Tuesday, October 30, 2007

New York, Spain and what I'd do again

Travelling makes you hungry. Hungry for life, hungry for new experiences, hungry to learn as much as possible before you return to the ins and outs of daily life. Mostly though, it just makes you hungry for more travel. Language washes over you, seducing you with its unfamiliarity and teasing you with its similarities. Eating in a foreign country, however ‘safe’ your choice of cuisine, is one of the most seductive elements of travelling. And for the cook, travel, surely, is the most useful ingredient of all.

I wanted to get it out now, all in one blurt so to speak, because it’s not the end of the year quite yet. Holidays cannot go on forever, though the days here are warm and sunny enough to encourage that kind of thinking. It’s still spring, people. The Racing Carnival has begun and summer, well, she’s just around the corner. How did it get to be the end of October so quickly? There are things to be done, important things, and they’ll be needing my attention. Relaxed and refreshed, I’m ready for it.

Kathryn, I love you. Invaluable, crackingly good advice, I tell you. Planning a big trip? Please, check out these tips before you do. They made me far more companionable than the last time we went overseas...

It’s been a challenge to write about travel when, as a subject, it’s a little alien. I spent the weekend perusing the pages of The Age and still couldn’t come up with the right formula. So highlights it shall be. It’s a long post, and for that I apologise in advance. You can just scroll on down to the bottom of the page, where there is, I promise, a travel-inspired recipe worth waiting for.

Some highlights. Yes. These are the things I'd do again.

New York: Huge.

The apartment. Upper West Side. Near Central Park. The view from the roof was great; the view from the top of the stairs was vertigo-inducing.

Crying (quietly) in the Jewish Museum over an engraved camp spoon from Auschwitz and being confronted by an actual yellow star. Cheering up enormously over the silver Hanukah lamp adorned with emus and kangaroos.

Stumbling toward lunch on that first day, at Lumi, on the corner of Lexington and 70th. Halibut on a bed of fennel and tomato, braised until sweet. Topped with shavings of fresh, crispy fennel.

More Rembrandt’s and Vermeer’s than you can poke a stick at in The Met. Meeting a friend on the steps, in the flesh, for the first time. Knowing instantly that this blogging thing has changed my life and added things that are more valuable, more satisfying, than I ever suspected it would. A great Indian lunch, spiced just the way I like it. Thank you, Susan.

Realizing just how confusing it is to navigate The Subway, late, on the way home from a fun dinner on the Lower East Side. Schiller’s three wines come by the bottle and are labeled thus; Cheap, Decent and Good. Honest, eh?

MoMA. UN-believable. Nothing else to say. Just go.

The American Museum of Natural History. A labyrinth of goodies. Oh, my. Dinosaur bones; taxidermed animals hung in a strangely beguiling way; beautiful birds, owls I wanted to revive and take home; American Indian costumes, headdresses, weaponry, all so exquisite; Aztec and Mayan treasures beyond priceless.

The Empire State building at night. A long way up. A Very Long Way Down.

Wandering, barefoot, in the grass in Central Park on our last morning. Eating lunch at the Boathouse beneath the slowly turning fans.

Madrid: Hot, but cool. Very cool.

Flying in while the sun rose; thinking just how hot and dry the place is and how like home the searing sun made me feel.

Narrow, cobbled streets. You don’t realize just how small the old section of the city is until you’ve traversed it, from hotel to Palace, in 30 minutes. Like a slightly smaller Rome, but with a very distinctive flavour of its own.

The plazas, surrounded by bars and restaurants, are empty until about 12.30, when the tourists, unfamiliar with the distinctive Spanish eating hours, head out to (sometimes unsuccessfully) find lunch.

A Paula Rego retrospective at the Reina Sofia (how lucky were we?). Didn’t see Guernica, but then how many times to you need to see that harrowing image? Brilliant.

Walking, albeit briefly, around the exquisite El parque del Retiro.

In our hotel one morning, the waiter pressed a business card into my hand for El Rincon de Esteban (about halfway down the page), an ‘authentic’ Spanish restaurant. Joyful, satisfying and hospitable. Best meal of the holiday. Esteban, a man larger than life and rotund enough to suggest he eats Very Well, kissed me goodbye on both cheeks, embraced me and then gave me flowers as we left. Apparently coming from Melbourne made us popular with both the waiters and the chef. Go figure.

9am: on the doorstep of the Prado for a quick run through. Fast and furious – better without all the tourists that flood in later. Velazquez (egotistical; magnificent); enough Goya’s to make your hair curl. Welling up with tears seeing his final, eerie works.

San Sebastian: A politically active fishing town, overrun by tourists in summer.

Hotel was beautiful, elegant and quiet. The haven we were seeking.

Climbing Monte Urgull, a fort, now crumbling romantically, offering the best view of the city and the shell-shaped beach it rests upon, La Concha. Green and lush vegetation grows wildly, making it seem even more romantic and mysterious. The huge statue of Christ that presides over the town stands at the summit looking down, concerned. Unsurprising given the Basque capital is often referred to as a 'party town'.

his work just gets better and better

Sun on winter-white skin, a local beer in hand and tomato, lettuce and sweet onion bocadillos (sandwiches, Spanish-style) eaten in a sunny plaza – followed by a siesta.

The deliciously sweet, pale-fleshed, dark green-skinned melons served at breakfast. Between broken Spanish, Basque and English, I still can’t figure out what it was…

Reading (Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie - stunning; Vegetable Pleasures by Colin Spencer, and the sadly less-than-thrilling Chez Panisse Vegetables), writing lots (giving a project some space to grow; nutting out some worries, both general and specific; wholefoods and food politics; just getting words on paper) and drawing were what we wanted. San Sebastian, then, is the perfect, laid-back place in which to get it all.

Swimming. The surf beach, to the left of La Concha, was more like the beaches we’re used to – real waves that toss you about and leave you gasping for air – and became a favourite for people watching. The deeply-tanned man who strode confidently up and down the beach wearing nothing but a pair of dark designer sunglasses caught our attention on a number of occasions. Who was he?

The older Basque men in their berets, ambling along like the thick-waisted older Picasso; the middle-aged women in their tight leopard-, tiger- and zebra-printed clothes. Often all at once.

Eating? Neither the artist or I are big drinkers (any more), so late nights in the pintxos (tapas, pronounced ‘pinchos’ in Basque) bars were increasingly less interesting. The Japanese we ate twice was a magnificent contrast to the heavy, oily Basque food. We ordered a couple of magnificent Roija’s while we were there (all great, Deb). I desperately wanted a Spanish rice dish (to no avail) and would have given my right arm (and my left too) for a dish of vegetables, just once. Spain ain’t the place for a vegetarian. My advice is to eat the fish which is outstanding, and try to make up for it when you get home. Otherwise, you WILL starve.

Complaining? Not me. But here’s something I would have liked to eat. It’s a re-working of something from last year, simplified, improved, adapted and all vegetarian. God, how I missed vegetables. Being away I realized how infrequently our meals contain wheat flour – we are the wholegrain freaks.

Millet paella with saffron, tomatoes and asparagus - for 4

Toasting the millet before rinsing it is a trick gleaned from Rebecca Wood’s The Splendid Grain. It makes the millet wonderful, taking away the hint of bitterness that tends to accompany this incredibly healthful grain. The Spanish smoked paprika is non-negotiable. It is one of the most intensely flavoured spices and is especially useful in vegetarian cookery because of its ability to simulate some of the smoky qualities associated with bacon and ham.

1 cup of hulled millet
1 ½ tablespoons of olive oil
1 onion, peeled and finely sliced
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced
1 large pinch of saffron
2 teaspoons of smoked paprika
1x 400g tin of tomatoes
Sea salt
1 teaspoon of tamari (or soy sauce)
2½ cups of boiling water
12 juicy black olives
¼ preserved lemon
1 bundle of asparagus, woody ends snapped off
A handful of sugar snap peas
Chopped parsley, to serve

Place the millet in a large frying pan and toss constantly over a medium heat until it pops and starts to smell nutty. Rinse well and drain.

Heat 1½ tablespoons of olive oil in a very large lidded frying pan and fry the onion and garlic over a medium heat for about 5 minutes.

Reduce the heat and add the millet, saffron, paprika and tomatoes, breaking them up with a wooden spoon. Stir, then add a pinch of salt, the tamari and the boiling water. Cover with a lid and cook until the liquid is absorbed and the millet is cooked, about 35 minutes. If the millet still tastes a little raw, add another ¼ cup of boiling water and cook until it’s absorbed.

Pit the olives and roughly chop them. Thinly slice the preserved lemon. Slice the asparagus into thirds and, with the whole sugar snap peas, simmer for 3 minutes in a pan of salted water. Drain well.

Lift the lid and arrange the olives, lemon and vegetables on top of the millet. Replace the lid and cook for a further 3-5 minutes, just to warm the vegetables through.

Sprinkle with parsley and eat. Gratefully.

And you know what? I even missed blogging.


shula said...

How lovely.

New York is probably my favourite city in the world. The fun just never stops, and for food, it's a paradise.

Christina said...

It sounds like a magnificent vacation, one that allowed for exploration, eating, and even reflection. It sounds like the type of trip after which one can't even list all they things they learned about themselves and the world. I'm a New York junkie, but I've never been to Spain. I look forward to exploring it some time.

Lovely recipe.

As a side-note, my chard is coming in strong, getting closer and closer to the point where I can use it in that chard-phyllo pie I've been looking forward to since you posted the recipe.

kathryn said...

I don't use millet anywhere near enough. Lovely recipe Lucy.

And sounds like you had a wonderful, wonderful holiday.

So very glad to hear the jet lag advice worked well for you. Minimising the disruption makes such a difference to your holiday. I always really resent wasting a moment on jet lag.

VegeYum said...

Wow, what a trip! and such great photos.

Truffle said...

I can't tell you what a joy it was to read this post. Truly beautiful.

Holler said...

That was a wonderful post! You took me there with you! I feel blissfull now!

Anh said...


As much as I enjoy food in during my travel, it is what I see and feel that is important, too! I would trade anything to visit those museums you have been to... And those paintings by Velazquez and Goya, they will take my breath away and transfer me into another world!

Simona said...

It was a pleasure to read your report. I like the recipe too. Just yesterday my gardener friend was telling me about planting asparagus roots. I had vegetable cravings myself during my recent holiday in Italy.

Susan said...

Lucy, I just don't know HOW you did all that in NY in 4-ish days; nothing short of a whirlwind. I could spend an entire day alone at The Metropolitan, never mind all the other bastions of Museum Row. I'm breathless.

The color of that smoked paprika looks so much like my newly painted kitchen walls that I must get some, for comparing and contrasting purposes, of course!

Wendy said...

This was fun to read.

I love New York. Really, I do.

“Guernica” still gives me nightmares despite the fact I haven’t looked at it since I was 15.

Blogging’s changing my life too.

I want to visit San Sebastian now.

Loved this post, Lucy. Thank you. Have to say, you’ve just made my decisions as to what to do with next summer so much more difficult! :)

Callipygia said...

I felt such a rush of pleasure reading about your wonderful travels. What I love most about going somewhere new, is that my senses and attention are heightened. One ineviteably enters back into the "old" life anew! I will bookmark this recipe too.

Lucy said...

It's the best Shula. I loved it. I would go back there today if I could. And the food! Brilliant.

Christina, Spain is so laid-back, much more so than Italy. I think you'd like it a great deal. And I am thrilled that your chard is going strong; that your whole garden is buzzing with activity. Enjoy it!

Kathryn I had to work really hard to get millet right. I love it now, but it took some effort at first - especially getting past the 'birdseed' thing. YOU were key to our lack of jetlag.

It was fun Vegeyum. Thanks!

Thanks Truffle. Hard to write something you're unfamiliar with.

Holler, I hope the bliss lasts!

Anh, you would love them and I feel so very pleased that I had the oppourtunity to see such treasures, all the things I've studied for all my life. I hope you get there - I KNOW you will! Holidays are about so much more than food...

Simona, it's such an odd thing to not serve vegetables, something I take for granted here in Australia. Getting home and filling the fridge was such a joy! Thank you.

Susan, I don't know either. I put it all down to Kathryn! It was frantic, but so damn rewarding. If we'd got back to the Met, we still wouldn't have seen it all so, concievably, there will be another trip further down the track. Thankfully. That red of the smoked paprika is a stunning thing. Compare and contrast I say!

Wendy, blogging is a way to open up, without fear in some ways. It's such a pleasure. I'm glad it's changing your life too. Get yourself over to San Sebastian come summer - for you it's so close!

Callipygia, it's so easy to forget how you feel when you've been away. That 'holiday' feeling is something I want to grab and run with; to keep my mind and spirit in that place and end the year in a relaxed, Zen-like state. Mmmm...well, that's what I'm aiming for!

Figs Olives Wine said...

Lucy how wonderful! What a gorgeous holiday you had - you even make New York exciting to me again! And you make me want to go to Spain as soon as possible - though I do know that feeling of saturation after a while there. Why are vegetables so tough to find?

winedeb said...

Well Lucy, it has taken me awhile to comment on this post. Why? Because I have read it about 3 times and have taken in and enjoyed each and every sentence. What a wonderful trip! So many great memories and hey, thank you for thinking of me while in Spain enjoying your wine :) I loved the cork! And I cannot wait to locate some Smoked Spanish Paprika! Thank you for taking us along on your trip! I guess I call myself an arm-chair traveler lately as I have not been out of our country for quite a few years now. But...I did just renew my passport, so hopefully in the future I can "get out there". Thank you for sharing! Cheers!

Lucy said...

Well, Amanda, I am jealous as hell that you get to live there! NY's so exciting and the food, well, it's so varied, so fabulous and so very, very good! How often have you been to Spain? It's a beautiful place and I would be back in a flash...if we didn't live so damn far away!

Yeah Deb! It was a long-winded piece and you deserve a medal for getting all the way through. The wines were wonderful - I even raised a glass to you (the Artist said, 'Who?' - he'll never get blogging...) and we both agreed it was stunning stuff. You know, we have excellent wines here in Victoria...hint hint ;)