Casa Roman Table

Lunch at Casa Roman on a pleasantly sunny afternoon under a bright blue sky.

 

The first leg of our adventure behind us, we left Madrid on a brisk, sunny morning via high-speed train, southbound for Sevilla.

After a 2 1/2-hour journey through a tawny landscape stippled with olive trees, we detrained, collected our bags and met Sebastian, who along with Dorothy had orchestrated our trip. He led us out of the cavernous station into glaring sunlight, where we boarded Sevilla’s version of the Weismobile and headed to the hotel. The stunning Corral del Rey occupies a restored 17th-century casa palacio in the city’s old quarter. After checking in, we tried to orient ourselves. Sebastian’s advice: Drop a pin on your phone’s map to find your way through the city’s ancient labyrinthine passageways. Modern-day breadcrumbs.

Jamon hanging

Jamon Iberico curing over the bar inside Casa Roman.

After a short respite, we strolled to la Plaza Venerables for lunch. At Casa Roman, waiters arranged a long table on the square in the shadow of the imposing Hospital de los Venerables. Once a home to priests, today the building houses a research center devoted to the work of famed Spanish painter Diego Velázquez.

Pitchers of ruby-red Sangria appeared, along with a couple of bottles of fresh, fruity Albariño. Soon the table was laden with salty cheese, fried cuttlefish, crispy dogfish croquetas, earthy artichoke hearts, tangy Salmorejo and, of course, thin slices of jamón Ibérico with its distinctive ribboning of rich fat.

Inside the restaurant, sweating lobes of Ibérico hung curing above the bar, a familiar scene in our travels. In Toledo, we had asked Gerry why jamón was so ubiquitous. He explained that in medieval times, pork was plentiful and easy to preserve, but it also served an important cultural function. If a Christian found himself needing to prove his religious affiliation, he would eat pork, which is forbidden to pious Muslims and Jews. “See? I am a ham eater!”

Jamón Ibérico appears on nearly every menu as a standalone snack or appetizer. At Casa Roman, it’s incorporated into practically every other dish, too. It was clear: In Spain, jamón is royalty. And during our lunch at Casa Roman, the refrain never rang truer: “We are ham eaters!”  

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La Masia Lunch

Lunch at La Masia

Gathered around an enormous table at a cervecería in Toledo with the Weis family and Kati’s Spanish host madre, it was easy to feel the love. Platters of simple, homey food appeared, wine poured freely, laughter erupted from every sector. It was a genuinely happy moment.

That morning, we had been driven from Madrid to Toledo, where Kati had spent a college semester a few years prior. We spent the morning with Gerry, hiking the cobblestone mazes of the hilly medieval city, exploring churches, mosques and synagogues, learning about the art, architecture and history of the area.

It was here, an hour southwest of Madrid, that Kati fell in love with Spain. Upon meeting Tomy, her host mother during her semester abroad, we understood why her experience had been so profound.

 A couple of weeks before we left the States, we heard that Tomy’s husband had passed away. We thought this sad event would alter our Toledo itinerary. But after talking with Tomy, Kati assured us that her madre wanted to meet for lunch as scheduled. The only change: Rather than having Tomy cook for us, we would go out.

Tomy

A lovely portrait of Tomy.

So around 12:30, after our morning tour, we dropped Gerry at the train station where we bid adieu (or rather, adios) to our affable Madrid guide. From there we drove to a modern apartment complex in the Toledo suburb of Polígono, where Tomy lives. When we arrived, she met us in the foyer. A beautifully petite woman with a warm smile and an air of fortitude, she greeted each of us with besos.

“Ah, it smells the same!” Kati declared as we filed into the tidy apartment, despite the fact that it was not the same home she occupied during her studies here.

Kati and Tomy prepared nibbles and caught up in the kitchen while the rest of us sipped wine and made ourselves comfortable in the living room. A tiny yellow bird chattered in its cage next to the front window. The TV was tuned to a cooking show featuring a hunky Spaniard preparing a delicious-looking tripe stew. Though I had just met her, I realized Tomy was a kindred spirit.    

She speaks no English, but it was, in the words of Dr. Bob Weis, “no problem.” Kati confidently translated as we snacked on crackers, salami, and Spanish cheese. Sipping a second bottle of Rioja, we talked about Kati’s semester in Toledo and how much we had enjoyed spending the morning there.

With typical enthusiasm, Gerry had revealed the layers of history behind the ancient plaster walls. The region’s multireligious tradition meant Christians, Jews, and Muslims coexisted for centuries, at times literally building on top of one another. “When you renovate anything in this region, especially churches,” he said, “you end up with an archeological site on your hands.”

We recalled seeing a pair of young newlyweds posing for pictures earlier that day on the medieval Puente de San Martín spanning the Tagus river, which prompted Tomy to bring out her own wedding album. We oohed and ahhed over pictures taken more than 50 years ago. There were smiles among us; suddenly there were tears, too. The absence of Tomy’s husband weighed heavily in the room.

Lunch at La Masia

A table filled with delicious, homey dishes.

Soon it was time for lunch, so we clambered into the bus, which was captained by our smiling, taciturn guardian and driver, Bea, and headed to La Masía.

The cervecería was buzzing at 2pm on Sunday afternoon as the 10 of us squeezed past local families through the wood-paneled bar, down a wide curved wooden staircase to an area that better accommodated a group of our size. 

The sprightly waitress brought us menús del dia, en Español, and Tomy took the lead in ordering several bottles of young tempranillo. She may not understand a word of English, but she clearly speaks our language.

We spent several minutes quizzing each other on unfamiliar vocabulary. “Do we know what guiso is?”

“I think it’s stew.” 

“And what’s buey?”

Tomy sensed our struggle. She and the waitress conferred with an amiable fellow we took to be the manager, or maybe the chef. He and Tomy commenced a spirited discussion about what and how to feed our linguistically-challenged crew. Their rapid-fire exchange might have been mistaken for an argument had it not been punctuated by laughter and, ultimately, a verdict: We would order everything on the menu and share, tapas-style. 

The rustic fare was precisely what the day called for: fork-tender pork cheek luxuriating messily in a succulent red-wine reduction; filet of beef bathed in a white sauce that practically begged to be eaten by the spoonful; creamy scalloped potatoes, dusted with paprika, alongside sautéed shishito peppers; seared tuna steak served with a piquant sesame mustard; a simple salad of tomatoes, onion, and flaked tuna; and small loaves of bread, for tearing and sopping, placed directly on the tablecloth. Unfussy and  satisfying, it was an ideal family-style meal.

Liquor de Tomillo

Chupitas de Liquor de Tomillo and gummy candies.

At the end of the feast, Tomy ordered chupitos (shots) of an electric-yellow beverage called Liquor de Tomillo (thyme), a digestif typical of Toledo. A row of glasses arrived on an oblong platter amid a scattering of gummy candies. We were dubious. The syrupy liquid had the day-glo quality of a medicinal — the kind of drink most of us politely refused after experiencing our first real hangover, decades ago. But a sip or two revealed a smooth, herbaceous tonic, semi-bitter and not too sweet. Roxanne aptly described it as limoncello without the limon.

Having gorged ourselves, no one was hungry for dessert. Tomy wouldn’t have it. Eyes narrowed, finger jabbing, she scolded us in Spanish: “When you see my dessert, you all will be so jealous!” Though stuffed, we were swayed. The ice-cream cake and custard appeared, and then disappeared as if by magic.

The day faded to twilight as we left the restaurant and returned Tomy to her apartment. Grateful for her hospitality, we shared tearful farewells aboard the bus. Then Kati walked her to the door where, no doubt, a few more tears were shed.

It was a gift to have had a glimpse of everyday life in Spain. With such warmth and support, it was no wonder Kati fell in love with Toledo, with the culture, with her Spanish familia. Bea turned the bus around and set course for Madrid. As we looked back, Tomy was still waving goodbye.

Spain 2015: Del Corazón

February 29, 2016

SoupJamon

Jamon Iberico is central to Spanish cuisine and was at the heart of nearly every meal we enjoyed.

Paris was a disappointment.

We’ve spent many happy days in the French capital, most of them unforgettable in fact. But this day was a letdown. Why? Because this day we expected to be not in Paris but in Madrid. This day we hoped to be touring the Prado, awakening our travel-weary senses to the delights of Velázquez and Goya, lunching on olives and croquetas, enjoying our first day in Spain with our friends the Weises. Not slumped on a bench in Charles De Gaulle Terminal 2F, unable to sleep.

Six of us had departed from Portland. But a faulty aircraft component had delayed our flight to Amsterdam, where we missed our connection to Madrid. Hence, the rebooking of four of our party through Paris and two through Barcelona. And a five-hour wait.

***

In 2012, Jeff and I were fortunate to have been invited along on a Weis family vacation to France. Dorothy engaged Trufflepig Travel to help organize that tour, which went down in family history as The Trip of a Lifetime.

Three years later, she re-enlisted Trufflepig to plan a 10-day adventure in Iberia over the Thanksgiving holiday. Sebastian Lapostol, an American living in Jerez whose interest in Flamenco guitar brought him to Spain, is Trufflepig’s expert. He helped craft an itinerary that would include Madrid and Toledo, Sevilla and Jerez, Barcelona and the Costa Brava.

LaFamiliaWeis

On the plaza in front of the Royal Palace

We were a cast of nine, comprising Weis family members primarily: Bob, Dorothy and their daughter, Kati; Zandra and James; Kyle and Roxanne; Jeff and I.

Our 120-page Piglet guide outlined our itinerary in detail. Much of the focus would be food and wine, but there also would be splendid hotels, opulent palaces, breathtaking vistas and knowledgeable people — aficionados — to guide our way.

Reflecting now, the cuisine features prominently, of course. But the greatest impression I carry is of the people we met and the passion they exuded — for their culture, tradition, food, music, art, architecture. For their country. It was clearly del corazón — from the heart.

We arrive, finally

StaircaseDay1Hotel

AC Palacio del Retiro’s enchanting spiral staircase

Bob, Dorothy and Kati landed on schedule and enjoyed the first day’s activities, which included the Prado and lunch. Those of us coming from Portland, not so much. But by evening we and our belongings had arrived — most of them, anyway. Kyle and Roxanne’s luggage was a no-show.

We late-comers checked in at our hotel, the AC Palacio del Retiro, formerly part of the Spanish Royalty’s secondary palace complex. Then we all met at the foot of the building’s elegant winding staircase for dinner.

The travel delay had blown our restaurant booking. Complicating a last-minute reservation for nine was the horde of soccer fans who had flocked to the city for a weekend match between rivals Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. Though reluctant to recommend it, the hotel concierge directed us to a nearby Italian restaurant. “You won’t have trouble getting a table,” he said.

True enough. Fortunately, Trattoria Sant Arcangelo served precisely what was needed after a too-long travel day: translucent beef carpaccio, rich tagliatelle Bolognese, risotto fragrant with truffle, pizza al prosciutto e funghi, and silky gnocchi Gorgonzola. It wasn’t Spanish, but no one complained. That long-ago trip to France was a memory and our recent detour through Paris was over, thankfully. After several bottles of wine and a brisk stroll back to the hotel, we were ready for sleep, ready to recharge.

Our current Trip of a Lifetime was under way.

The Royal Palace of Madrid

The next morning we assembled in the lobby and met our guide, Gerardo (“Please call me Gerry”) Rappazzo. We shook hands all around, filed into our minibus and
departed for the Royal Palace of Madrid.

MeetingGerryDay1

“Please call me Gerry.”

Gerry switched on the mic and went into tour mode, his voice booming. “The road we are on, it’s called the Ronda,” he said. “Ronda means circle in Spanish, and this Ronda follows the footprint of Madrid’s ancient wall.” Looking north, we saw the narrow, ancient streets of old Madrid. To the south, wider, newer streets radiated into the distance. “Maybe you noticed the arch near your hotel; it’s called Puerta de Alcala, and was one of the original gates to the city.” He was clearly enjoying himself, but, as we would learn, he was just getting warmed up.

At the Royal Palace, Gerry ushered us past lines of tourists awaiting entry, over the vast parade ground and into the 3,000-room palace, whose design was inspired by drawings made for construction of the Louvre. Inside, we marveled at the grand staircase and gilded moldings, the painted vault ceilings and intricate, symbol-rich wall coverings, the assemblage of clocks.

Gerry was in his element, an unstanchable font of history, art appreciation, commentary, and trivia.

Did we know that in the 18th Century the king was dressed and undressed in public? That an audience watched him eat? That a royal marriage was consummated in view of the court? But of course, according to Gerry, it had to be so.

BigNoseDay1

King Charles III  (AKA Big Nose)

“You might ask me,” he said, one of his signature phrases, “Gerry, why is each room in the palace smaller than the previous?” And he would answer his own question: “Because the audiences witnessing the royal activities were smaller as the activities became more and more personal.”

Onward: The priceless Stradivarius collection; the Golden Fleece, symbol of the Monarchy; the magnificent velvet-walled throne room with its fresco ceiling; the near-ubiquitous presence, in stone, on canvas and in spirit, of 18th Century reformer King Charles III, known as Big Nose. All of which Gerry described in loving detail. Would we like to glimpse the king’s commode?

Bystanders would hear Gerry’s discourse and attach themselves to our group. Some asked questions. Gerry would gently disinvite them.

We learned much that day, but lesson No. 1 was this: A self-directed tour is generally a feeble substitute for one led by a knowledgeable guide who loves his or her subject.

Guernica

Case in point: Guernica, Pablo Picasso’s renowned anti-war statement housed in the Museo Reina Sofia, to which we paid a short visit after the palace tour.

Gerry, who has a background in art history, enlivened the painting with his interpretation. He described the political landscape that led to the German air bombardment of the Basque town of Guernica and its market, recounting how most of the village’s men were away at work or fighting the Nationalists when the attack occurred. Victims were predominantly women and children. He noted the symbolism of the bull, the aggressor (the Nazis or fascism in general), and that of the horse (the people of Guernica), screaming in pain; how the harsh angularity of the painting’s lines echoed the anguish of the human figures; the broken dove; the flower, a tiny emblem of hope. Though Jeff and I viewed the painting in 2011, we didn’t truly experience it until that day.

We wished for more time in the museum, but our mission was focused and we had a lunch reservation. So it was into the bus and off to Iroco.

Lunch

FoieIroco

Foie terrine with tangy mango chutney

Located in the posh Salamanca neighborhood, Iroco boasts a bright interior and crisp white tablecloths. The leafy terrace would have been first choice for seating, but the chill sealed our decision to eat inside. We took a large banquette table near the French doors to the terrace and ordered a couple of bottles of Albariño while we perused the Italianesque menu.

To start: sirloin carpaccio, sliced so thin it practically melted on your knife; chilled foie gras terrine, served with a mango chutney to cut the fatty richness; golden, crispy croquetas of Iberian ham and mushroom; and soft pillows of burrata alongside sweet tomato confit.

Entrées included cannelloni stuffed with meltingly tender veal cheek, gratineed with a punch of Gorgonzola; lightly sautéed baby squid punctuated by tangy citrus dressing; cod confit, artfully arranged with creamy white garlic sauce and a dotted arc of black garlic sauce. Mindful that dinner would be upon us soon, most of us leaned toward the lighter side, like a special of layered pato (duck) and vegetable lasagna; cubes of corvina ceviche with sautéed vegetables and cauliflower puree; and a green salad topped with crispy fried chicken and pomegranate seeds. After a morning of touring, lunch was restorative.

We departed into the brisk afternoon, strolling to the hotel through the northern margin of sun-dappled Parque del Buen Retiro. Dorothy and Kati then went in search of gifts for our next-day visit to Toledo. Still awaiting luggage, Kyle and Roxanne shopped for clothes. James, Zandra, Jeff and I resisted the urge to nap and walked to Plaza Mayor and the Mercado de San Miguel where, in the din of the crowded market, we enjoyed wine and a plate of jámon Ibérico.

We then set course for the hotel, keeping an eye out for a pub where we could stop in and watch the soccer match. Unfortunately, every establishment with a television was overflowing. As we heard later, it was not Real Madrid’s night. Barcelona won 4-0.

It was just as well that we couldn’t find seats. Watching the match would have involved more food and drink. We were just as happy to preserve our appetites for what would turn out to be a highlight of the trip: dinner that evening at El Club Allard.

Lettuce - cropped
Brussles SproutsIf it’s true that you are what you eat, Jeff and I have dual identities. During the work week, I’m known as Salad (my friends call me Sal), and this is my husband, Veg. Mondays through Thursdays, our dinner routine is for the most part just that: routine. I fix a chopped salad for me and Jeff stir-fries veggies for himself. Not that the routine isn’t tasty and satisfying and, in its own way, essential — it just doesn’t vary much.

Weekends are a different story — we cook bold dishes. We eat out. Our identities revel in spice and richness; they relish the perfect dumpling or plate of pasta dressed in butter and cheese and cream; they savor the crisp rind of roast pork; they quench the thirst for wine. Weekends are delicious.

In food, as in most of life, balance is key. But traveling through France, our weekday identities were continually tested. On day one, Jeff was already craving vegetables, and by day four, after a steady diet of duck and goose liver, we came to terms with the idea that veggies and salad may not find a prominent place on the menu for another 10 days. Strange, too, since the markets we visited overflowed with tantalizingly beautiful produce.

Salade Lyonnaise.

Salade Lyonnaise.

And then, a miracle happened: salade Lyonnaise. The perfect balance of weekday and weekend identities. A mound of lovely torn bitter greens, usually frisee or curly endive, dressed in Dijon vinaigrette; a generous strewing of chewy, salty, thick-cut lardon; crispy, butter-toasted croutons; all topped by a soft poached egg. A tap of the fork opens the yolk, spilling yellow richness onto the ingredients below. Technically a salad, but so much more. James decided it would make a beautiful breakfast. Why not? Suddenly Tuesday is best friends with Saturday, dinner is breakfast, and all is right with the world.

 L’ Essential Restaurant – Avignon

The grand dining room at the Palais des Papes.

The grand dining room at the Palais des Papes.

The Setup: Our final day with Kelly, and he was eager to introduce us to Avignon, his stomping grounds. We piled into our vehicles and headed into the city for a day of sightseeing. We started with a walk around the grounds of the Palais des Papes, then took a tour of the palace, where our group unraveled into smaller bunches. Afterward, pooped and hungry, Kelly, Jeff and I met up with Brett, Amy and Aiden and the hometown guy steered us through the streets to a nearby restaurant, L’Essential. Small, bright, modern and quite upscale, the dining room was still nearly filled with fancy lunch patrons finishing their meals. We took a table near the back and contemplated the menu. As at many restaurants we’d visited, L’Essential’s menu of the day was less expensive than choosing a la carte. Yesterday’s stuffing still fresh in my memory, I briefly considered ordering just one item, but in the end it didn’t make sense from a dollars-and-cents standpoint. Onward I went into another delicious three-course midday meal.

Raspberry parfait with cotton candy.

Raspberry parfait with cotton candy.

Prawns over crispy polenta.

Prawns over crispy polenta.

The Feast: Up first, butternut squash soup, poured at the table into a deep wide bowl containing a creamy cannelle topped with thinly sliced mushrooms. The main course brought a lovely little tower of crispy polenta and flaky cod crowned by a giant prawn, served in an herbed tomato sauce. Then the dessert I could have done without appeared: a fancifully garish highball glass half-filled with yogurt, half with raspberry sauce. Across the rim of the glass rested a puff of pink cotton candy. It was mocking me, I was sure of it. The yogurt and raspberries were cool, creamy and bright, and thankfully Aiden was more than willing to take one for the team and eat my cotton candy — in addition to his mother’s.

Most Memorable:  Another beautiful restaurant, another lovely meal. But I’ll remember the sight of well-coiffed French patrons swirling pink wisps of cotton candy around their tongues.

La Beaugravière – Mondragon

La Beaugravière's handwritten wine list.

La Beaugravière’s handwritten wine list.

The Setup: Our final night in Provence also marked Kelly’s last night with us, and a celebration was in order. La Beaugravière in Mondragon is known for showcasing the region’s truffles in traditional dishes. To get there, we had to drive through the Provencal countryside for about an hour. When we arrived at nearly 9 pm, the spacious dining room was still humming, a few large tables hosting what looked like family gatherings. Our large group took seats at a vast table next to the crackling fire and marveled at the wine list, a voluminous tome entirely handwritten in perfect curly script.

Scallops and spinach puree.

Scallops and spinach puree.

The Feast: Most of us went for the deluxe truffle tasting menu, regularly priced at 120€, but this night, for us, they offered it at 100€, a relative bargain. Jeff, Zandra and I, unable to bear the thought of another gut-busting binge, decided on a more moderate menu with fewer courses. Our meal started with beautifully plump seared sea scallops and a dollop of spinach puree in a buttery cream sauce. Simple, light-ish, off to a good start. According to the menu we were not supposed to have a second course, but the concept of the Empty Plate was apparently not practiced here and we were served a familiar and always satisfying butternut squash veloute. The main course of the “light” menu featured the region’s famous, plump-and-pampered Poulet de Bresse, ours roasted and served with mushrooms and a spoonful of custard-like cake filled squash and other vegetables. The others in our party were treated to the same roasted poulet with truffles tucked under the skin. A restrained cheese course followed (only two pieces), and then dessert: orange laden crepes Suzette for me and a raveable apple tarte for Jeff and Zandra. Two, sometimes three wines with each course was now standard, and tonight was no different.

Kelly shows us one of the cellar's finest.

Kelly shows us one of the cellar’s finest.

After dinner, Kelly treated us to a brief tour of the restaurant’s basement wine cellar. A creaky narrow wooden stairway descended to a musty low-ceilinged labyrinth of shelves and  stacked crates, filled with wine bottles sporting faded labels and vintages spanning the 20th Century. Just another evening with Kelly. Quite a treat.

Most Memorable: The meal itself was rich and remarkable, but this night is remembered bittersweetly as our last with Kelly.  After dinner, in the parking lot, we said goodbye to our friend with three alternating cheek kisses as is tradition in the region. Bise, bise, bise … multiplied by 11.

Restaurant Aux 3 Maries- Lyon

The Setup: The high-speed rail made short work of the kilometers between Avignon and Lyon, and we arrived with enough time for a quick lunch before our afternoon appointment.  Jack discussed nearby options with the hotel’s front desk, and we headed a couple of streets over to a little bouchon, Restaurant Aux 3 Maries. Upstairs, in an area quieter than the bustling dining room below, we sat at a large table by the window.

Egg, lardons, crouton. Oh, and greens.

Egg, lardons, crouton. Oh, and greens.

The Feast: Compared to the truffle banquent of the previous night, this meal was relatively light and casual, with each of us ordering just two small courses. I started with salade Lyonnaise, as did a few others at the table. My second course: a few wedges of salty, creamy cheese with baguette. Lovely and light.  Jeff, James and Amy were tempted by the andouille sausage listed on the menu, but when it arrived it was not the familiar, spicy encased meat we’re accustomed to in the States. This andouille was a looser sausage with a pungent, gamey aroma and flavor. It was only after lunch that we learned the sausages’ primary ingredient was tripe. Well, that would explain things.

Most Memorable: That splendid moment when the egg yolk ruptures, cascading over the salade Lyonnaise. Heaven.

Le Merciere Lyonnais Bouchon – Lyon

Comforting gratineed onion soup made richer by egg yolk in Sherry.

Comforting gratineed onion soup made richer by egg yolk in sherry.

The Setup: Our final day in France. We spent the morning trying to keep up with our fast-walking guide, who took us on a circuitous tour through traboules and markets, past the old cathedral whose detailed carved facade comprised a multitude of ancient stories and characters, to a silk atelier, and eventually over the Rhone into the more modern part of town, where we ended at Les Halles de Lyon, the enormous marketplace of food purveyors and cafes. (I envy the U.S. cities that support these Euro-style markets and feel fortunate that Portland may soon be home to one.) We wandered for a bit, tasting a few samples, then said goodbye to our guide. Then back to old town, where we found a cute, casual two-story bouchon tucked in an alleyway. Up the impossibly narrow spiral staircase we went, to the lengthy, narrow second-floor dining room, much of whose space was consumed by our large table. It was here that we parted ways with our friend Jack (many hugs and handshakes) and here that we met yet another good-natured waitress, who traversed the tight ringlet of a staircase a dozen times carrying plates of food and bottles of wine, feigning fatigue and mock exasperation.

The Feast: The menu was filled with traditional Lyonnaise dishes, each one so tempting it was difficult to choose. Having fallen for it the day before, I started with salade Lyonnaise.  After that, French onion soup gooey with melted cheese and soft caramelized onions. But this version had a kicker: On the side was a ramekin with a raw egg yolk and a bit of sherry meant to be stirred into the soup for even more delicious richness. An unbelievably wonderful idea. Other dishes at our grand table included a hearty, sweet-tinged chestnut soup and incredibly rich pasta in a dense cream sauce. With Kelly not there to guide our wine choices, we ordered one at the suggestion of the waitress and proceeded to drink a total of five bottles. Heathens.

Most Memorable: The addition of the egg yolk in sherry added a luscious richness to an already-rich soup. But even more memorable was our server, whose sweetness and good sense of humor shone despite having to make several trips carrying dishes up and down those narrow, winding stairs. Great way to cap off our most memorable of vacations.

****

Post Script

When people ask, I gush about about our trip to France, but my words fail to do it justice. Gradually I’ve arrived at a quick, digestible version that most people can relate to: the food, the wine, the people, the countryside, it was all amazing.

Fifteen glorious, fast-paced days. Eleven great people. Eight versions of butternut squash soup. There is so much that we did and saw that I didn’t even begin to touch on here. All the chateaux and wineries; the many medieval villages and castles; pizza in Sarlat; pho in Lyon; the private tour of the caves in Dordogne; more foie gras than we could begin to quantify. I am so grateful to our travel companions, a wonderful family who so generously invited us into their fold. It was an adventure we’ll never forget.

Tomato sandwich

J + R + T = Love.

Some couples have their song. (“This is our song! We danced to it at our wedding.”)

Some couples have a place. (“We are going back to Cabo in the spring. It’s where we met!!”)

Jeff and I, we have a sandwich.

Ok, to be fair, it’s a sandwich and a side. So it’s really a meal. Our meal is the tomato sandwich and “dry” ramen.

Of course I’d had BLTs before, and everyone knows how I feel about ramen, but this combination is special. Early in our relationship, Jeff introduced me to this glorious partnership, which he and his brother had perfected during their college years. The sandwich requires juicy, sweet, still-warm-from-the-sun, vine-ripened tomatoes, which are so plentiful in Salt Lake. It’s not worth making if you don’t have this component (and I’ve griped about the lack of decent tomatoes since leaving Utah).

The focus on the tomato makes this sandwich different from a BLT, where bacon steals the show. This is a T sandwich all the way, and the other ingredients are supporting cast: Two pieces of toasted wheat bread, one topped with a leaf or two of lettuce (I like either iceberg or butter lettuce). The other piece of bread has a slather of mayo and Dijon mustard. Call in the tomato. It should be plump, sweet and juicy, not like the anemic grainy flavorless imposters you find in the supermarket. At home we grew Early Girls and Beefsteak, and both made lovely sandwiches. Lay two, three or four thick slices on the lettuce. Grind a little black pepper over the tomato and put a couple not-too-thick slices of cheddar on top. The other piece of bread sits on top of the cheese. (You’ll notice the cheese and the lettuce insulate the bread from all the juices from the tomato. Ingenious, I know.)

While one of us assembled sandwiches, the other started a little pot of water on the stove for the ramen, which is drained and dressed with a dash of rice wine vinegar, a drizzle of soy sauce, several good shakes of Tabasco, half the flavor packet and five or six grinds of pepper.

Sandwich and ramen

Beautiful.

Sandwich on the plate. Ramen on the plate. Nothing could be more beautiful.

During the summer in Salt Lake when the tomatoes were bountiful, Jeff and I would eat tomato sandwiches for lunch at least a couple times a week. We even considered serving it at our wedding, only half-jokingly, before we decided that Log Haven likely would not tolerate Top Ramen in their kitchen.

Every once is a great while we come across the rare tomato that is sandwich-worthy, like the ones Jeff found last week. We pounced and went through the delicious summer ritual of so many years ago. Hunched over our plates, tomato juice dripping down our chins, we thanked our lucky stars that we don’t have a song or a place. We have a sandwich.

Namesake: Dad’s Chile Verde

February 22, 2012

Dad's dhile verde

Dad’s chile verde — even better the next day for breakfast.

Despite being descendents of mostly Eastern European stock, my parents introduced my sister and me to Mexican food at a fairly early age, which likely had to do with my dad’s early adult years. After leaving Wyoming, Dad lived in San Diego where he went to school. Later, when he got a job with Levi Strauss, and he and my mother bought a little bungalow in San Jose, next to a Mexican-American couple, John and Sarah Duarte. Or, as I knew them: Nina and Nino. I was born around that time, and Nina and Nino were designated my honorary godparents. Though I don’t remember living in that little bungalow, I do remember the many trips that Nina and Nino made to Salt Lake City over the years to visit us. I remember those times for the warmth and joy they brought with them, but also for the food. At an early age, I was introduced to traditional dishes like posole, nopales and menudo, none of which really appealed to my young palate. Of course with all of that also came the delicious thick homemade flour tortillas, hot off the griddle. I ate mountains of them as a kid.

When my parents moved to Utah, I can only imagine they each sought something familiar to make it feel like home. For my dad, that search seemed to be rooted in food, and he always was looking to discover the little dives for the most authentic Mexican flavors he could find.

I asked Dad about his chile verde recipe, and he told a story about working downtown and going to a cafe called La Paloma around the corner from his office on Exchange Place. He’d go in every morning around 7am to sip coffee, and talk to “Grandpa Joe” who was busy making the menu’s standards. While Grandpa Joe closely guarded his recipe for chile verde, Dad studied and made mental notes of the ingredients and proportions. In fact, this is the way my dad has always cooked, and always will. I don’t think he’s ever followed a recipe in his life: For him it’s all about interpretation, experimentation and knowing what flavors work well together.

During our annual President’s Day trip to Borrego Springs, I asked Dad to make his version of chile verde, the one I remember from my childhood, the one served for so many years at La Paloma. It tastes the way I’ve always remembered it: simple enough that the flavors of the basic ingredients stand out. It’s also got a lovely glossy texture thanks to a generous helping of roux. Of course, it’s good over a bean burrito, but even better the next morning just in a bowl. And with a homemade tortilla, hot off the griddle, it’s a taste of heaven.

Dad’s (Grandpa Joe’s) Chile Verde

1 1/2 pounds pork butt, cut into one-inch pieces

Cooking oil (Grandpa Joe used lard)

3 cups water

4 7-ounce cans diced green chiles

Granulated garlic (If you must measure, it’s, perhaps two tablespoons or so)

1/2 teaspoon-ish chile flakes

6 tablespoons flour for roux

1/2 large onion, diced

Pour a couple tablespoons of cooking oil into a Dutch oven or braising pan, add the pork pieces and season with salt. Place the pot over a medium flame and lightly brown the pork. (Don’t go overboard with the browning. Dad says it should remain “slightly rubbery looking.” Code for not-too-well browned.) Add the water, the canned chiles and the granulated garlic. Stir to mix and cover. Let simmer for about an hour.

Put about 4 tablespoons of cooking oil, lard or butter into a heavy-bottomed skillet and heat over medium-high heat. Add the flour to the pan all at once and stir until it’s well mixed. Continue to cook over medium-high heat until the roux becomes a rich golden brown, maybe 7 minutes or so. Stir the the roux into the simmering chile verde and let it all melt together. Simmer for another 15 minutes. Add the chile flakes and the diced onion. Cook only for another 5 minutes or so. Remove from heat and serve over burritos or in a bowl with flour tortillas. (Preferably homemade.)

Baked beans.

Oven-baked beans, just simmerin' away.

An unusual summer Sunday: J was on call all weekend, and I had signed up for a daylong sewing class in our neighborhood. Meanwhile, J’s mom, Margaret, was scheduled to arrive in the afternoon. And, to top it all off, we had invited James and Zandra over for Sunday dinner. Our Sundays are typically far more relaxed, but this was the exception, and with J being tied to work, the shopping and other dinner preparations were up to me. So, when planning the meal, the mantra was: Keep it simple; make it ahead.

Taking inspiration from the mid-summer edition of Saveur — BBQ Nation — we decided to employ the grill for dinner.  And after debating the various grilling options, we landed on sausages made at our neighborhood grocery store, New Seasons. When I told the eager-to-help man at the meat counter our plan to offer a variety of sausages, he said he’d hosted his own sausage feast just a few days earlier, and it was a huge success. Upon his hearty recommendation, I choose the chicken, feta and spinach links (he admitted he didn’t think he’d like them, and was surprised when they turned out to be his favorite). Then I grabbed a couple of basic bratwurst and a few spicy Polish sausages. The main dish was set, and next it was onto sides.

Saveur had featured a lovely summery cucumber salad in the barbecue edition that intrigued me. Thin-sliced, peeled cucumbers and red onion tossed with sour cream and sherry wine vinegar dressing. I made the dressing the night ahead, leaving the cucumber slicing for the last minute. This was easy enough, but in retrospect, I should have sliced and drained the cukes the night before as one does for tzatziki. Noted for next time.

The menu lacked something. We discussed pasta salad  and potato salad  before finally landing on oven-baked beans, also from the magazine. I’d never baked my own beans, and hadn’t contemplated how making them from scratch would improve the flavor. Of course I should have known. My adaptation adds more onion, less sugar and a touch of bourbon.

Oven-baked Beans

8 to 10 slices bacon, cut into chunks

1 diced large yellow onion

4 15-ounce cans navy beans, drained and rinsed

2 cups barbecue sauce (homemade or store bought)

3/4 cup beef stock

1 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup molasses

1/4 cup bourbon

1/8 teaspoon clove, finely ground

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon dry mustard

6 to 8 whole, peeled canned tomatoes, hand crushed

Preheat oven to 350. Sautee the bacon in a Dutch oven or deep oven-proof skillet until soft, but not crisp. Add the diced onions and cook until translucent. Add the sugar, molasses, bourbon, barbecue sauce, stock, tomatoes, clove, mustard, salt and stir until mixed. Bring the mixture to a boil to thicken slightly. Add the beans and bring to a simmer.

Cover and bake for 2 hours. Let cool before serving.

The beauty of this recipe is that it can be made ahead, and re-heated either on the stove top or in the oven before serving. In fact, making the beans ahead only intensifies the flavors.

Yep. File this meal under easy, rich, slightly sweet and sublimely summer.

Shrimp cocktail

70s-tastic shrimp cocktail.

One of my distinct childhood memories is of the occasional cocktail parties my parents gave. They didn’t happen often, but when they did, my sister Julie and I would help make the house sparkle and set up the appetizer table in the family room, knowing our reward was nigh.

Of course, Julie and I could not have cared less who was coming over, and once we survived the polite introductions, our work was done. Those nights were an occasion because we were promised a rare and exotic frozen TV dinner, eaten in front of the TV. Anything to keep us occupied and out of the way. We were in heaven.

Party nights were also special for the other uncommon foods in the house. Bags of potato chips with sour cream dip (my sister and I tempting each other with the old ad pitch “Bet you can’t eat just one!” ); tiny sweet gherkins; pitted black olives whose main appeal was as freaky finger coverings; cocktail weenies on toothpicks; and of course my dad’s shrimp cocktail.

“Dad’s Shrimp,” as it came to be known, was a fairly grownup flavor for little kids, but I loved it: unexpectedly piquant, spicy and barely sweet.

The recipe came from a long-ago edition of Sunset magazine, and who knows how close Dad’s version is to the original. I’ve never known him to follow any recipe from start to finish. He might use one for inspiration and to understand the intended flavors, but then he adds a dollop of creative license to make it his own.  And the theater involved — well, it’s amusing to watch. When he’s really having fun, he talks to himself while he bobs and jigs around the kitchen:  “A little of this, and, ah, a little of that … yes. That’s it. Oh, do you know what would be good? I know just the thing.” Though I was not present when he first made this shrimp cocktail, I imagine that’s how it went down. And several years ago when I asked him for the recipe, it was clear that the science of measurement was not something he’d applied to this dish — ever.

Its components seem odd. And when I list the ingredients to curious friends, they respond surprised: “Really? Ketchup? Mustard? Celery?” Yes, really. Good, isn’t it?

I still crave it. That snap of horseradish and tarragon vinegar lend a zesty contrast against chilled poached shrimp and creamy avocado.

Here is the recipe as told by my dad. Mine never quite tastes the same as his, so the liberties he takes with measurements are not perfectly represented here, and every measurement could be followed by an “-ish.” But like a good ’70s cocktail party, it’s still groovy in my book.

Dad’s Shrimp

1/4 cup tarragon vinegar

1 1/2 tablespoon prepared horseradish

1 tablespoon yellow mustard

1 tablespoon ketchup

1 1/2 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 cup canola oil

1/4 white onion

1 stalk celery

Put the ingredients in the Vitamix, and blend to a puree.  (A regular blender works, too, but first mince the celery and onion.)

Pour over 1 1/2 pounds poached shrimp (shelled and deveined) and refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours. Serve over avocado slices on individual plates or small bowls. I like making a bed of arugula or spinach under the avocado.

When J and I lived in Venice, we made a tradition of meeting my dad (Levi Mike) and his girlfriend Christie (collectively known as D&C) in Borrego Springs over President’s Day weekend. They make the trek each January to escape the frigid winter temperatures of Boise for two or three months. A 3-hour drive from Venice, Borrego Springs was an easy place to meet them, and a welcome respite from the workaday stress of Southern California life.

Last weekend, J and I resumed the tradition. We drove down from Santa Monica on Friday afternoon, made good time, and commenced with the desert relaxation involving golf, wine, home-cooked dinners and lunch on the town. Saturday’s lunch took us to the most unlikely spot: a quaint French bistro called The French Corner.

For years, Christie raved about this little spot, and everything was she described: a cozy, well-spaced dining room/gift shop with tables topped with Provence-style linens, walls lined with decorative signs (for sale) and shelves filled with antique enameled French coffee pots. The owners, two Belgian fellows who spend summers in Provence (what a life!), charm with their dry wit and wry sense of humor.

The food? Delicious. D&C had crab quiche, with flaky, buttery crust and generous crab filling. J opted for a steaming bucket of plump Basque mussels with a sop-up-able tomato and olive sauce. (When J commented on the deliciousness of the mussels, owner Yves quipped, “From the Salton Sea!”). I am always tempted by croque monsieur, but I prefer the ham-and-cheese sandwich topped with a sunny-side-up egg. When I asked if I could make mine a croque madame, Yves, with a half smile, ribbed me about the request, but complied. The result was melty, yolk-y perfection.

French Corner: What an unexpected surprise in a tiny desert town. Tres bien. Que romantique!

After months of hemming, hawing and exasperated sighing over blog names, J and I landed on “Chile Verde Chronicles.” We wanted our little sliver of the Internet to reflect who we are as a couple, food lovers, cooks, writers, editors and former Salt Lakers. We think our quest for the best chile verde best represents our food adventures.

Somehow, the pork-and-green-chile stew has become an icon in our families, and most of us can trace our love for the dish back to one Salt Lake City restaurant chain: La Frontera. Just about everyone in our family — siblings and parents alike — have their own versions of the stew, and many of us began by trying to achieve the flavor, texture and appearance of the LaFro original. The results, however, could not be more disparate. Nor could they be more delicious in their differences.

In looking for a blog name, we wanted something emblematic of our love of food and tradition, and our hunger for discovering new dishes, restaurants, cultures, techniques and recipes. We want this blog to be a place to chronicle our dinners out, home-cooked meals, happy gatherings, discoveries and travels. Of course, our posts will extend beyond the namesake dish, but like coming home after a long trip, it represents all that is welcoming, comforting and familiar.