Food Journey Through Madrid, San Sebastian, and Paris

Memories never fade, but just in case I forget any of the amazing details… I got this little video to take me back to my adventures through Spain & France!

We started off wandering the historic streets of Madrid and exploring its historic bullrings and museums. Of course we could not miss a traditional lunch of bull tail stew before hopping on a train that would takes us on a fairytale journey to the majestic medieval castle walls of Avila, Spain.

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Bulltail Stew for lunch in Madrid

After a rich history lesson and some “cochinillo asado” and “caldo Madrileño” (Avila staples), we headed north towards the self-described gastronomic capital of the world, San Sebastian.

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caldo Madrileño near the castle wall – rich beef broth with chorizo bits, poached egg, and day old baguette.

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Cochinillo Asado – roasted suckling pig with patatas (potatoes of course)

I will never have such an exquisitely braised pig ear with sherry & butter sauce like the one I had that day in “La Cuchara de San Telmo” ….We also sampled a creative dish of seared goat cheese stuffed with roasted veggies and drizzled with a fucking delicious sauce (yes!) and finally sprinkled with sesame seeds for some unexpected crunch, Freshly caught cod fish was a memorable choice as well! All of the food was exclusively basque and painstakingly prepared by passionate chefs whose one mission in life is to showcase the culinary wonders of the Basque region.

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Seared & stuffed goat cheese @ La Cuchara de San Telmo

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Me in front of San Sebastian’s culinary jewel!

From San Sebastian we took a night train to Paris where we were greeted with a dynamic hustling and bustling city of lights!  A trip to the enchanting “Le Marche des Enfants Rouges”  fulfilled my Parisian fantasy of walking through the market stalls as I sampled fromage, charcuterie, and duck pate. Here, the “Bonjours” were always followed with a genuine smile!  The highlight of our stay was the charming “Le Petit Canard” where we partook in an unforgettable dimly lit romantic dinner for two to celebrate that moment in time, far away from home. It was perfection. After a day’s journey on foot through the most picturesque of Parisian neighborhoods, we came upon a lively yellow building with a small entrance and and inviting scene of happy diners begging us to come inside. The Escargot with garlic butter, duck confit, French onion soup, and cassoulet were just some of the classics offered in this quaint corner of the classical Parisian culinary world! The food was unforgettable, but the hospitality received in Paris was incomparable to anything else I have ever experienced. The restaurant owner at Le Petit Canard personally greeted us and kindly led us to our table. Language barriers aside, we talked about the origin of the organic ducks used in the menu and of his journey to Mexico and the food he encountered. The conversation always gravitated towards people and food. The food people eat and the food they share with others.

If there is one thing I noticed in my journey through Paris, Madrid, and San Sebastian, was that the people are eager to share their food with us, and through that sharing they taught us a little about their history, way of life, and culture.

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French onion soup @ Le Petit Canard

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Le Petit Canard

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Escargot is not to be missed

 

Eating Barcelona – Part 1

Not too long ago I found myself exploring the medieval streets of “El Born”  in Barcelona. This is a magical corner of the world that is full of local charm and mystery, but it is also starkly juxtaposed with the permanent presence of mass tourism and its effects on locals.  In an effort to stray off the beaten path as much as possible, we went in search of local restaurants serving up traditional & exceptional catalan food. The city of Barcelona is widespread and diverse, and although the touristy districts tend to be overrun by overpriced food establishments,  the city has so much to offer for those who venture outside of these areas.

These are some of our favorite spots in the city where freshly caught seafood took center stage, traditional cuisine thrived alongside the exotic and new, and local ingredients always remained king!

Can Majo – Paella Marinera 

Carrer l’Almirall Aixada, 23
08003 Barcelona
Spain

I could not imagine a visit to Barcelona without the chance to savor its fresh caught seafood. After an exhaustive research process that included talking to several strangers (allegedly locals) randomly selected from the streets, we opted for this little jewel in the heart of Barceloneta, a thriving seaside neighborhood facing the Mediterranean.  This charming restaurant sits next to the boardwalk and offers a million dollar view for those who opt to dine outside. But we came here for the food, so the view was the least of our worries….

Like any other Spanish restaurant, we were greeted with a bottle of red table wine and plenty of olives to pick through while we perused the menu. This didn’t take long since we had our eye on the prize: Paella Marinera. There is one thing you must know about paella in Barcelona. Rumor has it that there are some restaurants unwilling to go through the effort of making this time consuming dish. As a result, they serve up pre-frozen paella with the push of a microwave oven button. We were warned about this and were told to always pay close attention to the time it takes for the paella to get to your table. If it takes 30 minutes or more, you are more than likely eating freshly cooked paella. Can Majo passed this test when our server warned us of the long wait time. No problem, we were under the spell of the crunchy pan con tomate!

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Red Wine, Olives, and Pan con Tomate in the Background

Our paella arrived pipping hot and with a trail of dancing steam swirling above the casserole. Heaps of seasoned rice and symmetrically placed langoustines greeted us with welcoming warmth as our spoons scooped out what  seemed like enough food for a hungry army onto our white plates.  We were instantly in love at first bite as the sweet & subtly salty squid confirmed the seafood freshness. Beads of endless al dente rice flowed into our bellies until not a single one was left. We washed it down with an espresso for a perfect ending to the ideal Barcelona meal. It was like something out of a fairytale really – magical. We triumphantly walked back to our apartments, ready for a good night sleep. For that moment, life was perfect.

Paella Marinera for two

Bar La Plata – Tapas + wine

Carrer de la Mercè, 28
08002 Barcelona
Spain

Dining out every night in Barcelona can get pretty expensive, specially with the service percentage tacked on to any full service restaurant. For those nights when you realize you still have more European cities to explore and very very very limited funds, Bar La Plata is a delicious and cheap option. I used Yelp Barcelona to find this bar tucked away in a corner of the old town section of Barcelona ( Barri Gòtic). Reviews raved about the tapas offered here and the photos were inviting so we walked in on a cold rainy night.
The space was packed but the wine kept flowing and the service was quick. There were two barrels of wine, white and red… Easy enough. We walked up to the bar, asked for wine and a tapa. I’m not really sure that there was any menu to speak of, in fact, I don’t even know how much I paid for my food, but it is delicious and filling and that always make for a great investment. Bar La Plata has been around for 70 years, and judging by the proximity to Picasso’s old studio (found only steps away based on clues gathered during a visit to the nearby Picasso museum), we suspect this might have been a hang out place for the artist…..although that is pure speculation on our part.

Our first tapa consisted of fried Boquerones, finger fun sized fish very similar to sardines. They were crispy to perfection, crunchy and addicting. And yes, you do eat the whole fish, head included. The eyes are pretty tasty.

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Fried boquerones with red wine

The fun did not stop there! We were ready for round two, meaning; more wine and time to try another tapa! We asked for  the famed Catalunyan  sausage “butifarra” because of course they had sausage! Restaurants here don’t have an option not to have sausage! We learned that very early on in the trip!  The wine flowed into our bellies and the sausage arrived sizzling on top of a toasted slice of fresh baguette. Who knew? Alcohol, pork, and carbs are a wonderful combination!

Coming up next: We found the most exotic of tapas in “Mosquito“. A jewel of a restaurant offering a fusion of tapas and Asian cuisine in the heart of Barcelona!

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Butifarra on baguette and the last few drops of wine.

What I learned from baking a loaf of bread in 2013

I baked this

I baked this

For me, the process begins very randomly. On any given day, the sudden urge to create will overwhelm me and I am instantly urged to search the pantries, bookcases, and the refrigerator for  baking opportunities. I have three cats that lay on my cookbooks, against their will, they are pushed away so that I can be in search of my next creation. They hate it.

I have never been a professional baker, but I HAVE dabbled into the bread making realm with many disastrous outcomes.  I try to look beyond the failures….. There will always be another loaf.

Baking demands a very high degree of patience. Without it, a magnificent loaf will instead become a hockey puck. With it, an otherwise plain loaf will radiate with flavor and a hearty texture. Patience, which I begin to notice applies to all things in life, is the very first ingredient needed to make bread.  It helps that I am now the proud mother – ahem – owner of a beautiful sky blue Le Cruset that is probably the best baking vessel that I have ever used for bread. I don’t like to admit that I love some things; My Le Cruset is one of them…..but I digress….

I usually make a starter for my bread. This is a spongy gray-like blob that sits on my counter for at least an entire day and bubbles and ferments. If you know what the fermentation process does to food, then you are probably pretty grossed out at the fact that this gooey blob sits in my Florida kitchen for a precariously long period of time. However, if you know anything about how amazing fermented food begins to taste the longer it sits there, then, like me, you are probably jumping with joy at the anticipation of a delicious loaf of tangy sourdoughy bread.

Time is key when baking bread. Time for the dough to rise, time for the flavor to develop, time to pre heat the oven. Without time, the final product suffers. Then, the greatest lesson to be learned from bread is that having the will to start is just the beginning. Investment in time and a big portion of love are two ingredients that will pay off when the aroma of freshly baked bread emerges from the oven.

In 2014, at the foot of a new year full of unknowns, maybes, ifs, and perhaps, only one thing is for sure; I’ve got to have the will, and invest the time, this I learned from baking bread in 2013.

The food I ate in Montreal

The stop signs in Montreal read, “ARRET”. Really! Of course, it obviously means “STOP” because the bright red octagon is a dead give away. That is the purpose for a universal red octagon as a stop sign. unfortunately, sometimes blonde moments take over ( not to insult any blondes) and in a flash of excitement, you concentrate solely on the words inside that octagon and completely ignore the actual meaning of its red color……..which is to stop. Now! Before you run the stop….too late! And that was my first traffic violation in Quebec.

6 months ago I never even thought I would ever step foot in Canadian territory because quite frankly, I don’t fancy the idea of perpetual blizzard conditions and Paul Bunyan. And yet, as I completed my Internship at America’s Test Kitchen in Boston, rumors about the delicious food scene in Montreal started to make their way to me. Several of the cooks had been to the legendary Aud Pied De Cochon and had come back fascinated by Martin Picard’s monstrous yet delicately prepared meat offerings. With all the talk about the city’s perfectly flaky croissants , artfully prepared charcuterie, and beer, I just had to make my way up there.

The eating adventure actually began with a beer tasting tour through the 2013 Mondial de la bière. This is an annual beer festival which showcases beers from around the world. Craft beers from Brazil, Belgium, France, and the US were available for sampling. We even took part in a beer and cheese pairing class. We signed up for the class in an act of impulse upon hearing the phrase “free cheese”. Never did we imagine that it would be completely in French.

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Later that evening we made our way to the hip and sprawling neighborhood of Le Plateau where we found countless cafes with outdoor terrace seating and a vibrant nightlife. But there was only one thing in my mind; Aud Pied de Cochon.

The epic portions here are no joke. We shared a starter of bison tongue in a decadent yet smooth tarragon and mustard sauce sprinkled with finely diced mirepoixe. A melange of craft-fully fabricated house sausage, boudin noir ( blood sausage), and pork belly over a mountain of fluffy mashed potatoes and gravy came in as our second course. Finally, we could not over look the veal liver with bacon sauce. It was explosive in flavor. There was definitely no room for dessert. As we headed out we though we had seen it all, and yet, as we were walking out the door, I saw a server carrying a behemoth of a platter with a lobster INSIDE a roasted pig head. This is certainly an experience in excess and abundance. For me, a once in a lifetime experience that I am lucky to have experienced. Will I come back? Not really. Although Martin Picard is elevating the art of charcuterie to a worldly level, and for the quality of his food he is celebrated internationally, there are many others in this city who offer noteworthy charcuterie. Determined to find other talented chefs we headed over to a food mecca located in the eastern part of the city, the Marche Jean-Talon, a permanent market that supplies the eastern most side of the city with an ever flowing supply of fresh meats, local cheese, and seasonal produce.

Jean Talon Market is one of 4 major permanent market spaces in Montreal and a goldmine of cultural experience for us. The first thing we procured here was the coveted Canadian Maple syrup. No trip to Canada will ever be complete without indulging in its rich buttery taste and aroma. We also tasted several honey samples. Buckwheat and wild flower honey were the winners. As we made our way through stalls upon stalls of fresh Quebec strawberries and wild mushrooms, we got inspired to create a DIY lunch picnic. Our epic picnic experience began with a visit to a humble stand with an old refrigerated display case. In it were succulent rows of cured meats, sausages, pates, and terrines. The guys at les cochons tout ronds made wonderful recommendations and we bought provisions of Figatelli sausage and pork Rillete. Next, we headed out in looking for the obvious accompaniment to our charcuterie; cheese. Not just any cheese, but one that embodied the unique cheese making traditions and flavors of Quebec. We did not know precisely what it was that we were searching for, but when we spotted an old black board with the words Tomme du Marechal playfully written in fancy cursive, how much cuter can the situation get……When it comes to cheese, I am daring, adventurous, and adopting of the never-a-dull-moment philosophy. I want my cheese to leave an everlasting impression in my memory. We didn’t know what Tomme Du Marechal was all about, until the “fromagier” ( I learned some French) shoved a wedge into our anxious little fingers in an effort to make us stop asking questions in English. All we had to do was nod our heads in eager excitement and hand him some bills and soon enough we were in possession of the greatest culinary treasure i’ve held in a while. To this day, how this cheese is made eludes me, yet all that I know and matters is that the nutty, hay-like taste was perfectly creamy and went down well with some walnut bread which we later found in a random bakery next to the market.

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Other farm market findings:

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The picnic was a delightful success. The fresh Canadian breeze swayed the trees back and forth as we laid on the grass, full bellied and all, gazing up at the blue sky……not a care in the world…..

Eating Boston: exotic spices

Boston’s diverse cultural fabric becomes evident from the moment one steps foot inside any subway station. The hustle and bustle that is found throughout its intertwined sidewalks continues underneath the earth as hundreds of commuters make their way to and from home. Deep within the entrails of the city, one can hear a cacophony of intermingling voices spitting out words in all accents and languages imaginable. There’s an unmistakable Russian accent on the phone next to me. And when I look to my right to catch a brief glimpse of the Boston skyline as the red line travels across the Charles river, I see a group of Asian teenagers speaking in their native language. This experience is new to me. I decide that the best way to soak up all of the cultural diversity of a big city such as Boston is to start eating Boston.

Because food nourishes the body and soul, the best way to remember a far away home is by preparing the meals that will bring back all of those moments of nostalgia. They will rekindle images of kind, wrinkly grandmas placing firewood in the stove as they get the fire ready for the next meal. Moments later, I step out onto the sunlit Central square district. Sources have told me this is a mecca for diversity, and that becomes very clear from the restaurants surrounding the station. I can see Indian food, several Thai restaurants, and a couple of Mexican taquerias. What I am looking for is an urban cafe that boasts vegetarian, organic, and healthy cuisine. Life Alive calls itself an Urban Oasis/Urban Cafe, and I want to sample this emerging trend of food that is a healthy vegetarian fusion that borrows from all cultures. Unfortunately, it seems myself, as well as half of Boston decided to eat here today, and so I turn away from the 40 minute line and resolve to come back another day.

At this point, I am hungry, and so I make the best decision that has been made in a while, to go to Sofra. Ana Sortun has made quite a name for herself in the Boston culinary scene. She is the executive chef at Oleana and Sofra Bakery and Cafe. Both have been recommended to me on multiple occasions and judging from the crowds of patrons that packed the small, exotically decorated space that is Sofra, it may very well be a fantastic brunch experience worthy of the long 40 minute walk to get there. Inside, I feel a warm welcome as I look around and notice the bustle of the kitchen, the simple menu, and the artsy pastries that decorate the ordering counter. The embellished decorative pillows on the seating area lining the walls only serve to make me feel like a princess inside her middle eastern golden palace. Little do I know then that 20 minutes later, as I take my first bite of Borek, the special for the day, I will be upgraded to queen. Or at least it will sure feel like it.

I’d never heard of Borek before today when i learned that it is a thin and flaky phyllo dough that is filled with cheese and meat. It is then baked and served, as is the case in Sofra, with a tangy tomato curry sauce. It is topped with a dollop of labne. Labne is a thick, rich style of greek yogurt. The meat inside of the phyllo dough was a braised, then shredded lamb. The flavors created a delicious harmony in my mouth. The lamb had an earthy flavor that was appeased by the tangy greek yogurt. The tomato curry sauce served as a supporting role for the entire dish, making sure everyone got along together. The first bite was heavenly and delicious, unlike anything Ive had before. And so, with the simple act of eating the food created by another chef, I was able to distinguish and understand Sortun’s interpretation of the experiences that she had during her time studying in Turkey. Most importantly however, was that her food brought Turkey to me, and for that meal, I was a queen.

Below are a couple of pictures taken inside Sofra Bakery and Cafe.

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Eating Boston: St. Paddy’s Day

The waves of people walking up and down Broadway Ave. this morning grew increasingly larger, greener, and drunker, as the annual Boston St. Patrick’s day parade got ready to march on down South Boston, or as I soon learned from all the locals, Southie. Surprisingly, Bostonians not only celebrate Irish-American heritage on March 17th every year, but they also celebrate what is know as “Evacuation Day”. Evacuation day commemorates the day during the Revolutionary War in which George Washington forced the British to evacuate Dorchester, which is now a neighborhood adjacent to Southie. That day was March 17, 1776.

I trekked alongside the parade route, dodging droves of happy drunk people and often kicking many Sam Adams beer cans out of my path in search for a famous corned beef on rye sandwich. After about at hour of searching and still no sandwich in hand, i decided it was too cold to continue. I turned back around to my starting point, got in 20 minute line for hot coffee and headed back, defeated. On my way back to the train station, I witnessed the extravagant attempts of those who wanted to be the most “Irish”, which was such a fun experience. A girl was covered in green makeup, a green wig, and bright green glittery tights. Others were simply trying to get the most green beer into their system to proven their Irish-ness. But I leaped with joy as I saw the ubiquitous green man (from the series “Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia” ) make an appearance in his clover green body suit and complete Irish attire. Capturing him in photo was enough to make my trip to Southie worthwhile.

Just as I had lost all hope of tasting the famous corned beef on rye, I wandered into a small cafe next to the train station and saw, to my delight, their special board. On it read: Corned beef on rye. Joy!

I sat on a sunny corner inside the quaint cafe to enjoy every bite of the salty, fatty layers of beef tucked inside two loafs of fresh rye bread. There was drunken chaos outside as gusts of frigid wind drove the the drunk hoards away and to their homes. Yet, I remained in a state of bliss as I observed the unrest around me and peacefully ate my sandwich.
Later, I learned that corned beef is primarily an Irish-American dish which probably originated when the Irish in America decidedly substituted the pork for beef. In any case, St. Patrick’s day is also a celebration that is observed mainly in America, and so in the spirit of America and its diverse cultural heritage, I had a famous corned beef sandwich in South Boston on St. Paddy’s day. I am living the life.

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An Adventure Begins

Today a new adventure begins. An adventure which will transform me into a completely different person. An adventure that has been my whole life in the making, and will now both challenge me and shape my future self alike.

With two hours of sleep and a lot of caffein in my system, I managed to get out of bed on Saturday morning, kiss my husband goodbye for the next three months, and fly 1,200 miles north to brave the cold while I pursue my latest adventure. The anxiety would not let me sleep, after all, Boston, Ma. is a city that I certainly cannot afford. And yet, I had to push away my fears. However, those stubborn negative thoughts that managed to linger despite my best efforts….well those were tackled one at a time; is my landlady crazy?, is my coat warm enough (5 years in Florida erased any knowledge I might have had about cold weather attire), and the list of nagging questions continues, way too long to recount and yet, very very real.

I arrived to Boston and discovered my landlady does not own a coffee grinder ( a fear that briefly crossed my mind) for the pound and a half of coffee beans that I lugged all the way from Florida. My world seems to fall apart in the mornings before I get my much needed caffeine shot. Thus, until i find away around the fact that i refuse to pay $35 for a top of the line grinder because I’m too frugal, I’ll have to deal with my bitchy, snappy self all on my own, or hit up Goodwill. Im sure my husband is ecstatic about the fact that there are one thousand plus miles between a moody me and himself…. But I digress….

I’ve come to Boston to participate in an internship with America’s Test Kitchen, an internship which will diversify my skills and make me a better chef. I am excited because I can see my food philosophy evolving in just a few short years of culinary practice. Because America’s food philosophy is evolving as well, we are beginning to notice that people no longer want fast, greasy food. We want real food from local farms. Food that will nourish us and make us a healthier nation. Because this demand for fresh, local, healthy food has only started to emerge on a mass scale in the past few years, chefs around the country have realized that they play a pivotal role in this movement. Myself included. This is why I am passionate to work in a food magazine that teaches its subscribers how to cook real food. As a chef, I want to use my platform as a food professional to guide this nation into a healthier, more sustainable future. One where obesity and its many health related problems are obsolete and food is THE medicine of choice. One where food is cherished for its nutritional content. Most importantly, one where the entire food system is respected and sustained.

Thus I find myself in Boston, unsure of what tomorrow will bring. The only thing that is certain is that I will keep an open mind and try to absorb everything that this beautiful ( and expen$ive ) city has to offer me. I am making a great sacrifice, but I know it will make me a greater person.