Monday, January 24, 2011

Royal Palace, San Miguel Market - Madrid

Day 3

The Emperor’s Old Clothes: Do the drapes match the carpet? Well, indeed they do. But what was really impressive about Madrid’s Royal Palace was that the furniture in every room matched the fabric…on the walls. Yes, the walls were upholstered - opulence beyond words. Endless square footage stretched out to more than 300 rooms, most retaining their own theme: the throne room (equipped with royal seating, of course), music room, gala dining room, etc. In the former dressing room of the King, some kid behind us said, “That means the King was naked in here.” I like the way you like kid…the naked King room. Although most of the walls were swathed in fabric, a couple of places like the porcelain room, made entirely of tile, and the royal pharmacy, still stocked with glass bottles as if someone might walk up to fill a prescription, brought a surreal glance into everyday life a couple hundred of years ago.

Market Crash: As gusty winds blew us like giant maple leaves across the Palatial plaza, we rushed back to the warming arms of San Miguel Market, conveniently within walking distance and swaddling us in the comfort of a childhood blankie.

Brrr…baby, it was cold outside. That’s why it was so disappointing to hear they were out of the escarole/white bean/chorizo soup I had coveted the day before. But I was coming around to the idea of steaming empanadas and spinach/potato croquettes with a side of freshly sliced jamon. More cheese, more olives, more wine and then we washed it all down with enough dessert to get our hearts pumping for the walk back - my kind of energy boost.

Shop talk: It’s a curl, it’s a mane…it’s Super Afro! The shop across the street from the market was also worth a pop-in with vibrant canvases and inventive T-shirts, plus their window touted a superhero who spoke to my own curly-haired brand of heroism.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Bencotto - San Diego

I’d been chomping at the bit to check out this little known place in Little Italy getting big talk. The Ferrari of Italian restaurants flaunted floor to ceiling windows and streamlined silver railings, welcoming us to the minimalist sleekness that was Bencotto. Even with reservations, we were tucked into a tiny table next to the entrance, so I asked if we could move upstairs and with a nod of the head, we found ourselves reveling in a birds-eye view from the romantic roost above.

Calamari: Tender bites of squid swam in spicy, red broth and earned my respect - good calamari is hard to find.

Caesar salad: I knew there was a problem when I saw the size of the bowl, or should I say the fish bowl. The Ferrari was overcompensating and hoped volume would distract from taste...sorry, not this girl. Caesar salad had become my Holy Grail of Greens – I was on the eternal search for rare excellence and had yet to find it in San Diego. The enormity of the salad only magnified crummy croutons, lack of fresh parmesan and bland dressing.

Gnocchi: I loved the idea of picking my own sauce (from a choice of eight) and the ability to mix and match them with a separate list of pastas. Gorgonzola stuffed gnocchi, the size of silver dollars (and as heavy as one) were ok, but the Bencotto sauce – pink sauce with pancetta – could be slathered on a shoe and still seem flawless.

Ravioli: I’ve got pretty strong opinions about raviolis because my family used to make homemade ones for the holidays and Bencotto’s proved a bit dense in the dough. The Bolognese sauce tasted as if it had been cooked down a few hours too long, but for as long as it seemed to have been on the stove, there was an absence of depth - very one note…and that note was flat.

Dessert was the final disaster. Doesn’t semifreddo mean half cold? Because this was definately half and half...half freezer burned and half rock solid. The tiramisu was all cream, no cake and a whole lotta cocoa goin’ on.

Waterboy: You would think this kid was getting paid by the drop. I was afraid to take a sip that he might see and rush over for the twentieth time. I admire your attention to detail kid, but if you like water so much, go jump in a lake.

Second chances, new orders: My criticisms may seem a bit harsh, but let me add this:

1) There was warmth here beneath the cool exterior and it was already drawing me back like a neighborhood diner where I would be comfortable enough to come in and order “my usual”. The owner was constantly on the floor, checking tables and teaching his staff with fatherly benevolence, passing on his skill set to the next generation and truly enjoying the process. There was heart here…it just missed a beat now and then.

2) We decided not to order the delicacy I had been dying to try…gnocco fritto = fried pasta. Served with paper-thin proscuitto from their fire-engine-red slicers, my appetite's alarm had been sounding since we sat down and that fire had yet to be put out. Next time, "gnocco fritto" would be the first words out of my mouth (and the first thing in it).

3) Affordable: apps, entrees and dessert for about $80 total. Quite the deal and understandably why they’re so packed - comfort food at a nice price.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Puerto del Sol, San Miguel Market - Madrid

Day 2 (cont'd)
Plaza Plodding: A mariachi band played us into Puerto del Sol, the city's central square bordered by shops and eateries – were we in Spain or Mexico? Either way it was a warm welcome, and we were getting warmer…to finding the legendary pastry shop on the plaza’s edge.

We came upon a place reminiscent of the witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel with delectable scenes lit up like Macy’s window displays at Christmas.

Inside brimmed with a chaos close to that of the Stock Market floor…trading their share of ├ęclairs.Two confectionery cases lined either side of the alley where patrons bowled their way through, hailing a cherry danish with as much determination as hailing a cab. One taste and the commotion made sense. Even Rumpelstiltskin would be impressed with their ability to spin butter into pastry. Mom’s cross between a croissant and turnover brought “ooze” (of chocolate) and ahhs, while Jon ordered a creampuff big enough to make our faces disappear behind each bite.

This little piggy went to market: Trying to purge pangs of glucose gluttony, we continued trekking along and passed through Plaza Mayor to discover one of my tip-top trip tips – San Miguel Market. This culinary campground housed endless rows of vendors integrating every food group.

Never had I’d seen vegetables so surreally vibrant, enough to make me want to reach out and grab them…I guess that’s why there’s a sign that said, “No touching”.

Whether it was the prior pastries or just food fantasy overload, I became a child on a sugar high, jutting my head in between coats, gobbling each edible prize with my eyes before turning and running amuck through the crowd again.

Fish flirted. Tapas teased. Olives ogled (who needed some branch to bring peace? These would do). And apparently pigs could fly because I had just entered...

Jamon Heaven: Sometimes you’ve got to take the bull by the horns, but I’d much rather grab the Jamon by the hoof…now this was rustic. A skilled butcher skinned paper thin slices right off the whole leg. I’m talking hoof and all, held in a metal contraption that extended a leggy invitation.

Jamon = the Boogeyman of Spain. It’s in every window, it’s behind every corner, it’s under your bed…you cannot get away from Jamon! But it is your friend, especially the Iberico variety, a region known for hocking quality hams.

Public Picnic: Seating was an issue, but who cared if I could splash around with a glass of wine while choosing my first bite…the mini-kebob with fresh mozzarella, tomato and pesto would do – let the feasting begin!

The four of us met up in the center and stood at a bar-height table with everyone else who managed to elbow their way in. The few stools provided were like a cruel game of musical chairs, but we were more focused on feeding.

All of us had gone in different directions - I headed to the cheese stand for an assorted sampler, Jon went for fish tapas, Mom hit the olive counter (stuffed with everything imaginable – garlic, cheese, peppers, etc). And Bubba hoofed it over to the Jamon.

We gorged and grabbed from each other’s plates, full again, but we’d only scratched the surface. Other market items we coveted:

Croquettes (spinach, mushrooms, cheese)
Soup (escarole, chorizo, white bean and escargot chowder)
Fish, fish and more fish (tapas, whole fish, smoked fish)
Ice cream/gelato
Pastries (cookies, meringues)
Fresh potato chips

And that’s just what I can remember. Weekends here were almost too mobbed, but come once…and you’ll probably be part of that mob.

**most photos courtesy of Mom Alkema

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Prado Museum - Madrid

Day 2
The Prado was in walking distance from our apartment and happened to be rocking a Renoir exhibit, but the museum’s overall focus was dark, highlighting Goya’s morbid depictions and endless rows of creepy crucifixions.

Worth a stop, but the park outside painted a much more interesting picture with characters like King Neptune who blew his conch shell (for a tip, of course)...

...and the two-manned statue that turned out to be real.

Street performers were in every plaza, all working their own angle on how to make a Euro.

**photos courtesy of Mom Alkema

Friday, January 14, 2011

“Stepping In” on the town - Madrid, Spain

Day 1 (cont'd):
Mo’ Mojitos: My favorite activity is moseying around a new city and stepping in here or there for a quick nip or nibble. Our next “step-in” was at the bar, La Solera where wise cracks were quipped from wine casks turned tables and olives were served with our much stronger mojitos.

The bathrooms left the mark of a more rowdy joint with graffiti scrawled over every stall, so when Bubba and I ventured back here again after 11pm and it had morphed into a smoky den with music videos flashing above the bar, it all made sense.

Yay for Paella: Bubba stopped us in front of a low-key restaurant, Meson Cardena, crowded with locals - always a good sign. Ceramic, tiled walls were broken up with photos of matadors and various animal heads (the wild boar’s hair could have used a deep conditioning...)

(...and the coat rack of upturned deer’s hooves was a bit disturbing).

But we were immediately greeted by a plate of pasta salad that was surprisingly flavorful for its ordinary components – krab, onion, pepper and white beans - nothing but compliments for this complimentary starter.

For drinks, we switched from mojitos to sangria = best decision ever. Best decision ever = best sangria ever. Was that a cinnamon stick floating around in there? This brought the same spiciness of mulled wine and put fruit in the background so it wasn’t sickly sweet, as some sangrias can be. What was the secret to their house blend? Well, the woman behind the counter was marrying various wines into one bottle and that might have had something to do with it – genius. Waste not, wine not.

And even though we got a couple of dirty looks while inquisitively eyeing our neighbors’ spoils, we decided paella was king here. Pretty as a picture and good enough to eat, yellow rice offset the brilliance of red crayfish and sleek, black mussels. Tender, tiny clams made me happy as one and we fell back from the table content.

Street serenade: If New York is the city that never sleeps, then they have some competition because not only does Madrid stay wide awake, but this city sings…at the top of their lungs at 4am. But getting serenaded by drunken Spaniards was another pleasant reminder that I was a stranger in a strange land and I planned on embracing all that encompassed. Perhaps belting a few bars of Springsteen out the window would help me assimilate quicker…

**animal head photos courtesy of Mom Alkema

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Madrid – Stranger in a Strange Land

Viva la Spain! Our layover in Newark allowed us to coordinate times so that we caught the same plane as Bubba’s mom and step-dad. It was a family affair – all of us were on our way to see my sister-in-law sing opera in Sevilla, so we decided to spend a few days in Madrid before we took the train to meet her. It had been a bit of a debacle getting to our apartment. But who cared? Because even I was about to puke from the taxi looping in lost circles and heaved to breathe beneath an army of luggage, I was here.

Jetlag drugged every last one of us, but after a nap and shower, we finally got that shot of adrenaline that only visiting a foreign land can give. Immediately taken out of our bubble, not only with the language barrier, but also our loss of cell phones, made me giddy with the notion of becoming invisible while remaining alive and well.

Day 1 – Madrid: Tapas, Jamon and Mojitos, oh my!

Our first place was first rate to get our mouth’s mindset ready for a city of small portions. Miranda’s patrons smoked and chatted quietly, wedged between wooden tables stacked close together, making it hard to find a seat for four. Our waitress was patient with us, as we communicated by pointing and grateful smiles, leaving the first taste of Spain in our mouths with language rather than food.

A platter of neatly wrapped tapas reminding me more of Asian appetizers were followed by smoked salmon on rounded bread similar to a toasted bagel without the hole – decent, if not a bit boring. But then they brought the jamon for our first of many meetings with the country’s most beloved mascot.

Jamon: No, this isn’t what Michael Jackson shouts while grabbing his crotch, but instead a delightful cured meat close to proscuitto. If you’re a leg man, Spain is the place to be, if you’re a vegetarian, not so much. Jamon gams hang in every window like edible curtains and it seemed everyone owned their own pork leg…I could see myself living here.

Our “firsts” didn’t end with the jamon as we lifted our first Mojitos to toast our first sip on our first night in Madrid…and then we went on to have seconds.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Coronado Brewing Company - San Diego

Brew Ha-Ha
You can’t beat the Del for a drink or two, but around the holidays it’s a nuthouse (ice skating + palm trees = swarm), so we stuck closer to the harbor, walking along the water and stopping on the way for some lunch-time libations at the Coronado Brewing Company.

Orange Ave beer: Its hue matched its name, and its name matched its fruitiness. Light and crisp, this citrus sipper was 5.5% alcohol. Who says you need to guzzle OJ for vitamin C? This would cure what ales you.

Grilled mahi tacos: fresh, well-seasoned and best because my healthy choice of grilled fish left no guilt when hula-hooping onion rings around my tongue.

Buffalo chicken pizza: surprisingly tasty for an east coast pizza snob like me. Nothing to write home about and the crust could use some work, but the chicken was beautifully cooked breast meat, juicy and blanketed by melted cheese and the crunch of red onion for one well-balanced bite.

Lowdown: Relaxed and affordable, raised wooden rafters, open windows and fresh ingredients on bar-food favorites.

Holiday Happenings

Christmas Eve
Our annual dinner at the Yarlings (the Ricardo to our Mertz) meant an exquisitely set table, cheese boards gorged with Gouda, sliced proscuitto and a ball of Burrata mozzarella nestled next to bread, figs and olives. After a dirty martini, we settled down to dine for a classic menu of surf & turf.

Grilled shrimp marinated in white wine and worchestire gave the rare gift of correrctly cooked crustaceans. They lingered in that fleeting moment between raw and rubbery that's almost impossible to attain.

Dinner was rounded out with filet mignon as thick as novels, grilled asparagus, mashed potatoes and a famous hand-whisked, brown sauce of Julia Child's that almost gave Tiff carpal tunnel, but was worth every earthy, wine-based layer. We washed it down with a magnum of Malbec…Merry almost Christmas!

Christmas Brunch
Pajama wearing and gluttonous feasting were staples for Christmas brunch at our place and by now we had it down like clockwork. Our two go-to dishes were flawless for feeding a large group and the best part was they were both made the night before, so my only job Christmas morning would be turning on the oven:

Sausage strata
6 slices white bread 2 cups shredded Swiss cheese
2 lbs bulk sausage 6 eggs beaten
2 tbsp dry mustard 3 cups half & half
½ cup chopped onion ½ tsp of each: salt & pepper

Trim crusts off bread and place in bottom of greased, 9x13 pan. Brown and strain sausage, stir in mustard and spoon over bread. Sprinkle cheese and onion over sausage. Mix rest of ingredients and pour over top. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Cook at 350 degrees for 30 min.

Caramelized French Toast*
1 loaf day-old French baguette 1 cup milk
1 cup light brown sugar 5 eggs ¼ cup half & half
¼ lb butter 1 tsp vanilla

Melt butter, mix with sugar and pour in baking dish. Slice bread ¼ inch thick and arrange in pan. Mix remaining ingredients and pour over bread. Refrigerate overnight. Bake at 33 degrees for 50 min and flip bread pieces halfway through (so both sides caramelize). Sift powered sugar on top (I usually double the recipe when I have 6 or more people).

Finishing touches: We also got a spiral ham that Bubba glazed in mustard and brown sugar, along with an array of homemade Christmas cookies from Jersey. All of our brunch bases were covered, including beverages - mimosas, coffee and sparkling grapefruit soda.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Celebrating 2011 with (all) Purpose (flour)

New Year’s Eve Resolutions

I was ready to ring in the New Year and who says you have to wait until January first to start making changes? So I decided to begin my ritual of resolutions on New Year's Eve.

1) Work on vocabulary: You say potato, I say spectacular spud. Doused with butter, cream and cheddar, this sassy starch became the "soup-er" star of the evening.

2) Eat more greens: As long as they’re caramelized in the oven with olive oil, sprinklings of salt and sugar, topped with parmesan and served with a slab of prime rib.

3)Exercise more: For some reason it just doesn’t feel like a workout when you're dressed in silver pants and in the middle of a dance-off. XBOX Dance Central is my new best friend. I’m already feeling the burn…of getting served!