Posts tagged spain food
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.

how-to-make-spanish-tortilla-espanola

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.

emis-cortado-solo-in-spain
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.

cortado-love-solo-in-spain
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
How I Lost over 15 Pounds While Living in Spain (and Eating Everything!)
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Wow! You look great!Hey skinny lady!

Who’s that in the picture?

It almost never fails. Every time I post a pic of myself on Facebook or some other social media outlet, these are the comments I get from friends and family back home. Since first moving to Spain for a 6-month stint in 2014, and after living here for almost another 8 months, I’ve lost quite a bit of weight. I’ve never been one to track my weight (scales, schmales), so I’m not exactly sure how much I’ve lost (that 15lbs in the title was really just a guesstimate); but I do know that not only have I dropped a couple of dress sizes, I also feel a lot better about my body – the way it looks, feels, and how it serves me as I go about my daily business. And get this: I’ve never once been to the gym.

living-in-spain-weight-loss-before-after
living-in-spain-weight-loss-before-after

Before I have you thinking that I’ve slimmed down to the point of having no body issues at all, let me tell you: I’ve still got quite a little pooch going on, I still have minor anxiety sporting a two-piece on a beach full of super-fit Europeans, and, at over 35 years old, I’ve got bits that are jiggling and swaying way more than they ever did (or should). Still, more often than not, I like what I see looking back at me when I look in the mirror, and I know for certain that it has a lot to do with abandoning my American eating and living habits and adopting a more Spanish or European lifestyle. Namely:

 

Smaller restaurant portions

Though I eat all the things I try to avoid when eating out at home – like taters, bread, and pasta – and I drink like there’s no tomorrow, I’ve still managed to shed pounds. Part of this is because the amount of these things that I consume in a sitting is much less than what I’d consume in the States. The US is notorious for its ridiculous portion sizes. If you order a meal for one in a typical US dining establishment, you’re usually presented with enough food for 2 people. Ditto for drinks – especially sodas and beers. Here in Spain, the tradition of tapas – or small plates of food that are meant to be eaten in a few bites – makes it easy to have a filling meal with lots of variety, yet not overeat. One of my favorite Spanish portion control options is the caña – which is basically a half-sized serving of beer. Even when I go out and have multiple rounds of beers, I’m still only drinking half as much as I would if I did the same in the States.

 

Several small meals a day

My typical daily eating pattern in Spain goes something like this…

For breakfast (before 11am): Coffee and/or water.

Post-breakfast / Pre-lunch (between 11am and 2pm): A piece of fruit or, occasionally, a small pastry or slice of Spanish tortilla.

For lunch (between 2 and 3pm): A quick, home-cooked meal like a pasta dish, a big salad, or a meat-and-veggie dish.

Post-lunch: A piece of fruit or two for an after-lunch dessert or snack.

For dinner (between 8 and 10pm): A couple of rounds of drinks and accompanying free tapas or another quick, home-cooked meal.

I’ve adopted this pattern of eating after observing and eventually falling in line with the way I’ve seen the folks around me eat. The concept of eating several small meals a day isn’t unique to Spain. In fact, most nutritionists and weight loss experts in the US recommend this method of eating. Still, it isn’t the norm for the average American. We’ve been indoctrinated with the idea that you should eat ‘3 square meals’ a day – a hearty breakfast, a hearty lunch, and an especially hearty dinner – and that’s pretty much how I used to eat back home (with the exception of the hearty breakfast). Here, lunch – not dinner – is often the biggest meal of the day, which leaves plenty of time to burn off the calories before settling in for the evening.

A glimpse at typical Spanish eating habits.
A glimpse at typical Spanish eating habits.

Lunch at home

You’ve probably heard of the Spanish siesta – that 2-3 hour lull in the middle of the day where everything shuts down and people go home to take a nap. While not everyone actually takes a nap during that time, almost everyone I know goes home for a home-cooked lunch. Having that large block of time to go home, prepare a healthy meal, eat it like a normal human (versus inhaling it like a vacuum cleaner), and let it digest a bit before heading back to work, is a luxury that I wish I had in the US. At home, I would barely have time to stuff some chicken fingers and fries (or a similarly unhealthy option) from the downstairs food court into my gullet before heading off to a meeting or rushing to meet an end-of-day deadline. Even on the days when I did go for a healthier lunch option, it was often more expensive to do so, and I’d end up resorting to the cheaper, less healthy lunch the very next day.

 

Coffee done right

Coffee is a known metabolism booster, and can help you burn extra calories IF you drink it the right way. What’s the right way? Well, ditching all the milk and sugar (I’m lookin’ at you, Starbucks), and drinking a small amount of black coffee or coffee with very little milk and sugar (like my beloved cortado) is a start. Also, it’s typical in Spain to have a coffee directly after or between meals, which is just when your body benefits from an extra boost of metabolism to help burn off the food you recently consumed.

The cortado - a shot of espresso with just a little touch of steamed milk. Sugar optional.
The cortado - a shot of espresso with just a little touch of steamed milk. Sugar optional.

Shared meals

In Spain, especially in smaller cities like the one I live in, eating is not a solo sport. Meals are meant to be shared – with friends, family members, coworkers, roommates. When you go out to eat with a group, it’s typical for everyone to share from common plates or to share bites of their individually ordered dish with everyone else at the table. At first, I turned my nose up at this practice. But… I want all my food for myself! But, I’m still hungry! But over time, I’ve adjusted. I’ve even noticed that the slower pace of eating in a group setting, helps me feel more full with less food.  I’ve also noticed that Spaniards tend to share snack foods with folks around them. Whenever one of my colleagues has what we Americans would consider a single serving bag of chips or a similar snack, they always end up offering away at least a third of it to others, or eating about half and saving the rest for another time.

Sharing is caring. And better for your waistline.
Sharing is caring. And better for your waistline.

Walking

When I lived in the States, my work kept me sitting at a desk for multiple hours a day. After work, I’d walk 2 minutes to get in my car and drive home, where I’d often do more work sitting at a computer, before cooking dinner and watching TV or reading for a couple of hours before bed. Even if I ran errands in the neighborhood – like going to the grocery store that’s literally at the end of my street – it meant getting into my car and driving there. In the US, walking is often seen as a hardship or something that the less fortunate (i.e., those who can’t afford cars) do. The combination of a car-centric culture, and sprawling cities and neighborhoods, make walking for anything other than intentional exercise either unfashionable or implausible.

To put things in perspective, the entire country of Spain is smaller than the state of Texas (in square miles). The lack of sprawl makes walking a lot more feasible. Neighborhoods are designed so that you have almost everything you need within walking distance of your home – grocery stores, banks, schools, retail shops, personal services. And you’re not seen as odd or less fortunate if you walk everywhere, because almost everyone else – from infant to elderly – is walking too.

 

Water, water, everywhere

Because of all the walking I do, and because of a personal commitment to myself to consume more water, I almost always have a bottle of water on hand. I keep a 5L bottle of water in my room by my bedside, so I can not only track roughly how much water I drink a day, but also so I never have to go far to get it.

 

Biking

This is probably the single most influential factor in my weight loss. At the beginning of this school year, one of the professors at my high school was kind enough to loan me a bike to use during my time here. It just so happens that this bike is the oldest specimen of 2-wheeled locomotion ever known to man. It’s also a fixed gear, and it can leave my legs feeling like jelly even when riding on relatively flat terrain. Still, it’s a more efficient mode of transportation than walking, and I ride my rusty steed everywhere – to school, to the grocery store, to the park, to the library. I usually spend around 30-40 minutes biking each day, which isn’t a lot, but it’s definitely made a lot of difference.

My rusty steed - who I've affectionately nicknamed Roci, after Don Quijote's mule of a horse.
My rusty steed - who I've affectionately nicknamed Roci, after Don Quijote's mule of a horse.

Easy access to healthy, cheap ingredients

Within a 3-5 minute walk in any direction from my apartment, I have a least 4 independently owned fresh fruit/veggie stands, and 2-3 chain grocery stores. The selection of produce in either of those outlets is generally less varied than what I’d find in the US, but the price and the quality is significantly better. And the fact that they’re so close and right in front of my face, makes it easier for me to grab a healthy snack versus the fast food that I’d normally go for back home.

My favorite neighborhood fruteria - cheap, fresh, seasonal produce a stone's throw away from my place
My favorite neighborhood fruteria - cheap, fresh, seasonal produce a stone's throw away from my place

Fast food as an occasional treat

In the US, fast food is convenience food. Don’t have time to cook? Forgot to pack a healthy lunch? No problem. Just stop by one of the dozen fast food restaurants you’re sure to pass on your way to and from home and pick up an extremely high-calorie, extremely low cost meal. Fast food is so widely available and frequently consumed in the US, it could almost be considered its own food group. While I wasn’t a frequent consumer of fast food at home, I certainly ate my fair share of quick-serve lunches at work, and my go-to snack when on the run was an order of french fries from the nearest Chik-Fil-A or McDonald’s. Here, a trip to a fast food outlet is seen as a treat – something you do every once in a while as a special outing for the kids or yourself. And the prices reflect that. Going to Mickey D’s, KFC or Burger King is often an expensive proposition – a combo meal can run from 5 to 7 euros, and there’s rarely, if ever, a dollar menu. There are also fewer fast food locations to choose from. You almost have to go out of your way to get to one, and you’ll have to pass several cheaper, considerably healthier options to do so.

Now, are any of the above behaviors impossible to duplicate in the US? Absolutely not. Am I suggesting that there are no overweight or obese Spaniards? Nope. In either country, individual health and body weight are often a reflection of the daily lifestyle choices we make. But due to cultural norms, I think it’s more difficult to make these choices and stick to them on a regular basis back home in the US of A. As my time in Spain comes to an end, I often worry if I’ll be able to hold on to these healthy habits that I’ve picked up in my host country. I like to think that it’ll be easy, but I’m not 100% sure. For my own sake, and for the sake of my Facebook photo admirers, I certainly hope so. :)

Have you noticed any positive body changes during your travels or time living abroad? What do you think was behind it? Have you been able to stick to your healthy habits after returning to your home country?

Share your feedback in the comments!

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
tapa-cafequijote-shrooms.jpg

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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how to do barcelona
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I’ll admit it. I’m kind of addicted to this town. Maybe it’s because it was the first Spanish city I visited on my own. Maybe it’s because my first visit was the very definition of serendipity. Or maybe it’s because Barcelona is the one city in Spain that I know I can go to to satisfy all my cravings of home. In my opinion, Barna (not Barça - that abbreviation is specifically reserved for the football club) is the most metropolitan city in Spain, even more so than the capital of Madrid, and that’s because Barcelona has something that I think Madrid lacks – soul. Since that first visit just a little over a year ago, I’ve been back to the Catalonian capital 4 times, and it’s only a matter of time before I go again.

After those 5 visits, here are some of my favorite ways to ‘do’ Barcelona.

How to Do Barcelona: Take a Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus Tour

Yes, yes, I know. What sort of insider’s guide starts with, ‘book a tour’? I’m usually not a fan of tours, since I think it’s useless trying to pack in too much sightseeing in a single trip, and I prefer finding (and sometimes losing) my own way. But, there are some cities – such as London and Barcelona – that have so many different sites of interest spread out over such a large area, that I think it’s not only worth paying the price for a tour, it’s also worth saving yourself from aching feet and the frustration of trying to locate even your very top must-see sites using public transportation. My personal advice when booking a HOHO tour in Barna is this: Start early, then stay on the bus for a full loop (yes, it will be hard to resist getting off for photo opps, but do it) before you disembark anywhere. This will allow you get the tourist version of a sampler platter – a little taste of all that the city has to offer – before deciding which places you’d like to hop off at and delve deeper into. Barcelona’s most popular HOHO bus tour is the

Barcelona Bus Turistic

, and it’s the one I recommend. Some of my favorite places to hop off for a more up-close look include:

Park Güell

– You simply can’t visit Barcelona without seeing this impressive outdoor space designed by Antonio Gaudí. While you have to pay for up-close access to some areas of the park, I didn’t, and I felt plenty fulfilled enjoying the park’s free areas.

 A sunny day at Park Guell

La Sagrada Familia

– Perpetually under-construction, this magnificent example of Gaudí’s architectural style is always jam-packed with crowds, inside and out. I recommend viewing it from a quiet spot in the park Plaça de Gaudí located just behind the church.

La Sagrada Familia as seen from Placa de Gaudi

Casa Battló

– Yet another jaw-dropping example of Gaudi’s signature style. I also like this stop because you can take a leisurely southbound stroll from here down either the Passeig de Gracia or the Rambla de Catalunya. Walking down either of these streets, you’ll eventually encounter Plaça Catalunya, the Cathedral and Barrio Gótic, passing tons of shops, street performers and other sensory satisfaction along the way.

Casa Battlo at night

The 'Coquettish Giraffe' statue on La Rambla Catalunya

Barcelona's Cathedral

Batucada street performers in Barri Gotic

Arc de Triomf

/

Parc de la Ciutadella

– The Arc de Triomf is a breathtaking structure that makes for a nice photo opp. At the nearby Parc de la Ciutadella, you’ll find an equally impressive fountain and waterfall feature – La Cascada. On weekend afternoons, there’s usually a group of African drummers doing their thing near the center of the park. It’s an ideal place to cop a squat and soak up the sounds and sun.

The impressive Arc de Triomf

Parc Ciutadella's magnificent fountain and waterfall

Weekend African drumming in Parc Ciutadella

Some places I think are better seen from the bus:

Dona I Ocell as seen from the tourist bus

Plaça Espanya – the nearby Magic Fountain is a prime draw, but since the fountains are better seen at night after the tour bus stops running, you’re better off catching the metro to this location at a later time.

Parc de Joan Miró

– you can snap pretty decent pics of the iconic

Dona I Ocell

statue from the open-air top section of the bus.

Olympic Ring

– home to the telecommunications tower or, Torre Telefónica– a quirky architectural structure that’s a nice visual treat.

MNAC

– unless you plan on going inside of the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, get your oohs and aahs on as you whizz by.

Camp Nou

– I’m not a big football (or, soccer) fan anyway, so an up-close look wouldn’t really do anything for me.

How to Do Barcelona: Buy a Metro Pass

Barcelona’s metro system

is pretty easy to navigate, and there are several options available for

multi-trip Barcelona metro passes

. While which pass you buy will totally depend on how long you’ll be staying in the city and what areas you plan on visiting using the metro, I’ve only ever bought the 10-ride pass, aka the

T10

. A single one-way ticket on the metro runs €2.15, and the 10-trip pass will set you back €9.95, so it’s a great value; you can even share it with others travelling with you. I don’t mind walking between a lot of the places that I visit, and only use the metro if I have to go from one area of town to another, so the 10-ride pass has been sufficient for my multiple 3-4 day trips to Barcelona.

How to Do Barcelona: Stroll the Beach

Barcelona's most accessible beach, Barceloneta, isn't exactly the most picturesque, but it's definitely a nice place to have a Sunday stroll during cooler months, or work on your tan during warmer ones. At night, the area along the beach is filled with nightcrawlers visiting the many posh Miami-style nightclubs in the area.

How to Do Barcelona: Where to Eat

There are no shortage of amazing places to eat in Barcelona, and I know for sure that I haven’t even scratched the surface when it comes to fabulous dining options, but the following Barcelona restaurants have met or exceeded my standards for price, quality and uniqueness.

Teranga

– Senegalese restaurant located en El Born district of Barcelona. The lamb dishes are my favorites.

Restaurante Bar Roble

– Located on the edge of Barcelona’s Gracia neighborhood. A good option for lunch or dinner, this very old school restaurant often gets busy, and the service is typical Spanish / Catalan – occasionally brusque, but always efficient. And if you go when they have the lunch menu special (or menu del día), and you order wine as your included beverage, they plop the bottle on your table, and you drink as much as you want. Doesn’t get much better than that.

All-you-can-drink wine at Restaurante Bar Roble

Fideos de marisco con ali-oli on Restaurante Bar Roble lunch menu del dia

Milk

– Bar and restaurant located not far from Las Ramblas. An excellent choice for first meal, as they offer a daily ‘Recovery Brunch’ from 9am to 4:30pm. Perfect for coming back to life after a night out partying in Barna. If you go on weekends, get there early – Spanish early, like 10 – to beat the rush.

Huevos rancheros at Milk. I dream of this brunch dish often.

A Tu Bola

– Funky little eatery in the eclectic Raval neighborhood. Billing itself as a gourmet street food restaurant, the menu features a variety of different meat or veggie balls. Slightly pricier than I would normally go for, but the food and service are both very high quality.

Savory Mediterranean ball at A Tu Bola

Sweet chocolate truffle ball at A Tu Bola

Wok 2 Walk

– A quick serve chain restaurant with 3 Barcelona locations. Is it life-changing food? No. But I really miss Asian noodles, so it does it for me. Plus, the food is fresh and fast.

How to Do Barcelona: Where to Enjoy the Nightlife

Grácia

– Probably my favorite neighborhood in Barcelona. Full of funky shops, bars, and people – a perfect place to just stroll around and get lost in, day or night.

Plaça del Sol

is a good launching point for exploring the neighborhood.

El Born

– A little sexier and more polished than Gracia, with higher-end shops and restaurants, El Born is a great Barcelona ‘hood to see and be seen.

Antique jewely shopping in El Born

Afro Bar Bella Bestia

– Offering a variety of soulful entertainment, from ska to soul to soulful rock, this low-key bar is a good place to get your groove on.

Harlem Jazz Club

– Live music that might include funk, flamenco, Cuban jazz, and everything in between. More tourists than locals, but the music makes it worth your while.

Plaça Reial

– Just off La Rambla, this well-known plaza is a good place to go for late night hanging, after you’ve finished dinner and clubbing elsewhere and you want to watch (or act like) a drunken Spaniard or Catalan.

How to Do Barcelona: Where to Stay

L’Eixample

– The L’Eixample neighborhood is fairly centrally located and you can find some good bargains on vacation rentals or homestays in this part of town. However, it’s also a pretty big area, so where you choose to stay in L’Eixample can make a big difference as far as walkability to points of interest is concerned.

Where I’ve Stayed in L’Eixample:

Airbnb room near Passeig de Gracia

and

Hostalet Barcelona

Las Ramblas

On my first few visits to Barcelona, I avoided staying here because I didn’t want to be smack dab in the middle of all of the hustle and bustle that is Las Ramblas. But the one time I did stay here, it was quite nice to be able to quickly get back to the flat after a typical late night out without having to worry about catching the last train or possibly walking a really long way after the metro had shut down for the night.

Where I’ve Stayed in Las Ramblas:

Airbnb Room with Private Lounge

Near Park Güell

– If you’d prefer to be able to retire from the noise and crowds in central Barcelona at the end of the day, staying near Park Güell is a good idea. But – and I stress this caveat – be

absolutely

sure that you’re willing to tackle the very steep, very long incline that leads up to this area, especially if you plan on staying out late – I (and my hamstrings) learned this the hard way.  Depending on your fitness level, it can be a beast going and coming.

Note: Unfortunately, the very affordable

housetrip.com

room I stayed in is no longer available.

How to Do Barcelona: Beware of Pickpockets

Before my first trip to Barcelona, I’d heard so many

stories

about how bad and rampant pickpocketing was, that I was definitely on high alert. I actually even saw a foiled pickpocketing attempt occur right in front of me on the metro during my first visit. But, honestly, a little common sense and street smarts will go a long way and keep you from becoming a victim. Walk confidently with your head up (not staring at a tourist guide or map), make eye contact with too-close strangers, and always keep a hand on your personal belongings (tip: go for a crossover-style bag versus a backpack), and you’ll be fine. Especially if you’re used to travelling in large metropolitan cities like New York or Chicago.

Other Barcelona blogs and resources:

Resident Advisor

- I'm a big fan of soulful house music and there's usually some place to get my fix in Barna. RA keeps an up-to-date listing of weekly  and special events for house heads.

Interactive Map of Barcelona City Center

Planning a visit to Barcelona or other Spanish cities? Check out:

7 Things You Must See in Every Spanish City

 for a quick and dirty guide on sightseeing in Spain.

What are your favorite ways to do Barcelona? Any tips on places to see or avoid? Leave 'em in the comments! 

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tapa of the week: bar california, ciudad real
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"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
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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 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.

surprising / annoying / amazing things about spain
granada-spain-airbnb-lodging-hostel.jpg

surprising things about spain

how NOT amazing the food is.

The food in Spain is definitely not bad. But it isn't nearly as amazing as I'd expected it to be. Part of that could be because I live in Marbella, which isn't exactly hailed for its cusine. The other part could be that, given my teaching assistant's salary, I try not to eat out too much. When I do eat out, I go for the best value. Maybe if I could afford to splurge on some higher-end places, I'd have a different experience. But for now, I remain surprisingly underwhelmed.

pan con aceite y tomate. a typical spanish breakfast. when it's good, it's good. but usually it's just soggy bread.

it's kind of country.

I live in Andalusia - the south of Spain. Among Spaniards, it has a pretty similar reputation to the South in the United States. Spanish people who live elsewhere seem to think Andalusians are 'slower' and have a funny-sounding accent. Even though I live in a fairly large city, it's quite common to see touches of rural life on a daily basis - like the horse-riding vaquero that grazes sheep, cows, and steers in a big field near my school. Also, I was surprised that much of Spain seems to be uninhabited. When I've flown or taken a long-distance train, I've seen large expanses of land that have no cities or towns to speak of - only the occasional pueblo / village or often just a small house or farm in the middle of nowhere.

cattle grazing near my school (and adjacent to a major highway)

how cold the houses are in winter.

Before coming here, I knew that many Spanish houses lacked central heating, since most are built to be naturally cool during the sweltering summer months. But nothing could have prepared me for how cold it would be inside the average Spanish home from January to early March. Even when the temperature outside was Fall-like, the temperature inside was much chillier. With electricity being very expensive, space heaters are generally out of the question. And even if they weren't financially impractical, the lack of insulation, and the heavy use of marble, tile, and stucco for interiors would render them almost useless anyway. My #1 saving grace was a hot water bottle that my roommate wisely suggested I purchase, and was my nightly companion for my first two months here. There were many nights that I went to sleep muttering profanities under my breath about the cold, and many mornings where I could see my breath in front of me while getting ready for school. Thankfully, all that seems like a dim memory now that Spring is here.

i actually bought a space heater, but it ended up collecting dust once i found out how expensive and ineffective it was.
my 'hot water bottle boo' in granada

annoying things about spain

dog poo. everywhere.

Spanish people love their dogs. It seems like almost every family here has at least one. And every one of them is cuter than the last. Yet I have no idea why these people feel it's ok to let their cute little dogs leave unsightly poo all over public areas. If you're walking down the sidewalk, there's no such thing as absentmindedly taking in the sights around you. You'd better keep your eyes focused on the sidewalk or else you will definitely end up stepping in one of the many mini monuments of poo peppered all along your path.

poo
poo
and more poo

spanish people can't walk. or stand. or generally congregate in large groups.

There are some cities where it's almost a pleasure to walk in. In crowded, pedestrian-heavy cities like New York, London, or even Amsterdam, most people have figured out how to navigate the streets on foot so well, that you can tell a tourist from a local by the way they walk. The folks in Spain have acquired no such talent. Spaniards don't walk so much as they meander. On a given day, while walking the streets of almost any city in Spain, at least one of the following pedestrian 'violations' are bound to occur:

  • Stopping short for no apparent reason.
  • Walking 3 or 4 abreast on a narrow sidewalk at a snail's pace.
  • Darting out of a doorway into oncoming foot traffic.
  • Tripping or hip-checking another pedestrian with a stroller or rolling bag.
  • Having an involved conversation while blocking an entrance/exit.
  • Doing 1 or more of the above without awareness or apology.

shhh... it's a secret.

There's a certain clandestine nature about vital information in Spain. Info that you would assume should be readily available or clearly communicated, often isn't, and if you don't ask specifically, you might only get a piece of the full picture. This secret but valuable info could be anything from a bus schedule or ticket price, to exact directions to a location you're looking for, or even what day you will get paid on.

amazing things about spain

there is no famine of beauty.

Geographically speaking, Spain pretty much has it all. Glittering beaches, impressive mountains, rolling countryside. And since there are those large expanses of unpopulated space, it makes for some really lovely, truly breathtaking vistas. I can't count how many times I've involuntarily whispered to myself, 'That's beautiful!' There are so many lovely natural and architectural sights in this country that sometimes I  think to myself, 'Ok, Spain. Enough already! I get it. You're beautiful'.

the lifestyle.

In general, Spanish people are more relaxed than Americans about... everything. Sometimes, this can be irritating (as is the case with customer service), but for the most part, it's a huge plus. If there's one thing the Spanish are good at, it's enjoying life at their own pace. This is not to imply that the Spanish don't have worries or issues that they struggle with on a daily basis, but rather to highlight that there's not also a constant undercurrent of external stress from hectic schedules, long work hours, few vacations, and infrequent naps that they have to contend with. Besides that, most Spaniards seem to make the most of what they have, even if they only have a little. The often used Spanish phrase, 'no pasa nada', is the Iberian equivalent of 'no problem, mon' or 'no worries, mate', and it adequately sums up how many people here approach life.

the transportation.

Even without a car, it's incredibly easy to get around within a particular city, and especially between cities. The buses and trains within Spain are extremely reliable and comfortable. Way better than Amtrak and Greyhound in the States. High-speed trains can be a bit pricey if you're on a tight budget, but offer huge time savings. Buses are usually very affordable when travelling between cities, although they may not be the most convenient where timing is concerned. Yet both are clean, comfortable, and well-serviced. It sets the perfect stage for easy, affordable weekend excursions.

how amazing the food is.

While restaurant food underwhelms me, the quality and price of grocery store goods makes me very happy indeed. Mind you, I can't find everything that I'd normally cook with at home, but the produce and meat available here is of much better quality than in the US. And the prices for most non-packaged goods are comparable, if not much better. Especially the fish and seafood. Seriously, there are days when I just go to the seafood counter at the local grocery store and just drool. There's stuff there that I have absolutely NO idea how to cook, but I geek out just looking at it.