Sunday, August 1, 2010

5 Ways That Spain Changed My Life (or, what I did on my summer vacation)

Looking back on the last two months, it's pretty unbelievable how many different foods I've eaten while here in Spain. It's been interesting to try new foods, of course, but the experience has had a larger impact on me. All this exposure to Spanish cooking has fundamentally changed the way I think about food in several ways:
  1. Dinner at 10 p.m. - Yes I Can! As in many European countries, nobody in Spain eats dinner before 10 p.m. (Most restaurants don't even open until 9 p.m.) And I have to say, I was pretty apprehensive about this. Seriously, how can one possibly wait until the double digits to eat dinner without turning into a famished, raging, hate-ball of hunger? Well, I discovered that the key is to sleep until 9 a.m. When you do that, breakfast is at 11 a.m., which means you aren't hungry for lunch until at least 2 or 3 p.m., which puts you well on your way to a late dinner. Easy. 
  2. Even more legume love. I was already pro-bean before coming to Spain, but people here really know to do it right. The beans themselves are excellent to start with - buttery, melty, and unbelievably tender - but they're usually also simmered with some pork fat, chorizo, and blood sausage. The result is rich, unctuous magic.

    Pork and beans have never been so good.
    No pork, but still fab with lots of garlic and parsley.
  3. If you can put it on a slice of bread, you can eat it standing up! I used to really hate eating standing up (and I still refuse to eat while walking), but the pintxo scene in San Sebastian taught me a thing or two about the merits of non-seated eating. There, the pintxos (two-bite delicacies on a slice of bread) are generally self-serve from plates lined up along the bar. Seats are hard to come by anyway, but staying on your feet offers a distinct advantage; it means you're only two or three steps away from trying that yummy looking crab pastry at the other end of the bar. It's more interactive and, to my surprise, a really fun way to eat. 

    I'll gladly stand for these little gems.
  4. Simple really means simple. One of the best things I've eaten over the past two months is the pan cristal at La Taberna del Gourmet in Alicante. To say it's bread with tomatoes and olive oil on it is a serious disservice to the crunchy crackly billowyness of the bread...the freshness of the grated (shaved?) tomatoes...the fruitiness of the olive oil...the perfectness of the salt. It's a simple combination that's found all over Spain, but this particular version is exceptional. The ingredients are unabashedly few, but the quality of each is indisputable, and the result is transcendent.
  5. Pan cristal in all its simple glory.
    Another example of the "simple" ethos: When you can fry, you don't need no stinkin' sauce. Why do we Americans always insist on condiments for fried foods? French fries, chicken nuggets, onion rings, fish's unthinkable to serve them without ketchup, "sweet n sour" sauce (ugh), or tartar sauce. I'm here to tell you that it's not necessary. The Spanish do love their fried things: croquettes, fresh anchovies, hell, they even fry their bread sometimes. But you hardly ever get more than a wedge of lemon with it. And you know what? That acid is all you need. Again, it comes down to good ingredients and a solid execution.  
    Boquerones (teeny anchovies) lightly battered and fried.
  6. With good olive oil, everything is better. At Alicante's central market, I bought a liter of olive oil for 4 euros. Despite its laughably low price, it was intense and flavorful and better than what $20 would buy you in the States. Because this olive oil was so good and so cheap, I used it for everything from sauteeing to salad dressings to drizzling over finished dishes (or "finishing it in the Spanish style," as I have come to call it). The result? Everything tastes better. I may not find the same bargain in once I'm back in the States, but I'm stuck on good oil, no matter the price. Because basically, good olive oil makes you a better cook.

    Goodbye, sweet evoo. I'll miss you.

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