In the past few years, for more times than I’d like to admit, I have allowed myself to dance dangerously around a question that is as simple as it is complicated, as imaginable as it is hopeless, a secret irritation that haunts us all who have ever fell in love with a corner of this beautiful land they call Europe, but had to depart soon after. You know you ask yourself this, we all do.
Why. Why can’t I live here?
EVERY SIMPLE DELIGHTS FROM EVERY ASPECTS OF LIVING, RESTRAINED IN SMALL SERVINGS, BUT CONSTANT, AND IT DOESN’T STOP COMING
It’s a cliche, of course, for someone who doesn’t know or has travelled to Europe that much. But is that what romance requires, muchness? From the first time I landed a foot in Paris back in spring 2012, around the time when I just started this blog up till now, I have only been to a handful of European cities and each affair lasted no more than a week. And yet, the immense imagery of lost stories behind every architectures and cobble streets, the courage I seek to enjoy life with ease that they breath daily as a birthright, the endless sceneries roaming from hill to hills, the effortlessness, irritating almost, the fact that they can take their dogs everywhere (!!!)… All of it, everything, had left me in a stench of discontent at the boarding gates, the sense that I was going back to a place that was very much less so.
But having said that, it was a general infatuation for a region as a whole. Specifically, if you asked me, I could never quite pinpoint a city, or a country even, where I could actually see myself living in. As indisputably beautiful as Paris was and always will be, living there felt like being in a relationship with someone who would never love me more than I loved him. As authentically ancient and charming as Rome, the even more hard-wired slowness stirred a sense of restlessness in someone who wasn’t embracing retirement just yet. As much as the melancholic pessimism of Lisbon was alluring, it would probably deem unhealthy for me who’s equally negative, to marinate in large dosages. As for London, which I haven’t mentioned, the idea of moving from under one sky blanketed in smog, to another blanketed in overcast, was… just depressing to say the least. Then there was Nice, and Monaco… but who am I kidding?
That was, until Madrid.
I wanted to live here. But more importantly, I felt I could actually live here.
Even with the inevitable unfamiliarity with its pace of life and various language barriers here and there, everything felt natural, easy. It felt right. Madrid, I hope we could all agree, wasn’t the most beautiful European city, or the most prosperous. It wasn’t even the most convenient, given that few Asian airlines offered direct flights (but that’s gonna change this summer for Hong Kong). But there was something about it, the perfect mixture of ease and vibrancy, like it ran in its bloodstreams of knowing when to slow down and when to party, and it carried us, without even thinking, into the same infectious rhythm. An energetic morning, a late but overbearingly sumptuous lunch, a slow afternoon easing into the night, then a bubbling and munchy social scene to end it all perfectly.
Every simple delights from every aspects of life, restrained in small servings, but constant, and it doesn’t stop coming. That was what it felt like, as least for me, Madrid’s promises.
We arrived late morning to our rented apartment on Calle Corredera Baja de San Pablo, with a relentless British cold that followed our every footsteps. I knew what I needed, as the same for everywhere else I go for that matter. Before all, I needed to find my neighbourhood joe, my local designated coffee shop. Again, I do this anywhere I go. It’s like the first thing you move into a new home in order for it to feel like a “home”, whether it is an armchair, a flatscreen TV, or a childhood blanket. For me when I travel, first thing first, I need a neighbourhood cafe where I get my first cup of coffee in the morning. Same place, every morning. The ritual, it’s an anchor. It always becomes the focal point that pulls my memory back to place I’ve been, and it will hold powerful influence on how I remember that place (I mention them in most of my travel posts). I don’t research for it. That is not the order of things. I let myself bump into it, by chance, wondering the streets nearby until the frequency of a coffee shop speaks to me and says “I’m yours”, just like how I bumped into Maricastaña.
It was a mild winter morning with brisk air, and we eased ourselves in by its wooden bar-table and asked for two cups of coffee. They came with brown sugars as dark as the most delicious gingerbread, and I watched the dark specks sank into my crema as my fondness for this place deepened. I wanted to concentrate on smiling, but something else was on the bar-counter, intoxicatingly distracting. It was waiting, tenderly, underneath a glass dome fogged up by its warm invitation, an omelette of some sort. We asked for a slice, which looked fluffy and soft around the most part, but with a gentle dent in the centre suggesting its barely set eggs, still gooey and warm. We took a bite, and it tasted like a sponge of cottony eggs wrapping around irregular chunks of creamy potatoes. It was of course, tortilla de patatas, the quintessential spanish omelette.
It is widely circulated that La Ardosa – which was just a mere 10 min walk from our apartment if I should mention – makes one of the best tortilla de patatas in town. But with the many others we had in Madrid, including Ardosa, the very first we ran into from Maricastana still remained as the best one in our perception. Possibly a bias, but isn’t that true for everything else powered by nostalgia? Mother’s pancakes, Grandma’s fried chicken. Are they really the best? Or does it matter? In a lot of ways, being attached to an opinion of where “the best” something is, is an important emotional bond in that particular relationship.
Like anywhere else on earth, not everything in Madrid was a shot of love and wonder. But you can at least expect, as we found it, that even the mundanes came with head-scratching deliciousness. Things that are so-simple-to-the-point-of-being-crude like bocadillo de jamon, de calamares, de anything really, just one thing being stuffed in between breads, that’s it! Or for another example the, god-forbid, tartar sauce-less fried bacalao and croquettes from Casa Labra. Touristy stuff, no doubt, but even so, the quality of which surprised us. And of course, endless, endless churros, or even better, porras to dip into hot chocolates. But if you ask me, one of the immensely enjoyable way to spend a late lunch in Madrid, was to seek out unapologetically old-school places, like San Mamés. A small casserole of fresh anchovies in garlics and olive oil, a plate of hand-sliced jamon while peeking at the other table’s mashed potatoes with fried eggs, then a plate of painstakingly prepared, callos a la Madrilena, Madrid-style tripe stew. These places, like Casa Salvador, don’t exist to please a world that increasingly seeks fresh excitements. They have one way that they know of to be the right way of doing things, and you can kiss their ass if you don’t like it.
I mean when we visited its corner on an almost empty street during lunch hours, the door was locked, locked!, as if they didn’t want any more customers cramming into their deceivingly crowded dinning room. I mean who does that? Nobody! But of course, I know, we were in Spain. Even though not really my thing, but we must, for at least once, go modern at Street XO. The more available sidekick-restaurant from the 3-Michelin stars DiverXo, one of the most booked restaurants in Europe, both offering Asian-inspired innovations.
But with everything I said, the heart of Madrid wasn’t the things it had to offer. But the life that it inspired.
A place like La Parroquia de Pablo, a neighbourhood joint stacking a counter-long of fresh seafoods of fine qualities, with a backdrop-wall of even more tempting collection of preserved… well, more seafoods. It was an honest place, un-flashy, possibly unworthy under the radar of any tourist networks. But it wasn’t about being popular than it was about being familiar. We snuggled in, hats down and coats hanged on a crowded hook, with peculiar endearment as first-timers in company of complete strangers. Our “table” of the night was a small patch of ground by the bar – always standing by the way, almost never sitting down – and we asked for beer that came in small glasses, caña, like everyone else. Because it wasn’t about drinking than it was about socializing. The atmosphere encouraged mingling with others, if not so, bartenders, if not so, then each other, eating canned mussels in chili oil and vinegar, with toothpicks, and wiping the juices clean with a piece of bread. Was it mind-blowing? Not really, and these things were sold more commonly here than cereals in Walmart. But for the first time, as a long-time pursuer of foodgasms across the globe, it didn’t matter. Because as fantastic as the food-scenes Madrid had to offer, on the entire spectrum, it wasn’t even really about eating. Not really.
It was about living. And Madrid was the place I want to do it in.
HOW TO THROW A TAPAS PARTY:
When it comes to throwing a tapas party where the idea of serving several small dishes at the same time can be stressful even to the most skilled cooks, the tactic is reduced down to two simple principles. DO AHEAD. And GET ORGANISED. It’s no groundbreaking idea but I think most people, including myself, tend to forget when it comes to entertaining. Start preferably a couple days ahead, earlier if you can manage, and make yourself a menu-list. Access the time and capability you’ll realistically have on the day of the party, and make smart choices on what types of dishes you can serve.
If you’re going to have all day to prepare, and are comfortable with cooking while guests are roaming around, then you can include a few more dishes that have to be mostly prepared/cooked right before serving (such as seafood dishes like clams or shrimps, or leafy vegetables). But even with dishes like these, you can still plan ahead. Organize all the components and ingredients a couple hours ahead. Have your meats or seafoods prepped, cut and ready. Wash all your vegetables, chopped and diced, and set aside. Run the steps through your head so you have a clear idea of what’s to be done.
But if you won’t have much time or don’t function well under stress, then go heavy on dishes that can be 80~90% pre-made, then put them together simply right before serving. You’d be surprised how “pre-made” a lot of things can be, like most sauces, batters, doughs, pates and spreads, and etc. Some will keep perfectly in the fridge or freezer, with others that might even improve in flavours through time (like braised meats and such), and all you have to do before serving, is to finish cooking or bringing the components back to ideal temperature.
(Dishes you can prepare ahead) CROQUETTE:
Makes 16 ~ 22 croquettes
Croquette is, to me, a quentissential item on the tapas table, not to mention the most convenient choice to prepare because it can be pre-made and kept in the freezer right before frying. It is also super versatile. With the “binder” being a thick and creamy mashed potatoes, pretty much anything – meats, seafoods or vegetables – can go into the mixture. I’m using browned homemade chorizos, but if you have any leftover braised meats like short ribs, porks or chicken, simply drain them well from the braising liquid then shred them into small chunks. Or mix in some caramelised vegetables with shredded cheese. Don’t forget a good large handful of finely chopped herbs to brighten the flavours and bring everything to life.
- 2 medium-sized (485 grams after peeling) starchy potatoes
- 1/2 cup (110 grams) cream cheese
- 1 tsp salt
- 8.8 oz (250 grams) fresh homemade chorizo, or equivalent amount of any leftover braised meats
- 1/2 cup finely diced scallions
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 2 cups panko breadcrumbs
- 1 tsp ground white pepper, plus more to dust
- canola oil for frying
DO AHEAD: Peel the potatoes and cut them into large chunks. Submerge in a pot of water and bring to a simmer (starting with cold water cooks the potatoes more evenly), then cook for 12 to 15 min until a fork can be easily inserted into the potatoes. Drain very very well, then transfer the potatoes into a food-processor, along with cream cheese and salt. Run the processor, scraping a few times in between, until the mixture is smoothly blended. It should feel thick and sticky. *General consensus is that food-processors make mashed potatoes rubbery and sticky, but I find that all the croquettes I’ve had in Madrid had a thick and sticky mouth-feel, which I was quite fond of. If you don’t like this texture, you can mash the potatoes by hand.*
Transfer the potato-mixture into a large bowl, and set aside. In a large skillet with just a little oil to coat, cook the homemade chorizo over high heat, breaking it up with a wooden spoon, until evenly browned and cooked through. Add it to the potatoes along with chopped scallions, season with freshly ground black pepper, then mix until even. Dust a sheet-tray lightly with flour, then scoop dollops of the croquette-mixture, about 2 tbsp each, and drop them onto the sheet-tray. You should get about 16~20. Flash-freeze for 30 min until slightly hardened (trust me, this makes shaping/breading so much easier).
Have the flour and beaten eggs ready in two separate bowls. Mix the panko breadcrumbs with ground white pepper, then crush them into finer crumbs with your hands and set aside. Take the croquette-balls out of the freezer. Coat one evenly in flour, then shape it into a cylinder (or a ball, it’s up to you), then coat it in the beaten egg, then evenly with the panko breadcrumbs. Put it back on the sheet-tray, then repeat until you’re done with all the other balls. Return the sheet-tray in the freezer and freeze until completely hardened. You can keep the croquettes in air-tight bags in the freezer right until frying.
BEFORE SERVING: Add enough oil into the frying-pot until it reaches 2″ (5 cm) deep. Heat over medium-high heat until the oil reaches 330 F/ 165 C, or until it bubbles up immediately and enthusiastically around an inserted wooden chopstick. Fry the croquettes in batches (do not crowd the pot!), until golden browned on all sides. Dust with more ground white pepper right after they come out of the fryer, and serve.
(Dishes you can prepare ahead) HOT SPRING EGG, CARAMELISED MUSHROOMS AND SRIRACHA BÉARNAISE SAUCE:
This was actually a dish we had in Lisbon, but I thought it was an ingenious and wonderful dish for dinner parties. It feels and tastes complex, but every components can be prepared days ahead, and is an ease to put together before serving. If you’ve never made a butter sauce before, really, it’s easier than you think, especially this one. With plenty of acidity and moisture from the sriracha sauce, the emulsion should form beautifully, not to mention a ton of great flavours and kicks.
- 4 hot spring eggs/sous vide egg, you can find different ways to do it from here or here
- CARAMELIZED MUSHROOMS:
- 20.5 oz (580 grams) assorted fresh mushrooms, like shiitake and oysters, avoid button mushrooms
- 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme leaves
- 1 tsp chopped capers
- salt and black pepper to season
- 1 1/2 tsp caper brine
- SRIRACHA BEARNAISE SAUCE:
- 1 shallot, finely minced
- 1 jalapeno, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup (58 grams) white wine vinegar
- 1 1/2 tbsp (20 grams) sriracha sauce
- 2 large yolks
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 12 tbsp (168 grams) unsalted butter, cut into 2-tbsp chunks
- 2 tbsp finely minced cilantro
DO ONE DAY AHEAD: You can make the hot spring eggs/sous vide eggs up to 3 days ahead, and keep them in the fridge until needed.
MAKE CARAMELIZED MUSHROOMS: Rinse mushrooms under water to get rid of any dirts. Trim off the tough ends of stems if any, then hand-torn the mushrooms into small pieces (a wonderful technique inspired by Tara O’Brady). Cook the mushrooms in 2 batches (3 if your skillet is small). Heat 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil in a large, flat skillet over high heat, then add 1/2 of the mushrooms. Spread them into a single layer, then do not move them for the next 2 min. We want the mushrooms to brown, not sweat (so don’t add salt now), so be patient. After 2 min, turn the mushrooms over and cook for another 2 min to brown the other sides, then move them around to cook for another 1~2 min. The mushrooms should lose 1/2 of their volume, and take on nice, dark brown color all over. Transfer them to a bowl, then repeat with the second batch with the rest of the olive oil. When the second batch is done, return the first batch back into the skillet, then add chopped garlics, thyme, chopped capers and salt and black pepper. Cook for 1 min until fragrant, then add the caper brine at the last min and stir to combine. Once cooled (no more steam), transfer to an air-tight container and keep in the fridge until needed.
MAKE SRIRACHA BÉARNAISE SAUCE: In a small pot, combine minced shallot, chopped jalapeno and white wine vinegar. Bring to a boil and continue to cook until the liquid has reduced down to a little less than 1 tbsp. Strain the mixture and press on the solids to get most liquid out (you should have no more than 1 tbsp), then return the liquid back to the pot. Add sriracha, yolks, salt and black pepper to combine. Keep the flame at low and hold just a corner of the pot over the flame to keep it warm, then add 1 chunk of unsalted butter. Whisk constantly to let the butter slowly melt and emulsify into the mixture. We only want just enough heat to melt the butter SLOWLY, so remove the pot away from the heat when you feel that there’s enough. Warm, NOT hot. Add the next chunk of butter when the previous one has fully disappeared, moving the pot away and back to the flame as needed, until all the butter has been mixed in. Don’t rush this, or the sauce might break. A successful emulsion should feel like loose mayonnaise. Now whisk in the finely minced cilantro. Once cooled, keep the sauce in the pot, covered, inside the fridge until needed.
BEFORE SERVING: Submerge the hot spring/sous vide eggs in hot tap-water for 15 min to warm up. Re-cook the mushrooms in a skillet over medium heat to warm up, set aside. Hold the pot with the béarnaise sauce back and forth over low flame, with just enough heat to slowly loosen it back into creamy consistency while whisking constantly. Place 1 1/2 tbsp of sriracha béarnaise sauce at the bottom of a jar, then cover with a layer of caramelized mushrooms, and crack a hot spring/sous vide egg on top. Season the egg with a bit of sea salt and black pepper. To serve, stir the mixture vigorously together into saucy goodness, and serve with crusty bread.
Other make-ahead tapas ideas: Highly addictive party cigars. Porky gingery shrimp toasts. Cherry tomato vinaigrette and gorgonzola bruschetta. Creamy duck rillette. XL white wine meatballs. Hot bunny pasta sauce.
(simple dish to make on the day) BETTER GAMBAS AL AJILLO (SHRIMP W/ GARLIC):
Fo the life of me, I can’t understand why would anyone use headless shrimps, in any dishes really, when all the shrimp-mojo lies inside those beautiful heads. It’s nature’s pre-packaged delivery system for intense flavours, sea-foie gras if you will, waiting to be sucked out. Not to mention that they also add incredible flavours to the oil that you fry them in, which is kind of the other major point of a good sambas al ajillo. Now, the trick to serving stress-free tapas that couldn’t be pre-made the day before, is to do all the prepping ahead of time. Get organised. A few hours before, prep the shrimps, measure the oils, slice the garlics, set aside the chilis, and have everything ready to go in individual containers. It reduces the chances of panic-attacks and makes the whole experience more enjoyable for yourself.
- 6 large (or 10 medium) head-on/shell-on prawns
- 6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 4~6 dried red chili
- 4 cloves garlic, sliced paper-thin
- salt and black pepper to season
DO A FEW HOURS AHEAD: Leave the head of the shrimps on, then cut open the shells along the back of the shrimps with a scissor. Peel all the shells except for the tail (or peel it all if you prefer), then pull away the dark vein along the back. Rinse again then pat dry with a clean towel, then set aside on a plate. Use a truffle shaver, or by hand, slice the garlic super thinly, then set aside. Prepare the other ingredients in individual bowls as well.
BEFORE SERVING: Season the shrimps with salt on both sides. In a large flat skillet, heat the extra virgin olive oil and dried red chili over high heat. Cook until the chili start to turn darker in color. With a tongs, arrange the shrimps in one flat layer. Cook for 30~40 seconds until the first sides start to brown slightly. Now, scatter the garlics over the shrimps, then flip the shrimps over (you will have some garlics on the bottom that are gonna get nice and browned). Cook for another 30~40 seconds until the shrimps are just cooked through. Season again with some salt and freshly ground black pepper (this will season the garlics as well), and transfer to a warm plate (or another warm skillet). Serve immediately.
*Traditionally this dish is served in the hot clay-dish that it’s cooked in, but why? It only overcooks the shrimps. This technique only makes sense for dishes that get better with continuous cooking, not shrimps! So no, I don’t do that.*
(simple dish to make on the day) FRIED GREEN CHILI WITH HERBS:
I consider my version of this classic tapas dish more as a “garnish”. With an added bunch of leafy herbs that is fried to crispy goodness, this is a salty, spicy and herby “topping” that will make basically all-of-the-above dishes, taste better. Plus we already have a pot of frying oil for croquette, so why waste? Scared of frying things like this that splatter? Hell, me too! So again, organize! With everything prepped and ready, plus a few frying-tricks to protect yourself, this is going to be the easiest thing to make amongst them all.
- 15~20 mild green chilis, like shishito or etc
- 1 large handful of leafy herbs, like cilantro, basil, mints or etc
- canola oil for frying
- flakey fine sea salt to season
- little dusting of ground white pepper
DO A FEW HOURS AHEAD: Wash the chilis then pat dry thoroughly with a clean towel, then set aside. Do the same with the herbs.
BEFORE SERVING: Have these things ready: mitts for both hands, a large lid, and a spider/wire-mesh drainer for frying. After you fry the croquettes, keep the oil at around the same temperature. Put the mitts on both hands. Transfer about 1/2 of the chili into the meshed drainer, then use it to lower the chili into the frying-pot. Hold the lid with the other hand, and loosely cover the pot just so the splatter doesn’t get to you, but leave large gaps for the steam to escape. Swirl the chili around with the meshed drainer for even frying, then remove them from the oil once they are blistered all over (it will happen quite quickly). Drain them over paper-towels, then repeat with the rest. Same thing with herbs, lower the herbs into the oil with the meshed drainer, then cover loosely with the lid. The sizzling sound will subside quickly, then you can remove the lid, and fry the herbs until crispy. Drain over paper-towels.
Season generously with fine sea salt and dust with ground white pepper.
Other simple ideas to make on the day: Green butter grilled oysters. Broccoli steak w/ sambal romesco sauce (romesco sauce can be made the day ahead). Sandy old man on X’mas (batter can be made several hours ahead). Spicy salmon mini hand rolls. Chongqing hot wings. Mini 2:1 sliders (buns, patty-mixture and sauce can be pepped ahead).