Sopa de ajo (Garlic soup)

Spanish cuisine is not exactly known for its vegetarian dishes, and as such, being vegetarian and writing a blog about Spanish gastronomy may seem to be a bit of a paradox.  For this reason, a lot of this blog has recently turned to dessert recipes.  This isn’t necessarily a reflection of my own diet…but they’re sometimes the only traditional, meatless recipes that I can find.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t traditional dishes in Spain that don’t include meat.  “Sopa de ajo” is both traditional and (sometimes) meatless.  The core of this dish, “garlic soup” is meant to be made without meat.  Of course, variations exist and cooks will sometimes add chorizo, ham, or other pieces of meat into the soup.

About a month ago, I dug into my first bowl of “sopa de ajo” in Spain.  “Sopa de ajo”, also called “sopa castellana” is particularly popular in the region of Castilla y León.  With my class, I had spent a few days walking the Camino de Santiago, historically –and to this day— the most famous pilgrimage in Europe.  The Camino de Santiago leads to the city of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, where it is said that the apostle James was buried.  (Note: St. James actually never set foot in Spain.)  Our small part of the Camino didn’t take us all the way to Galicia; we ended our trip in Burgos.

The night before, in our “albergue” (a shelter for pilgrims), all of us had spent the coldest night of our lives.  I was literally so cold that I wasn’t even able to sleep; trying to cover all parts of my body – head included – with my blanket and sleeping bag.  The next day, in Burgos, didn’t much help either – Burgos is the coldest city in Spain.  Once the coldness seeps into your bones, it’s hard to shake it.

For lunch I stopped with a few friends at a restaurant in Burgos that offered a “menú del día”.  The first dish was “Sopa de ajo” – how good warm soup sounded!  And so I ate it, which helped melt the coldness from my bones.  The ride back to Madrid in the heated bus also helped.

Sopa de ajo con huevos (Garlic soup with eggs)


about 2/3 cups of day-old bread, chopped finely

1 tbsp minced onion

1 tsp Spanish paprika

6 garlic cloves

6 1/3 cups boiling water

6 eggs (optional)

salt, oil and parsley

Fry the bread in a pan with olive oil; add 3-4 tbsp olive oil and fry the minced onion and garlic.  When golden, remove from the flame and add the paprika.  The paprika gives the bread a red color.  Place the bread in an oven dish, remove the garlic mixture from the pan and toss them on the bread.  Add boiling water and season.

Slowly cook for ten minutes.  Put it in a heated oven and let it form a crust.  Remove from the oven, put six eggs on top and place once again in the oven, until the whites of the eggs are cooked. (This last step – as are the eggs — is optional.)


pan con tomate + La Boquería in Barcelona

I just got back from a few wonderful days in Barcelona.  Barcelona is Spain’s second largest city, after Madrid, but it’s not as “Spanish” per se, as Madrid is.  “No estamos in España, estamos en Cataluña”, I read, and true it is: We’re not in Spain; we’re in Catalunya.  Barcelona is more cosmopolitan, right next to the sea, and bilingual: they speak Catalán and Spanish, but they still share the Spanish love of late nights, partying and great food.

“Pan con tomate”, or “pa amb tomaca” in Catalán, is simple but simply good: a piece of bread, toasted or not, rubbed with a raw tomato.  Drizzle olive oil sprinkle with salt and voilá!  ¡Riquísimo!

“La Boquería” was one of my favorite places in Barcelona; it’s official name is “Mercat de Sant Josep”: a market filled with pretty much everything: plenty of fresh seafood, meat that looks way too much like the animal it was, Spanish wines, chocolates, tons of juice (kiwi with coconut was a favorite, as was the chocolate + banana + coconut one), as well as prepared foods.


Life has been very busy lately – hence the lack of an update in over a month, but finally “Semana Santa” (Holy Week) has arrived, and with that, spring break, and with that…torrijas and this entry.

I walked into the bakery around the corner from my apartment to give them a try after seeing a sign on the door announcing, “¡Tenemos torrijas superguays!”  (We have supercool torrijas!)  I ordered two different varieties – the more “traditional” kind, dusted with sugar and cinnamon, and another bathed in milk.  I asked the baker how he made them, and he said, basically, you dip day-old bread into a mixture of milk and eggs, and then fry them with oil in a pan.  Like French toast, I thought.  He explained to me that torrijas were eaten during times of hunger, as they provided calories and nutrients with the milk and eggs.  Now, torrijas are only eaten during Easter time, and unlike our French toast in America, they are eaten as a snack and not as breakfast.


day old bread

4 cups milk

3 eggs

3 tbsp sugar

oil (note that when Spaniards say “oil”, they generally mean olive oil)

Cut a loaf of bread into slices about two centimeters thick.  Bathe the slices in heated milk with the sugar for 45 minutes.

Beat eggs in a separate bowl.

Heat oil in a pan.

With a slotted spoon, scoop out the torrija and drain a bit of the milk.  Dip carefully in the beaten eggs, then quickly transfer to the pan.  When golden, flip carefully so as not to break them.  Dry on paper towel.

Serve room-temperature or warm.

Pronounce: to-rree-has.  😉

Coffee in Spain

I’m sitting in Starbucks while writing this entry, which says two things:

1) Starbucks exists in Madrid (and widely, at that), and, by extension,

2) the coffee in Spain is not all that good.

Currently, there exists not a single Starbucks in Italy. In Madrid, alone, however, there are 44 Starbucks coffeehouses.

It’s pretty easy to figure out why Starbucks has been such a huge success. Coffee is a stimulant: it makes people feel good. Add tons of sugar, milk, and flavorings to that, as Starbucks has done, and you’ve got yourself a hit. But that’s not the reason I started coming to Starbucks in Madrid: I came because it was the only place with a relaxing, smoke-free environment to read and study. Starbucks has got itself a pretty brilliant marketing strategy, indeed.

But this is about the coffee. It really is hard to find great coffee: coffee that doesn’t need sugar and milk to make it more drinkable. As the barista trainer of my favorite coffee shop in Chicago, Intelligentsia, succinctly put it, “great espresso is not the result of chance.”

Last year, the economy was rough, I was a recent college grad (and a liberal arts one, at that), and thus found myself balancing two jobs: one teaching night classes to adults at a Spanish language school, and one working at Chicago’s Downtown Farmstand, a sort of indoor farmers’ market. Really, these two jobs balanced some of my greatest interests pretty well: language, culture, and gastronomy.

Intelligentsia is pretty much the undisputed king of coffee in Chicago, not to mention one of the very best in the country (I also nod my head to you, Metropolis). I learned basically every good thing I know about coffee from Intelligentsia. Intelligentsia made me a coffee snob, or at least, aggravated an existing condition.  😉

Working at the farmers’ market brought me in direct contact with Intelligentsia’s barista trainer. Intelligentsia has its own roasting plant in Chicago, making the coffee arguably “local”, and so we sold it at the Farmstand. One day Alexandra, the aforementioned barista trainer, came to show us how it was done. She taught us to steam the milk only to 140° F, that slowly pulling the pitcher down the wand while steaming stretches the proteins of the milk, resulting in an even, tight foam, and milk that hasn’t been scorched (big air pockets are a sure-fire sign of badly steamed milk).  She taught us to clean the wand immediately afterwards and open the nozzle again to clear out any milk that would otherwise crystallize inside – something I observe in coffeeshops with mistrustful eyes; this is a commonly abandoned step. Coffee beans are at their peak ten days after their roast date. She showed us the exact pressure needed to temp the espresso in its gasket so that it doesn’t come out too fast (and flavorless) or too slow (and bitter): twenty to twenty-five seconds flowing from the espresso machine is ideal. She told us: never freeze your coffee beans, as that would dry them out, thus ruining the flavor. The coffee beans should be ground individually for each shot, resulting in the freshest, brightest flavors. I listened, fascinated, jotting down notes.

Legend has it that in the 16th century, Catholics, fearing that coffee was the work of the devil (it did come from Islamic countries, after all), brought it to attention to the Pope Clement VIII. The Pope tasted it and liked it so much that rather than prohibiting it, he blessed it: “This Satan’s drink is delicious…it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it.” From there, coffee spread across the Western world.

In both Italy and Spain, what we call “espresso”, they call “café” (“caffè in Italian): espresso, to them, is your basic coffee. From there, the varieties are endless; in Spain, the most common is “café con leche”, coffee with steamed milk, which is much like the café au lait (or café crème) in France; a close second is “café cortado”, literally, “cut coffee”: the bitterness of the coffee is “cut” with a dash of mild milk (the Spanish equivalent to the Italian macchiato). There’s “café bombón”: espresso + sweetened condensed milk, as candy-like as the name suggests; “café vienés”: coffee topped with a mound of whipped cream, among other varieties.

A coffee expert friend of mine, while visiting me in Spain, tried the coffee and said it seemed weak, perhaps a medium roast, lacking depth, over-extracted. The milk they use in Spain didn’t help much, either: Spaniards most typically drink UHT (ultra high temperature processed) milk. UHT milk is partially sterilized by heating it for a short time, around one to two seconds, at temperatures exceeding 135 degrees Celsius (275 degrees Farhenheit). UHT milk has a shelf-life of six to nine months, and is popular in hotter countries like Spain, where the cost of transporting milk in refrigerated trucks is very high. Consumption of UHT milk in Spain is at 95.7%, in Italy, 49.8%, compared to Great Britain, 8.4%. My theory on UHT milk? Any milk that can last for six to nine months unrefrigerated should not be trusted. Not to mention, it tastes kinda funny.

–Look for PART TWO on COFFEE IN SPAIN next week.– 🙂


As a follow-up to last week’s egg dessert recipe, I’m posting a recipe for “Zabaglione”, a simple Italian dessert made of egg yolks, sugar, and Marsala wine – few ingredients, yet oh so tasty.

The standard recipe calls for beating raw eggs stiff, but in today’s salmonella-scared world, it would be okay to beat the eggs over a double boiler, if that makes you feel more comfortable.

Recipe for one (double or triple (etc) for more people)

1 egg (or just the yolk)

2 tbsp sugar

2-3 spoonfuls of Marsala wine (to taste)

Beat the egg stiff, until it reaches the point where a little teaspoon could stand up in the cream without support.  Slowly add the other ingredients and mix together.

Serve in cocktail glasses (transparent glass is pretty in order to see the Zabaglione).  Zabaglione is often accompanied by a “pavesini” cookie.


There have been many times throughout my life when I’ve declared that I don’t like something, and then later had to bite my tongue after discovering that yes, actually, I do.  This has happened with mushrooms: slimy nastiness, I declared, and then later discovered, well prepared, perhaps sautéed with garlic and other spices, are actually quite exquisite.  It’s happened with peanut butter: sticky smelly yuckiness that I discovered I quite liked in Thai peanut sauces and chocolate peanut butter balls.  And, more recently, it’s happened with egg yolks.

While I still can’t stomach a plain old yolk, I’ve come to like it in certain dessert forms.  The Spanish use yolks a lot in desserts, and “Natillas” is one of my favorites.


flavor with one of the following:

one cinnamon stick

lemon peels

one vanilla bean

1 liter milk (about 4 1/4 cups)

4 eggs

4 spoonfuls of sugar (to your taste)

Heat the milk along with the cinnamon stick, lemon peel or vanilla bean (this is to add flavor to the milk and will later be removed).  Don’t boil the milk.  Once heated, remove the cinnamon stick/lemon peel/vanilla bean.  Remove from the stove and let rest for fifteen minutes.

In a separate bowl, beat the yolk with the sugar (you can use either whole eggs or just the yolks, to your preference).  Add the eggs to the milk, beating continuously over a low flame until it reaches a thick, creamy, pudding-like consistency.

Remove from flame and let cool.

Natillas are often served sprinkled with cinnamon and accompanied by a María cookie.

El Horario Español & Breakfast in Spain

Before coming to Spain for the first time, I actually had the idea in my head that they were just making up the fact that Spaniards would eat lunch at three, dinner at ten.  Who in their right mind could wait until 3 p.m. for lunch??  Not to mention dinner at ten.

Once in Spain, I quickly learned this was no rumor.  And so I’d wait for lunch, served at three by my host mom, stomach grumbling wildly.

I’ve asked various Spaniards why they eat this way, with no clear answers.  The rest of Europe doesn’t eat so late, and even Italy and Portugal, Spain’s other southern neighbors, eat at a more reasonable hour: lunch at one and dinner at eight.

The thing is that in Spain, everything happens later.  The nightlife here is like nowhere else: people don’t even start going out to the discotecas and bars until midnight – which makes sense if they’re having dinner at ten – and the streets are packed at all hours of the night.  I remember being very surprised to see kids playing in the plazas at 11 p.m. during the summer.  I suppose if a person is raised in this culture, later eating times and later bedtimes would feel like the most natural thing in the world.

But I was raised in America, my parents ushering me and my sisters to bed at 8 p.m.  As a result, I still like to go to sleep relatively early by Spanish standards, around 11 p.m.  This means no 10 p.m dinner for me; I eat at 8.  Lunch is around 1 or 2 p.m.  I’ve tried to approximate Spanish standards, but I haven’t conditioned myself to adapt them entirely.

The incredulity of eating schedules goes both ways.  Milagros loves to tell the story of how, a couple summers ago, she and her daughter took a trip to Amsterdam.  Around 4 p.m, they entered a restaurant for lunch.  The restaurant was, much to their surprise, empty.  A little while later, more people started trickling in.  Ah, they thought.  We must’ve just come early.  It was only until later that they realized those people weren’t there for lunch, but dinner.

The Spanish eating schedule works by allotting several snack breaks: breakfast is when one wakes up, followed by a snack break around eleven.  Lunch is at three, followed by another snack break around six.  And then dinner is at ten.  An observant American friend said the Spanish are like “hobbits”, eating all the time.  Yet, despite this, the Spanish, statistically, maintain the lowest body fat percentage in all of Europe.  I asked a Spanish friend how this was possible, and she replied, “because our food is healthy.”  She then added, “we’re also very active.”  The Spanish do walk a great deal more than Americans, as their cities are more compact and thus more walkable.  You’ll also never see a Spaniard eating while walking down the street.

The eating schedule, and adapting it, helped me to come to perceive the day in a much different manner.  In America, it seems, many people get off of work and head home around 5pm.  They then make dinner and, suffice it to say, call it a night.  As such, the day in America seems much shorter than the day in Spain.  Even the language reflects this perception: in Spanish, there is no word for “evening”.  “Tarde” means afternoon, and in Spain, “tarde” does not end until 8 p.m.

The Spanish day typically starts out with a tostada, a piece of toast, a café (the most typical variety being a café con leche), and sometimes a zumo de naranja (orange juice).  Most cafés offer fresh-squeezed orange juice, as oranges are plentiful in Spain.

Though we do live in a globalized world, and especially in a major city like Madrid, cereal is available as an option, as well as pastries or croissants, the preferred breakfast in Spain remains the tostada.  

The two main varieties?  Una tostada con mantequilla y mermelada (toast with butter and jam), and una tostada con tomate y aceite (toast with tomato and olive oil).

How to make a tostada con mantequilla y mermelada:

Take half of a barra de pan (like a baguette; or any bread would do, really, but the better the bread, the better the results) and toast it.  Then slather with butter, and top that with jam.  The two most popular jams in Spain are fresa (strawberry) and melocotón (peach).

How to make a tostada con tomate y aceite:

Again, take a half a barra de pan and toast it.  Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and top with tomato spread.

How to make the tomato spread: make to your taste, finely chopping tomatoes.  Sometimes a bit of chopped garlic is added in, but not always.

Tutorial: How To Make Italian Espresso With A Moka

We’ll end our series on Italian gastronomy with the drink most Italians consider fundamental to daily life: coffee.

Coffee is big in Italy.  Italians sneer at any other coffee but their own.  An Italian friend, Enrico, here in Madrid, called Starbucks coffee “like soup”, and refuses to go there.  “I don’t like that stuff,” he told me.  His solution?  Italian coffee and his Moka.

The Moka, is, in fact, a staple item in all Italian households.  I, myself, have two.  A Moka is a stovetop espresso machine.  Since real espresso machines are expensive, the Moka has become a much more affordable option.

I received my first Moka two summers ago in Chicago, when my Italian friend, Sara, who was visiting, brought one for me.  I received my second Moka over at her house for Christmas this year — but this one is a “Mukka”, not just a Moka… a stovetop cappuccino maker.  A play on words, “mucca” means “cow” in Italian, this one makes the espresso and heats and froths the milk, as well.

Here’s a tutorial Sara and I put together on how to make espresso using your basic Moka:

all the parts of the Moka disassembled

fill the bottom part with water

fill the water up to this knob

place the base on the stove and insert the strainer into it

like so

fill the strainer with espresso grounds

don’t pack the grounds in tightly — as such, it would generate too much pressure as the water comes out, leading to bitter coffee.

tightly screw on the upper part of the pot (very tightly! if not the pressure from the boiling water will cause all the water to leak out from the sides)

brew the espresso over a low flame

lift the lid with a spoon — it’ll be hot

serve and enjoy!

one last, important note: never wash out your Moka pot with soap: use ONLY water.  This is what all Italians insist is best for flavor!

Cappellacci con la zucca & Vegetarian “Ragú”

I’ve eaten a lot of yummy things in Italy, but this recipe was definitely one of the tastiest.  For Christmas lunch, we started out with polenta with a cheese sauce topping.  Our second course was “cappellacci con la zucca” — literally, “big ugly hats with squash” and a delicious tomato sauce (mine was meat-free, and I’m posting that version of the sauce here); for our third course, a vegetable dish similar to ratatouille or pisto manchego, and finally, for dessert, Pandoro (similar to pannettone but without fruit).

Cappellacci con la zucca

Pasta: Make pasta (with flour and eggs, NO water).

Roll dough out (or use a machine).  Cut into squares about 2 inches by 2 inches.

Filling: Bake the squash (DON’T boil; it makes it too liquid).  Mash squash with fork and add lots of parmesan cheese, a pinch of salt, and nutmeg to taste.

Assembly: Dab teaspoon of filling into the squares of pasta.  Fold over once into a triangle, and pinch sides closed.  Fold again.  Roll around finger; this gives it its shape.  “Cappellacci” means “big ugly hats”.

Boil in salted water for about 6 minutes.

Top with sauce.

Vegetarian “Ragú”

olive oil





garlic (1-2 cloves)

bay leaf (1)

cloves (tiny pinch)

cinnamon (pinch)

rosemary (pinch)

basil (2-3 leaves)

red wine (1/2 glass)

salt & pepper

tomato sauce (or tomatoes)

Chop all vegetables finely (or use a blender).  Sautee in olive oil.  Add wine and let evaporate, then add tomatoes.  Let boil on a low flame for 40-60 minutes.

Torta di Pane (Italian Bread Pudding)

recipe courtesy of Anna Maria Merighi

1 liter (4 1/3 cup) hot milk

50 grams (3.5 tbsp) raisins

3-4 pieces bread

3-4 tbsp butter

4 tbsp sugar

4 eggs

2-3 tbsp liqueur (rum, grappa, or liqueur of your choice)

1 envelope yeast

optional add-ins: diced apples or pears

Soak raisins in the liqueur for a few hours. Drain, then coat the raisins with flour.

Heat milk.  Dice the bread and put it in the hot milk.  Soak until bread is softened, and then add the rest of the ingredients.  Mix, then bake for about an hour at 350°F.