Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Random observations about Spanish food

Random observations about Spanish food.

Years ago, after my first extended stay in Spain, I was elated to discover that right in my home town was a Spanish restaurant. I called them up and asked what I thought was a reasonable question: Do you guys serve cocido? I got a frosty silence followed by an acerbic “we serve Spanish cuisine here.”

To me, real Spanish cooking is exemplified by cocido, not by cuisine. Here’s some random thoughts about some Spanish dishes.

Tortilla. When I lived in Spain some 20 years ago, the country had still not discovered the microwave. Tortilla was served at room temperature. So that has forever been locked into my mind as the way tortilla should be. Today, though, if you order tortilla at some cafes (including, unfortunately, the venerable Cafe Comercial), they will automatically warm it up for you. To me, that is outrageous. But it gets worse; the tortilla I ordered at the Cafe Comercial tasted like the potatoes had been boiled instead of fried. The texture was all off, as if someone was trying to make a low-fat tortilla. The words “low-fat” and “tortilla española” do not even belong in the same sentence. The potatoes must be cooked gently in copious amounts of olive oil for the flavor and texture to be right. So the Cafe Comercial got it wrong, as far as I’m concerned.

Restaurante Los Arcos. My last full day in Madrid, I decided to eat lunch at Restaurante Los Arcos, an establishment recommended by my erstwhile colleague, Emilio Cabeza-Olías. That lunch is the reason siestas were invented. Ideally, I would have lingered over it for two hours, chatting with friends while my body slowing absorbed what I had foisted upon it, then gone home and slept while the absorbing continued. But I was by myself, which meant the lunch did not last as long as it should have, since I am by nature not very sociable with people I don’t know. Astoundingly, this restaurant had a separate room for non-smokers, so I dined in blissfully fresh air, although a certain essence of the Spanish experience was missing. I ordered “pimientos rellenos” as my first course. I believe these were piquillo peppers, stuffed with what tasted like sauted jamon serrano, among other things. It was really hard to tell, because like chilis rellenos the peppers were enveloped in an eggy batter, and then swamped in a sauce that was out of this world. The sauce was tomato based, but it had a meaty flavor somewhat reminiscent of the broth you get when you slow cook a pot roast. It was very rich, with just enough of a tomato tang to pucker my taste buds. The whole thing was served in an earthenware cazuela, for added authenticity.The next course was “cochinillo cochifrito.” Once before I have had “cochinillo cochifrito.” I was with my friend Damian in Avila, and what arrived on my plate was flattened and crisped beyond all recognition. I finally recognized that what I had been gnawing on and attempting to extract meat from was a little, tiny piglet jaw complete with molars. Because of this previous “cochinillo” setback, I hesitated between this and the more expensive “cochinillo asado,” but in the end I decided to give the “cochifrito” another try. Succulent comes close to describing it. Chunks of crisp, fatty meat fell from the bone with very little urging, yielding juicy, salty goodness with every bite.I wasn’t sure if I could cram more food in, but I decided to give dessert a try. I opted for the flan. Flan can be mediocre, or very bad. The best custards do not have little air bubbles trapped in them. Bubbles fossilize and completely ruin the texture of a flan. This flan was clean; no air bubbles to be found. Great care had been taken with this flan, and you could taste it in every bite.

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