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Monthly Archives: May 2010

Eating it up in Ávila, El Escorial and Toledo

Empanada Boy and I spent two of our five days in Madrid visiting nearby towns and cities. We woke up feeling better after our rough jet-lag plagued first night. Isla Flotante and Salmorejo picked us up from our hotel in Isla’s car for a drive out to the walled city of Ávila, the center of Spanish mysticism. Ávila is the home of Santa Teresa, a medieval nun and poet who wrote surprisingly erotic poems about her mystical communion with Jesus. It is also known for having some of the best beef in Spain.

After walking in the hot sun along the ancient, high walls that surround the outside of the city, we ate lunch at a spot called Restaurante Tres Siglos. Salmorejo selected a robust wine from Ribera del Duero, and we ordered two thin tenderloin steaks. Before those came, we ate a mashed potato dish, infused with smoky pimentón (Spanish paprika) and topped with crunchy pieces of ham. We also had gambas al ajillo (shrimp in a garlic oil sauce) and a platter of sliced chorizo and lomo (pork loin). Of these non-steak dishes I liked the pork platter the best. The potato dish was heavy, and the bacon pieces were too hard. The shrimp were measly, flavorless, cocktail adornments, not like the gambas we would see later in Barcelona.

But that steak was by far the best part of the meal. It was juicy and full of the flavor of the Castillian countryside. I prefer my steak to have gristle and chew—more ribeye than filet mignon—and this one had all of those elements expressed in their full glory. I could have taken or left the fries that came along with it, but this was a nice piece of meat.

We left Ávila after lunch and continued on to El Escorial, the town that houses the palace built by Felipe II, who was the king of Spain from 1556 to 1598. In addition to the austere, but impressive palace, the grounds house a crypt where nearly all of the Spanish kings (and their wives) from Felipe onwards are entombed. Empty tombs ominously await the bodies of the parents of the current king, Juan Carlos. There is also a series of adjacent rooms filled with the coffins of innumerable princes, princesses and other royalty. Needless to say, we emerged from our tour of El Escorial burdened with the solemn weight of Spanish Catholic history.

Luckily, El Escorial is also known for its churros con chocolate. We went to a nearby café and ordered some. They were crusty on the outside but perfectly light and chewy on the inside, and the chocolate was almost as thick as syrup and very rich. Churros must be accompanied with chocolate that’s much thicker than the typical drinking variety because they must retain the chocolate like sauce after being dipped. Isla Flotante told me the secret is to buy chocolate powder with flour mixed in for thickening. Inferior varieties use gelatin, which should be avoided.

A couple days later, EB and I hopped on a bus to Toledo, the home of El Greco and the marizipan capital of the world. Culinarily speaking, Toledo is known for small game like conejo (rabbit) and perdiz (partridge). EB and I wanted to taste some partridge, so we stopped for lunch at a restaurant called Restaurante Ludeña, which we read had it on the fixed-price menu del día. As it turned out, the less expensive menu del dia offered cordoníz (quail), which is basically like a smaller cousin. I decided to start with gazpacho and then order the cordonices. EB started with paella and then got merluza a la plancha (grilled hake).

The gazpacho was refreshing, although I couldn’t help thinking about Mango Mama’s complaint that it just tastes like watery, mild salsa. (That’s one reason I prefer Salmorejo, the bread-thickened gazpacho of Cordoba, or the Southern Spanish gazpacho de almendras made with almonds instead of tomato.) The cordonices were succulent, cooked in a rich sauce made with rum, bacon and onions. In typical Spanish fashion, the dish came with French fries. These were somewhat disappointing compared to the luxurious richness of the dish. They also did little to cut the considerable saltiness of the cordonices.

EB’s paella was excellent, with plump prawns and gently cooked mussels. The rice was al dente and evenly cooked. It was a substantial serving, so when the merluza arrived, it was almost as though another meal was being served—and eaten—in quick succession. The fish was perfectly done, but blandly seasoned and fairly boring. The plate, complete with the ubiquitous French fries, looked a little too white for my taste. Some fresh green herbs could have made that fish pop visually and flavorwise.

For dessert we ordered flan and natillas, another creamy, eggy pudding, typical of Castilla-La Mancha. The desserts were fine, but they set us over the edge in terms of fullness. We basically rolled out of Ludeña and gradually managed to work off the lunch through some aggressive touring of the mind-blowingly ornate cathedral, the El Greco sites and the ancient synagogues. By the time we had finished all of this, we were finally starting to get a bit hungry again. It was time for our merienda, the pre-dinner sweet snack, a meal that only the Spaniards could have invented. Luckily, I knew exactly where to go.

As I mentioned before, Toledo is known for its marzipan. The best marzipan in Toledo may well be the Mazapanes Santa Rita made and sold by the nuns in the Real Monasterio de Santa Úrsula. I never much cared for marizpan until I stopped in and bought some from the nuns when I was last in Toledo with Daddy Salmon, Mango Mama and Flava Flav. This has a soft chew to it and a genuine, sweetly almondine flavor, unlike others I had tasted that reeked of almond extract. Because this order of nuns lives a very cloistered existence the process of buying the marzipan is noteworthy. We walked into a dimly lit tiled lobby and climbs a few stairs to a door. Inside is a small window, occupied by a metal lazy susan turntable with a little wooden door on the other side. Then we rang a bell and a nun opened the little wooden door to request our order: the largest box full, of course. We put the money in our side of the turnstile, and the nun spun it toward her. She then sent it spinning back to us with our box of marzipan inside.

We ate a few marzipan, which come in different traditional shapes, as we sat and watched the sun set over the hillside. The candy was just as good as I remembered it. I could have eaten many more pieces, but EB and I wanted them to last. We ate our last one about 10 days ago. As with the madeleine for Proust, eating them will always bring me back to that sunset with the steep slope from the old city of Toledo to the new, coated in toasty almond gold.

Restaurante Tres Siglos
Calle de los Comuneros de Castilla, 11
05001 Ávila, Spain
920 228 772

Restaurante Ludeña
Plaza de la Magdalena, 10
45001 Toledo, Spain
925 223 384

Mazapanes Santa Rita
Convento de Santa Úrsula
Calle de Santa Úrsula, 5
45002 Toledo, Spain
92 222 235

Bienvenidos a Madrid

Empanada Boy and I spent the week before last traveling in Spain. We started in Madrid, from which we took day trips to Ávila and Toledo, and finished in Barcelona. Along the way, we ate food that was fantastically delicious and food that was equally disappointing. Lest you should worry, fearless readers, I captured it all on camera and will recount the most noteworthy parts in the next few posts.

We begin in Madrid where we arrived bleary-eyed on the morning of Saturday, April 24. We couldn’t check into our pensión until 1 pm, so we left our suitcases and went in search of breakfast. I studied in Madrid during my sophomore year of college, so I knew EB would get a proper introduction at a real institution like Mallorquina. Occupying one side of the plaza that surrounds the Puerta del Sol (an old entrance to the city), Mallorquina was founded in 1894. It continues to serve some of the best baked-goods and cafes con leche in the city. We walked through the crowded bar where madrileños stood eating pastries from the decadently filled glass cases, up to the second floor where suit-clad waiters serve at tables.

EB began his trip-long love affair with chocolate croissants. These were called napoletanas in Madrid, but would later be known as magdalenas in Barcelona. I ordered an ensaimada, an ethereal twist of barely sweet dough made with lard and dusted with a cloud of powdered sugar. It was a great start, and the café con leche— strong coffee brewed with an espresso machine and topped off with rich whole milk— brought back many a Spanish memory.

Our next meal didn’t occur until about 7 that evening after we had walked around for many more hours and finally stumbled back to our pensión for a nap. We were scheduled to meet my friend Isla Flotante and her boyfriend Salmorejo at a theater to see a performance of traditional Spanish dancing by the National Spanish Dance company, but we needed a snack beforehand, so we went to a bar in the posh neighborhood of Salamanca whose name I was too exhausted to remember. We had wanted to visit a tapas place called Txirimiri, but it was closed when we arrived. (As we would be reminded time and time again, the Spanish schedule doesn’t conform to any rules.)

We ordered glasses of red wine and three pinchos (like tapas), which came on toasted bread: one rubbed with tomatoes and laden with anchovies, another with garlicky mayonnaise and shrimp and a final one with tomatoes and jamón serrano, the Spanish ham we had been anticipating for weeks. All were tasty; although I am not a big fan of the whimpy little cocktail-sized shrimp that were all too prevalent in land-locked Madrid. My favorite was the anchovy and tomato combo. Spanish anchovies, and really all Spanish canned goods, are leagues above what’s commonly available in the U.S., in terms of flavor and quality of original ingredients.

After the show, which was stunning, Isla, Salmorejo, EB and I went out for a meal at La Tabernilla, a restaurant in the outlying neighborhood where the theater was located. We had una revuelta de morcilla con pasillas y piñones (blood sausage tossed with eggs, raisins and pine nuts); setas fritas (battered and fried wild mushrooms); and patatas revueltas con jamón (potatoes tossed with eggs and ham). EB and I didn’t love any of these dishes. The morcilla, usually a wonderful ingredient, was lost in the mix, as was the jamón. And the potatoes in that dish were underseasoned and mushy. To make matters worse, our biological clocks had no idea what time it was, and we were struggling to focus on our Spanish amidst the encroaching presence of sleep.

See the following post for the food we ate with Isla Flotante and Salmorejo the next day in the towns of Ávila and El Escorial.

For breakfast the morning after our outing, EB and I headed to Café Comercial, a famous old place located on the glorieta de Bilbao. I had some good memories of breakfasts eaten there as a student, but despite the excellent quality of the pan con tomate (bread spread with fresh tomato and olive oil), I will not be going back. The reason is that EB and I went into the bar where a menu was posted advertising breakfasts with coffee and pan con tomate for 2.50 euros each. But when we sat outside and ordered, the bill came to nearly 11 euros. As it turned out, the prices we had seen were only for the bar, while they got away with charging more than double for the tables outside serviced by a waiter. It’s common in Spain to have a discrepancy in price between tables and bars, but it’s not common for the discrepancy to be so wide. We had experienced what the Spaniards call “un timo,” better known as a ripoff.

Our luck did not improve at lunch, when I suggested we try the menu del día (fixed price set lunch) at El 26 de la Libertad, a restaurant in the Chueca neighborhood that I faintly remembered fondly. (I looked up El Sur, my favorite restaurant from my student days, but the restaurant at that location wasn’t open either day we checked, and there was little to suggest that it was even open at all anymore, at least at that location.) El 26 de Libertad is housed in a funkily painted building and has a small bar in the front room which bears reports of its many accolades from travel publications. After a scowling waiter kindly moved us out of the way of a direct line of cigarette fumes, we ordered a lentil stew, salmorejo (gazpacho typically from Cordoba made with almonds instead of tomatoes), pork ribs and calamari “a la romana.” Nearly everything about this meal was disappointing: the restaurant was out of salmorejo, and the cream of chicken soup we got instead could have come from a can; the ribs were poorly cooked and were doused in a too-sweet barbecue sauce; the calamari came in limp fried rings that might just have been defrosted. Only the lentils were passable, and even they were underseasoned.

Our Madrid dining experience was not going as well as I had hoped. I had forgotten so much about where the best places were, and many of the ones I remembered were no longer there. There was also not enough time to devote to finding the best food when we had so much to see in such a small window of time.

Still, we were determined to do better that night. We went to a popular tapas strip in the La Latina neighborhood and got a table at Taberna Tempranillo, a wine bar almost exclusively devoted to Spanish bottles. I ordered a lovely fragrant albariño, and EB got a glass of “Les Terrasses” a well-regarded wine from the Priorat region by Alvaro Palacios. A glass of it would surely have cost $12 in a New York wine bar, but here a small glass went for 3.50 euros. For tapas, we ordered a platter of delicious spicy chorizo and two montaditos— toasted bread topped with other ingredients. We selected one spread with tomato and lined with delicious Spanish tuna called ventresca and other piled with cured duck “ham” and roasted zucchini. Both were excellent, and we felt our spirits begin to revive.

But EB still hadn’t gotten a good taste of jamón serrano, so we continued down the street looking for a platter of the good stuff we could afford. A man standing next to a leg of ham outside a restaurant called Toma Jamón convinced us to stop by offering us a free sample of some freshly sliced pieces. The place had a sort of cheesy, chain-like atmosphere, but they were offering a half portion of ham for 7.50 euros, much less than anything we’d seen. We stood at the bar and ate our delicious platter of ham with massive slices of pan con tomate and cañas (small glasses of beer). Even if this was a chain, it was better than almost any American chain I’ve been to.

See my later post about our day trip to Toledo and the food we ate there.

It was late when we got home from Toledo the next day, but EB wanted to try a bocadillo, a sandwich made with one or two ingredients on a baguette. There are almost never condiments of any kind: no mustard; no mayonnaise. EB had his eye set on a particular place, another Madrid institution called El Brillante. A sparkling, mirrored palace of a restaurant near the Atocha train station, El Brillante serves the widest range of bocadillos of any place around. It’s staffed by a surly bunch of seasoned behind-the-counter waiters and frequented by madrileños of all ages and occupations.

El Brillante is supposedly famous for its bocadillo de calamares, but after the poor limp fried calamari rings we had at 26 de Libertad, I wasn’t going to risk it. Morcilla was EB’s filling of choice, and we chowed down on the sandwich together, each eating half. It was juicy, salty and delicious. EB still felt hungry, so he topped it off with a mini bocadillo of tasty jamón.

We spent the next day visiting the Prado and needed a quick nearby respite for our lunch break. The Parque del Buen Retiro, Madrid’s largest park, was the natural choice. We went to one of the restaurants overlooking the park’s main lake and watched people rowing boats as we ate bocadillos made with jamón and chorizo. We also had ice cream from the Nestlé cooler, offering EB the opportunity he had long been awaiting: the chance to try the Maxibon, the latest trend in dessert. This was half ice cream sandwich, half chocolate coated ice cream bar and came in a variety of flavors. I didn’t care for the cookie part, but EB declared it awesome.

We met up with Isla and Salmorejo again that evening and visited, the Templo Debod, an Egyptian temple that was gifted to the Spaniards and rebuilt in the Parque del Oeste. After touring the temple and enjoying some sodas in the park, we went in search of some dinner in the very tony surrounding neighborhood of Rosales.

After finding too many places that were obviously beyond our price range, we decided to eat at an Argentinian steakhouse of sorts called La Vaca Argentina— not exactly my top choice for my last night in Madrid, but the food was pretty tasty. It also tasted remarkably Spanish for being Argentinian. Case in point: The grilled chorizo we ate before our steak. We also had a delicious salad with avocado, tomato and hearts of palm and a juicy sliced steak, which arrived raw so we could grill it ourselves on the hot ridged pan on our table. All went nicely with a robust Ribera del Duero.

When we finished the meal, we said goodbye to Isla Flotante and Salmorejo and told them one last time how much we wanted them to come visit New York. Then we got our bags from our hostel, bid adios to Madrid and headed to the bus station to catch the overnight bus to Barcelona. We had eaten well in Madrid, but we had high hopes for the fresh seafood, cava and baked goods of Catalunya.

La Mallorquina
Puerta del Sol, 8; Mayor, 2
28013 Madrid, España
91 521 12 01

La Tabernilla
Plaza de Ribadeo, 1
28029 Madrid, España
91 730 77 11

Café Comercial
Glorieta de Bilbao, 7
28004 Madrid, España
91 521 56 55

El 26 de la Libertad
Calle Libertad, 26
28004 Madrid, España
91 522 25 22

Taberna Tempranillo
Calle Cava Baja, 38
28005 Madrid, España
91 364 15 32‎

Toma Jamón
Calle Cava Baja, 10
28005 Madrid, España

El Brillante
Plaza del Emperador Carlos V, 8
28012 Madrid, España
91 539 28 06‎

La Vaca Argentina
Paseo del Pintor Rosales, 52
28002 Madrid, España
91 559 66 05

Gourmet, Unbound: May

We just returned from Barcelona on Sunday, so I decided seafood would again be in store for my May tribute to Gourmet magazine. Unfortunately, this month’s recipe sounded better than it tasted. There was not enough sauce to coat the mussels, and what sauce there was didn’t have as much flavor as I would have expected after all the spices I put in. The problem may have also been with the mussels I picked up from Whole Foods later in the day. They tasted mealy and a few tasted a little off. Needless to say, not a good sign.

Either way, this could probably be a better recipe with better salt and more liquid. In the meantime, here is the framework of the dish as it stands.

Moroccan-Style Mussels
May 2006
Yield: Makes 4 main-course servings
Active time: 30 min
Total time: 40 min

1 medium onion, coarsely chopped (1 cup)
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 1/4 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon paprika (preferably hot)
1 teaspoon ground ginger
3/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 (15- to 19-oz) can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
2 teaspoons sugar
1 (28-oz) can whole tomatoes in juice, juice reserved and tomatoes coarsely chopped
3 lb cultivated mussels, scrubbed and beards removed
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Cook onion, garlic, and spices in oil in a 5- to 6-quart heavy pot over moderately low heat, stirring, until onion is softened, about 6 minutes. Stir in vinegar and simmer 1 minute. Add chickpeas, sugar, and tomatoes with their juice, then increase heat to moderate and gently simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, about 15 minutes. Add mussels and return to a simmer. Cover tightly with lid and cook until mussels just open wide, 3 to 6 minutes. (Discard any mussels that remain unopened after 6 minutes.) Stir in parsley and serve in shallow bowls.

See my other Gourmet, Unbound posts:
April 2010, Shrimp Scampi Pasta
March 2010, Chicken with Black Pepper Maple Sauce
February 2010, Mexican Chocolate Ice Cream
January 2010, Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Garlic and Pancetta
December 2009, Walnut Spice Cake with Lemon Glaze