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!!
Is there anything better than the smell of a wine cellar? For me, there are few smells that are equal to that complexity. A sweet yet profound passion that slowly intoxicates your soul. Usually the first thing I do when I step into a wine cellar is close my eyes and slowly inhale. It is an aromatic reminder that something beautiful is about to happen.
Recently we enjoyed a visit to a beautiful Wine Hotel just outside of Salamanca. The enchanting Hacienda Zorita is home to a unique winery, hotel and spa. It was, in the 14th Century, a Dominican Monastery and you can still visit the chapel “San Nicolás de las Viñas” which is home to some of the best wine in the country along with a collection of religious artwork from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Jaime, one of the founding partners of the Hacienda took us on a guided tour of the winery and then hosted one of the finest wine, olive oil and cheese tastings that I have ever experienced.
After the wine tasting we were treated to a relaxing and informal dinner in the River Cafe. Since my truly angelic daughter had sat through the very long tasting while quietly nibbling on pieces of apple and delicious bread dipped in golden organic olive oil, it was the perfect meal for us. A simple cheese plate and delicious arugula salad were her personal favorites of the evening.
The grounds of the hotel were so beautiful that regardless of the subzero temperatures we took full advantage of the walking trails and the beautiful sound of the River Tormes. I look forward to my next visit to Zorita.
We don’t use the television in our house unless there is an emergency of some sort. But, my new friend, influenza, and I have become quite bored during our required resting period. So, I took the advice of a dear friend and watched an episode of Kitchen Nightmares with Gordon Ramsey. Just by chance, the episode that showed up first was titled Spanish Pavilion. On Chef Ramsey’s first visit to the restaurant he ordered the garlic chicken or pollo al ajillo, a very well-known dish here in Spain.
The name of the dish first brought up a fond memory in a bar years ago when I was still a tried and true vegetarian. My friend Cristi, also a vegetarian at the time, and I were out with a group of random people. We ended up in a conversation with a woman who was completely dumbfounded by the mere thought of us not participating in any carnal consumption. She went on and on for an extremely long time with every possible proposal to convince us to change our ways. My friend and I nodded and smiled politely for as long as we could. But when the woman, disheartened, expressed her true sadness that we would never try her “pollo al ajillo” we lost it and continued on laughing about it throughout the night and for the next five to six years. Actually, we still laugh about it.
Back to the Nightmares. When Chef Ramsey tasted his garlic chicken at the Spanish Pavilion, he lifted up a wing and unveiled about two cups of olive oil on his plate. I almost spit my chamomile at the screen. I was immediately taken to one of my favorite towns near Granada, Guejar Sierra. The amount of olive oil on Chef Ramsey’s plate didn’t even compare to the amount of olive oil in the majority of the typical dishes in Guejar. Pollo al ajillo being one of those. The food is delicious in the town but my husband and I often giggle about the amount of oil used. And one afternoon having lunch with my Mother along the river near Guejar we calculated 1 cup and a half of olive oil per dish that we ordered. We have no shortage of olive oil here. I need to take Ramsey to Guejar.
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.