Here’s my February TU column: all about our wonderful week, spent wandering the streets of Madrid. See it on the Times Union website here, or read below. This story goes along with Olive Salad, Spanish Style, Patatas Bravas with Saffron Alioli and Banana Nutella Empanadas.
Our big trip was made even better, I think, by how long we had to wait for it. It was put off and complicated by COVID, and then again by COVID, but finally, we went. We flew to Madrid in October of last year, though it was meant to be done in April of 2019. Our son Luca went to Spain in January of that year to study for a semester, and we saw him off with promises to visit and eat and travel together in another few months. Here is how that story ended: with fear and a fluster and flurry of plane-ticket buying to get him out of Spain before the county shut down. He made it home and we were grateful and relieved and left holding vouchers for a trip we hoped to someday take.
Time went by and finally, we took our trip to Madrid last year. It wasn’t the same trip, wasn’t spent in the orbit of a young person. This trip was just Paul and I and, though we regretted not being with Luca and adhering to our original plan, the whole thing was just marvelous, on every level. Don’t tell Luca but we didn’t miss him at all.
We stayed in a small flat, near a city square called Plaza Mayor. While there, we met a Spanish chef who told us that no Spaniard would ever set foot in touristy Plaza Mayor, which made us laugh because we loved it; the tourists, the hustlers selling their goods, the late-night cafes and the long history of a beautiful place (public executions, bullfights and all). Our flat had the one thing I wanted in an accommodation: a balcony with a view. That balcony was the place where we had morning coffee, took a mid-day rest, wrote emails, talked about the day and planned for the next one over nightcaps.
The thing about our trip, the very best thing, was the strolling and eating. We had no plans, no agenda. Every day that we were in Spain, we slept in, we had coffee (and oh, the coffee) and then we walked. We walked and walked. One day, we walked twelve miles. It was the days with the most miles that the food tasted best.
We mostly ate simple, easy, down-to-earth-type stuff. I became an expert at ordering at sidewalk cafes: una vino blanco, una cerveza, verde oliva, queso manchego, jamon Iberico. (Wine for me, beer for him, green olives, cheese, ham.) There, dinner is ordered. Oh, and no dinner was complete without pan (Spanish for bread and it’s practically required eating alongside all the good things listed above.) Upon sitting at almost any restaurant in Madrid, the waitstaff brought a bowl of house-made, thick-cut and perfectly salted potato chips. It made me fall in love with Spain.
Here are a few highlights from the many foods we tried, the restaurants and food stands we visited, and my attempts at recreating what we had. Starting the recap with coffee seems like the right thing to do. Spanish coffee is served hot, like hot-lava-hot. And, the milk that comes longside? It’s hot too. The sugar served with this hot coffee is the dark brown variety, rich and caramel-flavored. Spanish coffee is so strong that a few lumps of sugar are necessary. We ate well with those hot coffees: pastries, potatoes, fruits and jamon. Ah, the Spanish ham. It’s everywhere in the city, on every menu, and entire legs hang from the rafters of meat shops that seem to stand on each corner. We joked about buying one and checking it with our luggage.
The absolute highlight of eating in Spain was the sidewalk cafe. At the end of each day, we flopped down in chairs shaded by large umbrellas after walking for forever and seeing architecture, galleries, gardens and shops. Being a good tourist makes a person hungry and so we indulged in whatever we were brought. As expected, the cafes served tapas, which are small plates of salty, snack-y foods. Among the ham and chips and olives were small helpings of big shrimps, calamari, potato omelettes, ham croquettes, tomato bread.
One cafe had a salad listed on its menu, no description. It was just: salad. I typically like salad, no matter what and where, so I ordered it. It came in a simple bowl and is now what I call a Spanish salad. It was plump and salty, full of color and texture. I dreamed of it for days and weeks after we arrived home. It was easy to recreate, but not of course, exactly the same (we’re not eating it on a sidewalk in Madrid, after all). Combine a few ingredients that you may even have on hand, let them sit around for awhile and marry up, then serve it all with bread that you’ve toasted and brushed with olive oil. It makes for an easy dinner, a good winter potluck offering, or a happy lunchbox addition. A note: Spain is famous for its jamon and for good reason. Iberian jamon is salty and silky, downright delicious. You can buy it here, but the price tag is steep (a whopping $15.99 for three ounces). I substituted thick slices of imported Italian salami.
Paul and I feasted on potatoes while we were in Madrid and had them at nearly every meal, in every conceivable way. There were the beloved potato chips. We also discovered patatas bravas, which are chunks of potato, turned golden brown and served with a sauce for dunking. It’s typically deep fried, but in recreating this dish, I found a bath of olive oil and a turn in a hot oven made for a crispy potato without the fuss of frying. The sauce, a cheater version of a true Spanish alioli, is dreamy and with the bite of garlic and the unmistakable tang of saffron. Make this sauce for potato dipping, drizzling on roasted veggies, dipping breadsticks and anywhere you want a creamy accompaniment.
Lastly, we were surprised to learn how beloved chocolate is in Spain. Hot chocolate was as common as coffee. There were stores selling boxed chocolates but also cafes, devoted to churros and bowls of rich, liquid chocolate to dunk them in. Paul and I indulged in churros, served piping hot and crunchy with a layer of sugar and we may have fought over the last bits of the bittersweet chocolate in the bottom of the paper cup. We also had empanadas with chocolate in them, which was new to me. Empanadas are typically savory and typically filled with beef, hard boiled eggs, olives, and raisins. I was happy to discover a chocolate version, which is simple, delicious and easy to recreate. Purchased empanada wrappers (found in the freezer section of most groceries) are wrapped around a generous scoop of Nutella and a few slices of banana, and then shallow fried ‘til crispy. Eat them while they are hot, while the chocolate is oozy and the wrapper is crisp. These little treats are equally good on a Madrid street corner or in your kitchen on a cold and stormy night.
On the last few very dark and dreary winter evenings, I’ve tried to conjure up the feeling of Spain. Huddled under a blanket, I remember the cornflower-blue sky of Madrid, the salty potato chips and the centuries-old architecture. And though it’s now many months gone, the magical week we spent in Madrid walking and eating feels close to home when we eat crispy potatoes, salty salad and warm, gooey chocolate.