Exploring Spain… one bite at a time

After a brief hiatus, A Culinary Quest is back! This post highlights my recent food adventures in the beautiful city of Barcelona, Spain.

Placa ReialBordering the Mediterranean sea, Barcelona is an edgy, avante garde city bursting with energy. Fascinating medieval architecture, painted street performers, violent protest rallies and sprawling open-air markets make up the daily scene.Cathedral  Street performer

More importantly, here you’ll find fresh-caught seafood, cured meats by the ton and more wild mushrooms than you can shake a stick at. In short, it is a Foodie’s haven.DSC00645

Upon arriving in Barcelona, I soon discovered that cured ham is a local obsession. A butcher shop could be found on every corner and enormous legs of ham were hung out in the open at the markets, selling for prices that would bring American chefs to tears ($800 in the US, $150 in Barcelona).

The most famous (and expensive) cured ham is Jamon Iberico… and with good reason.  This world-renowned delicacy comes from black-footed Iberico pigs that graze on acorns, which provides the ham with a complex, savory, nutty flavor.  In addition, the fat in Iberico pigs has high levels of Oleic Acid, which causes the meat to melt at room temperature.  When sliced thinly, you can see the meat “sweats” the moisture out, and each bite literally melts in your mouth.  *Sigh*

DSC653During my stay in Spain, in keeping with local traditions, I began nearly every meal with a small plate of Jamon Iberico and Pa Amb Tomaquet: fresh bread rubbed with tomato and garlic, drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled with sea salt.

And a glass of wine.  Or two.  Or three or four.  But who’s counting?SAMSUNG

Stay tuned for more foodie adventures in Spain, coming soon…

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The Foodie Who Can’t Cook: Part 2

After spending the last several weekends in Atlanta getting Chef Hubby settled into his condo for the summer, I finally had a free weekend at home. I decided to make the most of it and cook a real dinner for myself. (Why are you snickering?) In a moment of seemingly delusional hope, I leafed through a Bon Appetit magazine looking for a recipe easy enough for a monkey to figure out. And in a bizarre twist of fate, I actually found one! Halibut fillet with squash, shallots, cherry tomatoes and basil. Simple, fresh and healthy. Jackpot!

The trick to this dish, I soon learned, was that everything had to be wrapped – rather carefully – in delicate parchment paper. And there is a technique to this, not unlike the long-lost art of Origami. Luckily, Chef Hubby was only a text message away, and with the help of my camera phone (i.e. pix sent every 5 min. with the subject line “Does this look right???”), I was able to pull it off.

After cooking at 400° for 15 min. and preparing a side of Israeli toasted couscous, I had a fairly presentable meal.

Then Chef Hubby sent me a photo of what he made for dinner last night and I wanted to punch him. Seared squab (what the hell is squab?) and veal mousse with truffle vinaigrette and bean trio. Whatever. I’m sticking to my fish fillets with veggies.

The Foodie Who Can’t Cook

There, I said it. Well, I wrote it anyway. This self-professed foodie doesn’t actually know how to cook. Cook real meals, that is. I’m a master at microwaving dishes and adding fresh herbs and seasonings to kick things up a notch. And my cocktail mixing abilities have earned me some serious street cred… in the suburbs. And I can prepare a rather impressive arugula salad with real balsamic vinaigrette (from scratch!), but we all know that’s not really cooking. So, it’s time to let the cat out of the bag.

In my defense, I’ve never really had a compelling reason to learn how to cook properly. For the last 10 years, my husband (a.k.a. Chef Hubby) has been preparing delicious meals on a daily basis, and genuinely enjoying it. Which is bizarre to me. Personally, cooking has always felt like a chore that should be avoided at all costs, second only to picking up dog poop in the backyard. But Chef Hubby seems to experience absolute delight when flinging ingredients around the kitchen using various utensils that I cannot even pronounce, along with the occasional near-house-fire or near-fatal-injury and a steady stream of cuss words, in order to eventually produce a spectacular dish.

Because of his culinary genius, many of our friends were not surprised when he gave up his stable job to follow his dream and go to culinary school to become a real chef. And I’m beyond proud of him for taking this risk and finding his true calling, but I’m also faced with a dilemma…

Chef Hubby has landed the internship of a lifetime at a highly acclaimed restaurant in Atlanta for the summer. Which is wonderful! There’s just one problem. This means I’m going to have to cook meals for myself. On a regular basis. And microwave meals, cocktails and arugula salads will only tide me over for so long. (Although, if I’m drunk off cocktails, I may not notice how bad my cooking is…) Let’s face it. Eventually I’m going to crave the wonderful meals I’ve been so ridiculously spoiled with over the years. Something tells me you have little sympathy for this predicament.

I realized action must be taken. So I (finally) asked Chef Hubby to teach me how to cook. For lesson #1, I decided on gazpacho (a chilled Spanish soup) and spinach-mushroom quesadillas. Ok. Quesadillas are no-brainer, for the most part. We had some leftover speck (salty cured ham) from our dinner at Rooster’s the evening before, and I discovered that by sauteeing this with chopped mushrooms, red onions, spinach, garlic and a little chicken stock and olive oil, you have a GREAT filler for quesadillas. Add a little goat cheese to the mix and stuff into a tortilla on a heated nonstick pan and voila! You have a kick-ass quesadilla.

Now for the gazpacho. I started with:
– 6 plum tomatoes
– 1 large red pepper
– 1/2 red onion
– 4 garlic cloves
(all cleaned & peeled) placed in a glass casserole dish. Added a heavy drizzle of olive oil and sprinkled on:
– cracked pepper
– sea salt
– harissa spices
Then popped the dish in the oven for about 15 min at 450°. This roasted the veggies to perfection and I placed them in the fridge to cool. After everything cooled, I added 1/2 of a chopped cucumber and used a hand blender to mix the veggies, since this seemed less intimidating than a giant mixer or complicated-looking food processor. Luckily, this worked out pretty good.

After that, the tricky part began. This is where the recipes (or chefs) stop providing step-by-step instruction, and simply tell you to add seasoning “to taste”. What the hell does that mean? It means this is where the artistry of cooking begins…

You can follow recipes all day long, but at some point, you have to determine with your own senses what tastes good. Not just the flavors in the dish, but the texture, color, viscosity (my first culinary term!) and overall appearance. This is where I had to rely on Chef Hubby for some guidance. Something was clearly missing from my gazpacho… but what?

With Chef Hubby’s coaching, I learned how to trust my instincts with food. If something tastes too sweet, it needs more salt or acidity (like from a citrus fruit) to cut through the sweetness. If it’s too bland, it needs more spices to give it depth. If it’s too thick, you need to thin it out with stock; or if it’s too thin, you need to add thickener with pureed veggies or starches. I finally began to see the true art behind cooking, and the technique of combining flavors, textures and colors to create balance.

The ability to create this balance will surely take years achieve, but now I’m actually eager to try. Though I don’t aspire to be a master chef, with practice (and trusting my instincts), I might eventually become a halfway decent cook!

It turns out, my gazpacho and quesadillas didn’t suck. I might even be so bold to say that they were rather tasty! So, there’s hope that this foodie will survive the summer without relying on a microwave. Or arugula. But don’t even think about taking away my cocktails.