Andalusian Olive Oil in Prague

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Last Saturday morning was sunny and beautiful.  We decided to take advantage of the weather and walk down to the Dejvice farmer’s market and see if the selection of food on offer had improved since Mrs. NH’s visit a year or so ago.  Suffice to say, it has.

There were beautiful spring flowers, an assortment of international meats and cheeses, seafood, and even fresh pasta.  In one booth there was a friendly Czech/Spanish couple selling their olive oil from Andalusia.   Anyone who reads this blog knows that I’m a sucker for anything from Spain.  I tried their olives and both their filtered and unfiltered oils and fell in love.  We bought a bottle and proceeded to buy some fresh bread at the store and dip to our hearts content.  We have about 5 bottles of olive oil from all over Europe in our kitchen and this one certainly stands out as one of the tastiest.  It’s rich and green in flavor with just a hint on spice on the finish.

It’s nice to have a good olive oil that we don’t have to ration.  If we run out we can always walk back to get more next weekend!

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Croquetas de Jamón, Albóndigas en Sofrito y Alcachofas Laminadas – Hecho en Casa

I could have opened up a restaurant in downtown Madrid last night.  This amateur chef was firing on all cylinders.  Heck, I was even firing on cylinders that I didn’t know I had.

Making croquetas has always been something that I have wanted to do – successfully.  I tried it once with my dad about 20 years ago, back when I was a kid just home from a year in Spain.  We failed.  Miserably.  The croquetas were burnt blobs.  The failure scarred me and I had not tried to make them again, until last night.

Just back from India, I got a hankerin’ for something that was, well, not curry.  Having recently excavated a nice chunk of frozen jamón from the freezer, I decided to put it to use in the croquetas.  I used the recipe from La Tienda.com‘s website.  I ended up changing the proportions quite a bit since the 1/2 lb of jamón that the recipe called for made for too meaty of croquetas.  I used some smoked sweet paprika and nutmeg in the batter, just to bring out the flavors I love.

They were a huge success.  Mrs. NH and Little NH gobbled them up as fast as I could make them.  But I didn’t stop there.

I also wanted to try my hand at fried artichokes, just like in Barcelona’s Ciudad Condal.  These always seemed like an impossible dish to make, due to the cleaning of the choke and thin cut that they needed to have.  Nonetheless, I decided to give it a try and I’m glad I did.

First, I pulled off the green outer leaves and then cut of the top prickly portion of the artichoke.  Using a baby food spoon (thanks, Scamp!) I scooped out the fuzziest part of the inner choke, right above the heart.  I then halfed it and set to running it through on the “thin” setting on my mandolin.  Finally, I fried them in about 1/2 inch of olive oil and finished with a liberal sprinkling of sea salt.  Wow.  Two home runs in one night.

Finally, I decided that to round out this feast, we needed Little NH’s new favorite tapa – albóndigas (meatballs).  We did a pork variety with a delicious sofrito from José Andrés’ “Made in Spain”.  Little NH helped mix the meat and made all of the balls herself.  I fried them up and added them to the sauce to simmer for a good hour until we chowed down.

Not content to do a feast of tapas half way, I opened the pack of duck jamón I had in the fridge and Mrs. NH prepared fresh pan con tomate.  It was a meal that I would have been thrilled with at any Spanish tapas bar in el barrio gótico or on Cava Baja.  The fact that I had it while sitting on my couch, made it all the better.

¡Exito!

A Perfect Day in San Sebastian – Part 2

“Siesta” marks a huge split in the day in Spain.  I have been told that for those Spaniards in the corporate world, it is a thing of the past.  However, in the small hill towns of La Rioja and even the winding back streets of “La Parte Vieja” of San Sebastian, it is still very much a part of daily life.  Therefore, we planned our day to deflect the gap that is sometimes left by siesta in order to pack as much into our last Sunday in Spain.  (This article is part two of the article that began here.)

Stop 5: Ostertz – Coffee and Sherry and Regional Education

After a big morning and early afternoon of feasting, some good digestion was in order.  Mrs. NH and I settled on a small, busy cafe/bar right along the waterfront on the opposite side of La Concha Bay – facing the new town of San Sebastian.  We weren’t the only family that sought shaded refuge and something to sip on for continued strength.  After our coffees, I opted for a nice fino Sherry and Mrs. NH suggested that I, “Ask if they can make me a rebujito!”  Discovered while touring Jerez a few years back, a rebujito is a drink that consists of Sprite or some kind of bubbly lemon drink mixed with fino Sherry.  I prefer not to pollute my fino with anything.  However, Mrs. NH doesn’t ask for much so the least I could do is ask at the bar keep.  My inquiry was met with incredulity from the bartender and eye rolls and independent commentary from another patron inside the bar.  “This isn’t Andalucía,” he offered.  Luckily, I had ordered my fino puro first and was able to believably pass off my request for what it was – a request from my wife.  When I returned to the table with a fino and a cerveza clara, I marveled with my wife about how truly regional Spanish food and drink is.  I also relayed the fact that despite almost being laughed out of the bar for my order, both bartender and patron were curious to know the exact ingredients and proportions of a proper rebujito.  The best part, they asked the American!

Stop 6: Merry Go Round and Potato Chips

As a father, I’ve seen a lot of playgrounds in a lot of towns in a lot of countries.  If you have kids of your own, you know how it is.  If they see a playground, they want to stop.  Same goes with merry go rounds.  My girls are good travelers so if there is time in the day,  I don’t mind spending a bit of it doing things they like.  I feel it ads harmony to the overall trip experience (as well as the obvious “carrot” for good behavior).  So, kid fun time completed, we proceeded to the paved mosaic waterfront of San Sebastian.  On the way we saw a man selling 1.50 euro bags of potato chips and did not waste any time in forking over our coin for a modest bag.  The reason we shelled out almost $2.25 for a small bag of chips?  Experience.  Spanish potato chips can be really tasty – like the ones sold in La Plaza del Salvador in Sevilla.  The ones in San Sebastian were no exception.  Thick cut, salty, slightly greasy and really satisfying.  Between that and the sunset walk along the ocean, it was the perfect primer to an evening of tapas and delightful Spanish mayhem.

Stop 7: Ormazabal

Part of Little NH’s fascination with Spain comes from a part of the Spanish tapas bar culture that seems entirely counter to everything she has been taught about cleanliness.  At first, she was terrified to toss a used napkin on the floor of Spanish a tapas bar.  However, by the end of the trip, she was asking, “Daddy, are you done with your napkin?  When you are, give it to me so I can throw it on the floor.”  When in Spain…, right?

For our second to last tapas stop of the evening, we hit Ormazabal for a round of family favorites from our last several days in Spain.  The friendly folks behind the counter made a couple recommendations and even delivered the items right to our table – and we had a great time bantering in English, Spanish and sorta-French with them.  Our orders consisted of some of the best food we had eaten in Spain and included: meatballs (albondigas), spinach croquetas, peppers stuffed with bacalao, octopus in its ink and beef cheeks.  Having settled into a comfortable table in the back with room for the stroller (which at this point in the trip resembled more of a covered wagon), we decided to stay put and made this tapas stop more of a meal.  We ordered 2-3 more rounds of food, each accompanied by great banter with the help, and departed very satisfied for a very modest price.

Unfortunately, for Little NH, not all restaurants in Spain cater to the “napkin on the floor” tradition – including Ormazabal.  So, we had one more stop.

Stop 8: Munto Jatetxea Redux

One good turn deserves another, right?  As we were heading north to France the next morning and Little NH2 was asleep in her stroller, we decided to head back to Munto Jatetxea for our last plates of tapas.  Mrs. NH had not had enough pimientos de padrón on this trip and I had no problem helping her gobble up the heaping plate while our youngest slept in the stroller amidst the din of the patronage in the bar.  At the other end of the hyperactivity spectrum, Little NH stood outside in the pedestrian traffic only street and danced and sang to a tune residing somewhere deep inside her head.  Folks alternately chuckled at her, danced with her and dodged her.  We all got to do what we loved best.  Of course, Little NH took a break every now and then to come inside, sip some juice and toss down my used napkins.

A Perfect Day in San Sebastian – Part 1

Sundays in Spain are pretty hard to beat.  One can choose church in the morning or, if you were like us, opt to let your 4 year old and 8 month old sleep in after a typically late Spanish Saturday night.  The majority of the morning was rainy and gray so we hunkered down until around 11:00 as the clouds drifted away leaving a blue sky and gleaming cobblestone streets.

Stop 1: Churros

Mrs. NH and Little NH were determined to start their final day in Spain with the classic churros con chocolate.  Considering our late start, we had to travel to the “parte vieja” to find a restaurant offering the tasty breakfast.  The one we found seems to offer delectable churros 24/7.  With breakfast out of the way, it was time to begin on the rest of the culinary day out.

Stop 2: Basque Lessons

I have a pretty good conversational grasp of Spanish.  In the preceding week, I hadn’t missed a lick of conversation with any Spaniard.  However, in La Cepa I was fairly lost.  To this day, I’m not sure if the first conversation I had with the man behind the counter was in heavily accented Spanish or Basque.  Yes, I muddled through and got a plate of delicious pinchos, but I was left stuttering as if it was my first day speaking Spanish.  Confused, I brought the pinchos, sangria and zumo de manzana back to the family; the fellow behind the counter winked and gave me a small brochure with English, Spanish, Basque, Catalan, Dutch and other translations of common phrases and words.  “Ah, ha!” I thought.  “When in País Vasco…”

We gobbled up the pinchos and finished our sangria.  Having studied my translations, I was ready to make my next order as a local.  A Basque local.  “Bat sangria!” I hollered to my ostensible new professor.  He smiled and winked, “Eh, sangria bat! Pero gracias!”  It was a correction, and a good natured ‘thanks for trying.’  It was also my first word in a new language.  No one will ever confuse me for a linguist!

Stop 3: ¡Foie!

San Sebastian is Basque country and that means there is a good mix of French influence in this region.  Considering my weakness for foie gras, it was also a culinary jackpot.  We pulled up napping Little NH2’s stroller outside of Munto Jatetxea and I went in to place the orders in the midst of a bustling Sunday crowd.  I ordered stuffed peppers, out-0f-this-world croquetas for Little NH, and the aforementioned foie.  Ordering the foie gras was almost as fun as eating it.  I relayed my order in Spanish to the sprightly girl behind the counter and she repeated it with incredible vigor over her shoulder to the open door that contained the kitchen.  Seeing my reaction and smile at the power of her voice, she filled a caña and a clara and handed to me with a wide grin.  I. Love. Spain.

Stop 4: Plaza de la Lasta and the Waterfront

Fat and happy from several tapas we decided to take a break from eating and stretch our legs for a short walk to the waterfront.  The sun was now shining brightly and the town of San Sebastian seemed to be cast in Technicolor.  We sat on the pier for an hour, digesting and soaking up the sun while Little NH practiced her Spanish on a group of boys wrestling with a fishing pole twice their combined height.  Approaching them, she yelled, “¡Hola!”  They all gave her a disinterested look and went back to untangling their line.  Realizing that it won’t always be that way, I laughed and began plotting the rest of the day in my mind.  Across the way, a string of seaside restaurants beckoned.  Am I ever not hungry in Spain?

Continue to Part 2.

The Surprise of Pamplona

There are certain places you hear about in the world that you almost feel like you know even if you have never been there.  Names like “Paris” and “Rome” bring up images of the Eiffel Tower and Coliseum respectively, right?  Of course, when you picture, “Pamplona” you picture the running of the bulls, correct?

I thought the same thing up until a couple of weeks ago when the family and I had the good fortune to make a slight alteration to our northern Spain journey and dip into Pamplona for the day.  It was a last-minute decision on the way to San Sebastian and ended up as one of my favorite surprises of the trip.

As it turns out, there were no bulls in the street (despite Little NH’s imagination) but the streets were filled with great restaurants and the plaza mayor was sun-soaked on this fall afternoon.  The old town of the city is warm and hospitable.   The food, as in all of Spain, is top-notch – even in the touristy areas.

Pamplona’s biggest claim to fame isn’t hidden away, however.  Along the streets that make up the 826 meter “encierro” to the Plaza de Toros, are signs that demarcate the path that the bovines take, hot on the trail of targets for their sharp horns.

I don’t know about you but I prefer to find my surprise in the charm of the city rather than the surprise that awaits some poor runner on a sunny day in July – particularly if it comes at the ends of the horns of a bull.

Patatas Alioli

Spanish cooking is very traditional fare.  Unlike other European cultures, there is not a prevalence of foreign foods on offer in the bustling cities of Spain.  There are exceptions, of course.   If one looks hard enough, you can find a smattering of Japanese, pizza and even burger places.  However, the preponderance of cuisine in Spain is very fresh and very Spanish.

That’s why when Mrs. NH and I stumbled across these patatas alioli, we took notice.  It was in a restaurant tucked in a side street at the top of the old town of Tossa de Mar in northeastern Spain called La Lluna.  The patatas arrived piping hot with an inviting garlicky aroma.  The shape was the first thing we noticed.  They were round, restaurant namesake appropriate half-moons of perfectly crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside potatoes.    They were still covered in bubbly tender skin.  The edges of the moons were flaky and crispy and the whole piece was sprinkled with just enough sea salt to really make it zing on the palate.  The alioli was thick but began to melt slightly as it rested on the warm potatoes adding a luxurious creamy texture to the already fluffy, smooth centers of potato.

Mrs. NH and I have always been huge fans of patatas alioli but this batch stands out as one of the most delicious versions we have encountered.  The dish pushed the boundaries of the traditional dish in both shape and pure rustic goodness without leaving behind any of the authenticity.

The dinner at this restaurant was so good that we decided even before we finished our first meal that we would be back again the next night.  As if to punctuate our decision to the friendly and helpful staff, we left proclaiming “hasta mañana!”  Needless to say, we kept our promise.

Paella Valenciana (En Praga)

As the rest of Prague was gearing up for the England v. US World Cup soccer match, I was gearing up for an entirely different challenge.  I was about to make paella, real paella, at home in my kitchen in Prague.  I had made several half-hearted attempts at paella in the past using everything from packaged “saffron” rice (in college) to slightly more authentic chicken and rice pilafs a few years back.  But I had never attempted a real, honest to goodness paella.  All of that was about to change.

However, to begin, I needed an inspirational drink.  Sangria was the perfect accompaniment.  Unlike paella, I have made sangria a million times before.  I’ve pretty much co-opted Fredericksburg Flash’s recipe that he’s been making since I was in diapers.  I have yet to taste better sangria in all the world.  Isn’t it interesting that a dentist from Nebraska holds the gold standard of sangria for pretty much everyone who has tasted it?  I say, why mess with perfection?

So, with fruit cut and the delicious purple nectar providing just the right motivation, I began making the paella.  Scampwalker and I had experienced Paella Valenciana in Valencia a little over a year ago.  I was thoroughly impressed and I sought to make the base of the dish as close to the original as possible.  However, because of my audience and geographic location, I was going to substitute a few ingredients.  I used peas instead of green beans, threw in some chicken breasts instead of all bone-in chicken (I kept some drumsticks in for myself), no chorizo (because the only stuff we can get here adds too much spice) and shrimp instead of some other shellfish.  I didn’t have access to any clams or mussels for this batch, either.  I did have lots of saffron, though and I was pretty sure that could overcome any other shortcoming.

Looking for online recipes, I took the first one I could find.  It was Alton Brown’s Paella recipe and it served as the base for my dish.  I’ve found Brown to be a pretty consistent cook and his recipe had all the things I needed to serve as the base for my escapade.  His recipe is pretty dense with instruction.  He also uses a wood fire.  I used the stove and a big, 15 inch Caphalon pan.  I varied cooking a bit and this is a rough guide to what I did to make the dish.

Paella Valenciana (En Praga)

1 can peeled, chopped tomatoes
9 cups low-sodium chicken broth (heated in microwave)
3 cups short or medium-grain rice
20 threads saffron
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon paprika
2 tablespoons olive oil

4 chicken legs and seasoned with S&P
2 chicken breasts, cubed
and seasoned with S&P
1 red bell pepper, sliced thinly lengthwise
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups fresh green peas
15 Jumbo shrimp, peeled, tails on

Alton’s directions are much more thorough, but here are mine in a nutshell:

Heat oil on high.  Add chicken and cook 12 minutes.  Add peas, peppers, onions, garlic and cook 2-3 minutes.  Add tomatoes and cook until liquid is reduced, about 4 minutes.  Add rice, saffron, salt, paprika, rosemary and cook one minute – stirring the whole time.  Add 4 cups of heated broth.  Stir only until rice is covered in broth and then don’t stir it again until it’s finished.  Simmer on med-hi heat for 9 minutes.  Add peas.  Add another 4 cups of heated broth.  Simmer another 4 minutes.  Add shrimp on top.  Simmer 3 minutes.  With tongs, flip shrimp but don’t touch the rice!  Simmer 6 minutes or until liquid looks almost gone.

Turn off heat. Cover loosely with a lid and let sit 15 minutes.

The result was one of the best paellas I’ve ever had in my life.  Little NH gobbled it up like it was going out of style.  Mrs. NH, when quizzed, only lamented the lack of chorizo and mussels.  I agreed, but didn’t feel too bad about it as I shoveled delicious fork full after fork full into my mouth.

We finished off the meal with a couple glasses of slightly-chilled Oloroso Sherry.   The nutty, toffee sweetness was the perfect finish to a perfect meal.

As an American taking on a very non-American dish, I fared better than the US against England this evening.  Whereas the US footie team was luck to eke out a draw, my challenge in the kitchen produced a huge win.

Pan con Tomate con Queso Manchego, Papas Arrugadas, Pimientos de Padrón

I’ve been down for the count with a killer cough ever since the planes stopped flying over a week ago.  So, when Mrs. NH threw out a menu idea for the tapas meal listed above, I was only halfway enthusiastic.  However, a couple days passed since she floated the idea and my appetite has returned (though the annoying cough lingers).  Good thing, too because the meal we made last night could stand side-by-side with the same dishes presented at any tapas joint in the world.  All except for the pimientos, that is.

We did an experiment the last time we had pimientos.  We had brought a couple baskets home fresh from the Boqueria in Barcelona and I had to head to Washington just a couple days after we returned home to Prague.  So, we ate 1/2 of them and froze the other 1/2.  In all honesty, they weren’t terrible after they were frozen – they were certainly edible.  But the signature melt-in-mouth goodness of fresh pimientos was replaced by a tougher, slightly bitter frozen cousin.  To the uninitiated, they probably would have been fine.  But when you’ve tasted them in their prime, the frozen version are a poor substitute.

Now, the papas arrugadas were a whole other matter.  They were perfect.  Mrs. NH actually managed to find some potatoes just the right size.  She made the green mojo and a red pepper mojo a few days ago and let them really develop their flavors in the fridge for a couple days.  They were amazing.  Yes, they were better than I have had in any restaurant in “La Latina.”  (Admittedly, I’ve never been to Gran Canaria.)   She used an ancho pepper for the red pepper sauce and the couple days of mellowing brought the flavor from spicy-oily to creamy-peppery.  It was perfect.  The green mojo was just as refreshing as any I have ever tasted with the garlic and cilantro moving in a culinary tango over the tongue.  Yum.

Finally, the pan con tomate was lovingly crafted by Mrs. NH as well.  The cool, slightly acidic flavor of the tomato puree worked as the perfect foil to the manchego that was drizzled with just a few drops of grassy Spanish olive oil.  Pan con tomate is one of the simplest dishes in the world but is also one of the most brilliant.  Every time I have it, I can’t help but exclaim something profound like, “Man!”

So yeah, it was a tasty Thursday night.  It was made all the better by the fact that I was not in a hotel, or on a train, or in a line for train tickets, or watching CNN International squawk on about ash clouds or airport closings.  Yep, on Thursday night in Casa NotHemingway, the peppers were as tough as it got.

La Bodegueta – Barcelona, Spain

Ever since I turned 18 and left small town Nebraska for Spain, I’ve become a bit of a nomad.  I’ll always be a red-blooded American but when people ask, “Where are you from?” it gets harder to answer with each passing year.  So, to compensate for this lack of real “home” I’ve collected a short list of places I return to when visiting a particular city.  In DC, it’s the Old Ebbit Grill.  In Rovijn it’s the Puntalina.  However, of all the places in the world, one place towers above all the rest and feels as much like home as sitting on my couch.  That place is La Bodegueta in Barcelona, Spain.

Resting on a nondescript corner in the Eixample area of the city, la Bodegueta is, to me, one of the best places on earth.  I’ve been there probably 20 times and am only blogging about it now because I want to do it justice.  But this deed has shaped up to be as difficult as, say, writing a post entitled, “Why I Love My Mom.”  Where do you start?

I’ll start with a short description:  La Bodegueta is an old wine bodega down a few steps on the aforementioned corner.  But it’s much more than that.  It’s the place where I was reminded that it’s not “el menu,” it’s “la carta.”  It’s where the big earthenware jug on the bar holds olives that seem to magically appear.  There are the shelves of wine on the wall that seem one bottle short of completely collapsing under their own weight.  There’s the gritty, smoky, dusty whole of it.  Yes, it’s one of the greatest places on earth.

As soon as you walk in, you’ll see the tile floor and short tables that seem to be from a time when Europeans were really short.  My wife discovered Pimientos de Padrón here.  We tried them on our first visit and we’ve had them every other time they’ve ever been on a menu (or carta) anywhere.  There are the heady cañas, endless glasses of dry red wine and the zip of sherry to round out the meal.  This is where I get to hear a wine described as “la hostia!”  Yeah, stuff like that makes me pretty happy.

Finally, there’s the matron saint of La Bodegueta.  I won’t tell you her name because it’s not my place, but if you go, you’ll recognize her.  I bummed a Marlboro Red from her a few years back when looking for the perfect end to a long, caña soaked tapas extravaganza.  We struck up a conversation.  Since then, I have made it a point to pay her a visit every time I’m in Barcelona.  She embodies everything that La Bodegueta is.  She now knows everyone one in my immediate family by their first name.  I consider her a friend.  That’s hard not to like, too.

I’ve had the incredible good fortune to visit this place with my child, wife, parents and brother.  One time I even got to visit with all but one of them at once.  It’s a place where I go and inevitably end up taking stock of my life.  What has changed since my last visit?  What will I be like the next time I come?  Who will be with me?

It’s little pit stops like these in the middle of life that make you savor the passing days; places like the Bodegueta make that possible.

They say you can never go back home.  Maybe, but as long as La Bodegueta exists, I’ll be pretty sure that I can get awfully darn close.  I’m pretty sure that having been there, my mom would agree.

Alcachofas Laminadas (Fried Artichokes) at Ciutat Comtal – Barcelona, Spain

Sometimes, all it takes is one plate of something to justify a blog post. On my latest trip to Ciutat Comtal in Barcelona, Alcachofas Laminadas were that plate. It is a dish that only the Spaniards could pull off. It’s completely simple (artichokes, salt and oil), but so full of flavor and head-scratchingly brilliant in execution that it has to be applauded. The warm plate, which sort of resembles tiny crabs or sci-fi aliens, contains a crispy, salty, rich snack that is not to be missed. As a matter of fact, it’s a wonder that somebody hasn’t come up with the idea to bag these up and sell them at the gas station.

Wait, I just did.

La Vinya del Senyor – Barcelona, Spain

Every time I go to Barcelona, I print out a paper list of my favorite places in the city.  The majority of the time that I’m there, I am showing a few other people around, so it helps to be a little type “A” and have the printed list in my back pocket – complete with days/hours of operation as well as phone numbers.  One of the bars that has been on the list since its inception is La Vinya del Senyor in “El Born” or the “Barri Gòtic” of Barcelona.  La V del S is one of the reasons that Barcelona is as great as it is.

The wine bar is located across from the Santa Maria del Mar Cathedral and sits on the very quaint Plaça Santa Maria.  Tables are outside and offer great people watching and wine sipping al fresco.  However, due to the time of the year of my travels, I’ve spent most of my time there bellied up to the bar inside.  The people watching there is the best and the cozy atmosphere makes a nice contrast to the cool marble bar that produces some delicious wines and rustic, no frills meat and cheese tapas.  The wine card itself is nearly twice the size of the Magna Carta and way more interesting.  Wines from around the world are available.  However, if you’re like me, you’ll probably be fine with the 10-15 wines in the “featured” selection that is appended to the full menu.  Wines from around the world are offered as well as several gems from Spain.

Spanish wine is underrated and really unknown to most connoisseurs.   Luckily, La Vinya del Senyor does a great job of highlighting some good wines that pair especially well with the tapas on order.  Granted, it’s not your typical tapas bar fare.  They offer good mixes of cured meats, cheeses and “Topnotch Scroggin.”  Gotta love that.

Funny names aside, this is a wine bar not to be missed in Barcelona.  The staff behind the bar is friendly and, like many places in Spain, forgiving and appreciative of those who at least make an honest effort to order in Spanish.  What I should say is, the stare from behind the bar is not quite as icy as the one served up at el Tempranillo.   In fact, on my last visit I managed to get a couple of smiles.  Of course, that could have just been them reciprocating the expression that was plastered all over my face.  La Vinya del Senyor does that to me.

Pennette Rigate with Saffron Manchego Cream Sauce

I’ve started experimenting with the way I’ve been storing cheese lately and somehow forgot about a nice chunk of Manchego in the back of the fridge.  I had wrapped it in paper so it was able to breathe – It’s supposed to be better for the cheese’s flavor.  Turns out, when I discovered it after a couple weeks, there was no mold on it whatsoever but it had dried out considerably.  I took this in stride and decided to improvise a recipe from the hardened chunk of sheep’s cheese.  Man, am I glad I did.

What I came up with was a rich and flavorful pasta sauce heavily influenced by the flavors of Spain.  It was a simple recipe and I totally winged it.  I just love it when dinners like that work out.  Here’s what I used:

1 Cup Heavy Cream (1/2 and 1/2 would be fine, too)
2 Tbsp Olive Oil
1 Small Onion
4 Cloves Garlic
1 Pinch Saffron
3/4 Cup Shredded Young Manchego
Salt and Pepper
1 Pound of Pennette Rigate (That’s what I had on the shelf.  Most anything would work.)

Mince the onions and garlic and saute until soft in the olive oil.  Add the cream.  Add the saffron.  Stir as pasta cooks.  Slowly add the Manchego in the last couple minutes and stir until fully incorporated.  Top the cooked pasta and enjoy.

While Mrs. NH and I ate, we commented that this would be completely adaptable.  Want to add more Spanish flavor?  Add some chopped jamón.  Seafood?  Shrimp would be nice.  It has all of the characteristics of a paella base and a nice cheese bite.  The Manchego is much milder than Parmesan so it’s a nice change.  Try a version of you own and let me know about it in the comments, eh?

What I Did On My Winter Vacation

As February drew to a close, I was quite happy to see the month come to an end. It has been a cold winter and with the advent of March, the mind starts to churn with the coming promise of spring. Even if the temperatures don’t reach much above 40°F here, the sun has come out and melted all of that blasted, dirty snow.

I’ve been hibernating somewhat.  The Spain trip broke up the time but the rest has been work.  Except for the beautiful shades of green at either end of this post.  Yes, the promise of the green of spring.  Green.  Spring.  Green.

Those are Pimientos de Padrón.  The start and the finish.  Straight from Barcelona.  I cooked them myself.  I only wish I would have been the only one eating them.

Spring is springing.  Stay tuned.

Sherried Duck Empanada Recipe

Duck Empanadas

After a ridiculously delicious Saturday night, I found myself in the house on a rainy, cold Sunday.  I also found myself with two duck leg/thigh combos in the fridge and a wife that blew me away by saying, “Let’s make duck empanadas.  I’ll make the dough.”  Giddyup!

A few hours later, I was cradling a puffy, golden sherried duck empanada in my hand marveling at the result of husband and wife teamwork.  In the other hand I was holding a glass of la Gitana Manzanilla.  On my face was a big, fat grin.

Here’s how it all went down…

For the Filling:

2 leg/thighs of duck (skin on)
salt and pepper
1/2 can of beer
1 diced red pepper
1 diced onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cup dry sherry (Not La Gitana Manzanilla!  But an oloroso would also be good in this recipe.)
1/2 cube beef bullion
1 tablespoon cumin
1/2 tablespoon chili powder

Season the duck with salt and pepper and pour the beer in the bottom of  a casserole.  Bake covered for 2 hours on 350°F.  Bone and shred the cooked duck and discard the skin.  Reserve the beer and duck fat juice from the casserole.  Place the shredded duck meat aside.

Sauté the pepper, garlic and onions in the oil and gradually add spices, bullion and sherry.  Let the sherry cook off and then add some more.  Add a few spoonfuls of the beer/duck fat juice for flavor.  Add shredded duck and cook until moisture is an empanada filling consistency.

For the Dough:

Have your wife find a good empanada dough recipe and then say, “Thanks for doing this!” a lot while she rolls the dough and fills the empanadas.  Oh, be helpful and turn on the oven and chill the Manzanilla.  She’ll be grateful.

Patatas Arrugadas

Patatas Arrugadas

I’m on the road now but before shoving off from Prague, I got one last culinary experiment in.  It was a dish that I had been dying to try to make ever since the first time I popped one in my mouth – Patatas Arrugadas.  The first time I ate them, as I recall, it was at Café Delic in Madrid over a decade ago.  I’ve been smitten ever since.

For such a flavorful dish, Patatas Arrugadas are deceptively simple to make.  (I used the recipe from José Andrés’ “Made in Spain.”)  They’re simply new potatoes boiled in salt water for about 1/2 hour.  Now, when I say salt water, I mean SALT water.  You need to salt your water until the potatoes float.  All of this salt imparts its flavor in the spud and gives them the characteristic “wrinkle.”

Now, they wouldn’t be the same dish without a little bit of mojo.  Since I was dining alone on this occasion and didn’t have some of the necessary ingredients for the red mojo, I just made the green.  Recipes I’ve found differ but it’s essentially a mix of fresh cilantro, cumin, salt, vinegar, olive oil and garlic.  It’s highly aromatic and the bright green color really looks gorgeous next to the wrinkled, salted spuds.

Sometimes it takes a while to nail a recipe – but not with these babies.  The flavor was perfect the first time I made them and now that I realize how easy they are to make, it won’t be the last.