Tomorrow will mark two years since I boarded a plane for Europe, embarking on culinary journey of self-discovery and cultural understanding. I realized this while I was standing in my kitchen this evening, chopping red pepper and zucchini for an umami-heavy pasta dish I’d decided to vaguely call spaghetti alla beef carbonara, even though it only slightly resembled that particular dish. I’d planned to chop in a small tomato that I’d picked from the garden we put in with our friends this year, but it happened to have a worm in it. C’est la vie. It’s an improvised recipe meant to use up bits and pieces left in the fridge from the holiday weekend anyway.
Thinking about the garden reminds me of all of the things I wanted to do this year and didn’t get to. But then I think about the ridiculous amount of pickles I have fermenting in the fridge, all from cucumbers that we grew. The absurd number of tomato sandwiches we’ve gotten to enjoy this summer. The leaf-footed bugs currently disrupting our last crop of tomatoes before the garden gets prepped for a late fall planting.
Two years ago, I first experienced cooking fresh squid in San Sebastian, foraging for food in southern Ireland, browsing the markets in Tuscany and Provence, and it started a shift in my understanding of what food should be. Real food.
After I returned home, I worked in a sausage restaurant that pretended to use local produce and I ate a horrendous number of Carolina dogs and corn dog nuggets. You know what comes before your newfound passion for amazing food? Being broke from backpacking through Europe the last few months.
After helping the restaurant open their second location and flagship store, I transitioned to a job with the performing arts venue that I worked at while in college, this time on their full-time staff in artist hospitality. It was a great job for many reasons — I learned so much about art and hospitality; I met one of my best friends there; and I earned more money working less hours.
It also meant that I had access to the University library, and I devoured Michael Pollan’s Cooked. After the PBS production of his Botany of Desire research had truly affirmed our increasing evangelism of organic and local foods, Cooked helped me understand enormous amounts about how I wanted to feed myself and eventually my family. And all of this coincided with putting in a garden, dreaming about the chicken coops and honeybees on our future homestead, and crocheting wedding blankets like crazy.
This culinary wanderlust I have seems not only to draw me towards Europe and have me dreaming of Asia, but to also pull me towards what I believe the most authentic and wholesome way of eating is. It may take many years to develop into what I truly want it to be, or it may be an ideal that I’m always working towards, but there’s no better place to start than the present. Luckily, after another job transition – now I’m a nanny – I have much more time and resources that I can devote to food.
So I am going to finish documenting my adventures in Europe through this blog – just like I’ve been telling myself for two years – but I also hope to interweave stories and examples of this other journey I’ve been on — the rabbit hole that I’ve fallen down in the hopes of finding out what real food is.
After leaving the beautiful Basque country, I headed to Madrid. There’s a great post coming up about the adventures a broke American girl in Madrid can have but, in the meantime, I would like to introduce you to Madrid’s hilarious and impressive collection of street performers.
This is by no means comprehensive. I photographed all of these performers over a period of an hour or so at Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor, so it’s actually a pretty small sampling. Either way, I was impressed.
Most of the performers I saw fell into three major categories. The vast majority were cartoon characters.
Puerta del Sol is big enough for several performers to not only dress as the same character, but in the same outfit too. I didn’t see any evidence of Mickey Mouse or Hello Kitty turf wars.
I seem to remember this Spiderman being the shorter and wider than the typical idea of the webbed superhero:
My favorites of the cartoon set were Cookie Monster and Elmo in Fútbol kits.
Wait! Another mouse couple!
I also saw the scariest Dora the Explorer ever encountered:
Along with the creepiest Spongebob Squarepants I’ve ever seen:
And a Puss in Boots pretty committed to his character:
Another distinct category was man-with-no-face. (Though I’m not sure why you’d need glasses with no face.)
The third individual category is easily my favorite. It’s the levitation category.
The final set of performers is the miscellaneous group, which includes flower fairies:
And, last but certainly not least, shiny sparkly rainbow hooved animals:
Sometimes a year just gets away from you.
At this time last year, I was trudging through the winding streets of Siena, headed to a train heading to Naples. Carrying my enormous pack, I kept smelling sunscreen, knowing that the locals definitely were not spraying themselves with SPF 35 along the entire street. At some point, I realized it was my backpack, and I stopped to survey the situation. So there, on the main street leading to the little Italian town, I unpacked half of my bag, throwing away inconsequential things that had been soaked by my leaking sunscreen (which I never once used) and salvaging more precious items. I don’t know why I stored the sunscreen in the same pocket as the souvenirs I had been picking up — lesson learned there — but luckily nothing was ruined.
Fast forward to now, and those little moments are still on my mind every day. On Friday, we had a small dinner party with a close couple of friends of ours and Boyfriend’s colleague who’s in town from Mexico. I made a dish that I’ve been refining since I came back from Europe. I’ve jokingly named it “Wanderlust Chicken” — the roasted chicken of my childhood, prepared with Tuscan technique, Provencal stylings, and Irish butter and spirit. It’s my go-to dish for feeding others, a cost effective way to create something beautiful and delicious that no meat-eater is likely to turn down. When we sat down to dinner, my trip across Europe was brought up, as inevitably happens when I meet new people. Sitting there eating our cross-cultural chicken, I gushed about Munich and San Sebastián while explaining my policy of never refusing to try a dish while in Europe (and even now, back home in America). A year later, and not a day goes by that I don’t think about my time traveling the Old World, and how to get back there.
A year later, and I still haven’t come back to finish this blog. When I got to Paris, I stopped blogging daily. The spirit of adventure and the cost of WiFi caught up with me tenfold, and I started living in the moment more. Once I got somewhere with free WiFi and time to relax, I didn’t want to spend my time in a new city writing about the ones I had just left. The best decision I made while I was in Europe was to keep a detailed journal. Every day, I wrote what had happened to me — both exciting and commonplace — and taped in pieces of my day. The receipts are mostly faded now, but the postcards and memories remain. It’s because of those rough notes that I can come back a year later and still blog about it with a clarity that can only be gained once you’ve been able to truly reminisce. It may change the tone of the blog, it may seem a little silly to update the world on things I did last year, but to me it is an important record of what I saw and learned and felt, and I want to finish it. So journaling vs. blogging? If you like to write, do both. If you don’t like to write, journal. A year later, a decade later, you’ll be glad you did.
Now that that’s all off my chest, I can get back to showing you what a tasty destination San Sebastian is.
The day after my Basque cooking class, hike and pintxos tasting tour — and what an early day it was — I visited the market and then headed back to San Sebastián Food for another trip to Ziaboga; this time for a pintxos cooking class.
We learned to make the original pintxo — the bar food that started it all — the “Gilda.” Named after Rita Hayworth, because it’s sexy, the Gilda is a brocheta with pickled peppers, anchovy and a green olive. It was incredibly salty and begged for a good pint of beer to go with it.
Another cold pintxo we prepared was a nice, simple tuna salad on canapes and in little tart shells.
For the hot pintxos, we had marmitako — the hearty potato and tuna soup — again, then a squid ink black paella.
We also had lemon sol stuffed with crab over potatoes. And my favorite, a hunk of veal with figs roasted in caramel and vinegar.
The figs took my breath away. I can’t look at a fig without thinking back to these. The veal and figs was served with a potato and cheese puree that added just the right element of saltiness.
I learned a few great cooking tips from the chef and cooks at Ziaboga. Squid caught by hook are better. If you have squid that were caught by a net, you should remove the skin to get rid of the grittiness.
When the garlic starts “dancing,” the oil is hot and ready to go. Be careful once you learn to glacier, because you’ll want to do it to everything. (The aforementioned phenomenal figs were figs glacier.) Freeze freshly chopped parsley into a brick; then you can just grate it onto dishes. Break your potatoes instead of chopping — it releases more starch and looks pleasantly rustic.
One other thing that really struck me was the difference in the Basque kitchens from the other kitchens I had visited previously. They are much less rigid and much more traditional. There’s less sanitation, but not in a way that bothered me. You wash your hands when you need to, not every two minutes. The equipment isn’t state of the art, but the food is still incredible. Maybe it’s a village tavern versus a Michelin three-star, or Basque versus English, but it was an enlightening experience to see how the Basque cooks made food like they were making it for their families.
I haven’t written a real post in a week and a half, and I still have so much to tell about my trip in Europe. I still have wonderful photos and recipes from Spain, France, Italy and Southern Germany, some of the best food I had on my trip. Unfortunately, lack of solid internet connection set me back while on my trip, and I never caught up. Then, just a little over a week ago, I came home. The time has already flown by. I’ve been spending time with my boyfriend, catching up with friends, cleaning the apartment, applying for jobs and pushing through jet lag and laziness. And I’ve been enjoying America. There were a lot of things I missed about my American lifestyle: Food Network, driving, Char-Grill, Pandora radio, etc. I’ve been soaking it all back up. So today, National Fast Food Day, seemed like a good chance to really celebrate my American-ness, and also get back on track reminiscing about Europe.
Our celebration of the “holiday” actually came about completely coincidentally. As Boyfriend and I were trying to figure out what to have for dinner, we landed on the frozen burger patties we had leftover from a shipment of Omaha Steaks deliciousness. I always love a good burger, and I wanted to create something a little more special than the standard build-it-yourself burger. Thinking back to the hours I spent at the Miami airport, I remembered walking past an advertisement for the Bacon Portabella Melt at Wendy’s, and I decided to recreate it, in a more delicious, less processed, homemade form.
And what goes better with a burger than fries? I did a quick Google search in an attempt to find a good technique for crispy fries. A result from the Epicurious Google+ page popped up, and I decided it was a good place to start. That’s when I learned it was National Fast Food Day, which delighted and disgusted me at the same time. But I love any reason to celebrate with food, and I had already coincidentally planned to make a burger adapted from a fast food restaurant. After a few more searches, I decided on a recipe for crispy oven fries. I was a little skeptical at first — no one likes soggy fries — but I didn’t want to deal with frying, and this blogger made the fries sound pretty good. And they turned out freaking spectacular. I actually like them much more than deep-fried fries. This is definitely my go-to fry technique from now on.
So without further ado, here’s a menu to help you enjoy a fast food inspired (but better) meal at home:
Bacon Cheddar Portabella Burger
Hamburger // Sesame Seed Buns // Cheddar Cheese // Portabella Mushroom // Bacon // Lettuce // Tomato // Mayonnaise // Garlic // Lemon Juice // Salt // Pepper // Olive Oil
1. Prepare garlic aioli. Allow flavors to combine in the refrigerator.
2. Cut bacon slice in half and fry.
3. Make hamburger patties and season well with salt and pepper. Grill.
4. Slice portabella mushroom in long slices and gently cook over medium heat in generous olive oil with salt and pepper.
5. Slice tomato, shred lettuce.
6. Grill buns and melt cheese on burgers.
Perfectly Crispy Oven Fries (adapted from the Cook’s Illustrated technique)
Yukon Gold Potatoes // Salt // Pepper // Olive Oil // Seasoning, if desired
1. Heat oven to 450 degrees. Place baking sheet in oven to heat as well.
2. Cut potatoes into 1/2 sticks. Place potatoes in a pot and cover with cold salted water. Bring to a boil over high heat; reduce heat and gently simmer until exteriors of potatoes have softened but centers still offer resistance when pierced with paring knife, about 5 minutes.
3. Drain potatoes well and transfer to large bowl. Drizzle with a olive oil and sprinkle generously with salt. Combine. Drizzle again with oil and salt until coated; continue to toss until exteriors of potato slices are coated with starchy paste.
4. Working quickly, remove baking sheet from oven and drizzle oil over surface. Carefully transfer potatoes to sheet and spread into even layer. Bake until bottoms of potatoes are golden brown and crisp, 15 to 25 minutes, rotating sheet after 10 minutes.
5. Remove baking sheet from oven and loosen potatoes from pan, carefully flipping each slice. Continue to roast until second side is golden and crisp, 10 to 20 minutes longer.
6. Season with salt and pepper to taste. I didn’t need any more salt at this point, and I also used a cajun seasoning for extra flavor. You could use a variety of flavors: Old Bay, garlic and rosemary, seasoning salt, Parmesan cheese and oregano, etc.
Note: I roasted my potatoes on the longer end — 25 minutes on the first side and 20 minutes on the second, in order to get really crispy fries. Don’t be afraid to let them go for a while, just keep an eye out that you aren’t burning them.
Pintxos in San Sebastián are delicious, exciting, and an entire lifestyle. One does not just eat pintxos (pronounced peen-chos). You have to experience it.
After my Basque cooking class and my hike, I went on a pintxos tasting tour, run by San Sebastián Food. While you can easily go out and wander the pintxos bars yourself, I thought this would be a good way to do it as a single traveler, and also would allow me to try the best of the best. (For each pintxo, I’ll post the bar as well, but I highly recommend the tour for first-timers. The guides are great, you pay one flat fee for food and wine at each place, and you get to learn so much more than doing it on your own.)
Pintxos are much like tapas, with slight variation. The cold pintxos are spread along the counter at a bar. You grab a little plate or a napkin and load up with what you want. You can also order hot pintxos, which are usually posted somewhere. At the end, you just tell the barkeep what you had and pay up.
You can’t find tapas served like these pintxos are elsewhere. In other cities, sanitary and food regulation keeps the food in a cooled case, where a server has to get you what you want. Luckily, the government turns a blind eye to the beautiful spreads in San Sebastián because it would pretty much kill the entire experience, and likely the local economy.
How do I know this? Our lovely guide, Lourdes, who was about as Basque as you can get (while still speaking English):
We started out with cider, poured like the txakoli we had in our cooking class. It was much like the txakoli too, and not much like American or English cider. It was light and crisp, more like wine than beer.
And then our first pintxo: txipi relleno, grilled squid stuffed with a beschamel sauce of prawns and mushrooms, on toast, with red pepper and parsley sauces (at Munto). It was pretty heavenly. The squid was perfectly cooked, and the thick sauce stuffing added a great texture, while the two accompanying sauces dressing the plate gave the dish an incredible range of flavors.
So, after two bites, I was already hooked.
Once everyone finished up, we headed to the next bar. A lot of tourists make the mistake of camping out in one bar and eating several pintxos there, which is fine, but not the way the locals do it. The locals bounce around from bar to bar, sampling a pintxo or two everywhere. (And then they still eat dinner after. Whaat?)
Next up was another seafood pintxo: brocheta de rape, a skewer with monkfish, shrimp and unsmoked bacon, coated in olive oil (at Egostari). The flavor was good, but I was a little disappointed that the shrimp weren’t deveined.
Between bars, we also got a quick hit walking tour of the city, which was really nice. One of the cool sights was the square. It’s surrounded by apartments, all of which have prominently displayed numbers. Before the city had a bull ring, the bullfights were held here. And even though the apartments were private, the city held the rights to sell the balcony spaces for spectators. Eventually, the families in the apartments started selling food, and people would seek out the best numbers for a good meal during the fight. I mean, San Sebastián is just steeped in culinary history.
But, back to the eating part.
Simple, but easily my favorite: solomillo, a lovely medium-rare cut of delicious, tender, salty beef on toasted baguette with a slice of pepper (at Gandarias). Maybe it’s just because we had eaten so much seafood all day, but I was so excited to sink my teeth in. And I was right. It was perfect.
We also sampled these mushrooms cooked in with oil and salt, eaten on slices of baguette. Another simple but delicious execution of food that will likely be served at my next party.
Another cool thing we got to see because our guide was so awesome was a gastronomic society. These are usually pretty private, but her brothers and father belong to this one, so she was able to let us see inside. Instead of rugby clubs or poker nights, the men cook. Women aren’t really allowed to join (though I think there is one society with one female member). They pay dues so they can use the professional kitchen all they want, then they can cook up a meal and invite friends and family to eat as if it were a restaurant, or just enjoy cooking on their own.
After we got to peek into the society, we headed over to a more “modern” pintxo bar. The food was quite a bit different here, and the atmosphere was much younger.
And the pintxo blew my mind.
Bonfire, a fun and stylish pintxo experience. We were given a plate holding a terracotta pot with a grate over it and a smoking coal. You “grill” your slice of cod on both sides, place it on your carmelized onion and aioli tart, and then make a huge mess stuffing the whole thing in your face. You follow it with the test tube shot of celery and lettuce juice. (at Zeruko) The cod with the hot smoke flavor and the cool, slightly sweet tart were absolutely amazing. The juice shot? Not so much.
By this time, I was starting to feel quite full, and a little bit tipsy at the innumerable glasses of wine we were given. But I pressed on. (I know, my life is so hard sometimes.)
Our next pintxo was quite hearty: cheesy risotto and beef cheeks, with a savory tomato gravy (at Bar Borda-Berri). The cheeks were the texture of a very tender pot roast and they went incredibly well with the sharp risotto, made with a local sheep’s milk cheese similar to Parmesan. I would eat this as a full-fledged dinner. It was so good.
Last but not least, we even had a dessert pintxo.
A delightful take on cheesecake with a glass of Pedro Ximenez red sherry (at La Vina). The cheesecake was really, really fluffy. Airy. Light. Baked, but in no way like a New York style cheesecake. Less sweet than most cheesecakes I’ve ever had. It could have used a little more flavor, but that’s where the sherry kicked in. It was a beautiful, sweet, red, Spanish sherry. I had three glasses, mostly because the other girls thought it was much too sweet, but I wasn’t complaining.
After hanging out with the group a little longer, I had to head back to my hostel. I was 13 glasses of wine into the day at that point, and couldn’t make it out until 3 am like they did. I found my way to a cab and murdered the pronunciation of the street and number I needed, but got back safely all the same. Somewhere along the way, I realized that going out for pintxos is indicative of the Basque lifestyle: relaxing, drinking, eating, having fun, socializing. It wasn’t a meal at all, but an entire experience, an education in enjoying myself for no reason at all. With that in mind, I snuggled up into bed, waiting for the hangover that would accompany my early morning pintxo cooking class.