Monthly Archives: January 2011

Rioja: Spanish Wine 101

Now that you are well-versed in all of the basics (need a refresher?  how about this and this), it is time to further drill-down in our Spanish wine discourses.  Our first wine to be discussed: none other than Rioja.

 

Before we dive right in, it is important to note that European wines, Spanish wines included, derive their names from the region in which the wine is from.  On the other hand, in the United States, wines typically derive their names based on the grape.  Therefore, Rioja does not refer to the type of grape that comprises the wine (we’ll talk about that in a second!), but rather the region La Rioja.  La Rioja itself is composed of three very unique sub-regions, which we will discuss as well.

San Vicente de La Sonsierra, August 2010.

Rioja Alta: Rioja Alta is located closest to the mountains, and therefore temperatures are the coolest here.  Proximity to the mountains also means a higher elevation, which translates into a shorter growing season.  All of this translates to lower acidity wine and low tannins.  My favorite wines from La Rioja come from this area – most particularly, the municipalities of San Vicente de La Sonsierra, Briones, and Fuenmayor.

Rioja Alavesa: Rioja Alavesa is also located very close to the mountains, although poorer soil conditions make for more acidic wines with higher tannins.

Rioja Baja: Rioja Baja has by far the highest temperatures and lowest rainfall of the area.  Many of the vineyards in this area actually overlap with neighboring Navarra.  Grapes from Rioja Baja are used in blends to give “weight” to lighter wines from Alta and Alavesa.

 

Now that you are familiar with the regions of La Rioja, it’s time to familiarize yourself with the grapes.  Grapes are cultivated in the French Bordeaux style; interestingly enough, while parasites were destroying vineyards in France, Rioja was unaffected.  Each grape in a Rioja blend serves a special purpose.

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Tempranillo grapes – the primary component of Rioja wine.

Tempranillo: Tempranillo gives Rioja its spicy flavor and a deep ruby-red color.

Garnacha: This particular grape is found all over Europe, especially southern France.  This grape boosts the alcohol content of the wine and can provide a peppery flavor.

Graciano: Graciano is native to Spain.  It is very aromatic and characterizes the nose of a particular wine.

Mazuelo: Mazuelo is high in tannins, giving Rioja wine its acidity and color.

Viura: Viura is unique in that it takes well to oak (most white grapes do not) and develops a distinct grapefruit taste.  It is usually blended with Malvasia Riojana and Garnacha Blanca grapes to create white Rioja.

All of these grapes are blended to create a wine that tastes of juicy red fruit (think: strawberries), dark red fruit (think: cherries), and red Riojas with a bit of aging will taste of oak.  You’ll also taste hints of vanilla and pepper in a good Rioja.

 

Are you familiar with Rioja wines?  Is there an area, bodega (Vega Sicilia, Marques de Riscal, Bodegas Muerza, etc.), or blend of grapes that you are most partial to?  Or is Rioja not really your thing?  Leave me a comment and let me know!

DO vs. VdIT: Spanish Wine 101

DO, DOQa, DOCa, VdIT.  If you’ve ever picked up a bottle of Spanish wine, you’ve probably noticed some of those letters gracing the label.  So what exactly do these things mean?  And does it really matter?

 

Spanish wine laws require that designations are specified for various wine-producing regions.  So who exactly is enforcing these DO regulations?  There is a governing body, the Consejo Regulador, that is responsible for classifying and regulating the standards for winemaking.  Regulations cover all aspects of the winemaking process, including, but not limited to the amount of time aged in the barrel and the types of grapes used.  DOCa/DOQa is the highest “grade” that can be assigned to a wine – Rioja and Priorat are the only two regions that currently hold this prestigious designation.

Albarino from Rias Baixas is an example of a DO wine.

 

Is the designation of wine important to you when it comes to purchasing or consuming?  Is there a wine producing region that you are most partial to?  Leave me a comment and let me know!

My next post will help you understand Crianza from Vino Joven…stay tuned.

Angulas: Galician Seafood 101

Once upon a time in Madrid, I was browsing the Mercado de San Miguel when I heard some (very loud) American point to some angulas and say: “Eww, little eels…that’s SO GROSS!”

 

Great, because that’s more for me, pal. 🙂

 

Angulas are tender baby eels that are harvested in the streams of northern Spain.  Most of the time, they are caught while migrating – some of them are pretty-well traveled and have covered 5000 kilometers before they reach their final destination (my cazuela?).

 

There are a variety of ways to prepare angulas, but because they are so delicate and tasty on their own, I like to keep the manipulation to a minimum.  One of my favorite (also one of the most common) ways to prepare them is in the Basque style, with a little bit of olive oil and chili pepper.  You can heat them right in the cazuela (a clay dish), let them sit covered for about 5 minutes, and then serve them.  Traditionally, angulas are eaten with wooden forks because the texture ensures the angulas do not slip and slide everywhere.

 

I also like to make pintxos with angulas.  I take a piquillo pepper, stuff it with angulas and place it on top of a slice of bread, holding everything in place with a toothpick.  It seems simple, but is delicious and pairs very nicely with an Albarino white wine.

 

Angulas are expensive, though, and are becoming scarce due to overfishing and increased demand in Asia.  Buyer beware: watch out for imitation angulas, which are made with pollock fish and known as “gulas.”

 

Has anyone seen angulas on a restaurant menu in NYC?  The only places I have found them are either online or at Despana in Soho.

 

Spanish Immersion Program – April and May 2011

My wonderful host family is very involved in hosting Spanish workshops for English speakers throughout the year.

 

Throughout the months of April and May this year, they will be featuring weekly Spanish immersion courses at Lamacido in Galicia. A minimum of 6 people are needed to form a group and there are two levels offered: Pre-Intermediate and Intermediate Advanced.  

 

It’s an awesome way to not only learn Spanish, but to go on local excursions in the area.  Galicia is home to so many UNESCO World Heritage sites, as well as a little (sarcasm) wine region known as Rias Baixas.

 

If I can find 5 of you guys to come with me in May, it would be a good way to extend my stay a bit!  Leave a comment if you’d like more details.

Empanada Gallega: Spanish Cuisine 101

One of my favorite memories of spending so much time in Spain was waking up in the morning to run my errands.  Unlike the supermarkets and convenience stores that we have in the States, stores in Spain specialize in the type of goods offered or sold.  (Sadly, this is starting to change – I saw many more hypermarkets creeping up on my last visit to Spain.  Also, El Corte Ingles now has a supermarket section in many of its stores, further forcing small businesses and mom and pop shops out of business.  Hey Walmart, sounds familiar, right?)  Most of us love the idea of convenience and one-stop shopping.  I, however, love to interact with each of the shopkeepers as I buy my fruit, fish, and ibuprofin (each of which requires a visit to a separate shop).

 

What are your favorite fillings for empanadas?  Do you have the patience to try this at home?  Or are you just saddened that for other parts of the world, that small businesses and community may soon be obsolete?  Leave me a comment and let me know.

 

Restaurant Review: Espana (Larchmont)

We’ve grown so accustomed to tapas being an experience where we pay a lot of money for a little bit of food.  Espana turned this concept on its head by serving us portions that were more than two bites at fair prices.


Patatas bravas, croquetas…getting full yet?


Patatas Bravas – I really don’t like patatas bravas, but these were actually okay.  They actually used aioli, although it was light on the garlic.

 

Sardinas – My favorite of the evening.  They were fresh and grilled in just a little bit of olive oil, which was perfect.  The small side of potatoes prepared Galician style, with paprika was the perfect accompaniment.  I was left with a plate of “cartoon cat” looking fish bones 10 minutes later.

 

Croquetas – There must have been a mix-up, because we ordered croquetas de jamon and received croquetas de pollo?  Not sure how I feel about chicken because the taste just blends into the background, rather than standing out like bacalao does.  These were a little bit sweet and the exterior was slightly overcooked.

 

It was also interesting to see angulas on the menu.  If you call ahead of time, they will prepare them for you – but at $200 for 100g, they don’t come cheap!

 

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Churros y chocolate – the Spanish cure for a hangover.

It was time for dessert – what a tough decision.  Jen and I narrowed it down to churros and filloas.  The churros were amazing.  Not greasy in the slightest, the chocolate was thick and bitter, the caramel for dipping was also great.  As for the filloas – these were also incredible.  The crepes were filled with vanilla custard and drizzled with a red wine reduction.

 

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Filloas – preemptively getting ready for Carnival.


The best part of the evening was receiving a gift card from our waiter.  I can guarantee you that we will definitely be back (and maybe I will finally devise a solution to the Tapas Catch 22).

 

Restaurant Review: Bar Basque (NYC)

It is no surprise that the interior of Bar Basque was designed by Syd Meade.  The restaurant is completely Tron-ified – from the blue glowing lights along the wall, to the use of different textures and shapes along the walls.  

 

To me, the overabundance of red made the place seem more like a strip club and less like a tapas joint.  Go figure that a whole bunch of marketing gurus take something that is very rustic and communal in Spain and turn it into a trendy place for cougars to show off their Helmut Lang and Jimmy Choo.

 

In Spain, people enjoy taking their sweet time.  I am not sure if Bar Basque was going for authenticity in this respect, but it took a long time to check-in with the maitre’d and then leave my items at the coat check.  Same goes for the wait time on the Tempranillo and Albarino that my sister and I ordered from the bar.  For a tapas bar, I was disappointed with the wine selection.  The restaurant caters to those who drink $18 cocktails, rather than a glass of Rioja.

 

I did appreciate that the maitre’d allowed us to select the table and seating area we wanted.  The sofas seemed like an awkward way to eat dinner, and I didn’t plan on cuddling up with anyone after dinner, so high-top table it was.  Because it was snowing that evening, the floor-to ceiling windows made it seem like I was dining inside of a snowglobe.

 

Jen was running a little late and as I was waiting for her and my glass of wine at our table, one of the waiters put jamon iberico on the table.  I would have hoped that the food would not start coming until Jen arrived – I explained this to the waitress and she was very apologetic.

 

My sister and I participated in one of the deals through Gilt, so we were offered a set menu which came with a bottle of cava and an array of tapas for us to share.

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Jamon Iberico de Bellota.  The reason why I could never be a complete vegetarian.

Jamon iberico de bellota – Excellent.  They definitely didn’t skimp and give us the cheap stuff.  The cuts were perfect, with the right amount of fat.

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Time for some tapas!

Gildas – A gilda is an anchovy, an olive, and a guindilla pepper on a stick.  (“Gilda” literally translates to lollipop.)  Three simple ingredients, yet the flavor is so complex due to the acidity of the anchovy and the pickled (and slightly hot) pepper.

 

Truffled Idiazabal Pops – These came in little crispy cones – really cute presentation.  Idiazabal is one of my favorite Basque cheeses.  It is smooth and smoky, but also a little sharp.

 

Croquetas – These were filled with both bacalao and ham, in addition to mushrooms.  A lot of flavors were happening here, but oddly enough, I thought that the mushroom was the most pronounced.  The consistency of both the exterior and inside of the croquetas were perfect though.

 

Tortilla – A classic (and one of my favorite tapas) that had plenty of sliced potatoes and just enough onion.  Instead of aioli, the tortilla was topped with piquillo red peppers, giving this dish both savory and sweet qualities.  this was great!

 

Peekytoe crab gratin and house smoked trout – Both of these tapas were served as pintxos.  The trout was my favorite of the two due to its simplicity.  Even Jen F., who detests fish, liked these.

 

Boquerones – Nothing like a healthy dose of white anchovies.  Also very simple, but paired very well with the cava.

 

I wish that dessert could have been up to par with the rest of the meal.  Once again, the mini crispy cones were broken out, but this time, for ice cream.  Jen and I shared pear and apple ice creams – the fruit flavor was too subtle and faint.  There was also a honey flan, which was just okay (flan isn’t typically something I would order, as it is pretty simple to make).  The best was a rich chocolate ganache cake that had crispy chocolate wafer layers.  Jen described it as an “extremely rich, dark chocolate Kit Kat.”

 

Although I did enjoy the food overall, the slightly inconsistent service (this shouldn’t happen at a restaurant that charges these prices!), and slightly odd decor take Bar Basque dilute my opinion.  I will be back to see if this was just a “one-off” event and to get a better idea of other tapas on the menu.

 

On Dreams, Goals, and the Year of Action

“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” – Paulo Coelho, “The Alchemist

 

2011 is what I have dubbed as “The Year of Action.”  It’s become common to hear people talk about their long-term goals, their dreams, what they ultimately aspire to do or be as though it is some unattainable, unrealistic, out-of-reach end state.  I’ve grown tired of forming conditional statements: “IF I do this…”  There is no “if.”  I WILL do this.

Almost time to surrender the passport…

What am I doing exactly?  I am going to live in Spain this summer, where I will be enrolled in various business and legal Spanish courses.  I also plan to network and make contacts while I am there.  There will be plenty of opportunities for fun because I am only kilometers from the Rias Baixas wine region and the beach.  Seems easy enough – all I do is fill out a few forms online and I’m living the good life in Pontevedra, right?

 

I wish!  The planning process itself has taken a few months – securing a host family and obtaining an acceptance letter from the university.  From there, I have been taking the necessary steps to apply for a visa.  The first step was having an FBI background check performed and getting fingerprinted.  (You can read my Yelp review if you need a little comedic relief.)  Next steps will include scheduling an appointment at the Spanish Consulate, getting interviewed, and paying for all of these courses (ouch).

 

Inevitably, there are moments when excuses and doubt surface, both internally and from others discouraging me.  

 

“Dana, you’ve been so busy with work, do you really have time to do this?”  

“Dana, this is really expensive.  Are you sure this is how you want to spend your savings?  Do you really think you’ll be fluent when you come back to the States?”  

That’s all in my head, but when others say, “Dana, you’re committing career suicide.  Why would you leave your current situation for something where the magnitude of the benefits is unknown?” I feel as though I am making the wrong decision.

 

Whenever these thoughts arise, I have to ignore them and even prove them wrong.  Okay, I’ll stay up an hour later each evening if it means I need to devote more time to confirming logistics for my trip.  I won’t go out as much on the weekends or make any more Louboutin acquisitions in order to save money.  And because fluency is one of my top-priority goals, I am determined and will do everything in my power to practice once I’m back in the States.

 

When I first started the “living abroad” process, it was extremely daunting and borderline intimidating.  It’s a lot to risk.  But then I thought ahead to 30 years from now.  Inevitably, I would feel regret and be unable to live with myself for not living life to the fullest, allowing fear to paralyze me, or disregarding my dreams.

 

As Coelho also said, “It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.”  I am looking forward to my time in Pontevedra and am sure if nothing else, it will make for a good story or two.

 

What are you doing to pursue your dreams?  What will you be up to in 2011?  Leave me a comment and let me know what you think.

 

Percebes: Galician Seafood 101

Percebes.  Son de puta madre (No, that’s not profanity, it’s slang for “they’re awesome.”) 🙂

I’ve searched high and low for places in NYC to buy percebes.  I haven’t found a retailer in NY that sells them, but if you check out La Tienda, you can order them online.  It was my first experience with the canned variety, and although the consistency of the flesh is not as firm as the fresh percebes, they were enjoyable.

 

Has anyone else had percebes?  What do you think of them?  Leave me a comment and let me know!

 

Roscón de Reyes – We Three Kings

In Spain, as is customary in many other European countries, the Feast of the Three Kings (El Dia de Los Reyes) is as big of a holiday, if not bigger, than Christmas.  Many children receive their presents on January 6 instead of Christmas Day.  Many towns in Spain have a parade on evening of January 5, with the Three Kings (Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar) on floats and lots of candy given out to children.  Valencia’s procession is one of the largest in Spain and attracts a lot of international press.

As with any important holiday in Spanish culture, there has to be food involved!  The Roscón de Reyes is the special cake made for the occasion.  Many of the cakes at the panaderias in Spain are very ornately decorated.  There’s also a little bit of fun to be had with the cake: a small figurine (usually of one of the Magi) or coin and a bean are baked into the batter.  Slices are then divvied up.  Whoever gets a slice with the figurine is supposed to have good luck the rest of the year.  Whoever gets the bean has to purchase the cake the following year.

For many years now, I have been getting the bean.  I’m starting to think this is rigged.  Tired of going borough-hopping to find a suitable roscon, I decided to make my own this year.  I love to pair the cake with coffee in the morning, due to the slightly flaky texture.

15 minutes in the oven and we’re all done!  Not cute.  My cake didn’t rise as much as anticipated, probably because I can’t afford to keep the place like a sauna…

 

It’s always great to observe a town or a region’s take on tradition.  In the United States, we are sort of a melting pot of cultures and therefore do not uphold city-wide fiestas in the same way that Spain does.  Although I am so grateful to live in a country where we have so much freedom, I do think it’s beautiful that a culture continues to pass traditions from generation to generation, rather than abandoning everything in an attempt assimilate.  Customs really give so much meaning to the holiday – especially around Christmastime.