Anyone who knows me knows that I adore Spain. I’ve traveled there twice, the second time being a four-month stint during my junior year of college. I learned a lot, I drank a lot, but most importantly, I ate a lot—and VERY well.
Thankfully, Spanish food was very hot in the United States by the time I returned from abroad, especially tapas-style restaurants. In DC, when I’m feeling nostalgic for the Iberian Peninsula, I head to Jaleo. While it doesn’t quite live up to the grub I got in Spain, it comes nostalgically close. I wholeheartedly recommend the bacon-wrapped dates, the stuffed peppers, and the apple and manchego salad. Yum!
On Sunday night, the owner of Jaleo (among other restaurants), Chef Jose Andres, will be challenging Chef Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America. I am really excited about this battle, as it should be pretty interesting to see how Chef Flay’s southwestern flavors stack up against Chef Andres’ Latin influences. I just hope the secret ingredient is something that will push both chefs to their creative limits.
So, in honor of Chef Andres and all the other delights that hail from Spain, here’s a list of some of my favorite culinary experiences from my time in the greatest country in Europe:
Queso manchego—It’s Spain’s most famous cheese for a reason! The mild, semi-hard, sheep’s milk cheese is absolutely delicious when paired with fresh tomatoes or, even better, some sliced Serrano ham.
Paella—I never made it to Valencia (where the dish originated), but I had some incredibly tasty versions at cafeterias and restaurants all over Spain. I prefer the seafood variety, but it’s also very good with chicken and Chorizo sausage. The most important part of paella is the saffron—which, being the most expensive spice in the world, is probably why it is so difficult to find truly authentic paella anywhere else.
Calamari sandwiches—I loved fried squid before I traveled overseas, but I had never had it between two slices of bread. Not surprisingly, I enjoyed the portable version very much! Unfortunately, I wasn’t a big mayonnaise eater at the time, and Spaniards reeeeeally liked to glop it all over their sandwiches (despite any requests to the contrary). So, rather than forego the tasty snack, I learned to like yet another condiment. Yum!
Casa Botin—The Guinness Book of World Records claims that this is the oldest restaurant in the world (it was founded in 1725). Hemingway was a frequent customer. Francisco de Goya allegedly worked there before he was a painter. How could a place with so much history be bad? The cast-iron ovens are centuries old, which is probably why their roast suckling pig is such a sought-after specialty. Since I was attempting to keep kosher at the time, and since I had just survived a three-month ban on beef due to a mad cow epidemic, I ordered what any demure lady would have—a huge slab of cow, poco hecho (basically, raw). It was the most wonderful and succulent piece of meat I’ve ever had.
Rabo de toro—Basically, this is oxtail stew, braised until it is tender and delicious. I’d liken it to pot roast, but it’s even better. The best versions I found were in Andalucia, the southern part of the country (down in Sevilla and Granada).
Criadillas—Or, in English, bull testicles. Yeah. Easily the weirdest thing I tried while living in Spain, but, strangely, not the grossest (that honor goes to blood sausage). The experience is more intense than beef—saltier, and definitely chewier—but not entirely unpleasant. If it hadn’t been cooked with so much garlic, I may have told a different story!
Sidra—Actually, the mildly alcoholic cider was only a part of the amazing experience (though it is pretty darn cool to fill your glass right from the barrel). Our hostel owner took us into the mountainous countryside of San Sebastian, where we found one of many local sidrerias (cider houses). Many hours of revelry, many courses of freshly grilled foods, and MANY fascinating conversations later, I counted myself incredibly fortunate to have taken part in such an interesting tradition.
La Farfalla—I don’t remember how we stumbled upon this restaurant (which is a short walk from the Anton Martin Metro station), but once we saw the butterfly above the door, we were absolutely charmed. Its specialty is Argentinean-style grilled meats, but they also have surprisingly good thin-crust pizzas—in a homey, laid-back atmosphere with friendly service and reasonable prices.
Churros—Nothing caps off a late night/early morning in Madrid quite like some steaming hot churros. Many of my clubbing comrades liked to dip them in the accompanying thick chocolate, but as a donut purist, I simply gobbled up the cinnamon-sugary, soft on the inside, crisp on the outside goodness.
Rioja—I wasn’t a big wine drinker before I traveled abroad, but by the time I left Spain, I was drinking at least a glass or two of rioja every day. Thank goodness it has found its way into favor in the U.S.! I find it to be a very complex wine, but it is also very drinkable—I’d say it has the weight of a merlot (meaning that you can pair it with lighter foods, since it is not overwhelming), but with a lot more character and depth.
Any other Spain fans care to share their faves?
It’s been just over two weeks since I began my journey into quasi-vegetarianism. Specifically, I’m not allowed to have any meat (besides fish–I can’t give up sushi) during the week, but I can eat whatever I want on the weekend.
So far, I haven’t had any Monday through Friday slips. As for my Saturday and Sunday meat consumption, here’s what I’ve tallied: tapas at Jaleo (which included small servings of sausage, bacon, and oxtail) and pepperoni pizza during weekend number one, and turkey bacon (on my reduced-fat Starbucks breakfast sandwich) during weekend number two.
I feel healthier and more energetic, but I can’t take all of the credit—part of the reason it’s been fairly easy to wean myself off the animal products has been the wide variety of meatless options I’ve found in the local groceries and restaurants. Here is a sample of some of my favorite “veggie-fied” eats from the past couple of weeks:
* Portobello mushroom and roasted red pepper pizza from Busboys & Poets—While it’s fairly easy to avoid meat on pizza by simply loading up on the vegetable toppings, this pie was superb because of its flavorful pesto topping and light, crunchy crust. They didn’t skimp on the Portobello mushrooms, either, which meant that I stayed satisfied longer.
* Eggs—I don’t eat them every day (gotta watch that cholesterol), but one of my go-to dinners lately has been “throw some produce and some eggs and some cheese in an omelet pan and see how it turns out.” My favorite combination is mushrooms, spinach, and tomatoes.
* Morningstar Farms veggie sausage patties—I’m a Southern girl, so of course I’m a big fan of the sausage biscuit. Instead of pork breakfast meat and buttery pastries, though, I’ve been heating up some tasty (they’re spiced just like traditional sausage) soy-based patties and placing them between light English muffins. Paired with a banana or some fresh cantaloupe, it’s a very hearty way to start the day.
* Black beans—I was never a fan of beans until I lived in Spain and my “mom” cooked them for me all the time. Now I love to eat them over saffron rice. Or, as I did last night, I can toss them into a wheat tortilla with some sautéed zucchini and red bell peppers, brown rice, shredded cheese, and chipotle salsa.
* Wild mushroom bisque from Au Bon Pain—Yum! This soup is one of the best I’ve ever had. Sure, it’s high in sodium (like most soups), but it’s also chock full of flavor, and it’s quite filling, especially when paired with a small green salad or a whole grain breadstick. Plus, mushrooms are low in fat and loaded with vitamins and minerals—and nothing beats a steaming bowl of bisque on a cold, windy DC afternoon.
* Falafel—I’ve always enjoyed this little fried treat, but it holds an even more special place in my heart right now. Shockingly, I really like the version at my restaurant—the tahini sauce has a great kick to it.
* Hummus and fresh vegetable sandwich from Cosi—While I wouldn’t necessarily eat Cosi’s hummus by itself (it’s a little grainy for that, in my opinion), it is delicious when it shares the spotlight with tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, and basil. Even though the whole sandwich weighs in under 500 calories, it’s relatively high in fiber and protein, so it keeps you going for a while. If I’m really hungry and it’s the right day, I also order a side of the vegetable and mushroom soup (which is not quite as good as the aforementioned bisque, but still darn tasty).
Of course, I’ve also cooked some pasta with meatless sauce and created a couple of spectacular salads with my weekly produce delivery. The bottom line is that I’m enjoying how I feel, and I’m having fun taste-testing all of the options available to me.
Does anyone out there have a favorite meatless recipe? A preferred brand of prepared/frozen vegetarian food? A local restaurant that offers something besides a tired pasta primavera? Let me know!