Chef Tom’s Big Adventure: Barcelona

Seafood!

21 September

In Barcelona a Marisqueria (seafood place) called La Peradata is a popular mini-chain of seafood restaurants. The one I found was in the village of El Born, near the Picasso Museum. What a wild place. Queue was 45 minutes in the sun. When I finally got in, the din was three bombs. I didn’t quite know what I was in for, the line was moving, I was getting closer and closer, and my heart was pounding. Will I figure this out by the time I get to the front of the line, or will I end up screwing the pooch?

I made it through the door and stood before their fresher than fresh seafood bar. Crushed ice piled high with all manner of ocean bounty. It was call and response. Knife wielding ladies yelled questions to tourists at breakneck speed, who in turn shouted out their choices, back and forth, in Spanish and broken English. Customers pointed to just-caught mussels, wriggling lobsters, pincer-grabbing crabs, antennae-waving langoustine, periwinkle, calamari, octopus, razor clams, oysters, various filets of red and white fish and even a big hunk of albacore. I was being pressed from behind. I had to be fast, which meant paying close attention; listening to the folks ahead of me as they barked out their orders.

My turn. I pointed to this and then to that and then to those, signaling how many of each. I asked for one large section of calamari, six huge gambas (shrimp), and a small net bag full of fresh mussels. The lady behind the counter quickly wrapped whatever I pointed to in a white paper cone, weighed it, asked me (I think) what kind of sauce, to which I blurted out tomato! Then she tallied the cost, and sent me over to the cashier. She placed my raw little fishies onto a tray and handed them through the window into the kitchen. How the cooks would prepare everything was anybody’s guess. I didn’t care. This was thrilling!

 https://tinyurl.com/y83o8bdw )

I sat patiently at a small table. A server hurried by and deftly placed a basket of sliced baguette in front of me. Numbers were being called out from the kitchen. Though I ordered three different items, they sent one dish out at a time. I recalled the counter lady yelling something to me when I pointed to the mussels about garlic or tomato sauce. As I said, I called out tomato! and that’s what I got. Creamy, succulent mussels bathed in a warm, herby tomato sauce with a feint, clean taste of the sea. From the basket in front of me, I grabbed hunks of soft, chewy baguette that were perfect for mopping.

Next was the calamari. It came sliced into thin rings that were lightly breaded and flash fried to a light crisp. A simple wedge of lemon and some tomatoey aioli for dipping. Tender, with just enough tooth. Perfectly cooked.

 Mussels in Tomato, Garlic and Leek Sauce

 Calamari

One more plate. Las Gambas Grandes (six large shrimp). Ok, I am not a seafood guy. It’s not what I look for first on a menu. Most often briny flavors mix with an occasional sand grain or something equally as gritty, and I am offput. The strong taste of the sea isn’t my favorite anyway (I call it “tastes like the bottom of a boat”), but add a piece of grit? No thanks.

So, with things seafood, I am not so adept. I am sure there is a graceful way to peel shrimp at the table but I did not know what that was. I may have raised a Spanish eyebrow or two and perhaps the thought, “Look at the silly American tearing that beautiful shrimp apart!” I didn’t care. I went for it.

These six little guys, though, looking a bit more intact and closer to life than I am used to, were revelatory. After a couple of minutes of intense fumbling, fingers covered in sauce and antennae, I was able to dip the succulent meat into a simple chimichuri of butter, garlic and parsley. The flavor was clean, with just a hint of brine, but rich and toothsome and exceptionally juicy. The garlic gave everything an earthy punch. Man.

 Las Gambas!

All told, you get a LOT of fresh seafood, immediately cooked to order, with a beer and some bread for under 20 Euro.

This place I would return to and bring my friends – for the rapid-fire experience, as well as the good eats.

Finito!

What are YOU guys looking at?

 

Best

The Hemingway: Cigars, Guns and Meat

25 September

Sultry men and their burning cigars, random gun shots, revolution in the air, running thieves, hidden criminals, roving police cars, flying fire, secret sex, crystal glasses of inky wine, tender rice black as a moonless night, and lots and lots of smoking, charred meat. My dinner last night could have been a scene from The Sun Also Rises.

Connie, James and I were hungry. We’d just spent a long afternoon strolling through the myriad intricate streets and alleys of the Barcelona villages of El Born and El Gotic. Time for supper. We sat at a table set out in the cool evening air, at a charming Argentinian café with tall, open flamed heaters, and an impressive view of a large, covered marketplace.

We ordered the Paradilla (which is actually the name for a large, open grill), a traditional mixed grill platter with skirt and flank steak, Argentinian blood sausages, sweetbreads and ribs, all nicely charred and dripping with yummy fat, served with a traditional chimichurri and a gorgeous olive and onion relish. Came with pitch-black Riso Negro, rice made with squid ink, mussels and shrimp. Everything was paired with generous pours of a dark Malbec. iMuy delicioso!

I looked up from the pile of juicy meats into the sky to see what appeared to be a second moon. Someone had launched a lovely sky lantern that floated high above the marketplace. As we dove in to our giant platter of carne, two shady gentlemen at the table next to us lit up fat cigars. Clouds of smoke rode a gentle breeze aimed directly at our table, filling our unaccustomed nostrils with the acrid aroma of the club room. Being from the no-smoking bubble of Northern California, the intrusion was annoying, but we did a group shrug, toasted our wine, and chalked it up to being in Spain. Still…

To distract ourselves from the smoke and to just get through dinner (there were no tables we could move to), we shared wild and wooly stories of coming out, women’s lib, hippies, counter culture, and early sexual adventures. We reminisced and laughed and listened to the wild cacophony of sounds echoing through the streets from the last day of a huge street festival that had been going on all over the city all week (La Merce). The celebration was in its death throes and was not going down without a fight. We could hear booming gunshots of antique muskets called Trabuco being fired off in Placa de Sant Jaume (my home for a week), just a few blocks from us.

With the guns going off and the shouts and cries from the revelry, the chaos of the evening was an echo of the Spanish Civil War. In fact, this was the very weekend of an historical political revolution. The country was divided by one long-standing question. Should Catalunya be allowed to declare independence from Spain? The vote was to happen the next day.

Finally, despite the romance of rubbing elbows with the locals who were at a significant turning point in their lives, we could not take the cigar smoke anymore and decided to skip dessert and coffee.  We opted instead to wander back through the spiderweb of streets in search of gelato. As we walked, Connie spied one of the many street merchant’s little “shops” on the sidewalk. A shop is a sheet covered in merchandise, so that when the authorities show up, they can gather up the corners, toss it over their shoulder like Santa’s bag of goodies, and run, only to return when the coast is clear and lay everything back out again. Sometimes you can witness a dozen street vendors running wildly through the crowds of tourists, all heading in the same general direction, away from the cops, like a flock of angular birds who had decided to take their nests with them.

Typical Barcelona street vendor with portable shop

The gentleman was selling delicate scarves in interesting shades and patterns. Connie wanted one for a friend back home. The young man handed her the one she pointed to, but kept looking down the street. At one point he walked rapidly away from us, down the sidewalk, leaving us standing there. Suddenly he came running back, quickly bundled up his shop and took off running down the alley. We turned and saw a police car crawling slowly up the street.

Connie realized she was left holding the evidence. She slyly tucked the scarf under her arm as the cops slowly drove past. Once they were a half block away, the harried merchant returned and quickly laid his store back out onto the sidewalk. Connie fished three euro out of her purse and paid the man.

I slept that night uneasy, troubled thoughts tumbling through my over-stimulated brain. What will this politically charged weekend portend? Come Sunday, once the votes have been cast, will guns once again be shot in the governmental square? Will I have dreams of being pursued by the police, or maybe by the spirits of the many animals I just consumed? Will my nightmare include a fiery moon, me choking on clouds of blue smoke or perhaps…secret lesbian sex? I could sense the spirit of Hemingway, tossing back a whiskey, eyes crinkling in a wide smile, and pointing to me with the stub of his cigar saying “Welcome to Spain.”

Hemingway

=CTH=

Chef Tom is currently Resident Chef for a small tech firm in San Francisco. He also teaches cooking classes, caters small parties and leads overseas culinary tours. His specialty for the last twelve years has been cooking for people with food allergies and sensitivities. His motto is “Food should give you pleasure, not pressure.”

Check him out at www.hippkitchen.com

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