Trouble With Toast

Viva Espana! | March 30, 2007

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?

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