Saturday, September 29, 2012

An Asian Spicy noodle dish that breaks with tradition.

I am breaking all the rules here… First I am breaking the rule of ending the Yom Kippur fast with mounds of family and a traditional Jewish menu. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with the likes of Gefilte Fish ( rings more like “GUILT” to me, you know the thick kind, the kind only a Jewish Mother can land on your mashugana head), or matzo ball soup ( I think this stuff should be bottled and sold as a substance capable of curing all ailments). There is nothing wrong with the traditional anything; it is just not for me. Not that I dislike it or have something against it, I just didn’t want to do it this year. I wanted things to be peaceful and quiet and I wanted to end the fast as far from my roots as possible, so to rationalize my rebellious behavior ( there is that “GUILT”), I thought of something New York Jews used to do ever since the … well, everything Jews do comes from long, long, ago”…

Back in the day, when there were virtually no good Kosher restaurants in New York, there were these Kosher Chinese places… To this day, if you Google Kosher restaurants in Brooklyn, you will find a staggering amount of Chinese and Asian places claiming (with various degrees of success) to be Kosher. Jews would flock to these places for various reasons, house too small to accommodate all guest, the cook is feeling lazy today or just for an opportunity to go out and enjoy eating out just like the rest of the gents. So, I thought Chinese food… and here is where I broke the rest of the rules…

Asian food is all about balance, salty, spicy, sweet, sour and umami, are the five pillars and must not only complement each other but keep each other in check. Instead of sticking with one Asian culture, I sort of rounded up all the Asian ingredients in my house, Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese, dumped them in one pot ( figuratively speaking) and kept on tasting as things progressed along. If the dish was coming out too sweet, I would add sour, too sour – add salty, too bland- here comes the hot pepper. You get my drift, absolutely no method to this madness, so you can imagine my surprise when at the end it was delicious, deeply savory with lots of umami flavors and in perfect balance. The only hard part was to re-create the recipe for the blog…

I don’t know how many sacred Asian cooking rules I broke, all I know is that as we ate this untraditional Yom Kippur dinner, we talked about our own family and what is right for us. We talked about what is right for us, for how we don’t need the confines of old rituals to dominate our beliefs and how we are free to build our own traditions and beliefs… One problem though, it is very hard to eat the matzo ball soup with chopsticks…

Spicy Asian chicken noodle:

Note: This dish can be made with any protein or vegetarian. A lot of the ingredients are also very flexible and can be substituted for others based on your likes.

Chicken Marinade:

1.5 lbs of chicken thighs ( you can use breasts or a combination) cubed

1 inch knob of ginger

3 garlic cloves

1 small jalapeno pepper minced

1 tbs of light miso paste

1 tbs of peanut butter

½ tsp dried kefir lime leaves (optional)

1 tbs of honey

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

½ tbs of sirracha sauce

2 tbs of sesame oil

2 tbs of sesame seeds (white or black)

¼ cup minced scallions

¼ cup of soy sauce

½ cup of dry white wine or water

Stir fry oil


Spicy noodles with vegetables

2 small carrots julienned into small strips

1 small red bell pepper julienned into small strips

1 zucchini julienned into small strips

½ cup cooked and shelled edamame beans

½ inch knob og ginger minced fine

4 cloves of garlic minced fin

¾ cup raw cashew nuts (optional or can be substituted with peanuts)

1 large package of thin stir fried noodles (you can get these at the frozen section of any Asian market)

1 cup Sichuan spicy noodle sauce (Yes, I know it is sort of cheating, but this is the only prepared condiment that I swear by)

1 tbs soy sauce

½ tbs toasted sesame oilStir fry oil

Salt to taste


Marinade the chicken, combine all the ingredients (except the chicken, the stir fry oil and the wine) in a food processor and pulse until smooth. Cover the chicken with the marinade, massaging it into the meat. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour and up to 24 hrs.

Once ready to cook, make sure all your ingredients are cut up and prepared in advance, things move quickly when cooking at a high temperature, so you don’t want to be looking for things last minute.

Heat the stir fry oil in a wok or a large skillet until almost smoking. Add the chicken and cook tossing often until it get a nice brown crust. Reduce the heat to medium and add wine. When the wine is almost evaporated, check if the chicken is cooked through and cook it a few minutes if needed, otherwise set it aside.

In the same skillet add 2 tbs of stir fry oil and the sesame oil and heat on high. Add the cashews, cook, and tossing quickly 1 min or until they begin to brown, add the carrots, cook 20 seconds, add the peppers and the zucchini and the edamame beans and cook another 20 – 30 seconds before adding the garlic and the ginger and soy sauce. Cook a few more seconds (you want the vegies to stay as crisp as possible), than set aside.

In the same skillet, gently heat the spicy noodle sauce. In the meantime, bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt it generously. Cook the noodles in the water for no more than 1 min, you just want to heat them through and hydrate them. Drain and toss with the sauce, cook the noodles with the sauce for a few more minutes than toss everything together, the meat, the vegetables and the noodles. To with chopped scallions and serve hot.



Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Travels and Tastes of Spain ( Part 4)


(has anyone ever noticed that Columbus is actually pointing to Africa)

Before we got to Barcelona we had to endure the pleasures of riding in the sleeper compartment of an overnight train.  If you have any inclinations in including this type of transport in your future, do yourself a favor – DON’T.  I had somewhat romanticized memories of a Soviet sleeper trains from my childhood, with delicious home packed snacks and glasses of scalding tea with little cubes of sugar. The thrill of being allowed to sleep on the upper bunk… This was nothing like that, either I grew up and my memories are flawed or this was the shitiest train in the world… I prefer the later.   This ride was an experience I would rather forget, although the rest of my family embraced it as an adventure and even enjoyed it.  The only decent part of the trip was having breakfast in the dining car sitting at a well-served table with tablecloth and glasses of fresh juice, riding along the sparkly Mediterranean beaches and villas of Costa Del Sol. 


After cities like Seville and Granada, Barcelona hits you over the head with the sheer amount of people, activity and the bustle of city life.  Masses of tourists seem to overtake every walking space of the city.  Barcelona is a marvel, with seemingly endless things to do; it was a great shame that we had less than two days to explore it. 
View from Palace Majestic onto the city of Barcelona
and the port


Just like the great city of New York is not representative of United States and stands on its own, Barcelona is not Spain.  It is separate living and breathing creature, a magically beautiful and whimsical city where the new and the old seem to intertwine in perfect harmony.  Barcelona is like a breathtakingly beautiful woman, you cannot take your eyes off her, captivated, enchanted by her spell.

Barcelona as it stands today, was build out of great devastation of the War… and when the city was rebuild it was designed around people’s lives and perceptions.  It was meant for you to not want to leave the streets, to wrap you around like the most luxuriously beautiful blanket and never leave you wanting more….  Gaudi’s genius is felt throughout the city.  From the magnificent Sagrada Familia Cathedral, (where you can spend hours just talking about the intricacies of the façade, until you finally get inside and see the full wizardry at work), to the houses and streets designed by him.  There were far better writers than me trying to describe Gaudi’s work, so I am not even going to try… I cannot do it justice.  All I am going to say is that experiencing it is like going through a rabbit’s whole and emerging in Alice in Wonderland’s world, mesmerizingly reminiscent of nature, wonderfully whimsical and paradoxically functional at the same time.   The inside of La Sagrada Familia leaves you standing in the middle of a forest where each ray of light coming through the stained glass windows has its purpose ant it’s note to play in a great architectural symphony.  Casa Batllo could have been an inspiration for Nautilus or the other way around, breathtakingly weird, functional, beautiful, entrancing, brilliantly thought out and in tuned with nature.  Gaudi has once said that his greatest inspiration is a tree growing outside his workshop, his work reflects not just a love of nature, but a deep understanding and emotional connection to it.  And that will be all I am going to say on Gaudi, because it should be seen and not talked about….

A part of Sagrda Familia facade

Inside the magical forest
where the light is enchanted and everything has it's place
The night view of casa Batlo

A play on light and perception
Are you inside some giant sea creature or a house?

All though our trip, we were trying to see a Flamenco show, but kept walking as either the time or the price didn’t feel right… I am so glad we waited.  Here, in Barcelona, we got to experience Flamenco like I never imagined.  The stage was settled in the pretty 13th century building’s courtyard.  The sounds these boys coaxed out of their simple instruments were out of this world.  The drummer’s hands moving as fast as Calibri’s wings, the dancer’s feet following suit, the tragedy, the expression….it spoke of it all, the great love and passion, the conquests in the name of your beloved, the heartbreak, the triumph….it left us feeling absolutely speechless and thankful we didn’t partake in the previously offered shows, which seemed touristy and uninspiring…

The tastes of Barcelona deserve a full paragraph of their own starting with Boqueria Market.  Of course we got there way too late, a good half of the place was closed, including all of the great fish market.  Of course, when we got their my son was theatrically “STARVING!”, which has pretty much been a theme to the whole trip… Of course, as I tried to get any pictures and tastes of true goodies that can be found only at this world famous market, my family ate New York style pizza at one of the stalls…. I can’t even convey the hatred that I felt for them at the time…  Nevertheless I did find the most gorgeous dry harissa mix, the most ridiculously tasting marconna almonds and the taste of my childhood, the fragoli (tiny wild strawberries).  The taste brought me right back to being 10 years old and spending hours in the forest with my grandfather so that by the end of the day, there would be just one delicious palm full, that he generously let me gulp down….

We finally ate at a traditional tapas place where they count the toothpicks on your plate at the end of the night… it was strange and kind of fun sharing a snack meant for drinking at the bar counter with my kids…. God knows, they embrace these eating experiences and I hope it expands not only their palates but their world.

The sea food was crazy delicious, straight from the Mediterranean, sweet like butter king prawns, huge langoustines as big as my forearm,  muscles with red juice succulent flesh…. I swear, having eaten them once I will hardly ever look at the North East famed variety the same again…. 
 I had to stay away from oysters as I am still getting over the New Orleans disaster but eating this gorgeous sea food right outside the Barcelona marina, marveling at the very expensive and grand sail yachts ( that my children were attempting to steal and sail back to the States..), I couldn’t help but imagine myself a bit richer… a bit famous… a bit…being able to do this more often.  


One of the highlights of my tastes in Barcelona was the Valencian Fideua, which is like a paella but made with tiny vermicelli noodles.  It was not laden with sea food, just tiny clams, no bigger than my thumbnail.  It was the most addictive dish I ever had; I can eat this every day for the rest of my life (preferably in Barcelona) and not get tired… This is an absolute must to re-create at home….
Delicius Fideua
This is what Barcelona feels like
All in all, Spain left me with unforgettable experiences, sites and tastes….but…I always leave a bit of my heart in places I go…This time, I left a bit of my heart in Barcelona, and I hope I get to come back to my make my heart whole again…..

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Travels and Tastes of Spain (part 3) - Olive oil tour


I finally got to do something very foody and see a bit of countryside in the process.  On the last day in Granada we decided to pass the afternoon with an olive oil tour promising great views, tastes and treats.  For a bit more money, we were told we could even try some of the local wines… how could I pass that up.

We were driven to a tiny village sitting at the foot of the original Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Got a bit of an interesting facts about olive and almond trees, how they grow, how this village irrigates the fields with the spring water coming off the mountains with an irrigation system build in the 14th century and still working and practical today.  Olive trees can live virtually forever and the most optimally producing olive tree should be at least 50 years old, it is said that with age, olive trees produce better quality olives even though the crop is less.  So we got to touch and marvel at olive trees that are hundreds of years old.  Appreciate almonds and pomegranates growing in between the olive trees (it is believed that if you plant an almond or pomegranate tree near an olive tree, the olive fruit will absorb some of the scent from the almond or pomegranate flowers).  In the village we got to drink from a public fountain with water coming straight off the mountains, the water is believed to restore youth.  I wanted to bathe in it but an obnoxiously pretty young French woman beat me to it.
We got to see the old olive oil mill, built in 14th century and astonishingly operated in almost exact same way until 1920’s. 
14th century olive oil mill
As we sat down to an olive oil tasting, I was a bit anxious if I would be able to pick out the differences or recognize good oil.  After all, I have never been to an olive oil tasting, I am not sure how it is done and what I am supposed to be looking for.  However, I do know what kind of olive oil I prefer, so I was going to approach this experience with the same aplomb as a novice wine drinker defends his likes and dislikes.

The tasting was very well narrated, so not only did we learn how you should be tasting olive oil, but a bit about the type of oil you were tasting, about the production process and what notes and properties we should be looking for in each oil.  I did learn a few new things and will be re-reading the back labels on all my olive oils the minute I get home, as it seems that what is being sold as good olive oil on many occasion is a blend of many oils including refined ones. 

What fascinated me most is that how little the actual process of making olive oil has changed from the ancient times to the present, even with the use of industrial machinery, the basics are exactly the same.
Blind donkeys were used to for the job of making olive paste...I think my husband just revolutionized the process

But back to the tasting, the way to taste olive oil is not by mopping it up with a piece of bread as commonly thought.  First you smell the oil as you would wine, judging the aromas as perhaps, fruity, nutty, grassy, citrusy…etc… As the tasting cup is warmed in your hand you judge how the aromas might have changed, it very similar to waiting for the wine to “open up” by aerating it or swirling the glass.  Than you take a little sip, just enough to coat your tongue, the sides of your mouth and the roof.  You may feel a bit or a lot of tingling in the back of your throat, it is normal and is a good way to judge whether the olive oil is fresh.  (By the way, the oil only keeps for 4 month after it open, at that is for filtered oils, unfiltered have even shorter shelf life. So you should not hoard your oils, use them while they are optimally fresh and good for you).  After that first initial taste, you can take a little piece of bread and soak it with olive oil.  This second taste with food can give you a good idea of what the oil will be like at your dinner table.  By the way, all the oils we tasted are Extra Virgin Oils, which are different from Virgin oils, which should mostly be used for cooking.  Extra Virgin olive oil of good quality is generally used for finishing dishes, for salad dressing and for dipping.


The palate is cleansed with a piece of apple and we move on to the next oil to taste.  I was very impressed with how easy it was to distinguish what I liked and what I didn’t like.  Although to tell the truth, all the oils offered for tasting were exceptional.

From the whole group of olive oil tasters only two people opted to do the wine tasting, me and my husband… what a surprise.  Having done so many tastings in the US I was wondering how the Spanish conduct it.  For starters we were given a tapa of iberico ham cured on the tallest peak of the Sierras right over the village we were in; the plate also included some local manchego like cheese, which was mild and very pleasant.  All wines we tasted were produced locally.  The white was very pleasantly dry, even though it contained a Muscat grape.  Spanish Muscat is picked earlier, before the sugar sets in, therefore if you prefer drier whites, do not bypass Muscat Spanish wines, they are delicious especially with sea food. 

The red was a blend of several grapes, crafted by a retired gentleman in this same village.  He makes wine as hobby and only bottles a few hundred cases a year, which makes this wine exceptionally interesting to try as you would not be able to taste it anywhere else in the world.  We got a lesson on Spanish Sherries, which range in spectrum from a dry white to syrupy like very sweet dark sherry.  I personally did not care for the dry sherry, it tasted more like medicine to me, but upon hearing how our guide uses it in cooking, I may try it, if I can find it.  The sweet dark sherry is a delight if you like port or if you like the sweeter glazes for game meats or reductions to compliment both savory and sweet dishes.
And why was I never given ham and cheese at a wine tasting in the US?

All four of us thought the olive oil tour was great fun and provided a great break from walking cobblestone streets and looking at old buildings.  With a little bit of a different perspective on the olive tree and Spanish country side we boarded an overnight train to the final stop - Barcelona.

To be continued….

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Travels and Tastes of Spain ( part 2)

  Seville greeted us with smoldering heat and a town of ghosts…. Walking the streets after 3p.m you would think that the entire population of the city has been abducted by aliens.  They really do take their siesta very seriously around here, and no wonder, the afternoon blistering sun is the kind that can drive you to madness.  The city literally dies from about 2 pm to about 7 p.m., when the hellish sun starts to subside.  That only leaves a few hours of business in the morning and a few hours at night, which explains a lot about the state of Spanish economy.  Sleepy, sweaty tourists are wondering the ghostly streets looking for something to do, visit a site, eat or shop, but all the attractions close in the afternoon and the shops and restaurants, even if open, have no interested in selling you anything. 
Very empty hot streets despite the cloth covers stretched from the roofs
The imposing gorgeous Seville cathedral, which dates back to the Moors and combines the architecture from practically all periods, was closed even though the sign outside indicated it should be open for another ½ hr.  So we headed toward the main royal palace or the Alcazar with no hopes of getting in as the guide book indicated it should be closed now.  One thing I learned traveling in Spain is that information provided in guide books, web sites or even on the doors of all attraction sites should not be trusted.  Things open and close based on their own unpublished schedule and you should consider yourself lucky you got in at all. 
The Cathedral
and the view from the 11th century tower
Alcazar’s architecture is representative of the region’s history.  It combines the Arab style castle with Gothic and Baroque elements… it is beautiful.  You can’t stop staring at the intricate carvings covering the walls, the starred and gilded ceilings and domes, the pools of water interlined into gardens and courtyards… It makes you think of Arabian legends and Sheherezada’s tales in 1001 nights.
If only I was a in Alcazar...


There are plenty of interesting things to visit in Seville, as long as you manage to stay out of the outdoor shopping mall which occupied about quarter of the city.  Littered with shops of every possible brand name, I felt like I did not leave the US.  The part of Seville I loved is tucked into the old part of the city, around tiny streets and plazas lined with orange and lemon trees. Small restaurants hiding away in courtyards, which you could never even see from the street but can only discover by shamelessly peeking into open doors, never knowing if you would find a restaurant, as store or a private families’ gathering. 
One of the little tiny resturants tucked away into a cortyard
 As long as you learn to keep the clock like the locals, you can discover amusing things to do like stroll over the Trianna bridge, right behind a 14th century church there is a nice food market (Merkato de Trianna).  I was hoping to find a spice stall or some dried fruits and nuts (you would expect this in the south of Spain, where the culture is still very heavily influenced by Moors).  There were no spices, no nuts, no olive oil, not tea or coffee.  Lots of great pork and game and seafood though, but I couldn’t quite tuck a raw pork chop into my suitcase. 
Now that's game.. fur and everything

These are lives snails and the original and traditional protein for the paella... we were lucky to taste one that evening.
 The food in Seville was typical tapas, good some places, not so great in others.  Walking alone the streets littered with outdoor tables, looking at what other people are eating is a good bet in choosing a place.  If a restaurant seems busy and you like the look of dishes on people’s tables… go for it.  I had some amazing gazpacho served with a slick of good olive oil on top, some wonderful grilled sardines and some more octopus, this time grilled and served with a bit of thin pesto. The brazing liquid from the ox tail stew was scented with cloves and orange peel, which is the idea I will certainly steal.   All things prepared with only a handful of ingredients, yielding such complex flavors, I was surprised and hopefully inspired. 
Gaspacho provides a cool break from the afternoon sun

Grilled octopus

Sardines are grilled whole, guts and everything inact..not for the squirmish

By the time we were ready to leave Seville, we have walked every tiny street at least twice and some waiters begun to recognize us… a definite sign we overstayed in this town.   A three hour train ride to Granada was uneventful, with nothing to look at except and endless sea of olive trees. 
for every sheep in Scotland there is one million olive trees in Spain

Granada’s main attraction is the Alhambra, which is huge castle, palace, almost a city in size, atop of a giant hill.  It contains the Nasrid palaces, a site one needs to visit at least once in a lifetime.  People come from all over the world and most seek nothing else of Granada except Alhambra; it remains Spain’s most visited historical site.  But be warned, the Alhambra complex sits on top of a very long, very steep hill, which we climbed not once but twice, thanks to my son’s complete inability to read a map.  The palaces, baths and the Generalife gardens leave Seville’s Alcazar in the dust and are not the site that can be explored quickly.  As we were strolling though these magical places, we were trying to imagine how life looked in them back in the day.  It was easy imagining yourself as part of Emir’s entourage or in my case most likely part of the harem.

 There are other structures in the complex, like the Alcazabra, which are the remnants of an ancient fort, the church and various other structures.  The gardens stretch for miles occupying more than half of the territory and are so exotic and breathtaking that no matter what I write, I cannot do them justice.  Since pictures speak a thousand words, here they are…

Granada is a charming little city with streets lined with orange, lemon and pomegranate trees , an occasional apricot tree, which beautiful ripe, delicious fruit, which went untouched by the locals and tourists… until we go there…  There is a maze of little streets leading up to a beautiful Cathedral, and many palaces, which were unfortunately closed seemingly permanently, because we could not find any evidence that they ever open despite conflicting information in the guide books.  

As we explored the city and walked along the Cathedral wall, I turned a corner and finally got what I was looking for… a real, genuine, Arab spice market….   My eyes jumping out of orbits from excitement and my nostrils at the ready to experience the good, the bad and the exotic, I went to explore.  These were the flavors and scents like I never experienced, things tasted and smelled like they meant to, just fresher and more pungent.  To my pride, I could identify almost every spice and pepper by site, it got a bit more complex with dried herbs and plants.  At first it was easy, oregano, rosemary, lavender, a few plants I only know the names of in Russian, but that I walked inside the shop and saw dozens of baskets filled with plants I have never seen.  I decided to stick to basics and buy only the spices I use and use often, so countless little plastic beggies later, I moved on to teas. 
We are a big tea drinking family, but are lazy when it comes to making proper loose tea.  Sticking a tea bag in a cup is much easier, that is why I still have tea from Scotland.  Here, I could not pass up the opportunity to stack up on tea blends from all over the world, black, green, red teas blended with herbs, fruit, spices in every imaginable combination.  I had to restrain myself as I had no idea how much all these spices and teas were to cost, there were no prices anywhere.  Before I went inside to pay, I checked out the saffron section and here with the prices posted, I was amazed and how comparatively non-expensive saffron was to the one sold in US.  I thought for sure, there must be something wrong with it.  The nice woman who was helping me through the whole shopping spree saw my reluctance and let me try and taste all the varieties.  This was definitely very good quality saffron an there was nothing wrong with it; I was still not sure which one to pick, so I asked her which one she preferred.  With not one common word of language between us, we seemed to understand each other perfectly; she even gave me her saffron rice recipe and advised me on the properties of each tea I bought.  So back in the shop with my credit card in hand, I was mentally calculating how much the mountain of teas and spices and all that saffron will cost and beginning to sweat, but when my total bill came to only 51 Euros I though the nice woman made a mistake.  I expected to pay at least twice as much, if not more for the things I bought… Not believing my luck, I grabbed the bags and headed into the maze of an Albacin, which means market in Arabic…  The market is touristy, but pleasant enough, replicating the crampness and feel of the medina.  With little shops selling all types of local souvenirs, pottery, hookah pipes, harem pants and embroidered pillow cases. 
The maze and abundanceof an Arab market ( Albacin)

The food in Granada was mediocre at best.  A little tired of uninspiring tapas we had high hopes for the street of tea houses serving Middle Eastern cuisine.  The day before, we were very impressed with the selection of coffee and tea there, having a menu of more than 50 teas and as many coffees, served according to consuming culture’s preference.  For example, my daughter’s Pakistani tea with a black tea blend served with milk and sugar.  My Moroccan tea was delicious with fresh mint leaves blended with very light and delicate black teas and spices.  Arabic coffee was prepared with cloves and the little honeyed pastries were flaky and delicious.  As good as their tea was, the food was lacking, the cous-cous was bland, the kababs dry and the soup plain inedible…. Well, they do have a nice ambiance and they are called tea houses for a reason.
Tranquility of a Tea House

Another thing about food in Granada is the portion sizes.  I don’t know who they think all these tourists are or where do we come from, but it looks like Granadian chefs watched the “Super size me “ documentary and thought it was a good thing… The portions are enormous… even for tapas.  One tapa plate can be counted as a full dinner plate and a little appetizer of cheese and pate turns out to be enough to feed ten.  A pitcher of Sangria is assumed to be a minimum of full litter and a little order of grilled pork and French fries for my daughter was so large, the plate had to be carried on the tray with two handles. 

One of the favorite’s treats throughout our trip was breakfast of toast and tomatoes.  It is a traditional Spanish breakfast and will surely become a staple in my house.  Simply grilled toast is drizzled with olive oil, topped with finely chopped fresh tomatoes, topped with more olive oil and salt.  Simplicity is key, all that matters is the quality of the tomatoes and the olive oil.  And how do you know a good olive oil?  You go on the olive oil tasting of course….

To be continued….

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Travels and Tastes of Spain ( Part 1)


Where to start? Well, 2 babies crying for 7 hrs straight on the plane, maybe a good start.  This made sure that we got to Madrid with only about 2 hrs of sleep between the 4 of us and a lot of ground to cover.  True to our families’ nature we decided that walking the whole old city of Madrid in one day would be a good idea.  We just didn’t count on one thing -  Damn, it is hot in Spain.  And not the “oh, it summer, the sun is shining “ kind of hot, it is like the afternoon sun is scorching through your brain leaving the rest of your body dehydrated and bloated and unable to take a single step.  The shady side of the street provides marginal relief but it does not really make much difference.

After checking out the main Cathedral and the Royal Palace we walked all the way back to Plaza del Sol taking the old city and narrow cobble stone streets around Plaza Mayor.  We sort of stumbled (via the carefully planned route) onto a wonderful Merkato de San Maguel, which provided the first glances into the world of Spanish cuisine. 

Tiny bytes of anchovies and olives, perfect bytes of fresh cheese and tomatoes, glances upon hanging Iberico hams and the sight of the most beautiful fresh sea food, offered just the right amount of mouthwatering anticipation. 

the selection of olives was stuggering

Ceviche so fresh it is almost swimming away

Fresh cheese, similar to mozarella but creamier and with a bit of a tang

But it will be a while before we get to eat anything. First we walk, and we walk and we walk… we bake under the 4 p.m. sun, and then we walk some more…  After hours of wondering and trying to ignore the heat, the hunger and exhaustion, we ended up shopping for a new back yard look at the Royal Palace gardens, and here I made the worst of mistakes, I give up the guide book and the map.  For the first time in my life I was too tired to read the map or care where and how we are going.  After numerous amounts coffee, water and wine , all I wanted was a nice nap on any of the green lawns we are passing.  This new city, the sights, no longer interesting, I can only think of my unbending swollen fingers and closing eyes.  I relinquished the map, to my son, who I was hoping, inherited the navigation gene from my side of the family, and who, I was hoping will lead us to food and shelter or at least out of non-ending god damn, royal gardens…. Let’s just say that the only navigator in this family remains to be me…  We did make it out eventually and stopped off for a snack at the most touristy destination imaginable at a café in Plaza Mayor.   Normally I would try and stay away from such places, on the very beaten path, catering to tourists, usually serving crap at most premium price, but we were exhausted, and one thing I learned from traveling with my kids, it is better to just give up and eat anywhere.  There will be plenty of opportunities to look for a perfect meal later.  Well, I was pleasantly surprised; we ended up tasting one of the best prepared octopus dishes we would taste through the whole trip.  Simply sautéed in butter and olive oil, with just salt and pepper, and a bit of smoked sweet paprika, the octopus was prepared perfectly, soft, not chewy; it almost melted in your mouth.  Washed down with a nice bottle of Spanish white, for a price less than a glass in Manhattan, and things were looking up. 

Sauted octopus with Papprika

There is a great vibe to Madrid, with locals and tourists alike partying in the streets, drinking, eating, and small winding streets littered with outdoor cafes and restaurants.  We saw none of this the first night, by nine in the evening Madrid has won over our bodies and we were fast asleep.

Madrid has won!

The next morning disaster struck, in my tired haze of previous day, as I gave up the guide book to the men in my family, and they managed to lose all of the research I have done for the entire trip.  There were a whole bunch of papers tucked into the pages of the book, outlining what to see and when, in each city, complete with siesta times for all the sites, train schedules and much more.  I spent months on that research and it was now gone, dropped somewhere between Plaza Mayor and god knows where.  On top of that we were practically cut off from civilization as the internet on our phone was not working and hotel wi-fi was going in and out.  I was furious, upset and feeling very cutoff from all my points of reference.  Traveling with just a book like we did for ages, seemed obsolete.  After a few hours I reluctantly agreed to continue with the trip and deal with my I-Phone dependency in private, so we boarded a train to Toledo.  I guess I will just have to travel the old-fashioned way.


Toledo becomes breathtaking as you are hiking up the hill toward the city walls and see the old world magnificent gates to the city.  It continues to mesmerize you as you get lost around the narrow winding streets and passages.  Once you get over the bad quality of the map they give you at the train station, you surrender yourself to the flow of the alleys and eventually end up at one of the biggest and most beautiful cathedrals in Europe.  Stroll around the Jewish quarter, visit numerous sword shops and begin looking for a snack and a break from the heat. 

Tiny winding streets of Toledo

As we were taking in the sites in the morning I spotted a charming looking place with a great tapas menu in one of the plazas, but when it came time to find it, we just could not.  We circled around the same area, stumbling on a sleeping basset hound at least five times, but kept ending up at the wrong plaza.  It was like the place was cursed and the woman steering tourists toward a plaza Mayor Eatery was a witch.  Again, we gave into the food fate and just sat down.  After some interesting interactions in Spanish and trying to decipher a menu from which I only understood some general terms we ordered.  Boy, do these Spaniards know their food!  We were served an Iberico pork chop, cooked medium rare, which tasted like haven and melted in my mouth.  It was pure, succulent porkiness at its best and I again marveled at how simply it was prepared.  Spanish white wine from the north regions was beautiful and crisp, and I was sad that in the US we hardly have any Spanish whites.

This cutie was just sleeping in the street.  He bacame less cute with each exausted circle we made ending up at the same place

An unforgettable pork chop

All in all, Toledo was a so far a highlight, as Madrid was not as inspiring as we hoped, the city has a few neighborhoods which can be enjoyed, especially around the museum part of town, but overall it is dirty, laden with beggars and lacking a unique charm.   Since we had one more night in Madrid, we were hoping to find a more charming part of town than what we saw so far, so we headed back anxious to finally eat a celebrated tapas dinner.  We ended up in a small place on a busy restaurant street frequented by locals and finally, finally, got to experience true tapas…. Huge grilled prawns, which squirt juice everywhere as you peel them, grilled Padrone peppers,  toasts laden with tomatoes and ham, grilled tomatoes oozing with caramelized goat cheese , boudin noir ( blood sausage),and a nice bottle of red all for the price of a couple of drinks back home….  Churros dipped into hot chocolate with coffee toped with frozen custard to finish the day and we were ready to move on to Seville.

Grilled King Prawns as sweet as butter and probably the messiest food on the planet
I was looking forward to seeing the Spanish country side, being that Spain is a fruit basket of Europe, I expected to see lush fields, orange groves and lots of charming little farms.  All we saw were olive trees, millions of them, occupying every foot of land stretching to the horizon.  Rocky, burned out soil and olive trees.  Nothing else, just dusty, grayish olive trees.   For all these olives you would think that olive oil would be sold on each corner, but to my surprise we only saw one tiny shop in Seville and just a few places in Granada selling it. 

Seville greeted us with smoldering heat and a town of ghosts….
To be continued....