Wednesday, June 29, 2011

pineapple-coconut upside-down cake

An entire post not centered around my shenanigans in Spain?! I thought I'd never see this day. Though I have to say, it's nice not having to sift through hundreds upon hundreds of photos of specific cathedrals, landmarks, or meals. Enjoyable, but time-consuming nonetheless.

Mom's birthday was last Friday, the day before I left for home. I was planning on baking this cake earlier in the week, but after some dramarama at JFK [unsurprising, since it's JFK] that left me in NY a day longer than expected, coupled with lingering jetlag that has me taking siestas every few hours like it's my job, I wasn't fully mentally competent enough to be handling an oven until this afternoon.

I prefer to peel my pineapple off the top and eat them like a side. But the normal individual usually leaves it on the top of the cake. It's your prerogative, really.

Still, any day is a good day for birthday cake, even if it is a bit belated. And when mom loves it despite the tardiness, it's all good in the neighborhood.

[It helps that she enjoyed my travel presents of a ceramic salt jar, fleur de sel, and hot paprika, but nuances.]

Pineapple-Coconut Upside-Down Cake
Adapted from My Recipes

You'll need:
  • 2 tbsp butter, melted
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 12 oz sliced pineapple [preferably fresh, but canned works as well]
  • 1 cup sweetened coconut flakes
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup mashed banana [about 1 whole banana]
  • 2 tbsp canola or vegetable oil
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup pineapple juice

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and grease the sides of a 9-inch springform pan. Pour the melted butter onto the bottom of the pan and tilt pan so the butter spreads evenly over the base. Sprinkle the brown sugar evenly over the butter. Layer the sliced pineapple over the brown sugar, covering as much of the surface as possible. Sprinkle coconut flakes over the pineapple and set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together dry ingredients. In a separate bowl, combine banana, oil, egg, and pineapple juice and mix until blended. Pour the wet ingredients into the flour mixture and whisk until fully incorporated. Spoon the batter evenly over the top of the coconut flakes and spread gently, trying not to pull up any of the coconut flakes.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, until top is golden-brown. Let cake cool in pan for at least 20 minutes before inverting onto a serving plate. Serve warm or at room temperature.

This cake was, initially, somewhat of a struggle. I'm not talking about the actual baking, that itself was easy. The problem was with mom's desire for a chocolate cake. But after having spent many an art class battling with unreliable WiFi to search for the perfect birthday cake, there was no way I was going to give in. So I stuck by my principles, assured her that she would fall head-over-heels in love with it, and baked it.

And, in the end, the look of sheer bliss on her face when she took a bite said it all.

In other news, I'm pretty happy to be back home. Not that I don't miss Valencia terribly, but it's rather luxurious having AC again. Nevertheless, I'll be heading back to Cville this Sunday for the remainder of the summer, and since I'll be living alone for the next 6-odd weeks, I'm not sure that I'll have many reasons to be baking.

[Knowing me, though, I won't need any.]

In other, other news, I'm really enjoying being back in the land of video games. Not that I didn't test out a bit of AC on Zach's host-brothers' PS3 on occasion [once], but Ezio is pretty hard to take seriously when speaking in Spanish [though he provided some much-needed amusement, at the time]. But I must say, sucking epically at Portal 2 has been one of the highlights of my week so far.

Not that, you know, I'm bad at video games [because I'm not]. It's just that I can't seem to wrap my head around a game whose end goal it is to defy the laws of space. Making portals left and right, opening up pathways from the ceiling to the adjacent wall, maneuvering across hundreds of feet by use of otherwise-impossible feats of momentum... My semester of astronomy refuses to let me see past the implausibility.


Friday, June 24, 2011

hola, buenas, chao, y hasta

Over the course of the past few weeks, I've learned quite a lot. That is, of course, the general aim when one studies abroad, but what I've learned stretches far beyond the limits of an entire semester's worth of two classes condensed into four short weeks.

I've grown to love a new country; I've gained a level of confidence in my speaking ability which I never would have had otherwise; I've learned many useful [mostly inappropriate, though colloquially acceptable] new phrases; I've adjusted to a new eating, sleeping, and academic schedule; I've been introduced to beautiful architecture, delicious foods, and amazing sights; I've met incredible new people; I've found myself feeling lost and uncertain; and I've found myself breaking out of my comfort zone and adapting to a new way of life.

But most of all, I've learned that I still have so much to learn about the world.

Liz and my incredibly sweet host-mom for the past 4 1/2 weeks, María. I dread having to say goodbye tomorrow morning.

This past week, in particular, I was skimming through some newspapers. There were the expansive articles covering the uprisings for economic reforms here in Spain, a movement I don't understand half as well as I wish I did but one I've had many a conversation about with professors, my host mother, and an anarchist at one of my favorite cafes [who later on invited us to his flat for special brownies, but he was a tad drunk and so Liz and I gracefully declined his offer]. But there were also articles on Greece's looming economic downfall, Obama's announcement to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, Saudi women fighting for their rights to drive, ash clouds in Australia, and a plane crash in Russia, and after scarcely 10 minutes of skimming, my eyes were wide as saucers and I realized that I have been living in a cozy little bubble for the past month.

[Ironic, really, when going abroad makes one even less aware of what's happening in the world.]

And then I felt a surge of guilt, and an overwhelming desire to want to be a part of it. Of everything. Of the world.The sad part is that I don't even know what I mean by it. But it doesn't lessen my desire to do it. Perhaps work for the government, or volunteer, or teach abroad, or even just continue learning. For the time being, at least. I'm not even twenty yet, after all. I have plenty of time to go through the list of potential post-undergraduate career paths/travel itineraries/applications for higher education.

[And give my parents even more reasons to worry about my looming unemployment and further plummet into financial dependency.]

top: view of Granada from the Alhambra.
bottom: Mediterranean Sea from Peñíscola.

But in the mean time, I look back and realize that, although I may not understand macroeconomics well enough to fully grasp the severity of what Greece and Spain are going through, nor politics and foreign affairs well enough to weigh the pros and cons of Obama's planned withdrawal, I can help a stranger out at a train station and bridge a gap between two languages. Or chat with passengers on trains, hearing about their fascinating lives and what journeys have brought us to the same place. Or make friends with the owner of a small gastronomy shop and discuss the best flavors of marmalade and olive oil.

Or, most recently, spend upwards of an hour talking to the amazingly sweet owners of a fruit and vegetable market, two blocks away from my apartment, after having surprised them with a cake.

Literally some of the nicest people I've ever met. After a fair few days of walking home with free peaches and apples, Liz, Zach, and I decided to repay the favor and purchased a torte as a "thank you." We ended up talking for quite a long time, in both Spanish and Hindi, chatting over slices of cake, hearing about how they moved to Spain in '05 from India [their Spanish is impeccable], their optimistic image of the world [even after facing tough economic times in '08 that would leave many people feeling hopeless], their love for Valencia and traveling, their lives here now, and their hopes for the future. My only regret is that I didn't get to know them sooner.

And for now, that's enough. Life is what you make of it, in the end. Take every experience to heart, and you'll learn so much along the way.

I mean, look at what four and a half weeks has given me: a crispy tan, seven new scarfs [not an exaggeration, I'm still struggling to pack them all], and a head full of new dreams.

And an extra 10 pounds around the gut, but at least I enjoyed the ride! [Plus, what good is it being home for the rest of the summer if I don't experiment with healthy cooking? (Code, of course, for I can't wait to have my KitchenAid at my disposable once again, but nuances.)]

On a lighter note, though somewhat more depressing, today is my last full day in Valencia. The fact that this time tomorrow I will be on a stuffy plane, heading back to the States, with a severe lack of exciting in-flight entertainment, hasn't really hit me yet. But I am quite sure that this time tomorrow I will be in tears.

Nevertheless, it has been an incredible final week. Browsing Valencia's bustling streets with Zach during lunch breaks resulted in [even more] food for me to bring back home, mental debates about purchasing [even more] new shoes [debates which I lost, in the end (or won, if you're my bank account)], and eating [even more] carbohydrates in every form imaginable. Yesterday was final exam day, and I can't lie and say that it's not nice to finally be out of class for the summer.

It was also a day of fiesta here in Valencia: el día de San Juan. Around 11 last night, we took a bus down to the beach, to be met with thousands of people dancing and drinking, huddled around bonfires both large and small. I don't know much about the historical significance of the festival, but nowadays you meet up with friends and enjoy general merriment [read: chupitas and meriendas] until around midnight, when you're supposed to write down a wish on a piece of paper, throw it into the fire, and jump over waves in the sea. It was loud and crazy and breezy and beautiful, and we still managed to make it home by 2:30.

Okay, admittedly, we didn't stay out very late. But we were exhausted after a long day of finals, so we decided to take it a bit easy. Saw the sights, had more than a few laughs and chats, and then came back.

As for today, Liz is currently on a train to Barcelona to meet up with family [she, the lucky girl, has another four weeks of travel-time across Europe], and so I am soaking up the last few memories I will have here in this apartment. Zach insisted [and I won't lie and say that it didn't take long at all to convince me] that we go out tonight for one last hoorah, meaning I will likely get little to no rest tonight and suffer the consequences of this decision with a bad headache and desire to drug myself to sleep whilst on the plane tomorrow, but what good is it coming to the party capital of Europe if I waste my last night in Valencia sitting at home? Packing, dinner with María, visiting a few bars with Zach, going to a discotheque, and one last dance to the best song I've heard here. Although not ideal, since I will be leaving it all behind in a few short hours, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Besides, it's only a matter of time before I'm back.

Monday, June 20, 2011

arabian nights in the south of spain

I've already mentioned the dichotomy between Spain and Portugal, two completely different environments for two countries so close to one another, but I didn't realize that the same feeling could exist within Spain itself. Of course, in the back of my mind it was obvious; after all, the United States is an enormous mixture of cultures, accents, cuisines, and ambiance, so it would only make sense that a country as old as Spain, rich with a history of regionalism, would be similar.

Mostly, though, I think it was the prevalence of Arab culture permeating through the narrow streets of Granada, subtly transparent as it was, that really struck me.

I know a fair bit about Spanish history to understand the reasoning behind it, of course, what with Arab occupation of the Iberian peninsula for hundreds of years, but I hadn't really been expecting to experience it alongside Spanish culture. Walking through the streets of Granada to be met with the musicality of Arabic being recited from open windows of the Islamic Center took me by pleasant surprise, and I found myself leaning against the wall of the building, taking it in. And then, scarcely an hour later, weaving through colorful bazaars, shawls and handcrafted pillowcases piled along the foot of small shops, hookahs and leather bags lining the walls, met with shopkeepers fluent in Arabic asking me if I'm from India or Pakistan ["Salaam, sadeeqa"]. It was like being thrust into a Middle Eastern Spain [or likewise a Spanish Middle East?] in a most wonderful way.

And left me aching to visit Pakistan again.

Nostalgia aside, our short visit to Granada was breathtaking. Particularly our trip to the Alhambra, a place that I had been longing to visit for ages.

There's not much to be said about the Alhambra save for that it was even more amazing than I expected it to be. Gorgeous architecture, lush gardens, beautiful scenery [the Sierra Nevada was an incredible backdrop to the already-incredible Moorish palaces]. We only spent around 2 and a half hours there, unfortunately, but long enough to get a good look at both the palaces and the Generalife.

It only cements my desire need to return to Spain in future to see it again.

Saturday night we went to a Flamenco show, which took place in a cave [or at least a location akin to one], as authentic performances were typically held. It was ridiculously fun and beautiful to watch; although I've been exposed to quite a lot of Flamenco music and have seen many dances via a television screen in numerous Spanish classes, I had never seen one live. I was expecting there to be a stage front and center, with all of us watching from seats, akin to a theater. Instead, there was one long hallway with chairs lining the walls, and the dance took place in between. The dancers were literally an arm's length away.

What I wasn't expecting was to be approached in the middle of the show by one of the dancers, hand outstretched, expecting me to take it and be led onto the 'dance floor.' Needless to say, it was horribly embarrassing, and I definitely made a fool out of myself in front of everyone in the vicinity [it's bad enough that I dance like a cardboard gorilla, let alone having to replicate one as free and artistic as the Flamenco], but I was extremely honored [as made obvious by my foolish grin and, what I'm sure were, bright red cheeks (which is really saying something since I'm almost physically incapable of turning red)] and had an amazing experience.

[I'm not sure many people can say that they've been made to dance the Flamenco in the middle of a cave in Granada, alongside gorgeous professionals, in front of at least 50 tourists, with no idea what they've gotten themselves into.

At least I can cross that off of my list now, right?]

Food-wise there isn't much to be said. Not that what we had wasn't all delicious [you can't really go wrong when you have some of the tastiest gelato in the world (second only to Italy) on a daily basis, coupled with enormous bocadillos de tortilla de patata], but also wasn't anything out of the ordinary.

still mouthwatering, of course.

My main concern right now is figuring out how I'm going to successfully pack the copious amount of food items I've bought for myself without going over my luggage weight limit.

Also to see if I can some how finagle my way into fitting a few more jars of fig jam in before it's too much of an issue. And maybe another bottle or two of olive oil. And definitely still need to get some Italian honey while I'm here.

Or perhaps I should focus a bit more on looming final exams.

But that would take the fun out of my last few days here, now, wouldn't it?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

of paellas and bullfights

Well, not so much the bullfights, since there aren't any going on currently. But it had a nice ring to it.

[Creative license?]

I can't say I've been up to too much since getting back to Valencia 3 nights ago, but I had the urge to write. And, nonetheless, Zach and I finally visited the Catedral de Valencia during our Monday lunch break, and that was quite a trip in and of itself.

The Valencia Cathedral is one of Valencia's greatest treasures: an ornate, Gothic church built in the early 13th century. Today, the Cathedral sits in the Plaza de la Reina and is an enormous tourist attraction, for good reason. It is quite possibly the most beautiful church I have ever visited [and let me tell you, we visited a ton of churches during our tour of Italy a few years ago]. Zach and I paid 4 euros for an audio tour, which was actually very pleasant [not to mention the woman at the counter handed me the audio in Castellano, so the lack of having been asked if I would prefer the English was a good confidence-boost].

We were only able to spend about an hour at the Cathedral, since we were pressed for time between classes, but I probably easily could have spent at least another hour there, just admiring all of the artwork and architecture.

Perhaps if I get the time, I'll make another trip.

But now on to the food.

The night we flew back in from Portugal, María prepared some homemade paella for us, which was a very sweet gesture seeing as how the dish takes a pretty friggin' long time to make.

Specifically chicken paella [since I am not the pork-eating type] with veggies.

Now, paella and I have an interesting relationship. I've had paella twice in my life prior to coming to Spain, and on both occasions I was sorely disappointed.

Not that the dish was bad, per se, but rather...bland. Not a fan of the texture of the rice, nor the spices [lack thereof] that go into the dish. But, I'm always open to trying [or retrying] new things, and so I had been anticipating a reintroduction to paella upon coming to Spain.

Honestly, it was good. At least, significantly better than the paella I had had before. But I think...paella just isn't my thing, over all.

[Not to mention it reminds me hugely of biryani, which I'm not a huge fan of either, so I wasn't totally surprised at my inability to fall in love with the dish].

But Liz loved it, and Zach loved it when his host parents prepared it, so it's definitely just me.

The potato salad that María prepare to go with it, however, was irresistibly delicious.

In the end, though, I gave it a second shot, and so I'm satisfied.

In other news, Liz and I took a stroll to the train station today in order for Liz to purchase her ticket to Barcelona next weekend. We did end up having to walk a bit to a different train station, for reasons that are still an enigma to me [the main train station apparently isn't selling tickets to Barcelona anymore, although the one she ended up purchasing departs from that station], and then ended up having to wait behind about 40 or so people before going up.

So we made ourselves comfortable on the floor, leaning against the glass wall separating the ticket room from the platform, sitting and chatting while awaiting our turn. After 10 or so minutes, we were approached by a nice Australian gentleman who spoke absolutely no Spanish whatsoever.

["Excuse me, but do you ladies speak English by any chance?" "Yes, of course!" "Well, I really don't have any idea what's going on..."]

So we chatted with him, found out he was in the same boat as us [having been deferred from the main station], and we gave him the 4-1-1 on the situation. He was very pleasant [I really enjoyed the accent], and then walked away, still seeming to be somewhat unnerved but at least more at ease.

Ten or so more minutes passed, and then Liz and I were approached by our Australian friend and one of his friends, and the two of them very sweetly asked if we would be so kind as to accompany them to the counter and translate for them. We were, of course, more than happy to do so, grinning in acceptance and enjoying a very nice English/Spanish conversation with our new friends and the jolly man at the counter. After they had secured their tickets, one of the men helped convince jolly-counter-man to go ahead and get us our tickets right then and there, as there were still a good 30 or so individuals in front of us. Jolly-counter-man was totally for the idea, so we thanked our Australian friends, wished them a pleasant trip, and left soon after, ticket secured.

Sad as it may be, that little encounter earlier this evening definitely has been one of the highlights of this trip. I'm not even sure why I was so - moved? happy? - because of it.

I think it's the feeling of mutual understanding that we sometimes share with others; the ability to ask for help when uncertain and lost, the joy from being able to help that person, and the laughs shared over the counter of a train station in a foreign country, English in one ear and Spanish in the other. It's a reminder that, at the end of the day, although we come from different places and head to different places, we're all in this together.

And it's only a matter of time before we run into each other at a train station in Valencia.

It seems as though pre-depression Francisco Goya would agree with me.

In other other news, tomorrow is our last out-of-Valencia trip for this adventure. To Granada, in fact. I am bursting with excitement to see what beauty the city has to offer.

Here's to hoping my plan of staying out all night won't backfire on me during tomorrow's 8-hour bus ride.

I suppose this is when sleeping pills are an appropriate decision.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

boats, trains, & portuguese nights

There are many things I love about Europe: the food, the weather, the shopping, what have you.

But perhaps one of the things I love the most is the beauty.

It's not even a particular type of beauty, which is the real, well, beauty of it. It's the change, the diversity, the ability to go from paved streets to cobblestone paths, from colorful buildings to terracotta roofs, from bustling city to quiet country, in the blink of an eye.

Liz and I spent this past weekend in Porto, the second largest city in Portugal. We initially had hoped to visit Lisbon, but were unable to get plane tickets there, and, well, the rest is history.

Given the chance to turn the clocks back, I'm not sure we would pick Lisbon anymore.

Porto is an absolutely gorgeous city, but I was immediately stuck by how different it is from Valencia. Though they're both pretty major cities for their respective countries, everything from the architecture to the ambiance are completely unique, in a way I wasn't totally expecting. Streets are narrower, more uneven due to the ragged stones they're made of, sloping upward and downward, with tall buildings towering each side. And yet, upon walking just two or three miles from our hostel, we came upon the Douro River, a major river of the Iberian peninsula that stretches from the Atlantic well into Spain.

We both literally gasped when we reached the bridge overlooking the river, essentially dividing the city into two.

I'm happy to say that I'm now hopelessly, helplessly, head-over-heels in love with the Douro River. We took a cable car down from the bridge to the ground level, and from there hopped on an hour-long boat ride along the river with Porto on either side of us.

I would recommend you visit Porto to see this river alone.

But I suppose a bit of Port wine wouldn't hurt, either.

Port wine is produced exclusively in the Douro Valley, and so there are tons of wine cellars located throughout Porto along the river. Consequently, after our boat ride, we trekked up the hilly streets to the wine cellars, Taylor's Port in particular. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived, both the tours and the taste-testing had ended for the day [man, I was really looking forward to mooching off of the cheese plate].

Nevertheless, I'm sure Porto draws a huge crowd of wine enthusiasts, since the dessert wine here is supposed to be the best.

Our first two days in Porto were spent primarily exploring the city. To our dismay, Friday [our first and only one of two full days in the country] was a national holiday: Portugal Day, in fact, and thus everything was closed. So we decided to get all of our sight-seeing done, and did a pretty good job of it. River, boat ride, thrift shopping [more fleur de sel! because clearly I am in dire need of an inordinate amount of the stuff], and, of course, eating.

Our first night in Porto, the amazingly sweet receptionist at the hostel [also someone I more or less fell in love with after he whipped out fluent English upon seeing my look of utter confusion when he began speaking to me in Portuguese] recommended a bar in the University plaza. So, of course, knowing absolutely nothing about Portugal nor Portuguese cuisine, we headed over immediately. I ordered fried bacalau and Liz ordered francesinha, a dish that he had recommended as well. One word: ñamñam.

[Francesinha is basically a grilled breakfast sandwich filled with ham and cheese, topped with a fried egg, and doused in a beer sauce. 'Nuff said.]

One dinner and two incredibly stuffed bellies later, Liz and I decided to take it a bit easier the next day and prepared our own picnic for lunch in one of the parks around the city. 

María's daily bocadillos and dinners are clearly making a lasting impression on Liz and I, since we instinctively went with turkey and goat cheese bocadillos with peach yogurt for dessert. Mom better be prepared for me buying unprecedented amounts of artisan breads, cheeses, and yogurts when I arrive back in the U.S.

Sandwiches and yogurt for lunch, and homemade tuna salads and bread for dinner [I reiterate the above sentiment regarding María's cuisine].

It was a delicious first two days in the country, though we were somewhat unsure of what to do for Saturday. Which was spent, for the most part, on a train.

But let me just tell you: the five hours we spent on this train were some of the most incredible of my life.

The view that we had on this train was unimaginably magnificent. We were heading to a small little town called Pinhão, situated in the heart of the Douro Valley, where all of the port wine vineyards are located. And we rode right alongside the Douro River, blessed with an astonishing look at the valley the entire way through.

We also met some very sweet gentlemen on the trains. The first was an Indian man who helped us figure out that we would actually have to get off the train and switch over to a new one, so we wouldn't stay put like fools while everyone else sped off toward Pinhão [I won't even tell you how many close calls we had this weekend, from catching our plane(s) to getting on the correct trains and metros, but it was a lot]. He ended up sitting right behind us on the next train, so we chatted until he got off for work two stops later. Mainly about what we were doing in Porto/what he was doing in Porto [a conversation is easy to start with a stranger when the question that hangs on their tongue is, "are you Indian, by any chance?" (the answer is always "no, I'm Pakistani, but I can understand why you'd ask!")], but also about the differences that Liz and I had observed between the Portuguese and the Spanish. Namely that the Portuguese seem so quick to help us out of binds, whereas the Spanish seem much more lost in their private worlds. 

Though, the issue was put into perspective, a little bit, when he told us that he notices this sort of thing whenever he goes somewhere new, and really it's just a matter of hesitation. Someone hesitates to speak up and help someone else understand the bus system, or strike up a conversation with two young women traveling happily, albeit somewhat naively, through Portugal. In the end, it's the decision to hesitate or speak up that makes the difference, but that decision is so influenced by culture that it does well to remember that hesitation never necessarily means a lack of care. Few things do, really.

It was a lovely conversation. 

The second was with an elderly French man, traveling through the Douro Valley on vacation ["I am retired now, so I decided to buy a second home in Portugal," he laughs, "Why not?"]. This man was absolutely charming, and asked me if I was from Mauritius, a country that I know absolutely nothing about short of that it appears in Model UN conferences [clearly, I still have a lot to learn about the world!]. I was both baffled and amused, though he supplemented his question by telling me that I reminded him of the women who live in Mauritius, and as such, that I am "very nice." So, in this case, I'll let it slide.

Pinhão itself, aside from the view [the town sits right on top of the river!], was not terribly exciting. We stayed for two hours and spent most of our time eating a delicious lunch outside, with the river in full view from our table. So even though there was little to do in the town, the lunch we had is one that I will never forget.

Chicken salad for Liz and Pica Pau for me, which, although sounds like an attack you would select in Pokemon Yellow, is an incredibly rich beef stew topped with a garlic and tomato sauce. Delicious beyond words.

After our leisurely lunch, we took the train back [I enjoyed the view for about 30 minutes and then promptly fell asleep, which was both unfortunate and also unsurprising (I was exhausted!)], and made it to Porto just in time to visit the Livraria Lello. The Lello is one of Europe's oldest and most beautiful bookstores, quaint and hardly noticeable along Porto's busy streets, almost like a hidden gem. 

But one that is too beautiful to pass up. 

Photo-taking inside the store isn't actually I stealthily captured some shots with my iPod touch. I'm more irritated at the lack of quality than the actual store policy, but would urge you to actually follow their rules if you ever go visit. In other words, don't be the OCD creeper that I am.

Neither of us actually bought anything, 1) because almost everything is in Portuguese and I hardly understand an ounce of the language [Liz, though, has been taking it for two semesters so more than likely would have been able to get by], and 2) because I'm poor. Nevertheless, I did see some titles that I hope to look into when I'm back in the States [particularly The Double, by Jose Saramago]. 

And I really would have bought a Portuguese cookbook if it weren't so heavy and also weren't written in the metric system. 

[I just don't understand why the U.S. is the only country in the world not on the metric system. I mean, even Canada is on the metric system! If we were on the metric system, I could actually waste copious amounts of money on these overpriced cookbooks.

And believe me, I would.

Not to mention I'd be able to read some of my mom's old handwritten recipes.

This also begs the question of why I just can't sit down and learn and/or convert metric units, but it's the principle of the matter!]

Our final stop in Porto was the Museu Nacional de Soares dos Reis, an art museum in the city. I had never been exposed to Portuguese art before, and some of the artwork I saw at this museum were the best I've ever seen. It also catered to an artistic style that I love, so I was extremely happy. 

The museum features the work of António Soares Dos Reis [hence the name], and for good reason. He is known as the "Michelangelo of Portugal," and his sculpture work is the best I've seen since admiring Bernini's work in the Borghese Gallery 3 years ago.
A stunning marble sculpture of the Viscountess of Vinhó e Almedina. I could easily spend hours soaking up the detailing of this masterpiece.

All-in-all, one of the best weekends of my life. It helps when you're already in Europe and it's actually feasible to spend a 3-day weekend in another country.

It also helps when your amazing travel buddy loves art, culture, food, and beauty as much as you do. Especially when said travel buddy also happens to speak a little bit of Portuguese, and you realize, in retrospect, that you probably would not have been able to survive on your own without her. So thank you, Liz, for sharing this weekend with me. :)

I can't lie and tell you, though, that it's not nice to be back in Valencia. In fact, as soon as I stepped foot off of the metro, I was struck by how much I appreciate the familiarity of this city. I was also struck by the realization that I have become so familiar with it. Makes me dread the day when I'll have to leave it behind, but there's no need to think that far ahead just yet.

After all, I've still got two weeks left to spend here.

And that means two weeks left to buy more marmalade.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

carbohydrates and spanish weekends

There are two reasons I'm updating today:
  1. I will be laptop-less for the weekend, and
  2. I am doing everything in my power to avoid studying for tomorrow's midterm exam.

I assure you, though, that this is mostly due to #2.

I've been in Spain for approximately two full weeks now, and there are a few things I've learned. Of course, there are the obvious cultural differences, language barriers, adjusting to a new school and sleep schedule, and the fact that I can hardly afford anything and yet continue to spend copious amounts of money on things that I don't need in the least.

[My total scarf collection is now up to eight. And by that I mean literally eight. That I have here, with me, right now. Not the twenty-odd scarves that I've left at home.

If you didn't believe me before when I told you that I have a problem, rest assured: I have a problem.]

But above all, I have, as of late, come to notice something in particular. Something both wonderful and disconcerting.

And this is that I have eaten more carbohydrates in the past two weeks than quite possibly my entire spring semester of this year.

Dear lord, you can just see the carbohydrates radiating off of these demonic, deep-fried, doughy concoctions; sugar glistening in the Mediterranean sunlight; warm chocolate sauce tempting you to bring its cup to your lips and drink the sinful liquid in one gulp, before you have time to think about what you're doing to yourself, to realize that nothing short of delicious, shameful regret awaits this terrible decision. Repeat.

Not that I haven't been enjoying it thoroughly, because I have. It's just... so many carbohydrates.

It helps that, oftentimes, the pastries are cheaper than small coffees. One euro as compared to one-fifty! And I need to be fiscally responsible, here!

[So that I can save my money to spend frivolously on nonsenses like scarves.]

Plus, when I'm studying for a midterm in the world's most adorable [and lined with bizarrely erotic cartoons of loleita girls, but as my art professor so eloquently states every class period, "Spain is different!"] cafe, I need to satisfy my stress-induced needs for sugar.

Zach's and my lunch-break today began as it normally does: a visit to Cuenca, where he orders a pastry and I eat my bocadillo [foot-long baguette filled with whatever host mom has decided to surprise me with; today happened to be tuna and sliced tomato (yum)]. Then we go out for our 4-mile or so walk through central Valencia, stopping occasionally to browse some of the numerous shops that invitingly line its narrow streets [and consequently buy another scarf, but I couldn't help it because this one was striped and somewhat warm and it was chillier out than I expected and I was beginning to get cold, so naturally it was necessary].

But today, we stopped at a tiny cafe. Cute, homey, and sparse at the corner of an inconspicuous road, almost unnoticed amongst the sidewalk traffic of lunch-hour. And there, we happily purchased some Valencian orange juice, buñuelos, and churros. The orange juice was my order, while Zach opted for the treacherous fritters and chocolate dipping sauce.

Of which I ate about a quarter. But it was alright; it was just a quarter. Half of a buñuelo [sweet fritters that are quite common in Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries], and half of a churro. Not a problem. Walked it all off, for sure.

But when you meet up, 4 hours later, at a cafe to study for exams and one of your friends, Zach, happens to have stopped at the cafe next door to pick up more churros and chocolate, and another friend, Liz, happens to have ordered an enormous pastry from the cafe counter, and you, who happen to have greatly enjoyed both the churros and the pastry and decide to order another one for the table to split, 10 miles of walking isn't quite enough.

20 miles of walking probably isn't enough.

And to go home for a dinner of tortilla de patata [Spanish omelet stuffed with nothing but sliced potatoes] served with sliced bread and cream cheese, you know you may just die of carbohydrate overdose.

But, you know what, I'll go with it.

And deal with the consequences of an expanded stomach and enormous appetite for carbohydrates when I'm back home.

And not think about the issue further until I come to it.

Valencia is full of lush gardens, an incredible way to break up the monotony of city sidewalks and speeding cars. It honestly makes me want to move here someday.

In other news, today we visited the Valencian Fine Arts Museum. The amount it will help me pass tomorrow's contemporary art exam is virtually none, seeing as how we studied Gothic and Renaissance religious art and not the sad excuse for modern art that happens to be cubism contemporary art, but I loved it.

One of my biggest regrets about not attending university in a large city is the lack of available art museums. I would spend hours upon hours in an art museum, if I were given the chance. There's something beautifully calming about it, but at the same time I'm always struck by the brilliance of some artists. That some divinely gifted individual, hundreds of years ago, was able to craft something so amazing, so inspiring, so lovely, with just their two hands?

Leaves me speechless.

Though my favorite artistic movement is the Baroque period, I loved all of what we saw today.

In other, other news, this Thursday evening Liz and I will be hopping on a plane and flying to Porto, Portugal. We will be spending our entire weekend there [we have this Friday off from classes], staying in a hostel in the heart of the city, attending gorgeous wine tours and visiting one of the oldest and grandest bookstores in Europe. I grin like a fool every time I think about it.

[In retrospect, I suppose the title of this post is misleading, since I won't actually be in Spain for the weekend, but it has an artistic, literary flair about it (or so my delusions lead me to believe), and so I'll stick with it.]

I won't have the laptop there, but the DSLR will be, more or less, glued to my hands, so there will be many photos to come. Stay tuned.

And now I'm going to attempt to spend the next two days detoxing sugar and simple carbs out of my body, so I feel less guilty about indulging once I'm there. Odds of success are dwindling into the single-digits every time I think about the above churro.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

food markets and siestas

Oh dear. It's beginning. I thought it wouldn't happen so early, but I was gravely mistaken. Headaches, heartaches, and anxiety can only mean one thing.

Kitchen withdrawal.

Okay, so admittedly, that was a bit overdramatic. But I've always had a propensity for literary melodrama.

Keeps life interesting, non?

Really, though, after finally stepping foot in el Mercado Central, Valencia's largest public market and one of the oldest running markets in all of Europe, I was in a state of kitchen withdrawal. It's a huge local and tourist attraction, and for good reason. The building is enormous, filled with nothing but rows upon rows of food vendors, and even a few gift shops and mini-restaurants. It was honestly one of the most breathtaking sights I've ever seen.

Oh, I was in heaven. I'm not sure you can imagine my elation. I easily could have spent the entire day just browsing between rows and vendors [and I'm positive I'd still be unable to see everything in that short of a timespan], but Liz was with me, so we kept our visit to about an hour or so.

At least I walked away with some strong, Spanish olive oil and paprika.

olive oil, and wine, and honey, oh my!

Mmmm I still daydream about the sights and smells. I realize I just visited the place yesterday, but even still, I think the memories are here to stay for quite a while. Fresh fish, jamón ibérico [supposedly one of the best types of cured ham on the planet], rainbows of fruits and veggies, chicken and rabbit, spices, nuts, cheese, bread, eggs, milk; literally, everything.

I dare you to look at all of this and tell me that you don't have an overwhelming urge to whip out a large pot to prepare some fish and mushroom chowder and peach cobbler for dessert. Not that I have this planned out or anything.
Nevertheless, today, we [Liz and I] got to enjoy some good old Valencian food first-hand, which was nice. After visiting the beach, we walked a bit into the city and went to lunch at a small little restaurant off of the main road.

[Please note how I cannot actually recall the names of any of these places, but the food was still delicious.]

We enjoyed a 5-course meal for about 15 euros each. Pretty good deal, I thought. And amazingly tasty.
  1. Mixed salad with the usual dressing of olive oil and salt.
  2. Stuffed red peppers in an incredible sauce.
  3. Probably the best potato salad I've ever eaten, due to the addition of raisins, walnuts, and balsamic vinegar.
  4. Gazpacho, of course.
  5. Arroz meloso: a type of rice stew with rabbit and snails, typical of Valencia.

Okay, no, I did not eat the snails. And not because I was afraid of them.

[Fine, maybe I was a little bit.]

But mainly, I just don't like the texture of shellfish, and Liz told me that snails are similar in that department. So...I decided to ignore them, and ate around them. Snails aside, though, it was one of the best meals I've had in a while.

Followed by a long time spent at the Oceonográfico afterward was also icing on the cake.

And now, a short word about siestas. Oh, siesta, siesta, siesta.

...I seem to have developed a love-hate relationship with siestas.

I love them because I am the epitome of lazy, and having time during the day set aside for napping seems like the best idea anyone has ever had. I spend all morning in class daydreaming about siesta time, and then cursing my luck for having my second class right when I should be sleeping. And then usually end up taking one around 6pm when I get home, anyway, so it pans out quite well in the end.

But I hate them because in the off-chance that I'm not in the mood to nap, absolutely nothing is open. The streets are literally deserted. It's unnervingly quiet. I realize that Spain is not the most populated of countries, but regardless: Valencia is a major city. It's as if someone has hit the off-switch on every inhabitant here between the hours of 2pm and 5pm. I can't imagine this sort of thing happening in the U.S.: I feel like even the consideration would cause widespread panic and chaos for a country that seems hell-bent on doing work 24/7.  And believe me, when I'm out and about and there is literally nothing to do, I get antsy.

...And then end up going home to take a siesta because it's really the only option.

This is basically what all of Valencia is like during siesta time. Vast and void of life. Part of me revels in it. The other part of me wants to cannonball through the surface and break the silence.

On a somewhat related note...

Well. I guess I should preface this by saying that I don't eat fast food. Normally, anyway. But, I like the option of being able to hop in my car at 3 in the morning and drive to a McDonalds and grab an order of large fries and a strawberry McFlurry.

Not that I ever do that, but, you know. The option is out there. In case I feel so inclined.

In Valencia, it is not.

Seriously, what is the point of McDonald's going global and spreading worldwide obesity if they don't have the decency to stay open 24 hours a day?!

...a portion of last night's post-discotheque fun was wandering for [quite literally] miles in search of any sign of food-life.

After about an hour, we gave up.

I had never felt so disappointed in my life. Less really for Valencia's lack of open cafes, and more for my overenthusiastic willingness to barge into a McDonald's and order a strawberry McFlurry with large fries at 3:30am.

So perhaps, all things considered, it was good news that they were all closed.

And I can go back to eating fresh cherries after dinner without knowing that I've swallowed my pride for American food whilst abroad.

...hope my willpower [and Valencia's lack of options] keeps this up.

In other news, this week is midterm week.

I definitely thought I was done with this nonsense in May.

It's times like these that I hate remembering that I'm here for college credit, and not to spend my days wandering around the city, ordering orxatas.

Looks like tomorrow evening's going to be full of linguistics and stress-induced pastry eating.

[It could be worse.]

Friday, June 3, 2011

orxatas, tapas, and pastelerías

I have this problem: it's called me being obsessed with all things gastronomy.

Luckily, this little obsession is well-tended to in Spain.

Actually, I vaguely recall being told that the food in Spain leaves much to be desired. I find this quite far from the truth.

Granted, I haven't yet eaten paella, and my previous experience with paella was not ideal, but I have high hopes. Particularly since I'm in the paella region of the world. And since rabbit tastes delicious. But that post is for another day.

Truth be told, my gastronomic adventures outside of the home have been limited. This is a combination of the fact that via this program, I'm given three meals a day, and also the fact that the exchange rate is terrible and I can barely afford the daily cup of coffee I order at Cuenca.

[I could, of course, not drink the coffee, but at this point it would be a disappointment to the dear women who work there and more or less start preparing my café con leche before I even have a chance to order it.]

No, I do not order the pastry on a daily basis. Usually I just mooch off of Zach.

But over the course of the past few days, I've become more exposed to the gastronomic culture of Spain. Zach and I have begun walking back towards our apartments during our 3-hour lunch break after our Cuenca coffee and pastry [mainly because the WiFi in the building is so terrible and there's little else to do], and along the way stop and explore. A few days ago, we were doing just that when we decided to enter the Mercat Ruzafa, which, much to my elation, is more or less an enormous, indoor market.

Imagine: rows upon rows of street vendors chatting and bagging produce for busy mothers; a rainbow of color dancing along your line of sight from bright red strawberries to glistening heads of lettuce, and everything in between; smells of freshly baked breads and pastries warming the air in the most enticing manner; crates full of every nut and dried fruit you could imagine; meat and fish lining glass cases, waiting to be bought and cooked. And all of this lies hardly a quarter of a mile away from where I'm living.

The amount that I wish I had a kitchen to my disposal is almost physically painful.

But the idea of being able to visit and walk around whenever I'd like is enough for now.

An epic fail of a photo awesome shot of the market taken creepily, albeit subtly, with the iPod.

Today was also a good day for food [not that every day isn't a good day for food]. On our [now] usual noon walk through the city, Zach and I stopped in a tienda de gastronomía, literally a "shop of gastronomy." They are actually pretty common around where I live, though I had never stepped foot in one until today [when I visited about four].

Interestingly, many of them specialize in Italian food. By this I mean uncooked pasta in all shapes and sizes, jars of truffles and marinades, and honey. Now, when I visited Italy 3 years ago, I bought some honey to bring home. Let me just tell you, it was the best damn honey I have eaten to this day.

Needless to say, I will be buying another enormous jar to bring home with me. As well as Spanish honey, which I've never had before [there is a store that sells only Spanish honey about half a mile from me, which is supposed to be quite renowned; I'm bursting with excitement to try some].

In the final store we visited, I caved. Walked around the small shop for about ten minutes, probably literally picked up every single jar to scrutinize, and eventually decided to purchase peach marmalade and a can of fleur de sel [called flor de sal here]. However, I think the shop owner was pretty baffled by my enormous interest in food items [I can't imagine he has too many college-aged students visiting his store to buy things like homemade marmalade or fleur de sel], so we chatted some. I told him about how I'm here on study-abroad, trying to improve my broken Spanish, that I'm visiting from good old Va, etc. It was a very lovely conversation; he was the sweetest man.

And then he told me to grab a few baby jars of marmalade gratis.
And so I did. Valencian orange and more peach, to be precise.
And now I am basically in love with this man and plan on visiting him every morning on my way to school to say hello and [hopefully] be offered more free goodies like truffles and artisan cheese.

Word of advice to all foodie travelers: if you look at all anomalous in a gastronomic shop and speak the country's native tongue in such a broken manner that appears somewhat charming, you too could walk away with free goodies.

Our next gastronomic adventure of the day was to go by a cafe close to Zach's apartment for some orxata. Orxata is basically the Valencian version of horchata, which, though I'm sure many of you have heard the name courtesy of Vampire Weekend (which is actually how I first heard the name, sad to admit), is a drink traditionally made from ground almonds, rice milk, sugar, and cinnamon. Valencian orxata is made from chufa nuts [tiger nuts] rather than almonds, and lacks the cinnamon.

[Also, the spelling variation is due to the fact that the street language here (by that I mean the language almost all street signs are written in) is Valencian, rather than Spanish. Never mind the fact that Valencian is more or less equivalent with Catalán, but regionalism is pretty big here in Spain.]

It's quite a good drink, but I'm not too keen on the intense quantities of nut flavor that you get with orxata. I actually think I would prefer the Mexican version [made with the almonds and cinnamon], but this one is surprisingly refreshing as well. Today I drank my third one of the trip, and I think I may have fulfilled my orxata fix at this point.

Nonetheless, I was happy to cross it off my list.

Here comes a feeling you thought you'd forgotten
Chairs to sit and sidewalks to walk on

And our final adventure of the day was to hit up a tapas bar. I very much enjoy the concept of tapas. For the longest time, I just thought it was a small, family-style meal; a variety of little plates ordered and shared amongst friends. The concept in reality is more or less just this, but the point of tapas, really, is to prevent oneself from getting too drunk. This is why they're eaten alongside copas, or small glasses of alcohol. A pretty clever idea, I'd say.

[And not in the least bit surprising that the Spaniards would be the ones to come up with it.]

The tapas that we had were pretty delicious: stuffed peppers, bacalau [fish in a spiced sauce], fresh bread, some pork items that I did not partake in [though which smelled heavenly], and Liz enjoyed some red wine while Zach and I had water. Good food, good talk, a perfect outing for tapas.

I appreciate the Spanish appreciation for passing the time away in this manner.

In other related news, the Spaniards are quite keen on the carbohydrates. Bread with every meal, which itself often centers on rice or pasta [Italian food is strangely popular here], and not as many veggies as I'd typically enjoy. I can't complain too much, although my jeans may start protesting quite soon. But I have grown to love small, pre-meal salads: lettuce and sliced tomatoes dressed with a generous drizzle of olive oil, salt, and oregano flakes. Definitely something I plan on making a routine when I go back home.

Simple and delicious. Just as all meals should be.