2014: Discuss

It’s almost 2015.

It’s been an anything-but-ordinary year. 2014 started with these things posted on the wall inside my office: an inspirational quote (haters behave) and a reminder of what would be my final day at the office…

I left New York at the end of April and returned in the beginning of November. Throughout those months I experienced epic highs and lows. I worked at two different Michelin-starred restaurants. I spent Sunday mornings scrubbing the recesses of more than one freezer. I cried at work – a few times. I travelled to Dallas, North Africa, all over Spain and southern France. I came to practice a new religion called gratitude. I strengthened relationships with people I love. And I prepared and shared meals with new friends from all over the world. I ate a lot of good stuff – from basic to molecular gastronomy. I took a lot of pictures along the way, ghetto iPhone snaps and carefully arranged food shoots. Here are my highlights…

sweets: toffee pudding from Rose Bakery, NY; almond croissant from Bien Cuit, Brooklyn; mint tea and cookies in Marrakech, Morocco

pintxos: Bilbao, Spain

Pintxos, the Basque version of tapas, flow in abundance atop nearly every bar and restaurant throughout Basque country. On the days I had off from the restaurants, my boyfriend and I tried eating out at a couple of restaurant restaurants – the kind with appetizers, main courses, desserts, served to you at a table. But in the end, our favorite meals were an assortment of these delicious babies, with mayonnaise-y seafood salads, jamón, croquetas, cheeses, etc., hand-picked ourselves onto tiny plates.

toast with puréed tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil: Madrid, Spain

I freaking love breakfast. In ‘Merica, I’m dreadfully banal: yogurt, granola, a little sliced up banana, done. When I arrived in Madrid back in May, this was my first breakfast and it’s the typical breakfast served in bars in Spain. Toasted baguette (not pictured), EVOO, tomato purée and salt.

tomatillos filled with aromatic sauces, served in tomato water infused with capers: Nerua, Bilbao, Spain

This was a dish I helped prepare for months. The beautiful, bright tomatillos (small tomatoes) come in crates, separated according to color. The process was arduous. We selected the most flawless tomatillos, blanched them in sunflower oil, carefully removed the skins … we roasted plum tomatoes which were pureed, then separated into batches, each of which was infused with a different aromatic herb or flavor: thyme, basil, rosemary, sage, oregano, mint, raspberry concentrate… with a syringe, the tomatillos would be injected with these sauces. Meanwhile, we would infuse an extract of tomato, tomato water, with capers. To plate, we would form perfect rows of tomatillos, pour in a laboratory test tube of tomato water and finish the dish with the tiniest leaves of basil – the smaller the leaf, the more potent the flavor.

This isn’t the kind of food I want to make for friends and family. This isn’t the type of dish I would serve in my own place. But it taught me the importance of repetition; of precision; of carrying out each step meticulously in order to achieve the same result each time. I popped more than one in my mouth on the sneaky, and the aromatic sauce bursts in your mouth with unexpected potency, making you appreciate the total evolution of such simple ingredients.

fresh fruit juice: Barcelona, Spain

These juices are sold in the Boqueria, the food market right off Las Ramblas, the main drag in Barcelona, and perhaps the most touristy food destination in the city. But I don’t care. Every time I go to Barcelona, I take a trip to the center and throw bows to get through the market and select one of these beautiful little juicies. My favorites involve coconut.

homemade pizza with foie and onions: home, Bilbao, Spain

It’s not the most gorgeous creation but bear with me. After working at the restaurant, I would come home at midnight or later and find my boyfriend in our kitchen making a late dinner. He likes to make homemade pizza, using a flavorful Belgian or German beer and whole wheat flour to make the dough. He rolls it out really thin so that it’s almost like a flatbread rather than a pizza. And me, I would be so depleted that I wouldn’t even want dinner.  I can’t even look at any more food, I would tell him. And I would sit by the window, drink a cup of 4-euro wine and smoke a little rolled ciggie while I watched him cook and vented about my night. I am endlessly grateful to this wonderful person for his love, support and encouragement throughout my adventure – which became our adventure. He’s a great cook too. Inevitably, I would always eat some of the pizza.

chocolate macarons: Mina, Bilbao, Spain

Mina was the end of the arc in my culinary journey. It taught me all of the things that a highly regarded restaurant could be: sophisticated and unpretentious, carefully designed yet comfortable and inviting. You can work crazy hours in a place that makes kick ass food and still have fun. You can get annoyed as hell with each other during service and still have a beer afterward. Plus the chef, Alvaro, is a pastry master, so I learned basic pastry techniques by watching him – like how to handle a pastry sleeve to squeeze out hundreds of identical macarons.

 alfajores: Mina, Bilbao, Spain

These Argentinean cookies are just SO. DAMN. GOOD. I can’t eat a shortbread cookie ever again without wishing it were slathered in dulce de leche and covered in powdered sugar. Here is the remnants of a tray of alfajores made for the team at Mina by Javi, the sous chef from Argentina.
snails cooked in olive oil, garlic and course salt

 caracoles (snails), roadside restaurant: somewhere on the Costa Brava, Catalunya

I’d been to Barcelona a handful of times before this year but had never traveled through Costa Brava. It’s gorgeous and so are its foods. While driving up the coast, we stopped at an ordinary-looking roadside restaurant and ordered a couple menus del dia. The snails were cooked the Catalan way, with olive oil, garlic, parsley … And I will venture to say I prefer them this way to the drowning-in-butter ones I’ve had in ol’ Pareee.

Well, folks, I hope your year has been splendid. And if you’re twiddling your thumbs and considering whether to take a leap and do something you never did before, YOLO… Just do the thing.

Thanks a million for your visits, your comments and support, however you sent it. Over 12,000 people have popped in to see what’s happening on Back to Spain and I’m insanely grateful. Happy and healthy 2015. Xx

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