7.29.2011

Yerp: Part 6. Barthelona (Part 2), THE HAMOVER.


May 19

That was a lot of ham yesterday. There was a lot of everything yesterday. We were not deterred, however. Actually, I think we were. We were supposed to meet up with Sal and the gang for lunch, but we didn’t get up and moving until pretty close to lunch time anyway, and we desperately needed to be free of time constraints and meeting up with people for just one meal. And both Chris and I really had our hearts set on one meal in particular.


Three years ago, on that original vacation with Chris, he took me to La Boqueria. La Boqueria is a huge, covered, market and an impressive landmark with an entrance from La Rambla. The smells, colors, sounds and activity easily throw one’s senses into overdrive, not to mention the wild and crazy items sold in the market. It is truly a small village inside of a big city.

 

 

La Boqueria also offers up a few counters serving food. One in particular, my favorite and the focus of this post, is El Quim. Prior to that first visit Chris had excitedly described their, perhaps most lauded dish, baby squid and fried eggs. That day he ordered that and I ordered the sardinas a la plancha. That meal has stayed in my memory since. Such fresh ingredients, such delicately nuanced flavors and textures. A couple of glasses of cava. Delicious perfection.

 

And this brings us to about Noon on that Thursday, with Emma and Chris. Yes, we may have, in our er, exaltation the night before, told our new posse of friends that we would meet them the next day for lunch. But in the light of day, come Hell or high water (or being lame to our new friends), we knew we were headed straight for El Quim.

And there, in the middle of the bustling Boqueria stood the stall we sought. All eighteen of its stools occupied and a crowd of people waiting two-deep to scurry into any newly freed spots. Somehow, silently, we had a plan: Emma stalked one side of the stall and Chris the other. I was the liaison between the two to be able facilitate getting all three of us to the opening of seat(s) as quickly as possible. This all took great concentration.

 

Emma's view from her side: Quim in the foreground and Chris, stalking stools, in the background.

 

Chris scored. I grabbed Emma and we raced over to his side. He got us two stools with the promise of a third opening up any minute as the person occupying it was paying their bill. Emma and Chris sat while I opted to hover until stool number three opened up. We immediately ordered the white anchovies, garlic, caper berries and green olives in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, some bread and a few glasses of cava. 

 

 

I was over the moon. I was literally clapping when the first bite was in my mouth. The anchovies were fresh, meaty, firm and elegant in their simple marinade. With a few bites of that dish and a few bites of the bread swabbed around in the oily goodness I took my newly vacated stool and stole a moment to soak up my surroundings.


Mouth full. Clapping...
 
El Quim is cluttered and chaotic. The counter crowds with dishes – frittatas, paellas, and fresh seafood.  Sausages, dried chiles, produce, garlic and pots and pans hang from the eves. Orbited by a swirling mass of entropy, the tiny kitchen gets along amazingly well. The menu is chalked up above the stove, although paper menus are available as well. You’ll find yourself seated next to travelers from all over the world, locals, foodies and chefs alike. Quim is always behind the counter and is also always surprisingly friendly in the midst of the frenzy. He also manages to squeeze his three or four chefs/co-workers back in that little nook of a kitchen as well. Size-wise, think food truck. Cut in half. I don’t know how they do it.


Second glass of cava and time to order the big stuff. First off, El Quim is most famous for his fried eggs. Period. He puts them either over or under pretty much everything on the menu. As mentioned above, Chris orders one thing and one thing only: the fried eggs smothered under a mosaic of tender, baby squid sautéed in a pan sauce of oil and a touch of chile heat. This dish is also Quim’s calling card. It is ubiquitous with the restaurant’s name. When the eggs are cut up and the yolk runs into the squid the dish becomes complete, thickening and marrying all textures and flavors that hop, skip and jump across one’s tongue.


Emma, in the spirit of not having tangential dishes at the “table”, opted for the fried eggs with jamon iberico (Iberian ham). This ham is from free-range pigs that roam oak forests and eat only acorns. This ham is also called Jamón Iberico de Montanera. The ham is cured 36 months. Bellota jamones are prized both for their smooth texture and rich savory taste. You really just can’t go wrong with this dish.


I went in an odd direction. I ordered the Catalan sausage over white beans with aioli. This was a simple and savory answer to my fairly prominent hangover. The presentation left room for some humor for obvious reasons, but don’t be fooled – it was rich and robust with clean succinct flavors. The slightly crisped skin of the sausage gave way to a tender, succulent, meaty inside. The beans underneath provided the perfect texture to round out the variations in the sausage. 


We also got and order of asparagus wrapped in bacon. For our vegetable quotient. Hey, what can I say? It’s asparagus wrapped in bacon!


As we were saddling up to head out to our second lunch to meet Chris’ friends Quim gave us a little dessert on the house. I was a little scared of it as it looked as though it fell into the gelatinous-gooey-fruit department. Emma assured me it would be alright for me as it fell into the coconut department. That is usually okay. I still don’t know what it was but I ate it. 


It’s understandable why chefs flock to eat here. The quality of the ingredients is unparalleled – everything is fresh from the market. Quim’s execution is simple and solid. And the flavors are confident and honest and all cooked to order. Straightforward and comforting, this is the type of food that you love to eat and want to crave.

And this was just our first meal of the day. 

We then went on to meet up with the boys at a restaurant called Joséphine, but we were so late that they were basically out of everything. So we migrated to a rooftop restaurant and bar called La Isabela. There we camped out for hours, drinking and eating more ham. The photograph at the top of this post was taken at this spot. It had a terrific view.


We then moved on to the home of Paul, where we had some more wine and snacks and lost Emma and Engel for a little too long for my comfort. But they appeared eventually. Wearing pirate hats and swords. And carrying the largest lollipop anyone has ever seen. Then we ended up, briefly, at a small café. I mostly threw a tennis ball for Paul’s dogs during this stretch.

This is what showed up at Paul's a million years late with Emma, who was dressed similarly.

And then Engel, Chris, Emma and I ended up at a restaurant, apparently heralded for their – wait for it – ham, Recasens. I wish I could share more about this part of the evening but we were not only dead on our feet tired. But we were drunk on ham and libations. Poor Chris was the worst off. His eyes were closing while we were standing outside waiting for our table and the only thing he could put together to utter was, “No more ham. Please?”

We waited about thirty minutes outside for a table to open up. It was about 1:00am. They did bring us a small wicker basket of ham to keep us at bay while we waited. We finally got our table. The place was tiny and adorable. Turns out they specialize in ham! So we had three or four plates of different kinds of hams and some cheese.

A basket of ham while you wait. For more ham. Ham dangling from my mouth.

Chris was green.

Our trifecta somehow made it back to our apartment building. Wearing the pirate hats. When we arrived at the door of the building we ran into two Canadian women who were staying across the hall from us. We started chatting. Well, Emma and I started chatting. Chris made a bee-line into the building and up to our apartment to face plant on his bed. Emma and I ended up hanging out with the Canadians, drinking wine and laughing until almost dawn. But not before Emma broke a glass filled with red wine in their apartment and said something mildly offensive about Canadians.

Me and the Canadians. I don't know, so don't ask.

I do believe this was the first night of the trip that Emma, Chris and I did NOT cap off the evening with a bottle or two more bottles of wine while lounging in our apartment, sighing, giggling, and taking stock of the last days (who's even counting, now?) week plus, the whirlwind, of our adventure. At least, if we did, I don’t remember it.


7.19.2011

Yerp: Part 5. Barthelona! (Part 1).


May 18

Emma, Chris and I rode with my Dad and Dale from Armissan to Barcelona, via Figueres, to visit the Dali Museum. It was a long ride. Much longer than the ride from Barcelona to France that first night. Dad and Dale seemed confused about directions, tolls, gas, etc., and we three in the back seat were no help. Chris was playing with Emma’s iPad, playing parts of songs and learning the ins and outs of Angry Birds, Emma just didn't want to be in the car, and I had a pretty yucky hangover. And I think we all just wanted to BE in Barcelona at that point. It was time to disband The Group.

And so, after a harrowing exploit driving through the city to the airport to return the rental car, disband we did. Emma, Chris and I got a cab and were off to our apartment situated near the Gothic Quarter.

And here’s where country mouse turned into city mouse…

Wowzers. Our apartment was so cool! Bright, modern and very comfortable. The kitchen had features of which I have never seen. Chris and I literally had a dance party in the window upon moments of arriving (I was doing The Robot and Chris, The Funky Chicken). But not before we all uncorked a bottle of Cava and had a toast, of course. The kids' at the kids table were let loose to wreak havoc in the yard…

Photos courtesy of Emma.

At after freshening up we three headed out into the big city to explore our surroundings and look for food and drink. As I mentioned previously, we were a droplet away from the Gothic Quarter and decided to just get out and wander around there, certain we’d find just what we were looking for.


We found ourselves in a dark, little hole in the wall joint that was empty save for a table of Nordic-looking men in the front. We ordered a bottle of Cava and a selection of tapas: a plate of manchego, a plate of toast and tomatoes, and what was to be our first of many, plates of ham. We found the place so charming that we decided not to make a scene about the Orson Welles-sized cockroach that ascended the exposed brick wall behind my head.


Next up we moved along to an area called El Born. Tres chic. This was, perhaps, my favorite nook of the city we experienced, albeit briefly. We were to meet up with an old friend of Chris’, Sal – and a bunch of his friends – for dinner. At 10:00pm. We were early, so we had a glass of wine at the cutest cafe aptly called El Born. We soon all found each other and then found our way to a bright, little spot in Eixample with tapas, tapas, tapas. It was served like dim sum, or more like a cocktail party - with a server walking around with trays of bites of meat on bread and whatnot with toothpicks in them. We were to keep our toothpicks throughout the meal so that they could be tallied up at the end and we’d be charged accordingly. Interesting, right? 


Well, we were there all of ten minutes before I started spouting off about food, my blog, etc., and faster than you can say Gaudî, Sal's friend, Paul herded us into the street, into cabs, and into a restaurant named La Flauta.
 
There were about eight of us, I think. The place was crowded, with a line. But Paul seemingly snapped his fingers and had us all seated immediately. If I saw a menu, I don’t remember. I vaguely recall discussing with Paul the type of wine I was craving. I was already fuzzy and think I said something rather crass to describe what I wanted. But he got it. Then the food started to pour out.


There were mayonnaisey salads served with toasts, a platter of little filets with sautéed spinach served with toasts, huge grilled shrimp on skewers with tomatoes, and you guessed it: a ginormous platter of ham. The coup de grace was a big plate of thin French fries, topped with two sunny-side up eggs. The server sliced and diced the eggs into the fries tableside. It doesn’t sound like much but those huevos fritos are etched into my mind to this day. They were stupendous. Lastly, we had some thing served up as a dessert that had jelly on top of it. I tried to take a bite with the jelly scraped off. I didn’t want to be rude as it seemed my opinion and appreciation of everything mattered. But it really freaked me out. I ended my meal with a glass of something called Quarenta Y Tres on ice. I loved it. It was aromatic and slightly bitter, but also reminded me of Lillet. This brings us to about 12:30am.


Gosh. What happened next? I’m not sure. I know that myself and Engel, who was a Dutch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, were doing the Lambada down the city's streets while he roared “Cowabanga!” into the night. I know the next picture I took, of Chris in our cool, Dario Argento-esque elevator in our building was taken at 2:20am.

And I know Emma, Chris and I capped off this evening with a bottle or two more bottles of wine while lounging in our apartment, sighing, giggling, and taking stock of the last days (who's even counting, now?) week plus, the whirlwind, of our adventure. 


*Pardon the quality of the photos. Unless specified, they were taken with my iPhone. I was nervous lugging my big-ass camera around on the first night and had no idea what culinary excitement we were getting into...

7.15.2011

The Storm Trooper vs. Leilani Hana Ai Ali Alooie


Alright. Let’s take a brief vacation from my vacation to check in on what’s happening in my kitchen. Honestly, since returning from Europe I have hardly been in the kitchen at all. So I decided to change all that this week. Since this past Sunday I have cooked almost every meal I have consumed (except for Uncle Dougertons' birthday dinner at Lukshon last night (amazing!)).

I’m not sure exactly what has kept me from the kitchen. I have been decidedly distracted. A lot has been going on since my return. I guess shifts in work things and car stuff mostly. Actually, almost all of it has been car stuff.

I’ve known my busted-ass Jeep, the Storm Trooper, was at the end of its days for some time. It’s been falling apart piece by piece, day by day. It had become almost comical. I would even drive around for thirty minutes, looking for street parking, to avoid the disgusted expressions of the valets at restaurants.

And then, about a month and a half ago, on my way up the hill headed home, it happened. The Storm Trooper basically caught on fire. With my hands white knuckled, gripping the steering wheel, and my teeth grinding down to nubs, I just made it home. I parked it on the street, rather than my driveway, as I knew that was its last voyage. I might as well get it positioned to be towed away, forever.

R.I.P. Storm Trooper. You were very good to me.

I rented a car while I shopped for what was to become, my new, sweet ride. It didn’t take long. I knew what I wanted, for the most part. In fact it was the first car I looked at in person. It seemed perfect. I bought it. Straight up. Cash money.

Meet my guide, Leilani Hana Ai Ali Alooie.

The first thing I did as I drove away from the girl that sold it to me was put Leilani Hana Ai Ali Alooie on the dashboard. Maggie brought her back from Hawaii months ago and I had been waiting, excitedly, to put her in her permanent spot – at the helm of my new car. The second thing that I noticed as I drove away was the thermometer all the way up to the H. I panicked and pulled over immediately.

Note she also sold me the car with 1/4 tank of gas.

I’m not going to bore you with the details of all that has occurred in this department of the new car over the past month and a half, but it has been a nightmare. Even the boys at the dealership can’t figure it out. Hell, no one can figure it out.

For now, it seems fine, but I am nervous driving my new car. I have some animosity towards my new car. At least Leilani Hana Ai Ali Alooie makes me happy.


And so, since this all came on the heels of an expensive vacation and this has been tremendously expensive as well, I have retreated to the kitchen. I made an incredible sweet corn and chorizo chowder garnished with a crumble of goat cheese and a fried cilantro leaf (let me know if you want the recipe), and grilled swordfish steaks topped with a lima-bean-and-herb butter. But the most exciting thing, surprisingly, was a chicken dish. Michael Motorcycle not only cleaned his plate (making him closer to the Mayorship of The Clean Plate Club), but told me it maybe was the best dish I had prepared for him to date. I don’t think Maggie ate any, but her boyfriend housed a portion and was impressed. Most importantly, I loved it. And it was astonishingly easy! The chicken was served alongside a watermelon, feta, heirloom tomato, red onion, dandelion greens salad and blanched white asparagus with a drizzle of truffle oil and champagne vinegar, topped with celery leaves. Maggie did go bananas for the asparagus, actually.

Sweet Corn and Chorizo Chowder

I think it has been smart to return to the kitchen. I feel more in control of my time and money. I will re-address the new car stuff next week. It pretty much seems stable if I don’t turn on the air conditioning. Or go up steep hills. Which is fun as I reside in sunny Southern California, it's July. And I live on a big hill.



 Chicken Breasts with Anchovy-Basil Pan Sauce

Serves 4

4 bone-in, skin-on chicken breast halves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 red onion, thinly sliced
4 large anchovy fillets, minced
1/4 teaspoon chopped chile de arbol
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup slivered basil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon cold unsalted butter 

Preheat the oven to 400°. Season the chicken breasts with salt and black pepper. In a large ovenproof skillet, heat the olive oil. Add the chicken breasts, skin side down, and cook over moderately high heat until they are richly browned, about 3-5 minutes. Turn the chicken breasts and transfer the skillet to the oven. Roast for about 20 minutes, until just cooked through. Transfer the chicken to warmed plates.
 
Set the skillet over moderately high heat and add the red onion; cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Stir in the minced anchovies and chile de arbol. Add the white wine and boil for 1 minute, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Add 1/3 cup of water and boil until the liquid is reduced to 3 tablespoons, about 1 minute. Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the basil and lemon juice. Swirl in the butter and season the pan sauce with salt and pepper.
 
Pour the anchovy-basil pan sauce over the roasted chicken breasts, spooning the red onion all around, and serve right away.
 

7.09.2011

Yerp: Part 4 - Les Sentiers Gourmands.



 May 15, 2011

This morning I awoke, as I had every morning thus far, at the crack of dawn, way earlier than the others in the Little House. I was excited. The Group had to meet at 10am at Abbaye des Monges on the edge of the Massif de la Clape to begin our day experiencing that which is Les Sentiers Gourmands. 

The Jump-Off. (Photo courtesy of Emma)
This was the eighth year for the 5 kilometer wine walk and, from what I heard, the most physically demanding. Upon congregating at the starting point we were all given a pouch to hold our wine glass, which hung around our neck and rested in our, um, cleavage, wooden cutlery, a book of the tastings and finally a straw hat.

Me & Dad rocking our wine walking kits. Note wine glass in pouch. (Photo courtesy of Emma)
And we were on our way. On our way to eat and drink our way through beautiful, scenic vineyards, and up a big, steep, rocky mountain. The hike was punctuated with six stops of food (menu proposed by Marc Schwall Cooks Cellars in Narbonne), and over 40 AOC Languedoc-La Clape wines presented by the winemakers or wine cooperatives.

I believe at our first stop where we were given the Artichoke gazpacho with fennel and olive oil, and about 4 or 5 different wines to taste, Emma turned to me and exclaimed, “I don’t know how anyone could actually get drunk doing this.” I giggled silently to myself, and thought, “Oh, Emma…”


The gazpacho was divine, cool in temperature, yet warm in body and texture. I wanted more. But we were given our 6 tickets, one for each taste, and I certainly didn’t want to miss out on any of the others. I will be trying to make an artichoke gazpacho on my own very soon.

The stretch between the first and second stop was downright grueling. Straight. Up. Hill. With lotsa rocks everywhere. So upon reaching the summit (first one there!), the little man selling his little jars of rosemary honey was a welcome sight indeed. So I bought a jar of honey to bring home to Maggie.


The next taste was the eggplant marmalade and Collioure anchovies, pepper coulis and Espelette. And a lot of different rosés. All of the different wineries served their tastes atop wooden wine barrels, which was pretty cool.



(Photo courtesy of Dale)
And on we walked, the lot of us. We walked, at times, in various groups, with a partner or a trio, or alone. There was a lot of time and a lot of wine and a lot of walking. It was, quite possibly the most beautiful, inspiring, and romantic thing I have ever experienced.
(Photo courtesy of Dale)
The next stand offered us St. Jacques scallops in hot cold crayfish cake (that's the best translation I could come up with).



The stretch from scallop stop to our next stop was right about the time when Emma and I were laughing about her comment upon embarking on this adventure. Hell, we were all laughing about everything at this point. I guess we were getting a little tipsy. Not just because of the wine. It was just all so potent. Everything about it.

(Photo courtesy of Dale)
This brings us to probably my dad's favorite, the parmentier of duck confit, eggplant and mushrooms, dried, juice and tomato stew (again, best translation I could muster). This dish was both a delicacy for the eyes and mouth. Beautiful, big reds were paired at this stop.

(Photo courtesy of Dale)

I can honestly say that, after this stop, which was the most filling in both food and wine, I was in the clouds a bit. I walked the next stretch alone for the most part. Happily.

And then I met up with everyone again at the next stand; a selection of goat cheeses by Mas Combebelle. 


The cheeses were ripe, supple, briny and lovely. They were the perfect thing to slice through the big, palate lingering flavors and textures from the duck confit stop.

And then, as if it all lasted but a moment, we found ourselves at what appeared to be a little outdoor festival. There was a band, children dancing, dozens and dozens of people that had already finished the walk, more flooding in at each moment. This was our final stop. This was where we were served the “Success” with caramelized apples and raisins, caramel rosemary and coffee (or more wine). I sorta wished I had doubled up my tickets way back at the artichoke gazpacho stop as this dish was very much not my cup of tea (cooked fruit issues).

But it mattered not. I was absolutely sated.

So, I sat with the members of The Group that had arrived, sipped another glass of wine, stepped on - and ruined - my favorite sunglasses, and waited for the remaining members of The Group.

Before we left I picked up an apron for Doug and we all bought a selection of the favorite wines we had tasted throughout the day.

That evening we all went across the street from our houses to Joelle and his wife Maria's house for a beautiful meal and more wine. It was, perhaps, one of the most decadent and splendorous of days I have spent in memory, and one that would be near impossible to recreate.


Well and so, Emma and I capped off this evening with a bottle or two more bottles of wine while laying in our beds, sighing, giggling, and taking stock of the last thirty-six seventy-two (who's even counting, now?) week, the whirlwind, of our adventure. 

Chris, pouring one out for our homie, France. (Photo courtesy of Emma)

This concludes the France part of Yerp. Up next, Barcelona!



Sentiers Gourmands:
Price per person € 48, price group over 12 persons € 45, € 10 child less than 10 years.

Narbonne Tourist Office, 31 rue Jean Jaures, 11100 Narbonne.
Tel 04 68 65 15 60 Tel 04 68 65 15 60