My dear friend Alex and I spent a few days kicking around Madrid this summer. We have spent loads of time together in Madrid in the past 10 years but normally we are trailing around with group of 13 year olds. This time we were alone and free to do as we liked. Needless to say this involved quite a bit of wine and some great food to go along. I think the first time that Aex and I met I took him and the other teachers to one of my favorite places in the center of Madrid, La Casa Del Abuelo. I have been there with many people and it is also a favorite of my Mom and Sisters when they visit.
La Casa Del Abuelo opened in 1906 and began to offer wine and “bocadillos” or small baguette sandwiches to clients. During the Civil War and after there was a shortage of flour in Spain and bread became worth more than gold so El Abuelo began to offer shrimp with wine. To this day generation after generation have been enjoying their special house wine and shrimp and prawns served grilled, in garlic sauce or fried and served on a stick with a spicy dipping sauce. The latter is my personal favorite. Paired with a “chato” of their sweet house wine is a bit of heaven. A couple of the other “Abuelo” restaurants have a more extensive menu (with the same delicious wine) but I prefer the original spot, standing up and tossing the shrimp tails on the floor.
At the beginning of the summer Luna and I were blessed and invited to the beach with some dear friends. We had a wonderful time enjoying great food, laughter and plenty of “mini-people” conversations. The big people conversation usually happened after midnight and only if we lasted that long after a day of eating, drinking and swimming. If I were to describe all of the amazing food we ate I would have to write a book. Between the homemade Italian-accented dishes of my friend Carmen and the beach restaurants, my palate, tummy and heart were in heaven. The homemade recipes are a secret of course. But I have the flavors memorized in my mind.
Two of our favorite Spanish staples are seasoned fresh tomato salad and fried eggplant. Usually they are pretty straight forward and simple. But, at the chiringuito (beach restaurant) in Malaga we had the absolute best of both. The “Tomate Aliñado” was a pleasant surprise. Usually this “salad” is simple sliced tomato with olive oil, salt and fresh garlic. But this one was extra special. Fresh tomato, capers, toasted garlic, parsley, balsamic dressing and the perfect bit of anchovies on top. The surprises didn’t stop at the tomato.
The same afternoon we also had Luna’s all time favorite, fried eggplant. Under the batter fried eggplant covered in sugar cane syrup was a surprise slice of goat cheese. When cut up and mixed together the goat cheese and sugar cane syrup made the perfect combination. Although I always enjoy the traditional recipes in Spain, an imaginative variation can definitely make a difference. Especially when sharing it with friends and enjoying the sound of waves and sea water on your skin. A view of the Mediterranean also adds a nice touch, especially with a gorgeous woman passing by. She looks like she needs a cold beer! Lucky for her the beach bar has a special cooler to take one down to the beach!!
I’ve expressed before my obsession with spicy food and the lack there of it in Spain. I am eternally searching for the exceptions. After 20 years of searching I get extra excited when I find a good spicy dish in a typical place. Because finding spicy food in an Indian or Mexican joint is pretty much a given. The other day we stopped into one of our favorite local bars in our old neighborhood. If you don’t get here by 1:30 in the afternoon you can find yourself with your face plastered against the window as you scream out to the bartender for another beer. Well, the other day we were pleasantly surprised by a new tapa on their list. PAPAS EN MOJO PICÓN!! I’ve talked about Patatas Bravas before. These are not the same. The flavor is completely different. Mojo Picón is a spicy sauce from the Canary Islands that is made with garlic, cayenne peppers, cumin, vinegar, olive oil and salt. Or any other variation on the theme. The name comes from the Portuguese word Molho (sauce). And these potatoes were particularly delicious with their homemade Mojo Picón!! Thank you Granada for the mojo!
I have to admit that for many years I could not comprehend why so many people got all worked up about visiting Gibraltar. Was it the stamp in the passport (that you don’t get anymore), the view of North Africa, or the monkeys stealing their potato chips??? I’m truly passionate about the places that I visit on tour, but it took me years to warm up to Gibraltar. My first memories involve a temperature as hot as hell with humidity, being crammed into taxis and shuttled up to the top of the rock to have a Chevy Chase like view of Africa, a quick stumble through a cave and then hassled by some monkeys before heading down to Casemates Square for lunch. I always spent the entire visit dreaming about the next stop on tour, the beach, where I could recharge my batteries a bit and have a swim in the water instead of just looking at it from a rock. And the Costa del Sol is definitely not lacking in fish n chips if someone really had a hankering.
Many many years have passed since those first visits to the rock. And at some point my perception changed and I began to appreciate this quirky and unusual bit of the peninsula. The people from Gibraltar are known as Juanitos. They are laid back, interesting and always open to a nice chat. I’ve had some great taxi drivers who were like walking history books. They have shared their family history with me along with some great anecdotes about Gibraltar. I’ve enjoyed some amazing conversations with more than a few Juanitos in their mixture of Spanish and English, not that different from my own way of speaking. The monkeys are adorable. It is pretty difficult to dislike a monkey butt.
My friend Todd shared a gastronomical secret spot with me many years ago. It is now one of my favorite places to eat on the entire peninsula. Really. I love Spanish food but I truly suffer at times without spice and hot peppers. My body needs it, craves it and basically cannot live without it. Introducing Mumtaz!! Mumtaz is a tiny, hole in the wall take-away Indian restaurant tucked away off of Main Street. It has two plastic tables, a few chairs and the best damn Indian food I’ve had in a long time. I eat here every time I go to the Rock and enjoy every bite. The sad part, is that I’m always alone which means I have to be limited to one dish with a bread. I’ve slowly been eating my way through the menu. Tour by tour. On my last visit I indulged in a great Sag Paneer, a chapati and an ice cold Cobra as I read an article about Mumtaz in some Gibraltarian magazine. I can’t wait to go back!
Winters in Granada are not as horrible as they can be other places I realize, but nonetheless I get tired very easily of the cold. I prefer heat, hot sun, sand on my body and a cool drink in my hand. So, after all too many days of battling a nasty winter flu I have been dreaming of summer. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, sweet and enjoyable summer. I have many food and cultural posts still for winter but today I need to feel the hot sun on my skin. If only through a blog. So, my dreams take me back to Asturias where we enjoy spending a bit of each summer vacation. Hard cider, great food, and a sunny day on a pristine beach are what brings us back year after year. The sunny day can be a give or take since Asturias tends to be fairly rainy. But, we usually luck out with sun for 90 percent of the time.
Each year we return to the same rural hotel (another post) where we always feel welcome and have a chance to decompress between campground and campground. From this beautiful home there are hiking trails that will take you to different towns, beaches, restaurants, and the breathtaking look out at Cabo Penas. One of our favorite beaches to walk to is Verdicio. First we stop at a nearby restaurant along the national highway and then we make our way down to the beach area which kindly offers a small hut serving hard cider whenever you feel the need.
We had a fantastic meal at a cider house, La Fustariega before heading down for a swim. French fries ( or chips) smothered in a sauce made with the best cheese in Spain, Cabrales. Cabrales in its pure form will make your eyes water, nose run and your stinky tennis shoes smell like roses. It is delicous. A raw milk cheese that is cured in an extremely humid cave in the high Picos de Europa Mountains until it is covered in mold and striped with lucious blue veins. Asturias is famous for its cheese and Cabrales is one that is honored in competitions each year.
The other typical dish that we devoured before ordering desserts was Pastel de Cabracho. According to gastronomical history this dish was first prepared by the famous Basque Chef, Juan Mari Arzak. The fish (black scorpian fish) is boiled first in a stock, deboned and then mixed with a mixture of tomato, heavy cream and sometimes leek and carrot. It is formed into a pudding and cooked in a double boiler. It is normally served as an appetizer with homemade mayonnaise. When it is prepared well, Pastel de Cabracho is not to be missed.
We ended our meal with two mouth watering desserts. Simple and delightful. A creamy rice pudding topped with cinnamon and a typical Asturian cheesecake. It was the perfect meal to fuel us for our short walk down to the beach where the sun and a cold bottle of hard cider awaited us.
Breakfast has always been my favorite meal. I have many memories connected with morning delights. Watching the snow fall accompanied by a latte and an almond cream cheese danish at Macy’s, the best coffee shop in Flagstaff, Arizona , a comforting sweet roll and omelet at Lou Mitchell’s in Chicago with my sister George the morning after I witnessed the birth of my first niece, a toasted ham and cheese sandwich on the train from Granada to Madrid with my daughter (her favorite), cinnamon coffee with a side of refried beans, a side of tortillas and salsa before class at Kathy’s diner in Flagstaff , a simple baguette with laughing cow cheese and marmalade at many group hotels in Paris, and the amazing and unforgettable Chilaquiles with green sauce at Martan’s in Flagstaff followed by a hike up the San Francisco peaks, to mention only a few of the best.
Here in Spain, breakfast is delicious and unique. In Granada and Southern Spain in general the norm is a nice toast topped with what pleases you most; paté, butter and jam, cured ham with tomato and olive oil, or my personal favorite of tomato, olive oil and salt. You can always opt for a croissant that will remind you that you aren’t in Paris or a big plate of churros and a cup of warm chocolate, but the majority order a toast. “Café con leche y una tostada con tomate por favor.” Whole wheat is even readily available these days.
When on tour one of my favorite stops for a great toast is on the way from Sevilla to Gibraltar in the Cork Tree National Park. In December we stopped for an early morning toast on our long drive to Salamanca and I actually remembered to take a picture. The enormous toasts are served with a bottle of grated fresh tomato, two huge bottles of local olive oil (one with garlic) and salt. You can dress it up as you desire. Washed down with a Spanish coffee with milk it is the perfect Andalusian breakfast.
In other parts of Spain, breakfast takes on a whole new air. In Madrid and most of Castilla Leòn y Castilla La Mancha morning fare tends to be much heartier. The weather tends is harsher and people bulk up with extra girth and fat. Our first morning in Salamanca we went to a nice classic place for a “light” breakfast. A delicious tortilla española with chorizo (spanish potato omelet) and a plate of churros. For those who are low carbing it, you can go for the very typical chicharrones (fried pork rinds) and torreznos (fried slices of pork fat) which my husband chose to order for day two breakfast. As they say in Spanish, “Sobre gustos, colores” or “there are as many tastes as there are colors”. To each his own. Either way, I’ll stick with the tortilla which is an artform in Salamanca, tall and juicy and filled with all kinds of treats. It was perfect to battle the bitter cold that waited for us outside that day.
Spotting a great tapas bar in Spain is not that difficult if you know what to look out for. Number one is the “Spanish Servilleta”. This is basically a very small, see through, and non absorbent excuse for a napkin. However, it is key to spotting a good bar. While enjoying tapas one may go through 50 of these napkins to clean their fingers, and then proceed to toss them one by one onto the floor. The floor in any popular tapas bar in Spain is completely covered by napkins, toothpicks, shrimp heads and tails and olive pits. The cigarette butt is now excluded from the list. Number two is to look for places that are crammed packed with people to the point that many are spilling out of the front door and windows. Within the bar you will find many groups of friends and family balancing their drinks along with a plate of communal tapas. When we go out as a group in Spain we almost always collect a “fondo” or collection of money that one person is in charge of throughout the afternoon or evening.
There are some old yet unchanging tapas bars in Granada that I love to visit every once in a while. A place like “Diamantes” is one of them for me. It started as one very narrow bar that is constantly filled to the brim with a mostly local crowd enjoying their perfect and light fried fish. There is now a “Diamantes 2” as shown above with a bit more elbow room. Both of the bars are incredibly efficient, friendly and filled with local flavor. The most frequent tapas that are included with your drinks are fried eggplant, shrimp in garlic sauce, fried dogfish and fried shrimp. There is nothing better than a midday “tapeo” starting at Los Diamantes.
It has been raining for the past four days and we have been enjoying the fireplace, playtime and a great variety of home cooked food. Finally, there was a break in the clouds and we decided to go for a stroll up the river. Walking about 2 1/2 miles along the river from our house we have a couple of great restaurants. Today we chose one called La Huerta del Fraile, The Friar’s Garden. Across the street from the restaurant there is a huge pumpkin patch along with many vegetable gardens and orchards. The rain started up again as soon as we walked in, so we tucked in next to their fireplace. We had planned on having one tapita and then moving on but we were so relaxed and the first tapa was delicious and unique. So we stayed for a bit.
The first tapa was a surprisingly scrumptious version of one dish in Spain that I have always disliked. It is called San Jacobo (Saint Jacob). Usually it is a slice of chicken wrapped around ham and cheese then breaded and fried. Basically, the Spanish version of Cordon Bleu. Most of the Saint Jacobs that I have met have been in low cost hotel buffets where basically everything is disgusting. Needless to say, I had never once enjoyed a San Jacobo in all of my years in Spain until La Huerta del Fraile’s version. It was made with cheddar cheese, eggplant, mushrooms and ham and then covered in a crunchy coating. Tapa number two was also the best version I’ve ever had of a very typical dish, Migas. Literally, migas de pan are the soft breadcrumbs from fresh bread. The preparation of the dish known as Migas can vary depending on the region of Spain that you are in. In Granada they are the breadcrumbs or leftover bread sauteed in olive oil with garlic, green peppers and a variety of pork products. On the coast they are also served with sardines (see toes in the sand, shrimp in my hand). These definitely ranked the best that I have had. Usually Migas are prepared on an open fire out in the country. A typical dish prepared for hard workers.
Off the regular menu we ordered a salad with tomato and goat cheese and a plate of fried berenjenas (aubergine or eggplant) with sugar cane honey. Fried eggplant deserves a post all to itself. My 5 year old daughter wants to dedicate an entire blog to this favorite dish of hers. They are typical in Cordoba but here in Granada we have also found some amazing ones. For me they are a mixture of dessert and pancakes. A light fluffy batter, eggplants, and sweet dark honey. Another fried delicacy here in Spain.
I could probably write a book about Toledo and all of my lovely experiences I’ve had there but that will have to wait for another point in my life. After all, it did rank number 1 for many reasons. Toledo is one place where I never tire of wandering through the streets and monuments. Every time I walk through the city I see something new and learn more about the history and layers of this medieval treasure. One night many years ago as I was strolling through the narrow cobblestone streets with some students I ran into my dear friend Mario leading his group on a nighttime tour. From this moment on I decided to include this as part of any tour of mine that sleeps in Toledo. Each city takes on a different persona when the sun goes down. The moon, darkness and city lights completely change the feeling and security that daytime holds. A nighttime visit in Toledo is filled with legends, mysteries and intrigue. One of my favorite expressions in Spanish is “pasar una noche Toledana” which describes when one has had a sleepless night for one reason or another. Historically, the saying refers to a bloody massacre that occurred in the year 797 when a cruel Governor invited all of the nobleman of Toledo to his home for a banquet. As they entered his home one by one, they were beheaded and tossed into a ditch.
On a lighter note, I’ve enjoyed some great meals in Toledo with many wonderful friends. I’ve also enjoyed some quiet afternoons and nights alone with a tapa and glass of wine. This past June I went for a cold beer at a restaurant that I have frequented through the years because it is next door to the hotel where I often sleep. It is a bit of a dive and I usually only go in for a quick drink. Well, in June I was surprised with a tapa of one of the best Croquetas I have ever eaten. It was quite ugly as you can see, but the flavor was perfect.
I’ve had a few memorable meals at a restaurant named Casa Aurelio where they serve tender meat that you cook to your liking on a hot brick. Another favorite place of mine is El Hostal del Cardenal which is a breathtaking hotel and restaurant connected to the walls of the city. The restaurant offers beautiful gardens where you can enjoy a wonderful meal or cold drink and feel as if you are part of a medievil film. However, there is a place that I always tend to go to when I am up near the main plaza of the city, Zocodover. It is called El Cason de los Lopez. This building from the XVI century is located on a street that was once famous for typical “mesones” or a XVI century bed and breakfast, where Miguel de Cervantes used to eat and rest. The main floor of the building is part of an interior patio with a bar and rustic, informal dining area. In the bar you can order a mixed plate of Manchego cheese and cured local sausages. It is delicious. My friend Alex and I discovered it while catching up on each others lives over some local wine from Castilla la Mancha. And I ordered it again to share with two of my favorite dining partners this summer. The picture is taken by my friend Melissa. After we had already eaten more than half of the plate…………
Sundays invite adventure and escaping from the city center. Even though we all laugh and criticize the “domingueros” or “Sunday drivers”, we end up being one many times during the year. So, today we went up just a bit into the mountains to breathe some fresh air and see what the day would bring. Basically it is hard to go wrong around here on a weekend. As long as you have good company and some open space for the kids to play, the day is pretty much set. Lucky for me I have friends who also have a damn good sense of humor which makes the day just that much brighter. Even with the clouds. We ordered some food to share and then just as I was mourning the lack of homemade croquetas on the menu, this tapa appeared on the table. It was as if they had read my mind. My friend Annette and I both have a bit of an obsession with ordering homemade croquetas when available. I think we are trying to find the best. There is a lot to know about the “croqueta” in Spain. Croquetas can be real crap sometimes. Frozen and produced by a machine. Or just plain bland, boring, and disgusting. But, when you find a good croqueta, it is like a delicious bit of fried love.
I was truly blessed to live with an amazing woman here in Granada. Carmen taught me a great part of what I know about this city. She hated to cook. But her croquetas were seriously the best I have ever had. I would hang over her as she made the bechamel, added the leftover meat from the stew cooked the day before and toss them in the egg and flour. I watched the patience and love she put into those delicious rolls. When they were ready we would all line up to taste as she fried them one by one. I would always get back in line for seconds. And with that bit of energy we would be off to go out for the night.
The croquetas today were homemade and fresh. They weren’t as good as Carmen’s, nor where they as good as the one I will put in my next post, but they did hit the spot. The company was even better…….a bit crazy……..but good.