Feeds:
Posts
Comments

The next part of our August adventure took us further west, to the Spanish regions of Asturias and Galicia.

Asturias is perfectly epitomized by the trademark image of my favorite brand of Spanish milk (Asturiana) – green, rolling hills filled with pasturing cows and backed by mountain peaks. The only thing the image lacks is the sheer coastal cliffs which drop into white, sandy beaches in some parts and rocky seashore in others.

Although we only spent one day there, and most of it driving, I thoroughly enjoyed what I saw. And ate. The quintessential Asturian food includes cheese and deli meats, beans and cider (sidra).

The highlight for me was Oviedo, the regional capital. We stopped for lunch in an archetypal sidrería and had an amazing cheese plate of 10 different types, ranging from hard, white cheeses to soft, blue cheeses (probably the most typical being cabrales, see far left).

We also had a very interesting and tasty tarta de maíz or corn cake that was puffed and filled/topped with pork and foie. (Side note: It is rare to come across corn in Spain; even when you do see it grown, it’s not part of the cuisine. I recently learned that it’s mainly grown to feed animals. However, in northern Spain we saw a fair amount of corn fields and then in Oviedo we finally tasted a dish made with corn!)

We washed this down with a sidra sangriasidra mixed with lemon soda, sugar and fruit; this way I was able to actually swallow the stuff, and it didn’t taste half bad! We also got to see the way sidra is poured, from a few feet above in order give it some bubbles. For that reason, the sidra glass is tall, while the actual drink fills only a sixth of the glass.

One other noteworthy point – the Spanish dialect used in Asturias is a little different from castellaño. Some articles and vowel sounds seemed a bit more French or Italian than Spanish. For instance, “u” is often substituted for “o”. But this is from one day there so I really don’t know what I’m talking about!

We then made our way into the northwest region of Galicia. Known for its similarity to Ireland (for its green hills, wet climate and Celtic influence) and the Camino de Santiago, we discovered that Galicia is far more than this. In fact, it is decidedly our favorite part of Spain (at least in August!).

It’s true – Galicia is very green and hilly. It also has a ton of old cathedrals made of gray, mossy stones and adorned with Celtic crosses, and bagpipes – very reminiscent of the British Isles. Especially if was rainy and overcast. But we were lucky enough to enjoy sun-filled, warm – even hot – days there. And in that environment, Galicia’s phenomenal range of seafood and gorgeous beaches shined.

But first, a word about Santiago de Compostela and the Camino. Simply put, the Camino is the route that medieval pilgrims would take to Santiago – the third most important Catholic pilgrimage site, after Jerusalem and Rome. According to Catholic folklore, St James is buried there and making the pilgrimage is meant to chalk the pilgrim up a ton of points. We also learned that the Christian reconquest of Spain (from the Muslim Moors) relied a great deal on “help” from St James – and he became somewhat of a hero saint/patriotic figure used by the reconquistadores to unite the disparate medieval kingdoms across Spain.

In any case, the Camino held a lot of importance in the past, but now represents a unique hiking challenge – on average a month of walking 20-30km per day.  The Camino has many different entry points, but is generally known to start in southern France. And so, all along our trip we saw “pilgrims” trekking along the northern Spanish coast. Of course, given that most people do not have a month to walk, many people start about a week’s worth of walking away and so the concentration of pilgrims markedly increases once you get to Galicia. Now, I do not mean to sound snobby – because I’ve never done any bit of the Camino – but it’s cushioned a bit for the pilgrims, probably because it’s been around for so long. There are hostels at every stopping point along the way, where pilgrims get a marked down price and meal. Actually, given these points, I’m even more drawn to it because besides walking through some of the prettiest territory in the world, you don’t have to carry sleeping gear or food.

Anyhow as we got closer to Santiago, we passed more and more pilgrims (they probably looked at us in our car and hated us!). When we got to the end of the Camino at the cathedral in Santiago, it was pretty cool to see all of the pilgrims crashed on the plaza and gazing at the site that represented the feat they had just accomplished.

 

What made it even more exciting was that upon entering the cathedral we encountered a hoard of “real” pilgrims attending a special mass. It happened to be a few days before the pope’s visit to Madrid and the gathering of hundreds of thousands of young Catholics from around the globe for World Youth Day, so there were a not so small number of them making their own pilgrimage to Santiago. It was interesting to see the interplay of different emotions on the faces of the pilgrims and “pilgrims” during the mass – lots of feeling, but for different reasons.

One funny fact – the cathedral has a giant incense burner on a rope (see above), that in olden days used to swing across to (attempt to) balance out the foul odor of travellers!! It’s not in regular operation now – there are more than enough showers to go around in the city nowadays!

Besides some major pilgrim sighting, Santiago de Compostela was the beginning of our love affair with Galician seafood. There we sampled pulpo a feira, which is the traditional Galician dish of octopus (they even have entire restaurants devoted to the dish, called pulperías). We had tried pulpo before and not been terribly impressed, but this was definitely a case of needing to try the real thing. Reddish on the suction-cupped outside and white on the inside, it was cooked in a copper pot (feira) and topped with paprika, oil and salt. It was chewy but just the right amount. I have to say though, the firmer inside was much more palatable than the outside, given the suction-cupped and gooey texture. All in all, very tasty, especially together with a glass of Albariño, one of two local white wines.

We also tasted viera or scallop in its shell, cooked in an onion and red pepper sauce – tender and oh so flavorful, and probably Kevin’s favorite dish out of the entire trip.

We then made our way to the western coast. First stop, Costa da Morte, or the Coast of Death, called so because of the many shipwrecks that have taken place on its treacherous shores. I can imagine how sinister the place could be on a dark, stormy day, but we caught it in quite the opposite conditions and it won us over. We headed out by way of the southern edge of the coast, our goal being Finisterre, or Land’s End – a cape jutting out of the Costa da Morte into the Atlantic. Along the way we encountered countless beaches, with golden, soft sand. They called our name for a few hours until we gave in and stopped at one for a bit.

There we tasted another typical dish, pimientos de Padron, which are small green peppers deep fried and topped with salt, from the nearby city of Padron. Urban legend says that one out of every ten peppers are supposed to be spicy but I doubt that – for me it’s been an entire plate of picante peppers or, more commonly, an entire plate of ones that no pican. Anyhow, they definitely had the most flavor near Padron than any other time we’ve tried them.

We also stopped at a town called O Pindo, where we stayed for the night. O Pindo is a tiny town built around the local beach, which was quiet and shallow, and had the softest sand. Our pension (somewhere between a hostel and hotel) was beachfront, with a lovely view.

We made it to the lighthouse on Finisterre just in time to catch the sunset with a small friend. There were also a lot of pilgrims here, since it is thought to be the true end of the Camino.

Then we had a delicious dinner in the port, of arroz con bogavante, or lobster paella with a bottle of the other local white wine, Ribeira. It was fun to use different tools to crack the shells and get out the meat, which was sweet and buttery.

Finisterre is just the first of several peninsulas on the southern coast of Galicia. So we next made our way down to the Rias Baixas, or the lower rias (inlets). We pinpointed the second one, for the extensive beach at the tip, A Lanzada. Despite its size and popularity, there were many relatively quiet parts with soft, white sand and azure water. The water was quite a bit colder than the northern coast – it took us several minutes to actually get in! – but once in, it was very refreshing.

We stopped at a beachside BBQ shack that was teeming with people, for good reason; the local catch of the day was BBQ’d up on a giant open fire – can’t get fresher or tastier than that! We had prawns and seabream, which were prepared simply but BBQ’d with a little lemon and salt, they became my favorite meal of the trip!

There were several types of typical Galician seafood that we didn’t try, either because we didn’t get the chance or because we a bit apprehensive. We really wanted to try spider crab (centolla) and brown crab (buey del mar) and we really didn’t want to try percebes or barnacles (below), which look to me like something out of Star Wars. (I was reprimanded by my Spanish teacher for not trying them; apparently have the same consistency and delicious flavor as pulpo… hmmm I’m not sure about that.) However, it’s actually considered a delicacy and is quite expensive, because the process of getting them is very risky, since they mainly grow on the cliffs of the Costa da Morte.

On the whole, Galicia is a relatively poor region in Spain, with its economy drawn mainly from fishing and agriculture. Traditionally it is the men who fish, so that left the women to run the farms. Tough work. The farming culture was evident in the huge number of classic Galician granaries along the road in every town; they were raised and made of stone to protect the town or family’s store in the cruel weather experienced by the region for much of the year.

Given its proximity to Portugal, the Galician dialect, gallego, is very similar to Portuguese. You can especially see it in the use of “ei” instead of “e”, such as in the word ribeira (ribera in castellaño), which means river bank. Also, articles are a bit different: el becomes o, as in O Pindo, and la becomes a, as in A Coruña, another city in Galicia.

We ended our stay in Galicia in the town of Pontevedra, a cute one with lots of hidden plazas, colourful buildings, and when we were there, tons of kids. There was a children’s festival and the streets were swarming with families, street performers, carnival rides and fair food. It was a kid’s heaven and a parent’s, well, not heaven. Needless to say, we were entertained.

The north of Spain is viewed by many madrileños as the ideal place to spend the month of August, and we were lucky enough to be there this year. In contrast to landlocked and dusty Madrid and its 90-100 degree heat, the northern Spanish regions’ rolling green hills and mountains dip right down into the Atlantic Ocean, which is a nice 60-70 degrees at this time of year, only slightly cooler than the air temperature. The climate and location make for a dual holiday experience – beach and mountain, and a ton of amazing seafood. Each region differs from the others, but these characteristics run across the entire north.

Our first stop was the coastal paradise of San Sebastian in the Basque Country. San Sebastian sits on two major bays. The larger of the two is shaped like a giant shell and is framed by green, lofty outcrops on either side – hence the water is calm and a very comfortable temperature. The other bay is more open and offers some of the best surfing waves on the north coast. Top this off with arguably the country’s best food, and you have pretty much the perfect holiday spot.

Besides swimming, sunning and body-boarding, we occupied ourselves with sampling the regional cuisine. The Basque Country is known throughout Spain for its version of tapas – known as pinchos or pintxos (in the Basque language) – which are generally much more diverse and creative than those found in the rest of the country. In pretty much any bar across the country you will usually find the same 10 tapas plates – Spanish tortilla, croquettes, cured ham, fried calamares and other fish, some form of tuna, etc. Of course every region will have its one or two specialties. But every bar in San Sebastian had at least 20-30 pinchos on offer. The variety draws a lot from the sea – octopus, squid, scallops, clams, mussels, crab, lobster, tuna, cod, hake, monkfish, anchovies, etc – and from local produce – like peppers, mushrooms, cheese and quail eggs. The end result is a visual feast – so much color! And a feast for the taste buds and stomach as well! My favorites were bites of tuna sandwiched between pickles and olives, a wanton cone of lobster salad and a monkfish cooked in a tasty seafood gravy.

Although I must admit, many of the pinchos incorporated too much mayo for my liking! Why do you have to ruin a perfectly tasty piece of fish by dousing it in mayo?! Also of note, the region (all of the north of Spain, really) is known for cider. It is served in small quantities using a special apparatus that creates carbonation by pouring the cider at least a foot above the glass. People go on and on about how great it is, but honestly it tastes awful to me. It is extremely concentrated and very bitter. Maybe if I would have added some soda to it, as Spaniards like to do to every other drink, it might taste better but that did not seem kosher.

Given that San Sebastian is also known for its high quality chefs, we took the chance one evening to try a tasting menu at a restaurant in the old part of town. This is what we had – a menu showcasing the local produce and in some cases taking classic dishes to another level:

We also had the local wine, a sparkling white called txacoli, as well as a red (tinto) from Rioja and a white from Ribera del Duero.

We don’t usually do tasting menus so this is coming from an amateur, but it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had. For me the quality of the meal was in the fact that every ingredient described in the menu was there – in fresh simplicity. Some of the combinations and textures were unique but overall, this is what impressed me the most.

Next stop: Cantabria. We spent one afternoon cycling around the Bay of Santander, which has several lovely beaches, encased, like San Sebastian, by hilly outcrops.

We then made our way into the breathtaking Picos de Europa, one of Spain’s several mountain ranges, where we spent three days of hiking through green mountain pastures and up craggy, sheer canyons. One of my favorite parts about hiking in Spain is that most trails run through farms and villages, so you walk surrounded by the tinkling of cow bells and you can stop along the way for a cold one.

With mountains come mountain food – hearty and simple. The signature dish is fabada, a stew of white (or sometimes garbanzo) beans, cooked with different parts of a pig for flavor. The beans, meat and broth may be eaten separately or all together. We also had some lovely trout and chicken. Lots of good protein to equip us for trekking upwards.

We ended July with a weeklong trip to the Netherlands. Arriving there without any expectations, it turned out to be a delightful exploration of a unique cuisine, an often ignored culture and simply beautiful environs.

Over the course of the week together with friends we cycled over 100km through cities (like Amsterdam and Rotterdam), quaint towns (like Delft) and a not insignificant portion of the Dutch countryside. We biked on country roads dividing fields of cows, horses and sheep on our way to see windmills and the Dutch coast.

Cycling is bar none the most common form of transportation in the Netherlands, and so there exists a kind of cycling culture there that is completely natural to locals but to outsiders constitutes an interesting phenomenon. For one, there is the Dutch style of bikes – large frame, on which ones sits tall, on a rather large seat. The goal is not speed or agility but comfort and functionality (namely the ability to carry people and things). Speaking of people there are various contraptions for people-carrying. There are mini seats for kids (the smallest, for toddlers, goes in front of the rider; the larger, for older kids, goes behind the rider). Then there are carts that are attached to the front of bikes, which can carry multiple kids (one cart boasted four little boys!), animals and/or items. People also attach plastic cartons to the front of their bikes for carrying home groceries.

Another interesting phenomenon is the number of bikes per person. People routinely have multiple bikes – an older, comfort-tailored model for riding around town; a fold up bike for commuting (taking on trains); and a road bike for sport (these are the only ones that helmets are worn for). Also, although this is not unique to the Netherlands, I very much liked the bike locks used there – they lock the back wheel in one simple turn of a key. This is perfect for a quick run into the grocery store or a brief coffee. For longer stops, there are the usual locks that must be attached to secure objects. And one more thing, there are bike lanes everywhere!! In cities, towns, fields, etc! This is probably the most important factor in encouraging the cycling culture as it makes cycling practical and easy.

One day we spent strolling through the picturesque town of Edam where each house sported gardens that were prize worthy. The amount and variety of flowers (both outdoor plants and cut flowers displayed in homes) throughout the Netherlands are striking, but Edam took home first prize. The sheer range of colors visible in each garden was a pleasure for the eyes. In Edam we also learned about the Edam way of forming and packaging cheese – rounds protected in a wax shell – which is now the main way Dutch cheeses, the king being Gouda, are packaged and sold.

 

Every Dutch town we visited sported a canal system of some kind. With one quarter of the Netherlands below sea level and half only one meter above, it is not difficult to understand how this can be the case. Canals are often crossed by charming arch-shaped bridges and are filled with lilies, various river fowl and houseboats. Amsterdam certainly has the most intricate and developed canal system. Despite being the largest city in the Netherlands, it still has very charming canals, which are bordered by classic Dutch terrace blocks (tall, narrow buildings with step-style roofs and colorful facades).

As much as we enjoyed cycling and strolling along the canals, we were intrigued by how Amsterdam would look by boat. So one day we rented an electric motorboat, gathered a bunch of picnic goodies and meandered through the city for three hours, each taking turns to drive. We turned out to be expert drivers – no collisions, and the only close call being with a pair of distracted paddle-boaters – so we were free to relish our range of Dutch deli items. These include two types of Gouda – one strong and one slightly smoother with little salt crystals – and an odd assortment of deli meats (including a pork tartar and paprika spread which was unexpectedly tasty). We thought we had reached the pinnacle of experiencing Amsterdam until we passed several boats with BBQs going – that would have been even better!!

One lunch we tasted the Dutch pancake – a pub sort of food which is basically a large crepe that is eaten open with sweet and/or savory toppings such as bacon and apples, and topped by a molasses-like syrup.

The Netherlands is also known for Indonesian food, an influence from colonial days. The Dutch version of the cuisine is a mix of various cuisines from different islands and tailored to colonial tastes. The core ingredients are peanuts (featured most prominently in Sate dishes), coconut milk, spicy chili, and a sweet soy sauce – and many of these flavors are also now very mainstream, i.e. you can get Sate in pubs.

Sweets and breads were also quite enjoyable. Of course there are the always lovely stroopwaffles – thin waffle biscuits filled with thick caramel – popularized outside of the Netherlands by Starbucks and Trader Joe’s. We were also introduced to a delicious almond shortbread cookie that was filled with an almond paste. What’s more, I was quite happy to be in the land of whole grains, seeds and nuts when it comes to bread – I had toast every day for breakfast!

Finally, there were other unique treats, a special favorite being the “Dutch hotdog”, which is a croquette filled with gravy and served in a bun. Effectively, biscuits and gravy with a crunch! Very yummy, especially given that we are hot dog connoisseurs. Also, the Belgian-influenced frites were given a tasty spin topped with Sate sauce.

All I can say is that our tummies were very happy and it’s a good thing we cycled so much!!

It’s obvious that I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus recently. I blame it mainly on the Madrid heat –  I’m saying that as a coping mechanism, my brain has slowed down to only focus on the absolutely necessary. That’s about the best excuse I can come up with, although it is not entirely untrue. Anyway, I’ve recently had a break from the heat by heading up to northern Europe and have been reinvigorated to put my fingers to the keyboard again. I’ve got some backlogged travels and recipes to cover, the first being a trip to Italy in early June.

I was lucky enough to make the trip with four girlfriends, the perfect travelling companions in this case because we had one main objective: to eat well! With this goal in mind, we decided to hit up the Italian countryside where the food is authentic and not marked up for tourism. Also wanting to go a little off the beaten track, we chose Emilia-Romagna – the region north of Tuscany and the one known for Parmigiano-Reggiano (Parmesan) cheese, Parma ham, Bolognese and balsamic vinegar of Modena.

On the theme of the road less travelled, we didn’t stay in the midst of the rolling hills and vibrant fields (though Emilia-Romagna certainly has them) – instead our quest for the perfect B&B led us to a modern cabin in the middle of a forest near the town of Parma. Though skeptical in our drive in, after waking up to meadows filled with herbs and wildflowers, deer sightings and the sun peaking through the trees on an early morning trail run, we ended up very happy with our forest location. The pastries our hosts served us for breakfast – a ingenious jam-filled cupcake enveloped in puff pastry – didn’t hurt either.

Our accommodations turned out to be a great starting point for exploring the various culinary highlights of the region. One day we woke up early and dragged ourselves to a Parmigino cheese dairy (there are around 150-200 in all), where the cheese-making process gets good at around 8:00am. This is when cow milk and whey are boiled together in order to form cheese solids. After a few hours, the cheese is formed into big, white rounds that look like something between mozzarella and ricotta, and are completely tasteless (we tried it!). We watched as the morning’s rounds were removed from the remaining liquid and placed in molds which marked the date, place and other relevant details – all indicating that they are made fully according to the standards of the Parmigiano-Reggiano consortium. Next door the cheese is marinated in a salty brine for 30 days. Then it is stored in a cool room with wall to wall shelves for around two years – during this time the salt gradually spreads to the center of the round, hardening, shrinking and yellowing the cheese as it goes and leaving it with tasty little salt crystals throughout. Once a year a member of the cheese consortium checks each round to make sure it is ageing evenly – by tapping it with a hammer and listening for irregular sounds. After viewing all of these stations, we finally got to taste the end product – which they can afford to serve in large chunks. The pleasure is all in the dry layers of age and little crunchy bits. It was decidedly worth the early start!

The next stop was a farm to learn the art of producing traditional balsamic vinegar. Apparently, the balsamic vinegar we know is likely the industrial version, which is actually made with wine vinegar and an assortment of other preserving ingredients, and then aged for 1-2 years. In contrast, traditional balsamic vinegar is made with only one ingredient – grape juice – and is typically aged for 12 years. Given the time investment and the small size of most operations, the stuff is not cheap (35 euros for a 100ml bottle). According to our guide, sometime in the recent past Japanese buyers convinced traditional producers to adapt the process a bit (6 years age) and sell a cheaper version. We had the pleasure of tasting a range of vinegars, from an industrial version all the way to a traditional vinegar aged for 30 years. Basically, time seems to thicken the vinegar, making it more and more like a syrup, and packing it with flavor and sweetness. Lucky for us, the older vinegars were overwhelmingly rich and our favorite was actually the 6 year, more affordable vinegar. We ended the tasting with a scoop of vanilla gelato topped with a spoonful of 12 year old vinegar… an enlightening combination, since the vinegar was just the right amount of sweet.

Speaking of gelato, I had heard a great deal of hype about gelato in its homeland, and I must say that it did not disappoint. We made it a point of “testing it out” every day – 2 euros for 2 giant scoops wasn’t making a dent in our pocketbooks. I loved how they put the second scoop literally around the first so, if you’re like me, you can enjoy one flavor without having to pick up the dribblings of the other one. The creaminess and flavor were unbeatable – there wasn’t a hint of shortcutting or preservatives. And so many different flavors! My favorites came to be pistachio – for its authenticity – and baccio – a combination of hazelnut and chocolate with little bits of hazelnuts… hmmmm.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the pasta. Sampling new kinds of homemade pasta was one of the activities I looked forward to most, and I was very pleased with the results. I especially enjoyed one of the characteristic dishes of the region – ravioli filled with aubergine and topped with a simple and fresh tomato and basil sauce.

Needless to say, many a tasty meal spent in good conversation and banter (and in some cases, singing and dancing) made for a mighty agreeable way to discover this corner of Italy.

From Cupcake Kit by Elinor Klivans, makes 12 medium cupcakes

Ingredients:

Cupcakes:

1 1/4 cups flour

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp baking soda

1/4 tsp salt

1 large egg

1 large egg yolk

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup canola or corn oil

1 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 cup sour cream

Frosting:

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

6 oz cream cheese, at room temperature

1 tsp vanilla extract

3 cups powdered sugar

Directions:

Cupcakes:

1. Mix the dry ingredients in a medium bowl and set aside.

2. In a large bowl, beat the egg, egg yolk and sugar until thickened and lightened to a cream color, about 2 minutes. (If you’re using an electric mixer, it should be on medium speed.)

3. Mix in the oil and vanilla (on low speed) until blended.

4. Mix in the sour cream until no white streaks remain.

5. Mix in the flour mixture until it is incorporated and the batter is smooth. If you want to add in any other flavorings or ingredients, it can be done now.

6. Bake at 350 degrees F for about 25 minutes.

Frosting:

1. In a large bowl, beat the butter, cream cheese and vanilla (on low speed) until smooth and thoroughly blended, about 1 minute.

2. Add the powdered sugar, mixing until smooth, about 1 minute, then beat on medium speed for 1 minute to lighten it further.

Notes:

My baking adventures began when I was 10 with Betty Crocker mixes. The cake box approach lasted for about, um, a little under 20 years. Yes, I don’t think I’ve ever made cupcakes from scratch until now. But when I got a surprise gift of a cupcake kit from my mom during her recent visit to Madrid, I was inspired to give it a try. This is mainly due to the fantastic mini recipe book in the kit. Generally I find such recipes to only be included because they’re an expected component of the kit or as after thoughts, rather than written as quality publications. I was pleasantly surprised with this one – scanning over the “cupcake basics” at the beginning of the book, I was surprised to learn that there are nuances to cupcakes and that there is a right and a wrong way to make them. I was immediately inspired to make some according to the standards of the book.

For instance, I learned that batters that use oil for the shortening usually call for a thorough beating of the eggs with the sugar to develop the cupcake’s texture. When the eggs and sugar are sufficiently beaten, the mixture will look thick and fluffy. Once the eggs and sugar are thoroughly beaten, the purpose of the remained of the mixing is to blend the ingredients just to incorporate them. On the other hand, batters that use softened butter develop the cupcake’s structure from beating the butter and sugar, followed by the eggs.

There are several recipes in the book, but I decided to start with the simplest one to get the basics down. I like how the recipe explains the signs that you should look for when beating the eggs and sugar – thick and creamy colored. Here in Spain, egg yokes are a bright orange and so I noted that it does take a couple of minutes to lighten the color to cream.

Instead of sour cream I could only find creme fraiche, which is basically a thickened sour cream and quite nice.

The batter turned out to be a nice thick consistency, and the cupcakes indeed turned out fluffy and rich in vanilla. (Sidenote: I brought my cupcake pan from home and when I tried to slide it in the oven, I realized that my oven was too small! I had to settle for tilting the pan a bit, so the cupcakes had a kind of windblown look! But they seemed to cook evenly nonetheless.)

I added some lemon zest to the cream cheese frosting and that was a wise move. It added a subtle but fresh accent to the frosting. I also added some finely chopped walnuts on top for a little crunch. Yum yum!

(I also need to work on my frosting skills… next time!)

Shrimp and Grits

We love southern food…or at least I (Kevin) LOVE southern food.

Even though we have never lived in the south, we appreciate the many culinary masterpieces that are particularly well known in the southern states. Fried chicken, bbq, collard greens, mac & cheese just to name a few, simply thinking about them makes one salivate! Today, we’ll share with you one of my favourites, Shrimp & Grits! Being a NW boy living in Madrid does me no credit on how to cook it real southern style, nevertheless, it turned out well!

Ingredients:

For the grits:

2 cups milk

2 cups water (more milk or even chicken stock can be used, depending on your taste)

1 cup grits

1 tablespoon of butter

½ cup grated cheese of your choice (I used cheddar)

Salt & pepper

For the shrimp:

4 slices of bacon

1 lb of prawns (in the US, people call everything shrimp, but I’ve been converted to call larger ones prawns…not sure of the exact designation)

Bundle of chives (you can use green onion or onion, we just happened to have chives on hand)

3 garlic cloves

1 handful of parsley

A dash of chili powder, salt, pepper, pepper flakes, and onion powder

¼ cup of milk

A splash of lemon juice

Directions:

1. Heat the milk, water, and butter until boiling. Gently stir in the grits and cook on low heat until the desired consistency. Stir in the cheese. Salt and pepper to taste.

2. Cut the bacon into small chunks and cook in pan until crunchy. Remove bacon from the pan but keep the grease for cooking.

3. Season prawns with chili powder, salt, pepper, pepper flakes, and onion powder. Toss to ensure even coating. Heat up pan with bacon grease on high heat. Cook prawns one minute per side. Throw in chopped chives and garlic and sauté for one to two minutes. Add in chopped bacon and heat for further half minute. Add in chopped parsley. Add in milk and lemon juice to deglaze the pan and add some liquid.

4. Serve prawns on top of grits, preferably in a shallow bowl.

5. Eat and refill.

Fish, Three Ways

Fish, three ways: that pretty much sums up a very lovely weekend away from Madrid. The destination was a small town on the east coast of Spain called Dénia, between the cities of Valencia and Alicante. We hightailed it out of Madrid to spend two days sunning ourselves on the beach.

While the beach was indeed sunny (for one day at least), the sand golden and the water a lovely blue, it was three of our meals that remain ingrained in our minds. In the midst of many a town overrun with northern European tourists and restaurants catered toward them, Dénia is refreshingly Spanish and we were looking forward to experiencing some specialties of the fertile Valencia region. Also, being on the coast of the Mediterranean we were hoping to try some new types of fish and seafood. We were not disappointed…

First, dinner at a restaurant recommended by a friend. We ordered some fried aubergine (yummy) and some grilled squid with pesto (better deep-fried, the texture is too rubbery for us otherwise). Wanting to try a fish, we asked our waiter for his suggestion, which was pescadilla. Let’s just say, it was not what we expected. The name should have been a hint, but neither of us were thinking that far – pescadilla refers to small, sardine-sized fish. So, we ended up with a plate of ten or so mini fried fish! Whole fish! Half were slightly bigger (see below). Not sure how to eat such tiny fish, with bones and head and eyes and all, we tried a few, only getting a few bites from each one. The waiter came by and laughed at us, saying we had destroyed the fish! He helped us out by showing us how to carefully peel back the skin, cut the ends off and remove the spine. His looked beautiful, and our subsequent efforts to repeat his work were not quite as beautiful but we did succeed in getting more than a few bites out of each one. He also showed us how to eat the fried fish – like fried chicken! It was surprising, given that Spaniards never eat anything without a fork and knife. It turned out that the bones on the little guys were small enough to eat, and they were pretty delicious! All in all, it was a rewarding cultural experience, thanks to our patient waiter.

Second, lunch at a paella shack next to the beach. We’ve had paella before, even once in the paella capital of Valencia, but it’s usually an expensive and fancy affair. This was a far cry from fancy – the locals get it take-out (along with buckets of roasted chicken). But the paella was fabulous!! Better than the fancy places. Full of flavor, moist on top and crunchy on the bottom and sides of the paella pan. We got the seafood version as part of our continued venture into the local frutos del mar. This one had mussels, squid, shrimp and mini lobsters.  The squid turned out to be delicious with the rice – so apparently the trick is just not to eat it on its own! The shrimp were amazing! They didn’t have that fishy taste that shrimp can have sometimes – must be their freshness. Needless to say, we were satisfied, and happily headed back to our spot on the beach to take a nap.

Third, after a lovely sunset viewed from a catamaran (courtesy of the hotel deal we had secured), we headed to a nearby cafe for some dinner. Not expecting anything special, we were very pleasantly surprised by yet another fish dish. It was called bacalao quemado or burnt cod (meaning burnt to a crisp) so we weren’t really sure what we were getting. What we got was a delight to our eyes and our tastebuds (I wish I had a photo but didn’t have the camera on us!). It was black, thoroughly black!! We think they must have rolled it in a flour that was colored black. The cod was a nice thick piece like you get with fish and chips in the Northwest of the US, cooked perfectly and with a breading that was just the right balance of crunchy and chewy. The cod was served on dots of grey aioli on a piece of grey slate. It was an eye-poppin’ dish! We also had some very lovely grilled vegetables, which were delicious, not surprising given the region. We couldn’t stop telling the waitresses how amazing the meal was!

One last sight for the eyes I have to mention were the groves of oranges we saw as we drove back from the coast through Valencia. Background: oranges are ridiculously cheap in Madrid (and all of Spain, no doubt) – you can buy a bag of 20 for 2 euros. We have an automatic squeezer – most households here have one – and each time I have a glass of fresh OJ I’m in awe of how sweet it is. I’ve always wondered how oranges can be so amazing and yet so cheap, and now I know. All surface areas in Valencia that do not have buildings are filled with orange trees. The region is literally one big carpet of green! No joke. It is simply beautiful.