Posts in Eating Spain
6 Secrets to Making the Perfect Spanish Tortilla

The tortilla española has to be Spain’s most iconic dish. It’s ubiquitous. There’s hardly any tapas bar or restaurant worth its salt in the whole of Iberia that doesn’t have it on the menu. It’s as Spanish as the hamburger is American. It is consumed for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, as a main, a side, a sacrament at the lowliest and holiest of occasions. At first, I didn’t understand it. I’d imagined Spain as some exalted culinary capital. After tasting the famed tortilla, I thought to myself,

Really? This is your trademark dish, España? Eggs, taters, and onions? And salt… is there even salt? I can’t tell.

But after months of eating tortillas in a variety of settings, I eventually grew to love the dish. Even if you never learn to do so yourself, it’s only a matter of time before you become intimately familiar with the sight, the smell, and the taste of it.

how-to-make-spanish-tortilla

Over the past couple of years, I have seen and eaten Spanish tortillas at the beach, at backyard barbecues, birthday parties, school functions, botellon pre-games, and white-tablecloth restaurants. I even remember the tortilla getting a prominent mention on an episode of the popular Spanish sitcom, La Que Sea Vecina. In it, a spiteful Spanish mom was shooting down a girl who wanted to hook up with her son. After a string of put-downs, Mom dealt the final death blow:

“She can’t even cook a proper tortilla!”

The studio audience erupted in laughter.

So, Dear Reader, if you ever hope to impress your Spanish friends, or win that dashing Spanish beau, or simply avoid being laughed at by a make-believe studio audience, you’ll have to learn to whip out a proper Spanish tortilla. Here’s how.

6 Secrets for A Perfect Spanish Tortilla

how to make a spanish tortilla

1. Rough-cut the potatoes

I learned this secret in the home of my friend and fellow English teacher, Juana. Instead of slicing or chopping the potato into neat, evenly shaped cuts, she used her knife on the potato in a sort of cut-and-turn motion that released rough-edged, irregularly-shaped (though still similarly-sized) chunks of potato. The extra surface area and the cutting method allows the tater release a little more starch, which ultimately makes for a better mouthfeel and texture in the final product. Of course, you can slice them more uniformly as well, and still yield a favorable result.

2. Use a dedicated pan

If there’s any one secret that is essential to having your tortilla come out perfect every time, it’s this one. Keep one pan in your cabinet sacred, reserved only for tortillas and other egg cookery (and maybe pancakes and crepes). This pan does not have to be fancy or expensive, but it should be non-stick and it should never, ever be touched by utensils that can scratch or scrape its surface – so, no metal forks or spoons, only wooden, rubber or silicon spatulas and the like. Keeping your tortilla pan unmarred will ensure that your tortillas consistently slide out of the pan with ease and don’t stick to the sides and fall apart when you try to flip or serve them.

3. Let it rest

After cooking the potatoes and onion, draining off the oil and adding them to the beaten eggs, give the egg mixture a couple of quick stirs, and then… walk away. This is the perfect time to ready your non-stick skillet, get your plate out of the cupboard for flipping, and arrange the rest of your tortilla add-ins and seasonings. Letting the mixture rest allows the flavors to meld a bit, and helps the tortilla set properly when it's cooked.

4. Make it your own

There’s something to be said for simplicity. Sticking to the basic tortilla ingredients of potato and onion is perfectly fine, and honestly, recommended until you feel more comfortable with the cooking technique. But once you’ve mastered the process, it’s time to get creative. The first tortilla I had that strayed away from the tried-and-true ingredients was in Cadiz. An artisan shop in the central market there was serving tortillas with goat cheese and apricot marmalade. After tasting it, the rules of tortilla cookery changed forever for me. Since then, I’ve enjoyed adding in all kinds of ingredients to the basic tortilla, from spinach, to breakfast sausage to mushrooms. Basically, anything you might put in a quiche would also taste good in a tortilla.

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5. Don’t fear the flip

Flipping the tortilla is the most intimidating part of the tortilla cooking process. But it shouldn’t be. As long as you approach this step with confidence, you’ll be fine. Be sure to use a plate that’s slightly larger than your pan. Invert the plate onto the pan and move the covered pan over to the sink. Use your left hand to keep the plate tight against the pan while you flip the pan over with your right hand. Lift the pan away from the plate. You should now have a tortilla on a plate in your left hand and an empty pan in your right. There may be a little spillage – that’s ok. Don’t sweat it. That’s why we came to the sink. Just slide that sucker back in the pan, return it to the stovetop, then rinse and wipe down the plate to get it ready for serving.

6. Know your preference

Do you like your tortilla jugosa – or, as a Manchego friend of mine would say, ‘cuando los huevos lloran’ – or cuajada? I’ve found that most people – Spaniards or no – tend to prefer their tortilla jugosa – or with the eggs still a bit runny on the inside. I, however, belong to the cuajada camp. I want that sucker to stay firm when I cut into it. Nothing ruins my day more than digging into a tasty slice of tortilla and ending up with a plate of room temperature yellow goo in front of me. Blecch.

[See that there? That’s called a very strong preference. It’s what most people have when it comes to their tortilla.]

Get to know your own preference and how to alter your cooking time to achieve the desired result. Practice making tortillas often. Hopefully, in the process, you’ll also become familiar with exactly how long you should cook your tortilla española to achieve the desired results of your friends and kitchen guests. So when your would-be Spanish mother-in-law comes over, and you whip out her version of the perfect tortilla without breaking a sweat, she'll know just how much of a tortilla master you are.

Have you perfected making Spanish tortillas in your kitchen? What secrets do you have to share?

the cortado - my daily ritual

I can make a ritual out of almost anything. Perhaps it's my Catholic past. Maybe my inner bruja. No sé. Rituals help me mark the time. Moments. Hours. Days. Seasons. States of mind. They are asterisks on experiences. A reminder that I was a little more aware, more present in this moment. That I took the time to appreciate a gift - no matter how tiny - that was given me by god, nature, the universe. One of my daily rituals here in Spain is having a coffee. On the rough, cold winter days I had in the place we do not speak of, it was reason for me to get out of bed and drag myself across the chilled marble floor of my little piso. On others, it was impetus for me to get dressed, leave the house, and will myself to a nearby cafe where, hopefully (could today be the day?) I'd meet someone willing to strike up a friendly convo, but, usually, I'd just sit taking small comfort in both the sound of voices other than my own and the smile from the person behind the counter serving me my beverage. At other times, it's been my way of noting to self that this is the start of a new day, and I'm ready for it. In fact, I now have a saying: I haven't woken up until I've brushed my teeth, and I haven't started the day until I've had a coffee.

cortado-perfection-solo-in-spain
cortado-perfection-solo-in-spain

Early Adult Education

The cortado at the high school where I work is the best in town. Perhaps, the best in all of Spain; possibly, even, the known universe. But only when Emi, the lunch lady, makes it -  not her husband. For some reason, he never steams the milk quite right, and the fluffy 'capa' that I love, is always missing when he makes it. I once intimated this to Emi. Now, when I enter I don't even have to order it anymore. As soon as she sees me, she starts pulling the shot and warming the milk.

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emis-cortado-solo-in-spain

Sweet Sublimation

Adding the sugar is a subritual in itself, and can vary slightly depending on if the coffee is for wake up, post meal, or hangover treatment. For the first, about a third of the packet is sprinkled lightly on top of the foam; the resulting design appreciated before it submerges and disappears into the caffeinated depths of the cup. For the second, very little sugar is used. Sometimes, it's skipped altogether. For the last, a little more sugar is added after every sip, so that the final swallow is absent of any bitterness, and can be considered more sweet treat than am beverage.

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cortado-love-solo-in-spain

(Im)patient Initiation

The perfect cortado is often elusive. But once you've had it, you'll never stop searching for it again. Anything less will seem like a huge letdown, a testament that the preparer is a novice or just completely out of touch with Spanish coffee culture. At my neighborhood coffee shop, they change and add new bar staff so often, that at least once a month, I find myself side-eyeing the new blood for serving up an inferior product. I have become part of their initiation. The old head notices either the confused look on the initiate's face when I order, or the dissatisfied slight scowl on mine when my drink is received. Oldhead rushes to instruct. "Es como un solo, pero con poca leche. Y te metes la leche enfrente de ella, hasta k ella te dice, 'Ya'." The noob attempts, presents. I taste. Of course, it isn't quite there yet. But. She'll learn. I'll be back again tomorrow for more practice. Yesterday, the new new girl was alone on her shift. No old head to guide her. Ok. Let's see whatcha got, dahlin. She doesn't do well. My cup is full of more not-quite-hot milk than coffee. The cup looks like it's full of very dirty dishwater. I return the beverage, apologetically explaining that that's too much milk for me (I'm going to the library next. Please. Think of the others.) She attempts again. It's better. But only slightly. I try to drink it, but the excess amount of milk starts to work on me almost instantly. I return the cup to her half full, pay and exit swiftly. I'm miffed. The superstitious part of me links a bad coffee to a bad day ahead.

 

Prophetic perfection

The following day, Saturday, I have work to do. I have no time for instruction. I ride slowly past my neighborhood bar to see who's working. It's new girl. Alone again. Not on today, sugah. I U-turn and head to a cafe in the town center. I rarely go there, because their prices are higher. But there's a reason for that. I order. A few moments later, perfection is placed before me. The beverage, a few shades darker than me, which lets me know that not too much milk has been added. A beautiful, fluffy cloud of steamed milk rests at the top of the cup, its bright white nucleus like a target that silently suggests, 'add sugar here'. I sigh delightedly. It's been too long. I savor each sip until the very last. At the finish, the last remnants of fluffy foam cling to the sides and bottom of the glass. Some people read tea leaves. Me? Coffee foam. I can see the future. It's going to be a great day.

cortado-reading-the-foam-solo-in-spain
cortado-reading-the-foam-solo-in-spain
tapa of the week: el tio pepe, valladolid
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On a cloudy, chilly Saturday afternoon in Valladolid, one of my travel companions - let's just call him, 'Tio Pedro' - suggested we stop into a bar for a quick drink and a tapa. 
Tio Pepe (No, the irony was not lost on me) is a fairly nondescript-looking bar in an equally nondescript neighborhood - in fact, my host repeatedly referred to the area asthe 'Queens' of Valladolid. But the tapas on hand at this unassuming bar are an unexpected treat for the senses.
On display under a glass case that spans the length of the bar, is an array of tempting bite-sized delights that look as good as they taste. 
My travel mates and I started off with a glass of Cigales - a rosé wine from Castilla y Leon that's effervescent and smooth, but not overly sweet. 

Next came our shared tapas: 
Chipirones (or baby squid) 'hamburger' - a slider-sized sandwich served on a squid ink bun...
tiny baby squid on tiny baby sandwich

...And tosta con jamon y setas. A salty, savory bite of thinly sliced jamon topped with a portion of fried wild mushroom, roasted pepper and garlic. Um. YES.

I sometimes forget that there's more to tapas than just getting a free bite with a drink. There are tapas out there that are intriguing and creative; tapas that make you feel like it was worth spending your money on. Thankfully, Tio Pepe reminded me of that, and also showed me that great tapas don't have to be accompanied by a lot of frills and fuss.

Bar El Tio Pepe

Calle Embajadores, 54, Valladolid

Average Price : We paid 8 euro for 3 wines and 3 tapas. An unbelievable bargain.

My Rating:  A low-key neighborhood tapas bar with surprisingly high-quality selections. 

 

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tapa of the week: cafe quijote, ciudad real
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After a full morning of window shopping in the commercial district of Ciudad Real, I needed a bite to eat. Cafe Quijote, with its green neon sign, beckoned. The place was pleasantly packed with a mostly older, well-heeled crowd - a good sign, I thought. Plus, if you're gonna name yourself after the region's most famous person, you'd better be good, right? Right. I'm goin' in. I slide up to the bar, slyly eyeing other people's plates and the selection of tapas on display under the glass. When the bartender approaches, I point to my neighbor's half-eaten plate of food.

"What's that?" "Champinoñes" he replies. "Si," I respond, giving him the go ahead to serve me up some of that.

Moments later, he places a small plate in front of me filled with thick, garlicky slices of 'shrooms accented with little slivers of bacon and red pepper in an olive oil-based sauce. It's a lovely few mouthfuls of meaty, savory, umaminess.

Champinones at Cafe El Quijote

Alright, Cafe Quijote, well done. What else ya got? As I order my next caña, I ask the bartender what he thinks their best tapa is. He smiles and nods, and tells me he'll bring me something he think I'll like. A short while later, out comes... migas. Uh-oh, I think. Migas can be a hit-or-miss dish for me. It's so simple, so good ingredients and good seasonings are absolutely necessary. Cafe Quijote obviously knows this. Their version of tapas is well seasoned, and comes with a 'huevo roto' on top. The addition of the egg takes this rather pedestrian dish to another level. The egg helps to moisten the otherwise dry breadcrumbs, and the savory, slightly spicy chorizo (which they didn't skimp on), plus the little bits of sauteed garlic added so much flavor. This is definitely the best version of migas I've ever had. 

Migas en estilo Quijote

I didn't have any room left for other tapas that day, but I was impressed with the ones I saw on display. Each one was artfully presented in a martini-style glass, with elaborate garnishes on top. More than I expected from a place that doesn't look as fancy as some of the other places in downtown Ciudad Real.

Cafe Quijote

Calle de la Paloma, 2, 13001 Ciudad Real

Average Price : 1.40 for a caña

My Rating:  Cheap beer, better than average tapas. A must-visit for the best migas tapa in Ciudad Real.

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tapa of the week: volapie, ciudad real
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I'd been hearing a lot of good things about Volapie from another American friend who lives in Ciudad Real, so I was excited to try out another more upscale tapas bar in town.

On Thursday nights at Volapie, the crowds pack in to hear live flamenco performances from local groups. My first visit was on one such Thursday.

I settled into one of the cozy tables, and ordered a glass of wine, eagerly anticipating what tapa would come out along with it. Since I'd had a long, busy day and hadn't even had a proper lunch, I also ordered a couple of menu items  - berenjenas con miel and a rabo de toro burger - to line my stomach in preparation for a few rounds of drinks.

The tapas that appeared that evening were quite disappointing. Small in size - even for tapas - and not very inspired. The skimpy size also carried over into my ordered items. The portion of berenjenas was so scant, that I wondered if they'd run out of ingredients before filling my order. And the rabo burger was more like a little slider. While it was very tasty - tender, well seasoned oxtail on a fresh, grilled bun - the 5 euro price tag hardly seemed worth it.

You can't fool me - that tapa is just Vienna sausages with mayo. No way, Volapie.
Wait. Where's the rest? [Berenjenas con miel]
Points for creativity - Volapie's menu is made like a newspaper

Rabo de toro burger - tasty but pricey.

Thankfully, the wine I ordered was a redeeming high point. And the live flamenco? Absolutely amazing! I felt like I was back in Andalucia for a few hours. And the crowd that gathers at Volapie on Thursdays is not just there to sit and watch - they clap, dance, stomp, and sing along with the performers, filling the place with a delightful energy that does my spirit good.

Flamenco Thursdays at Volapie

I've been back to Volapie a few more times, and the tapas have been considerably better than on my first visit. Still, they're not exactly my favorites. But the combination of the quality wine selection, the attentive service, the live entertainment and the energetic Thursday crowd make it one of my favorite places to spend a evening out in Ciudad Real.

Taberna Casa del Volapie

Calle Hernan Perez de Pulgar, 2, 13001 Ciudad Real

Average Price : 1.50 for a cana; 2.20 - 2.50 for most wines. 

My Rating:  Not a place I'd really recommend for tapas, but a sure bet for a lively start to the weekend, and great wines!

tapa of the week: doña croqueta exprés, ciudad real
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When I first arrived in Ciudad Real, I asked around about places that served the best tapas. Several people mentioned Doña Croqueta. Needless to say, my expectations were pretty high when I finally got a chance to visit. It's worth noting that there are 2 Doña Croqueta (DC) locations in Ciudad Real (strangely enough, only 1 is listed on their website). The 'downtown' location near Calle La Mata is called Doña Croqueta Exprés - which I assume is because it's much smaller with fewer tables, and even a walk-up window outside. The menu at each location is also a bit different, with the 'uptown' location (near Calle Toledo) serving slightly more upscale (and pricier) dishes.

For my first visit, I met some friends at the DC Exprés, and we proceeded to order several rounds of cañas, each of which was accompanied by some truly gourmet tapas. The variety and quality of each dish was impressive and I could clearly see why DC was in the top of many people's list for best tapas in Ciudad Real. This is not to say that I enjoyed every item that came out, but I chalk that up to more of my personal tastes or dislikes, not necessarily any problem with the food itself.

DC's namesake: croquetas
Grilled ribs with a raspberry sauce
One of the tapas I wasn't thrilled with - still pretty to look at though!

Aside from the free tapas, DC Expres offers some delicious and affordable options on their regular menu. Since that first visit, I've been several more times, and have tried one of the artfully presented massively large sandwiches, and one of their gourmet tostas. Both are filling, expertly prepared, and a deal at around 5 euros each - especially if you share with a friend.

A simple chicken sandwich gets upscaled with a perfectly cooked egg, crispy bacon, and artisan bread
Tosta featuring caramelized onion, goat cheese, arugula and bacon - riquisimo!
This little lady is going places.

Doña Croqueta Exprés

Calle Hidalgos, 13, 13001 Ciudad Real

Average Price : 1.50 euro for a caña.

My Rating:  Good service, amazing gourmet tapas. Regularly crowded - especially on weekends. Go early. Go often.

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tapa of the week: el trokanto, ciudad real
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I passed El Trokanto the first day I took my new route to school. The place caught my eye because it looked a tad bit fancier than most of the other bars on the block. After school, I stopped in for a closer investigation.

I ordered a caña, and the bartender asked me which tapa I wanted to go with it (I love it when I can choose my own tapa). After I selected, she then asked me which 'frio,' or, cold tapa I wanted. Wait. I get 2 choices? Oh, hells yes.

My cold tapa was a simple tostita of tuna and tomato. And the hot tapa - a revuelto (scrambled egg dish) with potato and huge chunks of savory (not super-salty) ham. Delicious! I usually don't like scrambles, but this one was light on the egg and heavy on the tater and ham, so it was just fine with me.

Rear: tuna and tomato tosta; Front: ham and potato revuelto

While I munched and sipped, I was pleasantly amused by the nusic selection playing over the speakers in El Trokanto. In the time I was there, I heard Madonna's 'Vogue', Mc Hammer's 'Can't Touch This', Michael Jackson's 'Man in The Mirror', and Donna Summer's 'What a Feeling'. It was when Vanilla Ice's 'Ice Ice Baby' played that I silently gave the soundtrack selecta a mental hi-five.

On a second visit, I tried pisto manchego for my hot tapa, and a pate tosta as my cold tapa - while neither were life-changing dishes, they were both enjoyable.

Rear: pate tosta, Front: pisto manchego

El Trokanto, Taberna Selecta

Calle Palma, 9, 13001 Ciudad Real

Average Price : 1.80 for a cana - 2 free tapas with each drink.

My Rating:  Decent tapas, and a nice selection of 90s throwback music. A good spot for a quick snack.

tapa of the week: la marimorena, ciudad real
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The last day of Carnival (aka, Dia de Piñata) in Ciudad Real was festive-level 10. I'd been on my feet for a couple of hours watching the big parade passing through the center of town, and since I'd skipped breakfast, I was inching past hungry into 'howngry' territory. So, I set out in search of nearby sustenance.

 

I chose La Marimorena because it offered a quiet refuge from all of the parade madness and it had a sunny outdoor seating area. A sunny Sunday afternoon calls for sparkling wine, so I ordered, and my accompanying free tapa arrived a few moments later - migas. By now, I've had both good and bad migas. This one was the bad kind. It actually kind of made me sad. It being Sunday, I couldn't help but think that my folks back home were probably having really good Southern Sunday dinners, while I was here eating stale bread sauteed with pork. Oh, the inhumanity.

My second tapa was a serving of potato salad - I expected to be disappointed, but the addition of olives and diced veggies gave it some character. Not grandma's tater salad, but pretty tasty nonetheless.

One interesting note was that the tapas were served on flimsy plastic plates. Maybe it was because of the big crowds expected from the parades, but the place looked rather upscale, so plastic seemed out of place. Service was pretty good, but when I went to pay the tab, I was a bit shocked at the 2.30 euro price tag for a glass of sparkling wine.

Sad to say, nothing about my experience at La Marimorena would make me venture a return visit.

La Marimorena

Calle Ramirez de Arellano, 2, 13001 Ciudad Real

Average Price : 2.30 euro for sparkling wine.

My Rating:  Decent service, but not much else.

tapa of the week: la hormiga II, ciudad real
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Ok. So technically, this isn't a tapa. It's a dessert. Or... maybe it's a breakfast? No. wait. It's a snack. Whatever it is, it's still worth writing about, so here goes.

Remember Emilio? My knight in shining cardigan? Well, Emilio's son, Angél offered to show me around town one day back when I was still figuring things out in Ciudad Real. After a delicious lunch (more on that in a separate post), Angél suggested that we have some churros and chocolate at one of the most popular churrerias in town.

And this is how I ended up at La Hormiga II.

This is also how I ended up learning that not all churros go by the same name. La Hormiga specializes in porras - a type of churro that is made in a large spiral shape which is later cut into smaller portions that can easily be dunked into a cup of warm, melted chocolate. These churros are different from the ones I usually enjoy in the snack bar at school, which are called churros en lazo or churros madrileños, and are formed into little loop shapes. Of course, both of these are different from the Mexican churros that I'm more familiar with from back home - that come in short, tube-like sections and are sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and sometimes filled with chocolate.

Now that that's settled.

As we munched the light, crispy, fried treats and dipped them into the small cup of delicious chocolate that we ordered as an essential accompaniment, Angél and I discussed all of these differences. In the end, we decided that the only thing that mattered was how good you felt after eating a churro, whatever its name.

As you can see in this video about La Hormiga, there are more than a few tricks the restaurant uses in making the perfect churro con chocolate. Apparently, there's also things other than chocolate that you can dip your churro in, as demonstrated at the end of the video.

Churreria La Hormiga II

Calle Cruz, 8, 13001 Ciudad Real

Average Price : .40 euro for a serving of porras. 1.40 euro for a small cup of chocolate.

My Rating:  Nice decor and service for a churreria. Good for an occasional visit to sate your sweet tooth.

fried chicken & migas: a culinary cultural exchange
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I should know better by now than to commit to anything when I’m drunk, but, for some reason I found myself agreeing to the request that the patriarch of my adoptive Spanish family issued on a recent Friday evening while we were out celebrating my move to a new apartment.
“Kisha, you have to cook us some Southern specialties one day soon! I’ll buy the ingredients. You just come over and cook for us something that represents Geor-geee-yaah!”
On more than one occasion, I’d watched Pablo or his wife prepare a typical Spanish meal – tortilla de patata, paella, maritako – at their house; and had documented the steps, asked tons of questions, and snapped pics so that I could attempt to replicate the dishes for myself in my own modest little kitchen. I’d just finished showing Pablo the results of my culinary tutoring sessions – swiping through a collection of pictures I’d taken of the finished dishes. Included among the Spanish food photos, were a few pics of some dishes that were typical of my home state of Georgia – fish and grits, macaroni and cheese, barbecue ribs.
Upon viewing the photos, Pablo’s eyes widened with respect. Wowwww, Kisha! That looks amazing!” And then came his request.
‘Damn’, I thought. ‘That’s what you get for being a show-off’. But then, I realized that I actually would enjoy sharing a bit of my culinary culture with my newfound family. Besides, how could I possibly say ‘no’ to these folks who had given me food, shelter, taken damned good care of me when I was ailin’, and even helped me move all of my stuff not once, but twice since I’d been in town? That. Would not be southern.
A few moments later, I was entering a calendar appointment into my phone for the following weekend:
Southern lunch at Juana y Pablo’s
 
Almost a week later, Pablo sent me a message:
“Shall we have migas and southern tapas tomorrow in the countryside? We’ve all been invited.”
I squinted my eyes at the message. What the hell is he talking about? Countryside? Migas? Who’s invited us somewhere? Did I agree to do this this weekend!? Was I really that drunk?
As it turned out, I had indeed agreed to prepare the southern-style meal this weekend, i.e., tomorrow. Since agreeing  upon the date, a coworker of Pablo’s had invited his family to join a group of about 20 other people – more coworkers and their families – at his country house to enjoy the traditional La Manchan dish, migas. Instead of cancelling our southern lunch plans, Pablo had decided to just invite me – and my southern food – along for the ride. So now, instead of preparing a quiet little lunch at home for Pablo, Juana, and their two boys, I would now be preparing food for at least 20 people. No pressure.
After talking with Pablo about the logistics of the day, I discovered that this country house didn’t even have a kitchen per se. So, my planned menu of fried chicken, mac-and-cheese and cornbread was simplified to just fried chicken and cornbread. I could cook the cornbread at Pablo and Juana’s before we went to the country, and Pablo would bring along a portable cooking station so I could fry the chicken onsite. Hours later, after making my shopping list (and googling translations for some of the ingredients I’d need), Pablo and I hit the grocery store, then joined the rest of the family back at home where I marinated the chicken and prepped my mise en place for the cornbread, while listening to the James Brown station on Pandora. You know, for proper motivation.
Grocery shopping for the 'Macon meets La Mancha' culinary exchange
Marinating the chicken in 'buttermilk' and spices
The next day, Pablo came to pick me up. I had to admit I was a bit nervous about the whole thing. I know that Spaniards take as much pride in their regional culinary specialties as we Southerners do, and I felt like it was up to me to adequately represent my culture in this moment. What if the food turned out bad? I mean, I was cooking in an unfamiliar environment, without the same ingredients that I’d normally have back home. One of my worst fears is being the person who brings thatdish to a gathering. You know, the one that stays on the table, largely untouched, because it’s just… wrong.
In my nervousness, I managed to almost drop the pan of cornbread as I slid it out of the oven. In the process of saving it from falling all over the floor, I burned the sh*t out of my left index finger. When it was time to head out to the country, I was in such pain that I really didn’t care anymore how it all turned out. At least that’s what I told myself.
After we arrived, Pablo set up the chicken frying station, while our host, Manuel, started in on the migas. Soon, the other guests began to arrive. A flurry of names and double-cheek kisses followed. Everyone seemed excited about the fact that they’d be getting some authentic ‘Kentooky fried chicken en estilo Sureña’ to go along with the migas. In between breading and frying batches of chicken, I was also able to document Manuel’s process for making the migas.
First, water is added to the breadcrumbs and mixed in by hand. Greeting incoming guests - optional, but recommended.
Starting the fire for cooking the migas
Soothing my burned finger with an ice cold beer. The perfect remedy.
Unpeeled garlic cloves are sauteed in olive oil
Adding the moistened breadcrumbs
After heating the breadcrumbs, pre-cooked chorizo, pancetta, and italian green peppers are added. The mixture is tossed, and tossed, and tossed until done
In the meantime, Pablo preps the frying station
The first batch of chicken goes in...
...And comes out looking good enough to eat!
After a while, everything was done. The food was placed on a communal table, and everyone oohed and aahed over it before digging in.
The chicken and cornbread were a great success! And Manuel’s migas was one of the best examples of the dish I’d had yet.
After lunch, the festivities continued with plenty of wine, then post-lunch fruits, then coffee and dessert, then mixed drinks. We didn’t end up leaving until long after the sun had retired for the day. I returned home feeling full and satisfied that I’d done my culture proud.
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tapa of the week: bar california, ciudad real
tapa-bar-california-pig-ears.jpg

"Kisha, a few friends are going out to celebrate a birthday on Friday. Would you like to join us?" The invitation came from Pablo - the dad in my adoptive family here. I gladly accepted, eager for the opportunity to meet some new people.

When the day arrived, I was a little bit apprehensive about the fact that I might not be able to understand the rapid-fire Spanish conversations that were sure to ensue. But after sufficiently lubricating ourselves at Bar Acuario, I found my ears were up for the challenge.

After finishing our first round, the birthday girl suggested we head to Bar California for more substantial tapas. We entered, copped a table for 5, and I listened as they ordered, not exactly sure what was going to show up on the table.

What arrived a few minutes later was this:

Gambas in garlic sauce. Basically a well-prepared version of shrimp scampi. Served still sizzling in a mini casserole dish. The shrimp were fresh and perfectly cooked. The sauce - perfect for mopping up with pieces of crusty bread.

Lomo con queso. Tender slices of pork loin cooked with herbs and caramelized onion, and topped with little piees of what I think was goat cheese. In my head, pork and cheese shouldn't go together. But in my mouth? Magic.

 

 

"Oh. What's this?" I ask. Pablo responds, "Orejas de cerdo." Wait. Did he just say 'pig ears'? Like the ones my grandma and her grandma used to make? Like the ones I never eat 'cause I think it's gross? Hm. Well, I suppose I should try just a little bit, so as not to be rude.

The small bite I take is fatty, a little chewy, with just enough meatiness on it to make it worth eating, The pieces of meat have been chopped small and cooked so that the fat has rendered out a bit and left some nice charred bits on the edges. I try at least one more bite before deciding that this dish is best left to my dining companions.

Chuckling at the similarity of this dish to the Southern one I'm used to, I share with Pablo that we have a saying back home that we eat everything on the pig 'from the rooter to the tooter'. Pablo laughs and shares that Manchegos have a similar phrase.

So much for not being able to understand.

Bar California

Calle Palma, 12, 13001 Ciudad Real

Average Price per Tapa: Prices vary according to menu. Since I was treated to the meal, I can't say for sure :}

My Rating: High-quality tapas. A good place to go for sharing a few plates with friends. 

 

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tapas protocol 101
tapas-protcol-napkins.jpg

Since I've been on my one-woman tapas tour for the past few months, I've noticed quite a few unwritten rules of behavior that are common in many if not all of the tapas bars here. So, I thought I'd share a few:

  • Ask 'Se dan tapas aqui?' or 'Se da tapas con consumicion?' before ordering. You don't want to be unpleasantly surprised or disappointed when your drink shows up without a free, tasty little morsel to accompany it. 

  • Throw your napkin on the floor. The first time I walked into a tapas bar and saw the crumpled up, used napkins scattered everywhere, my Southern sensibilities were a bit offended. 'Is this ok?' I thought to myself. I'm still not sure that it is ok, but it is certainly standard practice. I still haven't been able to bring myself to do it without sort of letting the napkin happen to 'accidently' fall from my hand as discreetly as possible. In some bars, there will be a small bin under the bar or the table, so, in those cases, it's expected that you'll dispose of your used napkins in them. Ditto if you see a sign posted somewhere that reads, 'No tirar papeles' or 'No tirar servilletas'.
At Bar El Alcazar in Ciudad Real - the floor is your wastebasket

Other tapas bars are more 'fancy'. If you see a wastebasket, use it.

  • Order your next round by gruffly (or sweetly) yelling, 'Cuando puedas' at the bartender. At least that's how most of the old fellas I  usually find myself surrounded by do it. The universal signal of raising your empty glass and pointing to it while eyeballing the bartender also works pretty well.

  • Learn the difference between a caña, a tubo, a botellín, a jarra, and a copa. These are all different sizes of draft beer or other adult beverage, that obviously range in price. And, just to keep things confusing, all of these names (with the exception of caña) may vary depending on what city or region in Spain you're in. No matter what shows up after you order, just drink it.

  • Figure out the rules to that dice game that you'll sometimes see the fellas playing at the end of the bar. It's usually accompanied by loud shit-talking.

  • Perfect your not quite perfectly pronounced drone of  'Ha luwayooo...' (hasta luego), as this is the most acceptable way to exit the bar and say goodbye to both the bartender and everyone else within earshot.
Have you noticed any other unwritten rules of tapa etiquette?

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tapa of the week: meson las brasas, ciudad real

On a rare sunny and slightly warm day I decided to mount Roci and go for a leisurely ride down to my favorite park in Ciudad Real, Parque del Pilar.

I'd noticed on previous visits to the park that there was a sizeable bar / restaurant near the center, but I'd never had the good fortune to find it open. At least, not until today. So, I parked Roci, headed to the outdoor bar and ordered a glass of wine.

Meson Las Brasas - Ciudad Real

With my first glass came a simple but fairly tasty tapa of chicken stewed with onions and peppers. Not a bad start. And the little bit of sauce on the plate was quite nice when 'sopped up' with the bread that came alongside the tapa.

My first tapa - simple mix of chicken, onion, and peppers

I decided to order a second glass... you know, for research purposes. This glass was accompanied by a decent portion of deep fried chicken strips that had a slight coconut flavor and a little bit of a balsamic glaze drizzled on the plate. With the unseasonably warm weather, the mild taste of coconut seemed just right, and, for a moment I imagined that I was in some more beautiful, more tropical location than a park on the south side of Ciudad Real.

My second tapa - Coconut fried chicken strips with a balsamic glaze

Service at Meson Las Brasas was quite good. The bar staff was friendly and attentive - not something I'm used to at Spanish eateries. Due to a private event, I wasn't able to see the inside of the establishment, but with the huge patio that lets you look out over the park and soak up the sun, I doubt I'll ever want to see the inside.

I have a feeling that this place might be in regular rotation once warmer weather is here to stay.

Meson Las Brasas

Avenida de Europa, 1, 13005 Ciudad Real (inside Parque del Pilar)

Average Price per Tapa: Free tapa with drink. Glass of wine set me back 1.50.

My Rating: Great service. Amazing patio. Quality wine and decent tapas. 

tapa of the week: bar el alcazar, ciudad real

I passed the place at least a handful of times over a few weeks before I finally went in. It was always packed. People inside at the bar. People outside at the walk-up window. More people inside on the little perches on the opposite side of the bar.

I knew that was probably a good sign, but... I just didn't have the nerve to bust up into a narrow, packed bar and be met with open stares of confusion and curiosity. I just wanted a snack. And a beer.
Then one day, I happened to be walking past the place with a Spanish-speaking friend, and I suggested we pop in and check it out.

"Dan comida aqui?" My friend asked of the bartender, who was propped up just inside the walk-up window.

In a gruff voice, the bartender replied, "Aqui damos todo excepto dinero!" eliciting a round of laughter from the bunch of patrons gathered outside,

Bar El Alcazar has a better selection of tapas than most of the other bars in Ciudad Real. There's a wide variety, and the portions are hearty for tapas. My first time out, I really didn't know what many of the things on the menu were, so I just selected something that I thought sounded good: rejos. My friend opted for huevo roto con gulas.

Here's what showed up:

Rejos - or fried octopus tentacles - along with fries
Huevo roto ('up' egg) with gulas (imitation baby eels), served along with fries

The food was perfect. I'm a lover of any kind of fried seafood, so the rejos were right up my alley. I tasted my friend's gulas, and even though the look of them kind of freaked me out, the salty taste with the creamy, runny yolk was right. So right.

Since that day, I've become almost a regular at El Alcazar. I even refer to it as 'my bar'. The gruff bartender? Knows my order before I ask for it now. And though sometimes the quality varies, I still end up there fairly often.

Bar El Alcazar

Calle de Palma, 12, Ciudad Real, Spain 13004

Average Price per Tapa: Free tapa with drink. Drinks range from 1.60 (beer) to 1.80 euro (wine).

My Rating: One of the most popular tapas bars in Ciudad Real for good reason. Repeat visits encouraged.

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tapa of the week: bar acuario, ciudad real

After the so-so experience I had at Meson de Ocatvio, I decided to ditch the idea of following a tapas guide. I figured it would be better if I went maverick, trying out and recording notes on tapas bars I happened to encounter on my own.

I had my very first tapa in Ciudad Real at Bar Acuario, located in the center of town in Plaza Mayor. Acuario is well-known for its ample and inviting patio, but moreso for its signature tapa: huevo con bechamel. This is something that has to be experienced at least once if you come to the capital of Castilla - La Mancha. 
It's essentially a boiled egg, enveloped in a rich, creamy sauce, dipped in breadcrumbs, and deep fried. 
Cholesterol be damned.

huevo con bechamel at Bar Acuario, Ciudad Real
While it doesn't exactly sound like the most appetizing of items, it was suprisingly tasty. When cooked just right and served warm, the combination of crispy and creamy, along with the unique texture of the egg makes for a delightful few mouthfuls. Washed down with a cold cana or nibbled on between sips of a vino tinto, it's a filling morsel that sticks to your ribs. Though, seriously, I wouldn't suggest eating more than one of these every couple of months.
Bar Acuario has a number of other tasty tapas to select. I've tried a handful of others, and haven't been disappointed with any of them. All of the tapas come free con consumicion, so it's a good place to have a filling lunch or snack without spending too much.

Bar Acuario

Plaza Mayor, 11, Ciudad Real, Spain 13001

Average Price per Tapa: Free with drink. Drinks about 1.50 euro

My Rating: Solid. Worth a visit and worthy of being in regular rotation.

tapa of the week: meson de ocatvio, ciudad real

One day whilst sitting in my little apartment in my little town of Ciudad Real, bored as bored could be, I decided to take matters into my own hands. "What..." I asked myself, "...could I possibly do to keep myself entertained and inspired in this smallish city where I still haven't quite found my 'scene'?"

Before long, an idea struck. The weekend I'd arrived, there was a tapas festival, Tapearte, going on in Ciudad Real. Dozens of restaurants in the city were participating, and each restaurant had created a special tapa for the week of the festival. The idea was that residents and visitors could do a sort of 'ruta de tapas' by visiting all of the different participating restaurants and sampling their tapas. There was even a printed guide with a map of all the restaurants and their featured tapas that I'd snagged from the hotel I'd stayed in my first week. Unfortunately, since more pressing matters like finding an apartment and figuring out my school routine were higher priority at that time, I didn't get a chance to visit any of the restaurants, but I'd held on to the guide and map.

"Why not do your own personal ruta de tapas?" I thought to myelf. "You could visit all of the places on the guide and sample whatever they have on offer. It'd be a great way to get to know some new places while keeping your belly full."

Inspired by my idea, I whipped out the Tapearte guide, quickly perused the list to see which place sounded most appetizing, then decided it was best to just start at the beginning. And that's how I found myself at Meson de Octavio, the very first restaurant on the list.

When I walked into the restaurant / bar located just north of the Puerta de Toledo in Ciudad Real, there were only a few other people inside. I greeted the bartender and asked if there was anything to tapear. At first he acted as if I'd invented the word, Then after I'd explained that I'd found this place from looking at the Tapearte guide, he suggested a tapa of risotto. I figured if he knew what I was after, he'd recommend something good.

What I got was slightly undercooked, slightly oversalted rice in a creamy sauce with a little drizzle of oil.

I think the bartender saw by looking at my face that I wasn't exactly pleased with the dish, so he quickly recommended 3 other things. I opted for ternera (beef) en salsa.

Ah, that's more like it! The dish was simple, but the meat was very flavorful and very tender - like a really nice beef stew. It even went really well with the crunchy risotto.

Along with my caña, the two tapas came out to 3.60 euro. Not a bad deal. But not a great deal either, considering I wasn't pleased with my first selection. Ah well, there's always next time!



Meson de Octavio

Calle Severo Ochoa, 6, Ciudad Real, Spain 13005

Average Price per Tapa: 1.20 euro

My Rating: Meh. Probably not worth a second visit for tapas. 


my culinary adventures in spain - eating out

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've been surprisingly underwhelmed by the food here in Spain. Before coming here, I imagined that I'd be in absolute gastronmic glee over all of the delicious food available. Not exactly the case. But still, I've had some delicious and some very inspiring experiences with food that are definitely worth sharing.

EATING OUT

Tapas
The Spanish are best known for tapas. They invented the whole concept of small plates eaten / shared with friends over rounds of drinks. They've even made a verb to express the act of having tapas - tapear. Almost every Spanish restaurant offers a selection of tapas along with larger portions called raciones. However, there are two things that have left me feeling lackluster about the whole tapas experience: 1) every restaurant generally has the exact same selection of tapas (oh, look, they have croquetas!), and 2) none of them are prepared exceptionally well. They're not bad, mind you, but compared to my hyped-up expectations, they're not that great. Yet, thankfully, there have been exceptions:

In Sevilla, La Morena de Andalucia (aka, Dominique) showed me her favorite tapas restaurant, Duo. Located on the Alameda de Hercules, this little bar serves up some more creative twists on traditional Spanish tapas. The higher quality of the ingredients is noticeable as well. So far, this ranks as my #1 restaurant meal in Spain.

@ Duo Tapas in Sevilla. foreground: pulpo a la gallega; background: carillada

In Cádiz, the tapas were tastier than the usual, and seemed even better because they were cheap and plentiful.

@ La Isleta Bar in Cádiz. left: carillada; right: pescado en salsa roma

In Granada, the tradition of buy a drink, get a free tapa is alive and well. Unfortunately, the free tapas are mostly carb-heavy, not-that-great snacks. But Chantarela is a tapas bar that does justice to free tapas.

Standard free tapas in Granada. Carb-tastic!

Free tapas at Chantarela in Granada.

Beer
One of the very first things I learned when I arrived in Sevilla was how to order a caña. A caña is basically a half-pint of beer, and usually costs about 1€. It's common to have a caña before/with/after lunch, after work, or basically any time you need to take a quick break with a refreshing beverage. I've even started to use the caña as a standard for pricing other things. For example, "Wow. That bus ticket costs 2 cañas!" Spain has several local / regional beers that are only slightly better than Budweiser, Coors, or PBR. When you order a caña, you'll usually be served either Cruzcampo, Mahou, Alhambra, or San Miguel depending on what city you're in. All of them are your standard lager - refreshing, effervescent, uncomplicated and, honestly, quite perfect after a long day of walking around in the heat. But not too exciting in the way of flavor or body.

More recently, I've lucked up and found a few craft beer dispensaries. The phenomenon of craft and artisan beers is still fairly new here, so you often have to look a little harder to find a place with craft beers. Also, many of the shops or bars only have bottles, not taps. Still, there are some really good brews to be had, and the prices are on par with if not a little better than what you might find in the States. Right now, my favorite Spanish craft brewery is Naparbier - I've tried 2 of their Saisons and 2 IPAs, and loved them all. Plus, they have some really cool bottle art. One thing I've noticed in my tastings is that Spanish IPAs are not as over-the-top hoppy as others I've tried. They still have the prominent grassy or floral notes of an IPA but not the huge, hoppy 'bite' that I dislike about American IPAs.

Gulden Draak at La Tienda de Cervezas (The Beer Store) in Madrid.

Just a sliver of the bottled selection at La Tienda de Cervezas, Madrid

Freidurías
Ok. So there are these places here, right? They serve nothing but various fried things. It's like a Southerner's dream come true. Well, at least this Southerner's. You can find freidurias anywhere - in municipal markets, as standalone restaurants, or takeout-style counters. The menu selection in a freiduria consists of a variety of frituras, which I lovingly call, 'frieds'. You can choose from a selection of fish and seafood (anchovies, calamari, squid, etc.) or vegetables (eggplant, mushrooms, peppers, etc.). The best freidurias use a very light and crisp coating or batter for the fish, and I think most all of them use olive oil for frying. The result is a crispy, light-tasting exterior that doesn't mask the flavor or freshness of the fish. With a wedge of lemon to squeeze all over crispy, bite-sized pieces of fish hot out of the fryer, I am in heaven.

'Frieds' at a stall in the municipal market in Algeciras

Fritura from a take-away restaurant in Cádiz

Chiringuitos
A chiringuito is a beachside shack or restaurant that specializes in whole fish cooked over an open flame. Talk about some serious food porn. My first chiringuito experience was at Malagueta, Malaga's most popular beach. After placing my order, I watched as an older gent delicately salted and skewered a whole fish, pitched it almost vertically next to a carefully tended wood flame, and lovingly basted it in olive oil until it was perfectly cooked and charred just-so on the outside. I have dreams about that day sometimes. Though a little pricey on my budget (at least here in Málaga), it's definitely worth the occasional splurge.

Yes - he is expertly cooking whole fish over a mound of burning wood piled into half of a boat. Yep.
yep.

Libations
My stateside mantra is, 'retail drinking is for suckas', and that hasn't changed much since moving to Spain. But when I do go for a cocktail at a bar, it's usually one of these:

Tinto de verano - A simpler alternative to sangria, tinto de verano is a blend of vino tinto (red wine) and a fizzy lemon drink found in Spain called casera. It's decent, but the casera sometimes has a strange aftertaste to me, so I plan to try making an at-home version with real lemons, sugar, and sparkling water or tonic.

Vermut - a fortified red wine that's sweet but strong and has lots of herbal undertones since it's usually infused with some botanicals. Served over ice with a slice of lemon or orange. I've only had it in Madrid and Cadiz, however.

Vermut and tostas in Madrid

Chupito - The Spanish term for a shot.

Occasionally though, I head to Mañana, my favorite bar in Málaga. They make really good versions of classic cocktails like mojitos and manhattans, plus a few beer cocktails like the James Brown.

Tomax preps for a 'make-do mojito' (they were out of limes)

Xamot carefully crafts the James Brown - a beer cocktail


Fast Food
The most commonly sighted fast food restaurants here are McDonald's and Burger King. Many of the menu items are the same as in the States, with some differences to suit local tastes. For instance, McDonald's serves gazpacho in the summer. They also serve a habit-forming alternative to the already addicting McDonald's fries, called 'patatas deluxe'. They're little seasoned potato wedges that pair perfectly with a McBeer.

My favorite after-school snack: patatas deluxe and a beer

One other notable difference is the prices at fast food chains (at least the 2 burger chains). If memory serves, they are more expensive than at home. A regular-priced combo meal at McDonalds can cost 7€ or a little more; and the 'daily special' is still pretty expensive at 5.50€.

It's the little differences.