Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Michelin Guide Pintxos: Xukela

Pointing, it should be noted, is not a fool proof system. Today it may have failed me.
I wandered through "the seven streets", Bilbao's original trading center occupying parallel streets between the church of San Anton and the city's estuary.
Perhaps it's my travel weary legs or the inadequacy of hotel maps but you would never imagine a small area of alleys lined with boutiques and bars and endless shops hanging full legs of jamon serrano ready to slice could be difficult to navigate. I always feel a sense of accomplishment when I wander out in a new city and actually get to where I am headed. Goal achieved. And so it was with a sense of pride I stopped in front of Xukela, an old quarter bar where the pintxos are considered (by Lonely Planet and Michelin alike) highly creative, especially tasty and reasonably priced.
I wasn't hungry at all but to celebrate my accomplishment of finding the bar I sauntered in and vaguely pointed at what I thought were sautéed mushrooms on a slice of soft bread. One bite and I realized this was no mushroom. How had I not noticed that shape before? The rippled edge? Cockscomb. I think. It wasn't a taste or texture I recognized and honestly one I'd rather forget. It's still stuck in my throat.All in a day's food wandering I suppose. So many other choices. So many other places to try.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Afternoon Pintxos: Bar Ledesma

Walking back towards the hotel I turned onto a popular pedestrian side street filled with bars and cafes and people. The sign out front advertised meatballs, and hake ( a popular local fish served with parsley sauce). Maybe it's time for something not on a slice of bread, I thought.
It was not to be. At nearly 5 pm the kitchen was still closed and only cold pintxos (some warmed in a microwave upon request) dishes were being offered. Dinner starts late here in Spain. Restaurants open at 8 or 8:30 pm so there'd be no reason to have a cook on much earlier I reasoned as I pointed towards a wedge of tortilla on a slice of bread, sticking with localtradition.
Spanish tortilla, not at all like the familiar Mexican version is not a bread but a thick type of open-faced omelette (really more like a skillet baked egg cake -- no flour) usually filled with potatoes, but chorizo, peppers, mushrooms and more are often found. Whatever the filling the dish is a Spanish constant. At every bar, every restaurant, every home, every meal, every snack -- tortillas are offered and taken. Customers debate where to find the best.
Basically thinly sliced potatoes (try 3-4 medium) and a medium onion (also sliced) are sautéed (some cooks dice the potatoes which to me is not as nice a texture) without browning in a good quantity of olive oil until softened. The potatoes, without the excess oil, are added to beaten eggs (maybe 6 for an 8 to 10 inch non stick pan) and the whole mixture is added back to the skillet -- freshly slicked with olive oil -- over medium heat. As the edges just start to firm the heat is reduced to medium low for about 5 minutes to insure a creamy texture. Turning this egg masterpiece takes practice. In Spanish style the entire cake (the top s likely still runny) is slid off to a plate, inverted onto a second plate, and coaxed back into the frying pan -- again coated with olive oil. Tortillas can be eaten warm but most often are served at room temperature. An all day snack.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Pintxos At Cafe Bar Bilbao

I came around a corner in the old part of Bilbao and was suddenly face to face with the joyful noise that inhabits Cafe Bar Bilbao. A homey hodge-podge of blue and brown tiles, it's friendly and inviting and I walked right in.
Based on my clearly circumstantial observation, paying fair homage to the local soccer team may be a liquor license requirement. I have not wandered into a single doorway not flying the flag, hanging posters, dressing children in the uniform, or watching highlights on TV. Pintxos, I have to admit, are great finger food -- might just be the perfect fan meal.
Now resigned to my pathetic pointing I motion towards a slice of ham topped with mushrooms and something green. I assume it's spinach until I into this burst of flavor and realize today's jamon is topped with delicious Pimientas de Padron. Lightly fried and heavily salted peppers. This might be the best bite of my trip.
I resist the urge to eat the entire tray of pepper topped ham and bring over a squid croquette, topped with a not merely decorative piece of fried squid.
There's a reason this place is crowded and everyone looks happy.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

On The Pintxos Trail: Casa Victor Montes

Yes, every tourist in Bilbao probably ends up at Victor Montes at some point. It's the kind of place. I was drawn in by the enthusiastic decoration and the rows of reportedly very creative open faced sandwiches called Pintxos or Pinchos in these parts. Though now pretty much anything served as a tapa in this area of Spain will be called pinxtos, originally the word referred to the toothpick that holds the often elaborate sandwich together. Pinchar (the verb that coined the names pinchos or pintxos which is a Basque-fied version of the same) means to pierce. There are fewer toothpicks then in years past, but the name lives on.
Pintxos ready at the bar. Customers walk in, order drinks and, if their Spanish is as bad as mine, point and meekly say something brilliant like . . . "Quiero uno de esos (I want one of those).
I pointed vaguely and ended up with crab salad mounded on a slice of baquette (or the spanish equivalent of it), a sprinkle of caviar dusted the top.I thought 'd try just one more. Looking for the unusual I motioned for this eggplant and (I think) herbed cheese stack. Interesting and a little messy, nice for a bite. Bilbao is a city of eaters, hoping from one delicious bite to the next. I am waddling my own trail. Many pintxos to try before I rest.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Starting Off In Bilbao

Up here in the North what are called tapas throughout Spain are called Pinchos. Though many of the offerings are similar, so far the dishes seem a bit spicier and there are an enormous variety of creative, tasty open faced sandwiches (obviously a favorite in these parts) offered throughout the day at every bar. At night the cooking gets a bit more ambitious and on Bar Artajo's short menu we were offered . . . mussels with a delicious tomato anchovy sauce, and patatas bravas -- a favorite all over Spain, fried potatoes with a spicy mayonnaise dressing.
Another Spanish classic, pulpo ala gallega -- octopus Gallician style served simply with paprika and live oil.
Morcilla -- blood sausage is a popular treat.
A memorable dinner at a classic Bilbao bar,

Friday, February 24, 2012

Mercado de la Ribera: A Proper Market Since 1929

I admit it, I think that idea they have in Madrid of turning market buildings into gathering places and food courts isn't bad, but the cook in me rebels and cries out for real places where real people buy real groceries (for real prices). I found it in Bilbao. A modern (it's right on a subway stop -- great planning) and still classic market packed with shoppers (cooks) as time approaches to head home and cook up something fresh for lunch all of the fish counters are packed. It's not the biggest market I've ever been to. But it's big enough. There's nothing for a tourist here (unless you are looking for great picnic goods). No totebags printed with Mercado de la Ribera. No stands where you can stop for a snack. Just aisles of meat, fish, cheese, ham (of course -- it's still Spain), vegetables, and more parceled out by vendors who know their customer's names.
Heading in from the street
Chicken ready for sale

Vegetables out of the main area> perhaps these are locals and not stand owners who have set up wares for sale
I little stuffed goat marks these rounds of aged goat cheese.
All manner of olives.Beautiful shrimp
Fresh scallops in the shell-- I am aching for my kitchen now
Vegetables and fruits
Cured meats and ham -- of course
Barnacles for the braveWild boar advertised here with the birds
Oddly enough only one bread stand
A yellow eggy bread I didn' recognize, sold by the slice (well hunk). I took one home.

Busy case at the bread stand
Salt Cod for cooking and in salads for tapas at home
Fresh beans.

Even In The Airport

Waiting for a plane in Madrid.
Nothing but the best. Jamon Iberico Bellota -- superior meat from acorn fed pigs. A specialty only recently imported to the US. But here, even in an airport sandwich shop discriminating ham customers demand the best for their 6 euro bocadillo.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Two Strikes And I'm Out

Twice I made the trek through winding Madrid streets to try for a table La Bola. A quaint neighborhood space, LA Bola is famous for its Cocido Madrileño, a sort of Spanish style pot-au-feu where meats and vegetables are boiled together and served in courses -- usually a flavorful broth or rice or noodle soup (as at La Bola I hear) followed by blood sausage, ham, chicken, pork, and potatoes, carrots, cabbage -- whatever flavored the stock. The combination may vary by the cook but garbanzo beans (one of my favorites) are a required ingredient.
For now my table at La Bola will remain the stuff of legend and I'll try again my next time in Madrid. Adios!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Another Search

I set off through the winding streets of old Madrid searching. Searching for authentic, searching for adventure, searching for fried bacalao. This little dive, Reveulta, in spite of it's completely unremarkable exterior (and interior for that matter) makes a specialty of the dried fish. So I was on the trail.
Not exactly sure what to expect, I invite myself to a table in the dark room where I am the only woman and the only foreigner and order the fried bacalao. What arrived was a large filet, steaming hot, fresh from the oil, with a crisp, crunchy batter. The tender fish practically spit juices as I bit in. How is it possible something so juicy from something dried?
Breakfast in Madrid. Another successful search.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Funny Sort Of Food Court

In Madrid (and I'm sure other cities across Spain) there is more than one market that has been modernized and re-imagined as part market (in the case of Mercado de San Miguel very small part market), part food stalls, part gathering place. I suppose that's what the best markets have always been. But these are markets for modern times filled with high quality (and high price it seems) products and a variety of ready treats.
Today I wandered off to find Mercado de San Anton, a huge brute of a building with a wrapping so dull it barely hints at the delights inside.
The first floor offers ingredients: fruits, meats, seafood. Spain claims the hamburger as her own at this stand offering seasoned meat patties in a dizzying array of flavors (pizza burgers anyone?) ready to cook at home.
A bird I don't recognize awaits a frying pan or roasting oven.
The second floor is an array of stands with a variety of dishes to eat at the market or carry home. Vendors specialize in Japanese, Italian, Greek, Roasted Meats, Bacalao (salt cod), smoothies and juices, and tucked into the corner . . . duck, all specialties of duck from tiny hamburgers with fried eggs, duck prosciutto (or jamon here in Spain) to fois gras paté.
I settle down with a plate of duck drumettes and wonder why our food courts (and ugly buildings) at home can't be like this.

Monday, February 20, 2012

No Eggs Today

What was I thinking. Perhaps I was dazed by the endless walking and being turned away at several of the restaurants on my hit list (closed today, no room, too late, too early) but I stumbled into Taberna los Huevos de Lucio a name I didn't see until later), part of Spanish restauranteur Lucio Blásquez's mini empire of highly regarded eateries.
This was my chance to dine in true Spanish style. Standing, shover into a corner by the bar (a post I only managed to secure after quite a wait and with great effort), jostled by the ever thickening crowd. Too pinned to step back or forward. Surrounded by throngs cheerfully chatting, drinking, eating as if they didn't notice the crush. Hola Madrid
The harried counter woman called out for my order and I quickly requested callos madrileños, a thick stew of tripe, blood sausage, chorizo and spices justly popular in this part of Spain. Generally I am very happy with that order (I never cook tripe at home and try to take advantage when I see it on a menu) and looked forward to the steaming stew which I had already seen decorate a place further down the bar. But then I saw the eggs. How could I have I missed them. Crisp piles of fried potatoes covered with runny-yolked eggs (cut to create a gooey sauce for the fries) and topped with the diners choice of bacon, sausage, pepper stew, or something I think was a basil or oregano based sauce. A dish I knew James would love and we would have ordered if he had been with me. The restaurant's logo is a chef juggling eggs. The place is called tavern of Lucio's eggs I later learned (eggs are pictured not spelled out on the sign -- can't claim a language barrier, I missed a pictogram). I ordered meat in the house of eggs. What was I thinking, how had I missed that?
I sulked into my stew, delicious though it was.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Before And After

A jam packed pastry shop in the Puerta Del Sol. The distinct aroma of warm sugar lured me in from the street. People jostle for space and stand by the bar for coffee and pastries. The Spaniards happily stand while they eat and chatter nonchalantly while crowds press them closer and closer together. I can't imagine a crowd this tight ever being so good natured in the states.
My treat was a steaming cup of cafe con leche (warm milk poured in) and an enormous super sweet meringue between sheets of crisp pastry. The marshmallowy sweetness made me feel thirsty and guilty. Even I couldn't finish it all.
A parting glance to La Mallorquina -- a popular outpost sweetly treating natives and tourists alike since 1894.