Category Archives: Travel

The best thing I ate today in Puerto Vallarta

This week, while on a family vacation in Mexico, we took a food walking tour in Puerto Vallarta. We had signed up for “A Three Hour Tour.” Luckily this tour was on land and not on the high seas! We met our guide, Ricardo, at the entrance to the restaurant Mole Rosa. He promised us an adventure and lots of little tastes of the local food of the region. A little humour and a few short history lessons would be thrown in for extra flavour. Here are my favourite bites of the day.

Our first stop on the tour was Taco Robles, a birria taco stand. Birria is Spanish for slow braised meat. Large pieces of meat, originally made with iguana, but now, made with goat or beef, are smeared with a spicy adobo rub and steam-baked overnight. At Taco Robles, you have a choice of either goat or beef. Lined up three deep, this is arguably the most popular taco stand in Puerto Vallarta. Their tacos are a well known hangover remedy!Tacos Robles 2Ricardo had us pegged as less than adventurous eaters and ordered the beef ones for us. I was mildly insulted, but kept it to myself! The beef tacos were packed full of meltingly tender beef, topped with onions and cilantro.  The beef was muy flavourful, redolent of of chiles, bay and cinnamon. Robles serves their taco “dorado” style, basically meaning fried. They use two corn tortillas for each taco. The inner one is soft and pliable, to hold in all the juices, and the outer one is crispy from being fried in the birria fat. taco robles platterRicardo gave us a crash course in choosing the best taco stands. Obviously, the biggest problem associated with taco stands is hygiene, since they do not have running water. Here are his top 3 tips:
1. Make sure that that the person who handles the money and dirty dishes is NOT the same person who handles the food.
2. Check to see if the paper or plastic plates are reused or are covered with a fresh plastic bag for each new customer.
3. Generally the stands with the biggest lineups are usually a safe bet!

I was anticipating our second stop, Cesar’s Coconut Stand, with great excitement. In business since 1984, Cesar lops the top of the coconut off with a razor sharp machete. A veritable Mexican Zorro! The clear liquid was then poured into cups for us to sample. Full of magnesium, potassium and electrolytes, the coconut water tasted so pure and fresh, a far cry from the stuff we buy in a can back home.cesar with machetteWhat he did next really surprised me. He scooped out the flesh of the coconut, cut it into strips and then stuffed the coconut into a plastic bag. He added a squirt of fresh lime juice, some brown sugar, a pinch of cayenne and tiny dash of salt. Then he shook the bag to distribute the seasoning evenly all over the coconut. The Mexican version of Shake ‘n Bake! We all sampled it and most of us discretely deposited the remains in the garbage can when Cesar wasn’t looking. I guess it must be an acquired taste. I prefer my coconut baked into a macaroon.cutting out flesh Fseasoned coconut flesh FOur next stop was at Tacos el Cuñado. According to Ricardo, they are the top carne asada taco stand in town. “Carne asada” is literally translated as grilled meat. It refers to thin marinated beef, usually skirt steak, that has been grilled. Tacos El Cunado 2Ricardo explained to us that while cuñado means brother-in-law, the reference is usually an insult. In guy code it is interpreted as a brother-in-law that is mostly hated by the husband and all his brothers for being an idiot. The exchange might go something like this:

Brother 1: “Oh man, my wife is making me take el cuñado with us to the hockey game”
Brother 2:  ”Dude, that sucks big time. That guy is such a dick, I can’t stand him.”

This place has been in business since 1968. It is currently run by the original owner’s son, Jorge, and his brothers. I do not believe there are any brother-in-laws working there with them!! In addition to the skirt steak tacos, they also do pork tacos. Both are served on soft corn tortillas. Lined up on the counter are an assortment of salsas or topping your taco. They are arranged in order of heat, from “salsa for wusses” all the way up to “a fiery habanero” that would put hair on your chest. I tried the Vallarta style guacamole which was blended with a mildly spicy tomatillo salsa.

To put out the fire in our throats and bellies, Ricardo took us to for a glass of “tuba water.” Created by a sweet little old man by the name of Conception, tuba water is made from the sap of the coconut palm, lightly fermented and mixed with palm sugar, walnuts and diced apples. He serves it chilled and it was smooth and very refreshing. The only tree I have ever had the sap from is a maple tree, but palm sap is quite yummy too! I bet it would be great on macadamia coconut pancakes
Tuba 1Tuba 2Then we treked off to the charming family owned restaurant Mole Rosa.mole rosa signSpecializing in various moles, Chef Gunther treated to a sampling of chicken enchiladas covered in three varieties. This is one of the most beautiful plates of food I have ever been presented with. three molesThe “mole rojo” sauce on the left is made from a Guajillo and Ancho chiles, garlic and it is finished with a tiny bit of mexican chocolate. The “mole verde” in the center was my favourite bite of the day! Made from green tomatillos, ground coriander seed, Serrano and jalapeno peppers, and roasted pumpkin seeds, this was light and really fresh tasting. This mole is not simmered for hours with tons of spices. It’s characteristic fresh taste is derived from the addition of herbs at last minute of preparation. The “mole rosa” on the right is made with Serrano and jalapeno peppers, pine nuts, white chocolate, aniseed and roasted beets which create the most gorgeous shade of pink. It was quite earthy tasting with a hint of sweetness.

At Gaby’s Restaurant we all trooped upstairs for a bowl of Tortilla soup. Garnished with fried tortilla strips, avocado and cotija cheese (a hard crumbly Mexican cow’s milk cheese), we all licked our bowls clean.tortilla soupWe finished the meal off with a shot of tequilla. Apparently I have been shooting tequilla incorrectly all my life! The lick of salt, shot of tequilla followed by the wedge of lime is for gringos! Ricardo taught us the proper Mexican protocol. You begin with a shot of lime juice to cleanse the palate. Then you follow that with a shot of tequilla. The chaser is a shot of Sangrita. Sangrita, (literally “little blood” in Spanish) is a mixture of tomato juice, orange juice, lime juice, worcestershire sauce, tabasco sauce and salt and pepper. sangrita 2Sangrita was my daughter’s favourite taste of the day!

Our final stop on the tour was to Orgullo Azteca Candy Store, a veritable Mexican Willy Wonka Factory! The shop was started by two partners who wanted to teach future generations all about the joys of traditional Mexican candies. They started small, with a tiny cart, then moved into a store across the street and now have four stores in Puerto Vallarta. candy store 1candy store 2We got to sample many local treats but my favourite were the candied pecans. candied nutsVallarta Tours was the perfect way to get to know the people and taste the local flavours of Puerto Vallarta. If you are visiting the region and have a spare afternoon, Ricardo would love to show you his town.

 

The Best Thing I Ate All Day in Brooklyn.

In mid-September we took a trip to New York City with our good friends the Grizzlies. Grizzly is not their real name. This is just my pet nickname for them as they share many of the same personality traits as grizzly bears. As you may know, grizzly bears hibernate for the winter.  In preparation for hibernation, they must eat heavily for several weeks prior to the hibernation period, as they will be living off the stored fat for several months.  Apparently this was the weekend Mr. Grizzly intended to pack on his necessary pounds. (And he took us along as hostages!)  I chronicled the first part of our trip in my last post.  Following is Part 2 of our adventure.

Saturday morning dawned sunny and warm! With only half a day left in our New York Adventure, we had a momentous decision ahead of us. Mr Grizzly had originally booked our farewell lunch at Jean Georges. We ate lunch there a few years ago the last time we visited NYC with the Grizzlies. Their lunch special, 2 courses for $38, is renowned among foodies in the know.  While you may not consider a $38 lunch cheap, it is a fantastic bargain for a Michelin starred restaurant.

I can not remember exactly what I ate the last time we dined there, but I do recall that it was quite a hushed and serious place. What I do recall, with unfailing certainty, is the Bon Bon Trolley, that they wheeled over at the end of our lunch. All through lunch, I had been watching the waiter manning the trolley.  As he approached each table he opened a huge glass jar filled with handmade pale pink marshmallows, almost the exact shade as Essie’s Ballet Slipper nail polish, and lifted one out with tongs.  Then he proceeded to cut each one in half with very elegant silver scissors.  I inquired whether marshmallow cutting was a position you had to be promoted to.  He responded that it was an entry level job. I seriously considered applying!

This time, we made the decision to cancel our lunch at Jean Georges, and feast at Smorgasburg instead. Please know that this was not a decision we took lightly. Smorgasburg, located in the hot and happening town of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is an open air food market, featuring over 100 vendors. The New York Times has dubbed it, “The Woodstock of Eating.” We figured that Mr. Grizzly could be quite efficient at Smorgasburg, in packing on his necessary pounds for his upcoming winter of hibernation!

Smorgasburg, just a short 30 minute subway ride from mid-town Manhattan, is located in an empty waterfront lot on the East River, between North 6th and 7th Streets. It boasts a picturesque view of the Manhattan skyline. However, we were not here for the views. We were here to feast! We arrived shortly after 11:00 am, and most of the vendors were still setting up.

We were quite strategic in our eating plan. We decided to walk the grounds first to get the lay of the land, see what the offerings were, before we bought anything. You must come with an empty stomach, loose pants and, while some vendors take credit cards,  a pocket full of cash is a good idea. It is also ideal to come with a group of four or more. That way, you can order lots of different items, and just have a taste of each.

We came, we ate, we conquered! Here are some of the yummy bites we sampled!

1. S’more BakerysmoresWhile the “Salted Sailor” (vanilla bean marshmallow and a salted caramel ganache sandwiched between clover honey graham wafers) was calling my name, I got sidetracked by the “All in One Cookie.” Salted Oats, chocolate chunks and vanilla bean marshmallow all packaged together in a tidy cookie. It made an amazing first course! It had the ideal cookie texture; caramelized and crispy edges with a softer, chewy center. They packed a flavourful punch of salty and sweet!smore cookie2. Danny Macaroons Danny MacaroonsWith all they hype that macarons get, macaroons seem like the forgotten sister.  Danny Cohen has not forgotten about them. He gives them all the love and attention they deserve. I am coco-nuts about the Salted Caramel and the Raspberry Jalapeno Jam flavours!

3. Pain D’Avignonpain davignonAfter all that sugar from the cookies, we needed something savory. We sampled the Mini Picholine Olive Rolls. Salty from the olives, aromatic from a bit of fresh rosemary, these mini rolls sported a beautiful open crumb. They were chewy and the crust had just the right amount of crunch.picholine roll

4. Chedbredchedbred signWithout question, the honey sea salt chedbred was the best thing I ate all day in Brooklyn!honey sea salt chedbredA quote from their web site says it all! “A deceptively simple, bordering on majestic cornbread that thrives off of a subtle sweetness from honey.  Topped with brown butter crumble and sprinkled with sea salt, it strikes a perfect balance through contrast.” 

5. Milk Truckmilk truckWe stopped dead in our tracks when we came upon Milk Truck.  Grilled Cheese, Milk Shakes and a Mac and Cheese Bar. How could we resist? We opted for the classic Mac and Cheese: Three cheese bechamel sauce topped with housemade rosemary bread crumbs, with a mix-in of double smoked bacon. I was surprised that they used farfalle (bowties), as the pasta shape. I am a traditionalist and prefer my mac and cheese with elbow macaroni. mac and cheeseI have since heard lots of buzz about their grilled cheese sandwiches. Should have had one of those instead!

6. Lonestar Empire 

lonestarslicing brisketMr Grizzly started chatting to the lady in the blue bandanna over at Lonestar Empire about their “Slow Smoked Texas Style Brisket Sandwich.” She explained that they use Angus Beef Brisket and season it liberally with just salt and pepper. Then they smoke it low and slow- a good 15 hours over Texas mesquite wood. The low and slow method gives the fat in the meat time to render out, making the beef unbelievably moist and tender. She was unequivocal in her recomendation of ordering the brisket “moist” rather than “lean’. Since we were all about calorie loading, we opted for the moist. Hand carved to order, succulent brisket was piled onto  a soft potato roll and topped with a vinegar laced tangy tomato based BBQ sauce.  This sandwich was killer good!lonestar sign

fatty brisket on potato roll

7. Pit Beef NYC 

The brisket sandwich at Lonestar had us craving more meat, so we ordered the “Marz Attack” at Pit Beef. This sandwich was built with pit pulled pork, a fried egg, and topped with chipotle cheddar and BBQ sauce. Sadly, it sounded better than it tasted. The pork was a bit dry , especially when compared to the moist brisket over at Lonestar.sandwich with fried egg

8. Ramen Burger 

When we first arrived at Smorgasburg, we couldn’t help noticing a huge lineup at one tent: Ramen Burger. It was barely 11 am, they weren’t even cooking yet, and already the lineup was at least 50 people long. What was the deal here we wondered? Could these ramen burgers be the new “cronut”?

line up for ramen burgerWe decided not to join the line and sample some other things first. However, about an hour later, Mr. Grizzly’s curiosity got the best of him. He wandered over to the head of the line and started chatting with some of the folks. He got quite an education in the Ramen Burger.

Created by Keizo Shimamoto, this is no ordinary burger. The all beef patty is sandwiched between two discs of ramen noodles, which have been cooked crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Topped with green onions, a secret Shoyu sauce and arugula, the burger has a sweet and a salty taste. Although I didn’t actually taste the Ramen Burger, Mr Grizzly did charm his way into a few bites from some lovely women at the head of the line who had been waiting since 8:00 am! He reported to us that he didn’t understand what all the hype was about.

Mr grizzly's new friends

serious eats ramen-burgerShockingly there was no lineup at the Quinoa Falafel tent!quinoa falafel

9. BFC (Buttermilk Fried Chicken)fried chicken and wafflesMrs. Grizzly wandered off on her own and came back with buttermilk fried chicken and cheddar waffles. The coating was so  thick, we could not cut it with our plastic fork and knife. The only way to eat this delicious chicken is to pick it up and eat it with your hands! A shatteringly crispy coating gave way to tender moist flavourful chicken meat. The waffles were good, but really, it’s all about the chicken! Don’t forget to add a squeeze of their black maple sauce (maple syrup with a balsamic vinegar reduction).

10. Krumville Bakery

It was the bundt cake at the Krumville tent that got my attention. I had never seen a bundt pan in that shape before. Apparently it is called the Heritage Bundt pan. I must get one of these! It looks like a giant pinwheel. We started chatting with the folks at Krumville and we soon discovered that everything under their tent is Gluten Free! We ended up buying the zucchini goat cheese bacon tartlette. Yummy!!

Krumville signpinwheel bundt pan

 

GF tartWe thought we had hit our limit, but apparently we were wrong. There was still a tiny little corner of my stomach that had room for fries at Home Frites, and Mrs. Grizzly had room for S’more Pie!home frite

smore pieFeeling happy and quite full, we waddled our way out of the fair grounds. A perfect day in Brooklyn!

A Tale of Passion and Pizza in NYC

serious eats photoIt’s possible that I may never look at pizza the same way again. Last weekend we visited NYC with our friends, The Grizzlies. Now, I should tell you that “The Grizzlies” is not their real name. It is an alias I use to protect their identity. They are such fabulous travelling companions, I worry that if I reveal their identity, others will want to travel with them and they will never be free to travel with us.

We decided to go to NYC with them to celebrate my husband and Mr. Grizzly’s birthdays (just a week apart). I have given them this nickname as they share many similarities with grizzly bears. As you may know, grizzly bears hibernate for the winter.  In preparation for hibernation, they must eat heavily for several weeks prior to the hibernation period as they will be living off the stored fat for several months.  Apparently this was the weekend Mr. Grizzly intended to pack on his necessary pounds. (And he took us along as hostages!)  

Usually when I travel, I spend many hours obsessing over what to do and where to eat. This time I left the itinerary planning up to Mr. Grizzly. We travelled to NYC with them in 2010 and Mr. Grizzly did such an outstanding job planning our itinerary on that trip that I put myself in his hands again.

The only suggestion that I made was Scott’s Greenwich Village Pizza Walking Tour that I had read about on Serious Eats and was intrigued. Plus, I figured if it was a walking tour we might burn off a few calories!

We met in the West Village at 11:30 am to begin the tour. As soon as Scott started his introduction, I knew we were in for a special treat. His enthusiasm was infectious. His knowledge of the history and culture of pizza would put wikipedia to shame.  I was ready to follow Scott wherever he chose to lead us. Scott introduced us to his friend Jared (photo on the right), who would be joining us on the tour. Jared shares Scott’s passion for pizza with a fervor that only the young can sustain!

ScottJared

Our first stop on the tour was Kesté  on Bleeker St. ” Kesté ” in the dialect of Naples translates to “this is it” which is a reference to the simplicity of the pizza here. All the hallmarks of a classic Neapolitan pizza are here – San Marzano tomatoes, Caputo double zero flour, house-made buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil, olive oil and a blisteringly hot wood burning oven.

Once inside, Scott gathered us around the oven and explained the physics of the dome shaped oven at Kesté. Not being a science person, I feel ill-equipped to transfer the knowledge to you guys, but suffice it to say that Scott’s eyes lit up and he got a little flushed in his cheeks when he got close to that gorgeous copper domed oven. It is fed with wood from ash trees. The oven gets up to almost 1000°F. It needs to cool down to about 700°F before it is ready for pizza baking.

Keste oven

At Keste, there are two guys working in the kitchen to prepare the pizza. The first, “The Pizzaiolo”, makes the pizza. The second, “The Fornaio” operates the oven. You can see them both at work in this little video I prepared. Just click on “pizza tour.” to view.

As we waited for the pizzas to come out of the oven Scott pointed out the strangely shaped knife each of us had been given. He explained that Neapolitan style pizzas are eaten with a knife and fork and the knife has an angled serrated cutting edge that  to make it easier to cut your pizza while on a plate. He gave each of us a “Pizza Journal” so that we could jot down our personal reflections of each slice we sampled. He said that we would discuss and compare our observations after we ate.

Knifepizza journal

McDonalds move over! Neapolitan pizzas are the original fast food. These pies cooked in a 1 minute and 35 seconds! When it arrived at our table the first thing we noticed was that the middle of the pie was quite thin as compared to the crust, which was puffed and blistered to perfection. There was silence as we all chewed and ruminated. The underside of the crust was slightly charred. The crust had an almost english muffin like chewiness, not a crisp cracker like texture at all. It sort of reminded me of naan bread. The sauce was quite tangy and a bit acidic. The cheese was creamy and a bit salty. The fresh basil and olive oil took this pizza to the next level!

keste Pizza - ready to eat

 

bottom crust - perfect char

Scott explained that the dough is made with a flour that is quite low in protein, only 11.5% protein content, as compared with bread flour that has a 14.2% protein content. At this point the eyes of several members of our group began to glaze over from too much information. I, on the other hand, got quite excited. It has been a while since I had the opportunity to debate the merits of differing protein levels of flour. The dough spends 48 hours in the fridge, slowly fermenting and developing amazing flavour.

The sauce is basically Ciao brand San Marzano canned tomatoes that are crushed and salted. That’s it! No cooking and no sugar added. While we were finishing up our pizza, Kesté’s owner, Roberto Caporuscio, showed up. Scott was positively gushing when he introduced us to Roberto. He greeted us all so warmly, explained that he got his start in the food business as a cheese maker, and then brought out some of his homemade mozzarella di bufala and burrata to try. They were outstanding! He was such a generous host and made us feel quite loved. Sadly, we had to leave once all our pizza was gone.all goneOur second stop on the tour was just across the road from Kesté. John’s Pizzeria, an institution in the Village since 1929.John's signThe style of pie at John’s is best described as Classic New York pizza. Many have described John’s as the quintessential New Your Pizza. The pie is cooked in a coal burning oven. The oven at John’s is square, not domed shape. These pizzas are cooked at a slightly lower temperature than at Kesté. (600°f vs 700°F). They take about four minutes to cook.

oven at John'sJohn's pizza 1When the pizza arrived at the table, Mr Grizzly eagerly reached over to grab a slice. Scott came trotting over to our table and told us to wait a minute. He reached into his backpack and pulled out… an infrared thermometer??taking temp at John's pizzaHe measured the surface temperature of our pizza and told us that it was still too hot to eat. We would blister the roof of our mouths if we ate it too soon. We needed to let it cool to 175°F before we could sample. Safety first folks! At this point, I began to think that Scott was one of the coolest people I have ever met. Man, I need one of those thermometers!

Finally the pizza reached a safe eating temperature and we dug in. The crust was quite thin and quite a bit tougher than at Kesté. I observed that the sauce was sitting on top of the cheese, so that the sweet taste of John’s sauce is what hit my tastebuds first. The cheese was quite stringy and salty, but in a good way. There was a delicious layer of oil, from the cheese that was floating on the top of the pizza. Scott explained that the cheese goes on first here, and then the sauce. They use (Polly-O), a  low moisture mozzarella and it is sliced, not shredded. The crust is made with General Mills bread flour which has a 14.2% protein content, which explains the tougher crust. They allow the dough to ferment in the fridge for about 24 hours.

My first bite took me right back to my childhood. Now this was pizza! Interestingly enough, I later learned about something called Pizza Cognition Theory (PCT). Sam Sifton, former NY Times food critic posited that, “The first slice of pizza a child sees and tastes …, becomes, for him, pizza.” I grew up eating Monte Carlo Pizza in Toronto (now called Mama’s Pizza). It had that same thin crust, sweet sauce and stringy cheese with a thin layer of oil on top.

On the way to our third and final slice, Scott stopped and took a few minutes to wax poetic on the subject of pizza boxes.

Scott waxes poetic about boxes

As a collector of pizza boxes for the past 10 years, Scott knows his way around a pizza box. He spent a few minutes expounding on the mechanics of corrugated boxes and pointed out that if a box has no vents, the steam from a hot pie gets trapped inside and the crust can take on the smell and taste of cardboard. All of the sudden, it became crystal clear to me why the crust of Pizza Pizza always reminded me of cardboard. Scott’s book on the subject of boxes is being released on November 5!

Our final stop was Famous Ben’s Pizza at the corner of Spring and Thompson, in SOHO. There is an adorable statue of ben just outside the shop.Ben's pizza sign 1a

Ben's sign 1Ben’s specializes in Sicilian style pizza. These are thick crust square pies that take about 20 minutes to bake at 550°F in gas fuelled deck ovens. Mrs. Grizzly and I generally don’t love thick crust pizzas. We were expecting to be disappointed by this slice. Ben's sicillian pizza 1After just one bite we were instantly smitten! We expected the crust to be doughy and heavy but somehow it was the exact opposite. This crust was light and bubbly with an amazing bottom crust crunch, like good focaccia.Ben's sicillian pizza bottom crustScott explained how they make the Sicilian style pie at Ben’s. The sheet pan is heavily oiled and then the dough is stretched to fit into the pan. It gets a nice long rest, about 2 hours, and then it is topped with sauce. Then it goes into the oven for about 10 minutes to get the crust started. The cheese, lots of it, is added during the last 10 minutes of baking.

It was here at Ben’s that Scott demonstrated for us what pizza aficionados like to call “cheese pull”.  

cheese pull

This is not to be confused with the dreaded “cheese drag”, where all the cheese comes off the top of the pizza in one bite.

It so happened that Mike Kurtz, of Mike’s Hot Honey was taking Scott’s tour with us that day. Mike treated us all to a squirt of his honey to dip our pizza into. What a yummy combination with the cheese and crust. First you get the sweet and after about 2 seconds, the heat hits you in the back of your throat. Jared and I agreed that it would be so much fun to serve this honey with apples at Rosh Hashanah dinner next year. What a surprise!

If you happen to be in NYC and are looking for a really fun and unique way to spend a few hours, check out Scott’s tours. It is hard not to be swept up into his enthusiasm. I am sure his parents must be so proud of him. Really, all parents want from their children is to see them find their passion in life. If they can make a living at it, even better.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our new York Adventure with the Grizzlys, where we master the NYC subway system and make the trek the Williamsburg Brooklyn for Smorgasburg – the Woodstock of Eating!

Friendship and Barcelona: Part 3

One of the best things I ate during my trip to Barcelona was discovered purely by accident. We had just finished our Architectural walking tour of the city and based on a recommendation from our guide we stopped in at La Botiga at 27 Rambla Catalunya for lunch. This was only our second day in Barcelona so we were still learning the ways of the city. Our first mistake was showing up for lunch at 12:45. Talk about looking like tourists! We might as well have shown up wearing baseball caps, white Adidas running shoes and a Canadian Maple Leaf sewn onto our backpacks. They were not even open yet.

We quickly learned that the Spanish are on an entirely different meal schedule than North Americans. Breakfast is usually just a shot of espresso and a pastry or roll. Then around 11 am they may have a cafe con leche (espresso with milk) and a little bocadillo (sandwich). Lunch is typically served between 2:00 and 4:00 pm. Dinner is not usually served until 9:00 pm at the earliest. Sometimes they will eat their main meal at lunch and just have a light snack, (tapas) for dinner, or they may reverse it and have tapas for lunch and have their main meal at night.

We returned to La Botiga just as they were opening. We were starving by this point and quickly perused the menu and ordered a bunch of little tapas for sharing. Several minutes later, the waiter returned and told us that at least half of our choices were “already gone.” Huh? Already gone? How could that be? They just opened. We were the first customers there. Perhaps some savvy Barcelonians have caught onto the North American trend of eating lunch at noon, and snuck in to the restaurant before they were officially opened and ate all the best stuff. Just saying, it could have happened that way.

Since we were not eating meat, our choices were limited. We settled on fried artichokes, butternut squash tortellini with pepitas, mac and cheese (which we discovered they had snuck some ham into) and pan con tomate. Just some light carb loading.
fried artichokesbutternut tortellini
mac and cheesePan con tomate - the gold standard
Most of the food was ok, nothing very special. But the pan con tomate, oh my! It was truly one of the best things we ate all week. Pan con tomate, translates into “bread with tomato.” Yawn. Not exactly the most exciting dish you may be thinking. But you would be wrong. Pan con tomate is a Spanish trick that turns simple bread, tomatoes, oil and salt into something insanely delicious.

When it arrived at the table, we were expecting bread with diced tomatoes on top, like you get with bruschetta. This looked like it had barely any tomato at all. When we inquired about this, the waiter explained how this dish, a Catalan specialty, is made. First the bread is toasted or grilled. Then a ripe tomato is cut in half and roughly rubbed over the surface of the toasted bread  until all you are left holding in your hand is the skin of the tomato. Then, some fruity spanish olive oil is drizzled over the top and it is finished with a few flakes of sea salt.

As I took my first bite, the crunch on the outside surface of the warm bread and the yeasty scent assaulted my senses. The center of the bread, so chewy, was filled with little nooks and crannies.  These little air pockets were bursting with the sweet and fragrant tomato essence and the fruity  nutty olive oil. The little crystals of sea salt on top just melted on my tongue. How could something so simple be so good?

From this meal forward, our mission was to order pan con tomate every time it appeared on the menu. Little did we know that the pan con tomate at La Botiga would be the best one we tasted. I would go back for a big plate of that and a bottle of Cava and I would be transported to my happy place. Here is a sampling of some of the pan con tomate we sampled over our week in Barcelona.
pan con tomatepan con tomate 2
pan con tomate 1pan con tomate 4At the end of the week, we realized that the pan con tomate we devoured at La Botiga, had become our Gold Standard, by which all others were judged. It became apparent that the one variable that was more important than any of the others, was the bread. Without an open crumb structure (i.e.: lots of air pockets and nooks and crannies) on the interior of the bread, the tomato pulp and olive oil have nowhere to soak into. Armed with the knowledge from completing the Bread Bakers Apprentice Challenge, I knew there was one bread that had the ideal structure to create this. Ciabatta bread. 

Still obsessing over pan con tomate once I arrived home, I needed to see if I could create it in my kitchen. I somehow doubted that it would taste as good here, as it did when I was on holiday in Barcelona. There is something about eating the food in a spectacular venue that elevates it to mythical status. I went to Art-Is-In Bakery here in Ottawa and bought a ciabatta loaf.
ciabatta loafI sliced the loaf horizontally into 3 layers. I toasted the bread in my toaster oven. I experimented with 2 different types of tomatoes, kumato and plum. I liked the sweeter, thinner skinned kumatos  best.
slicing horizontallyopen crumb structure
rubbing kumato tomatorubbing plum tomato
I drizzled the bread with some olive oil and salt I brought home from my holiday.
drizzling olive oilsalt
The verdict: a perfect crunchy and chewy snack that transported me right back to Barcelona. I can only imagine how good this will taste this summer when I grill the bread and use local vine ripened sweet summer tomatoes.

 

Friendship and Barcelona: Part 2.

cavaRegular readers of this blog may know that my drink of choice is Prosecco. However, when in Barcelona, we switched our allegiance and guzzled quaffed Cava. Made in the Catalonia region of Spain, Cava is the generic term for Spanish sparkling wine. I should explain here that Cava and Prosecco are very different from Champagne.

While all Champagne is sparkling wine, not all sparkling wine is Champagne. To be labelled Champagne, the sparkling wine must come from the Champagne region in France. The main difference between Champagne and Prosecco/Cava lies in the method by which each is made.

Champagne is fermented into wine normally, then bottled with a little yeast and sugar, capped, and left to referment. This second fermentation produces carbon dioxide that is trapped in the bottle; the sparkling wine is left to steep with the yeast in it for an additional several years and then the sediment is removed and the Champagne is sold. With Prosecco and Cava, the second fermentation takes place in a specially reinforced tank. Once the second fermentation is complete, the sparkling wine is immediately drained from the yeast and bottled. So the aroma and flavour of the yeast is an integral quality of Champagne, but not of Prosecco or Cava, because the yeast is removed from the tank of Prosecco and Cava as soon as it has done its job.

What this means is that the lack of the yeasty aroma and flavor in Prosecco and Cava allows the varietal characteristics of the grapes to shine through. This is an important difference between Champagne and Prosecco/Cava. I have never really liked the yeasty quality of Champagne. I find it too heavy. I guess I’m just a cheap date, but I really prefer the light fresh quality of Prosecco and now, after my trip to Barcelona, Cava.

Since our knowledge of Cava was quite limited, each night we asked our waiters to recommend a brand. Purely by coincidence, we ended up sampling Cavas alphabetically! The first night we were brought a bottle of Aria, the second night Bertha and the third Colet. We stopped paying attention after that.

.aria cavabertha cavacolet cavaOne day we stopped into Tapeo for lunch and we spotted sangria made with cava on the menu. Things were never quite the same after that revelation.tapeo

cava sangria Our lunch at Tapeo was so delicious. We were all quite excited to see a green salad on the menu. After eating fried tapas for several days, we were ready for something fresh and green. The acid and sweet balance in the strawberry and manchego cheese salad was perfect. Although Italian and not Spanish in origin, I can never resist ordering Buratta cheese on a menu when I see it. The rendition at Tapeo, with tomatoes and olive oil was creamy, slightly tangy and perfectly rich and yummy. We also ordered the eggplant fried and dressed in lime and honey. Unfortunately there were only a few little pieces to photograph as we gobbled it up so quickly. We also ordered “pan con tomate”, which translates roughly to tomato bread. I will report more thoroughly on this dish in my next post. Suffice it to say, we all became obsessed with this national dish!

strawberry and manchego saladburatta

eggplantpan con tomate

Organized walking tours are one of my favourite ways to explore a new city.  I have tried following walking tours in guide books, but I am directionally challenged and always seem to get lost. Plus, I find that seeing the city through the eyes of a passionate local, eager to show off their city to be a wonderful way to really delve into the culture.

Sometimes you want to cover a bit more ground than walking will allow. Several years ago, while visiting Paris I took a Segway tour. We suggested doing a similar tour in Barcelona, but my god-daughter had a better idea! GoCars.go carsGoCars are the latest trend in sightseeing. It’s a city tour, but with a difference. They offer a guided tour using GPS technology. Essentially, these are three-wheeled scooters. There are three different GPS tours to choose from. Your charming GPS guide (I nicknamed ours “Jill”) not only   tells you where to go, but she tells you what you are seeing along the way. And the best part was that when I missed a turn, (which I did several times!), Jill did not say “recalculating” in a disappointed tone of voice, but “Oops, you missed a turn. No problem, we’ll get you back on course straight away”, in an ever so encouraging and loving manner. She sang songs to us, told us jokes and even gave us restaurant recommendations.

We arrived at the GoCar garage, just across from the Santa Caterina Market. We had to sign several standard waivers and one special one that said we would be responsible for the fine if we were stopped by the police for not having an international drivers license. Say what??? We didn’t have international licences. The woman told us not to worry. No one had ever been stopped by the police. The chances of that were quite remote.

She gave us our helmets, had us watch a short video and then sent us out into the traffic! I had never driven a scooter of motorcycle before, so the hand controls for accelerating and braking were foreign to me. I was a bit shaky for the first 10 minutes trying to use my feet to press on the non-existent gas and brake pedals. The staff at the store said that other motorists on the road were quite friendly and would honk and wave at us. I accidentally cut off a bus driver and he did indeed honk and give me a special one finger wave. He was not charmed or amused by us. The cars go up to 40 miles per hour and are just a blast to drive.

We chose the Olympic Barcelona tour, which took us through the Gothic Quarter, the Raval District and then up to Montjuic, home to the 1992 Olympic Games. You are able to stop and park your car at any time and get out for pictures or to walk around. After about half an hour I heard a police siren and saw, in my rear view mirror, that our daughters were being pulled over by the police. Apparently, the were driving in the oncoming traffic lane. The officers were quite sweet and patiently explained to them how Barcelona roads worked, and soon we were on our way again.

Check out this you tube video to get a closer look at how these cars operate.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=vnZxlyEE6DY

Stay tuned for Part 3, when we sample pan con tomate at every restaurant we visited!