Chapter 17: How To Properly Not Cook

Uncle Jimmy!

Do you go out to eat much? I’m picturing some kind of massive buffet up there, where everything is smothered in cheese and gravy, and nothing has calories. My idea of heaven.

OK, today’s topic is food, but not the kind you shop for, nor the kind you cook. I want to talk to you about dining out.

Let’s start with what we learned from the “don’t do this” column.

Lots of folks come here and order paella, which is a rice dish. It’s sort of known in the United States as a Spanish Must-Have. But it’s not a Barcelona staple. Not even close. Real paella only comes from the eastern city of Valencia. Period.

I’ve tried one or two outside of that town, paellas that is. They were not yummy at all. Only tourists sitting in tourist traps would order it. If it’s highlighted on a menu board, it’s probably not authentic (in my humble opinion). Not in Barcelona anyway. Same with sangria. Everyone thinks it’s a required Spanish beverage, but no locals drink it. Visitors only.

I sound like a Spanish snob, right? 🙂

What they do drink here, however, is vermouth. Which is not the same thing as that which compliments gin or vodka in a martini. It’s a real wine, fortified, and heavily infused with aromatics. Very, very earthy. And they have more varieties of vermouth here than they do beer. It’s a seriously big thing. It’s sometimes poured from a bottle, but can be just as often poured from a tapped keg. And it’s usually consumed just before lunch. Or if several are imbibed, then they are lunch. 🙂

Now me personally, I’m not a huge fan. But Nikki is. She orders one (or two) regardless of the time of day, which seems perfectly acceptable to the Spanish mindset. For vermouth and sherry reign supreme here. I only wish I had the taste for it.

Another “don’t” we learned the hard way is don’t bring food to a picnic. Yea, really. We did, and folks stared at us like we were escapees from an asylum. Americans bring lots of grub to share. In Barcelona, a picnic is people coming together in a park to converse, and to drink. Maybe at some point, someone will wander off and get a pizza or something. But the point of a picnic is to socialize.

OK, I wanted to tell you all I know about Spanish Cuisine, so let’s get back to that. (Me and my damn shiny object chasing!).

What is Spanish Food exactly? Well, that’s like asking “what is American?”. In many parts of this country, you will find very regionalized food. Like how “greens” are eaten in the American South but never in Boston. But sadly, Catalonian cuisine isn’t really present in Barcelona, at least not perceptually. This city is way too international, and restaurants here are typically based on some other country’s or region’s fare. But, there is a Spanish staple you will find everywhere. And that’s tapas.

I wrote about them earlier, but I want to go deeper in this letter. Because everywhere you go to eat, tapas is guaranteed to be on the menu. And something I crave every other day, it seems.

Tapas translate to a small portion of any kind of Spanish cuisine. They can be hot or cold. Sometimes they are served at bars to keep you drinking, and sometimes they are your meal.

A very “Barcelona Tapa” is called Pa Amb Tomàquet. Which literally means bread with tomato. What they do is take a slice from a baguette (which may or may not be toasted), and just rub a tomato all over it. Then season it with olive oil and salt. Savvy consumers will also grab a garlic clove and rub it in as well. It’s really basic, but if done right, really fresh and yummy..

All over Spain, one of the most popular tapas is called Patatas Bravas. Which we Americans would probably call home-fries with sauce. But they are so much more. The potatoes are cut into wedges, boiled, and then deep-fried. The perfect wedge (in my humble opinion) is brown and crispy on the outside, and soft, almost creamy inside. In most of Spain, the sauce is this spicy tomato and smoked paprika concoction. In Barcelona, that sauce is usually a little less spicy and they add in a second one, a white aioli. So you can get different tastes, depending on how much of each sauce you use during “the dip”.

On menus here, you might also see these dishes with two columns beside them. One marked tapas and one raciones. Basically, same food, different sizes. If you want a smaller portion you get tapas. If you want it entrée-sized, then raciones.

Oh! A super favorite of ours is called Pimientos de Padron. Basically, blistered peppers, with a liberal amount of crunchy salt. Sounds simple, I know. But they are so very delicious. We can plow through a plate of these in no time.

A must-eat here is called Jámon Iberico de Bellota, which is ham made from the meat of Iberian pigs. It’s a highly regulated thing, with the pigs farmed only in legally specified regions of Spain. You see these legs hanging everywhere. In restaurants and shops, they have this metal contraption that holds the leg horizontal, and an extremely sharp knife is used to slice off the absolute thinnest of pieces. You’ve never had ham quite like it.

There are so many other treats we love. Pulpo, or octopus, is one of my favs. Not something usually eaten in the States, but extremely popular over here. Tortillas, which are omelets made with potatoes. And Pescaítos. Little fried WHOLE fish. They’re battered or lightly dusted, and then grilled or deep fried. Then salted. You eat them whole … heads, fins, everything. And they are seriously to die for.

A couple of years ago on a beach in Malaga, we once found this shack that sells them super fresh. They had this wood-fired grill outside. And you waited there for them to get handfuls of just-caught little fishies, dust them, and toss them on the fire. Once done, they’d salt ‘em, wrap them in paper, and you went and sat on the sand and plowed through everything. And then repeated the process. Nothing was fresher or tastier.

Wow, now I’m really hungry. 🙂

OK, I’m going to go find something new to eat. I’ll write later, o’ brother of my father. Enjoy your zero-calorie buffet.

Love, Rick

PS: I forgot to tell you something. As I was just pondering my dining options, I suddenly remembered the worst meal I’ve ever had. Something called Percebes.

It’s seafood. Kinda. And it squirts.

They’re this weird filter-feeding crustacean that live attached to rocks and flotsam where rivers and streams meet the ocean. You lightly boil them in brine and serve them whole and hot under a napkin. To eat ‘em, this odd diamond shaped ‘foot’ is pinched between your thumb and finger and the inner tube of tissue is pulled out of the scaly case. The claw is then tossed away and the remaining flesh is swallowed.

Sounds delish, yes? It ain’t. Also not cheap.

We were walking around the town of Treviso, Italy when we found them in a little food market. The picture above the stall called out to me. Not in hunger. But in curiosity. We asked the girl behind the counter what the hell they were, but she was light on English. She asked someone who asked someone and the answer returned was “stream”. What the? So I walked away. But being me, I just couldn’t let it lie. I had to know. So I went back and ordered a plate.

Nikki took the first bite, gagged, and promptly spit it out. Said it squirted in her mouth. 🙂

The insides are this hot, black/gray tubule that absolutely reek of seawater. They taste something like licking a slimy underwater rock that has been microwaved. And yes, they seriously squirt. Got me in the face, shirt, eye. And because I’m a cheap bastard, I ate half of the plate. For fifteen euros, I wasn’t going to do the one and done thing.

It took quite a few hours for the taste to fade.

And with that, I really am going to find better sustenance. And nothing that is interactive.

PPS: It’s hard to believe that I’ve only got roughly a month left before this excursion is done and I’m forced to leave. I’m so not ready for that day. Pardon me while I go and weep.

– R

LETTERS TO A DEAD UNCLE

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