and looking forward to what Porto has to offer tomorrow!

April 1, 2009

how to cook pasta without boiling water

There's no way this should work.

I was reading a terrific article in Vancouver Magazine a few days back, talking about the best pasta in Vancouver. One section of the article talked about chef Pino Posteraro's technique for making dried pasta:
One local foodie who has spent years in Italy told me some of the best pasta he’s ever eaten was at Cioppino’s. “It was the most extraordinary thing. Pino cooked the pasta in the sauce he served it in. No boiling water, no colander—nothing. I’d never seen anything like it.”
What, no boiling water???? How many times have I read about the importance of bringing an ample quantity of water to a rolling boil before adding the dried pasta to ensure even cooking, no sticking, and a uniformly al dente texture? I kept reading:
Chef leads me to his pasta station, his mise en place meticulously organized—every container labelled and dated with a short strip of masking tape. He grabs a large saucepan, cranks up the heat, and begins. He starts with two types of garlic (purée and confit), a little chili pepper, and extra-virgin olive oil. “You must cook the garlic properly, otherwise it gives you indigestion.” He adds white wine, chicken stock, prawn jus, salt, and a splash more olive oil. (The servers have abandoned their polishing and are crowded around to watch. Even the cooks, traditionally jaded and unflappable, take notice.) The sauce splashes and bubbles as it comes to temperature. He grabs a fistful of dry, uncooked spaghetti, tosses it in, and covers it, savouring my confused look. “Bello, you don’t need to boil the pasta first,” he tells me. “Just wait”. . .

After a few minutes, he removes the lid to reveal a delectable symbiosis. The pasta is cooked perfectly al dente, and has adopted a slightly pinkish hue from the sauce it has absorbed. The starches from the pasta saturate the sauce, making it richer, more textured. The heady aroma of wine and garlic perfumes the air. He fills three pasta bowls—one for me, one for him, one for the lurking servers (who fall on it like a pack of jackals). He chastises a waiter for using a spoon to twirl his pasta. “It’s served in a bowl for a reason,” he shouts. “Use the edge of the bowl to gather the noodles around your fork!” The sauce clings to the noodles; the crabmeat is firm and sweet; all the ingredients sing out in unison. “You see, bello? Pasta this good, I would even eat for dessert.”
After years of working with dried pasta, this just didn't seem like this should work. But hey, Pino's restaurant, Cioppino's (in Yaletown), has been named the Best Formal Italian restaurant at the Vancouver magazine restaurant awards for six years in a row. And the general premise of integrating the starch from the pasta directly into the sauce to thicken it seemed sound... the sauce would be naturally thickened and enriched as it cooked, eliminating the need to add back any cooking water.

But would the pasta cook evenly? Wouldn't it clump together?

Not at all! The technique absolutely works. It's simple, eliminates the separate step of boiling the pasta, and resulted in a spaghetti e vongole that took 12 minutes to make, start to finish. The pasta had a uniquely toothsome texture while being coated with an unctuous, richly textured sauce full of robust flavor.

All this from a recipe that needs no precise measurements and can learned by watching this simple video. Check it out and try it yourself. You'll be amazed.