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Monthly Archives: January 2009

On the Road to Spain— Finally!

Paella de la casaMy new favorite TV show is “Spain— On The Road Again” on PBS. Thanks to Slim McDinner and Sous Chef for introducing it to me. Chef Mario Batali, actress Gwyneth Paltrow (fluent in Spanish), New York Times columnist and cookbook author Mark Bittman and Catalunyan actress Caludia Bassols take a road trip through Spain, eating the typical food of each region at all the best restaurants. In between lavish meals they find time to stop at a few cathedrals and alcázars and marvel at a few museums. Needless to say, they stay in the best hotels and drive around in beautiful Mercedes convertibles. The show is great because it’s the next best thing to actually being there. I took a similar trip when I was working as an au pair in high school, taking care of the kids as some family friends traveled around Spain. I can almost taste the food they’re eating. For many of the same reasons, the show is also incredible aggravating. “Why can’t I be there?” you almost scream at the screen. “Why do beautiful, rich and famous people always gets to do things like this for a living?” Here’s a clip about how the unlikely foursome got together:

Much of my life since my trips to Spain in high school and college has been devoted to trying to get back there. I will be taking Empanada Boy there as soon as we get the money and time. In the meantime, I search for ways to recapture the flavors of Spain. As you may recall from reading previous posts about Spanish restaurants, I am usually disappointed in this pursuit. But I recently went to La Nacional with Honey Roasted Peanut and Corned Beef Hashette to sample what purported to be highly authentic Spanish food. La Nacional is the restaurant of La Sociedad Benefica Española de Socorros Mutuos, a Spanish social club founded in 1868. Tucked away on the basement level of a West 14th Street townhouse, the restaurant opens onto a bar area has TVs playing Spanish shows and sports. Old Spanish men sit at small wooden tables with a glass of beer. They chat and play cards. The only truly Spanish element of this picture that’s missing is the clouds of cigarette smoke.

CamperoThe restaurant area is modest with more of the same solid wooden furniture. We started with a round of vino tinto de la casas and some tapas. When the tortilla española arrived along with a plate of fried baby artichokes, I was so eager to try them that I forgot to take pictures. The tortilla was the closest thing to a real Spanish tortilla I’ve tried. It was served at room temperature with just the right balance between the softness of the egg and potato and the firmness of the wedge that they had become. They were cooked in flavorful Spanish olive oil, and there was a nice edge of saltiness. The fried artichokes had a crispy crust and a satisfyingly rich center. Still, they weren’t amazing. I wanted to try the sardines or the salpicón de mariscos, but CB Hashette doesn’t eat fish. Those will definitely be on my list of tapas next time. Our final tapa, which I remembered to photograph after we had already eaten half, was the Plato Campero. It consisted of a spread of chorizo, jamón serrano and manchego cheese. While the jamón wasn’t quite the oil-soaked patanegra variety so famous in Spain, the cheese and the meats were of high quality. This was the first assemblage of its kind outside of Spain to truly evoked some of the authentic flavors.

Paella de polloLa Nacional is known for its paellas. The owners of the restaurant also own Soccarat, a pricier place devoted almost entirely to paella. Paellas come in two sizes. We sampled two smalls— one with chicken and chorizo and the other a classic mixta with shellfish and chicken. The first of these was a special creation for the benefit of the non-seafood-eater at our table. The scent of saffron wafted up as both paellas were brought to the table. The rice was pleasantly al dente in both, but neither had enough of the crusty, crunchy base (soccarat, sofrito) that traditionally forms at the bottom of the pan. Although I loved having the shellfish in the paella, the addition of chorizo to the other pan gave it an extra smoky depth that the paella de la casa lacked. Both were delicious, but if I could have combined the two and crisped them up a bit, I would have been in heaven.

Crema CatalanaFor dessert we shared a crema catalana, the Spanish equivalent of crème brulée. This version had a more crackly burnt sugar crust than the brulées offered in many more expensive French restaurants. The custard inside a crema catalana is a bit eggier and less solid than its French cousin, and this preparation remained true to its Spanish roots. Although we ended up spending more than we had anticipated because of the two paellas and the dessert, two could dine for $25 here, including wine. Perhaps that is the restaurant’s most authentic trait of all: tapas are meant to be light snacks, and paella is meant to share. Neither is meant to break the bank. Although it wasn’t mind-blowing, La Nacional hit the right notes. I left wishing I were on my way to Spain. With enough restaurants like this and shows like “Spain— On The Road Again,” I may be able to tide myself over until I can hop aboard a plane.

La Nacional
239 West 14th St.
New York, NY 10011

La Nacional on Urbanspoon

The Best Pizza Tastes Better Without the Wait

whole pieI have been known to wait in line for great food. When it comes to vaunted establishments like Sally’s or Pepe’s in New Haven, CT or the original Pizzeria Uno in Chicago, I have even been known to wait in line for great pizza. But no matter how fantastic the food is, waiting is usually a serious deterrent to frequent visits. And waiting in sub-zero temperatures, as we were visited with last week in New York, is just not something I am willing to do. Luckily, Empanada Boy and I had great timing when we decided to stop in at Brooklyn’s legendary coal brick-oven pizzeria, Grimaldi’s.

PosterI was flying into JFK after a week of reporting in Southern California, and EB was kindly driving out to meet me at the airport. My plane didn’t land until around 9:30 pm. Neither of us had eaten dinner, so we saw it as our chance to stop somewhere outside our normal dining range. EB used to be a frequent visitor to Grimaldi’s, and he couldn’t wait to see whether it lived up to his memories. After some winding around beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, we found the restaurant. By then it was after 10 pm, and we had the pick of the red-checkered tables. The restaurant is delightfully old-school and somewhat shabby with a faded awing and an interior decorated with nostalgic trinkets. Most of these were related to Frank Sinatra, for whom Grimaldi’s is supposed to have been a favorite. (I have also heard stories of Sinatra sending his driver to all the way New Haven for Sally’s pies or for clam pizza at Pepe’s.) Others were just celebrity/Italian/mafia-related posters, signed photos and souvenirs.

sliceEB and I sat down and hungrily ordered a plain large pizza and a bottle of wine. A large is 18″, and a small is only two inches smaller. Why not get the bigger one? A plain pizza is $14 or so, with an added cost for each topping. EB assured me that the superior quality of the ingredients made even a plain pizza a near religious experience. He was right. Our beautiful pizza arrived fresh from the oven a few minutes later. The sauce tasted slightly sweet like just-picked tomatoes; circles of fresh mozzarella were smattered across the surface like ethereal snowflakes; sprigs of fresh basil added color and the perfect bite. But most of all, this pizza stood out because of its crust. Deliciously chewy with a slight touch of sweetness and wonderful, slightly charred bubbles, this was a masterpiece of a crust. This texture is incredibly hard to come by, even in New York, in large part because very few places have the license to run a coal-powered brick oven. We noted that Grimaldi’s pizza is a uniquely Italian-American style, more specifically New York-style. You wouldn’t find it in Naples or Rome; you couldn’t even find it in Chicago.

CannoloWe ate our whole pizza (of course). I considered this to be a pretty big feat, but the average-sized couple at the table next to us finished one plain pie only to be brought another pepperoni of which they ate half. We were full, but our eyes were bigger than our stomachs. Cannoli were calling out to us from the menu, and we had to order one. This cannolo was not the best we’d tried, but it seemed to have been filled in-house. It seemed like a nice light way to end the meal until we stood up. We were full until we went to bed that night, but what’s a better food for dreams than perfect pizza and creamy cannoli? Perhaps the thought of getting to eat it all without having to wait in line.

Grimaldi’s Pizzeria
19 Old Fulton St.
Under the Brooklyn Bridge
Brooklyn, NY 11201

Grimaldi's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

What’s Cooking? Hearty, Homestyle Fare

Chili I’m sighing as I make the trek back to New York after a lengthy vacation in Wisconsin and Oregon. Empanada Boy came home a few days before me because he had to work. I wanted to stay in Portland for my grandma, Trader Joanna’s, birthday. This is probably the last time I will be able to take advantage of a student’s long winter vacation, so I relished every minute of it. EB and I flew into Chicago and spent the night with Sous Chef, Slim McDinner and family in Evanston. The next morning, we hitched a ride up to Madison. As soon as we pulled up, we were shuttled into another car by Tofutti Cutie and Popover to make the four-hour trek up to EB’s family place in northern Wisconsin’s Eagle River. We had a lot of fun, despite the snowy, sub-zero weather. But we headed back to Madison earlier than expected to escape an oncoming blizzard. On the way home, we stopped for lunch at The Cookery.

liver and onionsThe Cookery is a classic roadside café with lacy curtains, hearty food made from scratch and plenty of regulars. It’s actually located just down the road from Eagle River in the town of Sugar Camp. Snowmobilers park outside and head in for a sandwich or a homestyle plate of food. The Cookery was closed when we tried to go there on our last visit, so EB was excited to get me to try it this time. We stomped in wearing our winter boots and sat down at a round table. Popover ordered a grilled cheese sandwich from the regular menu, but EB and Tofutti Cutie were tempted by the special of the day: liver and onions with a side of rye bread. I wanted something warm and filling. Nothing seemed to better fit the bill than a bowl of house-made chili.

I didn’t try Popover’s grilled cheese sandwich, but it looked like a fairly basic assemblage, involving toasted white sandwich bread, yellow cheddar cheese and tomatoes. A pickle spear came on the side.

The liver platters were large and opulently draped with caramelized onions and sizeable pieces of liver. The meat was a little leathery, but it was flavorful and not too difficult to eat (unless, like me, you can only eat a few bites of this rich, pungent organ before the queasiness sets in). The rye bread was of the inferior variety— visually appealing but lacking in any distinctive rye flavor. Coleslaw on the side balanced out the richness of the meat.

The chili was delicious and hit the spot. The flavors could have been more complex, but they were balanced with just the right tomatoey sweetness and kick of spice. My only disappointment was that there wasn’t cornbread to go with it. I ordered a side of bread, but slices of wheat sandwich bread were apparently the best the kitchen could come up with.

CrumbleFor dessert we shared a dried cherry crumble with a scoop of ice cream. The topping was made with oatmeal and could have benefited from something to hold the clumps together more effectively and from more spices, including salt. The dried cherries were nice, though, and the dish was definitely homemade.

Simple, homemade fare is the specialty at The Cookery. And while this may not seem too exciting, it may well be the only restaurant in the area that doesn’t devote most of its menu to fried food. Not that there’s anything wrong with fried food, of course, but sometimes clean, basic flavors provide a welcome change.

The Cookery
6694 Hwy. 17 North
Sugar Camp, WI 54501