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Saturday, January 17, 2004

Studying Up for a Vacation

I made my first Spanish tortilla the other night, a dish that is hearty and simple, a peasant dish that is probably one of the most defining dishes of Spanish cuisine. Potatoes, eggs, and olive oil are all you need to make this potato omelet. I have been studying up on Iberia in anticipation of my trip there in less than three weeks. Although I have been to Spain twice before, it has been a while. How time flies! I barely even remember my travels on the peninsula but my Spanish is much, much better than the last time I was there. Memories fade but language skills sharpen with continued use.

One thing that I do remember about Spain is the nightly frenzy of the tapas hour. In the pre-dinner hours (Spaniards eat very late, like 10pm) people practically run from bar to bar, drinking beer or wine, and eating small appetizers. People say that the way to judge a good tapas bar is by the quantity of garbage on the floor—the more the better. The tapas hour ends as abruptly as it begins when people move on to a very leisurely dinner. I think I can remember how to do that.

I have also been given a great little guide and glossary of Madrid tapas-speak. Ir a tapas or salir de tapear is how you would say you are going to go out and have a glass of wine and a little something to eat to hold you over until your late dinner. The guide recommends that you ir a tapas with between three and four people, that you have no more than two items before moving to another bar, and that all tapas activity should be done standing up. It provides the correct etiquette for paying (each person pays a round), and descriptions of Madrid’s favorite appetizers.

My mother bought me a wonderful cookbook when she traveled to Spain a few years ago, Cooking in Spain by Janet Mendel. I didn’t pay the book much attention at the time. It was just one of the many books in my kitchen, always behind my French and Mexican cookbooks. I have recently opened it up and I now see what a great resource it is, not only on Spanish cooking but on the Spanish vocabulary for food.

Spain is not exactly renowned for its cuisine but I remember the simple dishes I had there being the best: beans, bread, country sausages, hams, and olives. Along with a local wine, olives are the perfect appetizer. My cookbook even has instructions on how to cure olives two different ways. As anyone from the Mediterranean region knows, olives must first be cured in a solution of water and soda-lye before they can be eaten.

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