A Weekend in Terra Alta Wine Region

An hour into our drive, we’re already discussing our hypothetical country home. Nothing fancy. Just a modest converted farmhouse with exposed-stone walls and vaulted brick ceilings. And a little land to plant vegetables, and raise chickens and bees, and eat dinner al aire libre in the summer. I don’t ask for much.

Terra Alta Wine Region | Traveling To Taste

This happens every time we venture into the Catalan countryside. The rolling hills and blissful quiet make me momentarily forget that I love living in vibrant, noisy Barcelona. I remember what it’s like to see stars and hear crickets, and I’m ready to give it all up… at least for an occasional weekend.

Last Saturday, we rented a car and hightailed it out of town for an overnight trip to the Terra Alta region. About two hours west of Barcelona, and an hour inland from Tarragona, it’s still surprisingly wild wine country. You can drive for miles without encountering anything except vineyards, and the occasional house or village.

Wine Tasting | Traveling To Taste

Terra Alta isn’t far from the better-known Priorat or Montsant regions. Its wine is gaining a solid reputation (this Wine Enthusiast article gives a good overview), but it’s still very affordable. Most of the wine we loved had a price tag of less than 10 euros a bottle.

We had less than 36 hours in the area, but we managed to visit three wineries and eat three fantastic meals, while still feeling lazy and unrushed.

Getting There

You’ll need a car to explore the region. We’ve had positive experiences renting with Sixt, and this time we picked up the car at their location near the port (much easier than the chaos at Sants train station).

We visited three towns in the region – Batea, Gandesa and Vilalba dels Arcs. It takes about 15 minutes to drive from one to the next.

Where to Stay

Batea

Celler Piñol, a family-run winery offering organic wines, rents out four apartments above its administrative office, and around the corner from the cellar. We made our reservation through Booking.com. Our one-bedroom apartment was spotless, and featured a full kitchen, free Wi-Fi, air-conditioning and an interior patio – plus a welcome bottle of white wine. The town is tiny, so you can easily walk to other wineries, and street parking is free and plentiful.

Practical info:

Wineries to Visit

 

As with most wineries in Catalunya, you need to make reservations in advance for tours and tastings. I started sending emails on Monday for Saturday and Sunday appointments, and several places said they were either fully booked or unavailable at those times. For our next trip, I’ll plan with a bit more lead time.

Batea

 

Celler Piñol

The winemaker, Juanjo, had a weekend busy with family engagements but still found time to give us a private tour of the cellar. The space looks small from the street, but it actually extends far back, and down a few flights of stairs. The garnatxa blanca grape reigns supreme in Terra Alta, and my favorite wine from Celler Piñol was the l’Avi Arrufi: 100% garnatxa blanca from old vines, aged in barrels for seven months. Refreshing and light, but with a slight hint of oakiness.

Practical info:

  • Tours by reservation (he didn’t charge us for ours); Juanjo speaks Spanish, Catalan and English
  • Address: Av. Aragó, 9, 43786 Batea
  • Phone: +34 977 43 05 05
  • Email: info@cellerpinol.com

LaFou Celler

LaFou only opened in 2007, but the Roqueta family has a winemaking history that dates back to the 12th century. The winery is in a restored 18th-century home on Batea’s main square, and the tour leads you through the traditional and modern production areas. The tasting was in a lovely garden courtyard, and our guide, Joan, poured us generous samples of a white and two reds. We sat with a big chatty group of retirees from a nearby town, and the charming gentleman next to us wheedled a few extra pours for us all. My favorite here was the garnatxa blanca, Els Amelers, named after the almond trees planted among the vineyards.

La Fou Celler, Batea | Traveling To Taste

Practical info:

  • Tours by reservation (cost: 8 euros per person); they offer tours in Spanish, Catalan and English
  • Address: Plaça Catalunya 34, 43786 Batea
  • Phone: 34 646 85 02 77
  • Email: visites@lafou.net

La Fou Celler, Batea | Traveling To TasteLa Fou Celler, Batea | Traveling To Taste

 

Gandesa

Celler Cooperitiu Gandesa

I would recommend visiting this spectacular catedral del vino for the architecture alone; it’s a bonus that the wine is good. Our guide, Pilar, brought the winery’s history to life, describing how the residents of Gandesa – men, women and children – built it over the course of a year, from 1919 to 1920.

Celler Cooperatiu Gandesa | Traveling To Taste

Celler Cooperatiu Gandesa | Traveling To Taste

The Modernist architect, Cèsar Martinell, was a protege of Antoni Gaudí, and he designed a simple, functional and beautiful space using the limited resources the town had. We had the opportunity to taste four or five different Celler Gandesa wines, and I was impressed by the price-to-quality ratio. We bought several bottles of the garnatxa-macabeu blend, Somdinou, “a young wine produced with grapes from old vineyards” for around 5 euros a bottle.

Celler Cooperatiu Gandesa | Traveling To Taste

Celler Cooperatiu Gandesa | Traveling To Taste

Practical info: 

Where to Eat

 

These are all small towns, with only a few restaurants in each (Gandesa had the most options), so it’s wise to do a bit of advance planning.

Vilalba dels Arcs

Nou Moderno

After reading glowing TripAdvisor and Google reviews of Nou Moderno, I made a Saturday lunch reservation, but I was a little nervous that it was going to be overly fancy or pricey. We were pleased to find it was neither. The staff was warm, and there was a 12-euro menú del día, even on a Saturday. It included three courses (without drinks); a bottle of house-made white wine was an additional 12 euros. There was also a 20-euro tasting menu with a few more courses, but we weren’t quite up it.

Highlights:

The gazpacho was one of the best I’ve tasted; heavy on fresh tomatoes, and light on vinegar. The grilled meats were simply prepared but flavorful. The flan was super light and creamy; even Brian liked it, and he’s not usually a big fan.

Practical info: 

Gandesa

Sibarites

It was a happy accident that we ended up here on Saturday night. Our first choice in Batea was inexplicably closed when we arrived at 9:30, and the only other place serving food – packed during the Barça game – turned us away. We were starting to feel a little panicky, knowing that late dining options in rural areas can be few and far between. But Brian did some expert speed Googling (likely imagining the hangry monster I would become in an hour or two) and found Sibarites, which looked promising and was open till 11.

At this point, I would have been happy with some decent patatas bravas and chorizo, but we lucked out with Sibarites. Gourmet menu, fun ambiance, friendly staff. We each ordered the 20-euro menu, which included three courses and wine.

Highlights:

I don’t know where Sibarites’ octopus carpaccio has been all my life; thinly sliced, incredibly tender and generously coated in olive oil. Melt-in-your-mouth good. And then, fickle as I am, I forgot all about it when the beef cheeks arrived. The waitress told us it had been slow-cooking at very low heat for something like 30 hours. It fell apart when you got near it with a fork. We also licked the plates clean with both desserts: coconut ice cream, fresh fruit and ginger; molten chocolate cake with orange sorbet.

Practical info: 

Restaurante El Chef

El Chef is a casual restaurant around the corner from Celler Cooperatiu Gandesa, and we popped in for after our tour. Once the plates arrived, we realized we probably have ordered two instead of three… but I have no regrets. Each was between 6 and 9 euros, and a glass of house wine was only a euro.

I can’t resist buttery, garlicky escargots (caracoles or cargols here). These were plentiful and satisfying. The fideuá (thin noodles cooked in broth) with seafood was also good.

Practical info: 

Our whirlwind adventure in Terra Alta was just enough to give us a taste and leave us wanting more. We’ll be back for Round 2 soon.

 

Photo credit: Flickr/ angela_llop

 

Ultra-Processed Foods Are Making Us Fat and Unhealthy

In a previous post, I talked about what inspired me to do my thesis on food and cooking.  Now that it’s done and turned in, I thought I’d adapt some portions of my writing and focus on them here. One of the first, and most significant topics when talking about our food, is that of food processing. 

Scientists, doctors, nutritionists and health organizations all acknowledge that the production and consumption of processed food and drinks are important causes in the current pandemic of obesity and related chronic diseases.1

As food writer Michael Pollan so eloquently puts it, big food corporations “cook very differently from how people do (which is why we usually call what they do ‘food processing’ instead of cooking). They tend to use much more sugar, fat and salt than people cooking for people do; they also deploy novel chemical ingredients seldom found in pantries in order to make their food last longer and look fresher that it really is”.2

These novel techniques and ingredients, along with excessive amounts of sugar, fat and salt, create a diet that health professionals describe as “intrinsically nutritionally unbalanced and intrinsically harmful to health”.3

Shall I go on? OK, I will…

Carlos A. Monteiro, Director of the Center for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition at the University of Sao Paulo, proposes that the amount of processing our food undergoes is what determines how healthy or unhealthy it will be, not the food itself, nor its nutrient parts.

Across the globe, government food recommendations do not recognize this difference, and as a result, food like whole fresh fruit, fruit canned in sugary syrup and reconstituted sugary fruit beverages all get classified as “fruit”.4

Side note: A 2010 study found that the diets of nearly the entire US population did not fall within federal dietary recommendations. So, even with sugary fruit beverages being classified as fruits, we still do not meet the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables.

Monteiro argues that most food today has some degree of processing and that there is little use in classifying food into only processed and unprocessed groups. Instead, he proposes three levels to describe the drastic differences in processing that occur between, for instance, pre-washed fruit and a gummy fruit snack.

The three categories are:

Group 1: Unprocessed and minimally processed foods:
No processing, or mostly physical processes used to make single whole foods more durable, accessible, convenient, palatable or safe.
Group 2: Processed culinary or food industry ingredients:
Extraction and purification of components of single whole foods, resulting in producing ingredients used in the preparation and cooking of dishes and meals made from Group 1 foods in homes and traditional restaurants, or else in the formulation by manufacturers of Group 3 foods.
Group 3: Ultra-processed food products:
Processing of a mix of Group 2 ingredients and Group 1 foodstuffs in order to create durable, accessible, convenient, and palatable ready-to-eat or to-heat food products liable to be consumed as snacks or desserts or replace home-prepared dishes.

The groups are described more thoroughly below (from Monteiro’s research) but it’s easy to see that foods like cookies, snacks, pre-prepared meals, processed meat like chicken nuggets and burgers all belong in Group 3.6

Montiero- food classifications
From “Food classifications based on the extent and purpose of industrial processing”. by C. Monteiro, 2010, Cadernos de saude publia, 26, p. 2042. Copyright 2010 by Carlos Monteiro.

 

He does not propose that healthy diets are made up of entirely unprocessed/minimally processed foods, but rather a healthy balance of the three groups.

The problem is, that across countries like Brazil, the UK and the US, we seem to completely lack the ability to maintain this balance.

In Brazil, ultra-processed (Group 3) foods made up 20% of consumed calories. As income increased, so too did the presence of these ultra-processed foods. In the households with the highest income, nearly one-third of all calories came from ultra-processed foods.7

In the UK, ultra-processed foods made up 45% caloric intake.8

In the United States, the five most commonly consumed foods were all considered Group 3 foods: sodas, cakes and pastries, burgers, pizza and potato chips. These five foods alone made up 20% of the total calories consumed in the United States.9

A similar study in Canada showed that 61.7% of dietary energy consumed came from ultra-processed foods and that 80% of the Canadian population had diets consisting of more than 50% of ultra-processed foods in terms of caloric intake.10

Yeah? So what does that mean?

Monteiro’s claim that the act of processing food is a culprit in our rapid decline in health is being confirmed more specifically in subsequent studies. One recent study showed a link between two commonly used emulsifiers and the development of metabolic syndrome and low-grade inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract of mice.11

Emulsifiers can be found in nearly all processed food and are used to prevent ingredients like fats and oils from separating. They go by many names, but some of the common ones are: polysorbate 80, lecithin, carrageenan, polyglycerols and xanthan gum. The “metabolic syndrome” that these items are linked to is a term used to describe a group of risk factors, including high levels of cholesterol, high blood pressure and high blood sugar, as well as obesity. Someone with metabolic syndrome is more likely to develop more serious health issues like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular problems like heart attacks and strokes.12

The addition of emulsifiers is by no means the only cause of obesity, but the inflammation that it causes in the gastrointestinal tract appears to interfere with the feeling of “being full” while eating.13 Not feeling full often leads to overeating and, in turn, the development of more fat.

So what can I do about it?

Simple! First, decrease, limit and/or eliminate ultra-processed foods from what you eat. It has clear benefits in preventing disease and promoting general well being, Monteiro says.14

Second, even with the downward trend of cooking, more than two-thirds of caloric intake for adults in the US still occurs in the home.15 Therefore, the most good can be done by focusing on food and meals we consume at home.

I think these point to a clear path forward: cut down on processed foods by cooking more at home. It is one of the easiest daily acts we can do to improve our health.

Numerous studies have the same conclusion, one even suggesting that, “Efforts to boost the healthfulness of the US diet should focus on promoting the preparation of healthy foods at home while incorporating limits on time available for cooking”.16

An increase in cooking at home has been shown to relate directly to a decrease in Body Mass Index (BMI),17 and lower BMI decreases the risk other health issues like diabetes, hypertension, coronary artery disease and many types of cancer.18

So what are you waiting for? Put down the fast food and the pre-packaged meals and make your next meal from simple, fresh ingredients.


If you want to read my Masters Thesis in its entirety, you can download it in the Download section. You can also see a shorter slide show here. Enjoy!


References:

1,3,4,14 Monteiro, C. A. (2009). Nutrition and health. The issue is not food, nor nutrients, so much as processing. Public health nutrition, 12(05), 729-731.

2 Pollan, M. (2013). Cooked: A natural history of transformation. Penguin UK.

5,15,16 Smith, S. M. K., Guenther, P. M., Subar, A. F., Kirkpatrick, S. I., & Dodd, K. W. (2010). Americans do not meet federal dietary recommendations. The Journal of nutrition, jn-110.

6,7,8,9 Monteiro, C. A., Levy, R. B., Claro, R. M., Castro, I. R. R. D., & Cannon, G. (2010). A new classification of foods based on the extent and purpose of their processing. Cadernos de saude publica, 26(11), 2039-2049.

10 Moubarac, J. C., Martins, A. P. B., Claro, R. M., Levy, R. B., Cannon, G., & Monteiro, C. A. (2013). Consumption of ultra-processed foods and likely impact on human health. Evidence from Canada. Public health nutrition, 16(12), 2240-2248.

11 Chassaing, B., Koren, O., Goodrich, J., Poole, A., Srinivasan, S., Ley, R., & Gewirtz, A. (2015). Dietary emulsifiers impact the mouse gut microbiota promoting colitis and metabolic syndrome. Nature, doi:10.1038/nature14232

12,13 Grossman, E. (2015, February 25). How Emulsifiers Are Messing with Out Guts (and Making Us Fat). Civileats.com.

17 Kolodinsky, J. M., & Goldstein, A. B. (2011). Time use and food pattern influences on obesity. Obesity, 19(12), 2327-2335.

18 Willett, W. C., Koplan, J. P., Nugent, R., Dusenbury, C., Puska, P., & Gaziano, T. A. (2006). Prevention of chronic disease by means of diet and lifestyle changes.

Toledo, Spain: How to Get There and Where to Eat

Toledo View
Toledo view from the rooftop patio at the Oasis Hostel 

First of all, Toledo, SPAIN. All searches for “Toledo” seem to default to Ohio, which I’m sure is nice(ish) but not the topic for today.

This Semana Santa (i.e. Holy Week, i.e. the week before Easter), we took a trip to Madrid, a city that we both love, and Toledo, a city I visited briefly as a college student, and a new city for Gillian. We’ll talk about Madrid separately, but here are some food and logistics we figured out so hopefully you won’t have to.

Getting there:

Getting there is super easy; you’ve got two main options: bus or train. We opted for the train (AVE or AVANT), which left from Atocha and arrived at the Toledo train station in less than 30 minutes. Round-trip cost per person was 20.60€. The bus will cost you about half the price but will take you three times as long.

Side note: you can purchase train tickets online from renfe.com, but we’ve run into problems when using a non-Spanish credit/debit card. Not having a chip in our card also causes some issues when trying to buy from the machine in the train station. Bottom line: you can pay via PayPal when buying online from renfe.com and sidestep this whole mess.

There are two types of bus that can take you up to the city (I don’t recommend the walk with bags) from the Toledo train station: a red one and a blue one. The red one is a tourist bus that will take you to Plaza Zocodover for 2.50€ and picks up directly outside the exit of the train station (inside the perimeter wall). The blue one is the city bus, and lines 5, 61 and 62 will also take you to Plaza Zocodover, for 1.40€. The bus stop is outside of the perimeter wall to the right as you exit the station.

Where to eat:

As a general rule, we avoid any place that has huge picture-board menus hanging outside, and this made finding a restaurant in Toledo a challenge. We did find a few really great places that are worth mentioning:

The name "Kumera" is not very prominent on the sinage, so keep an eye out as you walk by.
The name “Kumera” is not very prominent on the signage, so keep an eye out as you walk by.

Restaurante Kumera
C/Alfonso X El Sabio 2
Phone: +34 925 25 75 53
www.restaurantekumera.com
Weekdays: 0800-0230
Weekends:1100-0230
Closed December 25, 31 and January 1.

This place has a beautiful outdoor seating area on a street that seems to be off the tourist traffic heavy streets.  They have an amazing mix of tapas (3.00-4.50€), tostas (7.00€), larger plates to share (8.00-13,50€), fish (12.50-15.50€) and meats (12.90-15.50€). A tosta is a large piece of bread with, for example, black olive tapenade spread, roasted red peppers and anchovies (delicious, by the way). Some of the items like cochinillo (roast suckling pig) appear a couple of times on the menu and can be ordered in smaller portions (tapas) or larger entrée portions.

Before taking the train back to Madrid we came by again for lunch and had the Menú del Día. Three courses, included wine and was 12.90€ each.

The menu was:
Primeros: (pick one)

  • Salad with manchego cheese cubes, seasonal fruit and dried fruits vinaigrette
  • Salted gulas (a tiny eels that look like pasta) with shrimp and ajillo (a spicy garlicky olive oil sauce)
  • Fried asparagus with Iberian ham (thinly sliced, cured ham)

Segundos: (pick one)

  • Grilled salmon with vegetables and teriyaki sauce
  • Steak and veggie skewer with blue cheese sauce
  • Lamb chops with garlic and parsley potato sticks

Dessert or Café
(The desserts were admittedly unimpressive, we opted for the coffee)

This place is the perfect combo of quality and price.

Alfileritos 24Alfileritos 24
C/ Alfileritos, 24
Phone: 925 23 96 25
www.alfileritos24.com
1300-1600 Lunch
2000-2330 Dinner

Though they didn’t break the bank on coming up with a name, this place was another great spot to stop. It’s divided into two floors: upstairs is more formal restaurant (reservations seemed to be a thing), and downstairs there are plenty of smaller tables and a separate tapas and wine menu. The latter is what we were looking for.

The menu includes tapas, or “raciones” (5.50- 12.50€), tostas (5€) and wine by the glass or bottle (2.50-3.50€ / 11.20-20.90€). We thought we’d get started with three “raciones,” believing we would ask for more afterwards. This did not happen. We ordered a chicken salad with cheese and a mustard dressing, mushroom croquettes and small pieces of grilled deer meat. It was nearly too much food for two people and incredibly tasty.

Total cost, including two glasses of wine, was 22.30€. Amazing. Also has a lunch Menú del Día for 10.50€ but didn’t get to check this out.

A look at the vertical garden inside.
A look at the vertical garden inside.

Mercado San Agustín
C/ Cuesta del Águila, 1 y 3
Phone: 925 21 58 98 (info)
mercadodesanagustin.com

About two minutes from Plaza Zocodover is an amazing new gastronomic market that opened in September 2014. Spread over its four floors (plus a rooftop terrace) there are 19 different food and beverage establishments that include tapas, Asian fusion, fancy burgers, grilled meats, cakes, wine and cheese shops, you name it. The place is beautiful inside and has really impressive architecture, including a three-story vertical garden. We stopped at the Marisquería y pulpería (shell fish and octopus shop) and got a huge mixed plate of fried calamari, tiny squid, fish in adobo sauce and anchovies that the woman fried up right in front of us (for 10€). Wish we were there on a Wednesday because apparently the burger place does a 4€ special every week.

Next time you’re in Madrid, consider taking a side trip down to Toledo. I haven’t gone into any of the city’s incredible art, history or architecture in this post, mainly because I’d be writing for a very, very long time. We just want to make sure you don’t go hungry when you get there.

Got a place that you found on your trip? Tell us about it! Cause we might find ourselves there again real soon…

Bertso Taberna: A Fantastic Barcelona Pintxos Bar

We took a week-long trip to Spain’s Basque country last spring, staying in San Sebastian and Bilbao. It is a beautiful and fascinating region with some of the best food I’ve ever eaten.

Our friends Dustin and Amaia hooked us up with a detailed list of places to get the best pintxos – Basque tapas – in both cities. Amaia is from a city near Bilbao, and these two have great taste in all things, so we followed their list like a treasure map. We ate so, so well.

pintxos-san-sebastian

I love that each pintxo is a tiny, flavorful work of art. Salmon, anchovies, tuna, jamón, bacalao, beef cheeks, foie, red peppers, olives, cheese… The combinations were inventive and endless. The pintxos crawl is the way I want to eat all the time:

  1. Go into a bar, where the counters are covered with platter after platter of tempting small bites.
  2. Order a glass of txakoli, the Basque white wine that is a tiny bit sparkling and very refreshing. (Also, the bartender pours it from about a foot in the air, and it’s fun to watch.)
  3. Grab a plate. You’ll probably serve yourself, and the bartender will add up your total later. (You can also order larger portions of hot dishes at a lot of places – some of which are definitely worth the effort.)
  4. Try to pace yourself. Fail.
  5. Pay up, walk next door and repeat… and repeat… and repeat.

We have found a couple of Basque tapas bars here in Barcelona, but the best one by far is another Amaia and Dustin discovery. They were in town in October, visiting us and other friends and family, and the apartment they rented just happened to be next door to a brand new pintxos bar. Coincidence? I think not.

bertso-taberna-pintxos

Bertso Taberna is in a quiet part of Gràcia, conveniently a short walk from our apartment, but it’s always bustling with people. The owner is very warm and welcoming, and the food is outstanding and affordable. We’ve tried a variety of the pintxos out on the bar, as well as the larger portions ordered from the kitchen, and everything is good. Give me all of the seafoody pintxos and extra heaping helpings of the octopus, the morcilla (blood sausage – don’t let the name deter you; it is so good – served with a sweet apple compote) and the meatballs, and I am a happy girl. We’re looking forward to becoming regulars. You should join us.

pulpo-bertso-taberna

Bertso Taberna
Metro: L4 Joanic, L3 Fontana
Carrer Torrent de les Flors, 113
Barcelona

Hours:
Monday & Tuesday: 7:30 p.m. – 11:30 p.m.
Wednesday – Saturday: 10:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
7:30 p.m. – 11:30 p.m.

Photo credit

Oysters, Chowder & Beer on the Sonoma Coast

Brian and I just got back from a month-long trip to the U.S. for the holidays, which made us feel like fancypants jetsetters. Just stops in Fairfax, New Orleans and Sonoma; no big deal. For such a long trip, it flew by, and we managed to indulge in many, many delicious meals with some of our favorite people.

hog-island-oyster
Hog Island Oyster Co., Tomales Bay

I grew up in the town of Sonoma, California, where my parents still live, and I love going home for obvious reasons. Awesome wine, food, people and scenery? Yes.

I was especially excited to make it back to Sonoma because I haven’t visited in almost two years, and Brian hasn’t gone with me in five. We must have charmed the weather gods because it was sunny, temperate and beautiful for our entire stay (a rarity in January), and we took full advantage by planning a day out on the Sonoma Coast.

Way back in high school, my friends and I would pile into someone’s car, crank up the tunes and drive out to the coast as often as we could. Mind you, a Northern California day at the beach is not a scene from 90210. It’s usually freezing. We’d wear hoodies and jackets and scarves… but every now and then, we’d get a day warm enough to get in the water. But even on the grayest, windiest, saltiest days, the Sonoma Coast is absolutely gorgeous.

Bodega Bay has always been my favorite for lounging, grilling and eating out, but we decided to go south 30 minutes and stop in Tomales Bay first for one reason: oysters. Tomales is known for its fresh-farmed, delicious oysters, which I wasn’t really aware of when I was younger. I’ve always liked oysters and would eat them grilled or cooked in butter or wine from an early age, but it wasn’t till I lived in New Orleans that I started eating them raw. Oysters on the halfshell, plain or with just a little hot sauce and lemon, are damn near perfection. They taste like the ocean in the best possible way.

Hog Island Oyster Co.

A Day on the Sonoma Coast

Hog Island Oyster Co.

Hog Island Oyster Co. has oyster bars in Napa and San Francisco, but if you head out to Marshall on Tomales Bay, you can eat a few fresh-shucked beauties right on the farm. If you have a picnic reservation, you can shuck and grill your own, but we went the lazy route and ordered from the bar – which is the bow of an old wooden boat. An order of raw oysters, an order of grilled oysters with chipotle sauce, two beers from North Coast Brewing Co. in Fort Bragg: heaven.

Sweet boat.

We got there at about 11 a.m. on a Monday, the day the Golden Gate Bridge was reopening after a weekend closure for renovations. We had the place entirely to ourselves for about an hour, enjoying views of the bay while the friendly staff worked around us to a great soundtrack.

IMG_0180

Tomales Bay Oyster Co.

After Hog Island, we drove a few miles down the coast to the next stop on our oyster tour: Tomales Bay Oyster Co. You can buy bags of oysters by the dozen for a great price (we paid $15 for ours), then carry out or pay $5 a person to shuck, grill and eat at the picnic benches next to the bay.

IMG_0182

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I had never actually shucked my own oysters before… so we got a quick tutorial (and a knife) and got to work. The oysters were amazing, and totally worth the extra effort.

Tomales Bay Oyster Co.

The Tides

We still had a little room after our oyster appetizers, so we drove up to The Tides, an old favorite in Bodega Bay. Normally, we order a feast from the snack bar – clam chowder in a bread bowl, calamari, oysters – and eat at the tables outside if it’s not too windy (or more often inside), but it was closed that day. So we got a loaf of sourdough and a large order of clam chowder from the deli and feasted that way instead.

Lagunitas Brewery

Bellies finally full, we drove back into Petaluma and wrapped up the day at the fantastic Lagunitas Brewery. I love their beers and their funky NorCal character, and the tour and tasting didn’t disappoint. You leave wanting to hang out there all the time and somehow get a job (any job) there. Go for a visit, drink a beer in their tap room and ask them to tell you all the good stories (like the Undercover Investigation Shutdown Ale).

I miss you, NorCal, but we’ll be back soon for the rest of your oysters and beer.

 

I wrote this post as part of the Your Turn Challenge from Seth Godin’s team. Anyone can participate and write one blog post per day for seven days on any topic. My lovely sister Melia inspired me and gave me the kick in the pants I needed to get writing again. Gracias y besos – here’s to Day 1!

 

How to Make Mix-and-Match Enchiladas

I make enchiladas at least once a month, usually when I have a random assortment of leftovers and vegetables I need to use, and I am craving something a little spicy. What I like best about enchiladas is that you can make them a thousand different ways, and they’re almost guaranteed to be delicious no matter what you put in them. My commitment to creating authentic Mexican cuisine is minimal, so it frees me up to try a lot of possible combinations.

pork-veggie-enchiladas

My basic formula is:

  1. Put a few cups of cooked beans or leftover chicken, pork or beef into a mixing bowl. (This is an excellent use for slow-cooker pulled pork or dried beans that you soak overnight, then cook on low all day in the slow cooker.)
  2. Mix beans or meat with sour cream (or Greek yogurt), a few generous handfuls of shredded or crumbled cheese, chopped cilantro, salt and pepper.
  3. Lightly sauté some veggies in olive oil.
  4. Take flour tortillas (or corn tortillas that have been softened by microwaving them briefly or sautéing them in a little oil) and add generous dollops of beans or meat and veggies in the center.
  5. Roll the filled tortillas up, and nestle them in a casserole dish, seam down.
  6. Cover with enchilada sauce and bake, adding more cheese on top for the last few minutes.

A few recipe ideas: 

  • Pork, spinach and pepper jack cheese
  • Chicken, red peppers and cheddar cheese
  • Pinto beans, zucchini and goat cheese
  • Black beans, squash and cotija or feta cheese

Any variations you would add to the list?

Bean, Mushroom, Red Pepper & Cheese Enchiladas

Bean, Mushroom, Red Pepper & Cheese Enchiladas

Ingredients

  • Enchiladas:
  • 1 1/2 - 2 cups cooked pinto beans (about 1 16-ounce can)
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 cup cilantro leaves, finely chopped
  • 1 cup wild or white button mushrooms, diced
  • 1 red pepper, diced
  • 1 - 1 ½ cups sour cream or plain Greek yogurt
  • 1 bag shredded cheese (about 200 g or 8 oz)
  • 10-12 small flour tortillas
  • Salsa or hot sauce (optional)
  • Pickled jalapeños (optional)
  • Avocado (optional)
  • Salt and pepper

  • Sauce:
  • 1 large can whole peeled tomatoes
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • Olive oil
  • Spices to taste (chili pepper, cumin, salt, pepper, oregano, cayenne, etc.)

Instructions

  1. Heat a small amount of olive oil in a pan and sauté pepper, onions and mushrooms for 5-8 minutes, until vegetables start to soften. Preheat oven to 375° F.
  2. Make the sauce in a separate saucepan: sauté garlic in olive oil for 1-2 minutes, then add the tomatoes and their juices, crushing them well with your hands as you go and breaking them up more with a spoon or spatula. Season with spices and let simmer uncovered for about 15-20 minutes. Blend with an immersion blender if you want a smoother sauce.
  3. In a large bowl, mix pinto beans, cilantro, sour cream and half the bag of cheese. Add a few good shakes of salt and pepper, and mix well.
  4. Grease a 9 x 13 casserole pan with a bit of olive oil to keep enchiladas from sticking. Place heaping portions of bean mixture and veggie mixture on a tortilla, roll it up and place it seam side down in the pan. Repeat until the pan is full and you use up all the filling.
  5. Pour the sauce over the enchiladas. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake for about 40 minutes.
  6. Take the enchiladas out of the oven, remove the foil and sprinkle the remaining cheese on top. Return to the oven and bake for another 5-10 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the tortillas are starting to get crisp on the edges.
  7. Serve with extra toppings: sour cream, jalapeños, salsa, hot sauce, avocado, lime, cilantro, etc.
http://www.travelingtotaste.com/2014/12/07/how-to-make-mix-and-match-enchiladas/

Gumbo-Filled Arancini (Rice Balls)

We made a big pot of chicken-sausage gumbo last weekend and had just enough leftovers to make this wondrous dish.

Gumbo-filled arancini. Life-changing, y’all. I’m obsessed.

We fell in love with arancini – Sicilian fried rice balls – when we lived in Naples (the ones filled with meat sauce are my favorite) and have been dying to try this New Orleans variation for some time.

Do yourself a favor, and take the following steps immediately:

  1. Make a huge pot of gumbo – we played around with a combination of recipes (one from our friend Kathleen and one from The New Orleans Cookbook) – and invite people you like to come share it with you. This is an excellent idea for, say, a football game. Bonus points if it’s the Saints game.
  2. The next day, make these gumbo-filled arancini, and prepare to be amazed.
arancini-preparation
Prepping the gumbo and rice balls
rice-balls
Starting to look more like arancini
arancini-before-frying
Breaded arancini, ready for frying
gumbo-arancini
Gumbo arancini with extra gumbo

Gumbo-Filled Arancini

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 25 minutes

Total Time: 40 minutes

Gumbo-Filled Arancini

Ingredients

  • Leftover rice
  • Leftover gumbo
  • 3-4 eggs
  • Breadcrumbs
  • Vegetable oil
  • Hot sauce

Instructions

  1. Take the rice out of the refrigerator about 30 minutes before you start cooking so it has time to warm up a bit. Take the gumbo out of the refrigerator just before you are ready to use it.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, blend leftover rice with 2 beaten eggs until it is slightly sticky and holds together.
  3. Beat remaining egg(s) in a small bowl and set aside. Pour breadcrumbs into a separate bowl and set next to the egg mixture.
  4. For each rice ball, make two small patties out of the rice. Add a dollop of gumbo to the center of one patty, then place the second patty on top. Form the two patties into a round shape.
  5. Dip each rice ball in egg mixture, then roll in breadcrumbs.
  6. Heat 2 inches of vegetable oil in a pan until it is hot but not smoking. Fry arancini in the oil, turning so that each side turns golden brown. Remove from pan and place on paper towels.
  7. Serve with a small bowl of gumbo and extra hot sauce.
http://www.travelingtotaste.com/2014/11/03/gumbo-filled-arancini-rice-balls/

Cavatast 2014: A Weekend in Penedès Wine Country

The capital of the cava region, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, is just a stone’s throw away from Barcelona, a fact that makes me very, very happy.

You can hop on the regional train – Rodalies R4 line – at Plaça de Catalunya and be there in about 45 minutes. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you see the massive Freixenet cavaplex right next to the Sant Sadurní d’Anoia train station.

We have made it out to visit different wineries several times with friends, and for about the last eight months, we’ve been looking forward to Cavatast, the town’s annual cava festival held at the end of harvest season, this year from October 3 to 5:

Cavatast is a space for pairing the best cavas with the best food trends of the season. The exhibitors offer visitors an extraordinary range of products for tasting, savouring, enjoying and taking home.

That sounds good. I’ll have that.

IMG_3026

Our awesome friends Kyle and Arianna were visiting from California, so it was only fitting that we head to the cava fest to take the place by storm. Kyle and I should have started some sort of Sonoma County cheer to represent for our own wine country (next time).

We got to Cavatast in the early afternoon on Saturday, walking the 10 minutes from the train station up to the street hosting the festival, and I was surprised by how uncrowded and laidback it was. A few weeks ago, Brian and I went with friends to a wine and cava festival in Barcelona during La Mercè (the festivities for the patron saint of the city), and it was a lot of fun but packed with people. The scene in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia was much more serene during the day, with no lines and plenty of standing table space, though it did get more crowded as the night went on. Yes, we were there all day.

The prices were super reasonable, and this is what we bought for each person:

Cava and glass (4 tickets + 1 glass) 6.50 €
Additional cava (4 tickets) 5.00 €
Food (4 tickets) 6.00 €
Total: 17.50 €

IMG_3023

Each of the 30-some wineries with a stand at Cavatast offered several different types of cava, for a price of one to four tickets. We stuck within the one to two-ticket range and got to try a great selection of cavas. Two of the favorites were the brut nature from Mont Marçal and Fonpinet (we bought three bottles of each at the end of the night) – subtly dry and flavorful. We also sampled some excellent food from Restaurant Cal Blay – bacallà (cod), fideuà (noodle dish similar to paella), cannelloni with mushroom bechamel sauce and a stew with botifarra negra (Catalan sausage).

cavatast

cavatast

cavatast

It was a long and trying day, making so many difficult decisions about what type of cava to try next. We took a late train back to Vilafranca del Penedès, 10 minutes away, where we stayed the night and regained our strength.

On Sunday, we took the train to Lavern-Subirats – next to Sant Sadurní d’Anoia – to have lunch with friends at the spectacular Cal Pere del Maset, which is a quick cab ride from the station in the town of Sant Pau d’Ordal. Our friend Joan’s family owns the restaurant, and the food is nothing short of amazing. Course after course of seasonal, perfectly prepared dishes.

A few favorites that I now dream about: crepes filled with chicken and covered in foie gras sauce and mushrooms, hake cooked to perfection served with romesco sauce, perfectly rare solomillo (best steak ever) with foie gras and truffle sauce, chocolette croquetas with bitter orange sauce. It was gourmet gastronomic experience with an insane wine selection (seriously, the wine list is bigger than dictionaries I’ve owned), fantastic service and a beautiful setting for very reasonable prices for the quality you receive. A meal like this in California would have cost far more, and Cal Pere del Maset is well worth the day trip from Barcelona. We will find an excuse to go back very soon.

cal pere del maset

All in all, Cavatast 2014 was a great experience, and heading to the festival is going to be an annual tradition. Who’s in for Cavatast 2015?

Grits & Grillades: New Orleans Brunch in Barcelona

One thing Americans – and New Orleanians in particular – do exceptionally well is brunch. Long, leisurely, mimosa/cocktail-fueled, this-is-my-only-plan-for-the-day brunch.

Say what you will about our excess and indulgence… in this case, I support it.

sazerac

We have recently started hosting meals through EatWith – a website that allows you to share meals in people’s homes all over the world. It’s basically Airbnb for dining, and when we first moved to Barcelona, being a guest was a wonderful way to meet new people and eat delicious food. And since we pretty much already do this kind of thing on our own (two extroverts who really love food and parties), it made perfect sense for us to become EatWith hosts.

Last weekend, we hosted our first New Orleans brunch and made one of my all-time favorites: grits and grillades. I had never had grillades (or grits for that matter) until I moved to NOLA. It’s a slow-cooked meat dish – made with beef, veal or pork – in a thick, flavorful gravy, served over creamy, buttery grits. So a light, healthy breakfast.

It’s easy to make, but it does take a long time to cook, so I advise making it the day before. The flavors are even better the next day, and all you have to do is reheat it and make the grits before people come over (you’re going to want to have people over: it makes a ton). We made our own chicken and beef stock, but you can also use store-bought.

Get the recipe below!

chicken stock veggies
The building blocks of a good stock
Chicken and beef stock
This is not at all excessive.
wine bottle meat mallet
We don’t have a mallet.
judgy cow
I’m sorry, disapproving cow!
steak
Trimming the steak
holy trinity
The Holy Trinity
mimosas
Mimosas?
brunch
Lovely guests

We used these recipes as references:

Grits & Grillades

Prep Time: 45 minutes

Cook Time: 2 hours

Total Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes

Serving Size: 10

Grits & Grillades

Grillades is a slow-cooked meat dish served over creamy grits, perfect for a New Orleans-style brunch.

Ingredients

  • Grillades
  • 4 pounds boneless beef steak (round steak or stew meat)
  • 4 cups beef broth
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 3 medium onions, diced
  • 2 medium bell peppers, diced
  • 5 ribs celery, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • Flour
  • Vegetable oil
  • 1 large can whole peeled tomatoes
  • 5 fresh tomatoes, blanched, peeled and cored (optional)
  • Creole seasoning mix (We used some of Emeril's Essence and Tony Chachere's)
  • 3 bay leaves
  • Dried tarragon and basil
  • Salt and pepper

  • Creamy Grits
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 cup coarse ground cornmeal
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 8 oz. cream cheese

Instructions

  1. Trim the fat off the beef. On a floured surface, use a mallet or blunt utensil to pound to about 1/2 inch thickness.
  2. Cut beef into long strips or small squares. Salt generously and set aside on a plate.
  3. In a large, heavy pot, heat a generous layer of vegetable oil to medium-high. Season meat with Creole seasoning mix and pepper, then brown it in batches on all sides (a few minutes per side).
  4. Remove the meat and set aside. Add onions, bell peppers and celery to the drippings and cook until the vegetables are soft, about 10 minutes.
  5. Add the tomatoes, chicken stock, beef stock and red wine, and bring to a boil.
  6. Turn the heat down to medium-low and stir in bay leaves, tarragon and basil.
  7. Simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the meat is very tender and falling apart (at least 2 hours).
  8. In the last 40 minutes of cook time, prepare the grits. Bring milk and water and salt to a boil over medium heat.
  9. Slowly pour in the cornmeal to the boiling liquid, whisking constantly to avoid lumps. Turn the heat down to low and whisk continuously for the first 5 minutes.
  10. Cover the grits and whisk every few minutes. Turn off the heat after about 25-30 minutes and stir in butter and cream cheese, adding salt and pepper to taste.
  11. Pour a ladle of grillades over the grits, and serve with hot sauce.
http://www.travelingtotaste.com/2014/09/24/grits-grillades-new-orleans-brunch-in-barcelona/

 

This is what we signed up for.

beets beets beets beets
CSA Experiment #1

As previously reported,  we recently joined a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). We had a couple of reasons for doing so, but one of them was to push ourselves into cooking with things we don’t normally buy.

Challenge number one: Beets.

Neither of us had any experience with buying and/or cooking beets, so when basket #1 arrived with two of them we did what reasonable people do: we left them on the counter for days hoping they would prepare themselves to be eaten.

This did not work, and eventually we took to the interwebs to look for creative solutions, and I was surprised to find there are lots of amazing-looking dishes to be made using beets.

Not really following any one of them in particular, the beet preparation went like this:

Beet and Goat Cheese Crostini

Ingredients

  • Beets
  • Olive oil
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Goat cheese
  • Salt and pepper
  • Sliced bread

Instructions

  1. Heat a small frying pan with a little olive oil
  2. Trim the skin off of the beets (beware, this will make your hands and your cutting surface red)
  3. Cut beets into small cubes
  4. Sauté on low heat until the beets are tender (about 40 minutes)
  5. Remove tender beets and add a few heavy dashes of salt, pepper, balsamic vinegar and olive oil
  6. Use an immersion blender (or food processor or blender) to purée until smooth
  7. On a piece of sliced bread, add a splash of balsamic vinegar, spread a hearty portion of goat cheese, and then spread the beet purée
  8. Consume and repeat step seven until you run out of one or all of the ingredients
  9. (Several recipes suggest wrapping the beets in aluminum foil and baking in place of sautéing, and I’m sure there are merits to both.)
http://www.travelingtotaste.com/2014/09/13/this-is-what-we-signed-up-for/

The end result is pictured above and turned out surprisingly well.

The moral of the story is get out there and try cooking with something new, even (or especially) if you don’t know where to start with it. It doesn’t need to be fancy or complicated, but playing with a new ingredient can open the door to a variety of other ways to prepare it.

Now I’m actually looking forward to the next time beets show up in the basket so we can make something crazy, like beet and goat cheese ravioli.