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!

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.

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.

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.

La Venencia – Madrid, Spain

La Venecia
La Venencia

I was out to dinner the other night with my family and friends and did a little research before I went.  It was a warm summer evening and we were going to be dining outside under a cloudless sky.  The thought of sucking down heady Czech beer seemed a little heavy handed to my palate so I made a strategic decision early on.  I ordered one of my favorite drinks, Sherry.  I’ve written about a few of my experiences with this typical Spanish drink before but nowhere outside of Jerez typifies it more in my mind more than the place I’m about to tell you about, quietly, like a well-kept secret.  The place is – come closer – La Venencia in Madrid, Spain.

My first experience in La Venencia was brought on by my wife, well, needing a bathroom break.  We were cavorting around Madrid one evening about nine-or-so years ago and nature called.  The rest, as they say, is history.  My wife found what she needed and for me the doors to a secret world opened by dumb luck.  Upon my first visit, I had no idea where I was.  I didn’t know what they served but I did see a whole lot of what looked like wine casks.  I figured I could at least get a glass of wine while I waited.  So, I asked for a glass of “algún vino blanco y seco” (some dry white wine).  The guy behind the bar just smiled and said “Solo tenemos blanco.”  Not knowing what I had stepped into, I did what came naturally.  “Vále” (OK), I retorted.  The next 7 seconds passed, he smiled and, for some unknown reason, decided to take pity on me.  He reached for one of the five corked bottles behind the bar and poured the light, grassy copita of Sherry.  “Fino,” he said as he re-corked the bottle and scrawled my order on the bar in chalk.  My senses were reeling.  Chalk on the bar?  Leather on the walls?  Casks?  Air impossibly thick with smoke?  This must be it.  Heaven!

For anyone with even a passing interest in Sherry, it was and is a slice heaven.  La Venencia is about as authentic as anything gets in all of Iberia.  From the people behind the bar to the impossibly yellowed posters and pictures adorning the walls, the place is so Spanish it hurts.  It’s the place where my wife turned into a Sherry fan and I believe the place where we first considered the idea of a trip to Jeréz which we just completed earlier this year.  It’s also a place that I visited with my brother while in Madrid – on several occasions during our trip there.  In fact, every time we walked by and it was open, we stopped in for a copa.  From the Seco Amontillado, to the Fino, to the Manzanilla (among others), all glasses are served with an intensity and sacredness that really respects the liquid that is being poured as much as the tradition of the place.

Rounding out the flavor package are the complimentary plates of tapas that go with the delicious copas.  The olives are some of the best I have had in Spain.  Garlicky, slightly salty, and steeped in grassy Spanish oil.  The cheese under the glass cover behind the bar is a queso de cabra, I believe, but can’t be entirely sure.  Then there are the slices of chorizo that seem to melt in your mouth and lay the perfect foundation for a sip of this Spanish ambrosia.

Finally, there are the people themselves.  The faces behind the bar are solemn and seem as worn as the dark brown wood and the leather covered walls.  Their faces appear to tell a story of the place with years of tobacco smoke plotting a sort of relief map of Sherry history.  They can be fairly conversational if the stars are aligned correctly.  On one early visit,  I was mistaken as an Italian and the bartender seemed amazed that I was, in fact, an American.

This bar would be an impossibility in another country.  Not only could one never find this many smokers in one city but the phenomenon of Sherry is purely Spanish.  However, there is something else.  This is Spain, or more specifically, Madrid.  It’s the tradition of the city.  The grittiness mixed with hospitality that exists but is not over-exuberant.  It is authenticity like I have never witnessed anywhere else.  Of course, it wouldn’t be the same without the Sherry.  And, oh, the Sherry.

Corazón Loco – Madrid, Spain

Corazon Loco 4Perched on a corner just around the bend from Cava Baja and just up the street from Almendro 13 sits one of the most quintessential Spanish hipster wine bars that I’ve ever seen.  When I say hipster, I must make it clear that I’m not talking about Euro-hipsters – the vapid, label-wearing big sunglass bunch.  By hipster, I mean that its home to young, hip, Madrileños.  The group that congregates at Corazón Loco is a likable crowd. There’s your fair share of piercings and tattoos in the bunch but they’re a congenial lot overall and they won’t stare too hard at a couple gringos and their curly blonde-haired, blue-eyed daughter on a Sunday afternoon after El Rastro.

The requisite chalkboards behind the bar advertise the wines that they have on hand and, as with Corazon Loco 6El Tempranillo, it’s best to go to the bar with a good idea of what you want to order and a good accent.  You can’t go wrong with what they’re pouring so there’s not much to fear.  But man cannot live by wine alone so Corazón Loco also has a good menu of eats on the chalkboard to the left of the bar.  The “Papas Arrugadas” are one of my favorites and are perfect for splitting with some friends while relaxing on the beer keg barstools.  The potatoes themselves are a Canary Islands specialty that come with a green and red sauce that has to be tried to be believed.  Never has a boiled, salted little potato tasted so good.  They’re served with a red “mojo” pepper sauce and a green one that, I believe, is a garlic and cilantro mix.  Everyone ends up liking one over the other but both sauces are super tasty.

Corazon Loco 1In the back of the establishment, there is more of a sit-down restaurant.  It looks cool but I’ll admit, I’ve never been back there.  The front wine bar area is where the action is and the corner location gives one a strategic view of La Latina and all of the goings on in the Costanilla San Andrés.  It’s an inviting atmosphere and one that I return to every time I’m in Madrid.

This place is the real Spain as I remember it.  The Spain before the EU, mass immigration and the Euro.  It’s the Spain that I hope never goes away.

Mediterranean Mezes

Mezes

We expanded the definition of “Meze” on Tuesday night to include the western Mediterranean as well as the east which is the part of the Med typically associated with the word.  It was a sort of perfect storm of food that just happened to show up in our fridge after a few shopping trips – some near, some far.   There was Manchego cheese from Barcelona mixed with green apple, garlic and olive oil for a tasty salad.  There were feta and filo puffs from the Greek Society specialty shop in Prague 6.  Add to that grilled eggplant and yellow peppers  finished with Istrian olive oil, flanked by grilled veal sausage from the Little Italy deli just down the street.  The plate was begging for a sprig of parsley and sliced cherry tomato for aesthetics but on a Tuesday night, garnishes seemed superfluous.

It was really a great combo of flavors.  The acidity of the apple in the Manchego salad served as the perfect palate cleanser between bites of the smokey eggplant and rustic veal sausage.  Oh, and the sausage – it was perfectly seasoned, bold and grilled open until the edges were slightly crispy.  I’m about to fill my freezer with this stuff on my next trip back to the Little Italy deli.  The filo-feta puffs are sort of a high-class pizza roll.  It’s hard not to pop the entire thing in your mouth and enjoy smoothness of the feta with the flakiness of the crust in one bite.

I really love eating this way.  Preparation was very simple, consisting of some washing and slicing.  The rest was just a warm oven and hot grill.  All that was missing was the lap of the Mediterranean outside our window.  I guess you can’t have everything!

Traga Tapas – Ronda, Spain

Traga Tapas - Ronda, Spain
Traga Tapas - Ronda, Spain
At a certain point in my Spanish vacations, I need to focus my palate on something other than the Spanish staples of bread, cheese, jamón and eggs served in countless combinations.  On the last trip it was a visit to Maoz for a delicious falafel in pita with veggies and yogurt sauce.  This time, it was a visit to Traga Tapas smack dab in the middle of the picturesque town of Ronda, Spain.  Traga Tapas is apparently the sister restaurant to Tragabuches, where I have never been and know nothing about.  Traga Tapas, on the other hand, merits repeat visits.  The sheer audacity of the combination of the flavors used and fused makes every dish we tried worth nothing less than contemplative study with each bite.
Salmon Marinated with Vanilla and Lime (Salmón Marinado con Vainilla y Lima)
Salmon Marinated with Vanilla and Lime (Salmón Marinado con Vainilla y Lima)

The salmon marinated with vanilla and lime (salmón marinado con vainilla y lima) shocked the senses with the first bite but as it continued, it made almost “why didn’t I think of that” sense. The stew crouquette (croqueta de cocido) mixed two Spanish classics together to form a delicious ball of well, fried stew. Much better than it sounds, believe me.

Pork Cheek on Gratin Toast with Cheese Fondant (Chapata de Carrillada)
Pork Cheek on Gratin Toast with Cheese Fondant (Chapata de Carrillada)

The pork cheek on gratin toast with cheese fondant (chapata de carrillada) was reminiscent of the richest pulled pork that one could imagine.  The texture of the toast plank underneath was perfect as well.  Leaning heavily on Asian side of the fusion wheel, the soy pasta dish (fideos de soja salteados con queso de cabra curado, cerdo iberico y rucola) combined Asian, Italian and Spanish flavors in to a sort of cellophane noodle, global village, pad Thai. 

I know, I know.  This reads like hyperbole – trust me – it isn’t.

Trumping all the dishes, the pork ribs (costillas de cerdo) broke little new ground but represented two different dishes to perfection.  The spare ribs were tender, succulent, with a seemingly flash-fried, light, thin outer coating.

Stew Crouquette (Croqueta de Cocido)
Stew Crouquette (Croqueta de Cocido)

  Complimenting their flavor were the best fried potatoes alioli ever served.  The potatoes themselves were enough to send Mrs. NH into gastronomic bliss causing her to beg me to order a full plate of them alone on her behalf.  (I didn’t – there was too much else to try.)  The potatoes were golden fried on the outside and fluffy and earthy on the inside.  The alioli was fresh made, rich, and all creamy-yolk-garlic goodness.  Garnishing the dish was a perfect scattering of coarse sea salt – just enough to make sure every flavor contained therein would have a chance to properly grace your tongue.  Writing this alone is making me salivate uncontrollably…

Pork Ribs (Costillas de Cerdo)
Pork Ribs (Costillas de Cerdo)

I can’t recommend this place highly enough.  With the combination of the inventive yet classic food, great deals on new flavors in local wine and excellent service and recommendations – you’d be a fool to miss this spot while in Ronda – and maybe within a 50-mile radius.

El Xampanyet

dueno

As a grubby American expat living overseas, there are few trips home.  They’re long, expensive journeys that seem too long when you’re planning them and too short when you get there.  However, I’ve found a home away from home on the Iberian peninsula.  As a matter of fact, with just one trip, you’d feel like it was home as well.  The welcome is warm, the jokes are well-worn, the food is delicious and the drink is, well, El Xampanyet.

Just a few steps down the street from the Picasso Museum in Barcelona is my home away from home.  It’s not much when you pass by.  Just some “botes” hanging from the doorway, and a glimpse of tile and nice white marble bar.  However, a cursory walk by misses what lives at the heart of El Xampanyet.  It’s the soul of the family the runs it.  (The owner and patriarch is pictured above.)  At least three generations are there, manning the bar, serving up sardines that explode in your mouth like  M-80s and delightful cherry bombs of goat cheese stuffed red peppers.  The house drink is, of course, El Xampanyet (a sort of Cava-spritzer) but everything else is available with which to satisfy your thirst.

There’s rarely a place to stand and it’s even harder to find a place to sit.  Crowds come in before going for the big night out.  Every night.  During our last trip there, we shared the area in front of the bar with everyone from trade show tourists to self proclaimed Spanish royalty.  The funny thing was, they gave drinks to everyone at the same speed.  They were gracious, did their best to remember our last visit, and made sure the lady with us did not go thirsty. ( Really, she tried to, but they wouldn’t have it.   I’ve never seen club soda forced on anyone.)

The Spanish proverbs that hang on the wall just add to the ambiance.  Loosely translated, one says, “When feeling ill, inject platelets of jamón and red wine.”  Sage advice – heeded. When you’re there, you feel like an honorary Spaniard.  There’s no pretense, just tons of good food, very little elbow room and a cold, glistening silver tap to make sure your caña is never empty.  ¡Viva El Xampanyet!

El Museo del Jamón – The Museum of Ham

El Museo del Jamón - Madrid, Spain
El Museo del Jamón - Madrid, Spain

Used to be, when I thought of ham, I thought of something honey baked or square watery lunch meat in plastic.  Ever since I was a foreign exchange student to Madrid, Spain nearly 20 years ago, the picture in my mind changed.  Whenever somebody says “ham” I kind of feel a pending letdown.  It’s not that I don’t like ham but it’s just that I know that they’re probably not talking about jamón.

There is no such letdown at the Museo del Jamón in Madrid.  My fellow traveler and I visited the Carrera de San Jerónimo 6 location not once but twice, so interesting were the offerings of the museum.  Come to think of it, we only went to the Prado once and probably spent less time there than in the museum devoted to succulent cured swine legs.  Somehow, I believe Velázquez would understand.

It is less a museum than a deli showcase of all the types of jamón that Spain has to offer.  It is truly awe-inspiring.  Legs hang all around the walls, over the bar, over your head and behind the deli counter.  They fill golden cañas and plop them before you in pools of beer that would probably quench your thirst even if you could only gaze upon them.  The fluorescent lighting serves to make this museum a completely different experience than the smokey, earthy wine and tapas bars of “la Latina”.  Everyone here is a commoner.  We saw people pay with what appeared to be food stamps and saw fellows who looked like they might have been collecting trash all day talking to a group of abuelitas that were dressed to the nines – including pearls.  And for all of this mix of clientele, I did not see one other tourist – gringo or otherwise.  Maybe that’s the equalizing effect of the museum.

What was unequaled was the main event – the jamón.  We ordered a 1/2 plate of queso manchego and 1/2 plate of the Jamón Iberico de Bellota.  What sets this jamón apart from all others is that it is from a free-range, acorn fed pig.  It has a velvety consistency on the tongue and a tenderness that is unequaled by any of the other varieties.  The striations of delicious fat mix with the full flavored cured red meat on your palate and combine to create a flavor that exists nowhere else.  You can taste the meat, the process of curing the meat and slightly taste the nuttiness of the acorn in the flesh.  The richness gathers on the back of your tongue and holds there until ushered along by another sip from the caña.

All the while El Museo del Jamón bubbles and breathes around you.  Bartenders shout orders to the deli, checks are paid, new patrons arrive, and the hum of the traffic pulses outside.  Still, there is no better name for this establishment than “museum.”  When one thinks of a museum as a place to experience works of art with your fellow man, this fits the description.  It houses products that only a few talented individuals can do, things that are held in high regard the world around, things that may be loved by some and despised by others.

Happily, there is one thing that sets this museum apart from all others.   When your done marveling at the works of art, you only need to proceed to the deli counter to take one home.

* approximate times

Almendro 13 – One of the Spanish Seven Wonders

Almendro 13 - La Latina - Madrid, Spain
Almendro 13 - La Latina - Madrid, Spain

I can’t count how many times I’ve been to Almendro 13.  I can’t even count how many people I have sent there when they tell me they’re going to Madrid.  You would think with all of that exposure, I’d be over it.  You might never guess that I would go there twice in the course of three days with a near miss of a third time.  Well, we did.  It is just that good.  Not only did we go there twice, we had the exact same thing twice.  Manzanilla, olives, and Huevos Rotos.  Simple flavors and an incredible parade of richness over the palette.  The green painted interior matching the flavor of the olives, with the shiny brass fixtures highlighting the bite of the Manzanilla and the wood bar and yellow painted walls capturing the savory essence of the bright yolks of the eggs, saltiness of the jamón and perfectly cooked, just thicker than a potato chip, slices of potato.

Yes, I realize the prose is a bit heady but I think it’s befitting of a place that is so deceptively casual as to ambush your senses with color, flavor and smell and make you even consider a third visit in one short trip to Madrid.  Go – and return often.

La Botifarra – The True Valencia

botifarra

The ratty, dog-eared business card above is for the “Botifarra,” a hidden gem in the middle of ‘el Carmen’ district of Valencia.  As two weary travelers, we stumbled into it at about 10:30 on a Wednesday night.  Easy pickin’s by Spanish standards but akin to Magellan’s arrival at the Spice Islands for us.  When we arrived we were tired, hungry and had no idea what lay ahead of us.

Luckily, it ended up being an small bistrot-type Spanish tapas bar where all of the cooking was done by the owner Jorge himself.  A small stove/grill in the corner, chalkboards on the wall advertising the wine and tapas and the drool inducing bowls and shallow clay pots of sausages, peppers, and various indescribable tapas were all that stood between us and the kitchen.  Well, that and a nice bottle of red wine.  I have no recollection of what wine we ordered at this point but I can tell you what accompanied it.  We had a delicious plate of gooey Spanish cheese (OK, I don’t remember what kind), with a tomato marmalade just sweet enough to cut the pungency of the cheese.  As a second plate, we had a Roquefort-stuffed pork sausage, cooked in white wine and in a natural casing.  Sublime.  In fact, I recall saying that on that very night.  “Just, uh, sublime.”

Indeed it was.  And the conversation with Jorge and his assistant proved to be the highlight of the night.  Terribly tolerant of my over-imbibed Spanish, Jorge proved to be his own version of the Valencia Chamber of Commerce.

The menu changes nightly but I can only imagine the quality and the experience is the same.  Go and give Jorge a shout from the gringos who forgot cash.