Falling for Spain

The night I fell in love with England my parents dragged me (and my sister Maggy) kicking and screaming to the local “art house” movie theater. Ever committed to our cultural edification, Mom and Dad regularly mandated our attendance at plays, museums, and the occasional film not starring Leonardo DiCaprio or Freddie Prinze Jr. (much to our chagrin). That night, the marquee had one word on it: Emma. Jane Austen’s classic novel brought to the big screen by the young and beautiful Gwyneth Paltrow.

This old movie theater was exactly the kind of place I would love now—a 1930’s theater restored to its former glory. There were plush antique movie seats, red velvet curtains, marble bathroom fixtures, and a cute little concession stand vending classic candy (ie. not Snickers), and locally baked treats. For an 11-year old girl who wanted corn syrup and romantic comedies, this place was a nightmare.

Before the lights went down, I had already finished my translucent sleeve of Necco Wafers (blech!) and had begun sulking. The previews did not inspire confidence in the coming attraction, and by the time the opening credits started to roll, I was counting the minutes until I could fall asleep unseen. But within moments, I was captivated. The well-chosen words, beautifully delivered speeches, meaningful glances, and slightest movements imbued the story with rich yet subtle romance and drama. And of course, the dresses! (God, I wanted her wardrobe.)

I walked out of that movie theater stunned and impacted. I bee-lined it to the nearest library and pored over every book Austen ever wrote. I moved on to the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell. I traveled to England, studied at Oxford for a summer, and deepened my love of the scenery, the people, and yes, even the food. I quietly—yet ardently—nursed this fantasy of attending college there, marrying an English guy, and living happily ever after in the English countryside.

And then Maggy did just that!

Since the silly little romance I had played out in my head was now being lived out by my older sister, it seemed like it might be time to move on.

My next cultural romance has evolved somewhat differently, and much more slowly. My love of Spain is not a literary one (or at least not yet), but rather an unabashedly gastronomical one. My palette has been utterly bewitched by the flavors of Spain. The smoky sweetness of pimentón, the spicy richness of chorizo, the earthy crumble of Cabrales, the peppery ripeness of Spanish olive oil. Having grown up on French wine (yes, Mom and Dad dabbled in educating us on that front, too), I am constantly surprised and excited by Iberian offerings—Albariño, Verdejo, Rioja, Jumilla, Cava, and a vast array of Sherry. The list goes on and on.

I owe much to Jose Andres, a renowned Spanish chef who has come to America preaching the gospel of Spanish food. (A very worthy cause, in my opinion). We love Jose’s PBS show Made in Spain (and the accompanying book). Sip some sherry, press play, and prepare to be transported to the lovely farms, vineyards, restaurants, bakeries, cheese shops and fisheries of his country. Jose’s unrelenting passion for food and the ingredients that make it possible—from the mundane to the spectacular—is contagious. We’re addicted.

But the real reason for my new-found love of Spain is, of course, Anthony. He is a Hispanophile of the highest order, and he’s got me hooked on the pulse and rhythm of Spanish culture and music, and most of all the food. Seeking out commonplace Spanish ingredients which are rare in the States has becomes something of a (expensive!) hobby. But we love nothing more than turning on a little Spanish guitar music, pouring some Spanish white, and cooking up authentic tapas on this side of the Atlantic.

Where do you think we’re taking our honeymoon? I’ll give you one guess.

Mom often says that if you make just two or three recipes in a cookbook, it’s considered a real keeper. Well, by that account, Jose’s book belongs next to the Bible and my well-worn copy of Emma. We’ve made so many of his recipes I can hardly count. My favorite, by far, is his Galician-style chicken empanada. The first night we made this, I thought I might burst with pride. We had watched the episode of his show, examined the recipe, and decided to go for it. I didn’t actually expect it to turn out like the photo in the book, but I figured it would probably still taste good. But even with a few little mistakes, it was stunning! The top crust glistened in all its toasty, golden-brown glory. And one cut into our empanada released the heady aroma of the caramelized, pimentón-scented filling.

This recipe is labor-intensive, but it’s truly a labor of love. Get yourself a glass of Albariño, a Gypsy Kings CD, and a buddy…and make this!

I love to tease Maggy that she “stole my life,” but I adore my brother-in-law (just don’t tell him!) and I don’t begrudge her shepherd’s pie and a pint of Boddington’s for one minute when there is paella and Rioja to be had! Falling in love with Spanish food has been an incredible adventure, and one that I hope to continue for many years…even if it does mean I’m never going to look like Gwyneth Paltrow circa 1996 :).

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  1. kate C. says

    I studied abroad in espana and have somewhat less-fond memories of the food there, not sure how much of that is due to my host mom’s cooking… However, the wine is fantastic and there are a few amazing dishes that I do love! I’ll have to give this one a try.

  2. Tina says

    Guess you’ll end up looking like Penelope Cruz :)
    And isn’t Ms Paltrow also in love with Spanish cuisine? It is so much fun to armchair-and-stove travel, and so wonderful we don’t have to settle one place. One of my husband’s classic dinners is Norwegian, my son’s favorite is Chinese, and tonight it’s Southern pulled pork. Thanks as always for the inspiration, Sharon.

  3. Pam says

    I guess kids and parents are always learning from one another–I certainly learned a lot raising you two–but now that you’re a young woman with a love of food and cooking and a style of your own, I especially appreciate your introduction to new dishes and tastes. Let’s both keep falling in love with new cuisines and cultures.

  4. uncle tony says

    i have four days scheduled for DC in mid october .
    Let’s see. Jaleo one night. Zatinya another night . Cafe Atlantico maybe the next. And if we have time, maybe America Eats . In 2004 , when we were on the college tour schedule we first visited Jaleo at the recommendation of a wine professional.
    Every trip to DC since then has included a pilgrimage to the shrine of Tapas, Jaleo.

    Andres does great things


  5. says

    Sharon, this post has me giggling at my desk. Although you dreamed of England first, I think we can both agree that it’s right that I ended up with a Brit and you with a Spanish loving Italian. If there could be a more reserved or conservative of the two of us, I guess that would be me :) This empanada looks amazing! I will absolutely be making it. Or maybe you’ll make it for me?

  6. says

    I too share an undying love for spanish cuisine && I must say–those empenadas look absolutely divine. I’m used to much much smaller ones but hey, the bigger the better!

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