Tapas Thursdays: Ensaladilla Rusa

My first meal in Spain was less than memorable: Aurora muttered something as she schlepped a large bowl of something in front of us.

“Cat, quick! tell her I’m allergic to seafood! I think that’s tuna and I don’t know how to say it in Spanish!” Emily hissed from across the table.

My jet lagged brain, tired after eight hours and lugging a suitcase halfway across Valladolid, barely got out the word fish while still searching for seafood. My señora stopped right then and there, threw her arms up in exasperation and chided us for not being as open-minded as the Japanese girls who had lived with her before we had arrived.

I tried to simply was what it was called, hoping that would lead to a run-down of the ingredients. It did, alright, and it seemed that my host mother had folded in every. single. thing. she had in her kitchen into the cubed potato and mayonnaise mix.

We used a “break for air and exploring” as an excuse to pick up sandwiches from a bar around the corner as I explained to Emily exactly what we had eaten:

The Spanish version of a kitchen sink, ensaladilla rusa. Literally, Little Russian Salad.


What it is: A cold, cubed potato salad made with mayonnaise, peas, carrots, red peppers and often hardboiled eggs and canned tuna, accompanied with freshly chopped parsley. The dish often comes with picos.

Where it’s from: As far as I can tell, this popular tapa fría is served in just about every region of Spain, though it varies in its ingredients slightly, or even in its presentation – I’ve seen it atop bread in the Basque Country!

Where to find it in Seville: I’m not a big ensaladilla person because it combines the two foods that make me turn green: mayonnaise and canned tuna. Still, if the mayo isn’t too heavily dolloped into the recipe, I can stomach a bit. I recommend both La Alicantina in Plaza de Salvador (Pza. del Salvador, 2, on the northeast corner), who makes their mayo from scratch and was willing to give it to me on the side, just in case. Their tapa has also garnered quite a bit of fame in city polls. Also, La Cigala de Oro near Santa Justa train station had a fresh tapa that’s light on mayonnaise (Jose Laguillo, 23).

Goes great with: Ensaladilla is typically eaten as bar grub or the starter to a meal because it’s cold and scooped directly onto a plate when you order it. I myself need a few big gulps of Cruzcampo to really like it!

Love tapas? Want to see a specific one featured Thursday? Leave me a comment, or post a picture of you eating your favorite tapas to my Facebook page!

My Journey Back to Spain…again

My desire to live abroad was coupled only by my worries for how to make it happen. Thankfully, my study abroad office at the University of Iowa gave me the information on a relatively new program to teach English in Spanish public schools. I threw out my plan to follow my friends Matt and Brian to Ireland and began brushing up on my Spanish.

Five years later, part of my morning coffee goes to helping my readers find a way to make their dreams of sunshine and siestas a reality. One such reader, Mike, and I have been in contact for quite some time, and he’s finally decided to quit his job and apply for the Auxiliar de Conversación program that brought me here initially. Here’s his story:

Before I get started on my story, I’d like to thank Cat for being so gracious and allowing me to write a guest post as I’ve been an avid reader for a while now. Hopefully, everyone will enjoy my post as a guest author and find it helpful in whatever capacity they are looking for. I am currently applying for the auxiliar de conversación program in Spain.

However, my story begins long before me just recently pulling together my application materials.

My Story

Growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, my mom had always told me that she was forcing me to study abroad when I was in college. She had studied in Copenhagen, Denmark  and told me it was an experience that everyone needs to have. During my junior year in high school I was afforded the opportunity to go on a week-long trip through Spain with my Spanish class. It was then that I fell in love with the language, people, cuisine, and culture. I knew I would be returning to Spain at some point in my life.

A recent shot of Mike in America

When I was in college at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, I took a Spanish class during my first semester. It was extremely difficult for me, and I ended up dropping the class. I thought I was done with Spanish and did not enroll in the class again. After a couple different major changes, I found myself with a foreign language requirement that had not been met. Thinking it would be an easy class since I could remember some basic Spanish from high school, I enrolled in an Introduction to Spanish course. After the first class, my professor noticed that I was ahead of the others who had never taken Spanish before and recommended to me that I move up a few levels. I was cautious, but ultimately agreed. The higher level course was naturally more of a struggle, but it was far more rewarding as I rekindled my love of the Spanish language. Following the course, I applied, was accepted, and studied abroad in Granada, Spain for a semester in the spring of 2010.

Studying in Granada, Spain


My study abroad experience was undoubtedly the best experience of my life,  and ever since I returned to the US, I have been yearning to return to Spain. After graduation, like many people out there, I applied for a bunch of jobs and eventually was offered and accepted one. It was a desk job, doing something that I thought I may be interested in; however, it was not for me.

Mike and his host family in Granada

Since accepting the job, I have dabbled with the thought of applying to teach in Spain, but have not been fully committed to it, until now. There have been plenty of reasons that kept me from applying, primarily that my job is steady, secure and well-paidl. Essentially, it is a job that many would probably die to have, but that’s not me. It’s a job that most would imagine themselves having when they are 40 years old or mid-career professional, and I do realize that I was lucky to land in it. This has held me back from applying to teach in Spain for over a year, but I had enough. While many may die to have my job, I would die to teach in Spain.

Over the past year, I have consulted with Cat as well as anyone I could find who taught in Spain or even another country about what one needs to know before teaching abroad. It has been a huge help to me in making my decision to take the leap, so thank you for everyone for your advice. The number one piece of advice that nearly every single person echoed was that if you don’t do it, you will always regret not doing it. I truly believe this is the case because I can picture myself always regretting it and wondering “what if” had I not ever tried.

Applying for the Auxiliar Program

Once a current auxiliar directed me to the website for applying and I found it, all I could find was information for the school year 2012 – 2013 program, whereas I would be applying for the 2013-2014 program. I started to panic because I figured I was doing something wrong and simply could not find it. I thought I was missing something obvious and was going to be late in applying. I checked the website just about hourly to see if it changed or if I missed anything. Then, one day, November 5 th to be exact, there was finally an update. It said they were working on the call for applications for 2013-2014, and that the application period would open up on January 8th, 2013. It also noted the manual for the application would be posted soon. I felt an enormous sense of relief.

As for now, I have been using the 2012-2013 manual and application checklist on the website to begin to pull together my materials. I realize that some of the materials may change, but I figure this will give me a jump-start for when the application period opens. If I end up doing something that is no longer required, I’m fine with that because it’s exciting doing it since this all part of me going back to Spain to teach! The two primary pieces I am pulling together are my letter of recommendation and my statement of purpose. An applicant also needs a copy of their passport and their college transcript or diploma.

Mike hiking in Ronda (Málaga)

While waiting for my transcripts and after pulling together my statement of purpose, all I have to do is wait for the application to open and the manual to be posted. I know it’s only the middle of November, and while it said December, I am still getting anxious and still checking back just about hourly.

I hope to keep everyone updated on my journey from America’s dairyland back to Spain. While Cat and I both came from the Midwest, Chicago and Milwaukee respectively, I can imagine that our experiences will be different since a lot has changed in the five years since she first left for Spain, yet I am extremely hopeful that my experience will be just as astounding and inspiring to others as hers was and is to me.

Hasta luego.


Mike will be contributing to Sunshine and Siestas regularly until he hears from the program about his (hopeful) return to Spain. Got any questions for either of us about being an auxiliar or about how to apply to the program? Or about doing a TEFL degree? Leave us a message in the comments, or join my Facebook page for more scoop!

Seville Snapshot: The Feria de Belén

One of my favorite Christmas traditions in Spain is the nativity scene, called a belén. It also happens to be my favorite Spanish name for a girl, though I wouldn’t name my daughter after the Little Town of Bethlehem.

Again, at the risk of sounding un-American, I don’t like Christmas, either.

But the belenes, a household nativity scene, fascinate me. Tiny villages  are constructed out of figurines taking the form of primitive buildings, the Holy Family and even working mills, crops and animals. My own family has the same nativity scene under our tree that we’ve had every year – plastic Holy Family with two faceless sheep, an ox, a plastic angel that balances on a nail up top. I once told my mother I’d do the Spanish tradition of buying one new piece each year, much like I did with my American Girl Doll years back.

Seville holds an annual Feria del Belén, a month-long set-up of small, artisan stands that sell all of these tiny cattle, baskets and shepherds.

Over the years, I’ve marveled at the small effigies and menagerie of barnyard animals, but my long-distance lens caught something quite by accident just last week: the Virgen Mary nursing.

Tapa Thursdays: Mantecados de Estepa and the Despensa de Palacio

¡Pero si los mantecados no engordan! Put a few more in your purse already!” Javi stole a glance at the four estepeñas attending to the Sunday morning crowd as he loaded a few barquillos and polvorones in my purse, swearing they didn’t fatten anyone up. A sly smile crept across my face as I accepted them. Claro, no way these would make me fat.

Mantecados, the Christmastime favorite of Spaniards, was on our agenda one bright weekend morning. Ask any español to name the Ciudad del Mantecado – a crumbly cookie made of pig lard, flour, sugar and cinnamon – and, ten-to-one, they can. At just an hour’s drive from Seville, Estepa, the Mantecado City, was a tasty stop in one of the many pueblos blancos in the area.

After visiting the factory and museum at La Estepeña, the city’s most famous brand, Javi directed onto the streets of the city named after the cookie’s principle ingredients and into La Despensa de Palacio. The sprawling factory and adjacent museum are a charming homage to the city’s artisan claim to fame. The albero-colored façade had just a modest blue-and-white azulejo announcing it as a factory.

What sets La Despensa apart from the rest, aside from its celebrity clientele, is that traditional baking methods and packing are still used, and the assembly line and industrial machines used at other brands are suhnned. Ninety-five percent of the work force is women who work overtime during Christmas to knead the lard, let the flour dry, add in the sugar and cinnamon, cut the dough into rounds and later package them in wax paper with ruffled edges. What’s more, the mantecados are cooked in a traditional oven.

The quality is matched by the higher price for La Despensa’s products, which also encompasses jellies, cookies and other lard staples like polvorones and alfajores.

The store was, like any Sunday, a zoo. Old ladies elbowed their way up to the front of the line, grabbing the hardbound book of available items and pointing out what they wanted, how many kilos, and bickering with their friends about whether last year’s packaging design was better than this year’s. Their grandchildren eyed the bowl of samples on the counter as they stood on their toes to try to reach the prize. I smiled to myself while watching these Spaniards start acting as if it were an auction, eager to get their hands on the freshest surtidos.

Just then, one of the employees came through with a batch of cooled treats, topped with sesame seeds.

I couldn’t help myself from one and let the cake break apart in my fingers as I sniffed out the cinnamon that gets kneaded into the dough. Just two bites of a mantecado leave you needing a drink, so we hopped in the car and drove to Anís Bravío for a few sips of distilled anisette, the Spanish abuelo’s drink of choice.

At the end of the day, Caitlin and I were back to La Despensa with the tail end of the Sunday crowd, narrowly missing a tourism bus that had made a stop in Mantecadolandia for their fill. Taking a small plastic card with a number imprinted on it, we waited for our turn to be served.

¿Quién va?

Author’s Note: My visit to Estepa and tour of various mantecados factories was kindly offered by Violeta, Javi and their team at Heart of Andalusia. All opinions are, of course, my own.

Thanksgiving Turkeys and Triumphs

Can I admit something, at the risk of sounding like a bad American?

I never liked Thanksgiving as a kid. My mind keeps going to the hours of preparation at my grandmother’s house, clipping off the ends of green beans and trying to ignore bickering. I’d eat far too much, fall asleep watching football and feel groggy for days straight. Aside from the long weekend, I didn’t see the point of spending a whole day eating and watching TV, all in the name of spending time with family and glorifying a bird.

Then I moved away from America, to a land where cranberries, pecans and even turkeys are scarce (after all, pavo is the Spanish way of say a buck).

All of the sudden, Thanksgiving became a good excuse to get together with those closest to being my kin.

Our Thanksgiving celebrations in my ever-changing group of friends has never been just about us Americans and our traditions – we teach Spaniards about the hand turkey while drinking the garnacha-based wines (which, according to Ask.com, are the best matches for turkey!) and chattering a half a dozen languages.

Yes, I am thankful for my amoeba of culture in Seville – something that is just as much Spanish as American with a smatter of German, Mexican and everything in between.

But this year, I promised Kike a turkey, cranberry sauce and everything that my grandmother made him as breakfast last Christmas in Arizona (he no longer scoffs at my weird breakfast choices – mine is the type of family that eats waffles for dinner and cold leftovers for breakfast). He played his part by bringing back over a few cans of pumpkin and gravy mix and urged me to call on a turkey from a neighborhood carnicería. I began gathering recipes and making a rudimentary plan for how I’d make a full-on Thanksgiving dinner with one oven and two hands.

Then his dumb job sent him abroad nine days earlier than expected, effectively missing Pavo Palooza.

Still, the turkey show must go on, I thought, and I extended the offer to his mother and friend Susana again, not wanting to have to eat turkey bocadillos alone until Reyes.

I was not without challenges, from the lack of a microwave to last-minute changes in the menu due to no  fresh green beans, sage and evaporated milk in the supermarket or even a can opener from the American goodies I brought back with me. There’s a reason I’m the go-to giuri for plastic forks and wine at our parties.


Pumpkin Pie. Stuffing. Cornbread. Carrots and Garlic Green Beans. Mashed Potatoes. Gravy. Cranberry Sauce. Turkey. Tinto and Beer.

Turkey: 18,40€

Groceries not at home: 51,59€

New can opener: 5,15€

Total: 85,14€

Even the Brits I work with suggested that I start preparing a schedule ahead of time, and I did: cleaning, pie, vegetables, cornbread and stuffing on Friday, turkey and potatoes on Saturday. I was up before the sun on Saturday when I realized that the evaporated milk I’d refused to buy out of principle was going to be necessary for the pie I was too lazy to make the day before.

I wrote on Kike’s Facebook wall for our anniversary, stating that he would have enjoyed watching me fight with a ten-pound bird more than consuming it. For four hours, I set my alarm every half and hour to give the turkey a little broth bath, nervous if I hadn’t gotten all of the gizzards out or I didn’t let it cook enough inside. When my guests – Carmín, Alejandro, Susana and Inma – showed up right on time, I offered them beer and wine, and they marveled at the sudden transformation of an anti-housewife as I shooed them out of the kitchen. The only person I’d let in was Luna, my friends’ two-year-old daughter, who chowed down on cornbread and checked the status of the turkey.

In the end, the meat was cooked, no one cared that the stuffing was a bit cold and I didn’t end up with too much leftovers. We spent the afternoon laughing, telling jokes and finding places in our stomach to fit more food in. Wanting to do everything al estilo americano, I had to teach them the gravy volcano, explain that they’d probably fall asleep after consuming the turkey and look for American football games on YouTube. I felt lucky (thankful, if you will) about having friends and family who were open to trying out my holiday and easing the ache I sometimes feel for being so far away.

What Kike has got is mala suerte, heaved my beloved Doña Carmen. This food is making me think twice about American cuisine!

Seville Snapshots: Bartering at the Plaza de España

The first (and one of very, very few) feeling I ever had of notoriety was from one Cassandra Gambill, who started following my blog way back before I knew theat people were actually reading. Naturally, I was thrilled when she chose to come to Spain a few years ago and blog about, so I gladly accepted her submission from her most recent trip to Seville.

Rediscovering Sevilla after a brief trip south in 2007, I had to rectify my image of this Andalusian town. When I had originally visited, preparations for the subway system left the city dirty and dusty. Whenever I saw photos of iconic Sevilla, I couldn’t recognize them as anything I’d seen, including the beautifully tiled Plaza de España.

Even though the day was overcast when I finally made it back to Sevilla, I immediately appreciated the grandeur and color of this sophisticated square. Speaking of color, there were plenty of local characters who also made the place a feast for the eyes and ears. In this corner alone there were lovey-dovey locals, backpacking-toting tourists, a scarf-and-abanico vendor, and a wandering woman hoping to plant rosemary sprigs on unsuspecting sightseers.


Going on her third year in the Spanish capital, Cassandra Gambill is now working towards a Master’s in Bilingual Education at the Universidad de Alcalá de Henares. Her motto? Where there’s a will there’s a way, and where’s a puente, there’s a trip in the making.


You can follow Cassandra via her blog and twitter:

Blog: www.geecassandra.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/geecassandra

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