Tapas on Mount Hood

Yesterday, Catherine I and returned from three luxurious nights with friends at a cabin in the foothills north of Mount Hood. I hope to remember and repeat the way we cooked: We all brought food, so there was plenty. We mostly didn’t coordinate, we just ensured we got our own needs met. It was an open kitchen, so everyone was welcome to graze whenever. Those of us who like to cook, cooked when we felt like it. Those of us who hate cooking did dishes. Some of us brought booze, some brought mixers. With regards to the kitchen, each of us got to feel like we were on vacation.

I planned a Spanish night, with several different tapas courses leading up to a main dish, a sarten. The word is Spanish for “frying pan”, so the word is similar to saying “casserole”; both dishes are named for the dish they’re cooked in. In this case, I planned a dish of garlic, seafood, and black pepper swimming in a sea of olive oil, seasoned at the end by wild peas with a fresh nutty flavor that our new friend Kate had harvested nearby.

I started off making a Béchamel sauce into which went a bunch of garlic and about 2 cups of prawns, cooked and finely diced, plus about a quarter cup of tomato paste and seasonings.

While the prawn sauce thickened, I started on mushrooms, to go with aioli on bread. A few days prior, while camping at Bagby Hotsprings, I had failed miserably at sautéed mushrooms by marinating them in far too much balsamic vinegar. They turned out unpalatably bitter, and no amount of salt or other ingredients we had on hand could rescue them. That dish went so badly that I consulted cookbooks after the fact to learn how I could have been so wrong (a true admission of humility for me, which for the record happens regularly).

It turns out my problem wasn’t too much balsamic, but incorporating it at all. Balsamic vinegar was a bad guess. Sherry was the key! We had packed an impressive bar up to the mountain, but it was stocked for making cocktails. When do you ever need sherry in a cocktail? We had none; dry vermouth intended for martinis worked in a pinch. The mushrooms came out as dark and delicious as I had wanted, with nothing in the way of their perfect mushroom-forward flavor.

I improvised aioli: We had brought Trader Joe’s mayonnaise, the best kind. To it I added a lot of garlic powder that had simmered in as small an amount of olive oil and lemon as I could manage to simmer anything in. I think this would have worked if I had cooled the garlic oil and then whipped it into the mayo. Anyhow, it was a mistake to add the mayo directly into the still-hot pan, as that didn’t result in an emulsion. The flavor was just right, though and it was easy to hide its consistency in the plating: I simply spooned the oily, lumpy, delicious mixture over bread before covering it over with mushrooms. This tapas plate was the first served, and it was a hit.

Before adding the prawns, I had thought to double the recipe, but I didn’t end up having enough prawns for that, so I made twice as much Béchamel sauce as needed and reserved half of it. I offered it up to Zack to use in his cooking if he liked, but he had a brilliant idea: croque monsieurs, which are essentially Béchamel baked over grilled cheese sandwiches. (God bless the French.)

It was perfect. It had to happen. I had purchased two baguettes, and was simply slicing pieces off as needed for each dish, as thick or thin as needed — so we had plenty of bread. We also weren’t lacking for cheese, so I didn’t skimp on that or on the butter to fry the cheese in. While heating the oven, I made bacon, which went right back in after cooking, in between the grilled cheese sliders and their Béchamel blankets. (So these ended up somewhere between croque monsieurs and croque madams, which are like the former but with a hat of sunny side egg atop ham.)

Using the vermouth earlier had reminded me that martinis exist, and I’m afraid one thing led to another and I forgot to mind the broiler. I ended up burning the bacon, but I’ll be damned if these weren’t melt-in-your-mouth perfect just the same. That was a bit of luck.

Something like an hour and a half in, I had served two dishes. This felt about right. I had warned my friends this would be a lazy, casual, gradual evening of gluttony. But it felt time for a bit more variety, and also something a bit lighter, so I sliced up another bowl of bread and served it with oil and vinegar for dipping, mainly to buy a bit of time. Simple bread and oil can be such a treat. After giving the prawn sauce a stir for the dozenth time, I prepared and served a caprése salad, which was simple, light, and delicious.

Then came deviled eggs, which I was quite proud. They were every bit as delicious as they are typically served, but took a fifth of the time to prepare and were quite unique: I quartered 4 hard boiled length-wise to form wedges, and plated them with the hardboiled yolk left intact, yolk-side-up in a starburst pattern. Over that I drizzled what was left of the aioli and sprinkled salt, dried parsley and chives, and paprika. I served this with in true Spanish tapas style: Several forks for sharing and eating directly off the plate. The reaction in the living room restored the blow that the bitter balsamic mushrooms had recently done to my ego.

Into the skillet went as much spinach as I could get to stay in, with a quarter cup of water and several tablespoons of white vinegar. When it had cooked down I filled the skillet again with more, again as much would fit. A few minutes later I added an entire package of Neufchatel (cream cheese, essentially), half a lemon, and several tablespoons of Penzeys’ Tandoori curry seasoning to taste. About 5 cloves of garlic ended up not being enough to make a difference, so I’ll know to triple that next time. I also forgot to add the ghee, which I believe is what made this such a success the first time I’d experimented with it a week before.

While the spinach cooked, I served some salami and mozzarella on a plate, to keep up the rhythm. By the time I brought out the spinach, I was met by protestations: Was I was trying to kill my friends? No one could find any more room in their stomach, so sadly it was time to stop cooking.

I couldn’t have enjoyed myself more with having so much to do in the kitchen and delighting my diners with such a rich meal. And at the same time, it was healthy: We all ended up eating less since the slow pace and small portions of tapas force you to eat small amounts so that by the time the third and fourth dishes are coming out, you already feel full.

I’ll be cooking tapas more often. How I do miss you, Spain, and how grateful I am to be able to enjoy your cuisine!

What about the prawn sauce, you ask? It spent the night in the refrigerator, and the next day I formed it into small lumps breaded in panko, dipped in egg, and breaded a second time, before frying in a few centimeters of canola. These served for lunch. To my surprise, they needed salt — but otherwise you’re damn right I will be doing that again.

And that next day was Zach’s night to cook, so the sarten never got to be. Perhaps tonight… if only it weren’t 100 degrees in Portland today… maybe tomorrow, for a late breakfast with more bread and chilled white wine.

Sacrificing to the Travel Gods

This morning began when I rolled over and, bleary-eyed, mumbled to Matthew, “We should really post something on Galactic Panda today”. He blinked back, took in that first breath that stretches the rib cage, and pronounced, “… Sure!”

Matthew at the Cathedral of Seville

Matthew at the Cathedral of Seville

“What the heck are we going to write about?” I thought. We’ve spent our five days thus far in Sevilla playing catch-up at work, finding coffee and groceries, and begging our landlord to come over to fix the shower so it can be set to a temperature a little cooler than “nuclear volcano.” We haven’t seen much of the city.

Today was intended to change that. So we walked deep into the old city, in search of the cathedral.

And while there, today’s blog post wrote itself as I was lovingly pick-pocketed. Okay, metaphorically.

If you’re ever in Sevilla and some kindly looking woman tries to hand you a piece of Rosemary, you say “No, gracias!” repeatedly, and you move on. They won’t give you another moment’s attention when they see that you’re wise to their ways.

What ways are those, you ask? Well here’s what happened to me.

Wherein we find truth in gypsy stereotypes

In the shadow of Sevilla’s enormous cathedral is a glorious outdoor photography exhibit, filled with expressive black and white photos of African tribal people, elephants, Sumatran trees, Utah mesas, and Alaskan mountains.

As the hot sun beats down and we wind through these paintings, toward us come a throng of smiling women, holding out sprigs of rosemary, offering it to the art appreciators and tourists. “A gift!” they say, “A blessing from Santa Maria!” Most of the tourists declined the blessing.

When I was offered, I thought, “I love rosemary!” So I accepted.

And the beautiful young lady pleasantly, but aggressively, launched into an elaborate telling of my fortune based first on my right palm, and then my left, in patient Spanish. It all happened so quickly, I was in the middle of it before I had a clue of what was happening. She told me I would have two children, that the strength and luck of my ancestors passes to me, that my lottery number is five. She repeated that a few times — she really wanted me to understand that. My lottery number — it is five. She said many other things that I did not understand.

She was lovely and charismatic and seemed to really care about her craft. And at the end, I thanked her and started to pass her a couple euros in thanks. “No,” she insisted. It was five euros for each hand, and she had done both. I was in shock. Ten euros?! But I passed them over, just wanting the whole awkward exchange to be over.

I learned later that Matthew had had a similar experience: the woman made her offering, and he accepted it, and she launched into telling his fortune. Immediately, he declined, at which point she asked for payment for the Rosemary. Amused, he handed the sprig back, and said “No thank you” many times.

He then tried to walk over to me, at which point she waved him off, declaring the reading sacred — he must not overhear. He felt genuinely affronted at that point, as this woman stood barring his way to his girl.

“Seems a little extreme,” he said to me later, only then realizing that it must have been a sales tactic. She did not want Matthew interrupting her sister’s sale.

All of this was capped off by my fortune teller acting horrified that I wouldn’t pay for Matthew to have a reading of his own.

It’s strange encountering people whose entire livelihood depends on taking advantage of you

I was really hoping that this lovely lady with the weather vane was going to be the patron saint of ships. More photos and history later!

That “I’ve been taken advantage of” feeling washed over me. Even as we walked around the outside of the gorgeous cathedral, emotions flooded my gut: embarrassment that I had let it happen, and anger that people take advantage of others this way.

I let this happen. At no point did she handcuff me and forcefully take my cash. I was 100% complicit in this. But I never consciously consented to any of this. She manipulated and corned me with her aggressive and disarming sweetness.

I thought about what makes a good sale. At Rocket Lift, we talk about this a great deal. Our goal is to make every sale a win-win-win. The client feels like they’re getting an excellent service (which they are), Rocket Lift feels that the client is a good fit and that the work is worth the time, and the people doing the project are excited about the work. No one feels that they have been taken advantage of.

This young Gypsy had so much conviction in the value of her craft that I in turn felt that there was intrinsic value. That combined with sheer shock caused me to part with ten euros I really wish I hadn’t, and that I felt I got nothing for in exchange.

Las Turistas Estupidas

Our friends in Zihuatanejo, Jeff and Harmony, introduced us to “The Stupid Tourist Tax,” and we used that term for a while. All travelers have been in a situation where you pay too much for a taxi, buy groceries from the stores with the high tourist markup, pack too much and pay extra in baggage fees… These are the mistakes we make when we have just not learned better yet. Key word: yet.

Our friend Alba in Valencia has a different term for this: “Sacrificing to the Travel Gods.” We like this better because instead of something being taken from us, we can think of our parted funds as an due gift to benevolent and playful forces we dance with, who in return help us cope, function, eat, sleep, breathe, and perhaps even blend in a foreign place.

These sacrifices have inherent value, including wisdom, and stories we can share with you for entertainment.

All our knowledge has its origins in our perception. — Leonardo da Vinci

“Sacrificing to the Travel Gods” is 100% about perception. I can look at this experience as a negative one, wherein some horrible woman stole from me (I did feel that way for a good hour or so), or I can realize that now I know something I did not know before, and know it will make a funny story later.

When traveling, things can go very wrong

Once you realize you’ve been had, if you find yourself incapable of distilling a lesson or finding a pearl of wisdom from your experience, then maybe the Travel Gods had little to do with it. Or, maybe it’s just that something really shitty happened to you.

My father was pick-pocketed in France. As I recall, they took his passport, and he left my teenaged brother on the bus with their bicycles to chase down the culprits on foot.

I don’t believe that any just and generous God encourages one human being to fill another with the mortal terror that comes from being separated from their passport. No sacrificing to Travel Gods here, just desperate people victimizing others.

Dad got his passport back; the lesson here being: keep your friends close, your passport closer, and chase down pick-pocketing enemies with the wings of Mercury. (I suppose maybe he’d banked a favor with the Roman God of Travel earlier, demonstrating another side of the inherent value in these sacrifices.)

A big yellow taxi took my Peso away

We can look at the local entrepreneurs as merely taking advantage. Sometimes, they certainly do. On the other hand, perception can give two sides to the same interaction.

When we arrived in Zihuatanejo, Jeff and Harmony instructed us to take the bus to the city center. It would cost about a dollar. We walked around the airport, looking for signs to the autobús and asking everyone how to find them. Alas, no signs, and no one seemed able to help.

We eventually took a cab. $45. Boo.

A month and a half into our residence in Zihua, we knew we could get a bus to the airport, no problem. Busses with “Aeropuerto” stenciled all over them were everywhere in the Centro. Unlike taxis, these were filled with locals — not with gringos.

We suspect that the airport employees are in cahoots with the taxi companies, and aren’t about to help clever tourists take the cheap bus when they’re ripe prey for the taxi drivers.

No problem, we thought. We paid the Travel Gods — now we know better. We’ll take the bus on our way out.

Except, the day of our departure was the day that I got hit with the worst food poisoning I’d ever had. A few years ago, I would get food poisoning about once a month so I was no stranger to this, but this was something special. I spent the entire night praying to keep water down, and trying not to get dehydrated. Matthew had to pack and clean the apartment for us, all by himself.

Even though we had plenty of time to get to the airport, the thought of squeezing next to 20 other people into a tiny van (the buses are more like vans), without AC, with an unpredictable stomach… there was simply no way.

Matthew, my hero until the end of time, got me to the airport via a nice cool tax cab. Another $45, and the best we’d ever spent.

Knowing and choosing your options makes all the difference. It felt fine to pay the $45 this time, because we had agency. This was a win-win! We were happy to pay almost any price for a cool drive, and the driver was happy to take an expensive fare to the airport. Even if he was over charging the rich gringos, meh! We really didn’t care.

Pass the love and wisdom on!

Do you have any memories from traveling abroad when you wish you could’ve had a do-over? When did you spend too much? Dad, did I get that pick-pocketing story right?

Our plans for June

Folks, we give you: Valencia.

Folks, we give you: Valencia.

Today we’re winding up our stay in Valencia. It’s bittersweet. We’ve been comfortable and productive here, gotten to know some old family friends better, and also made some new friends (MOTIAFP). We’ll be sorry to leave these folks.

On the other hand, we’ve exciting things to look forward to elsewhere this month. Our bags are packed. The place is clean. Tomorrow, we board a train for Barcelona.

Steve and Catherine on the Mediterranean shore of Denia.

Steve and Catherine on the Mediterranean shore of Denia.

We’ll have a few days there to work like crazy before we take a week of vacation with our good friends Scott and Emily. They’re flying out from the Portland to party with us for a week. It would be difficult to overstate how thrilled we are that they’re making the trip.

On Saturday, FC Barcelona plays Juventus for the European football championship title. The game will be played in Berlin, but I expect the atmosphere in Barcelona will be unforgettable. ¡Vamos Barca!

We’ll just have Sunday (the 7th) and Monday in Barcelona with Scott and Emily. I’m determined to spend as much time inside Sagrada Família as they’ll let me get away with. My parents’ photos of Gaudí’s otherworldly cathedral were the biggest reason I wanted to visit Spain. I’m excited to see it for myself.

The four of us will be in Palma de Mallorca the 9th through the 13th. I know we’ll have fun; it will be interesting to see how much of it we remember later without photos. 😉

The Barcelona apartment we've rented.

The Barcelona apartment we’ve rented.

Then, as Scott and Emily return to real life (sorry, friends!) Catherine and I will continue on to Sevilla, in Andalucia, the southernmost region of Spain. We’ll be there through the end of the month. We’ll enjoy the heat. We’ll attend WordCamp Europe. I’m also hoping for a few weekend sorties to Cordoba — famous for cave homes, which are exactly what they sound like — and Granada — home to the Alhambra, a close second to Sagrada Família on my “must do” list.

Our new friend Mattheus also wants us to checkout Granada’s Muslim tea houses called térrías (sp?) and to experience first hand the origin of tapas: Small plates of food to cover your glass so the insects can’t get to your cerveza. Order a drink, get it with food. Sounds just fine.

We’ll keep you updated as these adventures unfold — although for the next few days, we have a few Valencia round-up posts in store.


Week of Panos Day 7: Valencia’s Central Market

Pick your language: In Valenciano you’ll say “Mercat Central”. In Castillian/Spanish, “Mercado Central”. In English it’s “Central Market”. Either of the first two will work in a taxi, and probably so will the third.

180 degrees (or so) of Valencia's Central Market. Click image for a larger version

180 degrees (or so) of Valencia’s Central Market.
Click image for a larger version.

There are supermarkets and produce shops on every other block in Valencia, and few smaller open public markets on the periphery of the old city. Despite all of the choices, the historic Central Market remains relevant as the place with the freshest, greatest quantity, and best quality food.

The number of booths, the variety of food, the size of the building, and its architecture are all impressive. My favorite is the architecture.

This rotunda. Click image for larger version.

This rotunda.
Click image for larger version.

This roof.

This roof.
Click for larger image.


Week of Panos Day 6: The City of Arts & Sciences

Oh, the City of Arts and Sciences. It is one of the most photogenic locations in Valencia. Every time you turn around, there’s some gorgeous natural or architectural beauty to admire.

Valencia's City of Arts and Sciences

Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences.
Click image for a larger version.

To the far left is the Opera House, “Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía.” It’s the building that looks a little like a white orca leaping out of the water. Next to it, the half dome is the “Hemisphéric” (appropriately named), which houses an IMAX cinema. Dominating the photo is the “Museo de las ciencias,” which is Spanish for “brontosaurus skeleton.” This is the home of their interactive science museum. (Here’s where my Portland pride rears up and says, “Go OMSI!”)

Off in the right you see the “Ágora,” a large hollow space for conferences and concerts. Beyond that, but not pictured is the “Oceanográfic,” which is the largest aquarium in Europe. Last but not least featured in this photo is the “Umbracle,” the cage-like structure to the far right. This was a really nifty, beautiful space filled with trees and plants, and is used for weddings and concerts and the like.

Our friend and informal tour guide here in Valencia hates this place. Alba was here during the construction of the CAS, and witnessed rampant waste, miss-management and corruption that turned a 300 million euro “emblem of civic ambition” into a 1.1 billion euro symbol of Valencia’s massive debt.

As United Left party member Ignacio Blanco puts it, “The buildings are like symbols of an era when the politicians thought we were rich.”

The place is inspiring in its beauty and grandeur, though. Here are a couple more shots:

Valencia's City of Arts and Sciences

Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences is an an art and a science, itself.
Click image for a larger version.

Next to the Valencia City of Arts and Sciences

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Inside the Monastery of Valldigna

Week of Panos Day 5: Inside the Monastery of Valldigna

A few days ago I posted photos from our trip to the Monastery of Valldigna, about an hour south of Valencia. Here are a few more shots from that day.

Inside the Monastery of Valldigna

Looking towards the entrance towers.
Click image for a larger version.

A Courtyard inside the Convento de Valldigna.

A Courtyard inside the Convento de Valldigna.
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Looking out at the valley of Valldigna from inside the Monastery

Looking out at the valley of Valldigna from inside the Monastery. It’s a sea of orange groves leading to the Mediterranean. What looks like a stone column near the center is the edge of an old wall (recently restored) that extends out for several meters.
Click image for a larger version.