Wednesday, September 23, 2009
There once was a time when I knew very little about Spain and Spanish culture and food. I still cannot speak a word of proper Spanish, but the former was remedied by a good friend of mine, Mike, starting three years ago while back in Virginia.
You see, I had recently graduated and desperately wanted to do the whole "backpack around Europe" tour. I had the whole route planned out (Paris, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Prague, Switzerland, perhaps a stop-off in Naples if the EuroRail allowed) but could not find a single person who wanted to join in. This actually was my second disappointment for my grand post-grad travel dreams. Initially, being a crazy Russophile, I wanted to take the trans-Siberian railroad from Moscow to Beijing, and I certainly could not find anyone willing to do that with me either.
Mike though, being a Spanish minor, had plans to go to Spain, and while at my house one day eating my mom's spaghetti, I decided to join him. Seeing as our combined net worth was about $11, it was probably a wise decision on my part to limit my adventures to just one country, especially a country where we already had friends living and would have a place to hang our hats.
We planned out a grand tour, starting in Madrid and then heading north to Bilbao and San Sebastian. Incredible artwork (the Parado and Guggenheim are reason enough to book a flight) and beaches aside, I fell forever in love with Spanish food and wine and to this day seek it out whenever possible.
Incidentally, this trip also forever soured me towards Indian food. Trying to be frugal, we flew over on Air India. A ten hour flight surrounded by the smell of cheap airplane-food grade curry while feeling like a raisin from dehydration is enough to turn anyone off to any cuisine. A shame, as I am sure I am missing out, but perhaps in another year or two I will have finally gotten over it. Mike, have you?
Back to Spain. Mike is somewhat of a gastronome himself and so we made the extra effort to try ever possible tapas and pinxtos (Basque for tapas) during our two weeks. From every incarnation of empanada to Catalonian flatbread, Rioja wine, calamari fritas, and manchego cheese, I was in gastronomical seventh heaven.
Not that there weren't pitfalls along the way. Due to the uniquely Spanish schedule of "siesta" we were always a bit groggy after our naps yet wanted to get the party started (seeing as it was now 8pm). So we developed the rather strange predilection for "cafe con leche con whiskey." Yep, coffee with milk and whiskey. Yech. However, it did do the trick of both waking us up and getting us drunk. Heigh ho. Also, Mike almost got robbed by gypsies and apparently the lovely men of Bilbao had never seen a Chinese person before and had a field day trying to talk me. The fact that I spoke no Spanish did not deter them, nor did the fact that I am only half Chinese and therefore, was not even the real deal.
Nonetheless, it was a wonderful trip and served as an introduction to Spanish cuisine that I try to eat whenever possible. I always have manchego cheese on hand and frequently make "Spanish Caprese" in my apartment.
Pour balsamic vinagrette into a small saucepan and reduce (and thicken with cornstarch if neccessary). You can also buy balsamic reduction in gourmet food stores.
Take roma tomatoes (they are smaller than heirloom and usually oval shaped), and slice them into wedges.
Arrange artfully on a plate and sprinkle liberally with goat cheese.
Drizzle olive oil and your balsamic reduction over the tomatoes and cheese and enjoy! MUCH better than "regular" caprese with mozzarella (no flavor) and only olive oil. The balsamic gives it so much more taste and tang than basil, and clings wonderfully to the goat cheese and tomato wedges.
I also have a growing list of favorite tapas places in New York. Alta in Greenwich village is wonderful and if I ever do an Ironman, Vronsky is taking me there and we are ordering everything on the menu for $400 (yes, this is something the restaurant actually allows you to do, which makes me love it even more). Make sure you get the bacon wrapped figs and olives to start.
Casa Mono in Gramercy is fantastic and has great wine. Their sweetbreads are incredible, and the head chef used to be the sous chef at Mario Battali's Babbo. The creation of Casa Mono is discussed at length in Bill Buford's excellent book Heat. (Food featured in picture above)
Flor de Sol in Tribeca has flamenco dancing and great atmosphere, and Pipa: Tapas Y Mas has the best calamari in all the land. I am not making this up. It is also decorated with beautiful chandeliers from ABC, so when you are reveling in the calamari and enjoying your Rioja and therefore in a fantastic and generous mood, you can contemplate what that gold crystal one would look like in your 3 ft by 10 ft bedroom. Obviously, it would look awesome.