Tostada con tomate – Spanish breakfast

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Tostada con tomate – toasted bread with fresh tomato, olive oil and salt – was one of my son Mateo’s first foods. With his teeth barely poking through his gums, he would nibble away at bits of tomato toast while perched on his tita’s (aunt’s) lap in our neighborhood café, golden olive oil trickling down his chin.

Look around any café in Murcia in the morning and you will find that tostada con tomate is what most people are having with their coffee. Here, toasted baguette is served with a ramekin of grated fresh tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil and salt on the side, so you can add as much of each as you like. With so much greenhouse production in Spain, we actually get tomatoes (and hence tostada con tomate) year-round, but nothing beats toast made with summer garden tomatoes.

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This popular breakfast and mid-morning snack (also known as pan con tomate) can be found throughout Mediterranean Spain in a variety of guises. The “best way” depends on whom you ask and where they first tasted the four basic ingredients together.

Many Catalans are sure to tell you their version is the best, and the original. In Catalonia, toasted bread with tomato is known as pa amb tomàquet, which, more than a dish, is a symbol of Catalan identity. Indeed, a Catalan writer was the first to mention the preparation in writing in the 1880s, which many consider as proof of its Catalan origins.* Pa amb tomàquet is traditionally made by cutting very ripe tomatoes in half and rubbing them flesh side down onto toasted country bread (sometimes with garlic), which is then drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt. For many Catalans, this is the only way to eat bread with tomato.

Both the Catalan and Murcian versions (and Valencian and Andalusian takes, too) are beloved local traditions, so does it really matter which came first?  I, personally, love them all, especially in the summer when tomatoes are at their best.

For my son, however, born in Murcia, this will likely always be the best way to eat pan con tomate:

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Murcian-style tostada con tomate

As with any dish that has so few ingredients, quality makes a big difference in the results. It’s best to use a good baguette that won’t turn instantly soggy, the summer’s ripest tomatoes, fruity extra virgin olive oil and fine sea salt. This recipe is even a good way to use up tomatoes that may be just a little too ripe for salads. The olive oil should not be so strong that it overpowers the tomato flavor.

Have the grated tomato, olive oil and salt ready on the table so they can be added soon as the toast is done.

If you’d like to add protein, top with a thin slice of cured Spanish ham (or prosciutto – I feel my husband cringing – if you cannot find a Spanish brand).

The quantities below are for two servings, but they can easily be multiplied or divided.

  • 1 very ripe large tomato
  • 1 six-inch piece of baguette, sliced lengthwise
  • Fruity yet mild extra virgin olive oil, in a recipient that makes it easy to drizzle
  • Fine sea salt
  • A few thin slices of cured Spanish ham (or prosciutto, optional)

Cut the tomato in half and grate each half over a shallow bowl using the large holes of a box grater (press the cut side of the tomato into the grater and rub with a flattened palm until you are down to the skin).

Toast the bread enough that it has some good crunch to it. Use a fork to prick the surface of the toasted bread to help the other ingredients seep in.

Top the toast with an even layer of grated tomato (thick or thin according to taste – I personally like a lot of tomato). Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with salt. You can always adjust and add more as you eat. Top with ham if you like.

Enjoy!

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* An interesting twist: in researching the origins of this simple dish, I came across a legend that holds that it was actually workers from Murcia who introduced pan con tomate in Catalonia when they headed north to help build the Barcelona metro in the 1920s. The legend persists, even though it has been debunked by the famous Spanish food historian and gastronome Néstor Luján based on the 1880s description by a Catalan writer mentioned above. Luján believes that pa amb tomàquet originated in the Catalan countryside as a means to add moisture and flavor to dried out bread. The rest, as they say, is history ;).

Peace, love and carrot cake

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It wasn’t until I became a foreigner that learning to cook well became urgent. Part of this was selfish – I had no other choice but to cook when I could no longer buy my favorite granola, when there was no Cuban restaurant nearby to satisfy my ropa vieja cravings, when mediocre carrot cake wouldn’t do. These foods may sound trivial, but the familiar flavors provided direct comfort amidst my exciting yet often exhausting first months living in Avignon, France (a new job, new colleagues and friends, a bare-bones apartment that wasn’t yet home, maze-like streets to find my way through…).

Yet as I cooked, I shared, and what began as a means for me to taste home evolved into a way to deepen connections with my new friends in Avignon from France, England, Italy, Germany, Spain and even Mongolia. We shared stories as we cooked and ate our favorite dishes from home together, foods that will always remind me of my now dear friends, like Irene’s gorgonzola gnocchi, Paqui’s ensaladilla rusa and Khosko’s buuz (Mongolian dumplings).

If I am remembered for one food by my foreign friends, it may be “my” carrot cake. I love carrot cake, yet had never attempted to make one myself before I moved abroad in 2006 (first to France and then to Spain, where I have lived for seven years and counting). For ten years prior to the big leap, I lived in Portland, Oregon, where some of the best bakeries in the world turn out the carrot cake that haunts my dreams. Why would I need to make it at home?

Yet in France, despite the equally craving-inducing (and memory-haunting) pastries, I longed to eat a satisfying slice of carrot cake. So I began experimenting with different recipes I found online (many thanks to the generous bloggers and magazine websites that share their content for free, you are lifesavers, and ambassadors, too, as you will see). Some cakes were too dry, some too chunky and distracting. My ideal carrot cake, I decided, has no nuts, raisins, pineapple or coconut, just sweet carrots and spice. After a handful of disappointing results, I finally found The One: Lisa Schoenfein’s carrot cake from the Saveur magazine online archives.

What do I love about this cake? It is packed with carrots so is unfailingly moist, the spices are warming and enticing yet not overpowering, and, best of all, it lives up to my carrot cake dreams.

I say best of all, although even better are the memories this carrot cake has given me. It is by far my most requested recipe here in Spain, and I have made it for countless parties, including my own wedding. Much more than a means to satisfy my own cravings, the cake has become a symbol of friendship across cultures. It starts conversations and makes people happy. This is what cooking well is all about.

Lisa Schoenfein’s Carrot Cake, adapted slightly from Saveur

The most time-consuming part of making this otherwise easy cake is grating the 1½ pounds of carrots called for in the recipe, which is more than I have seen elsewhere. This amount ensures the cake is moist and naturally fragrant. I usually enlist my husband.

The original frosting recipe calls for 3 cups of confectioners’ sugar, which I find way too sweet. I usually start with 1 cup and then add more by the tablespoon until I like the results. Between 1 and 1 ½ cups is enough for me.

This recipe makes one 8” stacked, round cake. For parties, I double the recipe and make a single-layer sheet cake (no need to double the frosting quantities).

For the cake

  • 1 ½ cups (170 g) flour
  • 1 cup (200 g) sugar
  • 1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon ground cloves
  • ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon ground allspice
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2/3 cup (160 ml) vegetable oil (such as canola or sunflower)
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 ½ pounds (600 g) carrots, peeled, trimmed and grated on the large holes of a box grater (approx. 4 cups)

For the frosting

  • 12 oz. (335 g) cream cheese at room temperature
  • 7 tablespoons (100 g) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup (110 g) confectioners’ sugar, plus more to taste

To make the cake

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F and butter and flour two 8-inch round cake pans (or one 11 x 15 inch sheet pan if doubling the recipe).

Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt and spices in a large bowl. Add the oil and eggs and whisk or stir until you have a smooth batter. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the carrots until just blended. They will release their juices as you stir, easing the process. Divide the batter between the two cake pans. Bake until the surfaces of the cakes are deeply golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, around 30-35 minutes (the original recipe calls for 25 minutes, although I have found this to be too short – with so many carrots in it, the cake has never dried out on me). Allow the cakes to cool on racks and then, in the case of the round cakes, remove from the pans. The sheet cake can be frosted directly in the pan once it has cooled completely.

To make the frosting

The original recipe says to use a high speed mixer to beat together the cream cheese, butter and vanilla extract until smooth and then to reduce the speed before adding the sugar. I have not always had a mixer, so have done this process both by hand and using a hand mixer. When mixed by hand, the frosting can be a bit lumpy, but still tastes great. I now use my Thermomix, which is akin to a super-powered blender, on a medium speed and get silky results. Too much speed can turn the frosting into liquid, which I discovered on the day of my wedding party.

To assemble to cake

If you are making a stacked round cake, place one of the rounds on a large plate and top with about one-third of the frosting. Spread the frosting into an even layer. Top with the second cake round and finish icing with the remaining frosting.

If you have doubled the recipe and are using a sheet pan, once the cake has cooled completely, spread the frosting across the top in a smooth, even layer.

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Spanish Food Idioms in Don Quixote – En todas partes cuecen habas

For fans of 17th century literature April 2016 is a seminal month, for it marks 400 years since the death of two literary giants: William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes. Although it is commonly thought that both men died on the same day (April 23, 1616), Spain and England used different calendars at the time (Gregorian and Julian, respectively), so the two men’s deaths were actually 11 days apart. Still, the coincidence is striking.

In honor of this anniversary, today’s post looks at a Spanish food idiom that was famously used by Cervantes in his classic work, Don Quixote. This 17th century novel, considered by many in the know to be one of the greatest works of fiction of all times, follows the tragicomic quest of a nobleman steeped in knightly romances to revive chivalry in what he sees as a depraved world.

January-March 2010 091 (2)Click here for an introduction to the Spanish Food Idioms series.

Literal and Figurative Meaning

En todas partes cuecen habas literally translates as “they cook beans everywhere.”*

Yet figuratively, this expression means that everyone, everywhere has problems, no matter what their circumstances. In other words, “it’s the same the world over.”

Why beans? And why habas (fava beans) in particular? In the past, and certainly in Cervantes’ lifetime, fava beans and other such legumes were a major component of poor people’s diets in Spain because they were inexpensive and easy to find. The act of cooking beans like favas thus had negative connotations, representing hardship and the daily grind.

*As translated by Edith Grossman in her contemporary English version of Don Quixote (Second Part, Chapter XIII, page 536).

In context

Today’s expression and similar variations are commonly used in the Spanish-speaking world, often by journalists and politicians in the context of corruption. Just look on Google. En todas partes cuecen habas = there is corruption everywhere.

I liked the contexts given in this article in the Spanish daily El País: “This saying comes in handy when you go abroad and see something that could happen in Spain. For example, when you see a story of corruption on TV, when someone tries to cut ahead of you in line while you’re waiting to enter a cathedral, and, of course, when someone cooks a stew with beans.”

Yet it was Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s faithful “squire,” who uttered perhaps the most famous version in a comical conversation with another squire about the ins and outs of their jobs and masters:  “en todas casas cuecen habas; y en la mía, a calderadas,” which literally translates as, “they cook beans everywhere, but in my house they do it by the potful.”

In the second part of  the expression, “in my house they do it by the potful,” Panza is of course claiming that his house has more problems than the rest.

Shakespeare, a master of universal truths, would certainly have found good use for today’s expression.

To conclude

Besides having died on nearly the same day and (purportedly) penned some of the most influential works of literature in history, Cervantes and Shakespeare share other commonalities. For example, due to gaps in their biographies, both men are infinite sources of debate and speculation. There are even theories that hold that Francis Bacon was the real author of both men’s works.

Theories aside, the genius of Don Quixote and Shakespeare’s plays is undeniable.

Such works are like an “open sesame” into the culture and language in which they were written. Just check out this list of 45 Everyday Phrases Coined by Shakespeare in the English language, and consider the Bard’s ongoing influence on popular culture.

Can we survive without knowing such cultural references? Of course. But in my perspective, life is much richer when we can recognize these connections to the past.

Shakespeare and Cervantes may be long gone, but we can rest assured that wherever we look there will always be a pot of beans on the fire.

Fiesta!

Like every Spanish city and town, Murcia has its own annual fiesta rooted in local traditions: the Bando de la Huerta. This day-long celebration pays homage to Murcia’s agrarian roots, its huerta, the cultivated lands within and surrounding the city once renowned as the huerta de Europa (the market garden of Europe).

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The Bando de la Huerta takes place every year on the Tuesday after Easter as part of the week-long Fiestas de Primavera, heralding spring’s arrival and offering an antidote to the (relatively) solemn activities of the Semana Santa, or Holy Week, before. On the day of the festival, the people of Murcia descend upon the city center by the thousands, many dressed in traditional clothing. The men are known as huertanos and the women, huertanas.

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A parade brings Murcia’s past to life with period costumes and floats showing time-honored huerta activities. On one float, señoras knead and shape dough to produce Murcia’s signature round loaves. On another float, young girls dance a jota in a bin of grapes, celebrating the local wine-making tradition.

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The most anticipated floats come at the end: tractor-drawn replicas of typical huerta homes, barracas, complete with thatched roofs and loops of sausage hanging from the rafters. Along the parade route, riders toss out products from the huerta, like lemons, local sausages and even small bottles of wine.

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Sharing from the huerta is not only true of this annual parade, but remains a strong aspect of daily life in Murcia, where the idea of actually paying for local products like lemons remains preposterous to many. Although there isn’t as much huerta as there used to be, the generous landscape that has fed families for centuries continues to give. This generosity is the heart of Murcia.

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Historical traditions aside, the Bando de la Huerta is first and foremost a party. An article on this year’s Bando in the local paper described the scene perfectly: “The people of Murcia celebrate the most ‘huertano’ day of the year eating and drinking in every corner of the city.”

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Instead of fighting the crowds in packed restaurants, many locals opt to bring their own provisions to the party, for sharing, of course.

Typical foods include Spanish favorites like marinated olives and tortilla de patatas, as well as snacks with a huertano twist like Murcian longaniza (sausages cured with pimentón), potato chips drizzled with fresh lemon juice, and savory pastries like the empanada murciana, packed with tuna, eggs and tomato.

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I usually bake American-style cookies for the picnic, which are much appreciated, but this year I decided to make an empanada murciana for the first time to share a taste of Murcia and its fiesta with family and friends on this blog. This nourishing savory pie pairs perfectly with ice-cold beer, and, an important consideration, keeps the effect of the beer in check.

Please see an updated recipe in this more recent post.

If you, too, choose to make an empanada murciana, in the spirit of the city, be sure to invite your friends. Cheers! ¡Salud!

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Easter Impressions

Thinking back, what does Easter evoke for you? For me it is baked ham and hot cross buns. It is also egg coloring kits, with their flimsy wires for dipping and the dyes that smelled of vinegar. It is a new dress and a brunch buffet with my Nana in the bright atrium of an Orlando hotel. It is roasted lamb carved under the warm red light of heat lamps and served with clover green jelly.

And I couldn’t leave out the Easter Bunny, who would hide my colored eggs around the house and leave me baskets filled with treats. There were pastel pink and yellow marshmallow Peeps, Reese’s peanut butter-filled eggs and a big milk chocolate bunny, which I usually ate ears first. After collecting the obvious prizes, I would weed through the tangled plastic strips of Easter grass in the basket to make sure not one jelly bean had been left behind.

Here in Spain, my childhood Easter feels lifetimes away. There are no egg hunts or Easter grass or chocolates with peanut butter centers. The Easter Bunny is a curiosity at best.

So what will my son Mateo’s Easter memories be? At two and a half, he is at an age where lasting memories are beginning to take shape. Here are some of the sights, sounds and flavors forming his early Easter impressions in Murcia.

Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions in Murcia

Semana Santa in Murcia is a festive and colorful time of year that is magical for children. The Semana Santa processions are the heart of the magic. I know this in part through my friends who remember the awe they felt and want their own children to experience the same. I have also seen the amazement in Mateo’s eyes as the processions pass by, with their trademark drum beats that he has been practicing on his toy drum ever since Good Friday (parrúm, parrúm, parrúm púm púm).

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Nazarenos in the Good Friday procession

Instead of the Easter Bunny, the main protagonists of the season here are the nazarenos (Nazarenes). While historically speaking, Nazarene was a term used to refer to Jesus and early Christians, in a modern context in Spain, nazarenos are Semana Santa procession participants.

They are also the subject of seasonal arts and crafts for kids, such as the “nazarenos” Mateo brought home from nursery school:

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Mateo alternately calls the nazarenosReyes,” the kings who bring children gifts on January 6, and “marcianos” (aliens). To him, the nazarenos are larger than life.

Local pride

Semana Santa processions take place throughout Spain, all to commemorate the final days of Jesus’ life and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. The nazarenos are also known as penitentes (penitents), marching to atone for their sins.

Yet, despite the evident religious themes of sorrow and guilt, most of the processions (in Murcia at least) are lively social events that pack streets with multiple generations out to see and be seen, to soak in the nostalgia and to pass it on to the children.

The processions in Murcia have several features that distinguish them from other processions in Spain, including the rhythm of drum beats and the fact that all of the pasos (floats) are still carried by man power alone (in other parts of Spain, at least some muscle power has been replaced by wheels and a chassis).

Another highlight of the Murcia processions is the large number of floats made by Francisco Salzillo, a native of the city and one of the most famous sculptors of religious themes in the 18th century. The expressions on the faces of his sculptures are searing. It is impossible not to be impressed.

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The pictures here are from the procession on the morning of Good Friday, one of the most popular processions for families. This procession is often referred to simply as “los Salzillos,” for it contains some of the artist’s most famous works, such as The Fall above and the Last Supper below, which weighs a whopping 1,301 kg (over 2,800 pounds)! Those who carry the floats (currently all men) are known as estantes, which in other contexts, fittingly, means “shelf.”

The Last Supper is carried by 28 estantes (who must shoulder roughly 100 pounds a piece) along a route that lasts about five hours. They of course rest from time to time, propping the float on special staffs, and each float has extra estantes who rotate in and out of carrying duty. Nevertheless, the route is exhausting. Talk about penance! The same men carry the same floats year after year, in many cases like their fathers and grandfathers before them.

From our front row seats we could see the fine details of Salzillo’s sculptures as well as the excruciating looks on the faces of the float bearers, adding to the emotion of the event.

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From a child’s point of view, however, the most appealing distinguishing feature of the Easter processions in Murcia is candy. Murcia is the only place in Spain where the nazarenos hand out copious (some say excessive) amounts of candy to onlookers, particularly to children.

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These are not fat nazarenos – instead the bulges you see are filled with candy and other gifts and treats.

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Mateo receiving candy from a young nazareno

Several theories exist as to the origins of the centuries-old tradition of candy in the processions in Murcia. One is that these offerings started as a gesture of repentance. Many nazarenos march with their faces covered, so the idea is that they could anonymously offer goods to anyone they had harmed. Today, however, they are most likely to give the treats hidden in their tunics to family, friends and children.

The other theory is particular to the estantes, the float bearers, who need fuel to complete their grueling task. Although food was generally prohibited in the processions, the Church allowed these men to eat, so they stuffed their tunics with provisions for themselves and their friends, including foods like fresh fava beans, hard-cooked eggs and monas de pascua, traditional Easter pastries I wrote about several years back. All of these foods are still popular with nazarenos today.

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A mona with a quail egg on top

This was Mateo’s third year attending a Semana Santa procession but his first year actually eating the treats. Needless to say, he loved it. In his mind, nazareno equals drums and candy.

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Hands full

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A nazareno-shaped lollipop

Which of my Easter traditions will I share with Mateo? The Easter Bunny has yet to make it to our house, and I’m not sure if he will as long as we are living in Spain. It’s not as though Mateo needs more candy.

And little by little, my own traditions are evolving. Now that I have lived in Murcia for over seven years, it just isn’t Easter to me without at least one Semana Santa procession, as long as it includes a good dose of sugar, of course.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spanish Food Idioms – Contigo, pan y cebolla

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Click here for an introduction to the Spanish Food Idioms series.

Today’s expression: contigo, pan y cebolla

Literal and Figurative Meaning:

“Contigo, pan y cebolla” literally means, “With you, bread and onions.” Figuratively, this is an expression of love and commitment despite hardship, a promise of fidelity come what may. The connotations are largely economic, i.e., with the most basic (and inexpensive) needs in life we can stick it out. In a larger sense, the bread and onions also represent the sweet and bitter experiences in life.

These four simple words in Spanish convey the same idea as the classic marriage vows in English, “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer.” To use another English expression, “contigo pan y cebolla” is a promise to stick together “through thick and thin.”

The blog title – why “Bread and Onions”?

I have named this blog “Bread and Onions” for several reasons. The title of course in part pays tribute to the reason I live in Spain: my marriage to a Spaniard.

Beyond the marriage context, I also see this expression as a metaphor for the ups and downs of our daily lives. No matter where we call home, life will always have its sweet bread and its bitter onions, its experiences to savor and to overcome together with family and friends.

Here I share anecdotes and recipes, mostly from Spain, but also from the other places I have lived and traveled. These stories are my bread and my onions.

In (a personal) context:

Tying the knot in Spain

I got married in Spain in April, 2013 in a sweet little ceremony in a small town in the Region of Murcia. Neither my husband nor I wanted a big wedding, so we hardly planned at all. The idea was to sign the papers on “the big day” and then gather our friends for a party a couple of weeks later. I wasn’t expecting anything else.

I was just happy we finally had a date. When I think back to our wedding, one of the things I most remember is the seemingly interminable waiting. We handed in our marriage application in September, 2012, and I thought we would be married by Christmas, but in the end it took seven long months with almost no news before were finally approved.

Why did it take so long? There are certain questions we will never have the answer to. As we waited, I often imagined our file collecting dust somewhere deep in the bowels of the Civil Registry. I fantasized about flying to Las Vegas, and I had frequent conversations in my head with the judge in charge of our case, a conservative and curmudgeonly man on the verge of retirement with a reputation for making decisions based on his personal beliefs. “Who are you to tell me if I can or can’t get married?” I would ask defiantly. No answer.

The fact I am a foreigner added an extra layer of paperwork to the process, which would have been quicker for two Spaniards or had we married through the Church, despite the fact that Spain is a secular state. At our “first appearance” before the judge in February, my husband and I had to prove we were not marrying for convenience by filling out questionnaires about each other’s families, work, hobbies and favorite foods. I imagined the judge poring over our answers with a red pen in hand, looking for any discrepancies that would send me back to America.

Our answers must have been convincing enough, however, because we finally got the go ahead in April. By this time, my residency permit had expired and Mateo was on his way, so we needed to set a date quickly. Had we wanted to get married in the city of Murcia (where civil marriages are only performed on Fridays), we would have had to wait until October, over one year after we’d handed in our application.

Luckily we had enchufe (connections), one of the best ways to speed up the Spanish bureaucratic machine. My husband’s boss, a member of the town council in a nearby village, helped push our papers through and got us a date on the following Monday in his village’s town hall, where he himself would preside.

The event that emerged spontaneously thanks to the contributions of friends and family was touching and nearly perfect. (It would have been even better had my family and friends from the States been there, too. This was the biggest downside of not planning ahead….)

My friend Paqui called the day before the wedding to insist that I get dressed at her house, that she had the bouquet thought out and that I was not under any circumstances to go to the wedding in the same car with my husband-to-be. She also brought flower petals and rice to throw once we were man and wife. I hadn’t even thought of such details, which sounded a little silly to me at first, but in the end I appreciated the added bit of ceremony and tradition, making me feel more like a bride on the big day. We weren’t just signing any old papers after all, we were getting married! After so many months of feeling like my wedding was trapped in the papers in someone else’s hands, I needed to make the day more personal, less of a bureaucratic routine.

My husband’s boss, a natural orator, delivered a speech peppered with philosophy, humor, Kahlil Gibran poetry and cariño (affection). This was far better than a randomly assigned judge in the city going through the motions.

Then came the vows, and the time to say, “I do,” which I first said in English, and then had to repeat in Spanish (Si, acepto) in order for the words to be legally binding. This technicality I didn’t mind.

Si, acepto!

Bring on the bread and onions!

 

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Macedonia de frutas – Soupy fruit salad, a toddler favorite in Spain

A quick note on the name change: This blog will no longer be called “go with curiosity,” but “Bread & Onions” instead, a more food-centric title. This new name comes from the Spanish food idiom, “contigo pan y cebolla,” “with you, bread and onions.” Briefly, this idiom conveys the same idea as the classic marriage vows “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer.” More to come in my next blog post!

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An introduction to Feeding Mateo: This is the first post in an ongoing series that will chronicle my experiences feeding a baby and toddler in Spain. I in no way pretend to speak for all Spanish babies. For one, I live in a provincial city, Murcia, which is quite different from living in a cosmopolitan capital like Barcelona or Madrid. Furthermore, Mateo’s diet includes a heavy dose of my own food memories and nostalgia.

This is therefore my personal toddler feeding adventure in progress, rooted in a few essential ingredients: my Spanish husband’s traditions and family recipes; food ideas exchanged with other moms and dads I know on both sides of the pond; and my own “foodprints,”i.e., the flavors and food experiences I have collected in all the places I have lived and traveled.

I also hope to hear ideas from readers who have either been there and done that or who also have a hungry toddler on their hands.

Let’s dig in!

Fruit First – Preparing food as a mother begins

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Since I had Mateo, cooking is no longer the optional hobby it used to be. Before, I would often spend a full day (when I felt like it) preparing an elaborate new recipe that would provide me with leftovers for the rest of the week. Now, however, I must cook a wider variety on a more regular basis.

I do not say this begrudgingly, as I obviously love to cook, but my relationship to cooking has certainly changed. Now I cannot wait for the muse to light the burners. Furthermore, I feel pressure to offer Mateo new flavors and textures to expand his palate beyond the typical toddler favorites (pasta, hot dogs, rice, anything sweet).

At 28 months, Mateo loves to eat, although he is not one of those toddlers who will eat just about anything. In fact, he is going through a so-called picky phase. To give an example, he loves paella, although he has begun to suspiciously eye each spoonful for any stray bits of meat. If he finds one, despite my efforts to cut it into rice-sized pieces, he spits it out, saying disparagingly, “carne” (the Spanish word for meat). The only meat he will eat that is not chopped up into tiny pieces is jamón serrano, Spanish cured ham. Perhaps he’s destined to be a vegetarian, with an exception for Spanish jamón. In the meantime, however, I keep trying.

One thing he never turns up his nose at is fruit. I often wonder if this is because the first “real” food he tried at five months old was a spoonful of fresh-squeezed orange juice, per his pediatrician’s recommendation.

For the next several months of his life he got fruit every day for his merienda, his afternoon snack, in the form of papilla de frutas – a thick smoothie of blended fresh fruits like bananas, apples and pears, all with a squeeze of orange juice.

The transition to pieces of fruit was seamless. Mateo happily devoured soft bits of ripe bananas and juicy melons and pears. He spent much of his first apricot season with a bright orange ring around his mouth (my husband is an apricot breeder and we get the most delicious apricots I’ve ever eaten, a topic which deserves its own post).

One of Mateo’s favorite ways to eat fruit these days is in a macedonia de frutas, a fruit salad. As he eats, we talk about the different fruits, colors and textures (“crunchy,” he often says to me when taking a bite of apple). When all the fruit is gone, he slurps up the juice from the bowl.

At least I know with fruit I can never go wrong, perhaps thanks to that first sweet, juicy spoonful.

Macedonia de frutas – Fruit salad

The name of this diverse medley of fruits in Spanish (macedonia) is an allusion to the ancient kingdom of the same name under Alexander the Great’s (356-323 B.C.) rule. This vast empire stretched from the Mediterranean to India, encompassing many different cultures, races and creeds.

While Alexander’s empire may not have been a harmonious blend, in the macedonia de frutas, all fruits are welcome. So my “recipe” here is just one example of the infinite possible combinations, depending on what your family’s favorites are and what’s in season. Bananas, pineapples, kiwis, berries, melons, you get the idea. Quality canned fruits make a nice addition as well.

The version below is inspired by my friend Paz, whom I met in birthing classes at our local health clinic when we were both pregnant. Just about every time we get our kids together for an afternoon snack, Paz makes a delicious macedonia de frutas. The other week, her salad included high quality canned peaches from Murcia and a bit of the syrup (Paz is from the Murcian town of Cieza in the main peach producing area in Spain). I (and Mateo, too, of course) liked the added sweetness of the canned fruit, making for a special treat.

Serves 2, although the recipe can easily be doubled, tripled, quadrupled, etc.

1 apple

1 pear

2-3 quality canned peach halves and 1 teaspoon of the syrup, or more to taste

4 strawberries (Strawberries are in season in Spain, although these are definitely not the sweet little berries I remember from my youth.)

1-2 oranges

Wash and then cut up all the fruits, except for the oranges, into uniform bite-sized pieces. I tend to peel the apples and pears, but this is not a necessary step. Sometimes I add in bits of orange sections with the membranes removed, too.

Squeeze enough orange juice into the salad until it nearly covers the fruits, removing any seeds of course. Mix in a teaspoon or more of the syrup from the canned peaches if you would like some added sweetness.

Allow the salad to sit at room temperature for at least 15 minutes so that the flavors can begin to meld. If you would like to serve the salad cold, cover with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.

For guests, it is best to serve this salad on the same day, although I often happily polish of the leftovers on the second day, depending on the fruits (the apples, pears and peaches hold up better than the strawberries and bananas, for example).

Spanish Food Idioms – Nacer con un pan debajo del brazo

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Hello world! I have decided to start back after so much time away with a Spanish food idiom that encapsulates the last few years of my life in which many big, good things have happened, making me feel truly lucky.

Click here for an introduction to the Spanish Food Idioms series.

Today’s expression: nacer con un pan debajo del brazo

I have often heard it said in Spain that “un bebé nace con un pan debajo del brazo” – “a baby is born with a loaf of bread under his arm.” In this day and age, the figurative bread in this expression represents the feelings of good fortune and happiness typically associated with the birth of a new child.

Yet the bread here also has financial connotations, as we can find in certain expressions in English. Another Spanish bread idiom, “Ganarse el pan,” “to earn one’s bread,” means to make a living, as a “breadwinner” does in the English-speaking world. Indeed, today’s idiom is thought to have originated in times when a new child  meant a new source of income or household labor in the family.

In context:

In case you hadn’t guessed yet, I have selected today’s expression because it has special meaning my personal life. Yes, the biggest, luckiest thing that has happened to me since I last wrote has been the birth of my son, Mateo. He was born on Halloween in 2013. Seeing and holding him for the first time, I more fully understood the meaning of the “pan debajo del brazo,” “the bread under the arm,” of a newborn baby.

 

IMG_2244This is one of the first pictures we took of Mateo in the hospital, over two years ago now!

 

Soon after Mateo was born, several friends said to me, often with a wink and a nudge, “A ver si viene con un pan debajo del brazo,” “Let’s see if he has come with bread under his arm.”

These friends were wishing our family well in all realms, yet I got the sense that they were especially wishing us financial luck. Perhaps this would be the year for us to win the Christmas lottery, for example, or, more realistically, for my husband to get a better contract.

For the past several years, you see, we had been living under a cloud of contract-to-contract uncertainty. But the year Mateo was born my husband got a prestigious five-year research position (in Spain, mind you, where good contracts are hard to come by these days). This is just one of the many ways in which we have been lucky since Mateo came into our lives. Read More

A drink to fend off winter blues

Several changes in my daily routine indicate that summer has officially ended – the thin blanket that was sufficient up until a week ago is no longer enough; my fingers and toes are constantly cold (and my nose has become an icy instrument of torture); this morning, I pulled out my down vest, my favorite way to stay cozy and warm while I work at home; I have begun to crave slow roasts or stews that warm the kitchen and my belly…And just like bulky sweaters and turtlenecks have replaced the tank tops in my bedroom drawers, autumn fruits, like pomegranates and oranges, have taken over the kitchen shelves.

As counterintuitive as it may sound, I’d say it’s the perfect time to make a refreshing cocktail with a fresh orange twist, the Aperol Spritz. Like its boozier cousin Campari, Aperol is a bitter and herbal Italian apéritif whose intense blood orange color jolts the senses as much as the flavor. The intriguing ingredients include bitter orange, rhubarb, and herbs like gentian (also in Angostura bitters) and chinchona, a source of quinine. Aperol becomes a balanced yet invigorating Spritz by adding bubbly and dry prosecco, a splash of soda and a slice of fresh orange. This might sound like a summer refresher (which it can be), and that’s exactly the point –  an Aperol Spritz can brighten any cloudy day.

Aperol Spritz

Another part of the Aperol allure in my mind is its elsewhere quality. Whereas a beer does not typically transport me from my living room, the distinct taste of an Aperol Spritz sweeps me away to thoughts of vacation and lively sidewalk cafés in Italy. It evokes happy personal memories, too, of my first encounters with the drink on a trip to Milan for a good friend’s wedding. I inevitably think of my first refreshing sip on a steamy late May afternoon in the Milan Centrale train station beneath the monumental columns and vaulted ceilings commissioned by Mussolini. I also get to relive the wedding reception, where I had my second Aperol Spritz while grazing from the genius “archipelago di antipasti,” a series of themed appetizer “islands” (i.e. tables), such as the cheese island and the cured meat island.

Milan Centrale

Someday soon I’ll be ready for a stew and for hunkering down. But the oranges on my shelves are calling me. For now, I’d rather have something that awakens the senses and enlivens a wintry day.

Early Oranges

Aperol Spritz

You can’t go wrong following the basic formula given on Aperol bottles: ice – 2 parts Aperol – 3 parts prosecco – a splash of soda – a slice of fresh orange.

The recipe lends itself to tweaking, however, depending on your perfect balance of bitter and sweet. For example, I forgo the soda as I see no need to dilute the flavors, and I squeeze in a bit of fresh orange juice for its natural sweetness and acidity. Manolo and I also use the Spanish bubbly cava instead of prosecco, for the sake of convenience and price. Purists may disagree, but I think that either prosecco, cava or champagne makes a delicious and invigorating Aperol cocktail.

Cheers!

Doggy Bags… in Spain?!?

Asking for a doggy bag in European restaurants has long been a faux pas for savvy American travelers not wanting to appear, well, too American. I don’t remember where exactly I learned that doggy bags were frowned upon on this side of the Atlantic, but it certainly wasn’t through requesting one myself. I had somehow already been convinced of the potentially mortifying consequences by the time I arrived in France for my junior year abroad. Self-conscious and 19, I avoided anything that might result in being snubbed to an even greater extent by the French waiters. When my parents came to visit, I recall making it known that they were not, under any circumstances, to ask for their leftovers to go.

I am happy to say I no longer care so much about what foreign waiters think of me, and waiters in Spain tend to be less intimidating in any case, but I still have yet to ask for a doggy bag in Europe. It’s just not part of the culture of eating out, at least in France and Spain.

This may be changing, however, if a recent ad on Spanish TV is any indication. In the ad, sponsored by San Miguel non-alcoholic beer, LA Lakers player Pau Gasol casually asks his waiter, “¿Me lo puedes poner para llevar?” (Can I get it to go?). The server, not the least bit perturbed, promptly delivers Gasol’s leftovers in a handy container labeled with the campaign slogan, “No lo tiro,” literally meaning, “I don’t throw it way,”  akin to the “Too good to waste” slogan of a similar campaign in the UK. Gasol’s novel action spreads like wildfire on social networks in Spain, a hopeful projection of the campaign’s results. But will the doggy bag really catch on so easily here?

(Check out the ad. This link will send you to YouTube.)

As you can see, the ad is not just for doggy bags, but is part of a larger campaign promoting responsible consumption in general (of food, alcohol, energy, etc.). This idea of responsible consumption has implications for both the individual – eating less for one’s health (obesity is an increasing problem in Spain) – and for the greater society – there is an alarming quantity of food wasted in developed nations, Spain included.

Not a crumb left behind

I am a regular doggy bag user in the US, which is often the result of restraint, knowing I can get two meals out of one. In Spain, however, knowing I won’t be taking any leftovers home, I approach eating out with a feast mentality.

Manolo has taught me a Spanish expression for this approach – “antes reventar que sobre,” which literally translates as, it’s better to eat until you burst than have anything leftover. Tellingly, this is known as the “ley del pobre,” or the poor man’s law, meaning the eat-everything-now mindset is actually rooted in times of anxiety-producing hunger, which have been sadly common throughout much of  Spain’s history. Seizing the last crumb makes sense if you don’t know when the next opportunity to eat will be.

Fortunately, such acute hunger no longer prevails in Spain (although poverty is on the rise in the current crisis). Nevertheless, the so-called poor man’s law still holds sway when a group of friends gets together for a meal.

This exuberance is part of what makes eating out in Spain fun, and also what makes it difficult to imagine the doggy bag ever becoming an institution here, at least in terms of holding back. And in any case, the US offers proof that the doggy bag in itself is not a remedy for overeating.

Too much thrown away

Expanding waistlines, however, are just one front of the nolotiro campaign, whose principal aim is waste rather than weight reduction. Even though it may seem contradictory to the eat-it-all mentality described above, food waste is in fact a growing problem in Spain as in the rest of the developed world. A recent EU study found that up to 50% of edible food is wasted along the supply chain in member nations, consuming both comestible and financial resources that are sorely needed elsewhere. (According to a Natural Resources Defense Council Report published in August 2012, the figure is 40% in the US.)

The amount that gets left on consumers’ plates in restaurants is a small yet not insignificant fraction of the total food wasted in Europe (much more restaurant waste in Spain is the result of oversupply – perhaps driven by the feast mentality…). On this front, the doggy bag, because it is novel, may work here, at least as an attention-grabbing symbol, raising awareness about the issue of food waste in general.

It certainly has caught this doggy bag veteran’s attention. As I result, I realize that I can make more of an effort to reduce food waste at home, by not buying too much food, for instance, and by eating or freezing what I have bought before it goes bad. I don’t know that I’ll be asking for a doggy bag in Spain any time soon, however. I have come to enjoy a good feast every now and then, down to the last crumb.

Additional Information:

In January 2012, the European Parliament set the goal of halving food waste by 2025, and 2014 has been declared the “European year against food waste.”

For now, the official nolotiro doggy bags are only available in participating restaurants in Madrid and Barcelona.

For information on the US front, check out Wasted Food, the website of Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland.