Monday, August 6, 2007

Tortilla Soup

I’m on a Tex-Mex kick. When you’re out of your home, your state, and you’re surrounded by people who think that queso is just Spanish for cheese, you want to educate. At least I do. And I want to show and teach them as much as I can about real Texas food. In my mind this includes three main food groups, with a few exceptions: 1. Mexican/Tex-Mex, 2. barbeque, 3. southern. It can vary depending who you talk to, and only just recently is there emerging a difference between Tex-Mex and Mexican, with places trying to stand out as being ‘interior Mexican’, but I think this makes them no better or worse than Tex-Mex. Also, if you’re from Austin, you don’t call Mexican food Tex-Mex. I think Tex-Mex is a special name developed by outsiders to describe the difference between Texas Mexican and Mexican Mexican. If I’m with my friends, we definitely don’t say “I feel like Tex-Mex tonight.” With us, it’s straight up “Mexican.”

I’m from Austin, I hold a special place in my heart for Tex-Mex, which is just Mexican, taken down to a few more specific dishes, and given a Texas twist. For those of you who don’t know what real queso is, it is not just cheese, nor is it ‘cheese dip’ as other parts of the United States refer to it. It is yellow cheese, melted with any number of the following: peppers (spiciness depends on where you go and who’s making it), onions, tomatoes, and garlic. Now this is the most basic queso. You can also go to places where they have add-ons, like ground beef and avocados, or if you’re really lucky and you go to El Arroyo, brisket. It is to be eaten with chips (tortilla chips is understood), or occasionally tortillas, and can be poured on most dishes, enchiladas, burritos, take your pick. Queso is Tex-Mex. And I love it.

Before I go on forever about the merits of queso, let me say I’ve never made it here in Barcelona because good yellow cheese is hard to find. Good cheese, not hard. Spain, and the Mediterranean for that matter, has good cheese galore. But it’s not yellow cheese, we’re talking American, Cheddar, Jack, or in extreme cases, Velveeta. Therefore it is not acceptable for queso.

To inform Dan about the great cuisine that is Tex-Mex I have to make other stuff, like tortilla soup. I wouldn’t call this specifically Tex-Mex. I remember the first time I went to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and we stayed in a house with a Mexican cook who made us lunch and dinner everyday. She served fresh tortilla soup and it was great. I don’t even like soup that much, but this stuff is good.

So, in an attempt to bring Mexican to Spain, I made tortilla soup for the first time. I looked at a lot of recipes on the internet from all different sources, wrote down the basics, and then threw in whatever else I thought would make it gooooood.

Tortilla soup

1 package corn tortillas
oil for frying (regular vegetable oil will work)

olive oil or xistorra grease (grease leftover from cooking sausage or meats)
1 medium white onion
1-3 canned chipotle chiles (canned in Adobo sauce)
1 liter chicken broth
1 can of diced tomatoes
2 fresh tomatoes
1 serrano/jalapeño

1 avocado
queso fresco (if you can find it) or feta (what I use)

Tortilla soup is basically spicy tomato soup, what makes it so much better are the toppings, so you have to make sure they’re good. The first topping is tortilla chips, but store bought ones don’t begin to compare to homemade ones, that’s key to great tortilla soup.
Start off by heating ½ - 1 inch of oil in a medium-sized pan over medium-high heat. This doesn’t have to be super specific on temperature, I just sprinkle water on the grease and when it’s hot, it pops. That’s when you know to add the tortilla. So while your oil is heating, take the corn tortillas and cut them in half and then into strips. Do as many as you like, they’re just garnish on top, but there’s nothing wrong with leftover homemade chips. When a sprinkle of water pops in the oil, add a few strips at a time, not too many crowding the pan, otherwise they’ll stick. If they fall on top of each other, just separate with a fork. They cook pretty quickly, maybe a minute or less on each side, until they’re golden, but not too browned because they seem to cook a little more after you take them out. So after a minute or so, flip to the other side. Then drain on a paper towel, removing them with a fork or slotted spoon and immediately sprinkle with salt, so it sticks. And you have your chips.
Now you can start on the soup itself. Chop the onion into little dices, and heat up the grease. Put in the onion when it’s hot, and let it cook for about 10 minutes on medium heat, until the onion has just begun to soften. Take your can of chipotle chiles. Now these are hot, so depending on how much heat you can handle, throw in a few, along with some spoonfuls of the adobo sauce.

I put in maybe one and a half chiles, and strangely, I could’ve handled a little more spice, but it still burned a bit going down. As you stir these around with the onions, break them up just with the tip of a wooden spoon. After a minute or two, you can begin to add the chicken broth, just about an inch or two up the sides of the pot each time, letting it cook down with the flavors.

After the first addition of chicken broth cooks down, add the can of tomatoes and stir. Salt and pepper.
A good thing about this soup is it doesn’t have to be exact. Just pour in a bit of broth every 5 minutes or so, give it a stir, and you should end up with some good soup.
To give it a fresh, slightly spicy flavor, I like to add a serrano pepper. Cut in half and then de-vein and de-seed (or save those for those more spicy-tolerant). After, cut into strips and then chop finely. Throw this in along with one of the batches of broths.

Also while you wait for the soup to cook down, prepare the toppings. Tortilla strips: done. Now chop the two fresh tomatoes. Then the avocado into long slices. Roll some limes under your palm and cut in half. Chop the cilantro. Crumble the cheese.
When you’ve added all the chicken broth, your soup is a nice balance of liquid and solids, and the last bit of broth has cooked down for about five minutes, turn the heat off. Throw in the fresh tomatoes and give it one last, good stir. Salt and pepper if needed.
To serve, spoon the soup into a bowl. Put on the toppings: tortilla strips, cheese, avocado, cilantro, and a generous squirt of lime all around. Preferably, it should be eaten with a margarita, but it’s not necessary.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

La Cova Fumada

Something has changed inside me. I’ve undergone a transformation. Before: hated Spanish food. After: like, enjoy, sometimes even crave Spanish food. This of course goes with the assumption it’s good Spanish food, really good. Not from one of the billions of restaurant/bars that have those ice cream signs from one of the three or so main brands with all the pictures of the red foot-shaped popsicles you can get, or with slot machine or other video game-esque machinery right inside the door. Those make me cringe.

It’s really quite depressing really, I don’t know why the whole country feels like it needs to furnish all of its bars in this way. Seriously. I was walking in the Eixample the other day and saw a cheese restaurant, French in influence, with all kinds of fondues and cheese plates, and hey, who could turn that down? We looked at the menu and fondues were starting around 30 euros, so it looked like a nice play…until we walked inside and they had a slot machine in the corner. Bleh.

So continues my search for the best restaurants in Barcelona, because when you do find good, homemade Spanish food, it’s great. I get tired of all the ham and pork based dishes, but there’s more to than that. Let me introduce La Cova Fumada, a little restaurant in the Barceloneta neighborhood right by the port and the beach, historically the old fisherman’s village. The good thing about Barcelona: the fresh seafood. The bad thing: the price.

Cova Fumada has great seafood, some fish you can come by pretty cheaply, and also other dishes that are not as pricey. It’s said to be the home of the bomba (a mixture of potato and ham, rolled into a ball, and then deep fried, usually served with a spicy mayonnaise), and although I do like the bomba, I don’t think theirs is the best. What makes my mouth water there is the bread. They have the usual pan con tomate (bread smothered with the inside of a tomato, sometimes dribbled with olive oil and a little salt, you find it at every restaurant here), but the best is their bread with alioli.

I hate mayonnaise, but if you find a great restaurant here (as opposed to one with slot machines and generic ice cream), they don’t plop on the jarred, store-bought Hellmann’s-like mayonnaise. Instead you get homemade alioli (garlic mayonnaise). Whenever I make alioli, it doesn’t look anything like Hellmann’s. It’s yellow and tastes of sharp garlic and smooth olive oil, and a bit of sour lemon juice.

Cova Fumada makes their own alioli, and although it’s not like mine, it’s definitely not Hellmann’s. It’s white, transparent, and garlicky (actually doesn’t look like the best thing to eat, but close your eyes, it’s so worth it). After grilling huge slices of bread, they messily spread alioli across and it melts into the light, crispy bread. It’s divine.

The bread might be my favorite part of the meal (I am into my carbohydrates) but they do some other great things, too. Most recently, we got a plate of mushrooms and some chickpeas with blood sausage. This is another thing I’m not a fan of, but after a while in Spain, I’ve kind of become immune to it. Because the chickpeas are so good, I just try and eat around the sausage (although I can’t avoid it all), but they come topped with a few pine nuts; I usually just try and forget that there’s blood sausage in the dish I’m eating and it goes down real easy.

I love mushrooms, I don’t think they’re too hard to mess up, but as simple as they may be, they’re great. And when they’ve all been eaten, there garlicky oil stays behind, to be intelligently applied to other foods that come. I also love shrimp. Being from America, we only have one word for shrimp: shrimp. It’s that simple. But in Spanish it’s not. There are camarones, gambas, and langostinos, all of which, as far as I can tell, are shrimp. The difference is where they come from and the size. I had heard some good reviews of the “prawns” from someone (apparently the Brits do differentiate between kinds of shrimp). So I tried for the gambas, and there were none, but the waiter told me they had langostinos. They came out on a plate, just simple boiled shrimp, heads on and everything. In addition to my immunity to blood sausage, I’ve become immune to food served with heads on it, or at least I’ve gotten accustomed to cutting the heads off my shrimp. This is where the leftover mushroom juices came in handy. Perfectly cooked shrimp, smeared around in some sauce and a smile on my face. They were extremely good, but 12 euros is a bit steep.

Dan went for seafood too, equally as tasty but more economical. I’ve gotten more into my fish here. Always have loved tuna, but now I’m getting into white fish, such as dorada, monkfish, and the caballa (or mackerel) that Dan had. Split down the middle, opened like a book, and served with the tail (no head present though) and covered in good things like garlic, parsley, oil, and nice and browned crispy on the outside, but soft on the inside. Really quite delicious.

They don’t need one of those cheap ice cream signs outside, no one would have room for it. We were stuffed. Cova Fumada doesn’t have a menu they hand you, I’ve come across many places like this in Spain, which can get annoying, but instead have a blackboard with the day’s offerings which is about 70% legible. It’s small, crowded during peak mealtimes, sometimes people wait outside or crowd around at the tiny bar to get their chance at the food. It’s loud, the waiters are running around like crazy, you might wait a bit before getting their attention. The tables are long and family style, you might be rubbing elbows with someone you don’t know, but it’s all part of the experience, the quality Spanish dining experience.