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Gone to Blazes

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[Last year I was asked by the editor of Men's Fashion, a popular Canadian magazine, to write a feature about Las Fallas in Valencia. Since tomorrow, March 19th, the fiesta comes to a spectacular end with the cremà, or burning, of the giant statues, I thought I'd post the article that appeared in last December's issue. Here it is.]

It takes a little while, but during the fiesta known as Las Fallas, in Valencia, you eventually get used to the sight of four-year-old boys walking around with pieces of burning rope. At first I didn’t know what the ropes were for, but then I saw one little guy run up to his father and jump up and down imploringly until dad produced a few firecrackers. The kid then ran off to light them with the rope and then throw them pretty much wherever he pleased. Oh, I thought. I see. The ropes are fuses. Of course. I mean, you can’t exactly let a four-year-old play with matches, can you?

Ah, Spain. It’s fun for people of all ages! While the kids amuse themselves by lighting firecrackers in bars, in restaurants and throwing them at the feet of unsuspecting tourists (“Wow, that old man jumped a lot higher than I thought he could!”), some of the adults busy themselves with the final touches on the mascletás. Whole sections of streets are cordoned off and rigged with Continue Reading →

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Seeing Red

On my way to watch last week’s Spain-France World Cup qualifying match, I thought about my friend James and shook my head with a chuckle. Dear old James. Poor chap is afflicted with the most absurd superstitions when it comes to sporting events. You probably know the type. If his team loses, it was because he was there. Or maybe because of something he did. Or something he didn’t do. Who knows where he got the idea he could jinx sporting events? I don’t pretend to understand the man and besides, that’s up to his therapist to figure out, not me.

The day of the game, Continue Reading →

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A Touchy Subject

When I first moved to Spain I used to get a kick out of touching fruit in supermarkets. I’d be walking through the produce section and say to my girlfriend, “Watch this…,” and as we passed near a bin piled high with oranges I’d reach out and tap one quickly with the tip of my finger–always looking around beforehand, naturally, to make sure nobody was watching. “Ooooh,” she’d say in mock horror, “you are bad!”

Perhaps I should explain. Continue Reading →

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Slippery Business at the Port

In the Mercado de Bailén, in Malaga, a fishmonger gave me the lowdown. If I wanted to see the boats unloading fish, I had to go to Caleta de Velez. In Malaga, only a few boats come in every day. The port of Malaga is too expensive, he told me, so the fishermen go to Caleta, only a short drive up the coast.

By the time I got there, many of the boats were already tied up to the dock and more were coming in; big boats, motors chugging in a throaty diesel rumble as they shifted into reverse, gunned it for a second or two, and glided gently up to the dock with unerring precision. Continue Reading →

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Madrid para Comérselo

My friend Iñigo has no sense of direction. I realized that after he got lost even though he had a windshield-mounted GPS that uttered clear directions in a soothing female voice. Janet or Sara or Melinda, whatever her name was, knew where she was going. Iñigo, however, had no idea. On our first wrong turn, Iñigo turned to me and said with a smile, “I’m the worst with directions.”

I thought the fact he admitted that, and still had the confidence to ignore the GPS woman’s instructions, was really quite admirable.

I wasn’t any help either because I didn’t even know what we were looking for. I thought we were going to visit a chicken farm west of Madrid near El Escorial. I got up early on a Saturday and took the Metro over the Iñigo’s place, wondering whether I had made a wise choice of footwear. (I was thinking, rubber boots would have been ideal.) Turns out we were going to a tomato farm on the road to Valencia. Okay then.

I must have thought chickens because I knew Iñigo’s friend Higinio was coming. Continue Reading →

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How to get your point across in Spain, 101

You may know how to speak Spanish, but if you don’t know how to use it, you won’t be talking for long. But I’m here to help. So hear me out. Okay? Just hear me out. What I’ve got to tell you might be a big help, so just hear me out. (Spoiler alert: that was your first lesson.)

The thing is this. Spanish people love to chat. If there’s one defining characteristic of Spanish people in general, it’s that they are extremely social people. It’s one of the joys of living in Spain. The simple act of asking for directions can often lead to a lively and wide-ranging discussion of everything from Continue Reading →

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The Great Tortillita Tasting Tour

A tortillita de camarón is one of my favorite things to eat in Andalusia, but deciding whether or not to order one is a decision that I tend to weigh carefully. To the dismay of my eating companions, this process can take some time. It’s not whether or not I want one, because invariably I do, and usually more than one. But I’d rather not have a bad tortillita, and sadly, they’re more common than good ones.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I won’t eat a so-called bad one, because I have done so and I think it’s safe to say that I have not had my last. Bad ones, by my criteria, are Continue Reading →

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Pollo (chicken) al Chilindrón

Healthy. basic ingredients.When my mother found out I was making Pollo al Chilindrón with green peppers, she put her foot down. Sort of.

“Well you can put in whatever you want, but then it’s not Chilindrón.”

“Yeah but I have a bunch of different recipes from respectable authors who all say to use both red and green peppers,” I told her.

“That’s because they don’t know the authentic chilindrón,” she said.

Pollo al Chilindrón is a classic Spanish recipe for chicken. It originated in Aragón or Navarra or the País Vasco, depending on whether you ask, as I did, people from Aragón, Navarra and the País Vasco. I’m going to have to go with Aragón, because that’s where my mother is from and I lived there myself long enough that it felt like home. So make of it what you will, but Chilindrón is definitely from Aragón.

It’s a simple recipe, but still there was the matter of pepper choice to consider. “Call uncle Michael,” my mother said. “He’s got a recipe book from abuela Andréa.”

Abuela Andréa was my great grandmother. She was born in Morata de Jalón, about 70 kilometers south of Zaragoza, and legend has it she was a great cook. While my uncle went to look for the book, he passed the phone to my aunt. Ilse is also a great cook and she said that Andréa always used just red pepper. By this time my uncle had returned with the book–sadly there was no recipe for chilindrón in it–and I could hear him in the background voicing objections to the red-pepper-only approach and then suddenly he had the phone.

Abuela Andréa made it all three ways. With just green pepper, a mix of green and red, and just red pepper. The green peppers came in earlier in the season. She just used what she had.”

That seemed pretty sensible to me so I used what I had too, and it so happens I had them both. If that’s the way my great grandmother made it at the turn of the last century, well that’s authentic enough for me.

Pollo al Chilindrón is a great recipe for a number of reasons. First, it’s surprisingly delicious. Second, it’s easy. And third, it’s a healthy mix of vegetables and chicken and a little olive oil, which also makes it economical. Not only is it a complete meal, but it can be made ahead of time, re-warmed the next day and it’s just as good if not better. Chilindrón refers to the sauce; abuela Andréa also made Cordero al Chilindrón, which substitutes lamb for chicken.

 

Pollo al Chilindrón

Serves 4 to 6

Notes: If you don’t have any jamón, that is truly unfortunate, but you can get by with other dry-cured hams such as prosciutto or even bacon, though you might want to fry it a little first. I prefer quarters of chicken leg and thigh, but some people use boneless breast instead. Just make sure it doesn’t overcook and dry out.

Ingredients

Olive oil

1 onion

4 cloves of garlic

2 green peppers

2 red peppers

4 tomatoes

100 grams of Jamón Serrano

1 cup white wine

4 chicken quarters, cut into small pieces

In a saucepan big enough to hold all the ingredients, pour in a few good glugs of olive oil and sauté the chopped onions until glassy, about five minutes. Add the garlic and peppers, both chopped, and cook for another ten minutes or so. Add the tomatoes, de-skinned and chopped, a little salt, the jamón (preferably diced, but strips work fine too) and then the white wine. (My abuela didn’t use wine but I think it adds a lot.)

Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, brown the chicken pieces in abundant olive oil. When the chicken is nice and toasty, add it to the pepper mixture and cook for another 20 minutes or until the chicken is cooked and the sauce has thickened.

Traditionally served with French fries or rice.

 

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Tomatoes I Have Known

Not perfect, except when it comes to taste: Tomate Rosa de Huesca. Photo ©Mike Randolph

Whenever my family gets together and the subject of tomatoes comes up, one of us is sure to bring up the tomatoes we all once had in Almería. The Almería tomatoes are something of a legend in my family. We were on vacation there and tucked in for lunch at a place that was more of an old man’s bar than an actual restaurant. It had a few well-used card tables covered in paper tablecloths and metal napkin dispensers, the kind of place where Continue Reading →

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