Desafío Eterno: Learning to Cook Spanish Food

I may have mastered the art of midday siestas, long lunches and dropping syllables, but Spanish cooking has always alluded me. 

A Spanish Cooking Course

Ask me to make a full turkey dinner or a kick ass pad thai? I’m all over it, but I’ve mangled even the simplest of Spanish dishes and count gazpacho and frying potatoes (or just bringing the wine) as my contribution to meals.

Resolute to prove to the Novio that I’m only good for eating and occasionally clearing up the dishes, I visited my local market for a crash-course in slow-cooking with Foodies&Tours.

Housed in the mythical Mercado de Triana, once an open-air market build in the 19th Century, Víctor and Marta set up a state-of-the-art kitchen overlooking ruins of the Castillo de San Jorge just seven months ago. I was delighted to see that they still believed in buying fresh ingredients at the market, making chicken stock from bones and leek and – gasp! – using butane tanks. 

el mercado de triana

María led us through the market that mid-week morning on a day where there were more tourists than locals snapping photos of ham legs and fins-and-all swordfish. Summer fruits were beginning to slowly engulf the avocados and pomegranates. I kept my mouth shut when María pointed out tripe and the different legumes on offer, but I couldn’t help piping up that it takes three years to adequately cure the hind leg of an acorn-fed pig (blame my pork-loving in-laws for that!).

Spanish food has recently become the darling of international cuisine thanks to innovative chefs putting a spin on age-old traditions. After all, the wealth of fresh ingredients from the Mediterranean diet and a dedication to simplistic yet layered flavors have made this gastronomy healthy, comforting and delicious – and this means that food tours and gastronomic experiences are booming all over Spain.

Taller Andaluz de Cocina in the Triana market

I was joined by another American woman, a group of Filipina women on a big Euro trip, a curious couple from Singapore and newlyweds hailing from Australia. It was just right for everyone to put their manos a la obra.

Back at the kitchen, chef Víctor was washing metal bowls and our ingredients were put on display. I may not cook myself, but I do make most of the grocery store runs and can recite dishes based on their ingredients! From the ripe vine tomatoes and day-old bread, I knew we’d be making salmorejo and assumed that crowd-favorite paella would be on offer. A large bowl of raw spinach meant espinacas con garbanzos.

modern kitchen of Taller Andaluz de Cocina

I found a cutting board and apron between Denise from New York and the cooking surface as Víctor laid out the menu. We began with the creamy tomato-based salmorejo: coarsely chopping tomatoes, peeling thin skin off of the purple garlic bulbs and learning not to be stingy with extra virgin olive oil. Apart from turning on a blender and liquifying its contents, I let my classmates take over.

I once again stepped aside to allow other guests to learn how to steam the raw spinach and make a sofrito, preferring to sip on wine and do some more chopping – I have the Novio at home to show me how to quarter a chicken for stock. Instead, I probed Víctor on his background, his favorite places to eat in Seville and the Spanish brands he is loyal to.

learning to make salmorejo

Many of my classmates were used to the flash cooking styles of Asian cuisine, so turning down the heat and turning up the flavor combinations was a welcome departure as we dipped small tasting spoons into everything we’d created. A fan of Asian food himself, Víctor stressed the important of low heat and long wait times.

I’ve always said that my biggest hurdle to learning to make Spanish dishes is patience. A Spanish chef confirmed it.So we waited, slowly stirring the chicken stock and sofritos.

salmorejo cordobés

Three hours later, the paella had finished soaking up chicken stock, the beer has been poured and we were ready to eat. While the sobremesa – mealtime chat – wasn’t as lively as my finca experience in Málaga, the workshop was more hands on. In fact, there was little more chatter than ‘mmmmm’ as we tucked in and Víctor prepared us a palate cleanser.

The cumin in the spinach with chickpeas, the laced leek in the paella and a tinge of garlic translated through the other tastes, a clear sign that we’d done something right under watchful eyes.

Espinacas con Garbanzos (Spinach with Chickpeas)
Print
Ingredients
  1. 900g (30 oz) fresh spinach
  2. 150 g
  3. (5-6 oz.) chickpeas
  4. 1 medium size onion
  5. 1-2 garlic cloves, chopped into slices
  6. peeled crushed tomatoes
  7. cumin, salt and sherry vinegar to taste
  8. olive oil
  9. stale white bread.
Instructions
  1. Add 4-5 spoons of olive oil into a large frying pan, fry garlic on a low heat to caramelize. Set aside
  2. Dice and fry the bread and then add to the garlic in a mortar and pestle with a pinch of salt and a pinch of cumin. Crush together and add a tablespoon of water to make paste.
  3. Boil the spinach for 5 minutes and set aside.
  4. In the same pan as before, fry the chopped onion with a pinch of salt until it's caramelized.
  5. Add 5-6 spoons of crushed tomatoes and cook for 2 minutes.
  6. Next add the boiled spinach, the bread paste, a pinch of salt, cumin to taste and a spoon of sherry vinegar.
  7. Finally stir in the chickpeas, mix well and cook until the liquid reduces.
  8. Season with salt and cumin to taste.
Sunshine and Siestas http://sunshineandsiestas.com/
 Did I personally learn any new kitchen tricks? I suppose, but a blast of Saharan heat has had me out of the kitchen and even skipping dinner these last few weeks. The one thing that still rings true is my devotion to Spanish food and everything that goes into it – fresh ingredients, bursts of flavor and the sobremesa chatter.

Have you ever done a cooking course or food tour? Read about A Cooking Day, Devour Barcelona and Devour Seville food experiences. 

Visiting Seville on Two Wheels: a Bike Tour through the City’s Main Sites

My first moment of consciousness was fragrant – the orange blossoms outside my window were finally in bloom, and I could smell spring wafting in between the persianas.

I deliberately left my jacket hanging on a dining room chair, breathing in the azahar and the sizzle off of the pavement as I crossed Triana towards the center of town. On the eve of Holy Week, I would be touring my city on my favorite form of transportation besides my own two feet. 

take a bike tour in Seville

Given that Seville is Spain’s most bike-friendly city and one of the European leaders in two-wheel transportation, it was only a matter of time before cycling tours caught on in the Andalusian capital. Andalucía Tours and Discovery had written me in November to invite me on a tour, and I was finally able to take them up on the offer on the first true day of spring.

Before moving to Europe, I imagined buying an antique bike with a wicker basket and doing my shopping  – a flaky baguette, a dozen apples and fresh cut flowers – by cycling. In reality, I use my bike Feliciano to get to and from work, often arriving sweaty and panting.

Seville Bike City

When I arrived, I was immediately surrounded by around a dozen Dutch tourists (I can’t make this stuff up!), adjusting their bikes in front of ATD’s bike and segway warehouse. I jumped at the chance to leave my rickety bike behind and use one with full tires, fully-functioning brakes and a bell that hadn’t been stolen. Rosalie helped me get my bike adjusted to my height and urged me to have a quick ride around to make sure everything was in tip-top shape.

Andalucia Tours and Discovery Bike Rentals

As someone who sticks to bike lanes whenever possible, I was wary to ride on the streets and sidewalks, especially in such a large group. But them group’s founder, Carlos, had another plan for me: we took off down Santas Patronas, using a pedestrian shortcut to pick up four lost Dutch women and deliver them to the tour group, which had already crossed the Triana bridge.

Bike Tour El Arenal Sevilla

Bike Tour Torre del Oro

The tour was in Dutch and German, so Carlos tagged along to conduct what felt like a private tour. In Plaza del Altozano, he gave me a challenge: ¿Qué no sabes de Sevilla?

As it turned out, plenty. We rode through the narrow alleyways of my neighborhood and he peppered in anecdotes and lore, from architecture to origins.  I continue signing up for tours of my adopted home town for this very reason – a city with more than 2000 years of history is full of secrets.

Bike Tour Barrio Santa Cruz Sevilla

Carlos kept me in good company – as a former school teacher himself, he knows how to keep a crowd entertained – and our conversation drifted from history to Spain’s political climate and everything that has changed in the seven years I’ve been a resident and the seven years he’s owned a small business. In a city whose tourism business is booming, Carlos is ethical and innovative, looking for clients in their own countries and doing things 100% by the book – a far cry in a city whose political corruption is glaringly evident at times.

Tour por bici en Sevilla

Bike Tour Sevilla Patio de las Banderas

Winding through the historic center and the palcos set out for the upcoming processions, we ended up in Patio de las Banderas, sandwiched between Barrio Santa Cruz and the Alcázar palace.

“Do you smell that?” he asked, pointing his nose towards the line of orange trees that had just begun to bloom. “Huelva has the light, Granada has the sights, but Seville is all about the smells.” I breathed in more, immediately sneezing. Spring in Seville is a double-edged sword for allergy-prone people like me.

Carlos pointed out places for me to take a picture of myself with the bike. I was already half a step ahead of him and handing my camera over.

Bike Tour group photo

Nearing the end of the tour, the guide brought us to a bar near Plaza de España to partake in another local pastime: having a drink. The Dutch ladies who had been lost before asked me inquisitively about how it was that I’d ended up in Sevilla.

While that’s a loaded question, I kept it simple: the weather, the cheap beer, and the fact that I can commute to work by bike.

Barrio Santa Cruz Sevilla

A tour on bike is perfect for anyone active, and especially recommendable if you’ve only got a day to see the city’s main sites and want to learn a little bit about them. The tours last around 3.5 hours, can be categorized as easy exercise and costs 25€, 19€ for students, with rental, tour, insurance and a drink included. Find out more about their tours and cultural activities on ATD’s website.

Have you ever been on a cycling tour on your travels?

In the spirit of full disclosure, ATD offered me a free tour. The awkward tanlines and opinions are all my own.

Four Great Mobile Apps for Keeping in Touch Back Home (and free talk time giveaway!)

When I studied abroad in 2005, my host family didn’t have internet. If I wanted to check in with my family back in Chicago, I’d have to walk down the street to the locutorio and buy credit for a pay phone.

Nine years later, Telefónica’s green and blue phone booths are but an icon of the past and everyone seems to be glued to their smartphones. Ever since breaking down and getting one in 2011, I’ve been able to keep in touch with my family and friends back home far more easily, sending photos and videos of the Feria de Abril to just about everyone in my contacts list!

If you’ve got a smart phone, you have a wealth of apps to help you connect with your loved ones (or just make them jealous of the cheap prices of wine):

Whatsapp

Whatsapp took Spain by storm a few years back, as it was one of the first free messaging services that used wi-fi or 3G for texting. 

To be honest, I have a love-hate relationship with Whatsapp. It’s so great on paper – texts, photo and video sharing, and you can even share your location. But nothing beats a phone call.

Anyway,  the first year is free, and then you have to start paying, but it’s worth it for group chats, sharing, and not freaking out at your phone bill!

Get it! Android | iOS

Postagram

As a proponent of still sending snail mail from time to time, I think postagram is fun and pretty much genius. This app allows you to send a picture right from your phone in real postcard form for the same price as it would cost to send it by mail yourself – you just save the trip to the post office (aka the waiting room of doom in Spain) and what you send is more personalized! What’s more, you get 140 characters – just like a tweet – to send a message.

Get it! Android | iOS

Snapchat

I have to admit that I love snap chat. Originally created (in my mind) for teens to send gross pictures of themselves, I love getting shots of my friends on coffee runs or in beer gardens, or of my niece, Bounder the Mutt.

What snapchat does is it sends 10-second videos or photos to the contact(s) of your choice, which are then deleted and take up no space in your phone’s memory. There’s also a new chat feature where you can hold down the record button and have some face time with your amiguitos back home.

Get it! Android | iOS

toolani 

Move over, Skype and Viber – toolani has just blown my mind. 

After struggling to hear my family on Skype because of a nagging delay and loads of dropped calls, I needed to look for a new way to do our weekly calls. Most Sundays, I’m out having lunch or at a Betis game, making it hard to coincide with my family. toolani works as a phone filter that doesn’t need an internet connection to make cheap international calls – dialing the US cost less than $0,02 a minute! 

With toolani, you can call and text about 150 countries, and your contacts are automatically loaded onto its server. The app also allows you to buy more credit easily.

Just last week I called my family to catch up for cheaper than calling their landlines, as well as shot the breeze with my friends at Jets Like Taxis, who are currently in Austria. Not only were the calls well-priced, but the call quality was top-notch, and there was no delay.

Giveaway!

I’ve partnered with toolani to bring you guys free talk time on their service. There are 100 free vouchers available for Sunshine and Siestas readers with the code toolsunshine. Download their free app and present the code at checkout, and you can talk with people around the world. 

The voucher code is available for you guys from today, May 16th, until Saturday, May 30th. toolani is compatible with both smartphones and iPhones in just about every corner of the globe!

If you like the service, consider connecting with toolani on Facebook or twitter, or surprising one of your friends back home with a call!

What other apps are on your phones?

FluentU – Learning Spanish Through Video

The best day in high school Spanish class was “La Catrina” day. Profe would stockpile those episodes freshman year until she had absolutely no willpower against nearly 30 teenagers with made-up Spanish names (and the popular girls fighting over who got to be Margarita this year). Videos and songs brought Hispanic culture and language to life for me (and MI BISABUELA was our comeback for all of high school).

As a language teacher myself, I’ve found that my students tend to engage whenever technology is involved – no overhead projectors in Spanish classrooms! Anything related to videos and listening has their ears perked up, and I’m always impressed when my FCE students tell me they’ve watched a program in English or translated songs and picked up a few new words.

Before coming to Spain, I checked out loads of books in Spanish, as well as films, to up my español game. Now that online learning has become so big, there are loads of cool ways to brush up while sitting at your computer. I recently tried a new Beta version of FluentU, a wildly successful company whose video training in Mandarin Chinese is now tackling the world’s second most spoken language.

Using authentic videos, audio scripts and flashcards, FluentU tracks your progress and suits all levels of language learning.

Lo que me gustó (What I liked)

From novato to native: Right off the bat, FluentU asks you what level you are, giving a sound description of what your language abilities are at each level. I chose Native since I’ve already got a C1 DELE degree, and the software recommended word lists and videos suited for advanced learners.

Videos for every taste: FluentU has videos about everything and anything – from politics to culture to human interest stories and songs. When I checked out some of the videos at lower levels, it was clear which grammar and tense concepts they were drilling – I loved that there was even a Jarabe de Palo song to teach the usage of the adjective ‘bonito’!

Manageable chunks according to level: The videos were an appropriate length for level, and you can hover over the subtitles under the video to see the definition and pronunciation for each word. The video stops, so you won’t miss anything.

Tracking progress: Language learning builds upon prior knowledge, so the FluentU software tells you how much of a video you should be able to understand, based on videos and word lists you’ve already done. There are also quizzes and you can create your own study lists, making it easy to see how far you’ve come.

Lo que se puede mejorar (What can be improved)

Native level: Not to fanfarronear or anything, but apparently my Spanish is considered native level already. I didn’t run across any unknown words, but chalk that up to the focus being for newbies. There was also a lack of the Castellano accent in upper levels: Most of the videos in the upper levels are reserved for a South American accent, and I didn’t hear any from Spain. There were a few at lower levels, however.

Speaking is absent: Speaking is one of the most important language skills (and often the hardest to master), and this sort of learning doesn’t lend well to strengthening them. Your vocabulary and listening skills will probably grow, but you’ll need to practice oral expression another way.

Want to try it for yourself? FluentU is offering 30 SandS readers the chance to test drive their new Spanish version for free! If you’ll be coming to Spain for the language assistants program, this is an awesome way to brush up on your listening skills and learn a few phrases before jetting to Spain. You just need to provide your email address! You’ll have until April 25th to sign up, using the rafflecopter widget below, and leaving a blog post comment. 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

How did you learn Spanish? Would you like online learning? If you’re looking to learn Spanish in Seville, Madrid or Barcelona, get in touch!

FluentU allowed me to use their software for free for two weeks, but todas las opiniones son mine.

A Cooking Day in Málaga: Preparing Spanish Dishes in Andalucía

Spain is a country that’s easy to get lost in. I don’t mean the culture or the romanticism – I mean, GPS systems are absolute crap, and it’s easier to end up on the wrong road than it is to arrive to your destination calmly and on time.

Stuck in our constant chatter, Mickey and I missed our exit, had a local forget we were following him to Almogía, and ended up on a dirt road. I called Mayte, one of the women behind A Cooking Day, and she told me she hadn’t heard of the town we’d just driven through.

“There will be wine,” Mickey soothed. “There is always wine on a Spanish table. Don’t stress.”

 As it turned out, we were in Mayte’s driveway, but wouldn’t find that out before turning around again. But Mickey was right –  as soon as we’d sat down in the airy courtyard of her country house, dripping with Bougainvillea and antique lanterns, I felt at ease and over my road rage.

Mayte and Keti announced the menu before anyone had been introduced – ajoblanco, a citrus salad with cod and spring onions, fideuà and quince pastries, plus homemade bread. As with any Spanish weekend meal, we’d snack our way through the process, eating olives they’d marinated and malagueño cheese with homemade fig marmalade.

Prepping our meal

After meeting fellow blogger Robin Graham and his partner, as well as locals Ute and Sergio, wicker baskets were distributed and we went into the small huerto to pick fruit. Oranges, persimmons, figs and lemons are ripe at this time of year, and we’d be using several in our recipes.

Once back in the house, we donned aprons. Robin and I set to peeling shrimp while Mickey and Sergio pounded almonds using an iron mallet and a stone, a traditional method. As an American used to my fish coming headless and my chicken breasts cleaned, it was refreshing to know that we were truly making farm to fork food.

Mayte’s kitchen is spacious and modern, blended seamlessly into a century-old farmhouse that’s full of interesting pieces from her travels around the world. She and Keti, a longtime friend, set up the cooking classes in both English and Spanish earlier this year. They cater groups of two to just six, ensuring that everyone will get their hands dirty.

There would be blanching, chopping and stirring, but not without a glass of Rioja and a few stolen almonds.

Making our Food

First up? Kneading the bread and preparing it to rise. Mine refused to cooperate with me, and coupled with my lack of kitchen skills, I was toast. Ha. The day was a bit damp, causing the bread to need more time to bake and rise. I took another sip of beer.

We focused on the ajoblanco next, peeling away the case and chopping garlic – it was a dish I’d surprisingly not tried before. Mayte dumped everything into the blender and turned it on, and we were sipping it a short time later between nibbles of our baked bread and organic olive oil (Mayte’s recipe is below).

As we peeled the oranges we picked and chopped them, along with the ripe spring onions, the shrimp shells we’d discarded and the monkfish boiled in separate pots to serve as brother for the fideuà noodle dish that would be our main plato

Keti showed us a family secret – frying the noodles with a bit of oil and garlic so that they’d not get too hard later. As a last-minute addition, we made a simple alioli sauce of egg whites, garlic and olive oil to accompany this traditional noodle dish that resembles paella. 

La sobremesa

Nearing 4 o’clock, we  sat down to eat. The fireplace crackled as Mayte served us the salad. While I didn’t think I’d be too keen on mixing salted cod with oranges and onions, the malagueña salad was surpassingly good and felt layered, despite its simplicity.

Our bellies were happy and in good company around the table. Sobremesa is a Spanish term that refers to the conversation and camaraderie that always seems to happen around a table. In fact, the work for striking up a conversation is entablar, which perfectly encompasses sobremesa chat. I chose to bring Mickey because I knew she’d be right at home. Like me, she loves wine, food and good conversation.

As Keti finished the fideuà, we drank up, a rich Rioja that blended well with all of the flavors on the table. The noodles were cooked perfectly, creamy and with the right amount of flavor. Again, I was taken back at how flavorful something so simple could taste.

The Takeaway

For someone who loves food and dabbles in cooking, the outing was a fun was to spend a day. We rolled up our sleeves and got to see the process through, from picking the fresh fruit to taking the quince pastries out of the oven. Perhaps by my own election and in the name of art (and Camarón), I didn’t cook as much as I expected.

Mayte and Keti are personable, helpful and patient, and they make great company. I appreciated that they came up with a menu that pleased palates from five different countries and our two vegetarian counterparts, and the food was simple enough to repeat, yet filling and delicious.

Ajoblanco
Print
Ingredients
  1. 150g almonds
  2. 2 cloves of garlic
  3. 2 slices of bread (crust optional)
  4. 1/2 glass of extra virgin olive oil
  5. 1 litre of water
  6. salt and white wine vinegar to taste
Instructions
  1. Blanch the almonds blanching hot water until the skin peels off easily. Peel and chop the garlic cloves into fine bits. Soak the bread in water to soften it, then break it apart into smaller pieces. Put everything in the blender with the olive oil, a bit of vinegar and salt, and blend until you get a fine paste, adding some water if necessary. Add a litre of water and the salt and vinegar to taste.
Notes
  1. Tip: day-old bread works best for this recipe.
Adapted from Adapted from A Cooking Day Blog
Sunshine and Siestas http://sunshineandsiestas.com/
 Mickey and I were gracious guests of Mayte and Keti of A Cooking Day, but all opinions belong to me. A Cooking Day is available to speakers of English, Spanish or French for 50€ a head, which includes the materials, food and drink, plus company. Mayte’s cortijo is located just off the A-7, right outside of Málaga. For more information, consult their website.

Picking Winter Fruit in Southern Spain

In the winter months, citrus fruits, figs, mushrooms and chestnuts are ripe and ready to be picked. Olive oil harvests begin, and crops like pumpkins, avocados and leeks begin to pop up in supermarkets.

As a kid growing up in the icy Midwest, we’d often have raspberry and tomato plants, which only came around in the summertime. My grandpa lived in Orange County and would send us navel oranges as holiday gifts – without fail, there’s always one at the very bottom of our stockings on Christmas morning.

Coming from a country that pumps horomones into everything we consume, Spain is a breath of fresh air. Horomone-free, that is. I have learned to live with seasonal products. Strawberries comes in the early spring, sardines are best eaten in the months without an R in the name, and tomatoes are available year-round, thanks to greenhouses in nearby Los Palacios. Winter means fig jam, roasted chestnuts and zucchini soup.

As part of our day in the malgueño countryside, Mickey and I searched a small orchard for the ripest figs, lemons, and oranges. Honeybees continued to flit around the fruit that had fallen to the ground and smashed open. Sergio crushed a few ripe olives, showing us how oil was traditionally extracted from Southern Spain’s star crop. Mayte explained how to pick the best fruit, which had been victim to little rain this year.

Later that day, our hand-picked lemons would dress up our fideuà, the oranges formed the base of a fresh salad with spring onions and cod, and the fleshy part of the figs were devoured, turning our lips red.

My experience at A Cooking Day was offered to me for free by Mayte and Kety. My opinions, and the extra calories, are all mine.

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