Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Best Thing I Ate in Spain (So Far)

My husband and I recently ate our way through Madrid and Barcelona. It was my first time in Spain, though I've been all around Europe, and his second trip since his days backpacking on a Eurorail pass more than 10 years ago.

In general, we've been making an effort to travel more, and we are trying to squeeze a lot in before the blessing of children benches us for the next 18 or so years. 
Lots of anticipation was associated with this vacation, and it only increased as each person we told about our upcoming adventure gushed about how amazing the food would be.
Our time in Barcelona and Madrid did not disappoint. Besides the gorgeous scenery       
Madrid, Photo: Neurotic Kitchen
amazing architecture, and friendly people, the food really is fantastic. And once we found out that you can order a good bottle of wine
at dinner for the American equivalent of ten dollars, we were pretty much over the moon.
As Americans, and as New Yorkers, we just couldn't get our minds around this wonder.  Yet after so many cheap bottles of wine, our minds weren't really that useful anyway. Yes, we overindulged in the omnipresent Jamon Iberico, sampled delicious tapas all over each city, and ate a few really good paellas.

Ham Selection at the Market in Barcelona, Photo: NK

Seafood Paella in Barcelona, Photo: NK
I'm a fan of tapas. I have problems making decisions - especially food related decisions. I like the idea of small bites and lots of variety. I am also a fan of Europe. I am always so much calmer there. Sure, it has something to do with being away from work and other obligations, but the relaxed atmosphere and positive outlook of the people really does my soul good.  Europe just seems to me like the way life should be (see: affordable wine and encouraged daytime napping). 
Barcelona by Night, Photo: Neurotic Kitchen

Now I realize we only experienced a small part of the vast cuisine of Spain (primarily Catalonian and Castilian), and my hope is that we can return to further explore the countryside and get a wider sampling of the uniquely regional cuisines. 

But for now, here are some of my my favorite tastes from our trip:

Croquetas de Bacalao
Oh so good. Creamy, potatoey, perfectly fried.  We ate them at Casa Labra in Madrid - a bar founded in 1860 known for being a preferred meeting place for the Socialist Party. The bar is also famous for superior cod croquettes. They deserve the hype.   
Click HERE for more info on Casa Labra.
Bacalao Croquettes, Photo: NK

Rabbit Paella
Next, I sampled Rabbit for the first time, one of the last small game meats I'd not yet tried. I was sad about it, and I remember being scandalized when my first generation Italian roommate brought Rabbit leftovers home from Easter break back in college.  As I enjoyed it, all I could think of was the story my dad once told me of how his parents gave his pet bunny, Sir Archibald, to the neighbors to eat. Nowadays, you could get on Oprah with a childhood trauma like that. But times were tough back then and people did what they had to do. This wasn't Archie, I told myself.  The dish, despite my guilt, was delicious. 

Anchovy Canape, Tuna & Caperberries: NK 
A much maligned food here in the States, but a food I just love. The Spanish are unabashed about their fondness for anchovies. They are everywhere. Anchovies are delicious as a tapa, served simply on bread with or without other accompaniments. I was in heaven. 
Huevos Estrellados
Served as a side dish or meal, this dish was a revelation. We enjoyed it as part of our meal at El Lando in Madrid. It is one of their specialties but it is widely available elsewhere. The components include a simple combination of crispy, perfectly cooked fries topped with a few soft-cooked eggs.  Your waiter will usually cut the eggs table-side resulting in the runny yolk seeping into the crevices of all that golden potato goodness. Who knew two such familiar flavors and textures could result in the ultimate soul-warming comfort food? As with many foods that are simply prepared, the magic comes from perfect execution. 
Pan Con Tomate 
Ubiquitous in Spain, this tapa is simply garlic rubbed bread topped with shredded tomato flesh. Delicious. 

We tried restaurants that ranged from very traditional to slightly more modernized interpretations on tapas, Catalana in Barcelona being an example of the latter. No complaints.
Fried Baby Squid and Shrimp Skewer at Catalana, Barcelona, Photo: NK

But my favorite taste experience in Spain was the most simple. It was waiting at the table for us when we arrived for dinner at El Lando

I am not sure what this dish was officially called, but I would describe it as a Tomato Carpaccio.

I learned it is something that they put on all the tables and only remove if you ask. Not knowing this wasn't simply a gratis snack I told the waiter, "of course we'll eat it!" when he asked if we wanted it, after which point my husband predictably grumbled that they would charge us. Anyways, best mistake ever. 

The tomato dish, a plate of paper-thin slices of tomatoes laid out in a row, sprinkled with lemon juice and a fruity olive oil, then finished with sea salt, was one of the most delicious things I had in Spain.  My whole meal at El Lando was actually fantastic, including my entree of delicate baby lamb chops, our huevos estrellados side, the tasty (and free) dessert of pastries and chocolate, and the wonderful service thoughout that enhanced the experience... but I just couldn't get past these tomatoes.

So there you have it, folks - our one splurge at an upscale restaurant (one we later learned is a favorite of almost every A-list American Celebrity because of its food and secluded paparazzi-free location) and I am stuck on the tomatoes. More about El Lando Madrid HERE. 

I really am a simple girl at heart. 

Back home in wintery NYC it is most certainly not tomato season, but I was  itching to recreate this dish from the moment we landed.  I've not found a recipe for Tomato Carpaccio that is as simple as what was presented to us at El Lando, so I winged it.  Despite it being December, I managed to find two nice looking beefsteak tomatoes and let them ripen for about three days.  

Below is what I came up with, and I have to say, it tasted quite similar.                      
Sometimes the best things in life are the simplest.

Tomato Carpaccio, Photo: Neurotic Kitchen

NK's Tomato "Carpaccio"
Serves 2-3

2 ripe beefsteak tomatos
3 tablespoons good quality extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons of fresh squeezed lemon juice
sea salt and pepper to taste 

Thinly slice the tomatoes into paper thin rounds. A smooth-edged steak knife actually works well for this. Place the slices in one layer, edges overlapping a bit, on a platter.  Sprinkle with lemon juice and leave to sit about a half hour for the flavors to blend. When ready to serve season liberally with sea salt and pepper, and finish by drizzling oil on top. Enjoy!
Though it pained us to say Adios to Espagna, we came away with many great memories and culinary experiences.  As part of my own personal goals, I intend to learn more about the cuisine of Spain and try new dishes in NK. Lucky for me, I have a thoughtful friend named Rhianne who gifted me with one of the best reviewed and comprehensive books on Spanish cooking: 

Photo: Neurotic Kitchen

I am excited to read it and cook from it, and I promise to share! 


1 comment:

  1. I am excited to read it and cook from it, and I promise to share!