Sunday, February 27, 2011

partial success: mexicanesque pork

check out those sexy scorch marks

To be fair, this effort was kind of doomed from the start. I had wanted to make cochinita pibil, but was unable to find some key ingredients. You know. Annatto seed. Allspice.

Whatever, I thought, I'll just use what I have and we'll see what happens.

It turned out OK. It was basically tasty, but a little dry and too intense in flavor. I'm not going to put the recipe up, just what I'd do differently next time. First, it was kind of dry - I tried to seal the pork and then the casserole up well with aluminum foil, but not airtight enough apparently. I'd cook it on lower heat for a bit longer to make up for that.

Next, the vinegar. I'm just gonna give it to you straight: I saw that a recipe with pork called for vinegar and my Carolina girl DNA just took over and I added too much. I'm honestly not sure it needed any at all.

Also, more onions (like 2-3 instead of just 1) along the bottom of the aluminum foil would have protected the pork from scorching on the bottom (see above).

Oh, well. You win some, you lose some.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

you'd best believe we played in those vineyards

vineyards in november. la rioja alavesa.

some fabulously moldy bottles on a bodega tour. laguardia, la rioja alavesa.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

silver lining

It's been raining the past few days. When I say "raining," I don't mean the big, fat drops we get in North Carolina (or "Northern Carolina," as the Ryanair website so charmingly calls it) that make the pavement steam and the air smell like wet grass. I mean sirimiri, that typically Basque weather that is a soft blanket of mist. It's not even drizzle, it's really more of a gentle mist or spray. The Basque sketch comedy show Vaya Semanita rips on it all the time, because this really is a rainy place.

The thing about all the rain here in Basque country is that it makes you appreciate the clear days so much more. The sunshine really does feel more special after a few days of grey, intermittent mist showers.

Especially days that end in evenings like this:

I really do love this city.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

i think all that oven wants is a good exorcism


No, they're not complicated. Anyone can make them (although not as many people seem to bake in Iberia as in the USA. I wondered why this was, but now it dawns on me that maybe all the ovens here are as evil as mine, which I cannot get to cook anything without burning it). But anyway, LOOK HOW CUTE THEY ARE.

So cute, right?!

Adapted from the standard Betty Crocker recipe:

3/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 egg
1 1/3 (plus change, a heaping 1/3) cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt (but a short 1/4 teaspoon; I've already almost doubled the salt here, let's not get crazy)

Vanilla extract, preferably a lot of it. I like a teaspoon or so. I'd probably add a tablespoon if I weren't over here with limited resources, trying to make my vanilla extract last.

Some more sugar, mixed with some cinnamon, on a little plate.

Heat oven to 400ºF. Or a little less than 200C, if your oven is crazy evil. Like mine.

Mix 3/4 cups sugar, the butter, shortening and eggs in large bowl. Stir in flour, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt.

Shape dough into 1 1/4-inch balls. Roll balls in cinnamon-sugar mixture you have on your little plate. Place 2 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheet.

A note for people with evil ovens that love to burn your treats: 1) parchment paper is your friend. Lay it out on the cookie sheet. This helps but is not enough to foil the most determined of evil ovens so 2) make the cookies a little smaller so they cook inside faster. The bonus here is it also makes the cookies more adorable. 3) turn that broiler function on. It's your only hope of your cookies getting a nice tan on top before the bottom is incinerated. Freaking oven.

Bake 8 to 10 minutes or until set. Which is to say, 5 minutes in an Evil Iberian Oven. Remove from cookie sheet to wire rack.

Makes 40 tiny cookies, or like 20 regular-sized ones.

the catalan snack that changed my life

Check out this raw tomato, just chillin' on my plate like it ain't no thang.

It's finally happened, folks. I think I've found my gateway drug to raw tomato enjoyment.

Regular readers will recall my long-standing distaste for raw tomatoes. I had almost resigned myself to a life of missing out on that sharp, acid bite of a raw tomato that people with more fortunate tastebuds are always raving about.

Then, last saturday, came pa amb tomàquet. That's right, you clever linguists: bread and tomato. It's crazy simple: toasted bread, rubbed with garlic, smeared with a raw tomato cut in half, and drizzled with olive oil. Oh no, you don't get to cook it once the tomato's on there: you just rub that tomato snot all over the place, then go to town.

I tried it; I liked it.

Then I had it again on Sunday; I loved it.

Then, curious to see if perhaps it was just something in that magical Catalan air, the same something that had possibly influenced the fantastical thought lives of Salvador Dali and Antoni Gaudi, I bought my own crusty bread and a tomato back in Bilbao.

I made it myself; I liked that, too (though not as much as the Sunday one; see picture. Seriously, that stuff was killer).

Sunday's p amb t

I'm still not up to full tomatoes yet, but that distinctive flavor and tomato snot are right there, on the bread, and I'm pretty into it.

There's hope for me yet.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

the size of my smile is directly correlated to my love for the moto.

caution parents: I may be getting one someday

I'd only been on a moto* once before, so possibly I should have been a bit more cautious. I remembered, as soon as I got on, that girls are supposed to put our arms around the guy driving the bike because 1) it's more secure and 2) we don't have any macho street cred to lose. Then I remembered how, back last time I rode on a moto (the same one, in fact), Ramón, the other dude in our pack of three, had made a big deal about NOT putting his arms around the driver. It was less secure, but he was a police sergeant and a dude. He had his macho street cred to think of.

And so there I was, four years later, on that same bike, flashing back to the "how girls vs. guys ride a moto" discussion, when I got a wild hair. I wasn't going to do this the girly way this time. I must seize this moment to be a badass, at least as badass as a Catalan police sergeant. I waited until we reached a stoplight, then I let go of my friend driving. I grasped the handles next to my seat, and we were off again.

It was less secure. It was also more exciting - the sense that I, holding on, was the only thing keeping myself from flying off the back of the machine into oncoming Barcelona traffic. The responsibility added a level of thrill to the ride.

Of course, this was my responsible friend driving. We went fast around exactly zero curves, and I doubt we ever exceeded more than about 30 miles an hour. But no matter: I may be incapable of consuming more than one alcoholic beverage in a sitting or facing down baddies in the streets or even living alone in a foreign country without calling my parents on a weekly basis, but when it comes to being a moto passenger, I know the truth. I am a certified badass.

*read: more scooter than motorcycle, designed and used especially for zipping around European cities.

so worth the pickpocket risk factor

It's routine for every visitor to Barcelona, really: take bus to Parc Güell; dismount bus; wander around; be amazed; take photo with the lizard-dragon thing. Also, possibly have pockets picked in the crowds. Petty theft is big in Barcelona.

So yes, basically, it's a tourist trap. But here's the thing: sometimes tourist traps are for a reason. The reasons here:

Columns of rocks rising up to create half-formed caves.

A wildly elaborate tile bench, winding its way across the top of the park.

A covered palace of white columns where you look up and are greeted by fantastical starfish in a sea of white tile.

And that lizard. He's beautiful, really.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

la boquería market, barcelona

My loot from the market: raspberries, strawberries and lychees. none of these were grown in Catalunya.

So about Food People: there are certain "buzz words" that have a tendency to make us go weak in the knees. "Playfully combined texture/flavor" is one; another is "fresh local produce." By golly, do Food People love Fresh Local Produce. That sounded ironic, but it wasn't. I truly do love me some FLP.

La Boquería, Barcelona's famous indoor food market, is not primarily about Fresh Local Produce. La Boqueria is about So Much Variety It Makes Your Head Spin.

Did you want some cherries? Got those from Chile. Mexican Habañero peppers? Got 'em. Strawberries come from Huelva, lychees from Madagascar, durian fruit from Thailand. Dragon fruit, papaya, kiwi, coconut, sweet potatoes, every dried chili you could want.

My Iberian friends and I have had this discussion a few times - which is better, the "Spanish" way (cheap and good quality, but mostly only what's good locally at the time) or the "American" way (the more variety the better, cost and quality - to a certain extent - be darned). After last night in La Boquería, my senses entirely flooded with so many colors, smells and flavors from so many places, I'm not sure I can bring myself to decide which I prefer. Maybe I won't choose at all. Maybe I'll enjoy my FLP here in Bilbao but revel in the memories of the dizziness-inducing multitudes of treats on display this past weekend.

Monday, February 14, 2011

love is in the air. so is onion breath.

Ever noticed something adorable about the souvenir shops in Barcelona, Bilbao or San Sebastian? All those T-shirts and keychains featuring a Basque flag and a Catalan flag squeezed in next to each other, as if to say, "hey, baby, mind if I move in closer?"

This is because Euskal Herria and Catalunya have big regional crushes on each other. Both have languages distinct from Spanish, after all, and both have sizable independence movements. And both have a seriously righteous - sometimes downright intimidatingly so - food tradition. Today being both Valentine's Day and the day I got back from a mini-vacation to Catalunya, I've decided to indulge the puppy love for a few extra days with Catalan Week on Life in la Capital del Mundo.

First up: calçots.

All you really need to know to be successful at the event known as a calçotada is this: get ready to get messy, and you pronounce the "ç" like an "s."

These poor little guys have no idea what's coming...

Phase one: calçot growing. Sometime in the late summer or early fall, plant some nice white onions. Spend the next several months gently packing dirt up around them so they grow long and green, like leeks. These guys have some great instructions if you care to create your own little slice of Catalunya somewhere. Then, in late winter, pull them up! On to phase two: calçot cooking.

To cook calçots: grill to the point of charring. Remove from grill/fire pit, then roll them up into bunches and let them steam in their own goodness until they're a little squishy. You may do this part yourself, or you may, as we did, go to a restaurant where everything up until here is handled for you. Don't worry, I have big plans to grow my own calçots next year.

Phase three: calçot eating. First, put on a bib. This is key if you don't want to wind up with romesco sauce all down your front.

Next, holding calçot by the green part in one hand, strip off the charred outer layer. Allow Anselmo to demonstrate:

Finally, dip calçot in romesco sauce, then, in the immortal words of Tony Bourdain, "coil gracefully into your grateful, gaping maw."

The only appropriate response to a calçotada invitation.

Friday, February 11, 2011

dreams really do come true.

Those of you who know me (and shoot, probably a few who don't) will doubtless recall my long standing obsession with going to a calçotada.

In brief summary, a calçotada is a Catalan tradition that involves going to a field where onions have been packed into the ground such that they mutate and become long stalks, then charring the living daylights out of them, then letting them steam in their own goodness. Then it's over the lips, over the gums, look out stomach, here it comes!

I'm happy to report that tomorrow morning I get to cross that particular life goal off my list. We leave at some crazy hour like 6 AM, fly into Barcelona, where my friend Anselmo will pick us up in his chariot and whisk us away to a fantastical place where onions grow in stalks and have been patiently waiting all winter for us to eat them. If we're lucky, we may even get a song-and-dance number out of the onions and Romescu sauce (a la "Be Our Guest").

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

In Defense of Foodies

An article came out recently on CNN Eatocracy about, basically, why "foodie" is a dirty word among chefs. I'm gonna lay it out here: it made me mad.

I should confess that I have a vested interest here. For me growing up, "foodie" was not a dirty word at all - it was praise my dad gave me whenever I was a good little eater. It meant you loved food, were willing to try new dishes and enjoyed discussing food with people. That's it.

Sometime between my upbringing in a food-loving and minimally pretentious house (my family's from Asheboro, NC, for goodness' sake), "foodie" acquired some negative connotations. My friend Marti describes foodies as "gross," "navel-gazing" and the foodie movement as "[l]ike some kind of commercialization or trendifying of the love I felt for food." Seattle Weekly writer Jason Sheehan (quoted on Eatocracy) takes it a step further, calling foodies "coup-counting, lock-jawed, cake-eating, nose-in-the-air dimwits."

OK, so let's be honest here. When people who are passionate about food are that quick to declare themselves absolutely not foodies, what they're really trying to do is distance themselves from people who are elitist and more interested in the impression they make on others than the actual food in front of them.

Let me ask you this. Why is it that adventure travelers can swap Everest-climbing stories or Bruce Springsteen fans can trade tales of the time they were at this concert and they swear the Boss actually looked at them, but the minute a foodie mentions to another foodie how good that mole they had down in Puebla was, or how sweet and down-to-earth Elena Arzak really is, or how perfect North Carolina Sandhills peaches are in the summer, they are immediately branded disingenuous and elitist?

Since when is it by definition elitist and affected to share my passion with other people who have the same passion?

Let's get even more honest, though, since I was really giving anti-foodie food lovers the benefit of the doubt there. In some cases, it seems an awful lot like distancing themselves from the elitist boors they call foodies is a way to show how much more elite they are than the elite.

Because here's what frustrates me about exhortations from anti-foodies to "shut up and eat:" you know they're not about to. Of course they are still going to talk about food; they're interested in it and for Pete's sake, talking is what people who are interested in something do when they're with others who share their interest. And so what may have been intended as a battle cry for the purity of flavor, untinged by the flapping of gums about it, ends up sounding like: "I can talk about food; you can't."

Another common complaint against foodies, so the argument goes, is that it's a label used to differentiate oneself in a separate (higher) social class. Of course there are plenty of people who will seize whatever they can in a bid of "look how rich I am," but I'm calling BS on foodie-ism being intrinsically so.

First of all, people of the very lowest income brackets can get ingredients and take an interest in how to put them together in tasty ways. They can appreciate things they think taste good, and they can talk with their friends about it. For goodness' sake, have we learned nothing from Anthony Bourdain's countless diatribes about how the best cuisines of every nation sprung from necessity - poor people figuring out how to cook the cheapest things well? If anything's elitist, it's the assumption that people without a high income can't be foodies.

Second of all, and I know this is a crazy thought, but terms exist to differentiate things from other things. What do I mean here? Not all people are fascinated by food. This doesn't make them less civilized or lower-class any more than not being a kayaker or a pop art fan or a ukelele player.

People have different interests, and not everyone's is food. Anyone who looks down on people with different interests then theirs is first and foremost antisocial, not a foodie.

Oh, but cooks hate foodies, you say. Foodies are always being jerks in restaurants and making the chefs come out so they can look important in front of their friends. Foodies are always sending food back because they can. Foodies are only interested in chasing trends, not the purity of flavor.

Here's the thing: you haven't just described foodies. You've just described pretentious jerks, obnoxious bullies, and silly trend-chasers. And excuse me, but I guarantee you that there are pretentious jerks, obnoxious bullies and silly trend-chasers who are rock climbers, art fans, ukelele players and so on. We don't stop using the terms "rock climber," "art fan" and "ukelele player" just because there are jerks who do those things. We let the words keep their original meaning.

"Foodie," I should point out, came about as a term to describe people who loved food because "gourmet" sounded too pretentious. Sound familiar? A question for all the foodier-than-thou anti-foodies out there: what term do you suggest? If we go running from "foodie" next, how do we describe people who have a serious interest in food?

Another question: let's say you have a deep respect for cooks as professionals. You truly appreciate good ingredients prepared creatively or even just well and simply. You tip generously. You don't look down on people who don't share your interest in food. Now, how many cooks are seriously going to hate you just because you call yourself a foodie?

I thought not.

A thought for lovers of food: let's spend less energy punishing the language for the behavior of a few pompous jerks and more energy on being good examples of what a foodie really is.

My name is Kit Cox, and I am a foodie.

Monday, February 7, 2011

get ready, because this one's a doozy.

sunset, monte urgull

Jessica and Allison's visit to Basque Country was fantastic, just fantastic. But before I tell you about that, I need to take you back in time about a week. Come with me please...

So my mom had mailed me some packages of gear I had put together to hike the Camino de Santiago this June. Don't you love getting packages in the mail? Especially in a foreign country? I know I do, and so it was with much anticipation that I looked forward to getting these little boxes of goodness from me to myself.

Then they came: the letters from Madrid. We have your packages here, they said, and we hope you weren't wanting to get them too easily. Please come to Madrid in person to pick them up, or else contract an expensive company to do it, but if you choose the company you must send us a copy of your ID, birth certificate, college entrance essay and a drawing from when you were six years old that your parents put up on the fridge. After a long and hectic process that involved lots of document-scanning and talking to post office officials on the phone, I figured out that one could have one's friend go in one's place, provided one's friend was in Madrid and was going to be where one was shortly.

rescued backpack

Eureka. So Allison - who I believe should be recommended for sainthood - went to the post office for me, picked up my huge backpack and brought it all the way up north for me. I luh you, Allison.

But wait, you said. This post has "donosti" and "food" tags. Where is all the food and the picturesqueness?

Patience, grasshopper.

Saturday morning we arrived in Donosti to a surprise:


We took advantage of the perfect weather to do the following: walk to el peine de los vientos. get Juantxo's for a picnic (Juantxo's is a bar that specializes in sandwiches. Its name is not actually Juantxo's, it's Juantxo Taberna. Enter How Southerners Handle Establishment Names). Play in the sand on the beach. Walk up Monte Urgull for some perfect views of the city at sunset.

Juantxo's on the beach

Then pintxo-poteo was on (I told you we'd get there sometime). We made it to 4 places that night, and I have to say I think it was the best pintxo experience of my life. I hate to be that person saying pretentious-sounding things like "the foie at La Cuchara de San Telmo was revelatory," so I won't (except I sort of just did, in a cheating way). I'll just show you a picture of it and tell you we went back for more the second night.

Another landmark: my first Gilda. Perhaps the most emblematic of Donosti pintxos, the Gilda consists of guindilla peppers, an anchovy and an olive on a stick I wasn't sure I'd be into it - anchovies aren't usually my thing - but this was Donosti, where things you don't like are still somehow delicious. Salty, briny, tart, with a little bite at the end.** We got ours at Bar Haizea, over near La Bretxa market.

Anyway, not going to describe every pintxo. Suffice it to say: Mmm.

Sunday was lots more walking, including a second (sunset) visit to a very lively Peine de los Vientos, the Eduardo Chillida sculpture at one end of the city's La Concha beach walkway. When the tide's coming in or the sea is especially playful, big jets of air and water are forced up the blowhole part of the sculpture. The tide was coming in.

After that, it was time for Jessica's Basque hazing. I took her into Bar Herria, a locale decorated with propaganda, murals of masked men, and photos of political prisoners. I had only been once before, and on a Real Sociedad-Athletic Bilbao game night when every bar was packed and so the atmosphere was a bit different. This is a class of bar called a herriko taberna, or bars that support the (now-illegal) leftist independence party Batasuna. They're the ones with the big basque flag out front. I ought to mention that these bars are not representative of mainstream Basque society - even most people who support independence are heavily opposed to violence.

Basque hazing complete, we were exhausted so we went to bed at the ungodly hour of 10:00 PM. Wuss-out... or opportunity for crazy amounts of sleep? I think you know.

Monday afternoon we parted ways, and I got back to Bilbao yesterday afternoon in time to teach my evening classes.

**a note to my fellow auxiliares in Bilbao - don't try to get a Gilda in Bilbao. They're always messing it up with onion chunks here.

Friday, February 4, 2011

I've always wondered about creative ways to alter that particular graffiti...

I'm heading out in a few minutes to pick up my friends Jessica and Allison (of "I know them from Sevilla" fame). They're also student teaching, but in Madrid. Tomorrow morning we head out to Donosti, where they will be dazzled by the perfect sunshine and 18 degree Celsius weather and I will honor their visit by taking them to great pintxos bars, walking them up Monte Urgull and putting them through some sort of basque hazing. Until I return, I leave you all with this fabulous moment I experienced this morning:

Today at school in the teachers' lounge, I saw that someone had carved "ETA" on one of the tables.

Someone else had carved a "T" in front of it.

Graffiti win.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

perfect spaghetti.

Scott Conant did a stint on the No Reservations techniques special, explaining how to make the perfect tomato sauce/perfect spaghetti. It is, no surprises, easily the best tomato sauce I've ever made. Want some?

Boiled down (no pun intended), here are the instructions:

Blanche a lot of tomatoes. Pull the skin off. Squeeze the tomatoes to remove the seeds and extra juices. Save some extra juice in case your tomatoes get dry later. (Side note for when you're lazy and it's winter so the fresh tomatoes aren't all that good anyway: you can use canned peeled tomatoes here. Scott Conant would slap me I'm sure, but if you're pressed for time and don't have fresh tomatoes on hand, these work. Just add some white wine to the sauce to cover up your cheap canned tomatoes, you slacker.**) Stick tomatoes in a hot pan with EVOO; add salt. Mash tomatoes up.

In a separate pot over low flame, add lots of garlic, lots of fresh basil and a little crushed red pepper to olive oil to make a "tea."

Add now-infused olive oil (leave the garlic + basil out) to tomato sauce.

Make spaghetti - only 90% of the way done.

Here's the important part: set some of the tomato sauce in a pan. Add the mostly-cooked spaghetti and a little of its starchy water to thicken the sauce. Add a pat of butter. Cook it the rest of the way in the sauce, flipping it in the air a little (confession: I have yet to master this). The flipping in the air aerates it and makes the dish lighter and creamier; the cooking the pasta the rest of the way in the sauce means the sauce is absorbed some into the spaghetti so they're one dish instead of just sopping wet sauce scooped on top.

Done. Mmm.

**Note: I've used canned tomatoes in this several times. Not amazing like fresh, but still makes a better (and cheaper!) sauce than premade. Just sayin'.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

chicken juice and other authentic experiences

When all the language assistants got here from America this past fall, our #1 priority was clear. It came up again and again in conversation as we were settling in and doing the job hunt:

I want to find local roommates.

I could say I was one of the lucky ones, except it wasn't luck at all, it was getting here a full week ahead of schedule to hunt for an apartment. Anyway, I had Made It. I had Real Basque Roommates. I was going to have the Authentic Local Experience.

Let me pause for a moment here to give you some vital background information: This is not a cynical post. I really do like my roommates. We've had a lot of turnover so I don't know everyone in my piso so well yet, but from everything I can tell I like my new roommates too. My old roommate Ismene is without doubt my closest friend from here.

Anyway, back to the story. Sometime between October 1 and now, I have formed a conclusion about the Search for Local Roommates. It boils down to this shocker: Basque roommates are still roommates. Stop the presses, I know. What this means is, yes, they speak at least one language you're trying to learn and yes, you get to have closer contact with "local culture" at home. On the one hand, living with fellow Americans doesn't really get you this kind of immersion; on the other, do you really want to experience your deepest culture shock at home? That's not a rhetorical question; I really don't know the answer. But consider this experience I had yesterday:

I go to the freezer to pull out some cheese or something I had in there. I discover the freezer door is open and won't shut. The things near the front of the freezer have partly thawed, including some chicken that was wrapped haphazardly in some saran wrap. Chicken had dripped all over, meaning when I opened the door, I was greeted with a spurt of chicken juice. I spent the next 10 minutes cleaning out the freezer and flipping out - "it's just not healthy to leave raw meat like that!," I kept repeating like some broken disc to Teresa, who was helping me mop up the floor and in all likelihood wondering what had gotten into me.

In a later conversation with my mom, after I had settled down, she reminded me that people here do not worry about food storage like we do in America - at least partly because chickens in Europe don't go through the horribly gross process that American chickens go through.

Of course, if I lived with Americans, I wouldn't have gone through that little culture shock meltdown. I also wouldn't have gotten to see the expressions on my roommates' faces when they tried their first candy corn, their first biscuit, their first roasted sweet potato. I wouldn't have thought to visit some of the places I've seen and I wouldn't have gotten to have a "Marcha de San Sebastian" sing-and clap-along in the car on the way home from Lekeitio.

Living with people who have a different worldview, background, even native language is a challenge at times - but I can't say I regret it!