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Showing posts with label food. Show all posts
Showing posts with label food. Show all posts

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thanksgiving in Spain

We have just finished an extra-large lunch of the leftovers from yesterday's traditional Thanksgiving dinner with three American (or American-connected) friends. It's hard to celebrate the fourth Thursday of November when you are the odd people out.  Spaniards, and Europeans in general, know that Americans celebrate Thanksgiving and eat turkey, but they don't know exactly when, they don't know anything about the real tradition of it, and they certainly don't stop life on a weekday in the fall for a huge foreign celebration. So since one of our American friends in Spain is a mother with kids in school (from approximately 9:00 to 1:00 and again from 4:00 to 7:00 each day), we have often celebrated our national holiday on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. We have been to restaurants before, but this year I brought the "fixings" in my suitcase from the U.S.: pecans, canned pumpkin puree, and well-wrapped fresh cranberries. I do wonder whether the TSA ever inspected my cardboard canisters labeled dried plums and raisins well enough to know that substitutions had been made.

Turkey roaster filling the oven in my Spanish kitchen.
Finding a fresh turkey is not always easy. I remember one year that I did manage to order one ahead of time, sight unseen; when I picked it up at the market early in the week, it turned out to be almost 40 pounds(!) and I had a hard time storing it in my refrigerator for a few days and an even harder time getting it into my small oven to roast. This year I had to fall back on a frozen turkey crown from Iceland, where the turkeys for the Brits' traditional Christmas dinner are already selling like hotcakes. I was able to gauge the size somewhat better for our small gathering of five, and I was even more pleased when I got it home that it fit in the cast aluminum Wagner Ware turkey roaster that I had been storing on the top shelf of my kitchen cabinets for years, used seldom but with affection, though never before in my ownership for turkey. I had previously ascertained that the turkey roaster itself would fit in the oven. It did, barely, with no room for anything else to either side, front or back, above or below. When Thursday morning came and I started the food preparations, I was disappointed to discover that the two turkey legs (jamoncitos) that I had purchased to add a dark meat selection to the white meat of the turkey crown would not fit in the roster with the crown, so I did them first and then set the crown in a couple hours before my guests came.

We had a leisurely dinner, from spinach square appetizers contributed by one guest to a fantastic pumpkin pie with lattice crust from another guest, and then sat at the table for hours afterwards talking and doing our darnedest to finish the last inch or two out of some of the various liquor bottles that had accumulated on the bottom shelf of the liquor cart over the years. This was a farewell occasion to some of our best friends. We also had another farewell dinner at our house, on Thursday, with other long-time friends, English, who had humored me several times in the past few years by celebrating Thanksgiving with us. This year we agreed to bypass the traditions of Thanksgiving and have roasted pork tenderloin and seasonal vegetables. That was excellent and easy, but I did give in to purchasing a small turkey tenderloin when I spied it in the grocery store, and throwing it into the oven thirty minutes before the rest of dinner was done, and I offered a cranberry compote with custard for dessert, so there was some tradition on Thursday itself.

We played petanca with our usual group this past Tuesday afternoon, and then on Wednesday evening joined 40 or so other members of the Danish Friends Club of Torrevieja for a club dinner at a restaurant in the La Siesta area--a restaurant where we had eaten for our first meal out when we came to explore Torrevieja six years ago, now re-opened under new management. Most of the Danes had heard that we were here to ready our house for selling, and they stopped by to say goodbye and wish us well. Then on Friday I had a lovely visit with my Danish Spanish teacher, that is, the Danish woman who started out teaching me Spanish conversation by discussing books, but who has long since turned from formal teacher into a close friend and fellow reader.

It has been a week of celebratory dinners, and we have been giving thanks throughout for good friends with whom we have shared the joyful, trying, and rewarding experience of living several years in a foreign country.

Tomorrow I pack the turkey roaster to bring it back home to Ohio. As is the custom here, we are selling our house furnished, and in our case that includes cookware and basic dining service, because, frankly, it doesn't pay to ship it home. But not this piece, even though my 15-inch Wagner Ware Magnalite 4265 turkey roaster can be had on eBay for about $80 plus shipping (estimated at $20). My shipping will probably cost that--maybe a little less if you factor in all the small treasures I can fit inside the roaster when I pack it. But even if I were to buy another one, it wouldn't be the same. This roaster is from the town I grew up in, and the company where my father worked during my growing-up years. It is nearly as old as I am--maybe older. And it has cooked some wonderful meals for special friends in various locations throughout the years.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

What I'll Miss (Lo que voy a echar de menos)

Lo que voy a echar de menos (literally, I believe, "that which I would least throw out") was a Spanish expression that took me years to grasp, but I understand it now, and I am thinking about several things that I will miss during the months that I will be away from Spain.

Friends, of course, first of all. We have been in Spain for ten years and in the Torrevieja area of the Costa Blanca for five, and we have benefited from close association with several people with whom we have shared daily experiences and the adventure of living in a foreign country. In different ways, they have broadened our lives and helped us learn. We are grateful, and we will miss them.

Café con leche, both its rich taste and the ceremony of having a single cup of coffee, served in a china cup, almost anywhere and anytime. I remember once coming through Madrid's Barajas airport early in the morning from the U.S., and having to wait hours for a connecting flight to Alicante. As I sat in the semi-conscious stupor that follows an all-night transatlantic journey I heard a racket that I could not identify until all of a sudden I remembered: it was the sound of coffee cups being prepared and served. Café con leche in Spain is a far nicer experience than Starbucks anywhere.

The Sunday outdoor market, which we have just come from and where we usually go each Sunday morning to buy fruits, vegetables and nuts; to pick up copies of the free weekly foreign newspapers; to look at books and clothing and gadgets of ever-evolving description (this is where I first found a stylus for my iPad for just two euros; today I was tempted by a three-euro cava stopper that preserves the bubbles after opening and is liquid-tight to prevent spillage should the opened bottle land on its side); and, of course, to have a café con leche.

Hanging the laundry. I am aware that in many--perhaps most--parts of the U.S. it is forbidden by ordinance or custom to hang laundry outside to dry; the idea, I guess, is that it is unsightly--though it certainly is energy-efficient. I didn't hang laundry out when i was in the U.S. previously and I didn't hang it out when we lived in a second-floor apartment in Roquetas de Mar. In the two houses that we have lived in on the Costa Blanca, however, I have used the terrace for one of its primary purposes in Spain. I have learned the advantages and disadvantages of wooden and plastic clothespins, the value of hanging garments inside out and changing their orientation from time to time. More importantly, perhaps, I have adjusted to the light exercise of bending and stretching and the joy of using the hanging out and taking in of laundry as a welcome break in computer work or reading. Where we are moving to I will use a tumble dryer, as it is called here, much more often than the once-in-a-blue-moon that I use the one that sits gathering dust beside my washing machine here.

The six-hour time difference.  Before we moved to Spain we lived in the Eastern time zone of the U.S. We are going back to the Eastern time zone, although to its western extreme. It can be inconvenient to make phone calls to the U.S. when there are six hours of time difference between you and the person or office you are calling. We have also had to get used to watching the PBS Newshour broadcast the evening before in the following morning, and the like. But there are some advantages to the time difference, the major one for me being that I could be at my computer in the morning hours and have accomplished almost a full day's work by the time my Connecticut colleagues got to their desks. That gave me a "home court advantage" as well as the freedom to be even more flexible in my scheduling. Life is going to be different when I return to "real time."

Petanca. It is the Danish community in the Costa Blanca that introduced us to the game of petanca, and almost without exception we have played petanca once or twice a week during the time we have been here, if not with the Danes, on our own. There is a petanca association in the U.S. but so far we have not found much promise of a club close to where we will be. We are, however, thinking about places where we can draw a petanca field of our own. And we have determined that we can buy petanca balls--far too heavy to transport--at Brookstone.

The sun. The sun, and the light it brings, is one of the factors that brought us to Spain. We have never been "beach people" who sat in the sun for hours in the summertime, but we did live in New Hampshire and in Denmark, two places where there is far less sunshine than in Spain. We knew what long hours of darkness for days on end do to you psychologically, and we suspected--and have now experienced--what days of light do to you psychologically: they make you much happier, or at least more cheerful and content. What I didn't know was the damage that strong sun can do to your body; now that I have had a long bout with an inconvenient skin cancer and some eyesight damage, I am more cautious about walking outside during the daytime, and a bit of the fun of being in this climate is gone. Still, I can't blame Spain for any of my health problems, as genetics and long years of accumulated carelessness certainly played their part--though I do like to imagine that perhaps I wouldn't have wrinkles in some of the places that I do if I hadn't been here.

Spanish classes. I sorted through many of my Spanish class books and papers recently, which I have accumulated from attendance at five different formal language schools. I am taking a couple books to the U.S. and fully intend to continue studying the language--but I acknowledge that I have said that before. It's a poor language teacher who lets you study language in a vacuum, and I am pleased to say that only one of my schools--and I wasn't there long--failed to enhance language lessons with tons of information about the culture of this country and generous sharing of personal viewpoints. I will miss my teachers, as well as many of the other students.

The international community. In Roquetas we lived in the center of a Spanish town and had a piso in an all-Spanish apartment building. There was an urbanization on the outskirts of town--quite a large one with several hotels and vacation houses. This is where Spaniards from Madrid and the interior would come for holiday, as well as a fairly large number of British people. Here on the Costa Blanca, in contrast, I live in Europe primarily and only incidentally in Spain. Many of the towns and villages number more non-Spaniards than Spaniards in their official residence figures, and often the non-Spanish fail to register. A large majority of the international community are retirees--I call this the "Florida of Europe"--but with (officially) easy mobility from country to country within the European Union, a number of young and middle-aged people come to set up business and raise their children. Though the financial crisis has had a demoralizing effect, the international community remains vibrant, strong, and large. I expected to learn about Spain when I came to Spain, but I didn't expect to learn about England, Scotland, Ireland Wales, Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia, Norway, South Africa, and more. I have.

Finally, food. In addition to café con leche (the beverage and the ritual), there are a certain number of foods, that I will miss. As I think about these, I realize that most of them fall under the category of "convenience foods." Though I love to cook, I do not love to cook every day, and I am a great believer in having something appetizing and nutritious in the freezer for a quick dinner. Here's what I am going to have to find substitutes for:
  • Chicken Kiev: two frozen Kiev bundles; they take just 30 minutes in the oven; from Iceland, the British Overseas grocery.
  • Salmon: two frozen individual servings; even less time in the microwave; from Lidl and Consum, but cheaper in Aldi.
  • Little, round, frozen potato balls; 15-20 minutes in the oven; formerly from Mercadona but discontinued; I finally found a substitute at Iceland. I have also had these pommes noisettes in Denmark, but I have never seen them in the U.S.
  • Creamed spinach, frozen; four minutes in the microwave, and both the spinach and the "cream" tablets come in small individual balls so you can shake out just the number you need from the freezer bag; Mercadona.
  • Frozen chopped spinach without the cream; available anywhere  in small blocks or balls the size of dishwasher soap tablets so you can use just what you need instead of opening a 10-ounce box. I shake out a few to add to rice, soup, omelets, pasta sauces, or just about anything, including adding more spinach to the creamed spinach above.
  • Salteado de patata, or "Spanish biksemad" as we call it in our house. A bag of frozen diced potatoes, Spanish tortilla, ham bits, peas, and red pepper, that you sauté in olive oil for seven minutes, adding mushrooms or other vegetables if you feel like it, and poach an egg for the top. Mercadona.
  • Canned tuna in olive oil. I add this to our lunchtime green salad: no salad dressing necessary. Available in any grocery store in Spain. You can also get canned tuna in water or sunflower oil, but why?
  • Gazpacho. The classic cold red pepper-tomato soup from Andalusia, available only in the summer time, when you can buy it ready-made in the refrigerated section at most grocery stores. I'll have to use my recipes the rest of this season.
  • Snacks for when I wake up in the middle of the night. Dried garbanzo beans are my favorite savory; inexpensive and nutritious. The slightly sweet "biscuits," packaged singly, that are given out as an accompaniment in many coffee shops when ordering just a café con leche, are my favorite sweet. They are tiny and just enough to satisfy my craving.
And though I promised not to take food back with me on this trip, I admit that in my suitcase I have stashed sachets of saffron, a couple envelopes of dried asparagus and cream of nine vegetables soup, two small packages of vegetable and pumpkin bouillon cubes, some of the dried white fava beans for fabada, and a couple spice blends. 

People, atmosphere, activities, food. Although I will miss all these, with luck we will return early in 2015 and encounter them again.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

A Yard of Bread

I can remember an elementary school teacher in my youth explaining about standard measurements and how they came to be, in comparison to body parts, back before the days of rulers and yardsticks.  An inch measured about the same space as the width of two fingers, she said. And a yard could be estimated by the space between the tip of an outstretched arm at shoulder height and your nose.

I thought of that measurement again one evening a year ago when trying to describe the loaf of freshly baked bread that we brought back to our hotel room to munch on after a light dinner with friends. We were in a hotel close to the airport in Alicante, due to take an early morning flight the next day to Copenhagen to celebrate our anniversary. They were living temporarily in Alicante, preparing to take a Wednesday flight to Berlin. They took a bus to the airport, we picked them up, and we spent a comfortable three hours in animated conversation around two pitchers of tinto de verano and soups and salads. After we dropped them off at the bus stop for their return trip, I realized that I needed to eat a little more before falling asleep so I could get up at 3:30 AM. But I didn't want to go into a restaurant, which now, at 9:30, was in the midst of dinner service. Grocery stores seem to uniformly close at 9:15 or 9:30, and we were in a small town. Then I remembered there was a 24-hour store down the street from the hotel. Off we went, and as I was trying to resist a bag of Lay's potato chips fried in olive oil, I saw a young woman come from the back of the store, laden with piping hot loaves of bread.

 We bought a bastón, which resembles a long baguette that has been smashed to flatten it all along its length. The crust was hard and the interior chewy. It was hot within its paper as I carried it the block and a half to the hotel, and it stayed warm until my last bite. But I ate too much. I didn' t think about how long the bread was until I had finished it. So I took the paper wrapper that it had come in and held it between my thumb and forefinger, and held it out at arm's length. It didn't come to my nose. It only came to the upper part of my arm, to that line that marks the end of a short-sleeved top and full sun exposure. So it wasn't a full yard of bread that we ate, but it was close to it. And it was too much, but it did make getting up at 3:30 the next morning a whole lot more palatable.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Weekend

It's Easter Sunday, and the holiday weekend started early with a traditional tapas run on Friday afternoon. I have written before about  tapas in the town of Los Montesinos and how odd I thought it was that they always have their tapas festival start on Good Friday. It seems somehow sinful to loll around in the sun all Good Friday afternoon, drinking and eating delicious morsels, and not something I would have expected in a Catholic country. But this is modern Spain, and somehow, in what I believe is the fourth time I have participated in this ritual, the sun always seems to be out on Good Friday afternoon in Los Montesinos.

This year we went with another couple and visited seven bars, acquiring six stamps from the establishments (the first bar was the one where we forgot to ask for a stamp, but we soon got in our stride), which qualifies us to vote on our favorite tapa. My favorite was a vegetable-seafood kebab, with three pieces of seafood, including a delicious shrimp, and three or four slices of vegetables, including a button mushroom. The kebab had been grilled with olive oil and came balanced on a nice slice of fresh French bread to absorb the excess oil. It seemed like none of the tapas were as gourmet as they had been in the past, but they were tasty enough and plentiful enough to supply lunch in the four hours that we spent moving from place to place down the central and one side street of town, to the plaza, and then back up another side street. Along the way we discussed the history and politics of southern Africa with our friends (who had lived in three countries in Africa), immigration and emigration, racial relations in several countries, past and current insurrections, resistance, and unrest, and various other problems. We didn't solve any of the world's problems, but we enjoyed sharing viewpoints and our experiences. At the sixth bar our friends met other friends of theirs, and we all moved on to Dos Hermanos, where several animated conversations continued, now with seven people, and we may have achieved the decibel level of the typical Spanish conversational group.

I slept well Friday night, which was good, because we had to get up early to appear on the petanca playing fields for our urbanization's annual petanca tournament. We have participated before and sometimes this can turn into not just an all-day affair, but one going into the night. This year we adapted the rules and played the games of the early levels of the tournament to only 7 points instead of the traditional 13. You had to win two out of three games to advance to the next level. We did, three times, and fortunately we were able to win all those in two games without having to play the third.

By the time we got to the semifinals, however, we were playing to 13 points, and the competition got tougher. The sun was also getting hotter as the hands of the clock rounded 12:00 and then 1:00, without a break for anything more than coffee, water, and chips. We cleared the semifinals and I did take a break to walk home and fetch a different hat--one that would not blow off in the breeze--before we started the final match at a little after 2:00 PM. This round took us all three games, to 13 points. We lost the first game, but we won the next two. Johannes and I are the 2014 champions of the Montebello Petanca Open! Hooray!

Now we permitted ourselves the luxury of celebrating with a beer and more chips while the officials prepared to make the announcements and award presentations. We finally made it home at 4:00, and we were too tired to do much else for the rest of the day. I had hoped to go back to Los Montesinos for another shot at the tapas, but even I couldn't muster the energy.

It was nice to win, and it was even nicer to know that we had gotten some good exercise during the day. And we look forward to using our prize money to purchase a dinner out at Monty's, the local restaurant that had recently closed but is now getting ready to re-open under new ownership and management. Reinvesting the money where it came from;  it will be a pleasure to support our local community.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

El Tiempo de Alcachofas

Estamos en Semana Santa y ya sabes que es tiempo de Alcachofas, habas y guisantes.

"We are in Holy Week and you know that this is the time of artichokes, beans, and peas."

Well, no, I have never thought of artichokes as especially a dish for the most important holiday in Spain, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter, though of course I realize that eating artichokes would be appropriate for the meatless meals of Lent, or Cuaresma, as the period is called here in Spain. But yesterday morning, the first Saturday in Lent, we drove south through the countryside just to be out to enjoy the sun and crisp spring weather. We saw field upon field of large green bushy plants that certainly looked ripe for harvesting, and I suspected they may be alcachofas, or artichokes. We stopped the car for a closer inspection, and sure enough, now I am certain what an artichoke plant looks like. The leaves are quite raggedy and have prickles, sort of a combination of giant dandelions  and thistles, with, of course, a large round layered bulb, or head, growing out at angles, which is actually the flower of the plant.

Artichokes ready for harvesting. © 2014 Johannes Bjorner

Given the plenitude of artichokes, I thought I should look for some artichoke recipes to try, and given that we have just entered Lent, I figured I have five weeks in which to investigate this dish if I intend to follow local custom and serve alcachofas during Semana Santa. Truth be told, I have never found an artichoke that I really enjoyed eating. I remember the first one very well. It was in Argentina, and my mother-in-law served artichokes as a special first course. I did not even know how to eat the plant that was placed before me, but fortunately this was a very long time ago, I was young, and I was a foreigner who had not grown up on a farm, so no reason I should have known how to eat an artichoke. It didn't have to be fancy, I was relieved to see. Patiently I watched as others tore the green leaves from the bulb and dipped them in melted butter, then sucked the inside of the leaves into their mouths. Eventually I tried it myself, and they didn't taste bad as long as I soaked up enough butter. But I would just as soon have dipped anything else into the butter and then into my mouth.

Years later another neighbor made a nice bubbling hot artichoke dip, also as an appetizer, and served it informally as a spread on crackers. These artichokes were mashed, as far as I could tell, for they bore no resemblance to a solid vegetable at all. That dish was OK, too. It was pleasantly warm and had added cheese. Edible, but I didn't ask for the recipe, even though she told me that it was perfect for spontaneous get-togethers, as I was likely to have all the ingredients on hand, once I bought the canned artichoke hearts.

If I have eaten other artichokes through the years, they have been disguised and/or innocuous.

Foods from Spain tells us that Spain produces 300,000 tons of artichokes annually, making it the second largest producer in the world (I believe it follows Italy) and the largest exporter.  Moreover, our drive from San Miguel de Salinas south to Murcia province took us smack dab through the largest artichoke growing area in Spain. The Foods from Spain website also gave me some ideas about contemporary uses for artichokes, but I needed to begin on a more elementary level. I found "Twelve Recipes with Artichokes" and then "Rapid and Very Simple Recipes for Artichokes" with a Google search on alcachofa recetas. I also found directions for peeling artichokes, and this, I realize, may be one of the biggest hurdles in preparing them. Nevertheless, I will be investigating and evaluating these recipes in the coming weeks. I'll let you know if I come across something that I like. And if I don't write about alcachofas again, you'll know that I didn't find anything that seemed worth the effort. Or, perhaps that I became sated with "Ode to the Artichoke," by Nobel literature prize winner Pablo Neruda. Really.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sunday Morning at the Mall

We usually spend Sunday morning at the outdoor mercadillo near our house, buying the week's supply of fruits and vegetables, picking up the free weekly newspapers, enjoying a café con leche in the sun, and browsing music, clothing, book, and sundry stalls. This morning dawned sunny and warm, but for various reasons we did not need any produce or frutos secos, and I had successfully said "no" to a 3 euro sweater at the market last week that I liked but didn't need, and was not sure that I could withstand temptation again this week. So we decided to give the market a miss, as our British friends say, and headed out instead to the Torrevieja shopping mall, Habaneras. This was a treat in itself, because it is only recently that Torrevieja has been declared a tourist area of sufficient importance that it has the right to allow larger commercial establishments to be open on Sundays--all for the convenience of tourists, mind you.

We parked in the large--and very busy--parking lot at Carrefour, the French superstore that has all sorts of wares in addition to food, but decided against the garden shop there. Instead we walked across the street to the Habaneras mall, where Johannes went in to AKI, the hardware store, and I took a quick trip to C&A, a popular clothing store for men and women. Ten minutes later I walked out, again having successfully said "no" to a couple items I don't need, but my "looking" genes satisfied. We met at AKI, where Johannes had found a garden hose to replace the one that came with the  house when we purchased it five years ago, but which he was sick of patching up. I reminded him that we needed a holder to hang up the hose that has rested, tangled, on the floor of the upstairs terrace since we purchased the house five years ago, and which I was sick of taking pains to avoid tripping over when moving around in my "laundry room" tending to clothing on the line. We bought two holders, upstairs/downstairs, or his and hers.

Sunday morning at 100 Montaditos. © 2014 Johannes Bjorner
Armed with our major purchase, we took the elevator upstairs to 100 Montaditos, the little sandwich place (that is little sandwiches, not necessarily a little place that serves sandwiches) and ordered two mini-sandwiches each and a small glass of wine. There is no roof on the top level of the mall, which can be a problem when it rains, as it does occasionally, but today there was no problem with water. We felt a few rays of warm sun and since we had not picked up the usual free papers, we went over to the newsstand and invested in the Sunday edition of El Mundo. Johannes kept the news of the world and gave me the magazine section. I don't usually read style magazines, but this time I did and found a beautiful leather case for your iPhone, with three-dimensional flowered cut-outs, in several spring colors, all for just 235 euros. Then I browsed through an article about the founder of Spotify, who has an interesting quote from George Bernard Shaw* in his Stockholm office, and I peaked into a story claiming that croquet is on a worldwide comeback and has become a very popular sport in Spain. I played lot of croquet as a child during summers in New Hampshire, though I am not sure that now I can remember the rules. No matter, there is a description in the paper, and reading that would be a very good lesson for my Spanish improvement project.

The sun had moved and it started to get a little chilly just sitting, so when we were finished with our sandwiches and wine but before I was finished learning how to play croquet in Spanish, we packed up the paper and the garden hose equipment, walked back over to Carrefour, bought a chicken for dinner, and made our way home by early afternoon. A pleasant way to do something a little different on Sunday.

* The quote from George Bernard Shaw is this:

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

I found it in a November 2013 article in The Guardian, which apparently carried the original version of the interview.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Getting Our Kicks

One of the most satisfying feelings that comes from living in the British community here in Spain is that they often prove that it's not just Americans who display certain less attractive qualities abroad. Chief among those is the seeming inability or unwillingness to learn foreign languages--It's not just those from the U.S. who have trouble with learning--or have given up trying to learn--Spanish. It's not only Americans who can be exuberant--or loud and boisterous--in public. And, I learned after our dinner at Route 66 in Benimar last night, it's not just Americans who value large helpings of food.

I didn't expect gourmet from a place that has a full-sized statue of Elvis out front. And I wasn't expecting that the restaurant owners and staff would have U.S. connections, either--and they didn't. But I was thrown into a pleasant aura of nostalgia immediately upon coming in and seeing the 1950s era diner decor, the obligatory photos of Marilyn and Elvis and other icons on the walls, the jukebox at the side, and the red, white and blue over all, including the overhead lamps. The menu was truly U.S. At least nine different burgers--I believe named for each of the states that Route 66 passes (or passed) through. Ribs by the whole or half rack. Buffalo wings. Dixie fried chicken breast. Chili. Two at our table selected chicken, another chose an order of ribs and wings, and I spent far too long trying to decide among the burgers--I finally settled for the Missouri burger, with cheese and mushrooms.

It's American in style, but it's not fast food, so we had plenty of time to start our bottle of wine while we waited. It became apparent pretty early on that one of us was unexpectedly celebrating an early birthday--that's what happens when a wrapped gift suddenly appears at your plate. And that occasioned  a complimentary bottle of chilled cava and four glasses, so as it turned out, we didn't get too far into that bottle of red wine right away.

In due course our food came, in the stereotypically huge portions that others in the world have obviously experienced and remember from their trips to the U.S. The "jacket potatoes" as the British call baked potatoes, were as large as my two fists. My American french fries filled half my plate, and my plate was larger than the laptop I am writing this on now. In addition to the potatoes and the entrees, we each had a serving of cole slaw and a red leaf lettuce salad, both of which were surprisingly fresh, attractive, and good tasting. The others had a piece of corn on the cob but I guess the mushrooms on my burger constituted my additional veg, and they were indeed huge. We all enjoyed the food, and we talked about doggie bags but did not actually ask for them. I managed to get through my hamburger, but left at least half the bun on the plate, together with 90% of the french fries that had arrived. And we all decided that the next time we come, we'll order one dinner for two people.

What was truly surprising, though, was how busy this restaurant was. My back was to most of the dining area, but judging by the noise level, there were lots of people there, and I saw servers carrying food upstairs. Our dining companions had made an advanced booking, which we thought was unnecessary but it seems it was advisable. When we left I could see that indeed, every table and every chair was taken. I cannot remember the last time I saw a completely full restaurant in Spain. Perhaps I never have.

This afternoon I've looked for a link, but Route 66, the restaurant, doesn't seem to have a web site of its own. There are lots of pictures on its Facebook page, and an incredible number of recommendations on Trip Advisor (that's where I really learned that the Brits liked the large servings). But it was on the Facebook page that I read that Route 66 is already completely booked for November 28. Thanksgiving Day.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Cultural Interchanges

Any of the thousands of European immigrants on Spain's Costa Blanca adjusts to the Spanish culture in greater or lesser degrees, but they all retain their own culture, as well; in spite of local community "offices for integration" I see very little true integration into Spanish life. I see co-existence, and that seems to be OK for both sides. The Spaniards are, on the whole, welcoming hosts, appreciative of the economic rewards of accepting tons of retirees and occasional young working families into their commercial life. But I do wonder how it must feel for the first and now second generations born after the closed Franco years to see so many neighborhoods and whole towns turned into advantaged ghettos where residents greet each other in the street and shops in all the European languages except Spanish, or if they manage to get a Buenos días out at the right time, they can't go much beyond that for a real conversation. There must be some resentment, or sorrow, about the invasion, I feel, though it stays well submerged and unexplored. I am aware of no anti-immigration political rhetoric, street demonstrations, or vandalism against the immigrants in Spain, as I see and hear in my own country and in other European countries.

Many of us immigrants love to take part in the Spanish café bar scene, tapas runs, fiestas, and espectáculos during the day or on special occasions, while we retreat at night to our English, German or Scandinavian TV. But the Spaniards also partake of the cultural life and changes that come with the foreign influx. Friday evening this week we joined a large group at the Gran China restaurant for a birthday banquet. We don't eat out often at night, and I was surprised at how large the restaurant was, and how packed it was with both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking guests. What amused me, though, was how the Chinese menu had adapted to the Spanish style of menu del día, offering a choice of first courses (primer plato), main courses (segundo plato), a third course (unusual, but how else are they going to get in the rice or noodles?) and dessert (postre), together with a half bottle of wine or a pint of beer, for a set price--and a very reasonable one, too. The Chinese, of course, are adept at tailoring restaurant menus to the country in which they are located, and it is always a fun thing to take in a Chinese restaurant in any foreign country you happen to be in, just to see the little things that are different from the Chinese restaurants in the country where you usually eat Chinese (assuming that is not in China). The conclusion of our meal, by the way, brought souvenir bracelets for the women, but nary a fortune cookie.

The next morning we found ourselves doing something that we had promised we would never do again: going to Ikea on a Saturday. Way too many people, and we should be able to arrange our trips during the week, we had said the last time we had the misfortune of attempting business there on a weekend. But we had been looking all week for new towel racks for a renovated bathroom; we had exhausted all the stores in our immediate area and even as far away as the big shopping mall at La Zenia Boulevard, and we hadn't found anything that we really liked or that seemed to offer decent quality at a reasonable price. So off we went to Ikea, the Swedish home furnishings store that does a pretty good job of adapting its wares and its restaurants to whatever country in the world it finds itself in, too. We had timed our trip to arrive at 10:00, when the store opened, and we knew we had to gear ourselves up with a cup of coffee and perhaps a second breakfast in Ikea's incredibly inexpensive cafeteria. So we proceeded down the line, and I had to smile when the Spanish couple in front of us scanned the offerings and ordered dos ingleses (two English breakfasts). The cafeteria server passed them their plates and then turned to me and asked, in English because we don't look Spanish, what we would like. Dos ibéricos, I said, without skipping a beat.

We enjoyed our typical Spanish breakfast of toasted baguettes with tomato marmalade, olive oil, and jamón serrano. I hope the Spanish couple enjoyed their typical English breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, and toast. Both are good value here, and it was an amusing cultural interchange.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Afternoon of Tapas

Last weekend the annual Rueda de Tapas in Benijófar took place. We made arrangements with friends to take it in--or at least as much of it as we could hold--on Sunday afternoon. Actually some of us started a little early, at 11:30 Sunday morning, where we were lucky enough to get a café con leche (or for me, an agua con gas) with the featured tapa at the featured price, 1€ for the drink and .80€ for the tapa. That's what we started with, to the left: Pastel de pollo tailandés, con salsa chili dulce (Thai chicken patty with sweet chili sauce). Yes, a Thai tapa. This was at the Plaza Diferente, a Dutch restaurant. It was different from traditional Spanish tapas, but it was light and refreshing, the chicken patty served on alfalfa sprouts and the salsa on some pretty greens, and all on a stylish slate plate.

Furthering the international flavor, we moved on to the bar El Mundo (The World). We opened the place and had our choice of seats on the upstairs deck with a view over the recently created municipal park. El Mundo, run by a Belgian, served Pan con atún claro encebollado y boquerrones (tuna with anchovy). One of us didn't care for quite so much fish, so he was served chicken wings instead, still at the special price. By now it was after 12:00, so I switched to a glass of chilled white wine.

At 1:00 the second couple phoned to tell us they were arriving, so we moved quickly across the street to Restaurante Cambalache, an Argentine restaurant well known to us, and arranged a table for six. One of the newcomers is vegetarian, and we weren't so lucky with a no-meat substitute for the sausages that were the featured tapa here. On to what we thought would be a more vegetarian-friendly choice, but we were out of luck again in terms of the tapa, though the white wine and conversation , both Spanish and English, were flowing nicely. A leisurely walk from Benimar across to the Benijófar plaza brought us to Bar Lucas, a family establishment that was offering sports-themed tapas--at least the Friday night tapa had been named Nadal. Sunday's was Alonso. Here we sat inside for the first time during the afternoon and enjoyed the typical Spanish bar atmosphere.

Next stop was Restaurante El Gusto, which won last year for the best tapa of the festival. We were away and didn't attend that one, so I don't know what they served then, but this year was also good: another elegant tapa of cangrejo con manzana, cebollino y pan con ajo (crab with apple, chives and garlic bread).

And then we agreed that somehow we could manage just one more, so the ladies continued their energizing stroll up the main street of the village, while the men went back to fetch the cars and move them to the opposite end of the town. When we re-assembled at El Granaino we sat outside again to enjoy the sun and the cool breezes that have finally made their way here during this warmer-than-usual autumn. By this time it was getting to the end of the afternoon and the end of the tapas route. I switched to a red wine for the last drink of the day and gave a silent thanks that the restaurantes have seen fit to include non-alcoholic drinks in the regular price of the tapa+drink, because I would have had to stop far earlier if the tapa came only with alcohol, as was the case in the old days. We sat for a long time, We chatted. We laughed. The music wafted out from inside the restaurant, and the chef came out to greet us. I remember dancing with him for a moment, but fortunately no good pictures developed from this once-in-a-lifetime event. We filled out our cards, having carefully gathered a stamp at every establishment we visited, to vote for our favorite tapa, and deposited them in one of the voting boxes.

I am sorry to say that now, a week later, I can't remember the details of all I ate, but I do remember thinking that the quality of the tapas this year in Benijófar was the best of any tapas route that I have been on: more variety, excellent presentation, and a good quantity per serving--more than a morsel, but still light. And the day was a perfect one, with sun, pleasant temperatures, interesting conversation, and comfortable friends.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

100 Montaditos: "The True Taste of Spain"

Two or three years ago we discovered a new cafe bar at the Habaneras shopping mall that we go to only occasionally in Torrevieja. It was 100 Montaditos (a montadito is Spanish for a small sandwich). There were 100 numbered selections on the menu, ranging from sandwiches with tuna, to ham, shrimp, salmon, beef and all sorts of good things, accompanied by salad and/or a sauce. Best of all, each sandwich only cost 1 euro, or €1.50 , or €1.80. You selected from the menu, wrote down your choices, and delivered your list to the counter, where you also paid and picked up your drink--most probably a caña of beer for €0.90 or a jarra (mug) for €1.00. A little bit later--well, perhaps longer than you would have wished, but this is Spain--your name would be called and you would get up from your table to collect your little plate of montaditos, which in addition to the sandwiches had a few potato chips on it. Just the thing for a light, interesting, inexpensive and not totally diet-wrecking snack while out shopping. We made it a practice to stop there whenever we were in the area, but alas, that was not often.

About a year ago we started driving to La Condomina shopping mall in Murcia, a city about 45 minutes away. This is a much larger mall, but the main attraction was an Apple store, where I was learning how to manage my new computer and where not much time went by before Johannes bought an iPad. We were pleasantly surprised to discover a 100 Montaditos in La Condomina and it became a tradition that every time we went to the Apple store we would get a montadito.

And then we took a trip to Zenia Boulevard, the new mega-shopping center that opened last September on Orihuela Costa. This was a bittersweet expedition, because I am convinced that this grand shopping center was supposed to be "ours." When we bought our house in Algorfa, we were told that the plans were approved for a great new shopping center within walking distance, and that construction would begin soon. That was pre-economic crisis, and the space for which our shopping center was planned is now an empty eyesore. Presumably more money flowed to the developers from the other location than from our town, so there is now a fancy shopping mall just 20 minutes down the toll road from where "ours" was supposed to be. And it's just aggravating that the toll is so unreasonably high that, on the four or five times we've gone to La Zenia, we drive out of our way to go through the free countryside and avoid the tollgate. The important thing about Zenia Boulevard, though, is that it also has a 100 Montaditos.

We made a quick trip to Murcia and La Condomina a week ago. We needed a connector for a new camera bought in Singapore to replace the one that is now resting on the bottom of  Halong Bay. We got that quickly, and we stopped for a montadito. As I scanned the 100 selections, I was surprised to see a few new ones on the menu. (Presumably some of the poorer sellers had been removed to make way for the new). The new were five sweet montaditos (numbered 95-99, all involving chocolate and all on "chocolate bread.") One was with "cookies and cream" and another was with "grageas de chocolate," which looked very much like M&Ms. Well, I didn't indulge in a dessert montadito that time, but I didn't forget them, either.

On Wednesday of this week we went to La Zenia for a very specific purpose: to look at bathroom fixtures at Leroy Merlin to replace a shower and vanity in our upstairs bathroom. We got out of the house early and were at Leroy Merlin just after they opened at 10:00. We spent a fair amount of time there and when we completed our work, we were more than ready for a cup of coffee. Does 100 Montaditos even have coffee? I had become so used to having a meat or seafood montadito and a little beer that I didn't remember if they made coffee. But as we entered, Johannes spied the coffee machine and so we ordered coffee. And I thought one of those chocolate montaditos would be just the thing to accompany coffee.

So that is what I had, a chocolate montadito composed of just-baked, or at least just-warmed, chocolate bread, chocolate cream and a thin chocolate sauce, and several M&Ms. I seldom indulge in such a treat, but chocolate genes run in my family, and every once in awhile, they assert themselves. As I bit into the chocolate montadito, I almost swooned, grinned, and said, "My father would have loved this," for that is where my chocolate gene came from. Until he died, my father enjoyed a little piece of chocolate every day, he told me--just a little piece.

As I was looking for links to the 100 Montaditos site to embed in this post so you could see the menu, I found one that I did not expect to see. In addition to the Spanish menu, I found another menu, in English. It seems that 100 Montaditos has opened in the United States to offer "The True Taste of Spain." There are several outlets in the Miami area, and one has made it as far north as Orlando. In an ironic twist, the 100 Montaditos in Orlando is located less than a mile from where my parents lived for almost 20 years. My father would have loved it.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Culinary Challenges

From my pile of unpacked but not-yet-put away stuff from my summer vacation, I located this week a very slim cookbook, nearly just a pamphlet. It is Homestyle Vietnamese Cooking, by Nongkran Daks and Alexandra Greeley (Periplus, 2002) and it is an excellent little collection of about 35 recipes, with full and half-page colored photos, three pages of explanations and tips on ingredients, and international measurement conversions that speak to U.S., U.K., and Australian audiences, at least.

I had really enjoyed the food I had in Vietnam--indeed, throughout the entire trip--and so had Johannes, so I read through all the recipes and explanations, and made a shopping list of typical ingredients that I did not have on hand. I knew my selection of what to make would depend on what I was, and was not, able to find. Among other things, my shopping list included:
  • fish sauce
  • hoisin sauce
  • oyster sauce
  • tamarind
  • rice paper wrappers
  • star anise 
  • five spice powder
  • fresh lemongrass
  • fresh daikon
  • red chilies
  • fresh papaya
  • coconut cream 
  • rice vermicelli
  • rice wine
  • rice vinegar
  • Asian, lemon, and/or holy basil
I had seen few, if any, of these ingredients in the various grocery stores I frequent in Spain. Some of them, like rice paper wrappers for spring rolls, I had no recollection of seeing in my life. But I was determined to find what I could. The best candidate, I thought, was the local hypermarket Carrefour, which has multiple ethic food shelves for British, Belgian, Scandinavian, Russian, U.S. (think Betty Crocker fudge brownie mix) and many more cuisines, including Asian. Off we went to Carrefour on Thursday morning.

But first we stopped in Ciudad Quesada to go to the bank, and since the bank was just around the corner from Jumerca, a nice little German specialty shop, I decided to pop in there first. It was a great idea. I found hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, canned coconut cream, and rice vermicelli. Not bad at all, and I hadn't even set foot in Carrefour yet.

We proceeded to Carrefour and went directly (well, almost) to the Asian food section. There were lots of things for Indian food--there is a very large British population here. There were a couple things for Chinese and Japanese. A demonstration area was even giving away free samples of sushi. But I found not a thing that was still on my list! There was hoisin and oyster sauce, coconut milk (not cream) and several kinds of rice vermicelli--all at prices higher than I had found at Jumerca. Oh yes, I did find the papaya, but it cost four euros for a scrappy-looking one, and since I wasn't sure when I would be able to get the other ingredients for the recipe, I put it back in the produce section. I could have bought sake, too, at the sushi demo, which my little cookbook--that I had brought with me--said that I could substitute for rice wine. But it also said I could substitute dry sherry, and I had some excellent dry sherry at home. By this time, we were exhausted and I was discouraged, because the one ingredient that I absolutely had to find, and had not as yet, was Vietnamese fish sauce. We settled for a cup of coffee and went home for the day.

Friday I had to do regular shopping and scoured the shelves at Consum and Mercadona, my two usual groceries. Again, I saw some repetition of the jars I needed, but except for the red chilies, which I could get anywhere and any time, I thought, I found none of the fresh produce. Well, my Vietnamese dinner was getting pushed back into the weekend, because I would have to look at the Sunday open air market. But of course, if I failed to find fish sauce, which the book says is essential, the fresh ingredients were moot, anyway.

I went to the Internet to find out whether fish sauce and oyster sauce were the same thing, by chance. At least I wasn't the only one who had hoped that they were. But the answer was no, fish sauce is thin, oyster sauce is thick, and there are undoubtedly other differences. Some people said that soy sauce could substitute for fish sauce, but I didn't really believe that. We went for coffee with a friend who has lived in this area for several years, and I asked her if there was a local Asian food market. Not too many Asians live here, she said, and she is right. But she thought there might be one in the poligono industrial in Torrevieja. I knew approximately where she was talking about, and Saturday morning I looked it up on the Internet and did indeed find the name of an Asian food store, its address, and phone number.

Forget the phone number, we just set the GPS and were off to the specialty store. When Gloria, our GPS lady, told us we had passed it, I was apprehensive. We parked and got out and asked a young woman who was hosing down the chairs in an outdoor cafe. ¿Hay una tienda de comida de Asia? No, she said, there used to be one on the corner, but it's closed. It must have closed a long time ago, because there were no remnants of its name, although there was a "For Rent" sign on the window.

Well, we were in Torrevieja, so we might as well at least go to Iceland, the British frozen food specialty supermarket where I buy a couple pre-cooked items for emergency dinners, and by the way, that's where I am able to get canned condensed cream of chicken soup for the American casserole that Johannes loves. We looked all through the Sauces/Salsas section and found nothing we had not found before. But there was another aisle, and in that aisle were some Asian things, and on the top shelf there was a jar labeled Fish Sauce. No brand name that I could discern, but it said "A Splash of Nam Pla Fish Sauce," so it sounded Vietnamese. And in tiny letters, I found out after I got it home, it said Waitrose,a good British brand, I thought, but I wasn't going to discriminate anyway.

When I returned home with my prized fish sauce I read through my little cookbook again and chose a recipe for Sunday night. I am making Tangy Prawn Salad with Carrot, Cucumber and Mint Leaves. Of course, now I had to go out and buy the prawns and the spring onions, but I had the mint and coriander, lime, chili, and shallots. I would have to buy the roasted, unsalted peanuts at the Sunday market.

I did. I am all ready. This will be my first attempt at cooking authentic Vietnamese, and I do have all the ingredients. I hope we like it. It's already been a lot of work and I haven't started preparng the dish yet!

I am still on the lookout for rice paper wrappers, but that's for another dish.

Pomegranate Pearls

Last year at about this time, a neighbor came over with a small dish containing a mass of red, jellied pearls. She had harvested several pieces of fruit from her pomegranate tree, she said, and this bowl represented the fruits of her labor peeling one of them. I believe this was the first time in my life that I had seen pomegranate fruit in the raw.  It was a very small bowl. I sensed that it had taken more than a little time to retrieve the pomegranate seeds, and I thanked her. After dinner that evening we devoured the unaccustomed dessert with about two bites apiece. It was a strange but pleasant combination of sweet and tart tastes, with an unusual texture. Nice, and I wondered whether the tree in our backyard that we had recently discovered was a pomegranate tree would ever bear fruit.

A year and a severe pruning later, there are no signs of pomegranates on the tree in the back yard. So I was pleasantly surprised this week when another neighbor, while walking home from book club, asked me if I liked pomegranates. She had been given a whole bag of them and there was no way she could use them all. Just the thing for our lunchtime fruit salad, I thought. A few minutes after I returned, there she was again, with three pomegranates for me. She just peeled them in strips, from top to bottom, she said by way of advice, and then scooped the seeds out. She agreed that they would be a nice addition to fruit salad.

I was already late for lunch that day, so it wasn't until the next noontime that I tackled peeling the first pomegranate. And it was only after I did so that I truly appreciated the gift from my other neighbor the prior year. Even I, who normally slices peaches, nectarines, apples and more into fruit salad, skin and all, knew that I didn't want to eat the skin of the pomegranate. I tried to make a slice to enable removal of the skin, but I found it hard to penetrate. So I ignored the advice to peel the skin and simply cut the round globe in half vertically, crown to foot.  In each half, it seemed as though the skin was holding about a thousand barley-sized seeds, all nestled tightly in a red gel in three or four compartments separated by white pith. I assumed that the pith was inedible, and set to digging out the seeds with a little, tiny coffee spoon. It was time-consuming to scoop out the seeds, separate them over the fruit bowls, and pull out the white pith. The pomegranate was only the crowning fruit in the salad that already had chunks of banana, pineapple, red apple, golden plum, and red and green grapes,  so I put away half for the next day and gave us each a quarter of the seeds.

We enjoyed the salad, but the pomegranate's sweetness was distinctive, and the next day I only used half of the remaining half. That provided a nice garnish to the salad, and left the last quarter for Saturday's salad. This Sunday morning, as I contemplated starting to tackle the second pomegranate, I thought, there must be a better way. There is, supposedly. A 2006 NPR story advises slicing the whole fruit into quarters under water, then scooping out the seeds with your hands, still under water. The seeds will sink to the bottom and the peel will rise to the top. You pour off the water and peel, and there you have the pearls of pomegranate, presumably with a little extra diluted pomegranate juice.

That NPR story also mentioned a chicken-walnut-pomegranate main course, Khoreshteh Fesenjan, that is also one of the recipes from the Pomegranate Council, provider of the pictures here. That recipe sounds adventurous, and just maybe I'll use one of my remaining pomegranates to try that. Pomegranates provide three different antioxidants and are one of those superfoods, according to the Pomegranate Council. And after my experience with harvesting the seeds, I can fully understand why pomegranate juice is so expensive in the market.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Home Again

We arrived home from our Southeast Asia trip last Thursday evening at about 7:00, very tired after traveling for 40 hours without seeing a bed (that included a 10 hour layover in  Singapore's Changi airport, which does offer beds, but we opted instead for shopping, garden tours, movie theater, dinner, and a short rest on one of the free lounges). The first thing we noticed was that the front porch wall light that we had left on was off. Oops, bulb burned out, we said. Then we noticed that the small accent light in the dining room with the 7-watt bulb was also out. Odd that they both went, but we had been gone three weeks. Then we went to put the air conditioning on and we realized that all the power was off, so we went to the master switch and flipped the switch, and there was light. And air.

Then I opened the freezer door to pull out the ready-made frozen Spanish salteada, which we call Spanish biksemad (diced potatoes, onion, tortilla, bacon, and peas and red pepper--throw it in some olive oil in a saute pan and it's ready in 7 minutes). I had carefully made sure I had a bag of this emergency staple, because I knew I would be tired and hungry when we returned. But as soon as I opened the door, it dawned on me: the power to the refrigerator/freezer had also been off, of course, and for how long? While on vacation we had read about severe storms in Spain, and our taxi driver from the train station in Alicante had said that there were tormentas and lluvia "last week." Depending on when the winds and rain came last week, the refrigerator had been off for anywhere between four and eleven days.

I shut the freezer and didn't even open the refrigerator.

Back in the last century when we were first married and my culinary standards were lower than they are now, I used to buy boxed macaroni and cheese at the Stop & Shop in Arlington, Massachusetts, for 20 cents a box, or maybe it was 25 cents. Even adding milk and frozen peas to the mix brought the dish to about 50 cents, which was a real cheap meal--necessary on a student's budget. That's sort of what we had the night that we arrived back from Vietnam. I found a Spanish equivalent of dried macaroni and cheese in my larder--actually a German version, since I vaguely remembered buying it at Lidl--and cooked it up, using dried milk, water from the tap (at least we could drink tap water again!), and a strong dose of Penzey's Southwest seasoning. It was edible, but I don't need to repeat that experience.

I waited until the next morning to approach the refrigerator again. We had decided to go out for breakfast and buy replacement groceries on the way home, but of course I needed to get the old crud out first. When we flipped the master electric switch the night before it had turned on the power to the fridge and freezer, and we had left it on. That may have been a mistake, but who knows for sure?

I tackled the freezer first. I have a three-drawer freezer, with vegetables at the top, meats and fish in the middle, and anything else at the bottom. Out it all went. The pork tenderloin and a turkey tenderloin had refrozen overnight. The vegetables had also refrozen, as a solid block in each package. None of this was irreplaceable or even terribly expensive (I was glad that I had used the frozen duck breast recently), but it hurt me to throw out the whole cranberries that I had brought from the U.S. and keep stored in the freezer for cranberry bread. However, there was a layer of them that was no longer whole cranberries, but something resembling a frozen cranberry jelly. It must have gotten very warm in the freezer over the course of several days.

The freezer was a breeze in comparison with the refrigerator itself. No need to go into detail here, but I have deduced that mold does not grow--or at least become visible--in frozen temperatures, whereas refrigerator temperatures are another matter.

Everyone, I am sure, has lots of little partially filled jars of condiments in their refrigerator door and maybe even on the interior shelves. I remembered distinctly that I had two open jars of Dijon mustard, one obviously purchased by accident, and I had diligently been working to empty one of them. I won that battle--now they both went out. Also tossed were a jar of peanut butter also imported from home, and a small jar of maple cream from Polly's Pancake Parlor in  Sugar Hill, New Hampshire. And a few fruits and vegetables that I had never expected to use again, but that I had run out of time to clean out before I left on vacation and chose to keep them in the fridge so they wouldn't rot and stink up the kitchen. And the eggs that I had left to fry for the top of the welcome home night biksemad.

I did not take the food from its container, nor did I separate the cans and the plastics and the glass, as we normally do for recycling. I took three kitchen garbage bags to the dumpster and heaved them in.

There wasn't much I kept. Two bottles of white wine that had never been opened, and three small splits of cava. An unopened can of salmon bought for our Saturday night smorrebrod that, when I got to the checkout counter at Lidl had cost 5 euros instead of the 1.29 that I had seen on the shelf, so I was saving it for a special occasion. A small can of fruit cocktail that Johannes bought while I was in the U.S. last time and that I had still not opened. A tube of tomato paste and an unopened jar of spicy hot preserved peppers, though I intend to look at them closely when I do open them to see if they are still preserved. Three bottles of water and an opened bottle of white vermouth that we use for fruit salad. And an envelope of Penzey's Sunny Spain seasoning.

That's what I put back into the refrigerator when I finally finished reassembling it. (Washing and disinfecting is one thing--figuring out how to get the shelves together again is another!) I didn't put anything into the freezer except a small ice cube tray filled with water, and that only after the tray had gone through the dishwasher.

It all took a lot longer than I thought it would, so we went out for brunch instead of breakfast, and we only stopped at one grocery store on the way home, to get the necessities for breakfast, lunches, and dinner for one night only. Saturday we went out grocery shopping again, this time to Mercadona, which is where I buy most of my frozen vegetables and prepared dishes like the Spanish biksemad and the rice and vegetable mixes, for those nights when we need to eat in a hurry and I don't feel like cooking. I am still at that stage when I can see everything that I have in the fridge and freezer without moving things around, and I hope to keep from buying too many of those little jars of condiments that seem to collect and multiply.

I have yet to buy any Dijon mustard.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

International Living

This Sunday marks a week that we have been back in Spain since returning last Sunday from a short week's trip to Copenhagen. We had an even better time in Denmark than we usually do, for the weather was glorious--sunny every day, from before 6:00 AM or earlier, and it was light to well after 9:30 PM. We had to remember to close the curtain in our top-floor hotel room so as not to be awakened too early when the sun made its appearance. All in all the weather was as good as, and maybe even better than, what we had left behind in Spain that week.

There wasn't a lot to write about Spain while in Denmark. We heard a few Spanish voices as we came into town from the airport (the plane, after all, had brought us--and others--directly from Alicante) and as we walked through the city for the next four days. Once we happened upon two couples in animated Spanish discussion about which direction they should go in, and without much conversation we gave them one of our maps and left them to come to some sort of agreement among themselves.

Every year when we go to Denmark we try to do something a little different, and this year it was a canal tour. Amazingly I had never been on one, although I have walked by the canal tour boats in Copenhagen's Nyhavn (the New Harbor) countless times. This one was a guided tour of an hour and a half, and the brochure said it would be narrated in three languages: Danish, English, and "another" language. I wondered how they would choose the third language and what it would be--German, perhaps, or French, or maybe Russian or Polish or another east European language, for there has been much immigration from eastern Europe all over western Europe, including to Denmark. Maybe even one of the Middle Eastern languages, though the immigrants from that part of the world have done a wonderful job of learning Danish, it seems to me. It was none of those languages, though, for as the narration started we were welcomed first with Velkommen, then Welcome, and then Bienvenidos! The first, and maybe the only time in my life when an official tour is conducted in the three languages that I understand. I felt right at home.

The evening before we left on our trip we were in Torrellano at our favorite hotel there, where we often stay when we have a flight leaving or arriving at some ungodly hour (this one left at 6:30 the next morning). A couple that we have gotten to know in Spain came out to join us for a light and early supper, so we could get back to the hotel for a little sleep before getting up at 4:00. It turned out to be a farewell dinner of sorts. We were, of course, off on our annual or (lately) semi-annual one-week trip to Denmark; they were scheduled to leave the following day for two months of touring in the cities and along the rivers of Europe, something they have done every summer that we have known them. But they also noted that this year, they would not be returning to Spain at the end of the summer to live.

Our friends' marriage, somewhat like ours, involves two nations, but they have lived in Spain more years than we have, in three different parts of the country. They are not the only people we know who have made a decision to move on because of new financial reporting requirements that have gone into effect in Spain, but they are the closest to us. The new "declaration of foreign assets" requirements put in place by Spain, or the European Union, or just by the fact of modern international living in a post 9/11, post-Economic Crisis of 2008 world, have been making life difficult and uncomfortable for almost everyone in the various expat communities, but especially for those who are living off investment income earned and/or maintained outside of Spain. Which would be most retired people, of course.

 I won't tell you exactly what the financial declaration requirements are, because I don't have a prayer of stating them correctly. Every newspaper and advice column, every financial adviser, and  every government official gives you a different interpretation, and that is a large part of what makes this new reality difficult and uncomfortable.

So the four of us sat together for a couple hours and enjoyed dinner (I had a wonderful salmorejo with jamón serrano) and talked about life and change and travel, and speculated about what country we might be in when next we saw each other.

This morning the two of us made our usual Sunday morning trip to the outdoor market to get fruit and vegetables and frutos secos (almonds, raisins, and prunes) for the coming week. We had missed the market last Sunday, since our plane had not brought us back to Spain until the afternoon.  As usual, we stopped for a café con leche, this time at a different little coffee shop, where we were delighted to discover that we could still get a good cup of coffee--and a big one, though it came in a glass instead of a cup--for just one euro. So we sat in a shaded area with a front-row view of all the shoppers strolling by, and enjoyed watching the different people, residents and visitors--you can often tell the difference by their clothing. We listened to the Spanish bread stall owner next door calling out pan del pueblo, pan de leña, and just buenos días, quieres pan? and to the stream of other voices in many languages. We felt at home.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Overnight in Madrid

We made an overnight trip to Madrid this week, just for the purpose of picking up a new passport at the Danish embassy and then leaving it, together with my own new passport, at the Vietnamese embassy. They needed these to process our visa application for the trip we have planned in late August following the World Library and Information Conference of IFLA in Singapore. Our train left from Alicante just after noontime on Thursday and we arrived in Madrid's Atoche Renfe station at 3:15. Amazingly we managed to catch the underground metro mass transit to Serrano station and get into the Danish embassy before 4:00. It took about a half hour there and then we were back in the metro to Santiago Bernabeû station. When we came up to the surface I saw a huge structure. If I were a sports fan I would have known earlier that we were headed for the stadium where Real Madrid plays. I am not a big fan of professional soccer, but even I can recognize an important landmark like this one. There were several groups of people in the green median on one side, photographing themselves and their friends. We could have stopped and spent time there, but we had to walk a few blocks to the Vietnamese embassy, and they were staying open a little late just for us.

We found the embassy after having walked the full length of two sides of the stadium and then three or four more blocks, up a hill. The business didn't take long, and when we were finished, moving on toward 6:00, we stopped finally to catch our breath and rest with a cold drink and a small montadito sandwich at a café back toward the stadium and station. Then it was back underground for yet another metro ride to the hotel, more correctly the hostel, where we had reserved a room. As we made our way through a couple subway connections we realized with glee that we had absolutely nothing else that we had to do before our return train left at 2:00 the next afternoon.

Every time we go to Madrid we stay in a different section of the city, depending on where we need to be in this huge metropolis and what has on offer. This time we got off the metro at Sevilla station, one stop past Puerta del Sol, the Times Square of Spain. We walked south and realized soon that we were in a very old part of Madrid. Many of the buildings along the very narrow streets had intricate ceramic tile designs at their gates, and even the street signs were ceramic. We found the small hostel after passing right by it the first time, so intent were we on observing the various restaurants we passed by, wondering whether we should have an Indian or Peruvian meal later on this evening.

For that is always the issue with us when eating dinner out in Spain. Just how late would we have to wait for the restaurant to open its doors for the evening cena? Since many people work until 9:00 it is no at all uncommon for a restaurant's kitchen to be unavailable for hot meals until 8:30. On occasion we have observed that a place may open at 8:30, and in very extraordinary circumstances, 8:00. After checking in and finding our room,  I spent an hour browsing Maps on the iPad in search of what was interesting, within easy walking distance, and opened early.

When we left our room at a little after 8:00 it was still light and pleasantly warm outdoors and we stepped into a bustling evening world. I had despaired of finding a convenience mart in his old part of the city, but on the first corner we spied a cellar store and popped in to buy water and a little wine to take back to the hotel. But, revitalized now, we continued walking among throngs of people of all ages out enjoying the early spring evening--hundreds at sidewalk cafes or, like us, moving along the streets to do some end-of-day shopping or to meet someone. We sauntered through several blocks, pausing on occasion to check a menu--I had decided by now that I didn't want much to eat--not one of those voluminous three course Spanish evening meals--but I wanted something hot. Pizza would do, so would soup. Trying to decide among a huge selection of tapas would be too much trouble.

Finally we found ourselves on Calle de las Huertas, Orchard Street would be the direct translation, though I think first of a garden of vegetables (hortalizas) rather than fruit trees when I hear the word huerta. And I found vegetables. The picturesque brick-walled restaurant that we wandered into after seeing pasta on the menu posted outside the open doorway was full of people at the bar but had no one else in the dining area. It was, after all, not yet 9:00. Johannes had the pasta, but I spied a vegetable wok dish listed as one of the house specialties. In meat-heavy Spain, this may have been designed as a family side dish accompaniment to more protein-heavy entrees, but I had it alone, with just a small glass of warm soy sauce for dunking. My hortalizas on Calle de la Huerta included long thin slices of peppers in three shades, onions, mushroom, carrots and green beans, at least, all stir-fried to perfection, still crunchy. It was delicious, and I felt satisfied and virtuous--at least until the excellent bread came when I was almost finished--then the virtuous feeling disappeared, though satisfaction did not.

During our entire supper we were entertained with the sound of a street music duo just outside the open door, a young woman playing oboe and a young man playing a trombone. Their selections were eclectic and lively, some jazz, some klezmer, some haunting, some indescribable. We talked with them when we left the restaurant. He is from France, she from some country that we did not find out in Africa. They are two-thirds of a group called Conchindon (the third plays banjo).  They gave us some links, so you can listen and catch the spit, too.

They were packing up as we talked, or rather, they looked as though they were packing up, because the police had been by and I guess they didn't have a license to play street music. Indeed if everyone who plays street music in Spain had to pay money for a  license, there might not be a financial crisis going on. On the other hand, if the police really make young, struggling, but enthusiastic musicians keep quiet if they can't afford a license, the city is going to be a much more somber place.

We continued on our way after wishing them well. We meandered back to our hostel, people watching all the way. There were still people in the streets and at cafes, and now in restaurants in large groups having dinner. We had found a delightful part of the city and looked forward to exploring it more in the morning, when it would be equally interesting but not quite so magical.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Spring Signs and Rituals

There was a gentle rain this Sunday in Spain on Easter morning. I didn't even realize it until I went outside to put towels in the washing machine, but then I saw that the pavement tile was wet and, when I raised the lid on the large plastic garden container that hides the laundry, there was a small spill-off of water. I put the laundry in the washing machine anyway, because I have faith that the sun will come out sometime before the day is over.

If a little rain isn't a sign of spring, I don't know what is. This week has been full of signs, and that seems appropriate, especially as we were approaching Easter, although it was a little early this year.

Early in the week as I was hanging clothing out to dry, I realized that I had a line full of warm socks although I didn't have any on myself that day at all. I haven't switched to sandals yet, but I have started wearing my hole-y "air-conditioned" plastic garden clogs (I have three pairs) that I can wear with or without socks and let my feet air out while still keeping them off cold tile floors.

Forgive me for talking about matters of personal hygiene, but I also shaved my legs for the first time in awhile, since I was putting on what we used to refer to as nylon stockings but what are now (still, I hope) referred to as pantyhose, or tights. The occasion was that concert last weekend, and I wore a skirt with natural-colored stockings and let my legs breathe after their winter hibernation.

I had carefully saved a few spring clothes at the back of my closet when putting away summer things last fall, and I was glad because I have been in to them several times now. A friend told me yesterday that they had spent the previous day doing the summer/winter clothing exchange, so all their winter things were now packed away, seasonal donations had been made, and she had a list of clothing accessories they needed to buy in preparation for their upcoming May cruise, but I haven't taken that big a step yet and I don't have a cruise to prepare for.

Spring travel has started. There have been an unusual number of young children at the cafes and restaurants, and the grocery stores, that we have frequented in the past few days. They are here on spring break, with their parents or without, to visit the grandparents. Or the grandparents have gone home to Scandinavia or the UK to participate in the communions and confirmations, and Easter and other festivities of the spring season, even though both those areas of the world are experiencing anything but spring weather.

Our house has warmed up sufficiently so that we have gone several days without turning on the infrared heating panels that were a major investment last year for the upstairs bedroom and bath. They worked well, and we may add them to a couple other rooms later on this year when we begin to think about colder weather again.We have also gone a couple evenings without using the gas-fired fireplace while watching the news and night-time television. Each time we plunk down the euros for a propane bottle--and the number was just increased again this week so we are now paying almost double what it started out to be when we got the gas heater four years ago, but it is still worth it--one of us says "This is probably the last bottle we will need to buy before the summer." Then I say, "Don't bank on it."

When the cleaners were here last week they vacuumed and rolled the two carpets from the dining room and living room that we use in the winter but which we take up in the summer because they would be way too warm. They were able to get one rug into a giant plastic bag for storage, but the other was too large, and it waits, in the guest bath, for a custom-designed plastic bag arrangement before it can go out for storage.

Speaking of storage, I sat with a friend in our downstairs sun room--the one we pass through whenever we enter or leave the house, and the one in which we eat lunch almost every day, early one evening this week, having a glass of wine. All of a sudden I raised my eyes to the ceiling and there was the last one of the Christmas decorations, dangling from a hook in the ceiling that used to hold a hanging plant that died--obviously because we had failed to raise our eyes and a watering can often enough. There is a Danish song that says "Christmas lasts until Easter," and we certainly held up that tradition this year.

Of course it is just coincidence that in 2013 we changed from "summer time" to "winter time" the night before Easter. That timing didn't make it easy to get to Easter sunrise services, if there were any. Europe always changes to summer time the last weekend in March, and I find it disorienting and mildly annoying that Europe and the U.S. don't participate in this annual spring ritual on the same day, or night.

We participated in my favorite spring tradition yesterday afternoon--we went to Los Montesinos de Tapas in a neighboring town. This is the third or maybe the fourth time we have been to this tapas festival, which is always held on the weekend of Semana Santa, leading up to Easter. This year I remembered it in advance, without even seeing any notice in the newspapers or on posters. As opposed to today, yesterday was warm and sunny and about 90 degrees F. in the sun, and we sat in the sun on the central plaza of Los Montesinos at two different bars, enjoying albondigas (meatballs) at the first and something called La Campesina, a delicious slice of warm ham and red pepper on bread, at the second, with our beers. We thought one more tapa would round out our lunch nicely and were ready to move on when some friends happened by. So we did move on, with them, to another place, where we sat inside because it was too hot in the sun, and talked over a tapa of morcilla (black sausage) on a thin layer of cooked apple, with a hard-boiled quail egg. Delicious!

It's moving on toward 3:30 summer time now. The sky is lightening by the minute but there is still no sun. The clean towels are languishing in the washing machine, and soon I will have to decide whether to move them over to the tumble dryer or hang them on the line. On rainy days in this part of Spain it almost always gets sunny by 4:00 in the afternoon. But does the sun know that we changed the clocks last night? Will it also spring forward so I can make my decision at summer 4:00?

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Strawberries in January

We get lots of fresh fruit at all times of the year, but there are noticeable seasons. Lemons and oranges have started appearing in large bags at cheap prices (one euro for a dozen or so lemons) at the Sunday Zoco market now, and indeed, we can see farmers harvesting them all around us. We have even harvested a few lemons from our own tree. I realized recently that it had been ages since I had seen a strawberry, but this morning at the Zoco, while I was buying bananas and grapes, the fruit handler was practically forcing a large, ripe strawberry into Johannes' mouth, so before I knew it, we had a few strawberries, as well.

Since I am rarely in the U.S. during strawberry season, I don't know whether American strawberries have gotten as large as those here in Spain. The ones purchased today are about two inches in height (or length--how does one measure a strawberry?). Two were sufficient to dice onto the top of our lunchtime fruit salad. They were delicious, but I think they will be even sweeter as the season progresses.

I wonder about the size of U.S. strawberries, because, coincidentally just this morning I was reading an article in The CoastRider, one of the newsier free weeklies, that said "Spanish robotics firm takes US by storm." The Agrobot company, based in Huelva, reportedly has successfully tested a prototype strawberry picking robot in Watsonville, California "where 40% of the State's strawberries are produced" and now is planning the manufacture of strawberry pickers in the U.S. Apparently the robots are able to function flexibly enough that size doesn't matter. Harvesting costs for "fresh" strawberries are reduced 50% with the robot and 90% for the "industrial" strawberries that are used for purees and yoghurts.

It is wonderful to read about a success for Spanish industry.